Themes in World Mythologies
by William Doty, Ph. D.,
William Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and former
editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and
editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including
religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography:
The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A Handbook.
Ranging widely across various ways of classifying myths in an academic publication ("What's a Myth?"; this follows up
"World Mythologies" in this column in the September 2006 issue of Mythic Passages), I disclosed that my penchant
for organizing and classifying was probably first manifest in childhood: I certainly remember evenings when my mother removed from
my jeans pockets the many rocks I picked up every day. By third grade, as I recall, I could identify over a hundred of what were then
called "rocks and minerals."
Different taxons (identifying or classifying descriptions) exist today in the hard sciences, no doubt, but taxonomic principles in
the study of mythologies have varied ever since the study of mythologies began (roughly in the mid-eighteenth century, according
to Detienne), or even earlier, if one looks at classifications of myths in late antiquity (see "What's a Myth?"—there
I also distinguish between "primary and secondary" types of myths, including in the former foci such as Explicating the
World-Surround, and Providing Etiologies and Accounts of Origins).
I've talked about issues in typifying kinds of myths previously (Handbook, 22-25, and in the introduction to the
mini-anthology of mythic stories, 40-42) and I provided a list of Common Themes in World Mythology, 228-29. Mostly
those were categories off the top of my head; but for the purposes of this article, I took the World Mythology list and
compared it to Willis' segment on Great Themes of Myth, as well as to the very useful reference work by Stookey,
Thematic Guide to World Mythology.
Watching for items/classifications that appeared on at least two of these sources led to some thirty items, ranging from
Animals and Apocalypse to Underworld and World Tree (Axis mundi). No big surprises, indeed many taxons of human
culture as a whole: death and disease, flood, heroes, nature, social order-family, tricksters... . But then I began experimenting
to see what minimal number of themes might encompass all of the thirty.
Pretty obviously, given the huge number of emergence/origin/creation myths (almost every culture has one or more), Beginnings
would probably head the top of most lists, especially if it includes cosmology and world cycles. And references to the world-surround,
"Nature," is certainly next, encompassing as it does fire and water, moon and sun, plants and animal foods.
Animals as such are certainly central, especially in several beginnings myths that derive the planet and its inhabitants from a
primordial figure such as the Ancient Near Eastern sea monster. And somehow along the way particular primordial figures and later
heroes get elevated: the semi-divine Greek heroes had religious cults, not the Olympians, for instance. And so we have
something of a category in part-human creatures, and then spirit beings, divinities, and demons.
Nor is it surprising that Death and the beyond, the afterlife, apocalypse are also present in most world mythologies: the human
being apparently recognizes the past and the present, but almost always strains toward the future as well. Hence the name of the
seminar I am teaching presently: Becoming Our Future: Speculative/Science Fiction/Film and Social Issues. I remind
participants that mythologies reflect the socio-historical-political contexts in which they arise. Contemporary criticism repeatedly
exposes "the deep embeddings of all inquiry, speculation, and application within specific socio-historical-political praxis" ("What's
a Myth?", 392).
And of course that leads to the anti-fundamentalist point that "myth appears to be a mode of language that welcomes change
and resists linguistic fossilization" (397). Marina Warner has it just right: "Every telling of a myth is a part of that myth: there is no
ur-version, no authentic prototype, no true account" (13, cited in "What's a Myth?" 395).
What matters about myths is not a prototypical example but the way they retell themselves in our cultures, the ways they
vary and the ways they resemble one another. To comprehend world mythologies, one needs to study many of them. One can
only parse a single tale adequately when it is set into the vibrating web of stories that comprises human culture.
Detienne, Marcel. 1986 [French 1981]. The Creation of Mythology. Trans. Margaret Cook. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
Doty, William G. 2003. Paperback license: U of Alabama P, 2007.
- "What's a Myth? Nomological, Topological, and Taxonomic Explorations."
Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 86.3-4: 391-419.
- — 2004. Myth: A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore Handbooks. Westport CT: Greenwood.
- — ed. 2002. World Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble [British original: The TIMES World Mythology,
London: The Times Books-HarperCollins.
Stookey, Lorena. 2004. Thematic Guide to World Mythology. Westport CT: Greenwood.
Warner, Marina. 1994. Six Myths of Our Time: Little Angels, Little Monsters, Beautiful Beasts, and More. New York: Random.
Willis, Roy, ed. 1993. World Mythology. New York: Holt.
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