Eastern Mythology Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Eastern Mythology

Mythology is one of the most ancient forms of literature, as well as one of the most pervasive. In the cultural traditions of Asia, it is primarily oral and thus particularly mutable and susceptible to intercultural influences, although myths have also been preserved through sculpture, painting, music, and drama. The essays collected here discuss narratives from diverse cultures, from ancient Egypt to Japanese Buddhism. If mythology can be understood as a series of responses to the human experience, common themes and figures across cultures are compelling evidence for the universal nature of certain concerns and interests. These legends not only describe the origins of the world, or the establishment of societies, but have normative force, as they are stories of heroes, gods, and royalty.

One major strand of the study of Eastern mythology attempts to ground these narratives in real conditions such as natural, socio-economic, and political events and processes. In this way mythology can be studied for its historical content and accuracy. For instance, in J. W. Kinnier Wilson's essay (see Further Reading), the legend of Gilgamesh is read as a transformative interpretation of certain naturally occurring phenomena. In another approach, mythology is treated as the expression of fundamental values and animating questions of a culture; C. J. Gadd's essay on Babylonian ceremonies of cyclical rejuvenation and Kelsey's examination of the snake as a figure of moral redemption in Buddhist mythology are examples of this hermeneutic path. Both methods of scholarship reflect the significance of myth as a cultural horizon, a heritage that structures and deeply influences the self-understanding of a society.

Asian myths have been preserved in a variety of ways: through oral repetition (and only recent recording), in written form, in ceremonial performances, and in painting, sculpture, and architecture. The highly developed and long-standing trade routes that traversed the continent and linked it to Europe and northern Africa served not merely to transport goods but to transmit cultural artifacts and ideas. Different versions of certain myths and recurring motifs have been linked to this economically-driven form of intercultural communication. The length and level of detail of the narratives also vary considerably, ranging from the few words that encapsulate the relatively simple plot of a Shinto tale, to the vast and sprawling epic of the Mahabharata, which in a hundred thousand couplets tells of a complex series of events that precipitate a cataclysmic war that involves numerous individual characters and intricate philosophical dialogue.

A great many tropes in Eastern mythology transcend cultural boundaries and much scholarly work has investigated the patterns and significance of cross-cultural figures, symbolism, and narrative events. In particular, the figure of the divine king appears in Egyptian as well as Babylonian and Southeast Asian mythology, and many divine figures possess some attribute of an animal, such as a serpent (related to the Chinese and Japanese dragon motif), bird (Horus, from Egyptian myth), or monkey (Hanuman, from Hindu mythology). Eastern mythology, as is typical of most mythological tales, has the characteristic of being composed by multiple and anonymous authors, generally over a long period of time, during which the narrative evolves, and often is spread over a wide geographical area—which also contributes to the existence of many different versions of the same tale.

For some early commentators, myth stood in opposition to the science of history as practiced by "enlightened" civilizations. Myth was thus regarded as the explanatory method of "primitive" Asian cultures, the romanticized and deified imaginings of those with no access to more objective accounts. Eastern mythology has also been closely tied to religious belief and practice, particularly in ancient Egyptian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. More recent scholarship has questioned the distinction between myth and history or science, and instead defined myth not by its supernatural content but by its cultural function. Eastern mythology in particular is strongly interwoven with traditional systems of government, social organization, and religion. To dismiss the centrality of what is called myth for these societies, some scholars claim, is to distort the relation of myth to reality; additionally, to portray science as fully disengaged from the functions of mythology is to misunderstand mythology. The commonality that links the diverse manifestations of mythology is concerned with quintessentially human questions: of origin and creation, of the order governing the natural world, and of what constitutes an ideal life. The answers to these questions, however, are deeply influenced by specific cultures; Eastern mythology thus reveals many divergent strands of thought and a profusion of cultural traditions.