Origins of Myth

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Some attempts to define and/or explain myths and their origins:

  • Euhemerism: Myths are the stories of originally quite mundane heroes, exaggerated to the point when they became supernatural beings (interesting, regarding the Germanic myths but also Tolkien's Lost Tales, is also Euhemerus' travel tale, recounting an imaginary trip to an island where the traveller discovered his key to mythology: the deities worshipped there, were originally not deities, but rather humans).
  • The Theological approach: Myths are stories of - usually pagan - gods. (Maybe Strauss's "Life of Jesus" and Gunkel's "Creation and Chaos" could demonstrate, why it has become so important for theologists to distinguish between pagan "myth" and biblical "truth", especially since Israel's religion is in many ways continuous with the religions of it's neighbours)
  • Frazer: Attempted numerous different definitions in his best known work "The Golden Bough".
  • Malinowski: Myths are a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom...
  • Voegelin (in Funk & Wagnall's standard dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend): Myths are stories presented as having actually occurred in a previous age, explaining the cosmological and supernatural traditions of a people, their gods, heroes, cultural traits, religious beliefs, etc...
  • Bultmann: Myths are ways to objectify and symbolize the entire world-view of any culture...
  • Davies: Myths are a way of thinking and imagining about the divine...
  • Bascom: Myths are narratives of the remote past, which are considered to be truthful accounts by the society in which they are told...
  • Fontenrose: Myths are the traditional tales of the deeds of daimones: gods, spirits, and all sorts of supernatural or superhuman beings...
  • Tylor: Myth and science are the result of the human need to find explanations for phenomena, especially those that seem baffling at first...
  • Friedrich Max Müller: Myths are a "disease of language", a result of misinterprations, ignorance and confusion. Max Müller was a philologist and preceded Tolkien as a professor at Oxford University.
Müller's theories were heavily criticised and refuted not only by biologists and ethnographers, but also by philosophers and philologists. Among those were many supporters of the idea of what could be called a "Mythopoeic Mind". The German Ernst Cassirer (Language and Myth), the "Inkling" Owen Barfield (Poetic Diction), but also by Tolkien himself (On Fairy-Stories and A Secret Vice). Cassirer and Barfield were - independently from each other, it seems - come to the conclusion, that in ancient times there must have been a semantic unity of language and myth or - as Tolkien put it language construction will breed a mythology.

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