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What do Myths Mean? 7 Ways to Understand Myths & Mythology

Posted in anthropology, folklore, mythology, and Truth

Complimentary and Contradictory Ideas about Myth

As someone who reads and thinks about these things a good deal, I’m aware of several approaches to understanding myths and mythology. But is there a universal answer to the question, “What do myths mean?”

What do myths mean?

Sometimes these various ways of understanding and interpreting myths are complimentary; sometimes they seem to be contradictory. What I’d like to do here is summarize the main schools of thought about interpreting myth.

The words mythical and mythology have been in currency in the English language since at least the 1600s. However, the word myth is a much later introduction, not appearing in the language until the middle of the nineteenth century.

So what is a myth? What is this object of study we had no need even to name until recently?

The OED gives us this:

“a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.”

This definition strikes me as too imprecise to be of any real use.

I wouldn’t care to attempt a short-form definition of the word myth that needed to encompass all of its possible breadth, depth and nuanced significance.

So, perhaps this attempt to take an overview of the many approaches to interpreting myths – this study of mythology and meaning – will bring us closer to understanding what myth is.

Seven Schools of Thought

I’ve defined seven schools of thought among the literature of those who try to understand and interpret myth, to answer the question, “What do myths mean?”

The first of these is perhaps less popular today than ever it was since it was first proposed.

Myth as Human Error

This is the school of thought pioneered by the likes of Sir James Frazer. It sees myths as primitive and misguided attempts to explain natural phenomena or embody sociological changes. Myths are the poor forerunners of better science and better history. This school seeks to interpret myths as simple factual errors in the early stages of human inquiry superseded by scientific understanding. Professor Richard Dawkins is a contemporary exponent of the “human error” interpretation of myth. In the following video he explains his thinking to Jeremy Paxman:

Ernst Cassirer
Ernst Cassirer

Myth as Symbol System

The second approach sees myths as symbolic language – never intended in any sense as having literal meaning. This school sees myth as a way of thinking. As its primary proponent, Ernst Cassirer wrote in The Logic of the Humanities (1961):

“mythical thinking is a mode of symbolically structuring the world.”

This idea brings us closer to many of the more modern ways of interpreting myth – the idea that myth has any meaning at all – but it remains somewhat vague and one-dimensional, missing many other important facets of mythic reality.

The Psychoanalytic Theory of Myth

The third school of thought is the psychoanalytic interpretation. It agrees to some extent with Cassirer but views the symbolic system as analogous to the structures and complexes of the psychoanalytic theory of the subconscious and unconscious mind.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

The earliest and most influential champions of this method of mythology were the likes of Sigmund Freud and his follower, Otto Rank. Carl Jung took these ideas and developed them into a whole school of psychology which viewed the human mind as structured on mythic and ancestral lines. Joseph Campbell – although his ideas about myth and meaning evolved during his life and study – started out and remained at the end very much aligned to this school of thought.

There is much usefulness to gain from it. But I would caution against embracing this method with too much uncritical enthusiasm as it has a tendency to be reductive and has led to spurious attempts to squeeze myths into the somewhat confining pigeon-holes of psychoanalytic theory.

The Sociological Interpretation of Myth

The fourth way of interpreting myth is very much the antithesis of the last. It is most developed in the work of Emile Durkheim and takes a sociological approach to myth.

In the following video, Dr. Dan Krier gives a good introduction to the ideas of Emile Durkheim about myth and consciousness.

It is mechanistic in viewing myths as serving the functional purpose of promoting and sustaining the integrity of social structures and hierarchies.

The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski also belongs here as he saw myths as being attempts to position the institutions necessary for social cohesion in a sacred realm outside the sphere of human invention and thus beyond question.

Myth as Ritual

The White Goddess by Robert Graves
The White Goddess by Robert Graves

The fifth approach sees myth as being the formula of ritual – both religious and secular. It proposes that we can only interpret myths in so far as they enacted as rites. So what do myths mean in this context?

Robert Graves favored this notion and wrote in The Greek Myths (1955):

“true myth may be defined as the reduction to narrative shorthand of ritual mime performed on public festivals.”

Both Graves and the anthropologist Edmund Leach agree that these myths-as-rituals also express significant societal changes in real historical time. For example, the marriage between deities from one pantheon to the deities of another, or the conquering of one by the other, may reflect actual political events.

Myth as Structural Philosophy

The sixth school of thought emphasizes the essential structural similarity of many myths and sees them more as philosophical attempts to find answers to the collective experience of primitive peoples than anything else. Perhaps Levi-Strauss is the most significant example of someone thinking along these lines.

And finally,

Myth as Poetic Metaphor

The seventh and final attempt to answer the question, “What do myths mean?” is one which has had a curious and noticeable renaissance in the 21st century – the literary interpretation of myth as poetic metaphor.

This is a romanticized view of myth that can take on the trappings of almost religious sensibility and seeks to apprehend meaning in myth without reference to the discoveries of modern science and academia. There is a tendency here toward nostalgia – toward viewing myth as representative of lost and more desirable times-gone-by; the yearning for a golden age.

There may be yet other ways of interpreting myths and mythology (if you can think of any, please share them in the comments) but these more or less encapsulate the main trends we have seen since the word “myth” was invented.

What do Myths Mean?

What myths were before we named and studied them is quite an epistemological conundrum.

What myths mean to us now is another.

My approach is eclectic and compatibilist. I see the various approaches rather as the varying facets of a single diamond, to use a tired but apposite metaphor. I think they may all be true. Is myth – however elusive its meaning – the one thing that is distinctively human about us and distinguishes us from the other primates in our phylogeny?

Maybe, maybe not.

We once thought it was tool-making that set us apart, and that proved not to be true; then we thought it was language, and that proved false; wild chimpanzees show the beginnings of religious responses to the numinous.

However, myth is important to us and it’s also a matter of real contemporary interest as we continue to create new myths and remold old ones; some of this mythography is intentional and deliberate and some is perhaps unconscious and organic.

It may prove hard to “nail down” a single, universal interpretation of myth. But it would seem that myth is a fundamental, evolving, contemporary, and self-expressing aspect of what we are.


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  1. Thanks Austin – I found this an interesting insight into the different approaches people take to myth. As I read it I was coming to the same conclusion as you – that these approaches aren’t necessarily incompatible, but are different angles from which to approach the same phenomenon. I suspect that the importance of different uses of myth varies with time, place and the specific myth itself, but they all have some validity in understanding what these stories represent.

    April 10, 2016
    • Austin

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for calling by and taking the trouble to leave a comment. Yes, I agree with you. I don’t believe in anything supernatural, personally, but my life experience, along with my studies of mythology, folklore, literature and history, combined with animal behavior and anthropology (blimey, I sound like a complete boffin!) lead me to the necessary conclusion that mythology and ritual (not necessarily with any religious connotations) are a natural and important part of the health and welfare of individuals and societies. The purpose of religious mythologies in forming cohesive societies is rather redundant in these times of global connectivity and pluralism. The challenge may be to develop new myths and rituals which can give us all a common ground, rather than bring us all into conflict because we have contradictory values, taboos and so on.

      Myths also continue to furnish fantasy and SF writers with endless plot lines, of course!

      April 10, 2016
  2. Thanks Austin! A very thought-provoking and erudite post. I believe myths still speak to us today because they provide a more ‘human’ approach to expressing and approaching the wonder of the world and our own hopes and fears than starker scientific analysis provides. We need science, but we also need myth.

    April 12, 2016
    • Hi Barford and thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Well, I think science is beautiful, elegant and entirely satisfactory in many ways. I’m not sure that we categorically *need* myth but it certainly remains an active part of our culture. Although, as I intimate above, many of our old myths don’t function in the modern world.

      It seems to me the burning questions are: What should this mythic aspect of culture now become? How should it be formulated and expressed? To what service can it best be put?

      While we cling on to any form of supernaturalism, I seriously doubt we’ll successfully answer those questions. I think we have cultural structures in place in music, literature, theater and the arts, that ultimately function as myth-bearers. After all, when you remove the supernaturalism from mythic expressions, you are left only with art, dance, music and so on. And those, now that we have good science and reasonable historical dialogue, are the juice and meat of myth that we should aim to preserve and encourage.

      Or not. What do you think?

      April 12, 2016
  3. This is a philosophical debate beyond what my brain can handle at this time of day! However, your point regarding ‘the juice and meat of myth’ being art, dance, music, etc. is well made and probably right.

    April 14, 2016
    • Hi Barford,

      Well, thanks for trying! 🙂 I’d only add that I think we contemporary storytellers; writers of adventure, fantasy, science fiction and so on, are very much modern mythographers. Just a thought.

      April 15, 2016

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