Monday, September 6, 2010

TWO KINDS OF MYTH

Let’s now return to the understanding of the word “myth” that I have already stipulated. A myth is a story about supernatural beings, a story that provides a model for human behavior, thus giving meaning and value to life. Recall that in offering this definition, I cited its similarity to the one offered by Mircea Eliade, among the leading comparative religionists of the last century.

In his book Myth and Reality, published in 1963, Eliade states that “a myth supplies a model for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives meaning and value to life.” But when it comes time to offer an actual definition, this is what he says: “Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the ‘beginnings.’”

Notice that this definition appears to apply only to cosmogonic myths, that is, stories (myths) of the genesis (-gonic) of the cosmos (cosmo-). And the examples Eliade discusses in this and other of his books are generally cosmogonic. But sometimes he seems to refer to another kind of myth. In Cosmos and History (1949), for example, he mentions Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples, after which Jesus instructs them to follow his example. This is almost, but not quite, what can be said to be part of a “founder myth.”

There is little if any discussion of this type of myth among comparative religionists, let alone historians of religion or other scholars. Yet Eliade’s statement, that myths are models for human behavior, does not preclude the possibility of founder myths—that is, myths about founders of religions.

My own definition is designed to include both cosmogonic myths and founder myths.

Throughout human history, there have been multitudes of stories told about both the creation of the world and the founding of new religions. These stories are about supernatural beings; they provide models for human behavior. Ethnographers, including both anthropologists and missionaries, have found multitudes of stories, from ancient Egypt to Australia to Tierra del Fuego, that describe how supernatural beings created the cosmos. And the list of stories about founders of religions contains not only Moses and Jesus but Gautama, Muhammed, Zoroaster, Mahavira, and Joseph Smith—all of whom either embodied a divine revelation or were prophets dispensing a new revelation to their followers.

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