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mythology

Modern Theories

The great modern advances in the study of mythology began in the 19th cent., when scholars like Sir James Frazer and Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued for the study of mythology not as bad history but as a social institution, and called attention to the myths of contemporary simple societies. The evolutionary theories of Tylor and Andrew Lang, since discredited as simplistic and ethnocentric, postulate a certain stage of savage mentality that tends to produce similar myths. Some current theories instead posit a common psychological or emotional basis and relate myth to universal religious impulses. Frazer, whose epoch-making book The Golden Bough (1890) is a standard work on mythology, believed that all myths were originally connected with the idea of fertility in nature, with the birth, death, and resurrection of vegetation as a constantly recurring motif. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that there is an inherent tendency in all people to form certain of the same mythic symbols. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade contended that myths are recited for the purpose of ritually recreating the beginning of time when all things were initiated so one can return to the original, successful creative act. Those who characterize the ordinary as profane and secular view myths as a form of sacred speech and thus as particular manifestations of a universal religious sensibility. Friedrich Schleiermacher thus characterized myth as a "historical representation of the supra-historical" divine.

Most contemporary students of mythology, however, have turned away from attempts to explain similarities in content in all myths by calling attention to the different contexts in which myths occur. They believe that myths function in a variety of ways within a single culture as well as differing in function from culture to culture. Sigmund Freud believed that the seeming irrationality of myth arises from the same source as the disconnectedness of dream; they are both symbolic reflections of unconscious and repressed fears and anxieties. Such fears and anxieties may be universal aspects of the human condition, or particular to distinct societies. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered all myths to be validations of established practices and institutions. Similarly, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown examined how myths emphasize and reiterate the beliefs, behaviors, and feelings of people about their society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss returned to the study of all myths, not by examining common motifs and elements of the stories, but rather by focusing on their formal properties. He has called attention to the recurrence of certain kinds of structures in widely different traditions of folk literature and has reduced them to particular binary oppositions such as nature/culture and self/other. He contended that the human brain organizes all perceptions in terms of contrasts and concluded that certain oppositions are universal. He advocates the interpretation of myths as culturally specific transformations of these universal structures.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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