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mythology

Older Interpretations of Myths

There have been many theories as to the reasons for similarities among myths. Many have viewed myths merely as poor versions of history, and have attempted to analyze and explicate them in nonsacred ways to account for their apparent absurdity. Some ancient Greeks explained myths as allegories, and looked for a reality concealed in poetic images. Theagenes of Rhegium was an early proponent (6th cent. B.C.) of this method of interpretation; it was most fully developed by the Stoics, who reduced the Greek gods to moral principles and natural elements (see Stoicism). Euhemerus considered the gods to have been renowned historical figures who became deified through the passage of time. Another interpretation sees myths as developing from an improper separation between the human and nonhuman; animals, rocks, and stars are considered to be on a level of intelligence with people, and the dead are thought to inhabit the world of the living in spiritual form (see animism).

A later allegorical interpretation states that at one time myths were invented by wise men to point out a truth, but that after a time myths were taken literally. For example, Kronos, who devoured his children, is identified with the Greek word for time, which may be said to destroy whatever it brings into existence. This approach was refined in philological studies of myth by Max Müller, who saw myths evolving out of corruptions of language: what seems absurd in myth, he suggested, is the result of people forgetting or distorting the meanings of words, e.g., the phrase "sunrise follows the dawn," spoken in Greek could be interpreted as meaning Apollo pursues Daphne, the maiden of the Dawn. A similar theory is that myths, including Scripture, are corruptions of history; thus Deucalion is another name for Noah. The diffusionist theory postulates a very early, Paleolithic origin of mythology, and then diffusion of various motifs through travel, migration, and other forms of transcontinental communication. Through comparison with other mythologies, many Greek myths are now interpreted as products of literary codification and in terms of their formal reorganization as epic poems. Homer's epics are, thus, an elaborate combination of mythical elements with legend and folktale.

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

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