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Myth And Science, Myth And Philosophy, Myth And Religion, Myth And Ritual, Myth And Psychology

The study of myth across the disciplines is united by the questions asked. The main questions are those of origin, function, and subject matter. Origin in this context means why and how myth arises; function, why and how myth persists. The answer to the why of origin and function is usually a need, which myth arises to fulfill and persists by continuing to fulfill. What that need is varies from theory to theory. Subject matter here means the referent of myth. Some theories read myth literally, so that the referent is the apparent one, such as gods. Other theories read myth symbolically, and the symbolized referent can be anything.

For example, a myth told by the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, as described by Polish-born anthropologist Bronis-law Malinowski (1884–1942) in Myth in Primitive Society (1926), says that the world "was originally peopled from underground. Humanity had there led an existence similar in all respects to the present life on earth. Underground, men were organized in villages, clans, districts; they had distinctions of rank, they knew privileges and had claims, they owned property, and were versed in magic lore. One day humans came to the surface and established themselves, bringing with them all their culture to continue it upon this earth."

According to Malinowski, whose theory will be considered in detail below, this myth was devised to secure support for the social divisions, ranks, and rights that were still to be found among the Trobrianders. Because no people will readily tolerate impositions, this myth was intended to provide a limited kind of justification. It does not assert that the impositions are deserved, but rather that they are traditional and go back even to the time before the proto-Trobrianders emerged from underground. The need being fulfilled is on the part of society itself, not on the part of individuals. Malinowski reads the myth literally: the subject matter is the social life of the Trobriand Islanders, both while underground and once above ground.

It is commonly said that theories of the nineteenth century focused on the question of origin and that theories of the twentieth century have focused on the questions of function and subject matter. But this characterization confuses historical origin with recurrent origin. Theories that profess to provide the origin of myth claim to know not where and when myth first arose but why and how myth arises wherever and whenever it does. The issue of recurrent origin was as popular with twentieth-century theorists as with nineteenth-century ones, and interest in function and subject matter was as common to nineteenth-century theorists as to twentieth-century ones.

Disciplines differ in their definitions of myth. Not all even assume that myth is a story. For political scientists, for example, myth can be a credo or an ideology, which may be illustrated by stories but is not rooted in them. Even when myth is assumed to be a story, disciplines differ over the contents. For folklorists, myth is about the creation of the world. In the Bible, only the two creation stories (Genesis 1 and 2), the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 3), and the Noah story (Genesis 6–9) would thereby qualify as myths. All other stories would instead constitute either legends or folktales. For theories drawn from religious studies, the main characters in myth must be gods or near-gods, such as heroes. Theories from anthropology, psychology, and sociology tend to allow for secular as well as religious myths.

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