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HUMN 351: The Study of Myth
Four Functions of Myth
To organize our thinking about the study of myths in this course, we will start by using a framework developed by Joseph Campbell based on Four Functions of Myth.To say that myths have “functions” means that myths do things for people. Myths give information or provide guidance to people in four areas, identified by Campbell as the Mystical, Cosmological, Sociological, and Psychological.
First read about each of the Four Functions of Myth (below), and then find ONE example from the Learning Resources that pertains to each of the Four Functions. Divide your key post into four sections, each labelled with one Function. Then lay out your example for each Function, and explain how your item from the Learning Resources relate to the Function.
Our discussion is based only on these Week One Learning Resources: (1) The History of Mythology (Part 1 and Part 2) [articles], and (2) Theseus and the Minotaur (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) [videos]. Among your examples, three should be from the articles, and one from the videos.
- From The History of Mythology [two articles]: For each of three thinkers or hypotheses (e.g. Carl Jung, Aryan hypothesis) summarize the key idea and show how a key idea fits into the Function of Myth.
- From the videos: Identify one mythological idea put forward and show how it fits into one of the Functions of Myth. Remember, we are speaking of a mythological idea, which involves the study and interpretation of the Theseus myth—not the content of the myth itself.
Mystical Function. The Mystical Function covers aspects of myth that involve religious experience. This religious experience can be either a merging with the divine or a face-to-face encounter with the divine. The Mystical Function involves aspects of myths that tell of experiences not available to “common sense” or “ordinary experience.” Thus, to illustrate the mystical function, we find parts of myths that talk about religious experience of divine or supernatural characters, or elements of the normally unseen world. Mystical accounts in myths will involve someone experiencing the power of the universe and forces of the unseen world.
Cosmological Function. The Cosmological Function covers the aspects of myths that talk about how the universe—the “cosmos”—came to be and is structured. Cosmological aspects of myths give human beings information about how the world was created, whether and when it will be destroyed, what parts of the world were created by whom, how the seasons came to be, and so on. Many cosmological myths are etiological.* In other words, myths (or parts of myths) that have a Cosmological Function attempt to explain what caused the cosmos to be created, shaped, enlivened, and destroyed. A familiar example of the Cosmological Function of myth is found in the Book of Genesis of the Holy Bible. This book of the scripture used by Jews and Christians contains the story of the creation of the world by G-d over the course of seven days. The myth or sacred story thus functions to tell people the nature and structure of the cosmos or world in which they find themselves.
* Etiology is a Greek term that means “explanatory.” Etio or aitio combines with other words to indicate “cause.”
Sociological Function. The Sociological Function covers aspects of myths that talk about the structure and make-up of society. Myths give human beings information and guidance about their society, illustrating how it is structured, how it came to be structures that way, and how people should act within the society. The Sociological Function of myth tells people about social and moral order. These myths (or parts of myths) tend to reinforce and justify the arrangement of society. They validate existing standards. They establish the status quo. An example of the Sociological Function in myth would be the Hindu caste system described mythically in the Indian text known as the Laws of Manu. This sacred text told people that the world was created out of a primordial person known as Purusha whose head became the priests, whose arms became the warriors, whose trunk became the merchants and farmers, and whose feet became the servants.
Psychological Function. The Psychological Function pertains to the person as an individual. The Psychological Function deals with the experiences of people in their everyday lives. An example of the Psychological Function of myth is in stories that describe the “rites of passage” through which people pass at important turning points in their lives. Such myths inspire people to develop cultural rituals for such liminal times as birth, puberty, marriage, and death. Psychological aspects of myth function to provide information and guidance on what people should do to live out important transitions in their lives safely and effectively when moving from one stage of life to another—from one state of being to another.
Clearly label and explain your answers. Then respond to the postings of two other students. You key post should be between 300-400 words long.