Myth – A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short Introduction is an overview of the major nineteenth and twentieth century theories of myth.  It is clear, very well organized and surprisingly comprehensive.  This is a book for people who want a helpful orientation to the field of mythological studies.  The author uses the myth of Adonis to illustrate the different theories he is discussing.  Robert A. Segal is a Professor of Theories of Religion at Lancaster University.

The author in his introduction tells us that the theories of myth may be as old as myths themselves and are at least as old as Presocratics but that it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that it became scientific in approach.  Scientific theorizing is based on accumulated information.

The author sees theories of myth as theories of some larger domain with myth as a mere subset of it.  Anthropological theories of myth are theories of culture applied to the case of myth, while psychological theories of myth are theories of the mind applied to myth and so on.  He feels that this is because we really don’t know exactly how to define myth.

The theories of myth are united by the questions asked in these theories: (1)origin: how and why a myth arises, (2)function: why and how myths persist and (3)the subject matter of the myth.  The theories of course differ in what they deal with and only a few deal with all of the three questions together.

Segal feels that the difference between the theorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that in the nineteenth century myth was seen as the “primitive” counterpart to science and so myths were rejected.  In the twentieth century theorists saw myth as anything but the outdated counterpart to science so they weren’t obliged to abandon it in favor of science.

Segal also proposes his own definition of myth in the introduction.  He sees myth as a story.  For folklorists the story is about creation of the world.  For theorists in religious studies the story must be about gods or near gods.  But he doesn’t want to be too rigid in his definition so he defines myth as a story about something significant in the past or present that involves characters with personalities (human, god or animal).  It is a story that accomplishes something significant for the reader and it must express a conviction (true or false is not a criterion).

As mentioned above Segal uses the myth of Adonis to illustrate the differences between theories.  He chose this myth because there are different versions of it, and it was popular with theorists like J. G. Frazer, Levi-Straussian, Marcel Detienne, and C. G. Jung.

The first chapter discusses myth and science.  There has always been opposition to myth.  In Plato’s time it was an ethical opposition (he couldn’t believe that the gods were made out to behave so immorally) and in modern times the opposition comes in the form of science.  The author offers three ways in which myth and science are seen in modern times.  The first is that myth is true science, and this is a view held by such people as the creationists and in this view modern science must give way to myth, not vice versa.  The second view is myth as modern science and here any element that does not conform to the scientific view is removed.  The process is called demythologizing.  The third view is that myth is primitive science, and this is the most common of the three views. Myth is considered as the pre-scientific counterpart to science, which is assumed to be exclusively modern. Myth is here part of religion.  The author then goes on to give examples of people who supported each view.  The People he discusses are: E. B. Tylor, J. G. Frazer,Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Bronislaw Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Robin Horton and Karl Popper.

In the second chapter the author discusses myth and philosophy.  He feels that there are seven different views on the relationship between.  The views are: (1) myth is part of philosophy, (2) myth is philosophy, (3) philosophy is myth, (4) myth grows out of philosophy, (5) philosophy grows out of myth, (6) myth and philosophy are independent of each other but serve the same function and (7) myth and philosophy are independent of each other and serve different functions.  The theorists discussed in this chapter are: Paul Radin, Ernst Cassirer, the Frankforts, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and Albert Camus.

Myth and religion is the subject matter of chapter three.  The author starts by saying that to relate myth and religion myth needs to be under religion.  And this exposes myth to the challenge of science and so to reconcile myth and science you need to reconcile religion and science and there are two ways that the theorists have used to do that.  The first is to re-characterize the subject matter of religion and by association myth and the second is to elevate secular phenomena to religious ones.

In the first tactic religion is said to be not about the physical world and so it is safe from clashing with science.  Myth is this case is a traditional myth and is read symbolically rather than literally.  In the second tactic myth is not confined to religious ancient tales.  Stories about heroes, who are at face value humans, are raised so high that they are virtual gods.  Their actions are not superhuman and so are safe from science.  This way means that myths are read literally.  Theorists discussed in this chapter are: Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and Mircea Eliade.

Chapter four discusses myth and ritual.  The myth-ritualists say that myth does not stand-alone but is tied to ritual.  It is an action as well as a statement.  William Robertson Smith, E. B. Tylor, J.G. Frazer, Jane Harrison, S.H. Hooke, Rene Girard, and Walter Burkert are all discussed in this chapter.

The relationship between myth and literature is next.  Myths were thought to be used in literature, and literature derived from myths.  Also myth is considered a story, and you can see patterns in myths.  Theorists cited in this chapter are Lord Raglan, Frye, Burke, and Girard.

In myth and psychology two theorists dominated the field, the first is Sigmund Freud and the second is C.G. Jung.  Both of these psychologists parallel myths to dreams.  To Freud myth constitutes a compromise between the side of oneself that wants the desires satisfied outright and the side that does not even want to know they exist.  Myth to Freud functions through its meaning.  People who followed in Freud’s footsteps are Otto Rank, Bruno Bettelheim, and Alan Dundes.

With the advancements of psychoanalysis things changed and psychoanalysists like Jacob Arlow saw myth as contributing to normal development rather than perpetuating neurosis.  C. G. Jung pioneered the concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious.  Someone who followed in Jung’s footsteps is Joseph Campbell.

Cluade Levi-Strauss invented the structuralist approach to myth and he makes the claim that “myth is language”. Through approaching mythology as language, Levi-Strauss suggests that it can be approached the same way as language can be approached by the same structuralist methods used to address language. Levi-Strauss clarifies, “Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.”  Levi-Strauss breaks down his argument into three main parts. Meaning is not isolated within the specific fundamental parts of the myth, but rather within the composition of these parts. Although myth and language are of similar categories, language functions differently in myth. Finally, language in myth exhibits more complex functions than in any other linguistic expression. From these suggestions, he draws the conclusion that myth can be broken down into constituent units, and these units are different from the constituents of language. Finally, unlike the constituents of language, the constituents of a myth, which he labels “mythemes,” function as “bundles of relations.”   A structural approach should account for all versions of a myth, as all versions are relevant to the function of the myth as a whole. This leads to what Levi-Strauss calls a spiral growth of the myth, which is continuous while the structure itself is not. The growth of the myth only ends when the “intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted.”  Theorists who have taken the same track are Vladimir Propp, George Dumézil and the Gernet School.

In myth and society we see that for Malinowski myths deal with social phenomena like marriage, taxes and ritual.  They help people to deal with what they have by taking it to the ancient past.  George Sorel sees myth as ideologies; they are eternal and serve to topple society instead of strengthen it.

The last chapter of the book deals with the future of the study of myth.  The author summarizes what the theorists of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century thought of myth and then offers his own view of how myth should be seen in the twenty-first century.

The book is a great introduction on the subject of theories of myth and should be supplemented by more in depth analysis and other theorist opinions as this is one man’s look on the subject from the point of view of the field he practices.

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The Power of Myth By Joseph Campbell

As I started to read this book I decided that it would have been much better to get the audio version.  The book is a conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell that took place between 1985 and 1986 at George Lucus’ Skywalker Ranch and the Museum of Natural History in New York.

The book addresses the fundamental and difficult subject of myth from the point of view of Joseph Campbell and his studies in comparative religion.  The book is a must read for anyone who is studying theories of mythology because he tackles the myth from the point of view that says that myth are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance.  They are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.  They help you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive and they tell you what the experience is.

The Power of Myth is essentially a summery of Campbell’s life work and provokes the reader to view his/her world with different eyes.   He discusses five concepts in the book and they are: myth and the modern world, the journey inward, the first story tellers, sacrifice and bliss, the hero’s journey, the goddess, love and marriage, and the many faces of myth.  The book is full of examples from other cultures and religions that help illustrate his concepts and though I do not agree with everything he says in his book I really enjoyed reading it very much as one of the theories of mythology.

Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth edited by Alan Dundes

Sacred Narrative is a collection of essays written by a number of myth theorists representing the different fields that deal with myths.  Anthropological folklorists, classicists, theologians, psychologists, social anthropologists, and religion historians wrote the essays.  There are twenty-two essays in all covering the 19th and 20th century theorists, which give us two distinct approaches to myths.

In the 19th century the focus of the theorists was on the question of origins of myth while in the 20th century the theorists were concerned with the structure and function of the myth.  The editor of the book starts out the introduction with the definition of myth that provided the guideline for the selection of the essays in the book.  The definition says, A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form. (Italics and bold letters my own) (p.1)  The use of sacred is for distinguishing between myth and folktales, which are usually secular and fictional according to the Editor.  Knowing how hard it is to actually agree on a definition of myth, I find that the definition provided by the editor agrees with my own idea of what a myth is.  Or so I thought…

The more I read the more I had to think about what a myth is, and the more definitions I read from each essay, the more I had to re-think some conclusion I had come to from the previous one.  I should say here that the definitions of myth used by the writers of each essay all fit in with the one provided as a criterion for the selection and yet they were still unique and very different.  My only regret is that not one of the essays dealt with any Celtic myths, though some if not all the essays had some aspects that could be used in the study of Celtic myths.  If I had to choose favorites from among the essays then I would have to choose the first four because they deal with general myths and the last one because it dissects the myth of George Washington.

Another thing that I love about the book is the list of further reading suggestions on the theory of myths that the editor supplies at the end of the book.

Just a word of caution this is not an easy book to read, it is not as scholarly as some books but it is not something that you read if you don’t want to think.

Theories of Mythology by Eric Csapo

I think that the best way to describe the purpose of the book is to just quote the author since he put it so beautifully in his preface.


This book presents the major schools of mythological interpretation: their theories, their methods, their insights, and their shortcomings. Each school of thought is represented by one or two key or founding figures. Their theories are explained, placed in their social and historical contexts, and problemized.” (p. x)


The author begins by telling us about the difficulties of defining the term “Myths” as a way to show us that the definitions that are presented to us today predispose us to a certain way of thinking about myths. The discussion on this issue in the first chapter is very interesting and takes your mind on an amazing trip. At the end of the chapter he tells you his definition but he also says that this definition is not to be taken as gospel just like any other definition of “Myths”.


The first theory of mythology to be discussed is the Comparative mythology theory. It has its origin in the time when the Europeans were expanding their empires and finding new cultures and people. The theory itself did not and indeed could not take root until the Europeans realized that their culture is not the absolute culture that everything must be compared against but rather that it is just one of many. The chapter offers the story of how and by whom the method was devised and how the people who made use of it used it progressively. Muller used it by applying linguistics, James Frazier compared myths to myths and rites to rites since he had no interest in linguistics. This chapter is full of interesting comparisons between certain myths that are very interesting.


The following chapter is about psychology and its effects on mythology. Myths like the ones associated with Prometheus, the Medusa, Perseus, and Oedipus were discussed from the point of view of Psychology, also concepts like ambivalence, totemism, taboo and social relations. The chapter mainly used Freud theories and put them into context with myths.


Chapter three talks about ritual theories which began with the discovery that myths held social functions. The people who developed these theories are Emile Durkhiem who replaced the Victorian anthropology with the new concept of Society. It was no longer about individuals, economies and materialists. Another person to influence the ritual theories was Bronislaw Malinowski who published a short book called “Myth in Primitive Psychology”. Myths according to Malinowski perpetuated hard work, social order, practices, customs and moral codes. Jane Harrison also influenced the ritual theories and was perhaps the first to be called a ritualist. Her work “Themis” was influential in explaining the Greek Religion. Myth and ritual became intertwined and indeed it was long thought that you can not have one with out the other.


The next two chapters discuss structuralism and ideology in depth. In Structural anthropology, Claude Levi-Struass, makes the claim that “myth is language.” Through approaching mythology as language, Levi-Strauss suggests that it can be approached the same way as language can be approached by the same structuralist methods used to address language. Levi-Strauss clarifies, “Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.” Levi-Strauss breaks down his argument into three main parts. Meaning is not isolated within the specific fundamental parts of the myth, but rather within the composition of these parts. Although myth and language are of similar categories, language functions differently in myth. Finally, language in myth exhibits more complex functions than in any other linguistic expression. From these suggestions, he draws the conclusion that myth can be broken down into constituent units, and these units are differ from the constituents of language. Finally, unlike the constituents of language, the constituents of a myth, which he labels “mythemes,” function as “bundles of relations.” The chapter on ideology deals with myths about women and their place in myths as well as agriculture and marriage.


This book attempts (and in my opinion succeeds) in showing the development of the Theories of Myths as well as their relationship to each other and how one builds on the one that comes before it. In essence I think that you can not really study one without studying all because they tend to build on each other. The book is very interesting because it shows you ways of analyzing myths and what problems you will face if you use one method instead of another. Each analysis method has its pros and cons, and each one needs careful thought.


I’m beginning to think that perhaps it is easier to use each one of the theories taking into consideration that each one is flawed in some way…But that would also mean that it will take forever to analyze the Celtic Myths…Well no one said it was going to be an easy task…