The Web of Myth Theory

by Thomas J. Sienkewicz

This essay on the theory of myth is based upon the introduction to Theories of Myth: An Annotated Bibliography (Scarecrow Press, 1998). It has been revised and adapted here for his students at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have comments or suggestions about this material, you may contact Prof. Sienkewicz at

In the introduction to my World Mythology (Salem Press, 1996), I compared the study of myth to the frustrating and never-ending challenge of the Greek hero Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill in the Underworld. The universal and changeable elements of myth make a comprehensive treatment and bibliography as impossible as Sisyphus' task. The same is true for the interpretation and theories of myth. So many possible interpretations of a particular myth or of myth in general exist that they can never be fully recorded. All one can do is remain open to additional approaches and points of view. Here the loom of Penelope may serve as a better metaphor than the rock of Sisyphus. Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, used her loom to deceive her suitors during her husband's long absence following the Trojan war. She promised to choose among her suitors only after she finished weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, but every night she secretly unraveled her day's work. Interpreting myth is much the same process. Thread upon thread of interpretation is interwoven in myth. As one approach to myth goes out of favor and is unraveled from the fabric, another takes its place. The result is that, like Penelope's shroud, the cloth of myth interpretation is ever-changing and can never be finished.

The study of myth presents special problems of definition, because the semantic range of the English word "myth" tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The ambiguity of the word began in ancient Greek, where the word mythos could mean any "utterance," "speech," or "story." So in the Odyssey (I.358), Odysseus' son Telemachus tells his mother Penelope to go back upstairs to the women's quarters and to leave mythos ("public debate and discussion") to the men. Telemachus uses the same Greek word as he asks old Nestor to tell him whatever mythos ("story," "tale") he may have heard of his missing father (Odyssey III.94). In the Iliad (IX.443) Phoenix distinguishes mythos ("word") from ergon ("deed"), as he reminds his pupil Achilles that he has taught him to be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds. The ancient Greeks could apply this word to all forms of speech, both true and false. So in Euripides' Electra (346) the heroine promises to tell her husband the whole truth (mython). The fact that she is actually disguising the truth is irrelevant, since her husband understands her mythos to be true. Herodotus (Histories II.45), however, uses the same word in a context which clearly suggests falsehood, as he recounts a story (mythos) about the hero Heracles which has "no basis in fact."

English usage expands the ambiguity of the Greek word. Not only is "myth" used in English to refer to traditional stories, including legends and folktales; it can also be used in contexts which the Greeks would not recognize. Sociologists and anthropologists use the word to refer to anything which embodies the essential features of a culture, like the "pioneer myth," the "frontier myth," or the "Horatio Alger myth" in the American experience. Sometimes the same word is used in English to describe beliefs and ideological assumptions which have been accepted as true by some, but are dismissed as half-truths by others. Here one could cite the "myths" of Aryan or white supremacy or the conspiracy myths surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy. English speakers can also use the word "myth" to refer to stories, characters, and objects which are completely fictional and which have no basis in fact. So the plot of almost any work of literary fiction can be called a myth.

But here the thread of the English word "myth" comes full circle. Literary critics often weave together truth and fiction as they interpret myth, not simply as fiction, but as an embodiment of universal truth about the human experience. So one can read Herman Melville's Moby Dick as a work of fiction which deals with basic themes of quest and evil. On one level ("fiction"), Captain Ahab's quest for the great white whale happens only in the imagination of the author and his readers, but, on another level ("myth"), it describes experiences common to all humans.

Sometimes artists reinterpret and adapt of traditional myths. In Chimera (New York: Random House, 1972), for exmpale, John Barth retells the myths of the Greek heroes Perseus and Bellerophon as well as the Middle Eastern story of Sherharazade, and in Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1956), C. S. Lewis retells the story of Cupid and Psyche. Such adaptations are so widespread and are treated in bibliographies like Jeanetta Boswell's Past Ruined Ilion . . . (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, 1982), which offers a list of more than 1,100 poems, plays, and novels by eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century British and American authors, all works which are based upon themes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Each entry includes bibliographic references followed by a short description of the literary work and its use of myth. An appendix to Boswell's book contains bibliographic references, but no descriptions, for more than 1,200 additional works which the author considered less important or inferior in quality. Not included among Boswell's citations are the countless adaptations of Greek and Roman myths originally written in other languages, like Jean Anouilh's Antigone (New York: Random House, 1946) and Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993).

A glance at the card catalogue in the library of a small undergraduate institution like Monmouth College further illustrates the challenge of definition. Book titles which contain the word "myth" include the following: Thomas S. Szasz' The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct (New York: Harper & Row, 1961). Sociologists and psychologists use the word in a variety of contexts. For example, John H. Bracey and others have published a book entitled Black Matriarchy: Myth or Reality? (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1971) while Paul L. Houts' The Myth of Measurability (New York: Hart Publishing Co., 1977) deals with intelligence tests and controversies surrounding psychological tests for minorities in the United States. Historians and political scientists tend to use the word in reference to untruths. So Charles H. Hunter offers The War Myth in United States History (New York: Vanguard Press, 1927) and Jameson G. Campaigne American Might and Soviet Myth (Chicago: H. Regnery Col, 1960). Scientific topics are not excluded from the myth debates in books like Norman D. Newell's Creation and Evolution: Myth or Reality? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). Even theology gets its share of myth references, such as James Patrick Mackey's Jesus, the Man and the Myth: A Contemporary Christology (New York: Paulist Press, 1979) and R. Joseph Hoffman's Jesus in History and Myth(Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986). Literary uses of the word "myth" appear in Walter Brylowski's Faulkner's Olympian Laugh: Myth in the Novels (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1968), Hugo McPherson's Hawthorne as Myth-maker: A Study in Imagination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), and Peter Whelan's D. H. Lawrence: Myth and Metaphysic in The Rainbow and Women in Love (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1988).

These few bibliographic references suggest the broad range of contexts in which the word "myth" can appear in English-language scholarship, and they represent more a select bibliography on sociology, history, political science, theology, and literary theory, more than a bibliography on the theory of myth. While all of these books share a emphasis on "myth" as a generally accepted (but often erroneous) set of perceptions and beliefs about the world and its organization, they deal more with phenomena of culture than with traditional tales. "Myth" in its widest connotation encompasses almost any collective belief or falsehood, and an annotated bibliography which aimed to cite every work with the word "myth" in its title would lose any sense of cohesion and design and would quickly become unmanageable even for Penelope's loom.

The interpretative cloth of such myths and tales began to be woven in antiquity with the ancient Greeks. The sixth-century Greek philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon cast doubt upon the anthropomorphism of the Greek gods. Observing that Ethiopian gods look like Ethiopians and Scythian gods like Scythians, he even suggested that if horses had gods they would look like horses. Such a rational approach to the gods and their myths raises the possibility, not only that the myths contain elements of untruth and relativity, but also that these tales can be interpreted in different ways at different times. The fifth-century philosopher Plato carried Xenophanes' rationalization one step further by offering his own mythos, such as the allegory of the cave in the Republic or the myth of love told by Aristophanes in the Symposium. The third-century novelist Euhemerus applied another rationalist thread to the fabric of myth interpretation by suggesting that the Greek gods were once great kings who were worshiped as deities after their deaths. His approach, often called euhemerism, replaces literal interpretation of myths with an allegorical approach which has had remarkable resilience over the years.

The interpretation of myths received renewed interest during the Renaissance, especially in Italy. Scholars in this period used myths in order to display their classical learning and to celebrate the continuity of culture from the mythic past of the Greeks and Romans to the Christian present. The displaced myths of the past complemented and reinforced the Christian worldview and created didactic and ethical allegories. So scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, like Actaeon's transformation into a stag appear alongside biblical scenes on the doors of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and the labors of Heracles are represented next to images of angels, Christ, and the Madonna on the Porta della Mandorla on the Duomo in Florence.

Renaissance scholars often saw the myths of the ancients as sweeping allegories. In his Latin work De Genealogiis deorum gentilium ("On the Genealogies of the Gentile Gods," 1351-1360), for example, Giovanni Boccaccio interpreted the flight of Perseus on the winged sandals of Mercury and the hero's victory over the Gorgon Medusa as a symbolic victory of virtue over vice and a parallel of Christ's conquest of sin and his ascension into heaven. Unfortunately, Boccaccio's De Genealogia is virtually inaccessible today. Only the last two books, dealing with poetry and literary criticism rather than mythology, have been published either in the original Latin or in English translation.

An allegorical approach to mythology pervades the Italian Renaissance and accounts for the often subtle meaning of Italian Renaissance art and literature. So Sandro Botticelli's painting "Birth of Venus" transforms the ancient myth of the birth of the goddess Venus into a powerful political and moral statement understandable especially in the context of Florentine society in the fifteenth century.

Allegorical interpretations of myth, however, are not usually included among modern theories of myth. The theories surveyed in this bibliography emerge from the more rational and scientific approaches of later periods, including the Age of Enlightenment and, especially, the Romantic and Victorian periods. In the Enlightenment, scholars began to treat myths and legends more historically and scientifically. Particularly important in this context was the discovery of Indo-European by Sir William Jones in 1786. Recognition of the linguistic ties binding Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin encouraged scholars to compare the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans with those of other European and Indic peoples. Indo-European comparative scholarship uncovered linguistic and functional similarities among deities like the Sanskrit sky-god Dyaus, called pita or "father," the Greek god Zeus, also known as Dios Pater, the Latin Jupiter, and the Germanic Tw Vater, all of whose names mean something like "the father who shines." It also recognized thematic similarities in the myths of Indo-European peoples. In the twentieth-century the anthropologist and linguist Georges Dumézil used Indo-European myths and language to develop a tripartite social structure of king, warrior, and farmer upon which all Indo-European societies seem to be based.

Such comparative studies of Indo-European myths were expanded, especially in the nineteenth century, to include myths from other cultural contexts and lists of themes common to tales from around the world. Discovery of flood myths and tales of worldwide cataclysm from Polynesia, South America, and other parts of the world provided perspective on ancient Mediterranean myths about a great flood, such as the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the story of Utnapishtim in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and, especially, the tale of Noah and the Ark in the biblical book of Genesis. Similarities among such tales encouraged at least two responses. Some nineteenth-century scholars searched for the original story or Ur-Myth from which all variants sprang. Others sought to explain such thematic similarities, not via geographic dissemination of myths, but via the common experience of humankind. The most notable result of the latter approach is the comprehensive collection of folktale motifs which have been gathered under the names of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson.

In the twentieth century, psychological, religious, and anthropological layers have been added to the fabric of myth criticism long dominated by interpretation of the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans. For many years, Western analysis of myth and inquiry into its meaning have used classical mythology as both exemplum and point of reference. So Sigmund Freud turned to the Greek myth of the hero Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, in his articulation of the dreams of young children. For Freud, imbued with the classical tradition of western Europe, it was natural to express the infantile love for mother and hatred for father in terms of an Oedipus complex.

Thanks in large part to the ethnological studies of anthropologists in the twentieth century, however, the mythological references widened. In his influential Golden Bough (1910), Sir James George Frazer moved from a myth in Vergil's Aeneid to a comparative study of magic and ritual in societies around the world. Central to Frazer's work was the assumption that myths essentially spring from a ritual context. This theory of myth is often associated with twentieth-century scholars like Jane Harrison, A. B. Cook, Francis Cornford, and Gilbert Murray, collectively known as the Cambridge School because of their association with that British institution. Bronislaw Malinowski, often considered the founder of modern anthropology, used myths from the South Pacific in articulating his theory that myths serve as charters for society. The structuralist theorists, who have, in large part, defined the field of myth interpretation in the last decades of the century, have relied especially on the myths of native Americans. In his seminal writings on structuralism, for example, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss cited and interpreted myths of several South American peoples.

Some approaches claim to offer an interpretation which explains all possible myths. So in the nineteenth century Friedrich Max Müller argued that all myths were originally nature myths, while members of the Cambridge School like Frazer and Harrison saw all myths in the context of religion and of ritual justification. The anthropologist Malinowski suggested that all myths were charter myths and reinforced social customs. In The Nature of Greek Myths (Baltimore: Penguin, 1974), the classical scholar G. S. Kirk calls such theories monolithic because they focus on a single point of view or interpretation to the exclusion of other approaches. Some theories are less monolithic in orientation. So Freud and followers like Eliade emphasize the role of myth in the human psyche, but in the context of a variety of contexts and approaches to mythology. Similarly, structuralists like Lévi-Strauss stress linguistic and cultural elements of the myths independent of their narrative structure as a way to understand not only the myth but also the society in which it functions.

Kirk rejects monolithic approaches to myth as too limiting in perspective. Penelope's thread cannot be woven in a single pattern. Rather, Kirk argues for a more open-ended and multi-functional approach in which myths are interpreted from a variety of perspectives and Penelope's cloth is a blend of patterns.

Penelope's tale, for example, can be approached comparatively, especially in the context of the folktale themes which it shares with similar tales all over the world. Such folktale themes, analyzed in the motif index associated with Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, include the suitor contest, in which several males compete for the hand of a single woman in marriage, a woman's wit celebrating the cunning and intelligence of a woman in the face of adversity and difficulty, and a woman's web or the danger the feminine presents to the males who encounter her. As a charter myth, Penelope's tale affirms the loyalty of a Homeric wife to her husband and his family, even in difficult circumstances. Other anthropological features of the myth include depictions of Homeric marriage customs, family structure, and household management. Freud and other psychologists would focus especially on the dreams of Penelope, particularly the dream in which the goddess Athena suggests the contest of the bow. Such a dream can be interpreted as Penelope's subliminal yearnings to control her own destiny by establishing the terms of her remarriage. At the same time, the dream expresses her subconscious refusal to accept such remarriage, except to her long-absent husband Odysseus. The arrow which Odysseus shoots from the bow in this contest means death for the suitors but sexual and personal gratification for Penelope. Elements of religion and cult in the myth of Penelope are less evident. While there is certainly no evidence that this tale derives from some long-forgotten ritual, the close parallels between Penelope and Athena in the myth of Odysseus are striking. Both goddess and wife use their cunning to advance the interests of Odysseus. Penelope is Odysseus' human ally, much as Athena is his divine sponsor. The identification of Penelope with divinity is made more explicit in a post-Homeric tradition that Penelope was not faithful to Odysseus in his absence but slept with all 129 of her suitors and gave birth to the god Pan.

A structuralist interpreting Penelope's myth might focus on contradictory features of her loom and its dynamic relationship with her husband's bow. Penelope uses her loom both to weave and to unravel, to deceive the suitors and to inform them. Indeed Michel Serres, a French scholar who taught at The Johns Hopkins University while my wife and I were graduate students, once suggested to us that the patterns Penelope wove on her cloth every day were depictions of her husband's adventures. So, in the context of Penelope's myth, the etymological meaning of the word "text," which is derived from the Latin texere, "to weave, fabricate," takes on special meaning, for the text of Penelope is the shroud she weaves for Laertes. Penelope tells the story of Odysseus as she weaves it at her loom.

Taken out of its narrative context, the loom of Penelope symbolizes both the limited options of Penelope and her cunning ability to overcome her difficult situation. Penelope's loom expresses the seeming contradiction in Homeric society of a woman bound to accept in marriage the hand of man who is not her choice and her ability to determine the disposition of that hand. It is not without reason that twentieth-century feminists have adopted Penelope's loom as a compelling symbol of the feminine identity.

Comparative mythology adds another thread to Penelope's loom. For a similarly potent story of a powerful woman, Penelope's myth can be juxtaposed with that of Sedna or Nuliajuk ("young girl") told by the Inuit people of the Arctic. Different cultures offer different images of women. Penelope is essentially homebound and her virtues are those of Greek antiquity. Sedna is a wanderer, and her courage and skills are those which make human survival in the Arctic a possibility. Spurned by many suitors, Sedna is eventually seduced by a stranger with whom she elopes, only to discover that her new husband is a savage dog in human disguise. Eventually Sedna's parents come to visit and find their daughter physically restrained in her tent. Sedna escapes with her parents in a boat, but is pursued by her husband, now transformed into a bird. In desperation, the parents throw their daughter overboard. In the sea Sedna becomes mistress of the seals, walrus, and other creatures who provide food, clothing and fuel for the humans of the Arctic.

Sedna is spurned by all, while Penelope is sought as a bride by many men. Homer's Penelope remains virtuous, while Sedna is seduced. Both women must deal with disguises. Odysseus uses a beggar's clothes to help him regain the hand of his wife. Similarly, Sedna's canine husband gains her hand while disguised as a human being. Travel, however, creates a strong distinction between the two women. In the Odyssey it is Odysseus, not Penelope, who is the wanderer. Penelope stays at home and only hears of her husband's adventures secondhand. By contrast, Sedna is very much a wanderer, first in her ill-fated elopement with her husband and later in her flight with her parents. Indeed, the divine Sedna is defined mythologically by her ability to travel in the Arctic lands and to control the elements which make life possible for humans in this hostile environment. Penelope, however, is identified with her home, where she waits faithfully for her wandering husband and weaves on her loom.

These two apparently different myths express contrasting aspects of the human, and especially the female, condition. As traditional views of women as home makers, wives, and mothers yield in the twentieth century to career women who have to balance family and employment responsibilities, the myths of Penelope and Sedna celebrate both life choices. Penelope's loyalty to home and family is linked with her loom, on which she weaves the shroud of her father-in-law. Sedna's identity with the sea grants her remarkable powers despite her painful relationships with parents and spouse. Together Penelope and Sedna show how a woman can function both within and outside family ties and kinship relationships. Sedna thus introduces new strands into Penelope's story, which, like all myth, ravels and unravels in a continuously changing tapestry of meaning.

Thomas J. Sienkewicz
Monmouth, Illinois