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As a student and lay researcher of the Humanities, it is fundamental in my understanding to know the different methods of interpretation or exegesis that scholars employ in their academic studies. This understanding or knowledge, if you will, is an important part of interpreting in a scientific and objective way – that is by observing certain ‘rules’. Of course, this does not mean that we should discard our own perspective or interpretation.

What is mythology?

Mythology is the study of myth – the Greek term mythos is often used to refer to a mythology of a religion or people. The mythological approach involves, in addition to the study of myth itself, the study of folktales or ‘märchen stories’, the study of legends, including all the paraphernalia of religion such as modes of representation, themes, motifs, theogonies, symbolism, allegory, and metaphor. Between these paraphernalia certain characteristics can be distinguished, but can also overlap and so it is imperative for the student to recognise and learn them in addition to the key concepts employed in the study of myth and its primary functions.†

Mythology can be difficult to interpret in that myths are looked at in a myriad of ways, and are employed at the same time with little or no contradiction. Myths may also possess deeper meaning that the interpreter overlooks, fails to notice, or has not uncovered. One can choose to interpret myths in objective and subjective ways, and they can be regarded as either being historically true or half-true, or entirely historically untrue. Myths, even though considered truthful by our ancient ancestors, are symbolical, allegorical, and metaphorical - anything but factual and literal. On the other hand, legend with its prose narrative – a feature it shares in common with myth – is sometimes built upon a kernel of historical truth. Scholars maintain, generally speaking, that in order to gain the greatest understanding of mythology or any subject for that matter, it is good practice to employ different methods and approaches, such as anthropology, historical criticism, literary criticism, sociology, philosophy, psychology, phenomenology, mythology, and comparative mythology.

One might think of the interpretation of myth as an open system rather than a closed system - one that interacts with time and space and is continually re-interpreted, but also one in which the interpreter can observe the rules without losing integrity. How we interpret mythology and in what sense we interpret it are key factors in understanding mythology. When studying mythology it is often helpful to ask questions and consider any probabilities, and it is important that we harness some degree of cautious scepticism and rethink what we currently know. By asking questions and by equipping ourselves with as many perspectives and utilizing as many methods as we can, we can build a bigger picture that, generally speaking, enriches our understanding of myth and of the ancient world.

Some interesting questions about myth

  • Did myth arise from a personal belief system that fed upon spiritual and philosophical reflection and that was eventually then disseminated into the social sphere of society?
  • How do we trace the evolution of a particular mythology?
  • How far can we reduce a myth to an original meaning? What if some myths are just senseless and have lost their original meaning? Are the origins of myths found in the medium of [Jungian] archetypes deeply embedded in the human psyche?
  • Are myths a product of irreconcilable differences and contradictions inherent in human society?
  • Were myths merely extravagant distortions of historical facts? What was the intent of the mythologizers – to mislead or to educate? Were myths and legends merely romanticised reports of actual history – such as those recorded by the ancient Greek poets?
  • Are myths allegorical or cryptic – do they possess a deeper meaning? Is there some metaphysical meaning to myths?
  • Are some myths profound and some myths superficial?
  • Are myths just fables that illustrate moral truths and different ways to live a moral and ethical life?
  • Do myths provide a necessary context and function for the validation and regulation of customs, rites, rituals, and institutions?

Inventory of Key Concepts

The following inventory outlines a few indispensable key concepts examined in the study of myth. As a preparatory starting point to the reader’s comprehension of many of the subjects featured in articles on this website, this brief but indispensable guide is second-to-none.

allegory

The classical definition of allegory (Grk. allegoria) is given by the Roman rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintillian (c. 35-100 CE): ‘the extension in indefinite series of a single extended metaphor’ (Institutio Oratoria 8. 6. 14.15). Allegory can be defined as a story with both a literal and symbolic meaning - a non-literal meaning. A good example of allegory is Plato’s ‘Parable of the Cave’ (The Republic, Book 7) which is related to his Theory of Forms.

archetype

A prototype: an original model or idea from which a copy or imitation was derived. In Jungian theory an archetype is described as a an archaic and universal mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious. An example of an archetype from mythology is the hero or warrior.

astrotheology

A system of theology or occult science grounded on the basis of the study of astrology and cosmology. The term is sometimes conflated with archaeoastronomy. An example from the ancient world in which astrotheology is used is the esoteric teachings surrounding the precession of the equinoxes. One might think of the ancient Chaldeans as adepts of astrotheology.

cosmology and cosmogony

Cosmology (Grk. kosmo + logia) can be defined as a discipline that studies the properties of the Universe as a whole: its origin, evolution, and eventual fate. The study is linked to astronomy.

Cosmogony (Grk. kosmo + gonia) is the theoretical study of ‘how the Universe came into being’. It is often conflated with cosmology. Examples of cosmogonies are creation myths like those found in ancient Egyptian religion (i.e., the Heliopolitan Ennead, the Ogdoad, etc).

esotericism and exotericism

The esoteric (internal or hidden) refers to secret knowledge, sacred wisdom, teachings and practices only known to a select group of individuals or the initiated. An example of esoteric teachings, from ancient Greece, are those taught by mathematician and mystic Pythagoras (570-495 BCE).

The exoteric (external, public) refers to knowledge, wisdom, teachings and practices known to everyone outside the select group of individuals or the uninitiated. An example of exoteric teachings would be ‘that which was openly taught the people from the laws of Moses and the traditions of the fathers.’ (J. J. Brucker & W. Enfield, The history of philosophy, 1791, p207)

exegesis

Commonly used in theology and academic Bible studies, exegesis (Grk. eksegesis) means the interpretation, explanation, and commentary of sacred texts usually in order to discover some original meaning; an exposition.

etiology

Etiology (Grk. aitiologia, “giving a reason for”) is the interpretation of myth that defines the truth about its cause or reason – the origins of why something is stated the way it is.

fable and folktale

A fable is commonly defined as a short moral story - often fictitious. A folktale is prose narratives regarded as fiction.

gnosis

Gnosis is a Greek word meaning knowledge from experience (rather than from dogma and doctrine), especially experience of the divine. It is used predominantly in a religious, mystical, and philosophical context. A brilliant definition of gnosis is given by author and scholar Elaine Pagels: ‘…gnosis is not primarily rational knowledge. The Greek language distinguishes between scientific or reflective knowledge (‘He knows mathematics’) and knowing through observation or experience (‘He knows me’). As the Gnostics use the term, we could translate it as ‘insight’, for gnosis involves an intuitive process of knowing oneself… Yet to know oneself, at the deepest level is to know God; this is the secret of gnosis.’ (The Gnostic Gospels, 1989)

henotheism and monolatrism

Henotheism is the belief in or worship of one god without the rejection of the existence of other gods. Henotheism can be compared with monolatrism: the worship of one god to the exclusion of other gods.

hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the theory of text interpretation. The term is also used in philosophy and social science to interpret meaning. For example, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger deals with hermeneutics.

hermeticism

An esoteric tradition of religious wisdom based upon the writings of Hermes Trismegistus - the Hellenistic Egyptian pseudepigrapha.

metaphysical

You will find this word (Grk. meta ta physika, ‘after the things of nature’) used much in philosophy (Aristotle: ‘primary philosophy’) where the term is often used to explain the fundamental nature of being and the world (i.e., beyond physics). According to British philosopher Francis Herbert Bradley (1846-1924): ‘We may agree, perhaps, to understand by Metaphysics an attempt to know reality as against mere appearance, or the study of first principles or ultimate truths, or again the effort to comprehend the universe, not simply piecemeal or by fragments, but somehow as a whole.’ Metaphysics can also be found in the study of religions (i.e., esotericism).

mimesis

Mimesis is a Greek word, meaning ‘to imitate’, and originates in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. It is the opposite of diegesis. The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) defines mimesis as ‘a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated’ and ‘the deliberate imitation of the behaviour of one group of people by another as a factor in social change.’ Philosophical anthropologist René Girard (1923) considers mimesis (and mimetic rivalry) to be a factor in the foundation of culture.

monism

Monism is a philosophical and epistemological term meaning ‘one’ (Grk. monos). It is the opposite of dualism and multiplicity. The term is also found in theology, cosmology, and psychology, as well as ethics and morality.

monotheism and polytheism

According to the majority of lexicons, monotheism is defined as the worship of One God or the worship of and belief in a single supreme and all-powerful God. Four classes of monotheism can be identified: Primitive monotheism; Mosaic monotheism; Christian monotheism and Mohammedan monotheism. Polytheism, whether fluid or not, is the belief in or worship of a multiplicity of gods.

mysticism

Mysticism (Grk. mystikismos) is a term with multiple meanings and interpretations. The best way to define it would be: a belief that God, Truth, or Ultimate Reality can be directly known through profound unitive consciousness. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, believed that mysticism is the cognitive experience of God. Mysticism is related to both monism and dualism. Mysticism has a presence in almost all religions: in Christianity; in the religion of the Jews (Kabbalism); in Islam (purportedly as Sufism); in the religions of the Greco-Romans and Greeks, Babylonians, and Egyptians. Mysticism is often conflated with occultism.

myth and legend

The standard definition of mythology (Grk. mythos) is a collection of myths, fables, folktales (Ger. märchen), legends, and teachings derived from the ancient world.

The standard definition of legend is a traditional story popularly regarded as historical but unverifiable and containing a mixture of fact and fiction.

mythopoeic

Generally a term pertaining to mythology or myth-making. In anthropology, mythopoeicism is commonly discussed in terms of the ‘mythopoeic mind’, which is creative and mystical and which is thought to be a characteristic of primitive peoples (See Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mentality, 1923).

perennial

A term (Lat. perennis) used in philosophy (as a perspective in religion), and in the study of the evolution of religions and religious ideas. Essentially, the term means something that is renewed or continually repeated, or something that recurs again and again.

religion

As a phenomenon religion (Lat. religio) can be defined as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. Definitions of the word religion have been given by notable people in the past, such as, for example, Roman orator and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BCE) and Christian theologian St Augustine (430 CE). Christian author Lactantius (240-320 CE) gave the following definition in a Christian context: ‘by this bond of piety, we have been bound and ‘tied’ to God: this gave religion its name, not the action of ‘retracing’, which Cicero advocated as its origin’ (Divinae Institutiones, 4.2.83). Religion, then, means ‘to bind back’ (Lat. religare) i.e., to the divine source from whence we came.

syncretism and assimilation

The proper term is ‘religious syncretism’ as distinct from syncretism commonly associated with the more practical matters of culture, such as trade, migration, and conquest. A much less complicated definition of syncretism was given by theologian K. V. H. Ringgren (1917-2012), who suggested that it was ‘any mixture of two or more religions’ (Quoted in J. D. Gort, Dialogue and Syncretism: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 1989, p10). Religious syncretism then is quite simply the synthesis of two or more deities into one. The comparative religion scholar J. R. Hinnells deduced that religious syncretism is ‘where the multitudes of deities worshipped by the many local communities either merged to create one deity with a range of attributes, or became a family group of gods.’ (J. R. Hinnells, Handbook of Ancient Religions, 2007, p64). To describe the cultural process of syncretism Scholar H. J. W. Drijvers preferred the terms ‘assimilation’, ‘differentiation’ and ‘acculturation’ (H. J. W. Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs at Edessa, 1980).

theology, theodicy, and theogony

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