Imagine yourself a Peace Corps volunteer just arrived in a small, traditional village in Latin America. Your job is to help local people grow more crops. On your first day in the fields, you observe a strange practice: after planting seeds, the farmers lay a dead fish on top of the soil. When you ask about this, they explain that the fish is a gift to the God of the harvest. A village elder adds sternly that the harvest was poor one year when no fish were offered. From that society’s point of view, using fish as gifts to the harvest God makes sense. The people believe in it, their experts endorse it, and everyone seems to agree that the system works. But with scientific training in agriculture you have to shake your head and wonder. The scientific “truth” in this situation is something entirely different; the decomposing fish fertilize the ground, producing a better crop (Macionis).
Mythologies are ancient stories handed down from generation to generation. They are stories that prominently feature many gods and goddesses and at a deeper level, the spiritual consciousness of a culture. Many myths probably began as primitive religious stories. They are traditions of a culture that have factual origins, while others are fictional, and have lost their significance over time and are now fascinating tales. Myths differentiates itself from history, mostly because history can tell you facts about a people, but myth shows personalities, beliefs, fears and hopes. It is by understanding the origins of these stories that you understand the behaviors of successive cultures as their stories are passed down through the centuries.
According to Plato, myth is extraordinarily powerful; how it is defined and who gets to do the defining have far-reaching implication for what counts as knowledge and therefore far-reaching cultural and political consequences. Thus there is a great deal more at stake in the study of mythology than the exiting tales of heroes and their fantastic adventures (Scott Leonard, p. 4). Myths are not codes to be cracked or naïve and mistaken perceptions to be corrected. Rather, myths are literary truths told about the mysteries and necessities that always have and always will condition the human experience. Comparative mythology comes from various fields and looking at myths though a telescope or microscope will yield little insight as to its origin and what it says of a culture.
Mythology is a way of passing down stories of spiritual and societal codes that can be interpreted over and over. As parts of it resonate with a particular moral environment of a current culture, it then evolves. For example in Hindu literature, the Ramayana was set in the sixth century B.C.E at a time when India was a society of villages and small republics. At a time, when dynasties of kings did not yet pursue imperial ambitions, but preserve the divine order of things in the world and cosmos. The Mahabharata was completed around 400 C.E., later than the Ramayana and shows a time where a village society coexists with a more complex urban world. The land is divided into sizeable kingdoms on the verge of imperial formations and wars. A society that was once only four caste systems is now divided into five, an addition of the untouchable and the foreigners such as Greeks left behind by Alexander’s army (The Norton Anthology World Lit). Both books reflect the cultural change of a society influenced by physical change in the environment and the lessons that were important enough to pass on.
The meaning of myth as it evolves can keep alive a spirituality and morality that could very well disappear into the annals of history. According to Mircea Eliade, myth provides moderns with a vehicle through which they can periodically return to the time of origins and thus being their lives anew (Scott Leonard, p 30). The study of mythology need no longer be looked at as an escape from reality into the fantasies of primitive peoples, but as a search for the deeper understanding of the human mind. In reaching out to explore the distant hills where the gods dwell and the deeps where the monsters are lurking, we are perhaps discovering the way home (Davidson 1964,24).
Myths share many common themes regardless of its cultural origination. Common stories that seems to transcend time, space and culture. For example, most myths seem to agree that in the beginning of time nothing existed. In the Popul Vuh or “Council Book”, the sacred book of the Mayan culture, “.....at the beginning the gods decided to create earth out of the primordial sea” (Maestri). In Hinduism, the Vedas describes the universe as a vast process of self regeneration in which all primordial substance is eternal and indestructible and has no beginning and no end (The Norton Anthology World Lit). In Norse mythology it is described that in the beginning there was only a bottomless abyss in the center – a gap, called Ginnuangagap (Creation, The Norse Universe).
Flood stories are another common theme that spans cultural and geological divide. The Great flood in the Bible, Noah built an ark and placed two of each kind of animals to survive a great flood. In Sumerian Mythology, Gilgamesh came across an old man, Utnapishtim, who told him the story from centuries past, about the gods that brought a flood that swallowed the earth. The laws of cause and effect and a highly evolved sense of consciousness are seen across cultures in particular both Hindu and Norse Mythology. The holy trinity is also seen in most major cultural civilizations. It is seen in Hinduism as Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. In Sumerian civilization it is the triad, Anu the sky god, Enlil god of air and Enki god of water. In Greek mythology, Zeus rules the heavens, Poseidon the sea and Hades the underworld and in Egyptian culture, the trinity Amun, Re and Ptah.
The myth of the phoenix for example, is an enduring mythological symbol for millennia and across vastly different cultures. The phoenix is represented as a bird with brightly colored feathers, which after a long life, dies in a fire of its own making only to rise again from the ashes. Why did a myth like that originate? Many civilizations and each culture have their own interpretation of the phoenix. For the Egyptians, a real life bird like a heron was a possible inspiration for their version of it called the Bennu. Mythical stories about the Bennu reveal more about the ancient Egyptian culture than the real bird. It was considered the soul of the god Atum, these names and the connection with Ra, the sun god, reflected not just the ancient Egyptian belief in a spiritual continuation of life after physical death, but also reflected the natural process of the Nile River's rising and falling, which the Egyptians depended upon for survival.
The phoenix was reflected in other cultures too, for the Persians it is known the Huma. It was also a mythological bird within the Greek and Roman culture. In Hinduism the phoenix was known as the Garuda in Sanskrit and is the chariot of Lord Vishnu, Tibetans also called it Garuda and in Chinese it was known as Feng-huang. It is still used in a more subtle sense in modern times and as recently as the J.K. Rowlings, Harry Potter series. The reasons for its endurance is perhaps because of all the mythical creatures from antiquity, the phoenix is one that frequently express an enduring sense of hope and redemption (New World Encyclopedia). According to Bronislaw Malinowski, myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality: it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization.
I do relate to aspects of the divine and myth, and sometimes wonder whether myths may not be a format for teaching the divine after all, e.g. “…and here’s a good reason why you shouldn’t do that”. I also wonder whether divine and myth, two sides of the same coin, may not have also influenced my deeper belief in one God. Growing up there were many questions that I had to find answers to and will continue to seek. Is it the same philosophy behind old wives tales? When I was a kid I remember being told that our grandparents were not allowed to sweep the floors at night or that they had to turn on the lights before dusk or Mother Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) will not enter the home. I later figured out that if you sweep the floors at night chances are that something important can be swept out and lost forever. Those were the days when they had no electricity. Also, if they don’t light a lamp in the evenings then it’s unwelcoming to visitors who dropped by. These behaviors were instilled using divine/myth to reinforce a habit and I still find myself automatically doing certain things that I did as a child.
As a kid I attended a mandir every Sunday and after moving away from my country it was difficult to find the same kind of place to worship. So after a while I stopped relating to the spiritual with such fervor. As I got older I realized that the moments when I thought I was too busy to actively think of God, that I had never really stopped. The realization of the divine happened all the time. In my form of worship which is called Arya Samaj, we believe in one God and do not pray to idols, don’t believe in avatars or incarnations of God and our scripture is the Vedas. Throughout my life, I was taught that the - The material world is an illusion which the untrue, the egoistic self, thinks is real. It is this constant illusion created by the senses which keeps him from recognizing his true, divine self. Consequently, his goal in life at all times is to realize this truth (Nayak).
My relationship to the Hindu pantheon is very much like my relationship to other people and because I don’t pray to individual gods certainly does not mean that Lord Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, their female consorts and all versions of their avatars, like Lord Rama or Lord Krishna, does not exist. I am a daughter, friend, mother, sister, aunt, neighbor and the list goes on, and in every aspect of my relationship I differ in who I am and how I relate to them. So aspects of Hindu mythology are seen in my real life relationships too.
We look for something bigger than ourselves, something we can rely on in hard times and something we can have faith in during the times we have none. Like the first paragraph relates, when we know that the performance of certain actions guarantees good results then we create myths about why it needs to perpetuate throughout the centuries so it does not get lost and generations suffer needlessly. After all I am from an Oriental culture and the sense of community will always persist. I certainly do agree that Hindu philosophy and Hindu mythology follow two distinct paths. Hindu myths celebrate a wholesomeness of life evoking life's full enjoyment in terms of wealth and desire; and Hindu philosophy advises a spirituality that dictates recognition of the illusory nature of worldly pleasures and their renunciation to realize the Ultimate Reality and they fully incorporate both paradigms and arrive at the same conclusion (Nayak).
Those who examine the multiple layers of mythology should be resigned to the fact that, after all our efforts, we will find at the core, quite literally, no-thing, no single all-encompassing explanation of a myth (Scott Leonard). When analyzing a myth, we are just interpreting what it means to us and each time we touch it and reinterpret it for our use, we contribute and allow it to evolve thus adding to its many layers.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press