Robert Graves Questions and Answers

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According to Robert Graves, what are the two functions of myths?

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Alec Cranford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Robert Graves wrote that myths had two main purposes. The first was "answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?" The second was to "justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs." Graves, a literary scholar, was offering a functional analysis of myths, and one that is in keeping with his fairly iconoclastic style. What he is suggesting with the first purpose is that myths exist to address our most fundamental concerns, which have a way of being posed by children, who don't know better than to ask them. Why are we here? What happens to us after death? These are questions that thinking people struggle to answer, and myths provide answers, albeit allegorical ones. Graves surmises, at various points in his anthologies of myths, that many of these myths emerged from the personal experiences of people in ancient times. The stories of "centaurs" and "satyrs," he hypothesizes, came from people who ate mushrooms with hallucinogenic powers. In other words, myths attached supernatural significance to behaviors that could not be explained in any other ways. As for the second purpose, myths provide a foundation for the way things are. This can be related to gender roles, social structure, and even national identity. As Graves writes, Greek mythology is full of "politico-religious history," which not only was used by ancient political leaders, but can be used by modern nationalists attempting to draw legitimacy from the distant past.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Myths are religious and heroic legends that have story-structure and social knowledge functions. We are accustomed to thinking of myths in relation to tribal life that is non-urban, illiterate and primitive. Myths are often known through ancient Greek, Roman and Scandinavian legends. These have taken a particular a hold on Western literature and have become embedded in it.

Robert Graves defines two functions for the myths of mythology.

These functions are (1) to answer awkward questions and (2) to justify and account for the existing social order of a given society, suggesting myths may have a contemporary genesis as well as an ancient genesis.

1. The awkward questions that myths answer are those that are persistently asked across societies, often by children or philosophers: Where did God come from? Will the world end? Where do souls go after death? Will my pet go to Heaven? Is there a God?

2. Graves contends that existing social orders, with their traditional rites and customs, need to be justified and accounted for by the upper elites for the benefit of the lower members of society.

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