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phoebusg's avatar

What do you think the intention behind mythology was, what is mythology according to you?

Asked by phoebusg (5241points) February 11th, 2010

There is a very high correlation with creative rich mythologies and scientific achievement in antiquity. How is it that the two correlate, why? (In addition to the original question)

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54 Answers

galileogirl's avatar

Mythology is an attempt to know the unknowable and teach the values of a culture.

Fly's avatar

The purpose of mythology was to explain things occurring in nature- weather, emotions. etc. Science has essentially the same purpose, creating an obvious correlation between the two.

JeanPaulSartre's avatar

It’s hard to explain things that we lack a vocabulary for. In order to explain them, people will come up with amazing stories, even today. I don’t think there’s an intention behind mythology (maybe religion though…) but it’s more of a natural extension of our need to explain things that we can’t yet explain.

Cruiser's avatar

Mythology was an attempt to control and or influence the uncontrollable elements of their lives. The gods of the weather patterns that affected their growing abilities, the gods of the ocean that affected their ability to harvest food and sail the big oceans…the gods of disease death and destruction that obviously directly affected their lives. Worshiping and making sacrifices gave them some sense of control or destiny of their lives in the absence of scientific explanations of these obvious influential forces.

Qingu's avatar

@phoebusg, I’m not sure the premise of your question is true (correlation between “creative rich mythologies” and scientific achievement). Why do you think this is? Certainly there are many counterexamples, for example, medieval catholic Europe, or modern-day Islamic society. Modern-day secular society lacks what I would call a “rich mythology” but is the most scientifically advanced culture in history.

There is also a problem of defining the word “mythology.” Functionally, the word is thrown around today to mean any religious content that people no longer believe in—a pejorative term.

I certainly don’t see any difference between what we call “mythology” and what we call “religion.” So my answer is, the intent of mythology/religion is both to explain the world we live in and to control human behavior.

phoebusg's avatar

@Cruiser do you think this was the only dimension of mythology. If so, how do the beginnings of science coincide in such an environment if everyone has fixed causal relationships – and belief?

JLeslie's avatar

It seems to me Mythology was the religion of the day. I know very little about this. Like in Greek mythology, did the Greeks consider it “myth” in the time it was written or told, or did they believe in it?

phoebusg's avatar

@Qingu let’s take: Ancient Greece, Egypt, Babylon, and Hindu cultures. They all had potent mythologies, but also scientific thought working hand-in-hand.

The definition for religion is far different than mythology. I don’t think the two should be mixed. Especially given the very restrictive definition of religion.

The Greeks for example were not religious, they had a way of thinking that they followed. There are many differences between the two.

The Romans who picked up the Greek pantheon were religious however, and we have them to thank for most of the confusion.

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie yes, and no. At least Greek Mythology is an encoded system of thought that most outsiders can mistake for – well, the creative story that it is.

As answered above, it is a place to start – while building more elaborate understanding about the world. It does not oppose other views as a religion would. It’s just a beginning story, relating us, to the world and back.

Let’s take Zeus and Dias (Jupiter for example) – god of gods in Greek myth. Why the two names? One means to bring together – harness, the other one means to bring apart, push apart and away. Now – what does this remind you of? It certainly is a belief, because even today we don’t know how the universe really works.

stump's avatar

Mythology is not a thing of the past. It is constantly being recreated. There are several different mythologies active in my society (US) and only a few of them are related to religion. A mythology develops when a set of related stories get passed down from one generation to another. There is a powerful mythology built up around superheros, for example. The intent in the creation of mythologies varies widely; entertainment, moral instruction, spiritual instruction. One thing they all have in common is the telling of stories. Telling stories exercises the imagination and concentration, strengthens cultural ties, and passes on practical information, thus the correlation between strong mythologies, and scientific achievement.

phoebusg's avatar

@stump amazing answer, thank you :)

Trillian's avatar

I don’t know why you think the two are correlated then any more or less than they would be today, or a couple hundred years ago during the renaissance. In the future, will people call Christianity, Islam, and Judaism mythology? How much of our scientific progress today is because a scientist or free thinker listened to the accepted explanation and thought “Horse-feathers” and proceeded to find a scientific explanation for…whatever?

phoebusg's avatar

@Trillian take classics in university, it may help give more ground for that correlation. You have a flourish of all the foundations of science – at the same time with temples, libraries and a very well referenced and extensively known (by the populous) – mythology.

Qingu's avatar

@phoebusg, please explain the difference, as you see it, between “religion” and “mythology.”

Also, while I agree with your examples, I think there is an underlying reason that explains both the “richness” of these ancient cultures’ religions and their scientific development. All of these cultures you mentioned were highly urbanized and had highly advanced systems of communication and political organization. I think cultures can easily foster both highly developed religious traditions and highly developed scientific thinking—but not necessarily both, or even either.

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg Not all religions are in opposition, or feel the need to compete. If this is what the Greeks believed as explanation for the world and how it works, then to me that is the same as religion. I think since we put the word “myth” on it, basically saying it is not true from our modern use of the word, the religious would be hesitant to put mythology on equal footing with their own religion. But, if you are not religious it all kind of seems like the same thing, believing in something without proof, stories that might give comfort, teach a lesson, or give us guidance.

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie @Qingu
Mythology is a collection of stories, a lot of which can be true or false. And is passed along as is.

Religion requires one to believe said story. Many religions have used sources from mythologies. If you take religious studies you’ll see plenty of examples. But religions usually make it a requirement to believe all of the stories as true.

Mythology puts no such requirement, it just is. It’s a creative, imaginative play. And maybe that helps in the kind of thinking that science requires. Observation, play with information, testing – etc. A lot of which may be false, or true, but we pass it on for the next ones to figure out.

Qingu's avatar

@stump, I like your definition of mythology, as basically emergent storytelling traditions. It’s a broad definition but it’s one that I’‘ve actually seen religious scholars use. For example, Hinduism is both a religion and a “mythology” because it has—like superhero stories and Star Wars—this extremely developed, consistent, self-contained “universe” of stories that are built all upon one another. This universe, much like superhero stories, overlaps our own to some extent.

Of course, you can also say that Catholicism, with its rich universe of saints and their stories, counts as a mythology by the same standards. The gospels form a mythology around a superhero-like Jesus (he spends most of his time in Mark fighting demons, after all). Islam also has a colorful mythology, full of djinn and flying donkeys other supernatural beings that overlap our world.

C.S. Lewis once called Christianity “the myth that happens to be true.” Which illustrates my problem with the terms—that there’s little functional difference between the word “mythology” and “religion.”

Cruiser's avatar

@phoebusg That is the struggle between science mythology and religion that continues to this day where science directly conflicts with these strong and long held beliefs. I even doubt with empirical evidence to explain the beginning of time and the exact origins of man will people ever let go of their beliefs in the mythical/spiritual realm.

Qingu's avatar

@phoebusg, so you’re defining “religion” as a subset of mythology that one believes is true? Okay, I can get behind that.

phoebusg's avatar

@Qingu Yes, well put – subset.
@Cruiser the ancient greeks tell the story of the universe as a breathing, eternal (spiral time?) being that just keeps on breathing. Could it be true? Could it not be true? We’ll see – I like to think it as true but I’m open.

I understand that time is not linear, we just think that because we are born and die in this fashion. But I don’t understand what spiral time really means.

I’m very curious about cultures that I’m not so familiar about – and their intricate interactions with their respective mythologies.

stump's avatar

@Qingu I would say religions always have a mythology, but not all mythologies have a religion. Religions also have dogma and ritual and stuff like that. That stuff has it’s connections to the mythology, but the mythology doesn’t rely on whether I go to confession or not.

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg So people did not believe the stories? The stories were not presented as an explanation of why we had thunderstorms, giant waves, or how the corners of the world were held up?

josie's avatar

The ancients did not have science to explain reality. Imagine, for example, feeling a breeze on your face but not knowing what air or wind actually is. It would be easy to imagine that you had been touched by a mysterious presence. Imagine not knowing what the sun is, or why it moves across the sky and disappears, only to return later from a different place. Mythology was an attempt to explain pre science mysteries.

mattbrowne's avatar

My favorite quote about myths: “Myths are about the human struggle to deal with the great passages of time and life—birth, death, marriage, the transitions from childhood to adulthood to old age. They meet a need in the psychological or spiritual nature of humans that has absolutely nothing to do with science. To try to turn a myth into a science, or a science into a myth, is an insult to myths, an insult to religion, and an insult to science.”—Michael Shermer

phoebusg's avatar

@josie – maybe the ancients of the ancients did not. Where mythology comes about. But the ancients as I know them invented calculus before we did. Look for Archimedes’s “the method”.

But indeed, they are just placeholders until we are more knowledgeable. Our brain seems to like/require placeholders. Do you really believe all you know is absolutely true? Or is it all a mythology, until you know – or are a bit more certain that it is more likely to be true rather than false?

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne Why insulting to religion? Don’t you agree that some of religion is stories to explain what science could not explain at the time it was written?

Qingu's avatar

@josie, but some of the aspects of what we call “mythology” really were earnest attempts by ancient people to understand the world around them.

For example, Babylonian and Egyptian myths—along with the Bible—portray the world as flat, with the sun and stars as “lamps” set into the sky. The sky itself is a solid dome made of glass or metal. And it holds up an ocean of water above the sky, perhaps on “pillars.”

We call this “mythology” because we know it’s not true. But if you were a bronze-age nomad, it would make a great deal of sense. Obviously the earth is flat—you’d only know it was round if you stood on a tall mountain and looked out across a flat horizon, and even then it would take a pretty huge logical leap.

Obviously the sun and stars revolve around the earth, along with the moon. If you were a bronze-age nomad, why would you ever consider otherwise? Few people today, if you ask them, could tell why they think the earth revolves around the sun; it’s a very difficult thing to figure out, much less prove.

And obviously there’s an ocean above the sky. After all, rain falls from the sky. And the sky, like large bodies of water, is blue. And obviously, huge bodies of water don’t just float in the air—so there must be a solid structure holding this ocean up.

We can nitpick semantically about whether this view is “scientific,” but it’s certainly not “metaphorical” or whatever. People really believed this, and for good reason! It made sense!

phoebusg's avatar

@Qingu I think you missed the part where “mythology can be true or false”, not just false ;) There are so many elements that can be true especially given human relations and interaction.

We can also argue whether all people believed this and only in that specific way. We’re talking about the same era with most of our scientific roots.
Another thing to consider, it is estimated we have lost more than 90% of all ancient texts. (Library of alexandria burned, every temple and library throughout the roman empire – destroyed systematically.)

Is every story only false?
Is science only true? (If it was it wouldn’t be science…)

Matt, nothing personal but that’s probably the worst quote I’ve ever read. Science is also a “story”, more elaborate and detailed but that’s more because of the method rather than the format.

Qingu's avatar

@phoebusg, I agree with you! I was responding to the idea that myths occupy a separate “magisterium” from attempts to factually explain the world.

phoebusg's avatar

@Qingu oh, hehe. Well, more for the discussion then :)

lucillelucillelucille's avatar

Mythology is stories designed to manipulate people.

phoebusg's avatar

@lucillelucillelucille ouch. Really? You mean religion right? No story requires you to believe it. Maybe just to pass it on.

It’s sad to see that mythology==religion for so many. But, well that’s what this discussion is here for ;)

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg I think you think I am saying that everything in religion isn’t true. That is not what I mean by saying mythology is the religion of the day. It is saying that was a way to explain things from the knowledge they had back in that time in history, religion was/is the same in many ways. Many religions seem to want to answer questions that have not been answered by science yet, unwilling to accept we don’t know yet, we resort to, God did it, created it, has a reason for it, whatever he it is at the time.

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie yes. But there are huge differences between mythology and religion as very well discussed above. I think the distinction is very much necessary. Especially if one is looking to understand ancient cultures and underpinnings of things. :)

Another note is, what our guess is regarding to what they knew can be off, way off. And I’ll simply point to recent findings and things in the lab currently. Archimedes’s method implies an extreme mathematical adequacy that did not jump out of nowhere. All the underpinnings of science were very were established back then. Mechanical computer found – antikythera machine another example. In light of new discoveries, we have to revise the theories at hand – and portions of historical literature regarding what happened when etc. It is well known at least the Greeks had a geometric system for the creation of maps considering the curvature of the earth (non-flat). And so on…

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg And same with religion. If there is scientific evidence that evolution exists, there is no reason for Christians to stick to the idea that the first man and woman were just plunked down on the earth at God’s hand. Catholics have been able to accept science on this issue, and incorporate it into their belief system, instead of a total rejection of the idea; but, other Christian groups seem unable to marry the two (oops there I go using the word marry with a meaning outside the institution of a man and a woman, but that is a different topic).

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie exactly. But evolution itself, is just more likely to be true. The whole theory though, that too is one big story – part of it still like mythology. Unknown whether it is true or not, but a filler for the gaps we have not yet found enough irrefutable evidence.

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg So, I don’t get why you don’t like mythology being compared to religion? If I can paraphrase your points, mythology is stories not proven yet, so is religion, and so is scientific theory before proven. Evolution does have a lot of evidence supporting it by the way, but it is not 100% complete I agree, we are still learning.

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie because no story demands of you to be a believer, or carry things out. It is just that, really all up to you. Liberating, freeing – and while doing that in a very entertaining fashion. Gets one to engage more with ideas rather than less, look for relation in things etc – fosters questioning. Parts are true, parts are false – depending on the context.

Many religions are the opposite – demand some belief, demand no questioning, and so forth.

Define proven, how do you know something is proven for sure, and what quality of it? Is something true in the conditions it was proven in – true everywhere and in any conditions?

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg When I say proven I mean physical supporting evidence that can’t be refruted. We know the earth is round for sure now, because we have observed it from space. Before we travelled to space we have a building of supportive evidence that was already leading us towards this conclusion. I do however say that there are things not yet proven that are true. You don’t have to have proof for something to be true, but you can’t say it is a fact without the proof, it is a hypothesis or theory.

I see what you are saying about religion now. You are saying that the religion demands, or some religions demand no questioning; but, I am looking at from the perspective of the outsider looking in, not what the people creating the religion require. As an outsider it all looks like stories to explain things not yet understood. I guess religion takes it one step farther by punishing those who don’t believe, which makes religion all that much more ridiculous. But, I don’t want to paint all religions this way, there are religions who believe in questioning, who understand the religions that have been around for thousands of years may be misinterpreted through time, knowing they were written in different languages, and even English changes over time, and context might be mistunderstood because life was so different, and many times stories were told and handed down over many years before being written down, so it is understood that stories change.

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie indeed, you can be true by deduction alone. Darwin’s theories had many deductions through the inferences of which we get evolution for example. But at the same time. Every statement – theory – thought, it not all true or all false. Like a myth. It’s almost always composed of both. Facts are also subject to that. The whole of science is based on re-evaluation. We use the stories we know as mostly true – to the best of our ability, to improve our view and then improve all the premises we used to get higher – like scaffolding.

So how do we mine the truth? or more of it?
By being specific as to where/how/what situations something is true under. Seeing if and how that generalizes in the world. Checking, again, and again ad infinitum. (Until we can see the—wait for it… full, golden truth… ;)

Keysha's avatar

In the study of folklore, a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form. This includes using Gods and Goddesses as supreme beings that control things mankind cannot, animals and beings that are beyond the norm (dragons, unicorns, gryphons, etc…) that are myths often borne out of not understanding what they saw.

Mankind has a need to explain the unexplained. This is partially a fear of the unknown, and partially a need to appear to our peers as desirable or one to be followed. If you can explain what others do not, then you are a better person than they, and worthy of respect.

Mythology is not a thing of the past. Vampires, Dragons, bigfoot, Nessie, and more, are all myths, because they are not proven scientifically to exist. Legends handed down become, like the game of ‘rumors’ more fantastical as they are told over and over. Look at vampires, for example. Originally, they were walking dead, preying on the living. Horrifying corpses come to life, for various reasons, looking like the walking dead, with fangs and claws. But they became, over time, romanticized. Now the myth of vampire is less Nosferatu and more Interview with a Vampire. Something to be desired, sought after, lusted after. Myths change with time.

As far as the correlation with science, it is easily explained. Mythology takes a great imagination and a willingness to look for answers. Even if those answers are not proven. Just as science does. It is called scientific theory for a reason. Brilliant, creative minds come up with a plausible explanation for something, and then set out to prove it’s existence or disprove the theory. When no proof is available, or minimal (eye witnesses) it can, if the theory is strong enough, become a myth.

phoebusg's avatar

@Keysha Very good answer. But just one note, there are other reasons, as discussed above for mythology. I think it is almost unavoidable to use. It is not always due to lack of understanding that men create myths. Encoded myths, crypts, metaphors etc can signify a higher understanding as well. Yet, not systematically proven as per science. It’s good to be able to see far ahead, but also to place one food carefully in front of another.

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg I agree with most of your statement, so again I don’t see how religion is different than a myth or scientific theory. What is your point? I can’t figure out if you are on the side of God and His word, and that He is the truth; or, if you are being balanced in your thinking. You use words similar to a religious person. I’m confused by your wording.

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie I’m atheist if that solves the problem. But I like to look for the truth until the last sliver. I just like being aware of things, or invoking awareness. Or questioning in general.
Hope that helps relieve any pre-conceptions about my language and such. I don’t see a clear question. What is my point doesn’t count as one. If something confuses you, quote it, and let me know how you interpret it ;)

JLeslie's avatar

@phoebusg It helps. I see you see many many shades of grey, I tend to live in the grey also, so I understand that way of looking at things. There are so many things people believe are fact and really it is simply an “umbrella of belief” something that has seemingly become fact because everyone believes it, and it has never really been challenged. Like how people believed tomatoes were poison 200 years ago.

phoebusg's avatar

@JLeslie yes. Exactly. It’s good to have knowledge, or mythology, or whatever it is we’re currently holding as true or useful. So long we can see through it, think with it, and a-new without it. Only then can we be sure. ‘Knowledge’ has as much of an enlightening effect, as a blocking (stopping new knowledge).

I’m simply against – not thinking. But I understand why, even biologically. Our brain likes to conserve energy because our biology has us designed for efficiency of thought (energy wise) rather than quality wise. You use your whole brain to learn something, as soon as your brain thinks you did your learning it likes to ‘download’ that information to lower structures, solidify it, make it less flexible but also less costly. It’s good to be able to – given we still have the same food availability – think about things constantly in many different ways. There’s much more to be ‘seen’ in that way.

Jack79's avatar

What we call “mythology” was often considered “reality” in some cultures. A typical example is ancient Greek Mythology which is nothing more than their religion. Similarly, if Christianity died out, people would refer to the story of Jesus as a “myth”, but there are people still today who think of it as real.

To answer your second question, even though it is true that some societies developed both their mythology and their technology (as well as other aspects of their civilisation) the two are not directly correlated. It is simply that, if a group of people is large enough and survives long enough to flourish, they’ll develop everything sooner or later. The Egyptians spent 4000 years developing astronomy, religion and agriculture and focused on death rituals, whereas the Athenians developed geography and philosophy instead, and became more famous for their radical ideas in politics. Our modern society seems to focus most on telecommunications and transportation, whereas our popular culture consists of reality TV and strip clubs. No wonder our religion includes tele-charlatans and scientologists.

phoebusg's avatar

@Jack79 being Greek and following a way of thinking that is a continuation of the above. I urge you to reconsider using the term religion vs way of thinking. As for the second question, we’ve had a wonderful discussion. I’d love to include you once you include it ;)
Thanks for the input regardless :)

Jack79's avatar

@phoebusg I had not read all of the answers before posting, but now that I have I see that what I say is more or less already mentioned. I still cannot find however your distinction between mythology and religion. Hesiod’s original mythology was a collection of myths that people considered to be true. Whether they were more or less religious than the average Jew, Christian or Muslim today does not make the myths non-religious. We all know the parable of “the prodigal son” or the myth of “st. George and the dragon”. Most Christians don’t think there ever was a dragon, but that doesn’t mean this myth is not religious. Since religion is nothing more than an effort to explain where we came from and what makes the sun rise in the morning, even Astrophysics and Geography could be “religious” in that sense. I understand that being religious means that you (supposedly) believe the totality of the stories in your particular mythology, but that still doesn’t change it from the definition of “mythology” as we use it both in everyday speech (and as it was used by the ancient Greeks or Vikings for that matter). I am just trying to understand what you mean by this term.

mattbrowne's avatar

@JLeslie – Why insulting to religion? Because religions evolve. I’m a liberal Christian and if some young-earth creationist nutcase is telling me that Eve was literally made from one of Adam’s ribs when God performed open chest surgery using a medical saw blade I feel insulted. My religion is not some kind of Harry Potter hocus pocus. Besides, Eve came first. Adam came later.

I don’t agree that ancient myths are merely stories to explain what science could not explain at the time it was written. As Michael Shermer (a very smart non-militant atheist by the way) said, myths are about the human struggle to deal with the great passages of time and life—birth, death, marriage, the transitions from childhood to adulthood to old age. They meet a need in the psychological or spiritual nature of humans.

I’m having a discussion with @Qingu about Karen Armstrong’s view on myths in one of the other threads. There seems to be some academic disagreement about what myths really are. I find Armstrong’s view quite convincing and I’d like to quote from her book / book reviews:

“Armstrong takes a historical approach to myth, tracing its evolution through a series of periods, from the Paleolithic to the postmyth Great Western Transformation. Each period developed myths reflecting its major concerns: images of hunting and the huntress dominated the myths of the Paleolithic, while the myths of Persephone and Demeter, Isis and Osiris developed in the agricultural Neolithic period. By the Axial Age (200 B.C. through A.D. 1500), myths became internalized, so that they no longer needed to be acted out. Reason, says Armstrong, largely supplanted myth in the Post-Axial Period, which she sees as a source of cultural and spiritual impoverishment.”

“A Short History of Myth is an essay on what role myths (and ultimately religion and spirituality) play in human life and why they remain important. Myths provide a means to connect our finite lives, bonded by our inescapably mortal condition and the fear that inevitably accompanies the knowledge of our ultimate fate, with the infinite beyond us, a connection that we feel in moments of transcendence where we literally lose our individual selves and communion with something greater than ourselves… be that God, the universe, our antecedents or heroic examples. Myth in short gives our lives meaning and significance in an otherwise frightening and indifferent world. Myths are not to be taken literally, because to do so would take the sacred out of the realm of the sacred and make it profane. Myths inhabit the world of the sacred because they are meant to exist beyond the world of profane explanation.

What Armstrong does very well is to explain how advances in the material and economic condition of human civilization throughout history and prehistory interacted with this basic human need to transcend his immediate condition to create various epochs of myth. She goes beyond myth to explain the competitors to myth, be it ritual without mythology (i.e., Confucianism) or logos (i.e., Greek rationalism) and how they had their roots in myth and why they are linked still.”

Hope you find this helpful.

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne I apologize that I am not able to find the exact thing I said about being insulting to religion, I tried to skim the thread, but even without knowing I do agree religions can evolve. I think there are fundamentalists out there who won’t, but that is a particular group. Certainly there are many different Christian’s and I would not want to lump them all into one basket. There are many religions willing to evolve as we increase our knowledge.

mattbrowne's avatar

@JLeslie – No problem at all :-)

I was just quoting Shermer and said that I agree with his view. Judaism, like Christianity, also has many forms from the orthodox Haredi fundamentalists to Liberal Judaism. Same in Islam. Same in Hinduism.

Myths are wonderful. They are a treasure.They are part of our heritage. But they are not part of the Biology 101 curriculum.

JLeslie's avatar

@mattbrowne I love mythology. I did not mean to come across as though it was pointless bunk. I liek teh stories. I also like many of the stories of the bible. Just because I am not religious and an atheist, does not mean I discard the whole book, not at all.

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