||The Greek word muthos means an account: words organized to give specific information or to make a particular effect. It contains overtones of â€˜fictionâ€™ or â€˜fantasyâ€™, unlike, for instance, logos which means a rational account of reality. More narrowly, myths are attempts to explain, or at least bring nearer to our comprehension, such matters as the beginning of the universe, the nature and demands of supernatural powers, the hierarchy of creation, the causes of things and the origins of certain social customs and popular beliefs. In a prescientific age, myths were an intellectual binding force, a net of ideas and attitudes which guaranteed social identity. Whether each set of myths reflected its society, or the society reflected its myths, is a moot point; but certainly myths had a defining and enabling power which scientific rationalism has still not begun to equal. By imbuing statements with â€˜sacredâ€™ authority, they could be seen as providing a charter for social action, giving customs an authority and legitimacy they might otherwise lack. By locating traditions in mythical time, contemporary behaviour could be justified by reference to custom.
Recent studies in myth have concentrated on this aspect of their existence. In the 1940s, Bronislaw Malinowski and his fellow-anthropologists saw them not just as explanations of social customs and institutions but as validators, a kind of repository of the status quo. Unlike other such validators, for example codes of law or ethics, they were not adaptable to changing social conditions, and societies which depended on them tended to collapse or become disorientated after the irruption of the â€˜modernâ€™ world. (Significantly, people from many â€˜assimilatedâ€™ cultures are now turning to their ancestral myths as a way of rediscovering and reasserting cultural identity in a pluralist world.)
Claude LÃ©vi-Strauss and his colleagues subjected each myth to a process of deconstruction, whose purpose was to reveal the psychological, social, anthropological and other impulses which lay under the simple narrative surface. The argument here was that the structural elements used in myths revealed the basic structures of the human mind, and universal methods of classifying the phenomenal world. Myth\'s function was to wrestle with the fundamental and irreconcilable contradictions experienced in life. This is to treat myths as direct relatives of legends (fantasized history) and allegory (fantasized moral or ethical teaching)â€”the differences being that they are often older, that they arise through accretion rather than through specific composition by single individuals, and consequently that they are less overt, less naive, and therefore more revealing (when suitably â€˜unpackedâ€™) of the society which created them.
While LÃ©vi-Strauss\'s theories provided rich insights into the analysis of myth, they were incorporated by later anthropologists into an approach which locates myth in its historical and political context. The 1980s saw a renewed interest, among anthropologists, in the relationship of myth to history. Whereas evolutionists had treated myth as a precursor to history in preliterate societies, contemporary anthropologists argue that all history can be treated as myth. Historical facts, they hold, can never be proven, and in so far as history is the legitimizing narrative constructed by a people, whether family, tribe or nation, it is also myth.
None of this detracts from the direct, primary power of myths as stories and entertainment. They carry on the work of such less-grand relatives as proverbs, riddles, nursery rhymes and folk tales, leading our imaginations, so to speak, from childhood simplicities to larger questions and concerns. They are worked on in two main ways. On the one hand is a vast amount of straightforward collection, literary and anthropological research taking us as closely as possible to each myth\'s most ancient or most characteristic shape. (In this work, variants are often as fascinating as the basic myths themselves.) On the other hand is almost the entire weight of creative endeavour in the arts. No art form is unaffected by myth, at any period and in any society.
Myths are a repository not only of stories, but of themes, attitudes, stylistic strategies and insights. A single example demonstrates the point: the Greek story of Odysseus\' homecoming after the Trojan War. This comes down to us originally in the words of Homer, who made a 13,000-line epic poem out of dozens, perhaps hundreds of individual anecdotes and incidents, giving them narrative cohesion and a single authorial â€˜attitudeâ€™, drawing out from straightforward adventure the story of a man in quest of his own psychological identity. In the 3,000 years since it was composed, the Odyssey has directly inspired novels, poems, plays, operas, ballets, symphonic poems, paintings and sculpture, and has given themes and structure to a host of secondary works from Cervantes\' Don Quixote or Joyce\'s Ulysses (where the influence is obvious) to Albert Camus\'s The Plague, or Arthur Miller\'s Death of a Salesman (developing the idea of the existential quest). This is muthos in the sense used first by Coleridge: a starting-point and a landscape in which the creative journey may be made.
Not all myth-systems are equally fertile. In the arts throughout the world, only ancient Greek myth (predominantly secular) and Hindu myth (predominately religious) have had, and retain, such long-lasting, overwhelming and protean power to inspire new creation. But in large or in smallâ€”Inuit sealstone carvings, for example, or the trickster-stories of central Africaâ€”it is not too much to say that for the arts in general, at all periods everywhere, myth has the same validating and energetic power as Malinowski and others have found for it in anthropological terms. CL KMcL
See also ethnohistory; language.Further reading Roland Barthes, Mythologies; , Robert Graves, The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth; , Carolyne Larrington (ed.), The Feminist Companion to Mythology; , Claude LÃ©vi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning.