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Mythic Passages - the magazine of imagination

William Doty

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.

Works Cited:

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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