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An Introduction to Mythology and Folklore

Jun 01, 2011

Throughout recorded time, men and women have felt an irresistible urge to try and understand who they are and where they came from. Because of this universal need, mythological stories and folklore are a common creation that unites every society that has ever existed. Some of these stories are metaphysical in nature; some are metaphorical; and some touch on themes related to everyday living. The one thing all of these stories have in common, no matter which culture created them, is that they all emerge from a deep need to make sense of the mystery of existence. They are all a part of mankind’s endless search for meaning.

For scholars, myths and folklore have provided a veritable goldmine of information as they try to understand societies that no longer exist, and those that still exist and are continuing the never-ending process of articulating the story of their ideologies and self-images. Below are just a few examples of the mythological legacy that has been left to us by societies both ancient and modern. These mythological and folkloric traditions have aided greatly in the comprehension of not just of particular societies, but of mankind in general, telling us much about how human beings relate to the world into which they are born.

Ancient Egypt and Greece

Western religion traces its beginnings to the mythology of ancient Egypt, while western society has been shaped in its conception of the relationship between the natural and the supernatural realms by the mythology of ancient Greece. Ancient Egyptians turned their eyes to the heavens to search for transcendent meaning, which they saw in the astronomical movements of the Sun and the stars. The great Egyptian sun God, Osiris, was the forerunner of later transformational religious figures like Christ and Muhammad. Just as medieval Christians were inspired by their faith and fervor to build great cathedrals, so too were the ancient Egyptians inspired to build the Sphinx and the ¨Pyramids as a way to honor their beloved Gods of the sky.

Ancient Greek mythology personalized the metaphysical realm, which operated parallel to but above the society of man. Just as man was subject to the fickle winds of fate and circumstance, so too were the Gods a prisoner to their very human passions and foibles. Ultimately, it was humans who had to pay for the follies of the Gods, meaning there could never be true separation between the heavenly and the earthly realms. Greek mythology lives on to this day because this image of two realms separate but interrelated resonates in the hearts and minds of human beings who sense they are a part of something mysterious and elusive that is helping to determine their fates in a way that they do not completely comprehend.

The Bible as Mythology

While the Bible is strictly religious to some, it is a work of literature and mythology to others. Mythological motifs abound in the Bible, which is why for example there are great commonalities between the stories of the Flood and the Garden of Eden in the Bible and similar tales told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian opus that is perhaps the oldest recorded myth on the face of the earth. Most of the miraculous deeds of Jesus Christ, including his resurrection, are familiar to students of comparative mythology, because messiah-like figures from other religious traditions such as the Persian savior Zoroaster and the Egyptian sun God Osiris were credited with the same kinds of deeds long before the New Testament was ever recorded.

The Irish and the Celtics

The British Isles does have its epic mythology. However, it is the folklore that has been produced in this part of the world that has resonated and entertained so much. The British Isles are the home of the wee folk, such as the leprechauns, fairies and elves. These mischievous creatures are at their best when they are befuddling, bedeviling, and beguiling the poor innocent humans who have somehow managed to invoke their wrath. In best trickster fashion, these little creatures are delightfully wicked, and their imminent presence in the lives of the people they share the land with clearly represents all the little trials and tribulations that people inevitably have to face as they try to go about their daily business. Essentially, the wee people emerge from the place where Murphy’s Law meets the mundane.

American Mythology - The Old West and the Urban Legend

If you want to understand how the American people like to see themselves and their history, just watch a few old westerns. The reason why this format has proven so popular and so durable for so long is because it is a perfect vehicle for the exploration of certain themes that Americans are taught to believe in with unreflexive and unconscious faith – the moral superiority of the individual over the group, the inevitable triumph of good over evil, the redemptive power of violence and the incorruptibility of virtue in the face of danger, to name a few. Americans see themselves as they want to be in the western hero, and his victories are their victories in the endless battle against the forces of darkness.

But Americans are not as sure of themselves or the world as they used to be, and the urban legend is the type of grassroots folklore that perfectly captures this underlying sense of unease. If you have ever had someone tell you a “true” story about something funny, strange, scary or gross that happened to the cousin of a friend of a friend, then you know what an urban legend is. These tales emerge from a world that has grown dangerous, scary and uncertain, an America that John Wayne wouldn’t recognize anymore. The western and the urban legend are not really in conflict with each other, however; they actually complement each other, creating a total mythological picture that is complex and even contradictory.

Comparative Mythologists

Comparative scholars and students generally look for both similarities and differences in their subject matter; but in the case of comparative mythologists, it is all about finding the similarities that connect mythological traditions across time and space. Some of the leading mythologists, whose works anyone trying to understand mythological themes should investigate, include:

  • Joseph Campbell – Campbell focuses in his work on the hero’s journey, where one lone figure travels great distances to vanquish formidable supernatural foes, and then returns with secret knowledge of the great mysteries of life.
  • Carl Jung – the famous psychologist who created the concept of the archetype, images that express themselves through myth based on universal themes emerging from the deep subconscious of mankind.
  • Mircea Eliade – concentrated on the distinction between the sacred and the profane in mythology, and the attempt to reconnect with the lost sacred world that could still be found just on the other side of the veil separating this reality from the next.
  • Claude Levi-Strauss – structuralism concentrates on finding the deep hidden structures that underlie and connect everything, and Levi-Strauss was the premier structuralist in the field of mythology.
  • George Lucas – the filmmaker who has most consciously explored mythological themes in his works; Star Wars and Indiana Jones are all about deeper meanings revealed through the epic quest.

The Story of Us

With this brief survey, we have just scratched the surface of world mythology and folklore. The subject of mythology and folklore can reveal more about the collective ideology of human beings living in groups than just about any other kind of historical study. These stories also have a lot of entertainment value, regardless of any deeper meanings they may have. The study of mythology and folklore, perhaps more than any other kind of human endeavor, reveals the truth about who human beings really are, and how they see themselves and the world around them.

For anyone interested in exploring the themes, motifs, personalities and cultures mentioned in this article more fully, some useful links are listed below.

by Sheila Martin

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