Mythology and Folklore Introduction

Mythology and Folklore (Introduction). This handout can be helpful for an introduction to Mythology and Folklore class. 

The term mythology, may describe a certain body of myths, for example Greek, African, or Scandinavian, or it may refer to the study of myths. The study of myths may take several forms. Some studies aim at a careful understanding of the beings, personages, and actions in a particular cycle of myths. Others seek to understand the reason or necessity for these kinds of stories and their importance in the life of any culture. Studies of this kind might seek to locate in the origin of these stories expressions of the human psychic structure or consider them as a collective societal response to the mystery of life.

Folklore, literally “folk learning,” is generally limited to knowledge that is transmitted from one generation to another by word of mouth or imitation. In societies without writing, all traditional knowledge can be considered folklore; but in literate societies such as our own, folklore refers only to a fraction of the total culture and consists principally of folk dance, folk medicine, folk music, and the various forms of folk literature.

Myths are stories that narrate in an imaginative and symbolic manner the total and basic structure upon which a culture rests. Given this emphasis on what is fundamental to cultural meaning and value, the myth may appear to be fantastic and bizarre, because the mythic story cannot be explained in the terms of the ordinary conventions of culture. In fact, the ordinary conventions of the culture are understood as having their origins in the myth.

Myths emerge into legends, sagas, and tales.

The time of the fairy tale, “once upon a time,” creates an ambiguity on the temporal level. It seeks to create a temporal mode in which the events of the story may have plausibility in an ordinary sense and to inject dimensions of the bizarre, symbolic, and fantastic. The fairy tale states that “it could have been this way,” or that “it may have happened that.”

Sagas and legends are traditional stories that, although containing fictional and imaginative elements, have a historical basis and represent in the popular memory a real happening that was extraordinary enough to be remembered and embellished. Legends and sagas however lie in a mediate position between myths and historical narratives.

Myths may be classified according to the dominant theme expressed in the narrative. Some of the most important themes treated in myths are creation and origins, the birth of gods and divine beings, death and afterlife, and the renewal and rebirth of the world.

Creation Myth. The creation or cosmogony myth is usually the most important myth of the culture because it relates how the entire world came into being. Not only had the beings revealed in the myth but also the qualitative mode of creation becomes a model for all other forms of creation in culture. Sometimes a deity will create ex nihilo, from out of nothing; in other case, from a primordial chaos. In some myths, creation emerges from a metamorphosis of embryonic forms within the earth or from water. Creation may also be seen as the result of violent acts and warfare among the gods. The activity of divine beings such as earth-divers who dive into primordial waters to secure a small piece of earth is found in other creation narratives. A widespread myth speaks of creation coming out of a cosmic egg that deity has made for the perfection of the cosmos. In all of these kinds of myths, the mode of creation is part of the structure of myth that symbolically sets the tone and style for many of the other meanings of the life of the society.

Myths of the Origin of Deities. Specific deities may appear at the time of creation and are thus part of the narrative of creation myths. The oldest forms of these deities in myths of creation are often symbolized through the expressions of sky and earth. The sky may be a symbol of father; the earth, a mother. The sky-father may appear as deus otiosus (a distant or retiring deity), who upon creating the world retires from active participation or relationship to it. In some cases—for example in Mesopotamian myths—new deities emerge as offspring of the union of earth and sky, and finally warfare ensues between parents and offspring.

Myths of the Renewal and Rebirth. The basic order underlying this understanding of time was the creation of the world. The creation myth is a narrative that relates how the gods through the interruption of great power brought forth the world. At certain moments, this creative power is thought to run down or to become over-weighted with the actions of human and divine beings; it needs to be renewed. The renewal takes place at the end of the cycle when the society as a whole re-experiences the original creative act. During the ritual enactment of the creation, all rules and conventions of the society are abolished; the original creation id that chaos of power out of which the proper conventions and institutions of the society later emerge.

Reference: Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia, Deluxe Home Edition, 13 M pp. 694-695, 8F p. 203, Lexicon Publications, Inc. 1993