Myths may perform any one or all three of these functions, but in addition play a critical role in how a culture constructs its sense of time. In this sense myths are contrasted to history, which concerns recent, well-documented events, and to poetic epics and narrative legends, which concern an historical person, place, or incident from the distant past; an example is the story of Lady Godiva's naked ride through Coventry. (The legends of Norwegian and Icelandic kings, recorded from the 12th to the 15th cent., are called sagas.) A myth, however, is generally a story that takes place in an imagined, remote, timeless past and tells of the origins of humans, animals, and the supernatural.
While ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish mythologies are the best known, other important mythologies are the Norse, which is less anthropomorphic than the Greek (see Germanic religion); the Indian, or Vedic, which tends to be more abstract and otherworldly than the Greek (see Veda); the Egyptian, which is closely related to religious ritual (see Egyptian religion); and the Mesopotamian, which shares with the Greek mythology a strong concern for the relationship between life and death (see Middle Eastern religions).
Myth has been employed for the enrichment of literature since the time of Aeschylus and has been used by some of the major English poets (e.g., Milton, Shelley, Keats). Some great literary figures, notably William Blake, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens have consciously constructed personal myths using the old materials and newly constructed symbols.
Studies of the myths of North and South American natives, Australian aborigines, the peoples of S Africa, and others have revealed how widespread are many mythological elements and motifs. Although there is no specific universal myth, there are many themes and motifs that recur in the myths of various cultures and ages. Some cultures have myths of the creation of the world; these range from a god fashioning the earth from abstract chaos to a specific animal creating it from a handful of mud. Other myths of cyclical destruction and creation are paralleled by myths of seasonal death and rebirth. In Greece the concern with renewed fertility was seasonal. Certain other cultures (e.g., Mesopotamia) were concerned with longer periods of vegetative death through prolonged drought. The idea of a golden age in which humanity is viewed as having degenerated from an earlier perfection is another common theme (e.g., Hesiod's Golden Age and the Garden of Eden in Jewish and Christian thought). The flood motif is extremely widespread and is one element of a group of myths that concern the destruction and re-creation of the world or a particular society. Myths treating the origin of fire, or its retrieval from some being who has stolen it or refuses to share it; the millennium to come; and the dead or the relation between the living and the dead, are common.
There have been many theories as to the reasons for similarities among myths. Many have viewed myths merely as poor versions of history, and have attempted to analyze and explicate them in nonsacred ways to account for their apparent absurdity. Some ancient Greeks explained myths as allegories, and looked for a reality concealed in poetic images. Theagenes of Rhegium was an early proponent (6th cent. B.C.) of this method of interpretation; it was most fully developed by the Stoics, who reduced the Greek gods to moral principles and natural elements (see Stoicism). Euhemerus considered the gods to have been renowned historical figures who became deified through the passage of time. Another interpretation sees myths as developing from an improper separation between the human and nonhuman; animals, rocks, and stars are considered to be on a level of intelligence with people, and the dead are thought to inhabit the world of the living in spiritual form (see animism).
A later allegorical interpretation states that at one time myths were invented by wise men to point out a truth, but that after a time myths were taken literally. For example, Kronos, who devoured his children, is identified with the Greek word for time, which may be said to destroy whatever it brings into existence. This approach was refined in philological studies of myth by Max Müller, who saw myths evolving out of corruptions of language: what seems absurd in myth, he suggested, is the result of people forgetting or distorting the meanings of words, e.g., the phrase "sunrise follows the dawn," spoken in Greek could be interpreted as meaning Apollo pursues Daphne, the maiden of the Dawn. A similar theory is that myths, including Scripture, are corruptions of history; thus Deucalion is another name for Noah. The diffusionist theory postulates a very early, Paleolithic origin of mythology, and then diffusion of various motifs through travel, migration, and other forms of transcontinental communication. Through comparison with other mythologies, many Greek myths are now interpreted as products of literary codification and in terms of their formal reorganization as epic poems. Homer's epics are, thus, an elaborate combination of mythical elements with legend and folktale.
The great modern advances in the study of mythology began in the 19th cent., when scholars like Sir James Frazer and Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued for the study of mythology not as bad history but as a social institution, and called attention to the myths of contemporary simple societies. The evolutionary theories of Tylor and Andrew Lang, since discredited as simplistic and ethnocentric, postulate a certain stage of savage mentality that tends to produce similar myths. Some current theories instead posit a common psychological or emotional basis and relate myth to universal religious impulses. Frazer, whose epoch-making book The Golden Bough (1890) is a standard work on mythology, believed that all myths were originally connected with the idea of fertility in nature, with the birth, death, and resurrection of vegetation as a constantly recurring motif. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that there is an inherent tendency in all people to form certain of the same mythic symbols. Religious scholar Mircea Eliade contended that myths are recited for the purpose of ritually recreating the beginning of time when all things were initiated so one can return to the original, successful creative act. Those who characterize the ordinary as profane and secular view myths as a form of sacred speech and thus as particular manifestations of a universal religious sensibility. Friedrich Schleiermacher thus characterized myth as a "historical representation of the supra-historical" divine.
Most contemporary students of mythology, however, have turned away from attempts to explain similarities in content in all myths by calling attention to the different contexts in which myths occur. They believe that myths function in a variety of ways within a single culture as well as differing in function from culture to culture. Sigmund Freud believed that the seeming irrationality of myth arises from the same source as the disconnectedness of dream; they are both symbolic reflections of unconscious and repressed fears and anxieties. Such fears and anxieties may be universal aspects of the human condition, or particular to distinct societies. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered all myths to be validations of established practices and institutions. Similarly, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown examined how myths emphasize and reiterate the beliefs, behaviors, and feelings of people about their society.
Claude Lévi-Strauss returned to the study of all myths, not by examining common motifs and elements of the stories, but rather by focusing on their formal properties. He has called attention to the recurrence of certain kinds of structures in widely different traditions of folk literature and has reduced them to particular binary oppositions such as nature/culture and self/other. He contended that the human brain organizes all perceptions in terms of contrasts and concluded that certain oppositions are universal. He advocates the interpretation of myths as culturally specific transformations of these universal structures.
See L. H. Gray and G. F. Moore, ed., The Mythology of All Races (13 vol., 1916-33); B. Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion (1948); J. Campbell, The Masks of God (4 vol., 1959-68); M. Eliade, Myth and Reality (1963); A. Dundes, ed., The Study of Folklore (1965) and Sacred Narrative (1984); C. Lévi-Strauss, Mythology (4 vol., 1969-81); P. Maranda, Mythology (1972); S. Thompson, The Folktale (1977); M. S. Day, The Many Meanings of Myth (1984); K. Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (2005).
The second fight between Ajax and Hector occurs when the latter breaks into the Achaean camp, and fights with the Greeks among the ships. In Book 14, Ajax throws a giant rock at Hector which almost kills him. In Book 15, Hector is restored to his strength by Apollo and returns to attack the ships. Ajax, wielding an enormous spear as a weapon and leaping from ship to ship, holds off the Trojan armies virtually single-handedly. In Book 16, Hector is able to disarm Ajax (although Ajax is not hurt) and Ajax is forced to retreat, seeing that Zeus is clearly favoring Hector. Hector and the Trojans succeed in burning one Greek ship, the culmination of an assault that almost finishes the war. Ajax manages to kill many of the other Trojan lords, including Phorkys.
Achilles was absent during these encounters because of his feud with Agamemnon. In Book 9, Agamemnon and the other Greek chiefs send Ajax, Odysseus and Phoenix to the tent of Achilles in an attempt to reconcile with the great warrior and induce him to return to the fight. Although Ajax speaks earnestly and is well received, he does not succeed in convincing Achilles.
When Patroclus is killed, Hector tries to steal his body. Ajax is the man who fights to protect the body, and he takes it back safely to Achilles at the camp. Ajax, assisted by Menelaus, succeeds in fighting off the Trojans and taking the body back with his chariot; of course, the Trojans had already stolen the armor and left the body naked. Ajax's prayer to Zeus to remove the fog that has descended on the battle to allow them to fight or die in the light of day has become proverbial.
Like most of the other Greek leaders, Ajax is alive and well as the Iliad comes to a close. Later, when Achilles dies, killed by Paris (with help from Apollo), Ajax and Odysseus are the heroes that fight against the Trojans to get the body and bury it next to his dear friend, Patroclus. Ajax, with his great hammer of war, manages to drive off the Trojans, while Odysseus pulls the body to his chariot, and rides away with it to safety. After the burial, both claim the armor for themselves, as recognition for their efforts. After several days of competition, Odysseus and Ajax are tied for the ownership of the magical armour which was forged in Mount Olympus by the god Hephaestus himself. It is then that a competition is derived to see who is a more elegant speaker. Odysseus proves the better, and is given the armor. Ajax is furious about it, and falls to the ground, exhausted. When he wakes up, he is under the influence of a spell from Athena. He goes to a flock of sheep and slaughters them, imagining they are the Achaean leaders, including Odysseus and Agamemnon. When he comes to his senses, covered in blood, and realizes what he did, with diminished honor he decides that he prefers to kill himself rather than to live in shame. He did it with the same sword Hector had given him when they exchanged presents. (Iliad, 7.303). From his blood sprang a red flower, as at the death of Hyacinthus, which bore on its leaves the initial letters of his name Ai, also expressive of lament (Pausanias 1.35.4). His ashes were deposited in a golden urn on the Rhoetean promontory at the entrance of the Hellespont. This account of his death is from the play, Ajax (Sophocles); in Pindar's Nemean, 7; and in Ovid's Metamorphoses, 13.1. Homer is somewhat vague about the precise manner of Ajax's death but does ascribe it to his loss in the dispute over Achilles's shield: when Odysseus visits Hades, he begs the soul of Ajax to speak to him, but Ajax, still resentful over the old quarrel, refuses and descends silently back into Erebus.
Like Achilles, he is represented (although not by Homer) as living after his death in the island of Leuke at the mouth of the Danube (Pausanias 3.19.11). Ajax, who in the post-Homeric legend is described as the grandson of Aeacus and the great-grandson of Zeus, was the tutelary hero of the island of Salamis, where he had a temple and an image, and where a festival called Aianteia was celebrated in his honour (Pausanias 1.35). At this festival a couch was set up, on which the panoply of the hero was placed, a practice which recalls the Roman Lectisternium. The identification of Ajax with the family of Aeacus was chiefly a matter which concerned the Athenians, after Salamis had come into their possession, on which occasion Solon is said to have inserted a line in the Iliad (2.557-558), for the purpose of supporting the Athenian claim to the island. Ajax then became an Attic hero; he was worshipped at Athens, where he had a statue in the market-place, and the tribe Aiantis was named after him. Pausanias also relates that a gigantic skeleton, its kneecap in diameter, appeared on the beach near Sigeum, on the Trojan coast; these bones were identified as those of Ajax.