Chapter 7. Myths
What do the stories that we tell reveal about our belief systems?
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7.1 Types of Myths and Stories
While this course focuses on religion, witchcraft and magic, for a moment we will diverge and use the term art. Anthropologists define “art” as, “symbolic representations of thought, feeling and ideas.” Art is central to the foundation, establishment, and maintenance of all human societies. Human societies created visual and verbal arts before the invention of writing (which only occurred around 5,000 years ago). As a result, societies across time have used (and continue to use) art to give meaningful expression to almost every part of their culture. This includes ideas about religion, kinship, and ethnic identity. Therefore, the verbal arts: myths, stories, and folklore, became a form of cultural reinforcement — a way to enculturate the next generation into a religion and dispel morals and values central to cultural survival.
The verbal arts include myths, folklore, narratives, dramas, poetry, incantations, proverbs riddles, word-games, even things like naming procedures, compliments and insults! As you know, the United States has historically been a society made up from people originating in many different lands, all with their unique set of myths and traditions. When they settled in the United States, they settled in cultural enclaves, which enabled them to preserve much of their culture and this included their verbal arts, myths and stories. However, this would begin to change during the 19th century as the industrial revolution triggered dramatic changes in the national culture and changed the way of life for most people. As young people moved away from home to work in factories and mills, they left their cultural enclaves and much of the folk myths and stories began to vanish without a trace. Alarmed at this Anthropologists began the work of attempting to write down these previously unwritten myths and stories. In so doing, Anthropologists coined the word ‘folklore’ — since these had been traditional oral traditions passed down from generation to generation.
7.2 What is a “myth“?
The word myth is derived from the Greek word: mythos, meaning speech or story. A myth is a sacred story that reflects and reinforces a community’s worldview. Myths explain the fundamentals of human existence, explain where everything we know comes from, why we are here, where we are going, and even our existential purpose. It’s important to understand that when the term “myth” is used, it is not to imply that the narrative is false, but rather to indicate that the narrative is sacred.
Myths provide the rationale for religious beliefs and practices and sets cultural standards for appropriate behavior. Myths often reflect a society’s values, from the concepts of gender (are women considered wise or foolish in a story? Are men considered brave or weak?). These values are the ideals that people should strive to emulate.
Traditional myths, as long as they are believed, are accepted and perpetuated in a culture and then expressed as part of a people’s traditional worldview. They also sanction certain attitudes and behaviors. They are a product of creative imagination and works of art, as well as potentially religious or ideological statements.
Malinowski wrote the following about myths,
“Myth fulfills…an indispensable function; it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficacy of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of [humanity]. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force. ”
What Malinowski is saying is that we turn to our sacred stories as a moral compass for behavior. We reflect on the variety of stories that we tell to help shape our understanding of good behavior and bad behavior. Please note that not all myths are religious. There are a variety of sacred, cultural stories that we tell. For example, we like to say that George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree but that he was such an honest young man that he immediately confessed to his crime. It’s unlikely that this actually happened, but we tell the story because we like to steep our nation’s founding in the inherent value of genuine honesty.
Anthropologists like to study myths because they reveal a great deal about a culture. Myths provide insight into:
- Cultural practices
- Values and ethical codes
- Hierarchy of humans and animals
- Humanity’s relationship with the Gods
- Relationship between humans and nature
7.3 The Power of Story-Telling
American Anthropologist Keith Basso specifically examined a particular style of myth called “Placemaking” whereby the story-telling connects their cultural stories to a physical location that can be visited. Basso explained,
“Place-making involves multiple acts of remembering and imagining which inform each other in complex ways” (Basso 5).
Let’s pause for a moment here to recognize the universality of Basso’s claim. Human memory is not perfect. If you were asked to recall exactly what happened to you yesterday, you would likely be able to recall about 50% of what happened in your day. If you were asked to recall what happened to you 2 weeks ago, maybe you could only recall about 20% of the day. If you were asked to recall what happened to you five years ago, you would likely be able to recall less than 1% of your day with any kind of accuracy. Recall the last time that you had an argument with a loved one; it’s likely that you both recalled the conflict differently. So, what happens when the human mind cannot remember what “actually happened”? We fill in the gaps of our memory with imagination. Perhaps we remember ourselves as better than we actually were, and we remember our enemies as worse than they actually were.
There has been some very research that shows that couples in relationships tend to share similar memories but that, when they break up or divorce, they start to remember the same stories differently. So, in lieu of perfect memory we often defer to those around us to help us remember what has happened.
Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot similarly commented on human story-telling in the following way,
“Narratives are necessarily emplotted in a way that life is not. Thus, they necessarily distort life whether or not the evidence upon which they are abased could be proved correct. (Trouillot 6)”
What Trouillot is saying is that we are not fictional characters who are living a life that is written by a singular author. Life does not have an inherent plot structure; the traditional plot structure that we use for storytelling was constructed by the human mind. Rather, we are all imagining our life story as if it is following a plot structure that does not inherently exist. For example: you are certainly the protagonist in your story although you are certainly the antagonist and at least one person’s story. We often tell ourselves things like, “If that person hadn’t broken my heart, I never would have met this better person, or I never would have had this new job.” We make sense of misfortune, and confusing events by assigning a traditional plot structure and logic to our imagined life.
Among Native Americans, Coyote is a central figure of creation, sometimes seen as both creator and trickster, both malevolent and good. As a shape-shifter, Coyote, like man, is both foolish and wise and humans learn from his actions. Flathead elder Joe Cullooyah (Links to an external site.) says, “Everything you need to know about life is in the coyote stories — if you just listen carefully.”
The Salish-speaking people of Spokane, Washington have many coyote stories. Below is the story of Beaver Steals Fire, as told by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“A long time ago, the only animals who had fire lived in the sky. The earth animals wanted fire to keep warm, and decided that whoever sang the best song would be the leader into the sky to steal fire. Beaver and the animals tried to sing, but they were not satisfied. Then they heard Coyote sing and all the animals began to dance and named Coyote the leader.
“Wren, Coyote’s friend, shot arrows into the sky world, creating a ladder. Wren climbed up the ladder and dropped a rope for the animals to climb up. Curlew, the guardian of fire, was at the river watching his fish traps and the animals followed him back to his camp, where the fire was kept.
Beaver pretended he was dead, floating in the river, and Curlew grabbed him and wanted to skin him and dry his hide. Suddenly, Eagle landed on Curlew’s house and he ran outside to catch him. That is when Beaver stole the fire. Beaver took the fire and swam down the river, climbed back down the rope. That is how the animals brought fire to us (Southwick).
According to the Salish and Kootenai tribes, they explain that “Coyote and other animal-people taught the Salish about spirituality, subsistence, and social organization. These teachings were centered on a relationship with the land and all living creatures. There was no concept of land ownership; it was the land, water, and sun that owned the people (S&K Technologies).”
Embedded in the Salish oral traditions are references to the ‘long bitter cold’ which is a reference to the last Ice Age. Archaeologists have documented sites within the Salish aboriginal territory that correlate to their traditional stories and therefore reflect a continuous tribal occupancy reaching back to the time of the last Ice Age. For people without a writing system, oral tradition becomes a fundamental way of cultural transmission that provides both practical information and cultural continuity.
7.5 Native American Creation Myths
Many Native American peoples share a belief that they emerged from the Earth. The Hopi, the westernmost group of Pueblo Indians, is one of these peoples. The Hopi origin story has it that Hopis used to live beneath the earth. When it came time to emerge into the world, Hopi met Maasaw, Caretaker and Creator of the Earth, and promised him they would help take care of the world as a trade-off for staying. The sacred story of Hopi origins includes a covenant that Hopi peoples will be stewards of the earth. After making this promise, Pueblo Indians began a sacred quest, under Maasaw’s order, to find “center spaces” and settle, and populations marked their settlements with spiral insignia as they found them. This is in direct contrast to the Judeo-Christian creation myth (see below), in which mankind is given “dominion” over the earth and its lifeforms. Here we see humanity in control of nature instead of man living in balance with nature.
If, as anthropologists, we are to examine these particular myths, one might look at these details and conclude that these groups of people recognize a kinship among all living things. They are given their role or purpose as caretaker of the world. They see their ‘creator’ as a being that is part of the natural world — not a being that is in a human form. Therefore, they do not see ‘god’ in themselves, but that humans are dwarfed by nature — nature being more powerful than humans. We are here to serve and be caretakers, not to dominate or control.
The idea of closeness among all living things led the Hopi and the Salish to show special respect to the animals they hunted in order to sustain their own lives. In addition, the corn cultivated by the Hopi is seen as a sacred element in their culture — given to them as a gift.
7.6 Judeo-Christian Creation Myth
Reflect on the Hopi creation myth and compare it to the familiar Judeo-Christian creation myth of Adam and Eve. God (the creator) creates man (in His own image). Therefore, man sees God as he sees himself (as a man). Women are created as helpers to Man. Man is assigned dominion and controller of nature. Woman (Eve) is foolish and listens to nature (i.e., the serpent). Then humans are punished and set to toil the earth. Work is seen as a punishment to man.
What values do you see that differ between Native American creation myths and Judeo-Christian creation myths?
As discussed above, emergence is one common theme in creation myths. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that the world was at first simply dark chaos. Then, the “Island of Creation” emerged from the primordial waters and began creating life and gods (David, 115). Other themes of creation myths include birth, hold beings that create things, and the idea of darkness turning into light or chaos turning into order (Stein and Stein 29–55).
7.7 Control Through Story-Telling
Anthropologist Keith Basso lived for a long time among the Apache of Cibecue, Arizona. During his time living with this community he mapped 296 important cultural locations and worked to record information about their importance. Specifically, Basso discussed the way that this community connected storytelling to the land and to behavior. This particular community uses their culturally specific stories to help reinforce behavioral norms from generation to generation.
Basso describes storytelling in the following way,
“For what people make of their places is closely connected to what they make of themselves as members of society and inhabitants of the Earth, and while the two activities may be separable in principle, they are deeply joined in practice (Basso 7).”
Here, Basso is explaining that our very logic is largely connected to our physical environments.
Comparatively, British Anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that human beings strive to control our environments and physical spaces in order to create a sense of the world that we prefer. So we, on the one hand are deeply influenced by our physical spaces and we also strive to reflect our cultural values upon our physical spaces. This is what Basso studied among the Apache.
Before we begin discussing Keith Basso’s work, We should pause and take a moment to highlight the microscopic sampling that he examined. Please note that the words that we now use to refer to native American groups do not necessarily reflect the way the native American groups identified themselves historically. The word Apache is a broad brush used to refer to a group of people who share the similar Athabascan language. All people who identify as Apache are not the same, they are a diverse group like any other. Keith Basso specifically studied one group of Apache people who live in Cibecue, Arizona.
7.8 Placemaking Myths
Myths among some Apache groups are a unique type of storytelling that we call, “placemaking.” The Apache are a Native American group in the Southwest United States and, since the Apache people have lived in this part of the world for a long time, their origin stories, sacred myths, and histories literally happened in the land that surrounds them.
This is unlike those Americans who believe in Biblical stories because the majority of Christianity happened in the Middle East. If you are a Christian, imagine how it would feel to be able to look outside your kitchen window and literally see the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Every time you saw this place you would remember the important Christian themes that are taught through that story: ideas about original sin, women’s role in humanity’s downfall, the desire to ultimately return to paradise. If you saw this place every single day, it’s possible that the story surrounding it would have even greater power in your life.
Many of the Apache stories literally happened in the physical environment within which they live today. The result is that they can tell sacred stories in times of crisis and they can look around their physical environment to remember their cultural values.
- Recall history
- Build community
- Explore ethical questions
- Recall the Earth’s original and ever-changing appearance
- Remind the listeners that change is inevitable
7.9 “Water Lies With Mud In Open Container”
Something that stands out in Ketih Basso’s research is the way that he amplifies the voices of the community that he is studying. Rather than exclusively summarizing their beliefs or stories, he records the stories verbatim for the reader to experience first-hand.
Here is the placemaing story titled, “Water Lies With Mud In Open Container” directly from Basso’s book. Please take notes on the themes.
“They came to this country long ago, our ancestors did. They hadn’t seen it before, they knew nothing about it. Everything was unfamiliar to them.
They were very poor, they had a few possessions and surviving was difficult for them. They were looking for a good place to settle, a safe place without enemies. They were searching. They were traveling all over, stop here and there, noticing everything, looking at the land. They knew nothing about it and didn’t know what they would find.
None of these places had names then, none of them did, and as the people went about they thought about this. “How shall we speak about this land? “They said. “How shall we speak about where we have been and where we want to go? “
Now they are coming! They are walking upstream from down below now they are arriving here, looking all about them, noticing everything about this place. It looked to them as it looks to us now. We know that from its name — it’s name gives a picture of it, just as it was a long time ago.
Now they are happy, “this looks like a good place, “they are saying to each other. Now they are noticing the plants that live around here. “Some of these plants are unknown to us. Maybe they are good for something. Maybe they are useful as medicines. “Now they are saying, “this is a good place for hunting. Deer and turkey come here to eat and drink. We can wait for them here, hidden close by. “They are saying that they are noticing everything and talking about it together. They like what they see about this place. They are excited!
Now their leader is thinking, “this place may help us survive. If we settle in this country we must be able to speak about this place and remember it clearly and well. We must give it a name.”
So they named it “Water Lies With Mud In Open Container. They made a picture of it with words. Now they could speak about it and remember it clearly in a well. Now they had a picture they could carry in their minds. You can see for yourself. It looks like its name.”
Placemaking stories are told in the present tense rather than the past tense. This is a unique element of placemaking stories and it creates a feeling of permanence when one reads, hears, or tells the stories. By telling the story in the present tense while literally standing upon the land where the event is believed to have happened, we feel like the lessons remain continuously relevant to modern lives.
This story reflects the idea that the ancestors are hugely important to the Apache. The belief that the ancestors are the ones who discovered fertile land, settled, and created a society for future generations. This community greatly values ancestors and elders and the story reinforces that value system.
Another common theme in place making stories emphasizes that the Earth provides. Although the Earth is always changing, the story reminds us that this land was fertile, full of water and animals, and that the landscape is essential part of this community’s survival.
7.10 Myths in the Modern World
Bronislaw Malinowski wrote,
“… we are confronted by a vast apparatus, partly material, partly human, and partly spiritual, by which [hu]man[ity] is able to cope with the concrete, specific problems… (need citation)”
Many myths and legends involve taking journeys. We call this the “Hero Myth” or “Hero’s Journey”. It involves a regular person leaving home, encountering something or someone who unlocks or teaches them a secret power, that “hero” fighting and triumphing over evil, and then returning home to be welcomed as the hero. Think of some of these and compare and contrast the central ideas with the Hopi Origin story. (Some examples are the legends from Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero of a Thousand Faces”, the Star Wars films, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc.)
As mentioned before, traditional myths, as long as they are believed, are accepted and perpetuated in a culture and then expressed a part of a peoples’ traditional worldview. But what if you don’t believe the myth to be factual? What if you don’t believe that a boy named Luke Skywalker who came from a planet called Tatooine really grew up to be a Jedi Knight to fight with the resistance, only to realize that his archenemy was really his father? What happens if you don’t believe that any of that really happened? Is it still a myth? Can it really still influence a culture? Are we still being enculturated by the stories that permeate our culture?
7.11 Myths and Jediism
In 2012, The Telegraph reported (Links to an external site.) that “172,632 people in England and Wales identify themselves as Jedi Knights making it the most popular faith in the ‘Other Religions’ category on the Census and the seventh most popular faith overall.”
In fact, Jediism is now considered a new alternative religion with basic tenets. The Jedi of the Temple of the Jedi Order follows the “16 teachings” based on the presentation of the fictional Jedi from the films, such as “Jedi are mindful of the negative emotions which lead to the Dark Side” and “Jedi are guardians of peace and justice”. Adherents also follow “21 maxims.
While one might argue that our modern fandom can be classified into other verbal art categories such as legends and tales (recognized as fiction for entertainment but having a moral or practical lesson); it may be argued that in Western society, with the rise of secularism, there is a gravitation toward the ideology of superheroes who take the place of traditional religious icons.
While most fans understand that Star Wars, the Hunger Games and Marvel Superheroes were created for entertainment, there is an intense sociological need in Western society for moral touchstones. Figures that defy the odds, uphold morality, teach valuable lessons, and those that fight evil. As audiences, people in Western society do believe in what is being taught by the characters being portrayed on film. Films like those mentioned above spread ideas that value ideas like equality, independence, concepts of justice, bravery and idealism. Audiences believe in the characters because they believe in the ideas perpetuated on film. These films and stories then enculturate the next generation into believing in those same values. These are the foundation of common cultural values in Western society. These values then become the values that people in the U.S. believe they are willing to fight for.
In many respects, the myths stated above become a sort of pseudo-sacred narrative. Go to any fandom site and you will see these stories and films dissected with religious fervor intense devotion to character and theme. There is an intense devotion to these larger themes that have replaced the religious themes of earlier generations.
The characteristics of these types of myths are that the unknown is simplified and explained in terms of the known. The analysis of myths is an arduous one — and a profession all of its own! Mythmaking and the perpetuation of myth are extremely significant parts of the human condition. Studying myths of a culture can give valuable clues to the way people perceive and think about their world.
7.12 Wisdom Through Story-Telling
During his fieldwork, Basso had many informants. He conducted both formal interviews and informal interviews. One of his primary informants was an older woman named Ruth who inspired the title of his book, “Wisdom Sits In Places.” Ask yourself how you define “wisdom” and consider that no two people define wisdom in the exact same way:
- Some believe that wisdom can be learned while others believe that wisdom is something that you are born with
- Some believe that wisdom only comes from life experience while others believe that wisdom can be gained through academia and/or reading
- Some believe that wisdom comes through age while others believe that children are, actually, the wisest of us all
Basso’s informant, Ruth, defined wisdom as akin to water and that placemaking stories are like wells of wisdom that you can draw from whenever you need it. According to Ruth, the well of wisdom comes from a lifetime of knowledge and training, is passed on from generation to generation, is attached to the physical space (or, literally, sits in places as the book title references), and strengthens the community by leading to safety and prosperity.
In response to Ruth’s definition, Basso writes that he knows he’ll never be able to fully understand Ruth’s explanation of the intricacies of her storytelling purely because he wasn’t raised in this culture’s specific logic. This is one of Basso’s greatest strengths in his ethnography.
- Willingly admits what he doesn’t understand about the culture he is studying
- Notes that he will never be able to full grasp the people’s cultural idioms
- Does not assume that his idea of “common sense” will be applied by everyone; he knows that common sense is culturally specific
Good anthropologists recognize the limitations of their own culturally specific logic and make room for informants and other anthropologists to make corrections. If you don’t fully understand the culture that you are studying then you should recognize that and know that you are, actually, on the right track.
7.13 Power and Story-Telling
The most powerful people control the storytelling in any given society, and the “winners” of history write the history books. These are principles that you may already understand, but Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that writing history is actually a form of making history.
Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds readers of the important intersection between history and storytelling: only the most powerful get to write the history stories. As we already know, human life does not actually follow the structured and clear plot formulas that we assign to it, and, there is no one, unified understanding of any given event. So, who decides how we remember our history? In Trouillot’s view, the historical erasure of the experiences of less powerful groups serves the function of shaping our global culture and global mentality in favor of the most powerful.
Trouillot similarly argues that human beings can tell stories in a way that helps achieve our own political or cultural goals. Trouillot refers to the Battle of the Alamo as an example. As you may already know, from 1835–1836 colonists living in Texas rebelled simultaneously from the United States and from Mexico in an attempt to establish itself as its own country (the Republic of Texas). The Battle of the Alamo took place in February 1836 whereby a group of Texans tried to occupy the Alamo mission, but they were instead slaughtered by a Mexican general who was on a campaign to take the Mexican land back. This event was a defeat for the colonizers, but the story was used to recruit massive numbers of colonists into the army by using the phrase “Remember the Alamo!” This slogan was used as a powerful rallying cry that motivated more people to fight and, ultimately, fueled the defeat of Mexico in favor of the Republic of Texas (Trouillot 2–3). This idea and the emotions it elicits are at the heart of Texan identity and help demonstrate the unique Texan view that Texas is a unique “nation” of its own that values independence above all else.
Trouillot’s piece works through a variety of historical stories that are central to our national and global identities in order to illustrate how historical story-telling shapes our understanding of the world. In fact, Trouillot argues that writing history is, itself, a form of making history. In other words, the way that we recall our collective pasts can directly shape our belief systems in the present and future choices.
7.14–7.15 Archeologists Study Myths
Before continuing, please read and take notes on the following material:
- “Californian Archaeologists Unearth A Not-So-Ancient Egyptian Sphinx”
- “Oldest Intact Shipwreck Known To Mankind’ Found In Depths Of Black Sea”
“Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.
Basśo Keith Hamilton. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache. Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2010.
David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. Facts on File, Inc. 1998.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Dame Mary Douglas.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 12 May 2020, www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-Douglas.
Fascher, Jay. “Social Control.” Anthropology Now, anthropologynow.wordpress.com/tag/social-control/.
Haviland, William et al 2011. Cultural Anthropology, the Human Challenge. Wadsworth Cengage Publishing.
Monaghan, John and Peter Just. 2000. Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Brief Insight. Sterling, New York, London.
PBS Learning Media. 2020. The Hopi Origin Story.
Schlatter, Amy. 2014. Our Story: An Introduction to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Southwick, Nicolle. 2020. Coyote Stories: A Salishan Trickster. The Spokane Historical Society.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. 1995.
Henry Taylor and Mark Oliver 11 December 2012 • 17:03 pm The Daily Telegraph.
Temple of the Jedi Order. 2007. Doctrine of the Order.
Welsch, Robert Louis, and Luis A. Vivanco. Cultural Anthropology Asking Questions about Humanity. Oxford University Press, 2015.
This is part of “Beliefs: An Open Invitation to the Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” This chapter is written by Laurie Solis, Amanda Zunner-Keating, and Sarah Etheridge from College of the Canyons. Recorded by Amanda Zunner-Keating for Los Angeles Valley College. Photo by Greta Farnedi on Unsplash. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.