Mythologies: Theories and Meanings of Myth (REL 525)

Course Description

This course explores the theories and meanings of mythology in the contemporary world. Using theoretical lenses developed by mythologists such a Joseph Campbell and Roland Barthes, students will explore both world mythologies and contemporary myths to understand the depth and breadth of mythology and its functions. The course culminates with a research presentationon Myth in the World with students presenting their research on the mythology of a particular group and area.

Course Sessions and Topics

This course is divided into ten modules with lectures, discussion forums, and assignments.

Week 1  |  Myth as a Noun

The common use of the word myth refers to something that is untrue. The academic study of myth, however, is about two other meanings of myth—as a particular story from a particular culture and as the story behind the story. In this second sense, myth is something that is by definition true, so true in fact that we often cannot see it at work because it shapes every aspect of our lives. This week, we will be learning about myth as a noun and how it relates to truth. You might be surprised. We will also look at Native American mythologies.

Week 2  |  Myth as a Verb

But what does myth do?  In the previous module, we saw that myth is not only a story—it’s also the story behind the story, the deeper layer of belief that is expressed in myriad stories. This week we explore what a myth does, which is another way of asking how myth acts in the world and changes it, or—more accurately—changes us. The answer is that myths—both the story behind the stories and the stories themselves—serve a number of important cultural and personal functions. In short, myths tell us how the world works and how to live in it. We will travel to Africa this week to explore their unique mythologies.

Week 3  |  The Shape of Myth

Now that we have seen how myth is both noun and verb, we can explore the shape of myth. In addition to analyzing myth’s forms, we will understand how those forms arose in oral environments, where language functions very differently than in literate environments. The differences between speaking and writing may seem trivial to us now, but before writing words had a life of their own. We will look at the shape of myth in Mesopotamian mythologies this week.

Week 4  |  Myth and Other Ways of Knowing

In this module we will analyze the role of myth in four prominent ways of knowing: history, psychology, religion, and science. Myth is one way of knowing and resonates profoundly with other ways of knowing. History has an etymological relationship with myth and only separated from it with the shift to writing. Psychology continues to draw upon Freud’s and Jung’s engagement with mythological material and continues to see psychological health in terms of story. The dynamic between consciousness and the unconscious is of particular concern to both myth and psychology, representing, as it does, the center of psychic life and reflecting, as it does, the need to bring the two into some kind of healthy relation. Religion can be seen as one of myth’s most familiar expressions in the world through sacred texts, places, rituals, and community. As such, the dialogue between the two is vital and ongoing at every level. Finally, though they appear in some levels of culture as opposites, myth and science share a deep affinity with paradigms or models that generate the nature of the questions that can be asked in each context. Our world mythology under consideration this week is Indian mythology.

Week 5  |  Myth and Literature

It was literature that was the vehicle for myth between primary and secondary orality, and it was in literature that non-Western cultures are able to continue and adapt their oral traditions. This adaptation takes the forms of both acculturation and resistance as the medium and some forms of aesthetics are employed both to continue the values and perspective of the oral culture and to offer a critique of colonial culture. In this module we explore the advantages of writing come into play as myths are recorded, enhanced, and reimagined in the written word. In fact it is difficult to explore any literary tradition today without reference to its mythological roots, and a cursory look at the table of contents of any literary anthology will reveal a trove of mythological references and allusions. Our travels in world mythology this week take us to Greek mythologies.

Week 6  | Myth and Film

Of all the genres and forms myth inhabits, film is perhaps the most congenial to myth. In this module we will explore one primary reason for this special relationship which has to with the nature of the symbol and how it becomes both more transparent and transcendent on the screen via verisimilitude. This secondary orality gives new life to myth’s roots in oral cultures even as it exponentially expands primary orality’s features and effects. Like water finding its way to the sea, myth finds its way into culture. Often it must appear masked, like Odysseus returning to Ithaca or a primal energy emerging into consciousness, but it is there nonetheless. While we have seen that myth has relevant and significant relationships with other ways of knowing, it is in art that it usually finds its most congenial welcome, and film especially has become the favored manifestation of myth in modern day. Our world mythology focus this week is Roman mythologies.

Week 7 | Myth and Politics

The relationship between mythology and ideology is an intimate one because both myth and ideology contain assumptions about the world and our place in it that generate cultural lenses for ourselves, the other, the state, and justice. Myth does more than ideology, but ideology is nearly a synonym for Joseph Campbell’s sociological function of myth. Interestingly, we actually have a mythology that is intimately related to politics in the United States’ notion of the West.

Week 8 | Myth and Media

if ideology is the social function of mythology, then media is its form. Ideology may be planted in the depths of political thought, but it comes to fruition and is consumed in popular culture. Walter Ong called the new media of his time (television) secondary orality, and we might now call social media a  tertiary orality, integrating as it does oral, written, and imagistic media into something that is more than the sum of its parts. This week we will examine the mythic dimensions of our connected world as well as Japanese. There may even be some connection between the two.

Week 9  |  Settled Issues and Neglected Questions in the Study of Myth

Myth itself is a subject both broad and deep. It covers the globe and even the cosmos, and it runs throughout the history of both. It also plumbs the depths of shared culture and individual psychology, reaching past our conscious and public knowledge into the veiled sources informing each. No book, course, study, or series will exhaust the possibilities of myth; moreover, every approach will be limited by its own presuppositions and the outcomes it desires. At the same time, myth’s pervasiveness and importance require that it be understood and explored. Here we attempt to take stock of what we have learned and some questions we were not able to ask. Our mythological journey this week takes us to Norse mythologies.

Week 10  |  Myth and Meaning

In this module we will reflect on our experiences and discuss how our own assumptions, methodologies, and goals impacted our approach to interpreting myths. Our focus this week is contemporary mythologies.

Learning Outcomes for this Course

After completing this course, you should be able to

  1. recognize features of world mythologies
  2. analyze myths from a particular group and area
  3. articulate how myth functions in the world for a particular group and area
  4. demonstrate the ability to produce an interdisciplinary analysis of mythologies in a particular setting and evaluate it by proposing an integrated solution to a research problem.
  5. demonstrate appropriate-level scholarly writing skills; specifically, use scholarly writing conventions, make a clear and warranted argument, use evidence appropriately and persuasively, use appropriate and correct grammar and punctuation.
  6. demonstrate appropriate-level research skills, specifically, cite, evaluate, and document appropriate sources.

Your Teacher

This course was created and is taught by:

Greg Salyer, Ph.D. | Greg Salyer is the Dean and Chief Academic Officer at the University of Philosophical Research and has been a teacher and administrator in higher education for almost twenty-five years. He has a Ph.D. in Literary Theory, Contemporary Literature, and Religious Studies from Emory University’s Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts and has taught in many venues, from small liberal arts colleges to a major research university, and also online since 2000. He has taught Mythologies at several of these schools.

The Teaching Assistant for this course is:

James Boobar, MFA |