This post will evaluate theories of mythology. Initially I drew from Robert A. Segal, Myth. A Very Short Introduction and Eric Csapo, Theories of Mythology for 19th and 20th century theories. Like a reviewer of Csapo’s book on Amazon, I find Segal’s a better introduction, Csapo’s a better analysis and critique. Read Segal for the quick and dirty, dig into Csapo for social context and method. Both make clear how 19th century all theories of myth have been, even the 20th century ones, before the Egodeath theory. Mythology as a discipline is tied to European imperialism and social Darwinism, ‘evolutionism’.

I’m added summaries of ancient Greek approaches, mostly drawn from Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths. I’m considering these summaries of ancient Greek approaches partial approximations because our understanding of what the Greeks meant needs to be revised in light of the Egodeath Theory.

When evaluating these theories, it’s important to focus on what the primary driving factor in the creation of mythology was. What’s the main origin of mythology and what’s the main point of it, and, similarly, what are mere attendants to this main origin and main point?

This post is in progress. First I am summarizing the views of a number of thinkers. Then I will categorize them by theory and summarize those, leaving the summaries of thinkers at the bottom for reference.

Some criteria: Does the theory read mythic stories and images literally or metaphorically? Does the theory presuppose the ordinary-state of consciousness or an altered-state of consciousness; if altered-state, is it entheogen-induced? Is myth based in an alien social psychology or is it open to moderns?

[To do: Summarize Myth-ritual variants in main entry; Describe Lévy-Bruhl/Cassirer/Frankforts; Consult other major surveys of myth theories; add more theorists].

Most of the theories and approaches listed below are explicit interpretations of myth. The visual arts are left out. Later poetry and prose narratives about the gods are left out. These do not explicitly interpret myth, but nonetheless still imply some sort of interpretation of myth, albeit one expressed implicitly.


Ancient Greek approaches to myth, based on Brisson:

For ancient Greeks, myth is usually tied to poetry, especially to Homer (Iliad, Odyssey) and Hesiod (Theogony), but also the Chaldean Oracles and Orphic Poems (especially for later antiquity).

Athenian tragedy (5th cent. BC; Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides): reinterprets heroic myth in terms of new values of the democratic city, as opposed to warrior ethos of heroic age. Moral focus.

Early historians (5th cent. BC; Herodotus, Thucydides): myth is an account of the past and should be subject to critical judgment to determine its truth in terms of the actual course of events.

Plato (428/7 or 424/3 – 348/7): Myth transmits memory of past about origins of gods and age of heroes, helps shape ethics of society. Teller of myth (poet) represents reality through discourse, creates confusion between discourse and reality. This has effect on listeners, who try to make themselves like beings in myth. Myths must be changed to reflect philosophical truth in order to change behavior of individuals in society.

Allegory – Physical: Gods and heroes represent cosmology and elements of physical world. Theagenes of Rhegium; Diogenes of Apollonia; Democritus; the Stoics (Zeno, Cleanthes, Chrysippus); Cornutus; Pseudo-Heraclitus.

Allegory – Psychological: Gods and heroes represent parts and states of the soul. Theagenes of Rhegium; Democritus

Allegory – Moral: Gods and heroes represent virtues and vices. Mythic figures are models of morality. Anaxagoras; the Sophists; the Cynics

Euhemerism (historical/political allegory): gods and heroes are humans who were deified by earlier humans on account of their great service. Mythic stories rose up about them. Takes on political dimension because it provides justification for ruler cult. Euhemerus; Palaephatus; Diodorus Siculus; Strabo.

The Sophists (5th-4th cents. BC): Myth contains all technical and ethical knowledge.

Aristotle (384-322): essence of mythology is metaphysics, especially Aristotle’s concept of the Prime Mover.

Pythagorean influenced (Neo-)Platonism (1st-6th cents. AD): Myth has surface meaning and a deeper meaning. myths express through symbols and enigmas truths about gods and divine. Myths are parallel to mystery cults; both involve initiation and revelation to select group. Myth depicts relationship of sensibles and insensible, the principles that account for intelligibles, and the human soul passing through the cycle of incarnations. Plutarch, Numenius, Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus.


Brisson’s book covers the Byzantine (Middle Ages of Eastern Roman Empire), the Western Middle Ages (successors to Roman Empire in West), and the Renaissance in summary. According to Brisson each period shows a continuation from antiquity of four major trends in interpretation: Euhemerist (historical/political), physical allegory, moral allegory, and metaphysical allegory. Reconciling pagan mythology with Christianity also becomes popular in each of these periods. Individual variations are listed below.

Byzantine (Middle Ages of Eastern Roman Empire): Pagan allegory combined with Christian allegory. Strong preservation of classical Greek forms through education based on classical texts. Examples of combination of moral, physical, and Euhemerist allegory found in Eustathius and Tzetzes. Neoplatonic inspired mystery revelation based allegory found in Psellus and Pletho.

Western Middle Ages (successors to Roman Empire in West): Classical forms of the gods are changed, they become more conceptual and appear in unusual contexts. Astrological allegory becomes dominant form of physical allegory. Neoplatonist style interpretation not in much evidence, according to Brisson. This is ascribed to lack of Greek texts.

Renaissance: Alchemical allegory becomes dominant form of physical allegory. Neoplatonist style interpretation applied to many texts. Interest in reconciling ‘primitive’ pagan belief with ‘modern’ Christian.

Brisson tells a version of the history of the interpretation of myths. He sees a drastic change in interpretations caused by the discovery of the Americas. The discovery that the mythology of the ‘savages’ was similar to the mythology of the Greeks, who were venerated as supremely rational, caused a crisis among Europeans. The project of explaining this similarity was the basis for ‘anthropological’/’evolutionary’ theories of myth. Brisson well sums up this approach in the final sentence of his book: “Myth…has come to be looked upon as testimony to a stage of development of the human mind, its discursive organization, and even its logic.”


19th-20th century approaches to myth:

Myth as science: Myth is an explanation for the natural world. Read myth literally. Myth is premodern/’primitive’ form of modern scientific explanation. Variants within this framework. Creationism; Rationalizing; Tylor; Horton. Literal, ordinary-state, alien social psychology.

Demythologizing: Myth is expression of human experience of the world, of man’s experience as a moral agent. Myth is symbolic, not literal description. Bultmann; Jonas. metaphorical, ordinary-state, no alien social psychology (myths speak to universal human experiences in the ordinary-state).

Myth as regeneration: Myth describes exceptional feat of creation by god or near-god in mythic, ‘sacred’ time. Reading, hearing, re-enacting myth transports person back to ‘sacred’ time and contact with divine. Eliade. literal, altered-state (but not entheogenic), no alien social psychology (moderns, too, have similar regenerative potential).

Myth-ritual theory: Myth intertwined with communal religious ritual. Myth explains ritual, ritual enacts myth and seeks to affect world. Variety within this framework. Frazer; Smith; Harrison; Hooke; Girard; Burkert; Frye; Raglan. Literal, ordinary-state, alien social psychology.

Functionalism: Myth justifies societal arrangement by projecting it back to ancient past. Myth reconciles people with societal strictures and with uncontrollable parts of nature. Myth is about being a member of a specific society and can only be understood in the context of the society that produced it. Malinowksi. Literal, ordinary-state, alien social psychology.

Structuralism: Myth expresses structure of human thinking. Humans think in terms of pairs of opposites and work to resolve those opposition. Myth expresses series of oppositions, helps resolve difficult oppositions by describing them in terms of already resolved oppositions. Often related to rite of passage initiation practices. Lévy-Strauss. Literal, ordinary-state, alien social psychology (meant to describe human thinking universally, but in practice structuralists treat the myths as only comprehensible when based in the culture that produced them).

Freudian: Myth depicts repressed desires and psychological development. Myth affects repressed desires in different ways depending on theorist. Freud; Rank; Arlow; Dundes. Metaphorical, ordinary-state, no alien social psychology (myth expresses truths of human psychology).

Jungian: Myth depicts processes of individual consciousness emerging from unconscious and later becoming conscious of collective unconscious. Jung; Campbell. Metaphorical, altered-state (but not entheogenic), no alien social psychology (myth expresses truths of human psychology).

Entheogen: Early: Some few myths depicts visionary plants. Wasson; Allegro; Early Ruck. Literal (myths refer literally to visionary plants), altered-state, alien social psychology (not available to moderns). Late: Myths depict visionary plants and some altered state experiencing. Late Ruck. Literal/Metaphorical (somewhat metaphorical of altered state experiencing), altered-state, no alien social psychology (available to moderns).


21st century approaches to myth:

Egodeath: Myth describes entheogens revealing eternalism. Hoffman (Max Freakout; Cyberdisciple). Metaphorical, altered-state, no alien social psychology.


By Criteria:

Literal: Myth as science; Myth as regeneration; Myth-ritual theory; Functionalism; Structuralism; Early Entheogen; Late Entheogen (partly)

Metaphorical: Demythologizing; Freudian; Jungian; Late Entheogen (partly); Egodeath

Ordinary-State: Myth as science; Demythologizing; Myth-ritual theory; Functionalism; Structuralism; Freudian

Altered-State: Myth as regeneration; Jungian; Early Entheogen; Late Entheogen; Egodeath

Alien social psychology: Myth as science; Myth-ritual theory; Functionalism; Structuralism; Early Entheogen

Open to moderns: Demythologizing; Myth as regeneration; Freudian; Jungian; Late Entheogen; Egodeath


Variants and Theorists:

Myth as science:

Creationism: myth is true science, a true explanation for natural phenomena (implies adherence to one cultural tradition or another, i.e. Genesis is *the* correct account).

Rationalizing: strip myth of what does not fit with modern science; what remains is true. Myth has a core of truth, some memory of an actual event, e.g. flood story has origins in an actual flood, with later additions; Trojan War legends based on actual war at site of Troy.

E. B. Tylor (1832-1917): myth is ‘primitive’ version of scientific theory. Myth explains natural world, but poorly. Decisions and actions of gods cause physical events. myth and science incompatible. ‘primitives’ had ‘myth’, moderns have ‘science’. We moderns should reject myth. Myth must be understood literally because myth explains the workings of the physical world. ‘Primitives’ think like moderns, but less rigorously. ‘Primitives’ see same world as moderns, but conceive of it differently.

R. Horton (b.1932): Modifies E. B. Tylor’s theory. Myth and pre-modern religion are coherent conceptual systems with internal logic and rules, just as science is for moderns. Take pre-modern myth at face value, not symbolically. Rejects Tylor’s use of word ‘primitive’. Modern western thinking should not monopolize interpretation of other non-modern, non-western thinking.

Demythologizing:

R. Bultmann (1884-1976) and H. Jonas (1903-93): Demythologizing. Myth is philosophy, existentialist (Heidegger). Myth is symbolic of human experience of the world, not an explanation for the world. Depiction of universal human condition. Myth can be read literally, but should be read symbolically. Describes mundane human experience. This understanding available to all, ancient and modern. But should be corrected to being about altered state experiencing, not mundane ordinary state experiencing.

Myth as regeneration:

M. Eliade (1907-86): Myth as a story about real world exceptional feat turns figure into a superhuman figure. Myth details origins of phenomena, both social and physical, or gods and of heroes. Encountering myth will return individual back in time to origins and will reunite individual with divinity. Eliade’s focus on contact with divine and the regenerative effect of that appears to derive from the language of mysticism and shamanism, but it strains credibility that simply encountering a myth causes an altered state. He says that moderns, too, when they read a book or watch a movie enter into ‘sacred’ time. Eliade tries to provide a theory that works regardless of culture, but this idea that simply reading or watching a movie causes a powerful altered state of consciousness, contact with the divine, and ‘regeneration’ of the individual strains belief. It elevates a mundane act, and reduces the truly lofty altered state.

Myth-ritualist theory:

J. G. Frazer (1854-1941): Myth-ritualist theory. Early: myth is pre-modern version of modern applied science/technology. myth tied to ritual, ritual enacts myth. combination of ritual and myth affect physical world. Focused on ensuring yearly vegetable growth, main myth worldwide is of dying and rising vegetation god. Later addition: Focus on king in worldwide myth. God resides in king, king is ritually killed before becomes too infirm, soul of god passes to next king, ensures continued success of community (including vegetable growth). Ignores story-telling elements.

W. R. Smith (1846-94): myth comes about to explain already existing religious rituals. Modern religion lacks both myth and religion, but is combination of creed and ethics.

J. Harrison (1850-1928) and S. H. Hooke (1874-1968): Myth-ritualist theory. Adds concept of ritual as social initiation to Frazer’s theory. Ritual precedes myth, god means only the euphoric state induced by participation in the ritual. Then god becomes god of vegetation and myth of death and rebirth came about. Overlap of initiation ritual and agricultural ritual. Symbolic death and rebirth, as new, fully-fledged members of society, and of crops. Initiation side fades over time, only agricultural remains. Myth is spoken part of ritual, describes ritual.

Later myth-ritualists: apply theory to social phenomenon as latent expressions of death and rebirth of god of vegetation. Variety of disciplines, Classicists, Biblicists, Malinowski, Eliade. Apply theory to literature, literature is outgrowth of myth part of ritual, but develops now without ritual aspect. Trace later legends in literature to earlier myth and ritual.

R. Girard (b.1923): Point of myth is social function. Competition in a community leads to violence. Ritual offers up one person as scapegoat, who is killed or exiled and thereby expunges problem from society. Myth is created to excuse this act, turn victim into hero. Myth justifies ritual. Myth and ritual help society cope with aggression and violence in society.

W. Burkert (1931-2015): myth and ritual are tied to each other, mutually reinforce. myth/ritual tied to hunting and sacrifice, and involves social initiation. ritual sacrifice is dramatized hunting and killing of animal. myth/ritual assuages anxiety over one’s own aggression and knowledge of mortality and creates a bond among participants.

N. Frye (1912-91): Primary myth is life cycle of the hero, which is associated with other cycles in nature. Primary genres of literature parallel various stages in cycle. Myth derived from ritual (Frazerian divine kings).

Lord Raglan (F. R. Somerset) (1885-1964): Myth-ritualist (Frazerian divine kings). Applied to myths about heroes. Vegetation God/King is the hero. 22 step pattern for hero myth, focuses on plot. key to myth is loss of throne. myth is parallel to ritual. real kings expected to emulate selflessness of legendary figure.

Functionalism:

B. Malinowski (1884-1942): Functionalist. myth used by pre-moderns to reconcile themselves to aspects of physical world that cannot be controlled (natural disasters, illness, aging, death) and to justify social phenomena (customs and laws) and promote acceptance of them. society uses myth to create adherence to ritual and many other practices. Myth creates resigned acceptance of unpleasantries and impositions by society by projecting them back to ancient, mythical past and giving them the weight of tradition.

Structuralism:

C. Lévi-Stauss (1908-2009): Structuralist. pre-moderns think differently than moderns, but still rigorously and logically. All humans think in the form of pairs of oppositions and project those oppositions onto the world. Myth expresses those oppositions and at the same time resolves or tempers those oppositions. ‘Structuralism’. Most fundamental opposition is between nature and culture. Myth describes a difficult opposition in terms of an opposition that a culture has already resolved, and thereby helps resolve the difficult opposition. Myth is not a narrative of A to B to C, but rather C stands apart as mediator of the opposites A and B (=’Structure’ of myth). Myth reflects order of the mind.

Later Structuralists: Link underlying patterns and structure of myths to patterns of culture at large. Meaning not in narrative, but in relationship among elements of the plot, including characters, places, times, events and dietary, botanical, astronomical, seasonal, religious, and social levels. meaning of myth is presentation of series of oppositions and creation of middle zone between them. The function of myth is social, to help work out and resolve oppositions. Often related to rite of passage, initiation to adulthood in society.

Freudian:

S. Freud (1856-1939): Myths are parallels to dreams. The literal level of the myth hides a symbolic meaning about repressed desire. Myth is about fulfillment of this latent desire, for both myth-maker and audience. Myth allows venting of repressed desires by symbolically enacting them.

O. Rank (1884-1939): At first a Freudian. Myth is disguised symbolic fulfillment of repressed desires. Focuses on a common plot/pattern of first half of a hero’s life. Myth symbolizes failure in psychological development from child to young adult (Freudian development: birth, to survival, to establishment of oneself as independent person, to attainment of a job and securing of a mate). Myth is expression of neurosis stemming from unfulfilled desires, myth acts out childhood wishes. Later, rejects Freud: focuses on birth and trauma of birth, birth trauma is source of anxiety. Myth about birth trauma. hero seeks to undo birth, return to womb, or create second womb.

J. Arlow (1912-2004): Freudian. Myth contributes to normal psychological development. Myths help socialize people by denying or sublimating wishes.

A. Dundes (1934-2005): Freudian. Myth helps vent hidden, antisocial wishes.

Jungian:

C. G. Jung (1875-1961): heroism in early life means separation of individual consciousness from unconscious, heroism in second half of life means becoming conscious of the collective unconscious. Myths symbolize these processes. Goal is balance between individual consciousness and collective unconscious. Myths can be warnings against identifying too much with any archetype of collective unconscious.

J. Campbell (1904-1987): Jungian. focuses on hero adventure myths. Sequence represents stages of rites of passage: separation->initiation->return. Hero travels to supernatural world, which represents unconsciousness. Encounters representation of feminine and masculine parts of consciousness. Stories depict reconciliation or union with these parts of consciousness. Hero then must return to everyday life to share knowledge gained in supernatural realm.

Uncatagorized (To Be Catagorized):

L. Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939): mythic thinking is opposite of scientific thinking. Pre-moderns see and conceive of world differently. myth used to restore communion with world.

E. Cassirer (1874-1945): Extends Lévy-Bruhl. Myth is form of knowledge, different from science. Myth is exclusively non-modern. Myth deals with metaphysics and epistemology.

H. and H. A. Frankfort (active 1940s): Pre-modern myth as concrete, uncritical, emotional vs. modern philosophy as abstract, critical, unemotional. Different perceptions of world. Myth is involved and emotional in the world, not detached and intellectual. Experience world as a person, not as a thing. Follow Lévy-Bruhl and Cassirer.

Entheogen:

R. G. Wasson (1898-1986): Some few myths at the very beginnings of religious traditions refer to entheogens.

J. M. Allegro (1923-1988): Christian mythology secretly refers to entheogens.

C. A. P. Ruck (b.1935): Early-to-mid Ruck [what years?]: some few myths, religious cults, and esoteric traditions secretly refer to entheogens or contain some memory of entheogenic origins. Accumulation of evidence leads to adopting maximal entheogen theory of myth: all myth refers to entheogens and the altered state produced by them (in some vague way).

Egodeath:

M. S. Hoffman (active beginning late 1980s): All myth refers to entheogens revealing eternalism, to the switch in the entheogen-induced altered state from a possibilism, open view of the future, to an eternalism, closed view of the future.

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