In an effort to comprehend the whole of human experience and the place of humanity in time, ancient civilizations generated myths. The Romans chronicled time as beginning with birth and culminating in death, with great emphasis placed upon the need to be “good” in order to earn eternal life. Myths, then, are largely religious in origin and function and are in fact the earliest records of history and philosophy. Interestingly, myths have been created throughout the course of human existence and have been rendered timeless because they remain an integral part of the culture that framed them. Myths may be classified as traditional stories that deal with time and eternity, nature, ancestors, heroes and heroines, supernatural beings, and the afterlife that serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world. Myths appeal to the consciousness of a people by embodying their cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep and commonly felt emotions. These accounts relate the origin of humankind, its place in time, and a perception of both the visible and the invisible world.
Why Were Myths Created?
It is not surprising that myths evolved in primitive cultures when people were faced with impersonal, inexplicable, and sometimes awesome or violent natural phenomena and the majesty of natural wonders. In comparison to these wonders, human beings felt dwarfed and diminished. As a result, they bestowed extraordinary human traits of power and personality to those phenomena that most profoundly evoked human emotions. The beginning of time, the miracle of birth, the finality of death, and the fear of the unknown compelled early humans to create deities who presided over the celestial sphere. In time, every aspect of nature, human nature, and human life was believed to have a controlling deity.
Initially, myths of cosmogony illuminated the origin of humankind. Virtually every culture embraces a Creation myth. Myths explain the beginnings of customs, traditions, and beliefs of a given society and reinforce cultural norms and values, thereby depicting what that society regards as good or evil. Myths assist in defining human relationships with a deity or deities. Judeo-Christian- Islamic societies have established a supreme power, a father figure, whereas the Norse tradition restricts the power and purveyance of the gods. Finally, myths help to dispel the fear and uncertainty that is part of the human condition. Fear of the elements may be explained by the activities of the gods. Fear of failure is overcome by reliance on them. Fear of death is often explained as the passage or transition to another dimension or to another domain. Simply stated, myths are a symbolic representation reflecting the society that created them. Although unjustified and unjustifiable, myths take the raw edge off the surface of human existence and help human beings to make sense of a random and threatening universe.
Myths are seldom simple and never irresponsible. Esoteric meanings abound, and proper study of myths requires a great store of abstruse geographical, historical, and anthropological knowledge. The stories underscore both the variety and the continuity of human nature throughout time. The abiding interest in mythology lies in its connection to human wants, needs, desires, strengths, fears, and frailties. By their nature, myths reveal the interwoven pattern of circumstances that are beyond the control of the mortal and the immortal.
A study of the world of myths imparts greater appreciation for the subtle and dramatic ways that they pervade societies and that particular myths mirror the society from which they were created. Myths are decidedly human in origin. Ironically, it is the human ability to make myths, and the very need to do so, that ultimately sets us apart from other inhabitants of the earth. Only we humans can identify our place on the eternal timeline or calculate our brief appearance in time and space as we search for significance and immortality.
Myths may be drawn from any era and any geographical area. This entry examines components of Greek and Roman mythology, Norse and Teutonic (Germanic) mythology, Asian mythology, and commonalities among these and several other cultures.
To people of Western cultures, the most familiar mythology outside of the Judeo-Christian culture is that of Greek and Roman mythology. The mythology of ancient Greece and Rome stemmed from the human desire to explain natural events, the origin of the universe, and the end of time as we know it. Our journey through time commences with birth and continues on as we experience the tribulations and celebrations of life, and it culminates with death. Time encapsulates us. The Greek myths chronicle Zeus and his brothers, Poseidon and Hades, who exacted control of the universe from their father, Cronus, and the Titans, a powerful race of giants. Cronus himself had wrenched control from his own parents, Uranus (heaven) and Gaea (earth). Great epics were recorded of war and peace and proud heroes and courageous heroines who represented the basic cultural values of the Greek people.
Men and women alternately worshipped and feared a menage of gods and goddesses who traditionally resided on Mt. Olympus. People attributed failure and defeat to the wrath of the gods and success and victory to the grace of the gods. The most powerful of the gods and goddesses were Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the goddesses of destiny. It was they who determined how long a mortal would live and how long the rule of the gods would endure. When a mortal was born, Clotho wove the thread of life. Lachesis measured its length, and Atropos cut the thread at the exact point in time that life would end. Not even Zeus could alter their timeframe.
Much of Roman mythology had its roots in Greek mythology, although Jupiter and Mars were part of the Roman tradition long before the Romans interacted with and eventually conquered the Greeks. Subsequent to 725 BCE, the Romans adopted many Greek deities, renaming them, and making them their own. In both Greek and Roman mythology, realms of the universe were delineated. They saw the cosmos in terms of the skies, the earth, the seas, and the lower world. Jupiter (Zeus) ruled the skies from atop Mt. Olympus, where he controlled the movement of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the changes of the seasons. The fairest and the wisest of all immortals, Jupiter, when outraged, hurled lightning and thunderbolts down upon the earth. Neptune (Poseidon), the second-most-powerful god, ruled the seas, and Pluto (Hades), the god of wealth, ruled the lower world.
In Roman mythology, myth and time are closely related. The Romans equate the onset of time with the birth of Rome, which is accredited to Romulus and Remus. While these two were infants, they were set afloat to die in the river by their uncle who feared that they would usurp his power. The children survived their ordeal and eventually founded the city of Rome, named after Romulus, and this founding was considered to be the advent of time. Saturn, the father of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, was believed to be the god of time, birth, and death. The Romans strongly believed that living an honorable life on Earth could earn for them eternal life in heaven and possibly a place among the gods. Evildoers, unless they appeased the gods, would be damned to the underworld, where they would spend eternity. The end of time for man was marked by death and reclaimed for eternity in the afterlife.
As we read these highly entertaining and often spiritually uplifting myths, we learn a great deal about human nature and of our debt to Greek and Roman cultures. Even today, in our struggle to survive, Greek and Roman myths help people to better understand humanity’s obedience to a higher power, the relationships of men and women to one another, the power of love and friendships, the horror of war and natural catastrophes, and the passage of time, with death and the afterlife to come.
Norse and Teutonic (Germanic) Mythology
Germanic mythology refers to the myths of people who spoke Germanic dialects prior to their conversion to Christianity. These ancient Germanic people from the continent and England were illiterate. Most of what we do know about the mythology and beliefs of that era comes from literary sources written in Scandinavia and then transcribed into the Old Norse language of Iceland between the 12th and 14th centuries. Two collections of verse, known as the Eddas, exist. The earliest, the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda, contains the earliest Norse mythology; the Younger Edda or Prose Edda was written by Snorri Sturluson about 1220 CE. In the Prose Edda, Sturluson combined a variety of sources with three earlier poetic accounts of the origin of the world in order to create a wholly representative mythology.
In the Prose Edda version of the Creation, all that originally existed was a void called Ginnungagap. There was no time, and everything remained still. To the north of the void was the icy region of Niflheim; to the south, the sunny region of Muspelheim. Warm breaths from Muspelheim melted the ice from Niflheim, and a stream of water flowed into the void from which the giant, Ymir, ancestor of the Frost Giants, emerged. Created from drops of the melting ice, Audhumbla, the cow, nourished Ymir and was nourished herself by licking salty frost- and ice-covered stones. The stones were formed into a man, Bori, who was destined to become the father of Odin, Vili, and Ve. The brothers slaughtered Ymir and created the earth from his flesh, the mountains from his bones, the sea from his blood, the clouds from his brains, and the heavens from his skull.
The heavens, according to the Prose Edda, were balanced by four dwarfs: Austri, Westri, Nordi, and Sudri, the directions on a compass. Sparks from the fire-land, Muspelheim, became the stars of the sky. This newly created land, named Midgard, was to become the somber home of mortal humans. Even in Asgard, home of the gods, the atmosphere was grave, and the Norsemen believed that the end of time would come in a bleak and horrible way. The only hope was to face disaster and fight the enemy bravely to earn a seat in Odin’s castle, Valhalla.
As did so many similar myths, Norse mythology reflected the attitude of the culture that in death there is victory and true courage will not be defeated. The final chapter in Norse mythology is called Ragnabrok, meaning the twilight of the gods. In this period it is prophesied that winter will continue for three years. On the last day, Odin will lead dead heroes in a fierce battle against the Jotuns (trolls) and the power of darkness. Odin, himself, will be devoured by the Fenris Wolf, and the world will become a smoking ruin swallowed by the sea. From this will come new life and a time of peace.
The myths of India, China, and Japan are highly complex and sophisticated. They differ from Greek, Roman, and Germanic mythologies in that rather than venerating anthropomorphic deities, the structures of their deities are often polymorphic, intricately combining human and animal forms. The gods and goddesses of the Hindus sometimes take extraordinary human forms, with numerous heads and eyes and arms. Hindus believe that their religion existed before the universe came to be. Their mythology on the afterlife is unique. They believe in karma and reincarnation. Simply stated, karma is the effect of an individual’s actions resulting in consequences in present and future lifetimes. At the time of death, to be reincarnated as a human being is thought to be a blessing. Reincarnation as an animal or a plant is reserved for those for whom a spiritual life is not possible.
Deities in Chinese and Japanese myths were also animistic, but these myths were supplanted by mythologies derived from the three great religions: Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism (Buddhism having been brought to China from India in 300 BCE). Shinto, the religion indigenous to Japan, borrowed much from Chinese mythology, resulting in a tradition that paralleled that of the Buddhist pantheon. Notably, in Asian cultures, two or more religions may be observed simultaneously, because they are less eschatological but more ethical or philosophical in emphasis.
Generally speaking, before there was heaven or earth, there was chaos, devoid of time, shape, or form. First to materialize was the Plain of High Heaven and the three creating deities. Earth was born, and immortals procreated. It was due to the “divine retirement” of the goddess, Izanami, that the notion of death or life limited by time entered the world. It is interesting to note that there is difficulty in finding a Chinese word equivalent to the English word “time.” “Shi” can be associated with time, but the meaning tends to mean “timelessness” or “seasonality.” In Asian cultures, time is marked by history, as in the duration of a dynasty. Individually, time is of little concern, because a person’s life is viewed as part of an ancestral continuum. Although the tenets of these religions encompass a belief in life after death, the focus is showing people how to live rather than what will happen to them upon their demise. We may deduce, then, that oriental myths not only explain the origin of the universe and the parameters of earthly time, but they also deal with commonly held distinctive aspects and cultural values of each civilization.
In ancient times, throughout history, and even today, the family is considered to be a critical part of oriental society and culture. Honor and obedience to one’s parents is related to ancestor worship. During the Han period in China, emperors set up shrines for their ancestors because they believed that spirits could bring blessings to them and to their families. In general, oriental myths connect the actions of deities and other supernatural beings to the everyday actions of men, women, and the natural world around them. Individual gods protected the family, the home, and the country and represented the sun, the moon, and the planets. Myths describe how the islands of Japan were created and deliberately located by the gods in the very center of the world. The two main books of the Shinto religion are the Koji-ki and the Nihon-gi. Nihon-gi explains how all of the emperors of Japan are directly descended from the sun goddess. Today, the rising sun is symbolized in the Japanese national flag.
What the disparate mythologies from all over the world have in common is their heartfelt desire to explain the origin of humankind and to validate its existence. We are searching to satisfy the very human need to explain our relationship with the powerful and mysterious forces that drive the universe. Throughout the world, myths reflect those themes that deal with nature, supernatural beings, ancestors, heroes and heroines, life, death, and time. In Africa, where myths have been preserved mainly through the oral tradition, the natural elements are immortalized through myths. Many versions of Creation stories abound. The Dinka of Sudan believe that the first man and woman were made from clay and put into a tiny, covered pot, where they grew to full height. Australian aboriginal mythology deems that their community and culture were created during dreamtime, “the time before time,” when spirited creatures came from the sky, the sea, and the underground to generate mountains, valleys, plants, and animals. We are familiar with the great spirit myth of North American Indians and the time that Native Americans identify for their ancestors in the happy hunting ground. The Aztec people of South America were polytheistic and offered sacrifices to appease their gods. Huitzilopochtli, the great protector of the Aztecs, was portrayed in the form of an eagle, and it was he who deemed where the great pyramid would be built as “the heart of their city and the core of their vision of the universe.” From Ireland comes a myth about Cu Chulainn, a hero who could change form to oppose evil forces. A Polynesian myth from the islands of the Kanaka- Maori people centers on Maui, who brought the gift of fire to his people. In ancient Egypt, from pharaohs to peasants, each individual had a god or a goddess corresponding to his or her time and place in society.
As we can perceive, in every era and in every geographical area, myths have evolved as nearly sacred literature, devoid of theology. Each myth is unique to a culture and is in itself a monument to the precariousness of human existence.
As society becomes increasingly more global and less local, people continue to find experiential concepts that are impossible to fathom and beyond human comprehension. The beginning of time, the miracle of birth, the finality of death, and the fear of the unknown compelled early humans to create deities who presided over the celestial sphere. If myths are a symbolic representation reflecting the society that created them, how, then, will the mythology of our times satisfy our collective need to know?
Suzanne E. D’Amato
See also Beowulf; Cronus (Kronos); Rome, Ancient;
Tantalus; Wagner, Richard
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