| "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
- 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
- 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