Building Your Mythic Toolbox:
An Introduction to the Study of Myth
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
At the Atlanta MythicJourneys '06 workshop with the above title, I outlined at the outset what
I planned to present, but then paused to ask the participants if they already had questions/suggestions. Indeed
they did, and we had some super interchanges. Nonetheless, several persons expressed to me after the conference
that they had missed getting more of "the content" I'd outlined, while respecting participants' contributions and
questions — which indeed did cover the mythscape, but little of what I had proposed to treat.
Here, then, I provide as a quick trip through Mythville some of what I had planned to present, although please
remember that I have treated the historical/methodological approaches much more thoroughly in Doty 2000 and 2004
(see also for a social science approach, Segal 2004). Obviously students of myth need venues in which to express their
own perceptions as well as to have more "content"-oriented information. The former often happens in my
e-correspondence; here I lean toward the latter.
One of the emphases in my own myth studies is considering that each re-telling of a myth is a revision (a telling in
the light of a second and perhaps later context), and that contemporary myths are as important to study as those of
antiquity. One of the first voices who began to make such connections was Joseph Campbell, in the last of his
Myths of God series entitled Creative Mythology, 1968, and earlier, 1949 in the first edition of his
highly-influential study of comparative hero myths from world mythologies, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The prologue of that book began (p. 4) with the claim that "the latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance
of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan], waiting
for the traffic light to change."
In his works in the late 60s and early 70s, Campbell developed a highly-psychological approach to correlating the
mythological parallels between situations in which societies and individuals find themselves today, and the stories and
images of mythology in the arts. He especially meant the high arts of literature and dance, but more recent voices in
pop culture studies have developed insightful studies examining mythological aspects of baseball, Harry Potter,
The Matrix, and rock star Madonna.
Campbell was an elite conservative who considered James Joyce the pinnacle of what was achieved in the arts
in his own day; only decades later, toward the end of his life, did George Lucas persuade him to come to Skywalker
Ranch and view the 4th-6th episodes of Star Wars. Previously he had thought cinema something of a California
allergy, but in Lucas's trilogy he found that his multi-faced hero had developed yet another one. Some of the excitement
of this discovery comes out in Bill Moyers' studio's marvelous production of the film series The Power of Myth
— scripts of which (plus much more) Betty Sue Flowers so wonderfully edited into the book of the same title. And
the rest is history, as they say: for decades the six episodes were trotted out for Public Broadcast System donors to
encourage their support of public TV.
I suspect that many of you became interested in recovering some of our mythological heritage by seeing the series
or reading Campbell, and that's great. I do want to observe in passing, however, that within any formal academic context,
his work was almost totally ignored — with the exception of Hero, which was the darling of just about
every college literature department in the nation.
There were two reasons why Campbell was paid little heed: He had no interest whatsoever in classics or religious
studies as contributing to his projects, and when he so frequently cited Romantic philosophers such as Schlegel,
Schopenhauer, or Spengler, his contemporaries considered that these philosophers had become totally out of date. He
simply had no interest in what other mythologists were doing — and never cites their work, and they replied by
almost never citing Campbell, either. (More information on this situation in Doty 1990 and 1996.)
I am not interesting in beating a dead horse, just explaining why the vast popular interest in Campbell was found
almost incomprehensible to the average academic. What such folks were interested in, internationally, was a huge array
of fields of inquiry Campbell seldom recognized. I want to give you not a technical grounding, but some idea of the mythic
toolbox that can be wielded today in the highly multiple- or interdisciplinary field of the study of myths and rituals that
many people now name "mythography," the title of my big technical book on the subject, first published in 1986, and
then completely reworked and expanded in 2000.
I cannot but start the Mythville tour by recognizing the obvious fact that most World Mythology collections and
accounts begin in antiquity: specifically with the Mesopotamian and Egyptian (and sometimes Chinese or Indian) worlds,
then those of classical civilization. Nor can I do more than remark how myth essentially went "underground" during the
medieval domination of Christendom, only to begin to resurface as Renaissance figures rediscovered the classical materials
and then the Romantics' back-to-nature and worship of the primitive emphases brought mythical themes into music,
the arts, and literature.
And as I tried to think of how to scan quickly the sorts of lively mythographic movements of recent history, I decided
to name some of the intellectual disciplines in which various of these movements were dominant.
- Anthropology: already James Frazer's Golden Bough compilations, and then late 19th/early 20th century
comparative religions and phenomenology such as Mircea Eliade's began to break down the religious shutters between
faiths and emphasize a sort of universalism of themes across them (recently rejected as being outrightly Christian-triumphalist
Bronislaw Malinowski corrected such a perspective by moving from the vague to the specific social function of mythological
materials: they were hard-working social charters, organizing and regulating specific tribal groups. The later work of Victor
Turner would develop the anthropology of religion and cultural anthropological approaches to symbolism and ritual. And
Clifford Geertz corrected Malinowski to suggest that myths can indeed be models for society, but that they are often models
of contemporaneous society (i.e., reflecting what is really going on and sanctifying it).
- Classics: Of course one of the disciplines where one would expect ongoing attention to myth and ritual studies.
The very "myth and ritual school" grew out of an attempt to relate the two in classical culture — a move that had
some influence in literature, but did not find much approval for long. Several of the movements we look at elsewhere here
(especially structuralism) were featured in forward-looking classics journals such as Arethusa.
Contemporary analysis has some excellently-productive new perspectives, such as those from French scholars (see "III.
The New Mythical Iconography" in the Toolkit to Mythography 2nd ed.) Social history and economics have also
been enfolded in ways never conceived before — again French scholars have been at the forefront.
- Literature: At several levels, literary criticism, myth-lit-crit (the ritual-dominant school), and narrative
analysis. The first two sometimes overlap, in that there have been many studies purporting to explicate the ritual
background of mythological references/themes in modern literature; and narrative analysis (narrativity) has merged
somewhat with semiotics such as those of Roland Barthes.
- Structuralist, archetypal analyses: These have been highly technical, sometimes with extensive database
printouts, but they were widely influential earlier. The classic figure was Claude Lévi-Strauss, where an algebraic
explanation of the underlying units that structure mythic expression and thought are worked out abstractly (and ignoring,
many would say now, the specific sociohistoric contexts that regulate universal issues such as life vs. death). The archetypal
framework of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (four types of writing aligned with the four seasons) was
augmented by Jungian archetypal analysis of many different aspects of cultural expression.
- Humanistic psychology, especially depth psychology (Freud, Jung, Hillman): but also developmental/ego/self-help
branches. Here one places figures such as Jean Shinoda Bolen and various volumes on finding the inner hero, or the
number of proposals for revival of Goddess religion. Indeed, some of Campbell's later articles moved in such direction.
- Hermeneutical/interpretive studies: Barthes was already doing such in careful analyses of the "codes" within
literary works. He also emphasized the ideological function of mythic images/narratives in making the natural seem
"historical" — the status quo justified. This is the sort of ideological-nationalistic shaping that we see in the early
shaping of folklore studies, especially in Europe.
- Popular culture/film studies approaches: I've mentioned at the start, and have tried to integrate more of them
in Myth: A Handbook (affordable paperback version out after the first of the year!) One point I think important
here is the recognition of how complex some mythological constructs can be: modeling, inspiring, moving toward change,
justifying social institutions, providing creative fodder for artists, and so forth — hence no single one of these
approaches can satisfy single-handedly (see #9 below).
- Ritual studies: Put briefly, while the myth and ritual school considered that myths could lead to
reconstruction of the more primitive expressivity of rituals, today the very act of myth-telling is understood as ritualistic.
That is to say, there's an emphasis upon performance and process, and chief theorists such as Ronald Grimes prefer
to speak of "ritualizing" rather than "ritual," just as I am interested in "mythicity" or "mythicizing" rather than in frozen
images or texts.
- A multidisciplinary approach: Here's where I am most at home, an approach that can combine insights
from any/all of these, recognizing their interdependence, and how they can teach one another insights from their own
unique perspectives. It is an approach that recognizes that myths speak on many levels: at different times of cultural or
individual development, at different historical moments, and serve specific ideological or consolatory needs.
One of my personal dreams — and it was probably the dream that drove the production of the eight issues
of Mythosphere: A Journal of Myth, Image, and Symbol, that were published between 1994 and 2001 —
has been a project where a wide range of specialists from the various fields I've been elucidating take on a specific mythic
image or text, and sit down in a pub to show what each technical approach can contribute to the comprehension of the
story. While I've emphasized academic movements here, one need only recollect the number of other specialists and
enthusiasts who were active in the Mythic Journeys conferences: think of all the perspectives that they might
dance were we to collaborate!
It is in this context that my complex definition of myth in Mythography was developed — it refuses
simple definition to include perspectives on the full mythical happening. The listing and discussion in the first version became
two chapters with a chapter before and one after in the second, so I think you'll understand why I don't expect to be
able to unpack it all today, but here is a rough outline:
- Myths most often appear as parts of usually-complex network
- that are culturally important to teller/s,
- imaginal (imagination, projection, embodiment)
- stories, conveying by
- metaphoric and symbolic diction and
- graphic imagery
- and with emotional conviction/participation,
- primal, foundational accounts
- of aspects of the real experienced world
- and humankind's roles and relative statuses within it.
- Mythologies may concern political and moral values of a culture
- and provide systems of interpretation
- as they place individual experience within universal situations
- which may include intervention of supra-human entities
- as well as aspects of the natural and cultural orders.
- Myths can be enacted/reflected in rituals, ceremonies, and dramas,
- which may provide materials for secondary elaboration.
I have also provided in Handbook some very lively web URLs that you may find helpful — there are
now hundreds on the web, but the more there are, the harder it is to worm one's way down to those that are most
helpful to you directly. I recommend use of Vivísimo.com,
a cluster engine that organizes all those thousands of hits into groupings (for Orpheus, for instance: a Greek god; gay men's
choral groups; musical publishing houses; restaurants; a bioscience project).
(See "Selected Introductory Bibliography," Mythography, 476-91 for a subject-oriented, annotated list of recommended readings; 493-568 for an fairly-inclusive bibliography of the entire field.)
- Bolle, Buxton, and Smith 1993. "Myth and Mythology." New Encyclopedia Britannica 24: 715-32.
- Coupe, Laurence. 1997. Myth. (especially good for literary and filmic aspects)
- Doty, William G. 1990. "Dancing to the Music of the Spheres: The Religion in Joseph Campbell's 'Non-Religious' Mythography." Daniel C. Noel, ed., Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion. 3-12, 185-89.
- Doty. 1996. "Joseph Campbell's Myth and/versus Religion." Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 79/3-4: 111-23.
- Doty. 2000. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. 2nd, revised ed.
- Doty. 2004. Myth: A Handbook.
- Dundes, Alan, ed. 1984. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. (an excellent collection of essays that disclose how the field of myth studies shaped itself)
- Segal, Robert. 2004. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. (not an intro to the study of myth, but a mini-history of the development of myth studies)
- Trubshaw, Bob. 2003. Explore Mythology. (his Foamy Custard Website also has scads of information)
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