In the modern understanding of the concept, myths are imaginative stories of enduring significance that embody the values, beliefs, and the worldview of a given society. True myths are different from philosophical allegories, fables, fairy tales, and parables, although there are similarities among all of them. True myths embody the central beliefs, typically religious beliefs, of a people. Ideologies such as fascism, nationalism, and civil religion are also rooted in myths and derive appeal from mythical context. Myths are found in every society, however primitive or advanced, and are jealously guarded by every society as part of its heritage.
Most myths originated in the preliterate stages of societies and for centuries were passed on orally before some of them came to be written down as epics by poets and writers. Myths also continue to survive in unwritten or uncodified forms in less literate societies. Comparative studies have uncovered similarities among the myths of all peoples, leading some scholars to hypothesize that myths represent certain archetypes of the collective unconscious that are common to humanity. Others believe that these similarities have resulted from cultural interchanges. Some theorists attribute the origin of myths to the need to create stories in order to give meaning to the ritual practices of primitive tribes. In their view, the rituals predate the myths.
Meaning and Functions
Most myths are highly complex in structure, containing multiple layers of meaning, open to differing interpretations, and are closely tied to a nation’s collective experiences, self- image, and identity. Theoretical elaborations of myth result in metaphysics and theology; the enactments of myths in rituals give rise to cultic practices that engender emotionally charged responses in their participants.
Myths serve numerous functions for a given society. They may provide ultimate answers for perennial philosophical problems, such as questions concerning the origin of the universe; the nature of human beings and varieties of life forms; and the meaning of disease, suffering, and death. Myths may also serve as legitimizing ideologies for the existing social and political systems, customs, taboos, and practices. For example, the existence of the fundamental inequality of various castes in India is explained by the myth of the origin of these castes from different parts of the same divine body. Myths also contain explanations for various ritual practices and taboos associated with birth, initiation rites, burial ceremonies, and annual celebrations. Finally, myths embody the cultural ideals of a society insofar as they help to determine what is important, how its members are expected to live their lives, and which historical figures (saints and heroes) exemplify the ideals that are worthy of imitation.
In spite of the numerous attempts over the centuries either to discredit myths as lies or to interpret myths as allegorical narratives of ordinary human experiences or to devalue myths as preoperational thought, myths continue to flourish. Myths energize human experience, as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have argued; myths help maintain social cohesion through the enactment of cultic practices and rituals, as French sociologist Émile Durkheim has argued; myths definitely form the substance of the arts and literature, as art historians and literary critics know. Some have argued that sciences themselves utilize mythological models to understand the physical world and help create new myths through fictions and conjectures. Myths may serve as the broad framework for explaining—correctly or incorrectly—historical events and political upheavals. while providing the ideological basis for battles between contending groups. It is a reflection of the power of myth in human affairs that in the twentieth century, the efforts at demythologizing religious narratives and the efforts of social and political reformers to secularize their societies have failed, as is evident from the resurgence of fundamentalist movements in virtually every part of the world.
Myths effect and affect the censorship of ideas in various ways. First, because of their influence upon a society’s collective understanding, they set the basic...
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