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THEORIES OF MYTH ANALYSIS Excerpted and edited from The Nature of Greek Myt hs by G. S. Kirk (England: Penguin, 1974) pp. 38-91. Introduction One of the basic truths about myths, which cannot be repeated too often, is that they are traditional tales. Such tales develop manifold implications and meanings according to the character, wishes and circumstances of their tellers and audiences. Therefore they are likely to vary in their qualities and functions….Myths, in short, constitute an enormously complex and at the same time indefinite category, and one must be free to apply to them any of a whole set of possible forms of analysis and classification….Like any tale, a myth may have different emphases or levels of meaning; if these are abstract, then the area of ambivalence is increased still further. The consequence is that analysis of a myth should not stop when one particular theoretical explanation has been applied and found productive. Other kinds of explanations may also be valid.It was the myths, above all, that seemed to defy rational analysis and to give rise to the idea that their makers were rambling around in a kind of mystical fog. Yet closer observation, and the whole tendency of anthropologists to treat tribal peoples with increasing respect, have shown that most of the apparently illogical connections in ‘primitive’ myths are not really so. Rather, the logical systems involved are different from those standardized in western cultures. MONOLITHIC THEORIES: Müller The first universal theory…maintains that all myths are nature myths, that is, they refer to meteorological and cosmological phenomena. originally a German obsession, it spread to England and reached its climax under Max Müller, a distinguished philologist who became professor at Oxford. Müller thought that myths were often formed through a misunderstanding of names, especially those attached to celestial objects; they were, he suggested in a phrase that became notorious, ‘a disease of language’. At least that was a variant on the commoner idea according to which tales about a hero defeating a monster must always refer, by some mysterious code, to dawn overcoming darkness of night or the heat of noonday dispelling the mists of an autumn morning….There are occasions, of course, on which the personification of such events can be useful….The obvious truth is that there are such things as nature myths, but that not all or even most myths are of this kind. No one in his right mind has thought so since Andrew Lang finally lost patience eighty years ago and exploded the whole elephantine theory. Lang Second among the great all-embracing theories is the one loosely covered by the term "aetiological"; it implies that all myths offer a cause or explanation of something in the real world. When Andrew Lang dismissed the nature-myth theory, he tried to put in its place the idea of myths as constituting a kind of proto-science. In short, he was not merely objecting that many
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This note was uploaded on 03/17/2008 for the course CMLIT 108 taught by Professor Adamsfredcalvin during the Spring '08 term at Penn State.

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