Although the myths of different societies may vary in their details, and the types of myths that are important vary from culture to culture, certain themes transcend culture and appear in world mythology. The most general of these universal themes are time, origins, doomsday, and societal institutions.
Mythological events are set in the past, generally the remote past. Some myths from the Ancient Middle East, Hellenic Greece, and modern culture have in common the concept of a golden age, a time when humanity was believed to have lived under ideal conditions before degenerating.
The theme of origins covers the beginnings of the universe, the world, geographical regions or geological formations, animals and animal behaviors, and humans. The origins of fundamental processes of life and death also are treated in myths. Many societies have myths concerning the end of the world, whether in a great battle between good and evil or in a ﬂood. Myths concerning the origins of societal institutions function as justiﬁcation or charter for the institutions of the current society that uses the myths.
No examples of universal myth types can be found in every society around the world. However, many societies share certain kinds of myths or features of myths, such as themes or motifs, because of shared history or shared human experiences.
Myths of Creation
Myths of creation may concern the creation of the entire cosmos, the world, or speciﬁc features, as in the origin tales of topographical features or life forms.
Each Native American group has its own creation myth. In the Maidu version, creation began with total darkness and water everywhere. On the water ﬂoated a raft with three mythological people: Turtle, Father of the Secret Society, and Earth Initiate. Earth Initiate had power and knowledge but did nothing until Turtle began asking questions. Turtle wanted dry land and volunteered to swim to the bottom of the water. After a long time, he returned with a piece of dirt caught under his claw. Earth Initiate made this dirt grow from pebble size to arm-span size, and then as large as the world. Having dry land, Turtle then complained of the darkness, so Earth Initiate commanded his sister, the Sun, to rise in the east and travel across the sky. When it darkened again, Earth Initiate asked his brother to be the Moon.
In other myths, the world is created out ofthe body of a primordial giant or being. A Babylonian myth of the second millennium B.C.E.tells of Marduk, who slew the dragon Tiamat, and made the two halves of the world, heaven and Earth, from her body. In German, or Teutonic, mythology, the universe is created out of a giant called Ymir. The mountains were made from his bones, the oceans from his blood, and the clouds from his brains.
Some stories of creation concern speciﬁc features of the cosmos. The !Kung-san people of southern Africa explain the origin of the Moon this way: When the Moon, which is imagined as one of the First People, stood up, the Sun pierced it with a knife. The Moon left its backbone behind, which became the crescent Moon. The Moon then discovered that it became whole again after this death. This cyclical rebirth explains the phases of the Moon.
Origins of local features also are explained in myths. In the Kiriwina Islands near New Guinea, the lives of the inhabitants often involve ocean voyages in canoes. So myths of magical canoes explain certain landscape features. The hero Kudayuri’s ﬂying canoe pierced a beach and thereby created astrait. Another canoe was petriﬁed and became a reef.
Myths of Doomsday
The end of the world or the cosmos is a myth that is common to many cultures. Doomsday is often pictured as a ﬁnal battle between good and evil: a catastrophe of earthquake, ﬁre, and ﬂood, or the resurrection of the dead and a ﬁnal judgment.
The reasons for the coming of doomsday vary from culture to culture. Western culture tends toward concepts of human failings and divine judgment. Doomsday serves to cleanse mankind, as in the Judeo-Christian deluge myth. In the East, the world ends as a part of the natural cycles of endings and beginnings, as with the manvantara of Hindu religion.
In the Norse story of Ragnarok, the end is signaled by human treachery, as brother murdered brother for proﬁt, spouses were unfaithful, and war broke out. The Jotun, a race of giants who were the ancient enemies of the Aesir, the gods, fought and died along with their enemies. The world was destroyed, but a new, fair, and green Earth arose. A handful of descendants of gods and humans remained and were given a chance of renewal.
The majority of myths involve the actions of supernatural characters who perform various roles from creator deities to culture-hero deities. The roles played by mythic characters generally relate to the society that originated the myth.
Complex societies with elite social classes that include kings, chiefs, and nobles have divine characters that reﬂect this social structure, such as the pantheon of the Greeks with their ruler, Zeus. Societies with a history of organized warfare may have myths about battles between different divine or heroic factions, such as the Aesir and Vanir of Norse myth or the factions of the Vedic gods of India. Some of these struggles involve monsters, and a hero protects the cosmos.
Simpler societies, such as those of huntergatherers, have no rigidly deﬁned political ranks and little or no organized violence. So their myths are devoid of these motifs.