Myth is a term that can lead to much confusion when one tries to pin down a precise definition. People use the term myth, and subsequently the term mythology, in several ways, and to mean many different things.
Popular usages of myth run the gamut between stories that are made up, lies, and falsities, popularly held beliefs with little to no factual backing, or stories that are generated and repeated by some far off relation to explain a phenomenon, the world around us, or the cosmos.
Some of these uses have been taken up by scholars and built into a network of ideas and theories about mythology.
What is a myth? Is it a story about the adventures of gods, sacred narratives, didactic tales, a prescribed set of storytelling norms featuring fantastic beings that connect to a body of stories throughout time? The answer to each of these questions is yes, but with the caveat that none of these answers is entirely correct without the consideration of the others.
In this study, I use mythology as a term to describe a body of stories involving deities and demi-gods and their exploits both during and beyond a sacred past and a sacred future — a time immemorial — as well as all stories which are decontextualized from their sacred sources and used intertextually, or hypertextuality but remain bound to the original mythological source materials through names, places, characters, and motifs.
In the following article, I will discuss a number of theories of myth before examining narrative, theory and myth, narrative intertextuality and myth, and the use of mythological stories in modern literature.
These concepts will lay the foundation for the idea that ancient myths are being recycled and recreated in the modern era as a body of mythically-rooted stories stripped of their original sacred context, but nonetheless important for shaping our understanding of myth and narrative writ large; a concept which I refer to as secular myth creation and ultimately apply to the case study of Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’.
Theories about mythology have fallen into several schools of thought since academics have taken up the subject. Anthropologists, psychologists, literary critics, and narrative theorists, among others, have all provided different although sometimes overlapping interpretive theories about the development and function of mythology. However, before moving forward to the theoretical bent from which we will examine ‘American Gods’, it is important to sketch out two types of conflicting thought about myth: myth as a replaceable remnant of history and myth as an irreplaceable continuing element of the human experience.
Some of the more well-known early scholarly theorists discussing myth and mythological function during the nineteenth-century, including authors like Sir James George Frazer, and E.B. Tylor, viewed myth as replaceable; indeed, they viewed myth as having already been replaced by science.
Frazer and Tylor both based their ideas about mythology largely on notions of cultural evolution and the link between nature, magic, ritual, myth, and religion. Where Tylor viewed myth as an explanation of natural phenomena, Frazer takes this notion a step further and suggests that myth develops as an allegory to explain and justify literal beliefs in magic.
Known as the myth-ritual theory, this school of thought suggested that bodies of myth were generated by human beings universally during a “primitive” stage of cultural and religious evolution in order to explain for these groups of people some of the more perplexing elements of the world around them as well as to provide a perception that humans maintained a modicum of control over the natural world through ritual and magic.
This school of thought argued that ecological and seasonal events which science had yet to explain lead cultures to develop mythological stories that explained the unexplainable events of the natural world — which magic could not control — in which these cultures existed.
For Frazer, and this school of thought, myth acted as an explanatory stage between the literal belief in magic and ritualized practices, which became enshrined in formal stories and behaviours during a period of worship before science would, according to the myth-ritual theory, render magical beliefs obsolete.
Frazer describes this in the following way: “In magic, man depends on his own strength to meet the difficulties and dangers that beset him on every side. He believes in a certain established order of nature on which he can surely count, and which he can manipulate for his own ends. When he discovers his mistake, when he recognizes sadly that both the order of nature which he had assumed and the control which he had believed himself to exercise over it were purely imaginary, he ceases to rely on his own intelligence and his own unaided efforts, and throws himself humbly on the mercy of certain great invisible beings behind the veil of nature, to whom he now ascribes all those far-reaching powers which he once arrogated to himself. Thus, in the acuter minds, magic is gradually superseded by religion, which explains the succession of natural phenomena as regulated by the will, the passion, or the caprice of spiritual beings like man in kind, though vastly superior to him in power.”
For Frazer, magic gave way to ritual and myth which in turn developed into organized religion before subsequently becoming subordinated to science. Myth was generated during a specific moment in cultural evolution and was passed down as a cultural remnant in the form of stories that had lost their magical and religious significance.
Later theorists viewed myth as an irreplaceable part of the human experience which could be retold and reinvented in the modern era; these theorists turned away from literal explanations of natural processes and allegory, and toward symbol and psychology to explain the development of mythology.
The analytical psychologist and Freudian disciple turned critic, Carl Jung, argued that myth was the symbolic result of the mind generating archetypes (personifications of universal themes) of the collective unconscious mind as an expression of human experience.
This archetypical explanation of myth rejects the external explanation generated by the myth-ritual theory discussed above, and instead turns the impetus for mythology inward; focusing on the symbolic elements of human experience which are intrinsic to the collective psychological understanding of life.
Jungian theories of myth place an emphasis on analyzing the archetypes which make up myths. Theorist of myth Robert Segal quotes Jung as writing that, “Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes.” This statement illustrates the basic tenets of Jung’s mythological theories.
The twentieth-century popularist of mythology, Joseph Campbell, comports to some of the explanations of the Jungian school of thought, including the identification of archetypes broadly defined, and the internal explanation of myth, but provides a simplification for the development and function of myth through his postulation of the monomyth, a theory which suggests that all myths are essentially variations of one mythological narrative which Campbell refers to as the heroes’ journey.
The function of this monomyth, in contrast to the emphasis on analyzing archetypes in Jungian theories on myth, is four fold: “to instil and maintain a sense of awe and mystery before the world; to provide a symbolic image for the world such as that of the Great Chain of Being; to maintain the social order by giving divine justification to social practices like the Indian caste system; and above all to harmonize human beings with the cosmos, society, and the parts of themselves.”
Myths, for Campbell, therefore developed to serve a metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and pedagogical function beyond the Jungian archetypically focused mythological theory.
By moving away from an historically rooted explanatory function of myth, these theories, though providing somewhat different rationales from one another for the existence and function of myth, imply that myth not only cannot be replaced by shifting ideas like religion and science, but also that myth continues to play a role in the psychological lives of humanity in the modern era.
This latter implication is of particular importance for our purposes in examining the connection between literature and myth. If myth continues to play a role in our lives, what are these roles, and how might they manifest? To provide some answers to these questions, we will now turn to the major theoretical ideas from which this study is based: Mircea Eliade concepts about myth creation and the sacred, and Northrop Frye’s critical interpretation of literature and a return to mythic subject matter.