Myths as an Alternative Form of History

Myths are a Type of History

            The systematic study of myths provides a method for studying the past. However, though myths contain some legendary and historical qualities, it is important to remember that they are not accurate historical accounts. If a myth describes a historical event, person, or place it has been exaggerated by storytellers over such long periods of time it is difficult to tell what really happened. Myths are not a historical story though they are used to validate claims of territory, power, ritual, performance, and succession for royalty. Myths cover up historical inconsistencies rather than preserve them exactly, fulfilling a sociological function in society to justify or glorify the past. Nevertheless, myths may describe an event of lasting influence and most provide explanations of natural phenomena. In this way, myths do contain truth, either literal, historical, metaphorical, or symbolic.

            Myths have been studied as a poorer version of history corrupted through the evolution of language. The corruption of language distorted the truth of the event or person and accounts for the absurdities and embellishments in the myth itself. Bernard Fontenelle (1657-1757) argued that myths are subject to degeneration when they are transmitted from one person to another but contain factual information about certain people and events. He also suggested that some Greek myths changed because people misunderstood words or rearranged the plot.

            Max Műller (1823-1900) argued in Comparative Mythology (1977[1856]) that the “disease of language” accounted for the strange and fantastic elements in myths. He believed that Aryan was the original language of all humankind, though only spoken by a small group in Asia. An Aryan was a member of any people speaking an Indo-European language, though the term is no longer used. For Műller, the initial phase of language occurred in the first stages of human evolution. Languages then became distorted as groups evolved and splintered from the original Aryan language. The Aryan language did not have a vocabulary for abstractions and consequently, people had to describe natural phenomena as best as they could using limited words. As a result, the meanings of the allegorical stories about nature, particularly the sky, sun, moon, and dawn, have been lost.

Further Reading

Muller (1856) Comparative Mythology.

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