Myth and Religion

This material is based upon G. S. Kirk’s Myth. Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970:

Rudolf Otto (1917): myth as "the vestibule at the threshold of the real religious feeling, an earliest stirring of the numinous consciousness."

Northrop Frye (1963): myth as "a story in which some of the chief characters are gods"

Religious Beliefs

aetiologies or myths of origin


rites of passage

acts of propitiation


fertility rites

Malinowski (in Myth in Primitive Psychology):

Myth comes into play when rite, ceremony, or a social or moral rule demands justification, warrant of antiquity, reality and sanctity.

"Myths are a disease of language." (Muller)

"Myths operate in mens' minds without their being aware of the fact." (Claude Levi-Strauss)

"Myth is ritual misunderstood." (Jane Harrison)

"Myth is the currency in which our culture is transmitted." (Warden)

"Myth can be understood as a given society's codification of its own traditional values in narrative and dramatized form." (Gregory Nagy)

"One person's myth is another person's religion." (O'Flaherty)

From the introduction to Barbara C. Sproul's Primal Myths (New York: HarperCollins, 1991):

The power of a specific myth is not as important to realize as the power of myth itself. (pg. 1)

Myth is an integral part of religion. (pg. 5)

The religious point of view...proclaims an absolute reality that is both transcendent (true for all times and places) and immanent (true in the here and now. This reality is not relative; it is not dependent on changing factors of time and space. (pg. 6)

Creation myths do not merely deal with the known or even seek to make determinations about the unknown. Their real concern is with the relation of the known to the unknowable. (pg. 7)

Religions have a great deal of trouble describing this absolute reality because they have no absolute perspective. (pg. 8)

Part of this problem is that our whole way of understanding operates with the use of polar opposites. (pg. 8)

The language of creation myths reaches beyond itself to absoluteness. (pg. 9)

The Holy is immanent as well as transcendent. This is one of the central messages of creation myths. (pg. 13)

Myths use symbols to express their truths. (pg. 14)

Myths constitute structures of value. (pg. 21)

In comparing a great number and wide variety of creation myths, it becomes clear that the origins of which they speak are important not for their historical and prototypical value alone but for their religious and archetypical value as well. (pg. 27)

Creation myths attempt to reveal the absolute dimension of the relative world. (pg. 29)

This material has been published on the web by Prof. Tom Sienkewicz for his students at Monmouth College. If you have any questions, you can contact him at

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