Religion and mythology
differ, but have overlapping aspects. Both terms refer to systems of concepts that are of high importance to a certain community, making statements concerning the supernatural
. Generally, mythology
is considered one component or aspect of religion
. Religion is the broader term: besides mythological aspects, it includes aspects of ritual
, and mystical experience
. A given mythology
is almost always associated with a certain religion, such as Greek mythology
with Ancient Greek religion
. Disconnected from its religious system, a myth may lose its immediate relevance to the community and evolve—away from sacred importance—into a legend
Religion and mythology
is commonly defined as belief concerning the supernatural, sacred, or divine
, and the moral codes
, practices, values, and institutions associated with such belief. Religious beliefs and practices generally include the following:
Some religions do not include all these features. For instance, belief in a deity is not essential to Buddhism.
The term mythology usually refers either to a system of myths or to the study of myths. However, the word "myth" itself has multiple (and some contradictory) definitions:
- 2007: According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "Myth: "1 a: a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. b: Parable, Allegory. 2 a: a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society. 2b: an unfounded or false notion. 3: a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence. 4: the whole body of myths.
In regards to the study of culture and religion, these are some of the definitions scholars have used:
- 1968: The classicist Robert Graves defines myths as "whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student's experience that he cannot believe them to be true.
- 1973: Another classicist, G. S. Kirk, rejects the notion that all myths are religious or sacred. In the category of "myth", he includes many legendary accounts that are "secular" for all practical purposes.
- 1997: Folklorists define a myth as "a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form".
- 2004: In religious studies, the word "myth" is usually reserved for stories whose main characters are gods or demigods.
- 2004: The classicist Richard Buxton defines a myth as "a socially powerful traditional story".
- 2004: Robert A. Segal, professor of theories of religion at the University of Lancaster, defines "myth" broadly as any story whose "main figures [are] personalities -- divine, human, or even animal. Excluded would be impersonal forces such as Plato's Good.
The relationship between religion and myth
The relationship between religion and myth depends on what definition of "myth" one uses. By Robert Graves's definition, a religion's traditional stories are "myths" if and only if one does not belong to the religion in question. By Segal's definition, all religious stories are myths -- but simply because nearly all stories are myths. By the folklorists' definition, all myths are religious (or "sacred") stories, but not all religious stories are myths: religious stories that involve the creation of the world (e.g., the stories in Genesis) are myths; however, religious stories that don't explain how things came to be in their present form (e.g., hagiographies of famous saints) are not myths.
It should be noted that most definitions of "myth" limit myths to stories. Thus, non-narrative elements of religion, such as ritual and theology, are not myths.
Truth and falsehood
In a scholarly setting, the word "myth" may mean "sacred story
", "traditional story
", or "story involving gods", but it does not mean "false story".
Therefore, many scholars refer to a religion's stories as "myths" without intending to offend members of that religion. For instance, a scholar may call the narratives in the Bible
"mythology" without meaning to imply that the Bible is false or unhistorical. Nevertheless, this scholarly use of the word "myth" may cause misunderstanding and offense to people who cherish those myths. This is because the word "myth" is popularly used to mean "falsehood", so people who hold this view may think that a scholar who calls scripture "mythology" is calling it false.
The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis made a clear distinction between myth and falsehood when he referred to the life of Christ as a myth "which is also a fact
Similarities between different religious mythologies
Given any of the above definitions of "myth", the myths of many religions, both ancient and modern, share common elements. Widespread similarities between religious mythologies include the following:
- Many religions involve an initial Paradise preceding ordinary historical time.
- Many religions involve the story of a god who undergoes death and resurrection (see life-death-rebirth deity).
- The mythical geography of many religions involves an axis mundi, or Cosmic Center.
- Many myths feature a global flood.
The similarities between cultures and time periods can be useful, but it is usually not easy to combine beliefs and histories from different groups. Simplification of cultures and time periods by eliminating detailed data remain vulnerable or flimsy in this area of research.
Contrasts between different religious mythologies
Though there are similarities among most religious mythologies, there are also contrasts. Many mythologies focus on explanations of the universe, natural phenomena, or other themes of human existence, often ascribing agency
to one or more deities
or other supernatural
forces. However, some religions have very few of this kind of story of cosmic explanation. For instance, the Buddhist parable of the arrow
warns against such speculations as "[Is] the world eternal or not eternal? [Is] the soul different from the body? [Does] the enlightened exist after death or not?", viewing them as irrelevant to the goal of escaping suffering.
, the term "myth" often refers to stories whose culture regards them as true (as opposed to fictitious). Thus, many scholars will call a body of stories "mythology", leaving open the question of whether the stories are true or false. For example, in Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism
, English professor Howard Schwartz writes, "the definition of 'mythology' offered here does not attempt to determine if biblical or subsequent narratives are true or false, i.e., historically accurate or not".
Since the beginning of modern philosophy and science in the 16th century, many Western intellectuals have seen myth as outdated. In fact, some argued that the Christian religion would be better off without mythology, or even that Christianity would be better off without religion:
"[J. A. T.] Robinson argued in favor of 'the detaching of the Christian doctrine of God from any necessary dependence on a "supernaturalistic" worldview'. He understood this as a prophetic aspect of the Church's ministry to the world. [...] At this time atheism was regarded as the Christian Gospel that should be preached to the world. J. J. Altizer, for example, maintained [this] boldly by stating, 'Throughout its history Christian theology has been thwarted from reaching its intrinsic goal by its bondage to a transcendent, a sovereign, and an impassive God'. [...] [Dietrich] Bonhoffer called persistently for 'Religionless Christianity'.
In the 20th century, many scholars have resisted this trend, defending myth from modern criticism. Mircea Eliade
, a professor of the history of religions, declared that myth did not hold religion back, that myth was an essential foundation of religion, and that eliminating myth would eliminate a piece of the human psyche. Eliade approached myth sympathetically at a time when religious thinkers were trying to purge religion of its mythological elements:
"Eliade wrote about 'sky and sky gods' when Christian theology was shaken at its very foundations by the 'death of God' theology. He spoke of 'God up there' when theologians such as J. A. T. Robinson were busy with erasing the mythical language of [a] three-storied universe that underlies the early Christian thought and experience.
Similarly, Joseph Campbell
believed that people could not understand their individual lives without mythology to aid them. By recalling the significance of old myths, he encouraged awareness of them and the creation of myths for the contemporary age.
Most religions contain a body of traditional sacred stories that are believed to express profound truth. Some religious organizations and practitioners believe that some or all of their traditional stories are not only sacred and "true", but also historically accurate and divinely revealed
, and that calling such stories "myths" disrespects their special status. Other religious organizations and practitioners have no problem with categorizing their sacred stories as myths.
Opposition to categorizing all sacred stories as myths
Some religious believers take offense when what they consider to be historical aspects of their faith are labeled as "myth".
Such believers distinguish between religious fables or myths, on one hand, and those narratives of Scripture which Scripture itself, or their tradition, describe as history or revelation, on the other. For instance, the Catholic priest Father John A. Hardon insists that "Christianity is not mythology. What we believe in is not religious fantasies, no matter how pious. The evangelical Christian theologian Carl F. H. Henry
insisted that "Judeo-Christian revelation has nothing in common with the category of myth".
Some assume that religious believers who oppose the term "myth" are literalists who overlook the variety of non-literal meanings (e.g., hyperbole and allegory) that Scripture contains. This assumption is generally unfounded, although some fundamentalists do think that all stories in Scripture should be accepted as literally true.
The roots of the popular meaning of "myth"
Especially within Christianity, objection to the word "myth" rests on a historical basis. By the time of Christ, the Greco-Roman world had started to use the term "myth" (Greek muthos
) to mean "fable, fiction, lie"; as a result, the early Christian theologians used "myth" in this sense. Thus, the derogatory meaning of the word "myth" is the traditional Christian meaning, and the expression "Christian mythology" may offend Christians for this reason.
In addition, this early Christian use of the term "myth" passed into popular usage. Thus, when essential mysteries and teachings are described as myth, in modern English, the word often still implies that it is a fable and false invention. This description could be taken as a direct attack on religious belief, quite contrary to the meaning ostensibly intended by the academic use of the term. (For an example of typically academic writing where 'myth' clearly denotes 'falsehood', being used unequivocally in opposition to 'historical', see the article Jesus myth hypothesis.)
Non-opposition to categorizing sacred stories as myths
Modern day clergy and practitioners within some religious movements have no problem classifying the religion's sacred stories as "myths". They see the sacred texts as indeed containing religious truths, divinely inspired but delivered in the language of mankind. Some examples follow.
's love of myths and devout Catholic
faith came together in his assertion that mythology
is the divine echo of "the Truth". Tolkien wrote that myths held "fundamental things". He expressed these beliefs in his poem Mythopoeia
circa 1931, which describes myth-making as an act of "sub-creation" within God's primary creation. The poem in part says creation is "myth-woven and elf-patterned":
- "...There is no firmament,
- only a void, unless a jewelled tent
- myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
- unless the mother's womb whence all have birth." - J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien's opinion was adopted by another Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, in their conversations: "Tolkien explained to Lewis that the story of Christ was the true myth at the very heart of history and at the very root of reality. C. S. Lewis freely called the Christ story a "true myth", and he believed that even pagan myths express spiritual truths. In his opinion, the difference between the Christ story and pagan myths is that the Christ story is historically as well as spiritually true. "The story of Christ," writes Lewis,
"is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God's myth where the others are men's myths: i. e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call real things.
Another Christian writer, the Catholic priest Father Andrew Greeley, freely applies the term "myth" to Christianity. In his book Myths of Religion, he defends this terminology:
"Many Christians have objected to my use of this word [myth] even when I define it specifically. They are terrified by a word which may even have a slight suggestion of fantasy. However, my usage is the one that is common among historians of religion, literary critics, and social scientists. It is a valuable and helpful usage; there is no other word which conveys what these scholarly traditions mean when they refer to myth. The Christian would be well advised to get over his fear of the word and appreciate how important a tool it can be for understanding the content of his faith.
At a "Consultation on the Relationship Between the Wesleyan Tradition
and the Natural Sciences" in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 19, 1991, Dennis Bratcher presented a discussion of the adaptation of Near Eastern mythical thought by the Israelites. Bratcher argued that the Old Testament absorbed Near Eastern pagan mythology (although he drew a sharp distinction between the literally-interpreted myths of the Near Eastern pagans and the "mythopoetic" use of imagery from pagan myths by the Hebrews). During this presentation, he gave the following disclaimer:
"the term 'myth' as used here does not mean 'false' or 'fiction.' Even in my old and yellowed Webster's, 'fiction' is the third meaning of the word. In its primary and more technical meaning 'myth' refers to a story or group of stories that serve to explain how a particular society views their world.
scholars, including Dov Noy
, a professor of folklore at Hebrew University and founder of the Israel Folktale Archives, and Howard Schwartz
, Jewish anthologist and English professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, have discussed traditional Jewish stories as "mythology".
Schwarz authored the book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. It consists of myths and belief statements excerpted from—and, in some cases, synthesized from a number of excerpts from—both Biblical and non-Biblical Jewish texts. According to Schwartz, the Jewish people continue to elaborate on, and compose additions to, their traditional mythology. In the book's introduction, Schwartz states that the word "myth", as used in the book, "is not offered to mean something that is not true, as in the current popular usage".
frequently refer to their sacred stories as "myths". Asatru
, a modern-day revival of Germanic Paganism, holds "that the Eddas
, Myths and Norse Sagas
are the divinely inspired wisdom of [its] religion". Wicca
, another Neopagan movement, also applies the term "mythology" to its stories.
The Dewey decimal system
in the 200 range, with books on "Religious mythology & social theology
" a tiny subset listed under 201.
Mythology of world religions:
- "About Us". Ásatrú Utah. 30 December 2007 .
- "Religion". Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. File retrieved 8 June 2007
- "Myth", Oxford English Dictionary ("OED") File retrieved 2 June 2007. 
- Bierlein, J.F. Parallel Myths. New York: Ballantine, 1994.
- Bratcher, Dennis. "Speaking the Language of Canaan: The Old Testament and the Israelite Perception of the Physical World". The Voice. CRI/Voice, Institute. 30 December 2007 .
- Brown, Dave. "Real Joy and True Myth". Dave Brown's C. S. Lewis Page. 31 December 2007 .
- Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
- "Myth", Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary File retrieved June 18, 2007.
- Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. NY: Penguin, 1991.
- Eliade, Mircea:
- ''Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism". Trans. Philip Mairet. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.
- Myth and Reality. Trans. Willard R. Trask. NY: Harper & Row, 1968.
- Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. Trans. Philip Mairet. NY: Harper & Row, 1967.
- Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader. Ed. Wendell C. Beane and William G. Doty. Vol 2. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
- The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. NY Harper & Row, 1961.
- Dundes, Alan. "Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Levi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect". Western Folklore 56 (Winter, 1997): pp. 39-50.
- Frazer, J. G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. NY: Macmillan, 1930.
- Kirk, G. S. Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: Cambridge UP, 1973.
- Graves, Robert, "Introduction," New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (trans. Richard Aldington and Delano Ames), London: Hamlyn, 1968, pp. v-viii.
- Hardon, John A. "The Resurrection of Jesus". Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association. 30 December 2007 .
- Menion, Michael. Tolkien Elves and Art, in J.R.R. Tolkien's Aesthetics 2003/2004 (commentary on Mythopoeia the poem).
- Mohler, Albert. "The Mythology of Star Wars: The Faith versus the Force". AlbertMohler.com. 30 December 2007 .
- Muthuraj, Joseph. "The Significance of Mircea Eliade for Christian Theology". Religion Online. 15 January 2008 . This article was previously published in Bangalore Theological Forum 33.2 (2001): 38-59.
- Pearce, Joseph. "J.R.R. Tolkien: Truth and Myth". Catholic Education Research Center. 31 December 2007 .
- Robinson, B. A. "Deism: About the God who went away". ReligiousTolerance.org. 30 December 2007 .
- Segal, Robert A. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.
- Schram, Peninnah. Review: Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. University of Missouri – St. Louis. 30 December 2007 .
- Schwartz, Howard. Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.
- "The Parable of the Arrow" (adapted from the Majjhima-nikaya). Staffordshire Learning Net. File retrieved 2 June 2007.
- "The Wheel of the Year / the Sabbats". Wicca for the Rest of Us. 30 December 2007 .
- "What is Wicca?" Greywing's Wicca Basics. Manor House for Wiccan Studies. 30 December 2007 .
- Wood, Ralph C. "Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien". Leadership University. 31 December 2007 .
- "Workshops and Talks". Deborah Lipp. Nightowls Webspace. 30 December 2007 .
- Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949. ISBN 978-0691017846
- Girard, René, Jean-Michel Oughourlian, and Guy Lefort, " Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World". Stanford University Press, 1987
- Goodwin, J., "Mystery Religions of the Ancient World". Thames & Hudson, 1981.
- Heidel, Alexander, "The Epic of Gilgamesh and Old Testament parallels". University of Chicago Press, 1963.
- Redford, Donald, "Similarity Between Egyptian and Biblical Texts—Indirect Influence?" Biblical Archaeology Review, 1987. (13:18-32, May/June)
- Wright L.M. Christianity, Astrology and Myth. USA: Oak Hill Free Press, 2002. ISBN 0-9518796-1-8
- Brantley, Garry K., " Pagan Mythology and the Bible". Apologetics Press, 1993. (Originally published in Reason & Revelation, July 1993, 13:49-53.)
- Robinson, B. A.," Parallels between Christianity and ancient Pagan religions". Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2004.