Culture, Religion, & Myth: Interdisciplinary Approaches
HUM 210 Online Course Pack - Fall 2006 - Prof. Cora Agatucci

Anthropology.  Let’s begin with some definitions derived from cultural anthropology, the study of human cultures.

1. Culture may be defined as the abstract values, beliefs, and perceptions of the world--i.e. a world view--that shape, and are reflected in, a people’s behavior.  Culture encompasses all that is human-made, learned and transmitted, especially through language, rather than what is inherited biologically.  People are not born with a "culture"; they learn "culture" through the process of enculturation. People develop and maintain cultures to deal with basic problems like survival and other issues (geographical, social, economic, philosophical, etc.) that concern them. To take root and survive, a culture must satisfy the basic needs of people who live by its rules, develop means to ensure its transmission and continuity across generations, and provide an orderly existence for members of the society.  A culture must develop viable ways to balance individuals' self-interests with the community’s needs, which can be a formidable challenge because human societies are made up of individuals and groups with different interests. Typically, the dominant group’s interests are most influential and better served by a culture's worldview and lifeways than are the interests of other subordinated groups within a culture. Successful cultures are also dynamic, rather static: that is, long-term survival requires that a culture be able to change in order to adapt to new circumstances and influences, and/or its people's changing perceptions of existing circumstances.  

Religion, Myth and Stories/Narratives (sacred & secular), Art and Aesthetics, Language and Language Arts (including Oral Arts, Literature, and Film) are all important expressions of a people's culture.

2. Religion may defined as beliefs and patterns of behavior by which people try to deal with what they view as important problems that can’t be solved by other means: e.g. the need to confront and explain life and death.  All cultures have religions, which are powerful and dynamic forces in human society.  To overcome limitations, people often turn to supernatural beings and powers: e.g., gods and goddesses, ancestral and nature spirits, impersonal powers.  Religion presupposes the existence of supernatural beings and powers with interest in human affairs—so to these beings and/or powers, humans can direct appeals for aid.  Through ritual (religion in action)—e.g. prayer, song, dance, offerings, sacrifices—people worship, trying to ward off misfortune and/or entreat supernatural powers and beings to aid and protect, and help humans prosper.  Most cultures have religious specialists—e.g. shamans, priests, theologians—who are skilled at dealing with supernatural deities/powers, and can mediate between the spiritual and human worlds.  Religion reduces human anxieties by explaining the unknown or making it understandable, providing comfort in times of crisis, sanctioning a range of human conduct with notions of right and wrong, setting precedents for acceptable behavior, and/or transferring the burden of making decisions from human to supernatural beings.

3. Mythology can be defined as a body of interconnected myths, or stories, told by a specific cultural group to explain the world consistent with a people’s experience of the world in which they live. [The word “myth” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “story” or “plot,” and was applied to both sacred and secular, invented and true, stories.]  Myths often begin as sacred stories that "offer supernatural explanations for the creation of the world . . . and humanity, as well as for death, judgment, and the afterlife" ("Myth" 284). [NOTE that today, in common usage, non-believers are often (too) quick to dismiss other cultures' religious and sacred  stories as “mythology” and “myth.” But serious cross-cultural study requires that we resist this dismissive impulse, and understand that what we might call “myth” can be another culture's (religious) “belief.”]  A mythology or belief system often concerns supernatural beings/powers of a culture, provides a rationale for a culture’s religion and practices, and reflects how people relate to each other in everyday life.  Creation or origin myths explain how the world came to be in its present form, and often position "the cultural group telling the myth" as the first people or the "true" people ("Myth" 284).  Such sacred stories, or narratives, concern where a people and the things of their world come from, why they are here, where they are going.  Myths and mythology express a culture’s worldview: that is, a people’s conceptions and assumptions about humankind’s place in nature and the universe, and the limits and workings of the natural and spiritual world. 

bullet Polytheistic religions entail belief in a pantheon or collection of many gods and goddesses, often headed by one or more supreme deities who are remote from humankind and relatively uninterested in human affairs.  A people may then direct their attention and rituals to lesser deities who do concern themselves with the human world.
bullet Patriarchal [male-dominated rule by the “fathers”] societies have godheads defined in masculine terms; and like their patriarchal god/s, fathers in these societies may be distant, controlling figures to their children.  In matriarchal [female-dominated rule by the “mothers] societies, on the other hand, goddesses may be more prominent and powerful, and in these human societies lineage may be traced through women, who are perceived to make a major valued contribution to social economy.
bulletAncestral spirits (e.g. in traditional China and Africa) may be believed to retain an active interest, even membership, in the living human society, and to have human appetites, feelings, emotions, and behaviors.  Such cultures presuppose that each person has a body as well as a soul (or vital spirit) that can detach from the body after death.  In traditional Chinese culture, for example, a boy is indebted to his parents for the gift of life, owes them deference, obedience, and a comfortable old age—but even after his parents’ death, a son is expected to provide for his parents and other revered ancestors in the spirit world, by making offerings of food, money, incense, etc.  Ancestor veneration provides a strong sense of continuity across generations, linking the past, present, and future.

Comparative Religious Studies.  Huston Smith, an eminent scholar of comparative religions, has written a classic book entitled The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions (HarperCollins, 1991).  In this work, Huston presents the world’s major religions as “inspired” and “empowering theological and metaphysical truths.”  Smith characterizes religion as the “most momentous option life can present”:  the soul’s “journey across the jungles, peaks, and deserts of the human spirit,” in answer to a “call…to confront reality, to master the self.”  Significantly, Huston chooses to treat “the world’s religions at their best”—that is, as distinct from religious institutions, because “[c]onstituted as they are of people with their inbuilt frailties, institutions are built of vices as well as virtues.” 

       Comparative or cross-cultural study of world religions, Huston calls “a voyage in space and time and eternity.”  For students of other cultures’ religions, not only are the words often foreign and strange, but they can only hint at the religious states of consciousness described, and the tool of [Western] logic is inadequate to reveal them.  All the world’s peoples have struggled “to see something that would give help and meaning to their lives.”  If we wish to glimpse at least something of other cultures' religious insights, we must be willing to delay judgment and lay aside prejudice and ethnocentrism.  To undertake serious, open-minded cross-cultural study of world religions, Huston says we must do two things:


“We need to see their adherents as men and women who faced problems much like our own,” and . . .


“We must rid our mind of all preconceptions that could dull our sensitivity or alertness to fresh insights.”

Myth Theory & Literary Criticism also offer relevant interdisciplinary insights.

All cultures create and tell stories.  Storytelling and myth-making is an important human creative activity.  Myths, stories, legends, folklore, tall tales give valuable insights into how people perceive and think about their world.  "Even when a culture no longer believes that its myths are true explanations, however, these stories often survive as receptacles of important cultural values" ( "Myth" 284).  Language arts, oral and literary traditions express how people order their experience and the universe, set standards of behavior, shape and reflect cultural values.  These arts and traditions are important means to preserve and transmit a culture’s customs and values, to contribute to the cohesiveness and solidarity of society—as well as to critique the status quo and stimulate change.  Poets, storytellers, writers, as well as other artists and performers, make and use symbols to shape and interpret experience, create works of beauty and significance—whether religious or secular—and exercise the human imagination in a rich diversity of ways the world over. Some poets--notably William Blake of the late eighteenth-century, and William Butler Yeats of the late-19th and early 20th century Modernist period--have even created their own personal mythic systems.

            Cross-cultural comparisons of the world’s myths have uncovered striking similarities in themes, structures, images, and characters; "in the types of phenomena they seek to explain and the types of questions they address" ("Myth" 284).  These cross-cultural similarities raise many provocative questions such as these: Do certain universal myths, or “monomyths,” organize and connect mythic narratives (i.e. storytelling) and their more modern literary and cinematic forms across different cultures, past and present, around the world?   Why do these similarities occur?  Do all human beings inherit a common, if unconscious, set of mythic figures, forces, patterns, implications, and structures from our common ancestors?  

See:  The Hero's Journey - Monomyth
Ramayana (India):
Yamato (Japan):
Office of Resources for International and Area Studies (ORIAS), Title VI Area Centers, Univ. of California-Berkeley, CA ORIAS “is dedicated to providing scholarly resources and supporting professional development for K-12 teachers addressing international studies”; a unit of IAS (International & Area Studies).

Myth critics draw upon philosophy, anthropology, psychology, history, folklore, linguistics, and literature to study these correspondences and speculate on the reasons why.  They approach myth, as well as language, as a way of responding to the world and creating a worldview.  They describe myth as non-intellectual, primal, emotion-laden, experiential, and imagistic.  They suggest that literature and orature (or oral arts) tap into a universal human mythic consciousness and reveal the dynamics that have given meaning and intelligibility to our world.  In The Golden Bough (1890-1915), James Frazier identified common elemental patterns of myth and ritual found across seemingly disparate cultures and times and places.  Carl Jung (1875-1961) developed depth psychology, proposing that humankind has a “collective unconscious,” or racial memory in which archetypes, or “primordial images,” survive as a kind of “psychic residue” of our ancestors’ repeated patterns of experience.  These archetypes are expressed in myths, religion, dreams, private fantasies, as well as in works of literature.

Archetypes can be defined as a set of universal and elemental mental forms or patterns—e.g. recurring narrative plots, patterns of action, character types, images—found in a wide variety of the world’s literary and oral traditions, myths, dreams, and ritualized modes of social behavior.  The archetype of archetypes has been identified as the death-rebirth theme, connected with the cycle of seasons and the organic cycle of human life and death.  Other archetypes include sacrifice of the king, gods who die to be reborn (e.g. as avatars), the journey underground (e.g. into hell), the ascent to heaven, the scapegoat, the earth goddess, the search for the father, the fatal woman, the wise old man, the divine child, the cross, the mandala, the quest.  Such archetypes express a mythic conception of human life.  As such, they cannot be understood by intellectual, rational, or logical methods or procedures; rather, archetypes are the stuff of dreams, the unconscious, ceremony, trance, and ritual. 

Drawing upon anthropology, linguistics, and psychology, Claude Levi-Strauss proposed that the meaning of myths lies not in their content, but in the structure of relationships that myths reveal.  Myths work to mediate among life’s extremes (e.g., life-death, agriculture-warfare), allowing humans to overcome life’s contradictions.  Levi-Strauss believes that myth patterns arise out of the structures and operations of the human mind—not racial memory.  This “mytho-poetic imagination” produces structures and symbols expressed in oral and literary myths.  Another notable myth critic of the mid-20th century, Northrop Frye is not particularly concerned with why or how these universal mythic patterns arose: the fact is, the patterns are there, "so deeply ingrained in most cultures that literary works typically rehash the same general mythic formulas" ("Myth" 284-285).  In The Anatomy of Criticism, Frye traces recurring mythic formulas embedded in the genres and plot patterns of literature, and myth criticism aims to reveal how such mythic patterns persist and continue to re-enact themselves across cultures in human imaginative works today.

Sources & Works Cited

Haviland, William A.  Anthropology.  7th ed.  Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994.

The Hero's Journey: Monomyth Website.  History through Literature Project. ORIAS [Office of Resources for International and Area Studies], Univ. of California-Berkeley.  [2000?]  18 Sep. 2006 <>.

"Myth."  In The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms.  2nd ed.  Ed. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray.  Boston: Bedford-St. Martin's, 2003.

Reeves, Charles Eric.  “Myth Theory and Criticism.” In The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.  Eds. Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. 520-523.

Smith, Huston.  The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions.  1958.  San Francisco and New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

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