Mythology is the body of sacred stories
that serve to explain the belief system of a culture. These traditional stories, called myths, occur in all societies around the world. The word mythology also refers simply to the study of myths.
Myths describe each culture’s beliefs about the acts of supernatural beings to create Earth and all aspects of nature, including celestial objects, geography, animal and plant life, and human life, growth, and death. Myths also explain the social aspects of a culture, including morals, roles, and customs. Thus, myths record shared beliefs that help communities maintain a common identity.
Myths serve many functions, from the general to the speciﬁc. General functions may lie in the psychological support they provide. Myths may answer such questions as “What is our purpose?” or “Why must we die?” More speciﬁc functions may include providing a model for ways of living that are acceptable to society.
Myths as Sacred History
The sacred history of a culture generally involves a past in which supernatural events occurred in an otherworld and events involving gods or supernatural beings shaped current reality. Mythic history provides justiﬁcation for customs that are based on their origin in mythic times. In explanation of a tradition, elders of many cultures might simply say, “We do now as we have always done, since the beginning of time.”
The sacred past is represented in myth and ritual. What the gods or other primordial beings enacted long ago is resurrected in the present. This may done be through the performance of ceremonies that can be quite elaborate or as simple as the Christmas story performed as a children’s play. Such myths and rituals help maintain societal order by retelling the acts of the gods, reafﬁrming community ideals.
Myths narrated in public rituals during times of upheaval, such as famine, war, or the succession of a new leader, may have a calming effect. A crisis disorders society. The cosmic and social models preserved in myths may help to emphasize peace in time of war or serve to legitimize political succession, thus restoring a sense of social cohesion.
Myths and Social Values
Mythic characters exemplify the ideals of a society. They either create or reside in a world that resembles the mortal world and behave ideally in that world.
Some deities, such as Thor, the Norse god of thunder, are exemplary and true to their culture’s social values. Thor is a completely trustworthy protector of the Norse cosmos. In the Norse myth of Thor’s hammer, the gods lose the hammer and conspire to get it back by marrying off the goddess Freya to the Giants. Freya refuses, maintaining the sexual honor of her society.
But supernatural beings cannot always be placed into the categories of good and evil. Many myths are less straightforward and tell of imperfect acts by the gods, as in the double standards of Zeus or the machinations of Odin. A character also might make a mistake that leads to a penalty. For example, Aries and Aphrodite are caught in an adulterous union by the humiliating trap of Hephaestus and, while in his net, are mocked by all the other gods.