Approaches to Myth: (very briefly summarized from Powell Ch.23)

Some of the principal figures:

Euhemerus (ca. 300BC) interpreted myth as an elaborate version of historical events. For example, the tale that Zeus rose up to overthrow his father developed from the struggle of  an early prince, in the very beginning of society—gods were in origin great men whose exploits are allegorized in cosmic dimensions.


Among modern interpreters, Sir James G. Frazer is famous for his multi-volume Golden Bough, illustrating the theory that tales of a dying god derive from primitive ritual in which the king (or other victim) is sacrificed to assure continued prosperity of the tribe. This ritual event is allegorized in such stories as the death and resurrection of Osiris.


Also important for seeing myth as rooted in social rites is Bronislaw Malinowski  (not treated in Powell): marooned on Pacific island in World War I, he catalogued customs and beliefs, seeing many as ‘social charters’—stories to explain why such institutions as marriage or legal disputes are handled in a traditional way.


The structure of the story is central for interpreters such as Vladimir Propp, a Russian researcher in folktales who analyzed hundred of quest stories to show a common pattern.


More recent structualist studies carry on that approach (sometimes too far). Profoundly influential is Claude Levi-Strauss, who analyzed myths such as the tale of Oedipus and his clan, as revolving around a system of binary oppositions: Man/Monster, Love/Hate within the family.


No less famous are the psychological approaches of Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung. Freud is notorious for his ‘Oedipus Complex’,  but more interesting to me is his theory about the origins of god: he suggested that the conception of god originated in the fear and guilt of the younger males in the ‘primal horde’ after driving out or killing the older dominant males.  Jung is notable for his concept of collective unconscious, a sort of shared cultural memory, dominated by archetypes, recurrent characters such as the Dragonslayer.


The most influential interpreter of Myth today is probably Walter Burkert, perhaps best known for his anthropological approach. He argued that myth reflects the violent origins of society as a group organized for the kill. A pioneer of ‘socio-biology’ he interprets much of ritual and the myth that surrounds it as deriving from (essentially) instinctive drives (to mark territory, protect the group from predators, etc.)

Click here for brief illustration of the last 3 theories.