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Essay Paper on Mythology

Writing About Creation Myths

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Myth Essays Ideas Across a Diverse Array of Cultures

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And they are not wrong. It would be perverse to argue that the stories featured in Greek plays about such memorable characters as Orestes, Oedipus, and Clytemnestra are not also myths. Ordinary Greeks and Romans did not read passages from the Odyssey to solemnize religious ceremonies.

Various playwrights reworked even fundamental elements of their mythic traditions without fear of being excommunicated for abusing holy scripture. While it is true that religious belief and ritual are portrayed accurately, even reverently, in Greco-Roman myth, that fact alone does not make them sacred narratives. In the ancient world, only those stories told by sanctuary personnel during special religious ceremonies were considered sacred.

In fact, we know almost nothing certain about such sacred narratives because they were considered so sacred that to write them down was blasphemy, and to tell others about them was an offense punishable by exile or death.

These tribes observed strict taboos and traditions dictating how their most important stories might properly be performed. For example, some stories could only be told at night, others could only be uttered during the season between the first killing frost of autumn and the first lightening bolt of spring.

These cultures never developed writing systems; but, so far as we can tell, their oral narratives became relatively fixed in terms of plot details, characters, and meaning.

However, there are a variety of myths, both written and oral, that are not subject to the kinds of taboos and traditions that would define them as sacred. Our modern sense of the term retains these contradictory ancient meanings and associations.

Further complicating the picture, is the fact that nonspecialists tend to use the words myth, folktale, legend, saga, and fable interchangeably. This is understandable because these genres overlap to a significant degree; however, those seeking a more precise definition of myth do well to understand the differences as well as the similarities among these terms. Families, for example, are an oft-studied folk-group; quilters, southerners, and Gulf-Coast shrimpers have also been studied as distinct folk groups.

Given the breadth of this definition, it is difficult to imagine a story that could not be classified as a folktale. Surely the stories recounted in myths, religious teachings, history books, and political speeches, for example, are manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, traditions, and proverbial sayings of such large folk groups as the Americans or the Japanese.

And, indeed, the Journal of American Folklore routinely publishes articles and reviews books on myth, an indication that American folklorists, as a professional group, consider myth to be a subset of their discipline.

Most specialists would define legends as stories that have traditionally been accepted as true accounts of historical events, but which actually combine elements of fact and fiction. The stories of King Arthur, for example, are most properly classified as legends because there is evidence for an historical Arthur around whom such fictional materials as the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table, and the Tale of the Green Knight have accumulated over the centuries.

To the extent that the Iliad , for example, is based on actual battles between Mycenaean Greeks from the mainland and the so-called Trojans inhabiting a city on the coast of Anatolia modern-day Turkey , this epic could also be considered a legend, or a myth incorporating legend, or, even, a work of fiction based on a legend.

In fact, most Greeks and Romans in the ancient world accepted the Trojan War as historical fact and its heroes as actual persons, a fact that further justifies classifying the Iliad as a legend. In Norse myth, Saga is the goddess of the literary arts and our modern term for narratives of this kind derives from her inspiration of such Norse and Icelandic literature as the Eddas , The Volsung Saga , and The Vinland Sagas.

Typically, the stories constituting a saga are chronological and self-referential. That is, they follow the story of a hero or a family as it develops over time, with the later episodes building on events occurring in earlier episodes. Driven mad by Hera, Hercules murders his wife and children. When he returns to his senses, he is overcome by guilt and grief.

Eventually, Apollo tells him the only way he can atone for this terrible deed is to serve Eurystheus, the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, for twelve years. Eurystheus is no friend of Heracles. Accordingly, the king assigns the great hero twelve seemingly impossible tasks which Heracles nevertheless accomplishes with occasional help from Athena and Apollo.

While these stories are told primarily to entertain, they often feature moral lessons and reinforce socially acceptable behaviors and attitudes. Jack, before climbing the beanstalk, is berated by his mother for being gullible and disobedient, two socially unacceptable qualities. Today, the term fable typically refers to short narratives featuring animals that speak and act like humans and which usually conclude with an explicit moral.

The parables of Jesus in the New Testament are particularly well-known examples of this form. He likens his own parables to seeds, some of which fall on the road, some on rocky soil, some among thorns, and some on well-tended soil.

As he explicitly explains to his disciples, the parable-seed cannot take root in most of his hearers because their mind-soil is not suitable for growing the Truth. The ability to penetrate the literal surface of his parables and thereby perceive the hidden message about the kingdom of heaven, Jesus suggests, is a prerequisite for being one of his disciples.

While parables and fables are relatively brief and impart a single, definite moral or teaching, allegories may be quite extensive and communicate a number of moral lessons.

Like metaphors, the secondary meanings of allegories are implied rather than explicitly stated and therefore appeal first to the imagination and only secondarily to the reason. Nevertheless, an occasional few escape the cave and, through a long, difficult intellectual journey, discover the true nature of reality and attain a sort of mystical union with ultimate Goodness.

On the other hand, Plato intends for us to understand the characters mentioned in the Atlantis story as actual heroes of a bye-gone age rather than as figures symbolizing specific ideas or human qualities. Taken on their own terms, myths dramatize the human struggle for dignity, meaning, and purpose in the unique idioms of the cultures that produce them.

They are not, by contrast, coded messages that use symbolic characters and events to represent a supposedly primitive fascination with the weather or heavenly lights two allegorical interpretative strategies used for centuries to make rational sense out of Greek myth. Returning to the touchstone examples of this chapter, we might ask what kind of stories, exactly, are the Iliad and the Odyssey? Are these epics artfully embellished folktales?

Or are they pleasingly understated lessons in the accumulated wisdom of ancient Greek culture? Yet, they are more than the legend of the Trojan War and its aftermath, more than a literary account of Bronze-Age folkways, more than a saga about the wanderings of a tribal hero desperate to return to his home.

Moreover, these epics are too secular to be classified as sacred narratives and too rooted in the dust, sweat, and blood of real life to be allegories. Thus, with all due respect to folklorists, myth is not a subspecies of folklore but a distinct genre that may make use of various folk materials, legends, and sagas, but transforms them into a more universally resonant form. A Working Definition What, then, is myth? It should be obvious by now that there is no simple answer to this question.

The English language has no equivalent term for muthos and, when we appropriated this term from the Greek, we inherited the ambiguities it had acquired in Greece long before the Common Era.

Words have histories; their usages evolve; their legitimate associations multiply over time. Nevertheless, a provisional and open-ended working definition should prove a useful starting place for further investigation and analysis.

Our class defines myth as culturally significant works of the creative imagination that frequently feature 1 dramatizations of metaphysical speculation; 2 accounts of cultural and cosmic origins and conclusions; 3 exemplars of individual and collective virtues; and 4 depictions of cultural values, beliefs, and rituals.

Myths are often but not always sacred stories that deal in the metaphoric rather than the literal or scientific truth about human experience and the nature of being and do so with an emphasis on artistic merit, often at the expense of rationality and logical consistency.

This definition, so far as it goes, may seem pretty straightforward. But when we examine it more closely, we see that its terms could just as easily apply to the Harry Potter novels as they could to the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh. They do, in fact, dramatize a vision of the nature of reality and the rules by which it operates; that is, they imagine a universe in which some are born with magical gifts and others are not and then set a story against this backdrop.

We learn, through the course of seven novels, how Hogwarts was founded and how its customs and hierarchy was established a mini-version of cultural origins. Harry Potter is nothing if not an exemplar of virtues our culture values. So these novels depict things our culture values and, to a lesser extent, rituals and ideas that give some lives meaning.

Something is missing from our working definition if we cannot use it to distinguish between an enduring work like the Iliad and the latest pop-culture sensation. Put another way, what does the Twelve Labors of Heracles have that the Potter novels do not have? While the Potter series has certainly inspired movies and some graphic art, it seems unlikely we will see art inspired by the series hanging in the Louvre, Tate, or Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

It seems unlikely as well that we will see later novels, short-stories, or poems that put the characters in J. Perhaps this is, at least in part, an artifact of history.

It is impossible for any modern novel to feature a hero cursed by an unkind fate and battling extraordinary evil not to appear to be echoing the stories that have become, in our time, archetypes of the human condition. Another possible reason for the enduring appeal of stories like the Twelve Labors is their universality. While the cities of Mycenae and Tiryns were real places, inhabited by real people in the time of Apollodorus, the heroes, monsters, and events occur in a realm parallel to the real human world.

Even to the ancient Greeks, Heracles was part of a time and place above and beyond ordinary experience. Indeed, they are not even specifically Greek ideas. What person of conscience has not sought to make up for past wrong doing through acts of penance?

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- In the essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus attempts to give answers to some tough questions. He wants to know if life is worth living or how we can make it worth living, as well as whether or not it is possible to live with certainty.

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