"The Global Myths: Exploring Primitive, Pagan, Sacred and Scientific Mythologies" by Alexander Eliot, Meridian Books, New York (1994) attempts a classification of mythology, and any quotations and page numbers given here are drawn from this book. Although I have previously read much mythology, including books by Robert Graves, Robert Bly, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and also much from Hindu and Native American mythology, these writers generally re-tell the stories in their own way, without attempting to classify or compare the myths.
The nature of Myth
Myth can be defined as any story which evolves, whether by change of emphasis, or by the addition or removal of information. Throughout this process, the main characters and events in the myth will remain recognisably the same.
The initial story on which the myth is based may or may not be true - the truth of this story is unimportant. For example, the story of Virgin Birth of Jesus has a powerful effect for some people which is independent of its historical or scientific truth.
Myths cannot usefully be analysed, and I hope I will be able to avoid this. Eliot speaks of a 'dry myth' being useless. Myths have a 'life of their own' which must be respected. Their most useful role is to cast 'new light' on human situations, they are not stepping stones that will bear any weight, nor theories that can be tested in a 'scientific' way.(especially as that is itself to some extent mythical)
How myths evolve
Several of the organisations I have been involved in have had unique myths, and I also have my own "personal mythology" - stories which I tell about myself as explanations of my life. It seems that organisational, national and even personal histories are continually re-interpreted, re-told and "mythologised". As an example of mythologising, in organisations, stories of the founder and early years are selected (even if they are in fact untypical) and are told to new staff by senior staff - these are then re-told to others, perhaps with a different emphasis, perhaps with some embroidery, and the 'best bits' of the new version of the story gradually become accepted as "the Authorised Version". It seems that a similar process of development and selection happens with all myths (as in the evolution of species !). An organisation's "corpus" of myths is very useful to it:- for the induction of new staff, for team building, for marketing, and also even for some types of 'thought control' (or, for the management to make sure that everyone is 'on the same wavelength').
Other Approaches to Myths
I have concentrated on one system for the classification of myths, but there are also other dimensions to mythology:-
- Knowledge systems. Myths often contain knowledge of crops, medicines, animals, poisons, and rituals, which are preserved for the people in story form
- Historical. Robert Graves in particular insists that the classic Greek myths have a historical reality. In particular, they tell of a 'cultural take-over' (rape) by a patriarchal society of a previous matriarchal goddess-worshipping society, and this explains many of the events in early Greek mythology.
- Symbolical. There are many instances where Jung (for example in his "Man and his Symbols") claims that the symbols in mythology are connected to the symbols which arise from the human unconscious, and thus myths can have a personal psychological relevance
- Imagination. A myth has an effect which is independent of its truth. The same can also be said of many works of art, and for example Shakespeare created much that endures at a mythical level. Much of what we see now as myths may once have been works of art.
- Spiritual. Many authors declare that myths demonstrate a higher potential for humanity, and that many myths are metaphors for human life and evolution and give insights for personal growth (e.g. 'The Labours of Hercules', Homer's 'Odyssey')
Myths seems to operate in this multi-level way, and we are unwise to approach them in a "one-dimensional" way
Eliot discerns four major classes of myth (and several minor classes):-
- Primitive - shamanic and nature myths, often from cultures where the ancestors and elders of the group (tribe) have great importance
- Pagan - tales and characters from Classical Greek and Roman mythology, but also Norse and Indian. Typically there is a pantheon of charismatic gods who sometimes teach and lead the humans, but often seem to quarrel among themselves, and are a source of danger to their people, who may therefore try to please them with gifts and sacrifices. These pantheons of gods are often linked to the planets, e.g saturn, mars, venus, mercury, and are thought in some way to BE the planets.
- Sacred. Typically, sacred myths are based on a sacred book, such as the Torah, Bible or Koran, given out by a Great Teacher. The philosophies, morals and ethics ("Truths") contained in the sacred book are mediated by a priesthood for consumption by the general public. Other aspects focus on the myth of the 'great individual' rather than his teachings, and then later on the church itself as a path (a career).
- Scientific. Science proceeds by creating sets of hypotheses which are accepted by the scientific community, which are tested, and then used until they are found to be inadequate, and then a new set of hypotheses is developed. Sometimes this replacement of theories is so far-reaching that it is called a 'paradigm shift', and a paradigm is clearly mythical, not "real".
He also states the following as minor classes of myth:-
- Personal Mythology, where one 'tells a story' to oneself or to others to help give meaning to ones life
- Fairy Tales. Which are simple tales told to children, chiefly of European (and particularly Nordic and German) origins. This could be the reason he omits them, as they are not a global phenomenon.
- One could perhaps also add "Urban Myths" to this list (everyone has heard of the poor person who was lost and drove 3 times round the M25 for 24 hours, but no-one has ever met him/her )
There are obvious power structures within these classifications :-
- Primitive - Elders, and Ancestor power (often in traditional societies)
- Pagan - the Pantheon. But there are also charismatic, "larger-than-life" leaders (heroes) or groups who may be a modern version of these pantheons and the ancient heroes (Evita, UK royal family in the 1990's ?)
- Sacred - Great Teacher, leading to a Priesthood, dogma, and holy books, then religion.
- Scientific - Peer group review processes
- Personal Mythology - Self images, both positive and negative
- Fairy Tales - Kings, Queens, Princes, Knights, etc. -chivalry
- Urban Myths - Usually a protest or comment on modern life
It is interesting that "the hero" is a unifying figure which occurs in all types of mythology, and nearly all myths, but perhaps 'the Actor' always becomes 'the hero' after a few re-tellings of a story as it evolves.