All people try to make sense of the world around them, and that includes speculating about the course of events that brought the world and its inhabitants to their present state. Stories of how things came to be are known as origin myths. They are tied to the broad definition of creationism.
Now, just as the word theory is used differently in science than in casual conversation (see chapter 1), so the word myth is a term of art in the anthropological study of cultures. The common connotation of myth is something that is untrue, primitive, or superstitious—something that should be discounted. Yet when anthropologists talk of myths, it is to describe stories within a culture that symbolize what members of the culture hold to be most important. A culture's myths are unquestionably important, and myth is not a term of denigration.
Rather than being dismissible untruths, myths express some of the most powerful and important ideas in a society. In societies dependent on oral tradition rather than writing, myths reinforce values and ideals and help to transmit them from generation to generation. Myths in this sense are true even if they are fantastic and deal with impossible events or have actors who could not have existed—like talking steam engines. Because myths encapsulate important cultural truths, anthropologists recognize that they are vitally important to a society and deserve respect. In the anthropological study of cultures, the term myth is not pejorative. Myths are of great importance.
Although myths tend to be more common in nonliterate societies, they occur even in developed countries like our own. The children's story of The Little Engine That Could, for example, is a classic myth that expresses an important value in American culture: persevering in the face of adversity. The Horatio Alger myth of the poor but plucky youth who achieves success through hard work, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, is classically American. Both of these secular myths also express the American value of individualism—something quite characteristic of our culture. Mythical elements arise around historical and popular heroes as well: there are many myths associated with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, for example.
Some myths are secular and others are religious, but all involve a symbolic representation of some societal or human truth. In the mythology of the ancient Greeks, the goddess Persephone joins her husband Hades below the surface of Earth for part of the year. When she is gone, her mother, Demeter, the goddess of growing things, laments her absence, and winter comes. In the spring, when Persephone rejoins her mother, the world becomes green and fertile again. The story of Persephone and Hades not only symbolizes the passage of seasons but also is a metaphor of the human realities of death and birth. Chinese culture reflects a strong sense of the importance of balancing opposites: yin and yang, light and dark, hot and cold, good and evil, wet and dry, earth and sky, female and male—there are many examples of this duality. A Chinese origin myth reflects this important cultural concern of balance: the creator god Pan Gu separates chaos into these opposites and establishes a series of dualities, including the separation of earth from sky, and other elements of the physical universe.
Some cultures have myths about creator figures or heroes who establish legitimacy for tribes or kin groups within a tribe by giving certain people particular lands, objects, or rituals that only they can use (Leeming and Leeming 1994). The telling of these myths may be incorporated in rituals that remind people of the relationships among people in society, as well as relationships between groups. They can also be art forms: myths are often a form of literature as well as a means to promote the continuity of a culture. And in truth, stories are more meaningful and much easier to remember than lectures—a principle doubtlessly recognizable to anyone who has been a student!
Just as do tools and language, myths spread from people to people in a process anthropologists call diffusion. Humans necessarily must live near water, and after agriculture was invented, human settlements tended to congregate in river valleys, where control of water for agriculture often was the basis for political and religious power. Floods are not uncommon in such environments, and overflowing rivers may be a source of the fertility that attracts people to such settings. So, it is not surprising to find that the early agricultural societies of the Middle East all possessed versions of a flood myth and a hero who survived it on a raft or boat: the Babylonians (Ut-napishtim), Sumerians (Ziusudra), Indians (Manu), Greeks (Deucalion and Pyrrha), and Hebrews (Noah). Similarities in the flood myths of all of these groups suggest considerable diffusion—but there are differences as well, which presumably reflect individual cultural elements. After all, myths are symbolic of what is important to a people—and what was important to the Babylonians differed from what was important to the Hebrews, to take just one pair.
Sometimes as cultures come in contact with one another, new ideas and practices replace old ones, but more frequently cultural elements are borrowed and recombined. When the African Efe people encountered Christian versions of creation from Genesis, what eventually emerged was a combination origin myth incorporating a traditional female moon figure who helps the high god create human beings. He commands the people not to eat the fruit of the tahu tree, but one of the women disobeys. The moon sees her and reports her to the high god, who punishes human beings with death. If you are familiar with the biblical Adam and Eve story, you can see how the Efe adapted components of this creation myth.
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