Theories on the Enduring Power of Myth

Myth is defined as being a traditional or sacred story, the latter essentially distinguishes “myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional,”[1] however whether or not these stories are universal or only culturally significant for their intended audience is debatable. Psychoanalytical studies of myth theorise that myths express unconscious desires or anxieties, or in Carl Jung’s case they are the result of a collective and inherited consciousness, whilst the Naturalists like Max Müller claim they are pre-scientific theories to explain natural phenomenon. Mythologists such as Geoffrey Kirk argue that  “all universal theories of myth are automatically wrong”[2] as the complexity of each myth differs and are made up of cultural symbols, traditions and charters of that people. Despite similar themes and archetypal characters, it is man’s desire to use story to answer larger truths that is the core of the universality of myth. It is through their retelling that keep these stories, myths and morals alive and relevant in today’s global society.

1922 --- Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist. Head and shoulders photo, 1922. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Carl Jung created his theory regarding myth through a method of proof focusing on archetypes or primordial images, found in the collective unconscious of humanity and accessed by dreams. His perspective was that “myths are essentially culturally elaborated representations of the contents of the human psyche”[3] which is why there are common characters and themes such as the Saviour Child and Devine Mother found throughout the world. Jung’s archetypes can be applied to a whole manner of story not just myth, his Hidden Saviour Child figure can be likened to Moses, Horus, Jesus as well as Sleeping Beauty, Harry Potter and Kal-El.

'Moses'_by_Michelangelo_JBU140            horus_nefertari_afterlife

Max_Muller Max Müller focussed his studies on attempting to “trace scientifically the development of human thought in terms of the artefacts of language, mythology and religion”[4] and theorised that people were inspired to write allegorical stories to explain natural phenomenon and create anthropomorphic personifications of these in the form of Gods. Müller’s studies could be used to explain why the Greeks had Zeus to create lightning just as the Norse had Thor. Universal theories on myth, while presenting an interesting study and view point, “can be negated by citing many obvious instances of myth that do not accord with the assigned origin or function.”[5]

Despite the similarities that can be drawn from various myths they are filled with symbology, social and religious charters and other codes of conduct which makes them all genuinely unique. Geoffrey Kirk’s research and deconstruction of myth reinforces the concept that myth cannot be defined in any universal way, citing that “the wide range of morphorical and functional variation…from practical charter type uses to responses to abstract dilemmas of human existence…suggests that the mental and psychic process of myth-formation are themselves diverse.”[6]

42-fightpatroklos“That myths are sacred means that all forms of religion incorporate myths of some kind”[7] and it is the interference of the Devine that separates mythology from other traditional stories. Each mythology incorporates God or Gods in some form or fashion, which is why despite The Iliad having every indicator of being a legend, it is through the squabbling Greek Pantheon that it is classed essentially as a myth. With Gods comes religion and these stories often provide insight and explanations to religious ceremony or charter through origin stories.Foster_Bible_Pictures_0062-1_The_Angel_of_Death_and_the_First_Passover For example, the final plague of the Angel of Death in Exodus is the root of the Jewish Tradition of Passover still celebrated today, and why only bones and fat were sacrificed to the Gods in ancient Greece that is explained in the story of Prometheus who tricked Zeus out of the best cuts. In both examples these myth stories explain the reason behind certain practices but without specific cultural knowledge a person not sharing that cultural background might never understand why such rituals are performed, thus reinforcing Kirk’s position on why universal theories of myth should be rejected. “Mythology constitutes stories, symbols and rituals that…together they construct the truths of a culture”[8] and therefore can’t be studied with the broad universal ideologies some scholars like to apply to them.

Elias_Lönnrot_portrait-2Myth is so culturally significant that it can be used as a vehicle to strengthen a people’s social customs and national identity in postmodern times. The Kalevala , a collection of epic mythology oral stories collected by Elias Lönnrot and published in 1835, became “a rally-flag for national aspirations, and its regarded as the ‘national epic’ by modern Finland.”[9] The Kalevala played an intrinsic part of the Finnish people regaining their cultural identity in the early 20th Century which contributed and finally led to their independence from Russian rule. These mythological tales spanning from Creation myths to the Christianisation of Finland inspired a Renaissance of music, literature and art helping to cement Finland’s social and cultural heart.display_image.php A strong example of a social charter found in this mythic poem is in Canto 22 Laments, where the Witch of the North, Louhi the Hag of Pohjola, is instructing her daughter on how to be a good wife to the Smith Ilmärinen, thus imparting the traditional women’s wisdom onto the young maidens who would have heard it recited.

Ancient Greek philosophers defined myth as mythos and from it came “oracles and the arts…while logos came science and mathematics. From mythos came intuitive narrations, from logos reasonable deliberations”[10] and it is through mythos that the larger and more ambiguous questions of life, such as why does man exist and where does inspiration come from, were studied and answered.

It is therefore a mistake to study myth with the eyes of an logos academic, as if myth were only an ancient construct of pre-scientific peoples, as “myths are compost”[11] from which new stories, interpretations, art and revelation can grow from. Myth composition is an evolutionary process that grew from oral storytelling and the defined artistic preferences of the performer. This inevitably resulted in inconsistent interpretations when writing down these mythic stories and collecting them in latter time, as seen with the conflicting Jahwistic and Priestly interpretations of story cycles like the Flood Myth in the Book of Genesis.

“Scholars agree that myth has meaning, yet there is no consensus on what that meaning might be,”[12] but one thing that is certain is that myth has the ability to appeal to readers from varying cultures and religious beliefs from all over the world.

4666eaf0b49411fa40b9f3aa7dfc162f“These stories have power”[13] because “myth is truth which is subjective, intuitive, cultural and grounded in faith.”[14] They have universal appeal and longevity because they are symbiotic in nature and it is through retelling of these stories that core truths are passed on through each generation; Cupid and Psyche begat Beauty and the Beast which begat Twilight respectively.

Despite the variations of culturally specific symbols or the possibility of these stories being a representation of a collective unconsciousness, myth represents “ways of making sense of universal matters…and exert more of an inspiration and influence than we think.” [15] “Stories are ways that we communicate important things”[16] as a human culture and society and it is through the universal vehicle of myth that man has always sought to answer the larger, often metaphysical, questions in life.



[1] Dundes, A., 1984. Sacred narrative, readings in the theory of myth. Univ of California 1

[2] Kirk, Geoffrey S. 1977 Methodological Reflections on the Myth of Herakles. In Il Mito greco: atti del convegno internazionale (Urbino 7-12 maggio 1973), edited by B. Gentili and G. Paioni, 285-297.

[3] Walker, S., 2014. Jung and the Jungians on Myth. Routledge. pg 6

[4]  Stone, J. ed., 2003. The essential Max Müller: On language, mythology, and religion. Springer.pg2

[5] Kirk, G. and Dundes, A. (1984). On Defining Myths. In: G. Kirk, ed., Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, 1st ed. University of California Press, p.54

[6] Kirk, G. and Dundes, A. (1984). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth, p.55.

[7] Dundes, A., 1984. Sacred narrative, readings in the theory of myth pg1

[8] Pattanaik, D. (2006). Myth = Mithya. New Delhi: Penguin.pg16

[9] Lönnrot, E. and Bosley, K. (1989). The Kalevala. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pg8

[10] Pattanaik, D. (2006). Myth = Mithya. New Delhi: Penguin.pg1

[11] Gaiman, N., 1999. Reflections on Myth. Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, pp.75-84.

[12] Plant.I., Myth In the Ancient World, Palgrave MacMillan, South Yarra, 2012

pg 23

[13] Gaiman, N., 1999. Reflections on Myth.pg84

[14] Pattanaik, D. (2006). Myth = Mithya. pg1

[15] Warner, M, 2010. Managing monsters. Random House. pg3

[16] Brain Pickings. (2015). Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last. [online] 2016


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