Theories of Myth

While all scholars of religion recognize the importance of the myth and the important ways that myth function in the life of the believer, there have been differing understandings of the nature of myths. As your text notes, there are at least three major theories of myth.

Functionalist Theory:

The Functionalist theory proposed by Bronislaw Malinowski Emphasizes the social function of myth. According to Malinowski, religious myths emerge in order to support and reinforce the social order of a culture. In particular, it reinforces and supports the power structure of a society as well as the roles that are appropriate for each member of the society. In addition, myths are meant to express, enhance and codify beliefs.

Carl Jung: Psychotherapeutic Theory of Myth

Carl Jung was a psychologist who differed dramatically from Freud in his understanding of both the human personality and religion. According to Jung, each person possesses:

•A conscious mind: This is the part of our consciousness of which we are aware.

•A person unconscious: This is the part of us of which we are largely unaware. It contains our hidden fears, motives, emotions, etc.

•A collective unconscious.

Of special interest is the third: the collective unconscious. For Jung, the collective unconscious was the part of each person is the repository of the wisdom and highest potentialities of personhood as preserved across the centuries of human history. Significantly, Jung believed that religion is the avenue of contact with this collective unconscious. Religion opens “the depths of the human soul, often with an intelligence and purposefulness superior to conscious insight.”

How does this relate to myth? Jung believed that the collective unconscious expressed itself in certain archetypes for its “memory structure.” Archetypes are forms or patterns that are “collective” since they occur universally. Some common archetypes are the hero, Mother Earth, Mandala (circle), a cave etc. These archetypes are the building blocks of myths

Through archetypes, myth puts us in contact with the collective unconsciousness where our highest wisdom and potential is stored. Thus, myths assist in the process that Jung called individuation: the integration of the personal consciousness with the archetypes of the unconscious. Put another way, myth connects the conscious mind with the depths of human soul residing in the collective unconsciousness

Mircea Eliade: Phenomenological Interpretation

For Eliade, myth is simply defined as an account of a sacred history; that is of history that is outside of the profane. Because it is connected to the ultimate reality of the sacred (what is really real), myth functions to explain how reality came into being and how the profane is connected to the sacred. Myth also provides exemplary models of being: orientation and meaning; that is, like an axis mundi, it provides a point of reference around which we can organize our lives. Myths thus answer existential questions such as why are we here? Why do we die?