Saturday, March 03, 2018

Some thoughts on a big word: MYTH

This post is one that is in-process. A colleague asked me for some resources on the word myth. She's going to be doing a workshop with teachers. At the 4th grade level, teachers are required to do a unit on "Native American Myths." These are some of my initial thoughts on that word and how I approach thinking about it. You're on this exploration, with me, as I do the work. Come back for more. There will be more!


What does it mean? What does it mean to you? What does it mean in literature? What stories do we call myth? Is the word used to describe similar stories of all peoples? How do we start to answer these stories?

To start thinking about these questions, some people will go right to a dictionary. Let's do that now.

According to the English Oxford Living Dictionary, the origin of the word myth is "Mid 19th century: from modern Latin mythus, via late Latin and Greek muthos.

1. A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events, like "ancient Celtic myths" or "the heroes of Greek myth".

Synonyms are "folk tale, story, folk story, legend, tale, fable, saga, allegory, parable, tradition, lore, folklore".

2. A widely held but false belief or idea, like "the belief that evening primrose oil helps to cure eczema is a myth, according to dermatologists".
2.1. A misrepresentation of the truth, like "attacking the party's irresponsible myths about privatization"
2.2. A fictitious or imagery person or thing. like "nobody has ever heard of Simon's mysterious friend--Anna said he was a myth".
2.3. An exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing, like "the book is a scholarly study of the Churchill myth". 
Looking over that information, we see "Celtic myths" and "Greek myth" and a set of synonyms. The Celts, according to the Oxford dictionary, were
... a member of a group of peoples inhabiting much of Europe and Asia Minor in pre-Roman times. Their culture developed in the late Bronze Age around the upper Danube, and reached its height in the La Tene culture (5th to 1st centuries BC) before being overrun by the Romans and various Germanic peoples.
A native of any of the modern nations or regions in which Celtic languages are (or were until recently) spoken; a person of Irish, Highland Scottish, Manx, Welsh, or Cornish descent. 
Greek, according to the Oxford dictionary, is:
A native or inhabitant of modern Greece, or a person of Greek descent. 
A Greek-speaking person in the ancient world, especially a native of one of the city states of Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. 
Thinking critically about who is named in these pages of the Oxford dictionary, and who is not, is important. We learn that the Celts had myths, and so do the Greeks. Of course, the dictionary can't be comprehensive. It can't name all the peoples who had or have myths.

Let's dive into cataloging and see how stories are categorized at WorldCat (which is "the world's largest network of library content and services).

In the Advanced Search option, I entered myth in the Keyword box, and limited the search to 2010-2018, Juvenile, Any Content (includes fiction, nonfiction, etc), Books (excludes videos, etc), and English. My search resulted in 3,191 books. The first page (shown in sets of ten) include the following titles:

  • Thea Stilton and the Missing Myth
  • Monsters: Myth or Fact
  • Dragons: Magic, Myth, and Mystery
  • How to Tell A Myth
  • Vampires: Magic, Myth, and Mystery
  • The Story of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor: A Roman Constellation Myth
  • Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of Native Americans
  • Bigfoot: Magic, Myth, and Mystery
  • The Warrior Twins: A Navajo Hero Myth
  • Exploring the Life, Myth, and Art of Ancient Egypt
What did you notice as you read through the titles? Monsters, dragons, vampires... And, obviously, I noticed the two books about Indigenous peoples.

Here's the Big Question for all of us. The question has to do with who defines what counts as a myth, and what doesn't. What, in other words, is held sacred or considered to be a religious story, shelved and cataloged as such?

What is missing from those first ten titles is any books about Christianity.

If I take a look at the second ten books, will I find books from the bible, there, in that set? Take a look in your catalog. Repeat the search I did, in whatever database you use. What do you find? I'm happy to read your comments, if you want to share them.

Like I said, this is a post-in-progress. I'm hitting the pause button (I have other work to do) and uploading this post. I hope it doesn't have typos (but it probably will) or structural problems (but it will have them, too!). It is a draft. I'll be adding material from children's literature textbooks, and, material from Native scholars, too. A work in progress, that is paused at 8:45 AM Central Time on March 3, 2018.

Back, on Sunday March 4, 2018 at 10:15 AM or thereabouts...

I've got a copy of the 7th edition of Children's Literature in the Elementary School, published by McGraw Hill. It was revised by Barbara Z. Kiefer. The authors are Charlotte S. Huck, Susan Helpler, Janet Hickman, and Kiefer. Chapter six is about Traditional Literature. Here's the table of contents for that chapter:

  • A Perspective on Traditional Literature
  • Folktales
  • Fables
  • Myths
  • Epic & Legendary Heroes
  • The Bible as Literature

The Folktales section has "Native American Folktales." I assume you noticed that the Bible got its own section? It could have been put over in the Myths section, specifically in the subjection called "Creation Myths." But--it isn't. In the "Bible as Literature" section, the authors of the textbook write that:
We must clarify the difference between the practice of religious customs and indoctrination in one viewpoint and the study of the Bible as a great work of literature.
See the word "great" there, to characterize it? Do you think their use of "great" reflects bias? Re-read the sentence again, leaving out the word great. How does it feel to do that?

Now--let's look at some of the books (single stories, not collections) discussed in that section. Using WorldCat again, I looked up the first one discussed, Light, by Sarah Waldman. Its subject headings are:

  • Creation -- Biblical teaching -- Juvenile literature
  • Children's stories, American
  • Creation
  • Bible stories -- Testament
  • Children's writings
  • Creation -- Biblical teaching

The second one is Genesis by Ed Young. Its subject headings are:

  • Bible -- Genesis
  • Creation

The third one is The Seven Days of Creation by Leonard Everett Fisher. The subject headings are:

  • Creation -- Juvenile literature
  • Creation
  • Bible stories -- O.T.

None of the subject headings for those three books are folklore.

Now--let's flip back to the Folktales section of this textbook and look up the books listed there, in the Native American section. The first one is Paul Goble's The Gift of the Sacred Dog. It is imperative that I say right away that I (and others, too) have concerns with outsiders like Goble, telling/retelling/appropriating Native stories. They get a lot of things wrong. But let's look at the subject headings:
  • Indians of North America -- Great Plains -- Folklore
  • Children's literature
  • Horses -- Folklore
  • Indians of North America
  • Great Plains
See? Folklore. (I haven't analyzed Goble's book yet. I might very well find out that it is so inaccurate that--if anything--it ought to be categorized as White Man's Indian, or, fiction, or, fantasy... )

Well---I'm hitting the pause button for now (at 2:05 Central Time on March 4th, 2018). Gonna go outside and do some yard work. I'll be back!

And I'm back, at 3:12. I did enough yard work for the day... this project called me back inside! 

I've talked about this difference in cataloging in talks I've given in person and online, too. Because there's a cloud on Goble's work, I thought it'd be good to give you an example of a book written by Native people. The one I use to illustrate this bias against Native stories is Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story. Written by the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation in Montana, and illustrated by Sam Sandoval, it includes a note on one of the first pages, that says "In Beaver Steals Fire, fire is a gift from the Creator brought by the animal beings for human beings who are yet to come. Fire remains an important gift in our traditional ways of knowing and understanding." Lot of words there, all of which tell us that this is a sacred creation story. But, here are its subject headings in WorldCat:

  • Coyote (Legendary character) -- Legends
  • Kootenai Indians -- Folklore
  • Salish Indians -- Folklore
  • Coyote (Legendary character)
  • Kootenai Indians
  • Salish Indians 

See? Folklore again! (Insert angry emoticon face, and, hitting the pause button at 3:28.)


Notes from items written by Indigenous writers/scholars:

Younging, Gregory. (2018) Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples. Brush Education (in Canada). Take a look at this entry in chapter 6, which is about terminology:
These terms are often applied to Oral Traditions. This is offensive to Indigenous Peoples because the terms imply that Oral Traditions are insignificant, not based in reality, or not relevant. The term legends can also be constructed this way, although legends acceptable to Indigenous Peoples in the sense that Oral Traditions describe past events that are legendary. To avoid misunderstanding, it's best to use terms such as Oral Traditions or Traditional Stories. 

Silva, Noenoe K. (year) "Hawaiian Literature in Hawaiian" in The Oxford Handbook of Indigenous American Literature, Oxford University Press, page 115:
Loss of our mother tongue accompanied the loss of nationhood. From 1896 on, all schooling in Hawaiʻi was conducted in English. All the generations that followed were much more knowledgeable about English language and literature than Hawaiian. Only those privileged enough to be educated in the language and literature, either at home with a elder or at the university, were familiar with our stories and poetry. Anthropologists, folklorists, and children’s book authors recast this literature as myth, legend, folklore, and children’s stories.


Ava Jarvis said...

I always viewed "myth" as a derogatory term, because if it wasn't, Bible stories would also be called myths. But they aren't by the general public. Therefore the term myth is derogatory and, given its second definition, is used to label other religions as false.

So when people label my animist beliefs as myth, I know exactly what they're saying to me. (And usually this is followed up by the forum equivalent of religious persecution by certain Christians. Which is weird because if they willingly label my beliefs as false, and society and the churches at large agree with them, why do they feel the need to follow it up with harassment of a lone individual who couldn't even begin to move that mountain?)

These days I consider myself as someone who believes in Shinto, because that is the closest match for my animist beliefs. It means putting up with people who are convinced that what's labeled myth can never actually be religion.

Cassandra Gelvin said...

"Myth" is definitely a loaded word. Somewhat like "cult" versus religion, it seems to be related to the number of people currently holding such a belief. It seems strange that "legend" doesn't have quite the same negative connotation, although it still implies that something is false. I think "legend" is more commonly applied to one's own culture, as in the "legend" of King Arthur or Robin Hood. "Myth" is a label given to something not of one's own culture. Personally, I would never use it to label the beliefs of a specific currently-living person, but my lack of knowledge about other cultures makes it difficult to apply in a general sense. As applied to religious beliefs, it doesn't sound right to me unless it describes the beliefs of an ancient people (as in, one that doesn't exist anymore or hold those beliefs anymore like the "Ancient Greeks" or the "Ancient Egyptians"). To me, it implies that most Native Americans no longer hold such beliefs, or possibly no longer hold them to be literally true. As someone largely unfamiliar with the culture, I honestly do not know whether that implication is true.

I don't think that "myth" is used purely to label other religions as false. If that were true, Christians would discuss "Buddhist myth" or "Hindu myth" and that doesn't seem to be the case. With the vast array of religious beliefs in the world, I am sure some people believe in the same things that the ancient Greeks or Egyptians did. I certainly wouldn't tell those people that their beliefs are "myths" any more than I would tell a Christian the same thing. It has the insulting connotation of, "People used to believe that, but now that we know better, we don't think that any more. Wasn't that quaint?" (As opposed to the word "legend" which means, "We used to believe that, but now we don't any more. Wasn't that romantic?")

Ann Bennett said...

Hmmm, this is food for thought.

I remember when I first heard the story of Adam & Eve was a myth or an allegory. I thought to myself that I believed the story. Later, I came to terms with it being a myth. I learned more myths of the Judeo-Christian beginning. For reference, I was raised in the Southern Baptist religion. There were private family beliefs that were passed that would not be considered Christian.

Myth does not have that negative connotation to me. Some in that so many myths contain so much wisdom. What comes to mind due is "When the Gods decide to destroy you, they make you anger." There is so much righteous anger with the endorphin rush that ripples through social media. But there is a destructive force when this happens.

There is so little known about native American beliefs to non-natives. I'm retired now and can do a bit better research. My initial interest was that I knew some of my storybook ideas originated from childhood influences. Was it all European? What was African and Native American.

I did constellation shows for school children. I did try to research Native American constellations but I was never very confident of the sources and the lack of supporting sources. So I did the Greek and Roman constellations and went into depth about heavenly movement. There were ancient European constellations but I had even more trouble getting their stories. Much of what you learn today about European beliefs before Christianity are relatively recent accounts.

As a teacher, I avoided passing any information I was not sure. So the myth part would be how I would treat anything cultural that I did not know. Except for a few reading classes, I taught science so this was not a big discussion with any of my students.

I'm coming back later to read comments and discussion. I don't mean any disrespect to anyone's belief system. I would never compare another religion to being a cult. A cult in my opinion is a group that benefits a leader who is almost always corrupt. 200 years later, that cult is considered a religion.

King Arthur is a myth.

Unknown said...

For what it's worth, folklorists define myths as stories about god(s), often with explanatory power, and legends as stories about humans, so Hermes slaying Argos and Hera putting his eyes on the peacock is a myth, and Robin Hood and John Henry are legends. Wonder tales (irrelevant here, but my specialty) don't involve religious figures and nobody believes them or has ever believed them to be true. All three are subsets of folklore, which is literally any kind of knowledge or practice that is transmitted through non-official, non-institutional means.

Obviously, in real life, stories are not always or even usually easily divisible into those categories, which are clearly based on European types of stories and don't map well onto anybody else's stories, despite the imperialist efforts of nineteenth-century folklorists to make everybody else's stories fit their models.

I disagree, though, that people don't apply "myth" to their own culture. Jewish folklorists will refer to the myth of Lilith, for instance. I would say "myth" refers to any religious story unrecognized, unacknowledged, or unlegitimized by current powerful authorities, which is why I don't use it about current beliefs, but will use it about traditional stories about ancient Greek gods. What's interesting to me is that counter-cultural critics will also use it about beliefs that are legitimated by the dominant cultural authorities but are either incorrect or incomplete or in some way need puncturing: the myth of Churchill as a great man.

I personally like Barthes's definition of myth, which he generalizes to mean any story that refuses consideration of its own historical/cultural context and makes a claim to objective truth--it would include things like, I don't know, America as the Land of Opportunity. But that is neither here nor there here, and I'm just rabbiting on.


Adam J. Thaxton said...

When I took my first round of anthropology batteries, my instructor lumped Christian beliefs in with every other cultural belief. He gave me a definition of myth that has struck me to this day:

"That which is most true to a culture."

It was so ridiculously simple and absolutely subversive in its elegance. The stone pillars in the American west were suddenly Grandmother Spider's petrified giants and remnants of ancient volcanic activity. The Garden of Eden didn't exist, but the events may as well have happened to the people who believed it. The islands of Japan were created by both Susano-O's spear tip and the Ring of Fire. Truth was not verifiable fact. Facts were facts, but they weren't truth - not to cultures, beliefs, and people.

I see what you mean about the common usage, though, and how it's used to strip dignity from non-Christian belief structures. I understand wanting to step away from it. Is there perhaps another word we could use that might be defined as "that which is most true to a culture?" I mean, I like "oral traditions" and "traditional stories," but those also have a somewhat troubling (colonial) connotation. I'm sure there's got to be something floating around out there waiting to be coined or re-purposed. My roommate says the word for tradition/story/lineage in Hawai'i is mo'olelo. Is there something like that we could start using?

Unknown said...

I've always wondered that, while I'm shelving books at my library. Why do some cultures' stories go in the religion section, while others go into the fairy tale/folk tale section? Who makes that determination? Does it change over time?

Sam Jonson said...

Hey, Debbie, do thou think that "parable" or "fable" might be a better word than "myth"? Because "traditional story", besides being long, doesn't make it clear that such a story is told to reveal a truth, as "fable" and "parable" do.

Erika said...

Adam, I really like that definition for "myth," and suspect it's a lot closer to the original than our common usage. The second definition is much more recent and so, so unfortunate. I'm currently grappling with the lack of a good alternative in English as I'm thinking about tweaking the organization of my library's picture book section. My predecessor introduced a thematic organization scheme, which I like in theory, but there's a section labeled "Fantasy, Fables, and Folklore" that makes me want to tear my hair out. For what it's worth, until I can figure out a good way of making a "books about that which is most true to a culture" section, I put Bible stories that aren't specific to a holiday in there, too.

Sam Jonson said...

I just re-read this post & its follow-up comments, & it reminded me of 3 things:

1. Debbie, I think that "myth", "folktale", & "legend" may have been used in the 1st place not merely to be derogatory or negatory (sorry, I had to), but rather to describe something that just wasn't contained in a Holy Book like the Bible, the Qur'an, or the Rig Veda. (Will anything like that--Holy Books--ever happen w/, say, the full body of Ojibwe Trad. Story? And when? Because I do know that something similar to Holy Books has already happened w/ Greek & Norse myths, even tho they weren't originally contained in Holy Books back when their gods were worshipped.)

2. Even then, some things in Holy Books aren't based in fact at all, even when they're of the kind known as "Bible stories". Take Exodus, for instance--the Israelites never actually lived, nor were enslaved, in Egypt. The Exodus story wasn't created til the 10th-8th centuries BC, & was likely done as political grandstanding. And contrary to the Book of Esther, Xerxes's wife was named Amestris, not "Vashti", & was never banished; that book is actually historical fiction, created to explain Purim, which was probably actually a Persian (& non-Jewish) holiday adopted by Persian Jews.

3. What Adam Thaxton said...that reminds me of the comic fantasy novel Pyramids by Terry Pratchett, where there's an Ancient Egypt-like kingdom called Djelibeybi that's assimilated gods from countries they've previously conquered/ruled over (such as the kingdom of Howandaland) & put those gods into their myths:

The crumbling scrolls of Knot said that the great orange sun was eaten every evening by the sky goddess, What, who saved one pip in time to grow a fresh sun for next morning. And Dios knew that this was so.

The Book of Staying in The Pit said that the sun was the Eye of Yay, toiling across the sky each day in His endless search for his toenails.* And Dios knew that this was so.
(*Lit. "Dhar-ret-kar-mon," or "clipping of the foot." But some scholars say that it should be "Dar-rhet-kare-mhun," lit. "hot-air paint stripper.")

The secret rituals of the Smoking Mirror held that the sun was in fact a round hole in the spinning blue soap bubble of the goddess Nesh, opening into the fiery real world beyond, and the stars were the holes that the rain comes through. And Dios knew that this, also, was so.

Folk myth said the sun was a ball of fire which circled the world every day, and that the world itself was carried through the everlasting void on the back of an enormous turtle. And Dios also knew that this was so, although it gave him a bit of trouble.

And Dios knew that Net was the Supreme God, and that Fon was the Supreme God, and so were Hast, Set, Bin, Sot, Io, Dhek, and Ptooie; that Herpetine Triskeles alone ruled the world of the dead, and so did Syncope, and Silur the Catfish-Headed God, and Orexis-Nupt.

Dios was maximum high priest to a national religion that had fermented and accreted and bubbled for [over 7000] years and never threw a god away in case it turned out to be useful. [...] As a result [...] the priests of the Djel could give mind room to a collection of ideas that would make even a quantum mechanic give in and hand back his toolbox.

Later in the book, this leads to chaos when, due to a mishap, Djelibeybi gets trapped in a pocket dimension where all of their gods awaken as 70-foot giants, while their king is away. The sun gods--Scrab, the Pusher of the Ball of the Sun; Thrrp, the Charioteer of the Sun; & Jeht, Boatman of the Solar Orb--fight over the sun, w/ their priests giving sports commentary.

Wonder if that'd mean that "Gitche Manitou is the Great Spirit, & so is Wakan Tanka, & things can get pretty chaotic when they fight" or something. (Altho I know that's really a very good reason why authors shouldn't mash-up different tribes.)