On Myths and Sisyphean Tasks
by Thomas J. Sienkewicz
Minnie Billings Capron Professor of Classics
This essay was originally written as the introduction to World Mythology: An Annotated Guide to Collections and Anthologies (Lanham, Md: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1996.) It is here revised and adapted for his students in Classical Mythology at Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois. If you have comments or suggestions about this material, you may contact Prof. Sienkewicz at email@example.com.
Sisyphus, the great sinner of Greek mythology, was doomed to roll a
rock up a hill forever in the Underworld. Whenever he was just short of
the top, the rock slipped and fell back to the bottom. The study of
mythology presents students with challenges and frustrations which parallel those of Sisyphus.
Indeed, myth is a much more slippery and intangible rock than any Sisyphus had to roll. Despite
centuries of debate and interpretation, the boundaries of myth remain unfixed and its mass
unweighable. Such uncertainty challenges students who approach mythology for the first time.
The purpose of this essay is to provide some context for an initial foray into the study of
mythology and the mythologies of the world.
The subject matter of myth is unlimited. Myths include creation stories, aetiological tales
explaining the origin of persons, places, or customs, legends about heroes, and folktales about
ghosts, witches, and other supernatural occurrences. What do all these stories have in common?
Some might say that they are all fiction or falsehood, that the basic meaning of "myth" is untruth.
Hence the use of the word to refer to an untruth like belief in white supremacy, or imaginary
people, events, or phenomena like the abominable snowman. A more accurate starting point for
understand the word English word "myth" is its Greek parent word mythos which means "speech,
story." Myths, then, are essentially traditional stories, narratives handed down from generation to
generation within a community.
Such narratives are usually divided into three or four categories, according to subject matter.
"Myths proper" deal with gods, creation, and the origin of things. Legends and sagas tell the life
story and great deeds of heroes or extraordinary mortals. Folktales or Märchen are about ordinary
people. Fairy tales about supernatural creatures like giants, ogres, and fairies are sometimes
grouped with folktales and other times are grouped separately. A great deal of overlap exists
among these types. Some myths deal with interaction between heroes and gods, like the
relationship between the Greek goddess Athena and the heroes Odysseus and Heracles. Other
myths show ordinary mortals encountering or even becoming deities. According to the Inuit
myths of the Arctic, for example, Sedna was a mortal woman who was transformed into a
goddess terrifying to humans. Although some would argue that the only real myths are those
which deal with the gods and creation, that folktales and fairy tales can legitimately be excluded
from mythological handbooks, such a decision is somewhat arbitrary. Myths about the gods and
folktales have much in common. Both types of traditional narrative share themes and motifs.
Offense against a god is the core of the mythic conflict between the Titan Prometheus and the
god Zeus. The same theme is central to the fairy tale about Sleeping Beauty, where one fairy is
offended because she was not invited to the christening of the infant princess. As much as
Sisyphus really would like to divide his rock into more manageable parts, it really cannot be
done. Myths proper, legends, folktales, and fairy tales share features and themes which warrant
These myths spill over into so many different areas, that, in some ways, the subject matter of
myth becomes almost endless. For example, books of folklore often contain not only traditional
narratives, but also less mythological materials like personal recollections, superstitions,
customs, omens, cures, proverbs, and riddles. While such materials complement the study of
mythology, they are not its primary focus. Also complementing these myths are modern fictional
tales and reinterpretations of myths, such as the creations of Hans Christian Andersen, the great
nineteenth-century Danish storyteller, or John Barth's Chimera (New York: Random House,
1972), a literary reworking of myths about the Greek heroes Perseus and Bellerophon.
Seeking a distinction between myth and history does not really help Sisyphus either. It might
seem easy for twentieth-century Americans to distinguish the Revolutionary War from the battle
in which the Tuatha De Danaan, the divine inhabitants of ancient Ireland, gained control of the
island from the Fir Bolgs. The first is an historical event carefully supported by a variety of
reliable documents. The second looks back to a primeval time for which there are no historical
records. The difference appears straightforward, yet the historicity of the Trojan War was the
subject of similar skepticism until Heinrich Schliemann astonished the world in 1871 by
uncovering the ruins of an ancient city on the site of Homer's Troy.
Nor is the line dividing myth from history so easy to discern in other parts of the world. The
traditional story of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus who had been nursed by a
she-wolf is told by the Roman historian Livy, yet it is found in all the handbooks on Roman
mythology. West Africa possesses a biographical tradition which conflates legend and history.
Sunjata, the subject of these tales, was the thirteenth-century founder of the ancient kingdom of
Mali. While he really lived, many of the details in Sunjata's life are far from historically reliable.
In their songs the griots of modern Mali, Guinea, Gambia, and Senegal sometimes portray the
hero as the champion of Islam, even the descendant of the Prophet; other times his antagonist is
endorsed by the power of Allah, while Sunjata is sanctioned by animistic forces. Historians have
no proof of the hero's actual religious persuasion, but, from a mythological perspective, this
ambiguity is neither unusual nor troublesome. Myth tends to be self-contradictory rather than
consistent; it tends to include rather than exclude different versions of the same tale. So, in a
society where both religious traditions have historically been strong, Sunjata is both the defender
of Islam and its animistic opponent. In a similar way, the figure of Raven in the Pacific
Northwest is both creator and trickster. He can make the world better for humankind by bringing
light to the world, but he also teases humankind unmercifully in the process. Sisyphus' rock has
taken on a double identity.
Despite the ambiguity of personality which they share, Sunjata remains more historical than the
anthropomorphic Raven. His major accomplishment, the founding of a great kingdom, is
plausible enough. At the same time, details of his life story tip the scales back in favor of myth.
In particular, the griots tend to exaggerate Sunjata's conception, gestation, birth, and childhood.
Imaginative details are used to enhance Sunjata's life and to make it extraordinary. Even more
precocious than the Greek god Hermes, who steals his brother Apollo's cattle on the day he is
born, Sunjata's fetus occasionally sneaks out of his mother's womb to play. As a child, Sunjata
remains unable to walk for many years, sometimes not until the age of twelve. When he finally
does walk, it is under dramatic circumstances. Because of her son's infirmity Sunjata's mother
has no one to collect baobab leaves for her kitchen and is mocked by other mothers with healthy
sons. Goaded by his mother's shame, Sunjata finally walks, uproots a giant baobab tree, and
plants it in his mother's courtyard.
These tales of Sunjata's frolicking fetus and the giant baobab tree have no foundation in truth.
Both stories transport the biography of the historical Sunjata into the realm of heroic legend,
where heroes are marked as special from the moment of conception. This heroic pattern is most
fully developed by Lord Raglan (The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama. London:
Methuen and Company, 1936. 2nd edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956) who notes similar
events in the lives of heroes all over the world. Perseus is conceived in a shower of gold, Oedipus
under the shadow of patricide, and Helen by union of mortal woman and god disguised as a
swan. So, too, Jesus is made man via immaculate conception, the Buddha experiences a series of
births, the birth of King Arthur takes place in the context of infidelity, if not technical
illegitimacy, and the conception of the Aztec hero Quetzalcoatl is linked with the mysterious
disappearance of a beautiful feather found by his mother the goddess Coatlicue. Such parallels
cast further doubt upon the historical accuracy of Sunjata's own conception, pregnancy, and birth,
but they celebrate Sunjata's mythic features.
Myth and history also intersect in the United States. George Washington was certainly the first
President, but he probably did not chop down a cherry tree or throw a silver dollar across the
Potomac. Davy Crockett was a Congressman and the hero of the Alamo, but his feats of
marksmanship, personal prowess, and ability to wrestle wild bears parallel the exaggerated
accomplishments of Sunjata.
From one point of view, the story of Sunjata's wandering fetus or the tale of Davy Crockett and
the bear are fiction. A rationalist can claim that they never happened, yet, in some ways these
events are just as real, just as true as historical events. These tales remain alive in the
imaginations of those who tell and those who hear the stories. The ability to exist as a fetus
outside his mother's womb makes Sunjata stand apart from everyone else and heralds his special,
heroic position in society. Anyone who hears the story knows that this child will be a formidable
opponent as an adult. Similarly, Davy Crockett's defeat of the bear celebrates his skill as a
frontiersman, as a nineteenth-century embodiment of American superiority over the formidable
wilderness. Sisyphus' rock becomes heavier.
The heroic lives of both Sunjata and Davy Crockett have a more universal meaning, too. Both the
crippled hero's ability to overcome his physical limitations and help his mother and the American
frontiersman's successful encounter with ferocious nature provide assurance to all of us that we
can overcome the obstacles of our lives and succeed. We can all become Sunjatas and Davy
Crocketts. In Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious Carl Jung explains the universality of
the hero story in terms of a body of unconscious dreams and aspirations which the human
community shares. Jung argues that the lives of heroes like Sunjata or Davy Crockett contain
recurring themes or archetypes which reflect basic human psychological needs. We all yearn for
heroes who parallel our own lives. They may be greater than we are, but they experience the
same hardships and joys. They must grow up, face challenges, succeed, and even die, just as we
all do. Sisyphus himself has undergone similar transformation. In the philosophy of the French
existentialist Albert Camus, Sisyphus' hopeless task becomes a symbol of the intrinsic absurdity
of life. So myth intersects not only with history, but also with human psychology and human
aspirations. Sisyphus' rock takes on more weight.
For all of these reasons, the study of mythology inevitably includes references to material which
we might otherwise consider historical or religious rather than mythic. Intersection of myth and
history occurs not only in the Sunjata epic of West Africa and in North American tall tales about
Davy Crockett but also in legends about the early Inca kings of Peru among the South American
myths, material about the settlement and early history of the Pacific islands, stories about British
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and Scandinavian sagas among Atlantic
exploration and the settlement of Iceland.
Legends about historical figures put into perspective the lives of more imaginary heroes like the
Greek Perseus, who flies on the winged sandals of the god Hermes and uses the severed head of
the Gorgon Medusa to petrify his enemies. Or the Babylonian hero Gilgamesh who slays the evil
giant Humbaba with the help of his trusty friend Enkidu. Or the trickster Coyote, who, in an
emergence tale of the Navajo of the southwest U.S., cheats Water Monster of his fur coat in a
game of chance and steals his children. In retaliation, Water Monster sends upon the world a
great flood, from which Coyote rescues people and animals by leading them from the Fourth
World up into the present Fifth World. Perseus' winged sandals, Gilgamesh's monster, and
Coyote's great flood, like Sunjata's baobab tree or Davy Crockett's bear, cannot be judged on the
standard basis of fact and fiction and lead us to grapple with the truth of myth. At this point,
Sisyphus might despair.
Myth, then, is a lie. Perseus' winged sandals make no sense, so we reject them as "just a story."
Sometimes we dismiss them as products of "primitive," untrained minds lacking in the tools of
rational thought. Yet the mythic mind is not as naive as all that. The Greeks themselves were
aware that their tales were lies and told the story of the poet Stesichorus who once blamed the
Trojan War on the wantonness of Helen and was struck blind by Zeus, insulted at this unfair
accusation of his daughter by Leda. Stesichorus responded by composing the first "palinode" or
recantation, in which he took it all back and claimed that Helen did not cause the war, that,
indeed, she never went to Troy at all, only her ghost did. Of course, Stesichorus' own story places
the poet among those special mythic figures marked in some way by god. The storyteller is
transformed from myth-maker to myth. The rock and Sisyphus become one.
So the Greeks were not troubled by contradictory versions of the same myth. Nor were they necessarily haunted by Helen and her ghost. Rather, the two Helens can be seen as two sides of the same coin, as an examination of the complex role of women in ancient Greek society, just as Sunjata's wandering fetus is both Islamic and animistic. The West African griots themselves recognize the inconsistencies in their story and singers can tell the story in different ways, one from another. There is no fixed way of telling the tale. Details change at the whim of the storyteller. Imagine if Sisyphus' rock underwent metamorphosis as he rolled it up the hill!
If myths are lies, the storyteller is not the only liar. Mythmakers all over the world remind their
audiences that they do not invent their stories, but hear them from others. The West African
griot, for example, often celebrates his own genealogy in which he traces his ancestry through a
chain of paternal singers back to the time of Sunjata. From this point of view, myth is not a lie,
but an oral tradition, the common heritage of a people, and the storyteller's tales represent the
collective memory of the people. If the storyteller lies, we all lie.
Some ancient Greek storytellers avoid the fate of Stesichorus not by blaming their ancestors, but
by implicating the gods. So the Iliad and the Odyssey begin with invocations in which the poet
prays to the Muse, the Greek goddess of inspiration, to tell him the story he will sing. In the first
book of the Odyssey, Penelope, the wife of the hero Odysseus, is grieved when the court singer
performs a tale about the missing hero and she rebukes the singer for his lack of tact. Her son
Telemachus interrupts his mother and defends the singer with the argument that blame lies not
with the singer, but with the god Zeus who sings through him. Here the singer of the Odysseyand
the authors of the Bible intersect. Both claim to be divinely inspired.
This claim is particularly strong in the poetry of the ancient Greek Hesiod, the author of a
creation story called Theogony. At the beginning of this poem, Hesiod claims that the Muses
themselves taught him fine singing as he kept sheep on Mount Helicon. Such personal encounter
with deity is not found only in Greek myth. In the myth of Sedna, the chief deity of the Inuit, the
shaman serves as the intermediary between the people and their angry goddess. When Sedna
withholds food from the people, the shaman intercedes.
So the discussion of myth is no frivolous matter. It confronts us not only with history, but with
deity, and forces us to rethink our views of truth and religion. It poses for us questions which can
have no answer. How did we come to exist? Why do we die? What happens after we die? These
basic questions and concerns of humankind will never be answered to our satisfaction, any more
than we will ever really know whether Washington chopped down the cheery tree or if Sunjata
relocated the baobab tree. The task is as futile as Sisyphus'.
But if myths are a lie, what about biblical tales like the story of Noah and the flood? Scholars of
the Near East have noted parallels between the flood in Genesis and an older Babylonian flood
story, which has its own Noah called Utnapishtim, and includes an aetiology about the rainbow.
Explaining these similarities as Hebrew borrowings of a Sumerian tale about the flooding of the
Tigris and Euphrates rivers challenges religious belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Students of mythology must be prepared to accept historical and metaphoric analysis and
interpretation of Bible stories and to recognize mythological features of these tales.
Great world cataclysms like floods and fires are a common theme of mythologies all over the
world, including China, Oceania, Africa, and the Americas. Here is another challenge for
Sisyphus. Why should one flood story be considered true and another false? If the stories of
Utnapishtim and of Coyote are just lies, then, one might argue, so is the story of Noah and the
Ark. Such tales about great primeval world cataclysms are part of a common core of myths about
the gods, creation of the world, and the origin of humankind in the mythologies of people all
over the world. Within each cultural group, these tales are legitimate attempts to articulate a
world view and to explain religious beliefs. Judged from outside the culture, these tales often
appear contradictory and even nonhistorical. Individuals with strong religious convictions
sometimes find it difficult to recognize the inevitable overlap of religious beliefs and myths.
Comparing the creation story in Genesis with Babylonian or Navajo cosmogonies does not
automatically cast into doubt the religious validity of any of these tales. Myths can provide
radically different versions of reality which remain legitimate for the people who tell them.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to separate mythology from religious beliefs, and we do so
inconsistently. We consider our own myths to be religious beliefs and describe the religious
beliefs of other cultures as myths. While scholarly treatments of more primitive cultures in
Africa, South America, and Oceania traditionally merge mythic and religious material, reference
to mythological features of the Bible will cause protest from the religious right in the United
States. Inclusion of material on flood myths and biblical tales in the category of myth is not
intended to challenge anyone's religious faith. One cannot really discuss the flood myths of
Babylonia and ancient Greece without acknowledging parallels in the story of Noah. Rather
references to the Bible and to texts of other world religions illustrate the role of myth in the realm
of religion and faith. At one side of the spectrum, myth is a lie. At the other, it is religious
dogma. Myth is like Sunjata's wandering fetus. Sometimes it resides in the womb of truth, and
sometimes it strays far afield. That is really the point of myth. Myth is not limited by boundaries.
It crosses the barrier between truth and untruth, between history and fiction, between religious
inspiration and lies. Myths cross disciplinary boundaries and attract the attention of poets,
dramatists, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, historians, and anthropologists.
Myth also crosses the boundaries of media. The first myths were probably spoken, not written
down. Such orally-based myths still exist today. Many of the myths recorded in the Americas,
Africa, and Oceania are written down not by the storytellers, but by ethnologists. The same is
true even for modern urban myths, such as tales about the choking Doberman recorded in
American cities by Jan Harold Brunvand. While in Florence a few years ago, I was not surprised
to hear an Italian version of Brunvand's urban myth about the Mexican pet which turned out to be
a rat. Sisyphus' rock can travel far by word of mouth.
But we encounter most of our myths today not in oral form, but in other media. As the human
race developed culturally, the media used to express myth expanded accordingly. A second
medium in which humans create myth is visual. Cave paintings of neolithic humans in France,
the Sahara, and even America depict scenes which may represent myth narratives, if only they
could be interpreted properly. Cave paintings, however, are not the only example of myths
preserved primarily in visual form. Potters in sixth- and fifth-century B.C. Athens frequently
decorated their work with mythological scenes, some of which have no written corollary. One
magnificent pot in the Vatican Museum, for example, depicts the Greek hero Jason
half-consumed by the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece. The goddess Athena stands at his side,
apparently ready to rescue him. But how Jason actually escapes we do not know, because no one
but this artist tells us the story.
With the invention of writing, myths take on another metamorphosis. Ancient mythological texts
are preserved in hieroglyphics on the walls of Egyptian pyramids, in cuneiform on
Mesopotamian clay tablets, and in alphabetic writings on papyrus and parchment. Indeed, the
tales of many ancient peoples are only known today because they were written down. The myths
of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca of Central and South America survive because they were preserved
in indigenous documents or recorded by early Spanish missionaries. The Babylonian epic of
Gilgamesh was rediscovered in a spectacular archaeological find in the early nineteenth century.
Canaanite mythology resurfaced only in the early twentieth century, as a result of archaeological
work on the site of the ancient city of Ugarit, near the modern Syrian town of Ras Shamra. Those
ancient myths which were never written down were not so fortunate. The weight Sisyphus' rock
sheds with these lost texts is no consolation, but any study of world mythology must recognize
the contribution of archaeologists and linguists whose work in excavation, decipherment, and
translation has insured that many ancient texts remain accessible in the modern world.
Experiencing myth has become a multi-media experience and visual and written versions of
myths complement each other. Handbooks and collections of world myths are frequently
enhanced by artistic illustrations of mythological iconography. Sometimes illustrations and texts
are a coherent artistic whole, as they are on the walls of Egyptian pyramids and tombs.
Contemporary Navajo sandpaintings retell and reinterpret the traditional Navajo world view and
myth of emergence. Artwork can also be inspired by text. Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini's
seventeenth-century bronze masterpiece in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, is based
ultimately on Ovid's description of the Greek hero in the Metamorphoses. Occasionally, written
myths are needed to understand mythological artwork. For example, many painted images of the
Indian god Krishna are difficult to interpret without consulting textual versions of the god's
Another medium in which myth functions is music. Sometimes the tales are sung rather than
spoken. Some musical accompaniments, such as those for the odes in Greek tragedy, are lost, but
occasionally, musical scores accompany versions of the myths, especially those recorded by
modern ethnologists. Myths and legends have also inspired musical compositions such as
Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakoff''s symphonic suite Sheherazade or even the score to
Walt Disney's Aladdin, both based upon the Thousand and One Nights of ancient Persia and
Arabia. Sisyphus's rock has started to roll.
Myth has also had a long-standing relationship with ritual and ceremony. Indeed, some scholars
in the early twentieth century argued that all myths originally were related to ritual which they
explained or reenacted. So, many Navajo myths are linked with various Chantway ceremonies.
The Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish is associated with the festival of the New Year. The
Greek mysteries at Eleusis are thought to have described the myth of the goddess Demeter's
search for her daughter Persephone. Myth and ritual developed a particularly important bond in
ancient Athens, where the Greater Dionysia, an annual festival in honor of the god of wine,
became the occasion for dramatic performances of myth. Occasionally Dionysus himself was the
subject of these tragedies, as he is in Euripides' Bacchae, but, more often, the Athenian
playwrights sought their material in legends about the heroes, and, especially, about the Trojan
War. Nor did they hesitate to tamper with the traditional story. The self-blinding of the hero
Oedipus does not appear to have been part of the hero's myth before the time of Sophocles' great
tragedy Oedipus Rex. At least Homer makes no mention of the hero's blindness. Whether
Sophocles himself invented this detail or he borrowed it from someone else, the fact remains that
his tragedy made Oedipus' blindness an essential part of the tale.
Today we can use the word "myth" to refer not only to a story told by word of mouth, but also to
one written down on paper, or even on the computer screen. We can find myths on the comic
pages of the daily newspaper or in cartoons in the New Yorker magazine. Or a myth can be
expressed in various artistic media. The media of myth are as varied as the shapes which the ogre
could display to Puss in Boots. Indeed, they are as changeable as the Greek sea god Proteus, who
could also take on any shape he desired.
Myth is not only protean in its media. It is also diverse, even universal, in its geography.
Myth-telling is a human phenomenon. The history of mythography in European scholarship
illustrates the ever-growing web of myth. Until the early nineteenth century the study of
mythology basically meant the study of Greco-Roman myths. Some texts, like Ovid's
Metamorphoses and Vergil's Aeneid, were well known in the medieval world. But it was the
Italian Renaissance, and its rediscovery of things Greek, which gave the myths of the ancient
Greeks and Romans a new vitality. In the fourteenth century Boccaccio wrote a monumental
mythological treatise in Latin entitled De Genealogia Deorum ("On the Genealogy of the
Gods"). Early in the fifteenth century the hero Hercules and other figures from classical myth
appear on the doors of old St. Peter's in Rome and on the Porta della Mandorla on the cathedral
in Florence, and, later in the century, Lorenzo de Medici amused himself by composing a song
about the marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne. This focus on Greco-Roman mythology did not
really change until the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, when scholars began
to examine the world from different perspectives. Two developments in mythology reflect this
trend. The first is the publication by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm of collections of German fairy
tales and legends published as Kinder- und Hausmärchen (German Fairy Tales) in 1812 and
Deutsche Sagen(German Legends) in 1816-1818. The work of the Brothers Grimm recognized
the value of the oral traditions of the common folk of Europe and stands at the beginning of the
modern science of folkloristics. The second is the announcement by Sir William Jones in 1786
that the Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin languages sprang from a common source. Jones' work in what
is now called Indo-European linguistics opened the door not only to the science of historical
linguistics but also to studies in comparative mythology. Linguistic links were found to bind the
sky god of many ancient people of Europe and Asia. The Sanskrit sky-god Dyaus, called pita or
"father," was recognized to have names and functions similar to the Greek god Zeus, also known
as Dios Pater, to the Latin Jupiter, and even the Germanic Tw Vater. The names of all these
deities share two common Indo-European root words, deiw*-, which means "to shine," and
pter*- or "father."
From the Indo-European mythologies, comparativists moved further afield later in the nineteenth
century. The European exploration and colonization of Africa opened up vast opportunities for
collection of mythological material. The oral literature which the German anthropologist Leo
Frobenius gathered in the early twentieth century is only partially available to the English reader
today. Other early collections of African myths were originally written in English and remain
accessible, especially in reprint form. Similar work has been done in the Pacific and among the
Native Americans of North America by anthropologists like Paul Radin, Elsie Clews Parsons,
George B. Grinnell, and William Wyatt Gill. In the twentieth century the modern sciences of
anthropology and folkloristics have been refined and anthropologists and folklorists have become
more sensitive to the cultures being recorded. Nineteenth-century views of "primitive" peoples
have, for the most part, given way to work which aim at authenticity. Some of these are even
bilingual, like the edition of legends of the Papago and Pima of Arizona by Dean Saxton and
Lucille Saxton. The culmination of this trend is reflected in mythological collections made by or
in collaboration with members of the culture, such as the Navajo texts produced by Ekkehart
Malotki and Michael Lomatuway'ma. Such original language texts with English translation have
been available for ancient Greek and Latin materials since the nineteenth century. Only recently
has this phenomenon become more standard, especially for Native American texts. Despite the
evolutionary nature of this material, many of the nineteenth and early twentieth century
ethnographic collections of world mythology have been reissued in reprint form. Approached
cautiously, the material remains a valuable resource for the general reader at the end of the
twentieth century. Sisyphus cannot only seek new rocks. Sometimes older ones are better.
No study of mythology can make claim to be comprehensive in any way. While an important
organizing feature of this course is geography, some regions are consciously treated more
thoroughly than others. For the historical and cultural reasons outlined above, the myths of
Greece and Rome remain the starting point and primary point of reference and comparison for
the myths of Egypt, sub-Saharan Africa, Central American, North America, South America, and
Myths can be presented in a variety of ways. Sometimes editors offer transcriptions of oral texts recorded in the field, accompanied by literal translations or plot summaries. The fullest treatment of this sort is done by anthropologists who provide detailed ethnographic information about the people and careful documentation about the storytellers and the circumstances of recording. Other authors offer only paraphrases or free retellings of myths. Occasionally violent or sexual details are censored, especially in versions for children. Sometimes the primary sources for a myth are literary. This is especially true for ancient cultures like the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, and Mayans, for whom the recording of myths in the field is no longer possible. Actually, no single technique of recording is better than the others and each technique addresses different needs and audiences. Even children's versions of myths can prove valuable to a scholar interested in different transformations of a particular myth. Sisyphus' rock must be variegated in every possible way.
Another problem for the student of mythology is nomenclature. Ancient Greeks and Romans sometimes used different names for the same mythological figure. So the Greek god Zeus is identified with the Roman deity Jupiter. The Greek hero Heracles is the same as the Roman Hercules. The Greek Odysseus is the Roman Ulysses. For Greek names, one is faced with the further problem of differing orthographic systems. Herakles is a more faithful Greek transliteration of the more latinized spelling Heracles. Oedipus can also appear as Oidipous. Nor are spelling problems confined to the Mediterranean. In North America, one is faced with a variety of spellings for Native American nations like Navajo or Navaho and Algonquin, Algonkin, or Algonquian, and for mythological figures like the trickster Glooskap, Gluscap, and Gluskap. Occasionally, variation in orthography is part of the process of mythmaking. The African trickster spider is known as Anansi or Ananse in African contexts, but becomes "Nancy" among Afro-Americans in the Caribbean and in the United States. Nomenclature is also connected with the issue of political correctness. Many authors of books about Native American mythology lived before the word "Indian" came into disfavor. The peoples of eastern Canada and the Arctic prefer to be called Inuit instead of Eskimo, while the term "Yup'ik" is used by the people of the Bering Strait and "Inupiat" by inhabitants on the north slope of Alaska.
By this point Sisyphus would no longer recognize his rock, which has undergone repeated
metamorphosis and which has taken on unbelievable weight. He has learned, however, that his
rock is universal and encompasses all aspects of human life. It is fiction and truth, history and
legend, religious belief and fable, art, literature, drama, music, psychology, and a good story well
told all rolled up into one. Sisyphus may never succeed in reaching the top with his rock, but the
reward is in the effort.
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