What's mythology?

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In the comments section, James Wetterau writes:
Not addressing your other points, I have a minor quibble with your point about mythology.

"Mythology" means a body of traditional stories, typically serving as an explanation of origins (of a people, or the world), history, and otherwise inexplicable phenomena.

Since myths are created and passed down by telling or perhaps writing stories, and not through careful scientific or historical research, we expect them to contain a lot that is not true. However, a particular myth may be true (or partly true) and still be correctly called a myth. For example, a myth may recount an otherwise unverifiable event of ancient history (a particular battle, say) in a manner which is correct in broad general outline. Due to the decay of any evidence it may be impossible to verify the myth through independent confirmation; in that case it is an unverifiable myth that happens to be true. (But we would need a reliable oracle or time travel to find out that it's true.)

True myths are not logically precluded. I agree, however, that the ancient greek gods did not actually exist and therefore did not inspire the oracle. :-)

It seems to me that this is a pretty fair description of at least the Bible. You may believe that it was divinely inspired, but the Old Testament at least was handed down as part of an oral tradition long before it was written down. It recounts many events (the burning bush, parting of the sea, etc.) which can't be independently confirmed and in many cases can't even be verified in broad outline. Despite that, you almost never hear anyone--even non-believers--refer to the Bible as mythology unless they're trying to start a fight. So, I don't agree that "mythology" is as neutral a term as Wetterau suggests.

Another example here is the term "cult". When I took religious studies in college, it was standard practice to refer to all religions as cults, e.g., "the Jesus Cult". This was obviously intended as neutral language, but of course in ordinary speaking the word "cult" is incredibly pejorative. It's one of those irregular verbs: I'm a believer, you belong to a fringe religion, he's a member of a cult.

UPDATE: Fixed the URL. Thanks to Pete Lindstrom for pointing this out.

3 Comments

In 1986 and 1987 I took a year-long core college course called "literature humanities". I cannot recall exactly, but I believe my professor referred to the first chapters of Genesis as examples of "creation myths". I may be mistaken and she may merely have noted the resemblance to creation myths of other religions; in that case it seems to me clear she implied without openly stating that the Genesis stories are examples of creation myths.

Whether she implied that the stories were myths or called them that baldly, I do not believe she said this with the intention of provoking believers in the class. I think she was trying to make a point about the form of the stories, that they fit a template that can be found in many religions and cultures. Nearly 20 years later my memory of those lectures is not crisp, but I think she may even have made the very point I made in my reply to your post (if not, I probably encountered the idea in another literature class): though in common parlance "myth" is nearly synonomous with "false", that is not part of the strict definition.

I would go further to argure that the fact that "myth" today commonly implies "false" is simply a reflection of humanity's possession of incomparably better techniques for discovering and recording truth than it had in the era when myths were made. But at a time before the scientific method or a discipline of logic, when writing was a new technology, I suppose the idea of recording the old oral stories and commonly held beliefs was something close to a best attempt at holding on to glimpses of the truth.

Now some Bible believers would tell us that the term "myth", whether intended in a strict technical sense or as a synonym for "false", does not apply to the Genesis stories of creation. After all, God dictated it to Moses, Moses wrote it down, and it has since been preserved precisely as originally written, notwithstanding the weight of modern crticism and evidence to the contrary. This I certainly do not believe, but I suppose that those who do would find the label "myth" inherently insulting.

For anyone with a little more flexibility to his or her perspective on the text, I do not think the term myth needs to be taken as an insult.

Am I the only one who is completely disinterested in arguing against christianity on the grounds that it's about as mind-numbingly stupid as arguing against the existence of zeus?

(By the way, there are bay area pagans who firmly believe in zeus.)

In response to Bram Cohen's point, I wonder what's the connection between this discussion and arguing against (or even for) Christianity? Could you explain further?

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