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What is Myth?


What is myth? There is no one satisfactory definition, since myths serve many different purposes. The first purpose was to explain the inexplicable. Since the beginning of humankind's existence, myths have functioned as rationalizations for the fundamental mysteries of life, questions such as: Who made the world? How will it end? Where do we come from? Who was the first human? What happens when we die? Why does the sun travel across the sky each day? Why does the moon wax and wane? Why do we have annual agricultural cycles and seasonal changes? Who controls our world, and how can we influence those beings so our lives are easier?

A Universal Need
In the absence of scientific information of any kind, long ago societies all over the world devised creation myths, resurrection myths, and complex systems of supernatural beings, each with specific powers, and stories about their actions. Since people were often isolated from each other, most myths evolved independently, but the various myths are surprisingly similar, in particular creation myths.

So the need for myth is a universal need. Over time, one version of a myth would become the accepted standard that was passed down to succeeding generations, first through story-telling, and then, much later, set down in written form. Inevitably myths became part of systems of religion, and were integrated into rituals and ceremonies, which included music, dancing and magic.

The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and to account for its rites and customs. One constant rule of mythology is whatever happens among the gods reflects events on earth. In this way, events such as invasions and radical social changes became incorporated into myths. Some myths, especially those from the Greco-Roman and medieval periods, also serve to illustrate moral principles, frequently through feats of heroism performed by mortals.

Compelling Stories for Artists
But what concerns us most here are the visual interpretations of myths that artists through time have given us. Many myths are such compelling stories that artists have turned to them again and again, reinterpreting them from the vantage point of their own experience and imagination. An artist's representation provides a concrete mental picture of a myth or mythological character, as in the Antimenes painter's image of Athena meeting Herakles with her chariot. In some instances, as with the memorial tusk from Benin, a work of art can trigger a story. While some representations, such as the Egyptian statue of Thoth, are largely dictated by tradition, others such as Maurice Denis's painting of Orpheus and Eurydice, are more personal. Regardless of why or how it was created, each image contributes an added dimension to our understanding or interpretation of that myth.

Many of the images in this collection represent myths that explain a practice, belief, institution, or natural phenomenon. The Yoruba king's crown, the Roman furniture decoration, and the abstract designs on the Lakota dress refer to creation stories. The Bamana antelope headdress symbolizes Chi Wara, who taught the Bamana people how to plant, and the pig carved on a pole evokes a story about traditional Melanesian society of New Ireland.

Hero myths, tales of adventure filled with fantastic beings and superhuman feats, are also represented in this collection. The stories told through the images of Isis, Theseus, the Nio guardians, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, to name a few, present a broad range of heroic acts achieved through clever magic, physical strength, and devout faith.

The Truth About Myths and Legends
There are a few images that are about real people or events. These are more properly called legends, to distinguish them from myths, which are imaginary. For example, the story of Nebuchadnezzar is based on the life of a ruler of the ancient Babylonian Empire, and the story recounted on the carved tusk from Benin is based entirely on actual personalities and events. But in each case, the lives of the lead characters are embellished with borrowed or fictional additions. The goal of a legend was not to provide an accurate record of an individual's life, but to portray it as an example of virtuous or evil conduct - with appropriate consequences - to be emulated or avoided. In the legends about Christian saints, historical facts were altered as needed, and emphasis place on miraculous or extraordinary events. The legend about Herbert Hoover is a particular case, because he was still alive when it was consciously created for him to enhance his new status as President.

As the richness of the myths represented in this collection conveys, myth and falsehood are not synonymous. What is truth to one is fancy to another; however, it is not up to any of us to decide that one community's mythology is any more or less valid than another's. Myth is a positive force that unites many cultures rather than divides them. Throughout the world myths provide people with explanations, histories, role models, entertainment, and many other things that enable them to direct their own actions and understand their own surroundings.



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