What questions does the study of myth raise in the new century? What have we learned from the study of myth over the past few centuries? What is the present relationship between myth, theory and area studies? These questions are addressed in the essays in this symposium.1

Comparison has been crucial to the study of myth since the nineteenth century, when evolutionism and diffusionism, and, in reaction to them, functionalism and structuralism, generated the ‘grand narratives’ of human development. The focus was on the similarities among myths worldwide. Theories, which came above all from the newly emerged social sciences, sought to explain why myths were present all over the world. An explanation that encompassed all myths had to concentrate on what made all myths alike and to ignore, though not to deny, what made individual myths distinctive. The term ‘comparative method’ was taken to refer to accounts of only the similarities among myths. One operated comparatively not to learn how one myth or set of myths were unique but to learn how they were the same.

That human beings, and therefore their artefacts, have much in common is undeniable. Any aspect of a culture, not just its myths, is a specific, local form of something found in other cultures as well. What was long ago called ‘the psychic unity of mankind’ doubtless still holds. The question is whether differences still deserve a place. At one extreme stand cognitive scientists, who maintain that differences are overridden in importance by common mental processes. A pivotal element of the cognitive view is the emphasis on universal and ‘pancultural’ processes that underlie human behaviour (see, for example, Pinker 1995).

At the other extreme stand postmodernists, who maintain that cross-cultural comparisons and the search for general principles should not override the actor's point of view in narrating myths or the researcher's own point of view in analyzing myths. If it was already clear long before postmodernism that myths, along with artistry, had to do with authority and power, it is now even clearer that the silenced voices in or behind myths must be identified. Moreover, the researcher does not work with a distant abstraction but invariably brings to bear the researcher's own experience and culture. We tend to explore the unexplored in terms of what we know.

Attentiveness to the local and the subjective bears on long-standing issues in the study of myth – notably, the issues of definition and classification. Classical mythology, together with Christian concepts of religion and with modern Western concepts of history and science, has provided the framework within which mythology has been analyzed. Narratives were considered myths if the stories were deemed true by those who narrated them and were about gods and other supernatural beings. In other words, myths had to mean ‘sacred narratives.’

It is easy, too easy, to lodge accusations of ethnocentrism, colonialism, and prejudice in the study of myth. But does it make sense to adopt would-be universal definitions and theories that in fact stem from local contexts? This concern is scarcely new. A classic question in the study of myth is whether to accept the standard classification of narrative genres into myth, legend and folktale. Is a universal definition or theory possible? What is the sense of applying universal concepts and explanations? Should we not rather reverse the process and start from the categories of each culture?

When we do start with individual cultures, we discover that the conventionally assumed genres and classifications by no means hold everywhere. Cultures may assume the conventional categories but allow for blurrier distinctions. Or categorisations may hold only tacitly and not be named. Or cultures may have categories all their own. In any event the subtlety and complexity of the material requires close cooperation between local research and comparative theorising.

The study of myths in Africa provides an example of this complex relationship between area studies and universal theorising. In the1980s and 1990s, the debate over the presence or absence of myths in Africa assumed a definition of myth that in fact was based on Greek and Indo-European mythology:

In Oral Literature in Africa Ruth Finnegan, a famous specialist in the field of African oral literatures, argued that even those African stories that could be identified as myths by this definition were difficult to pinpiont because they were not always told as narratives but had to be reconstructed from other oral genres and even from sources like architecture and decorated objects:

Thereafter another prominent scholar, Isidore Okpewho, objected that Finnegan, like others before her, was denying the existence of myths in Africa on the basis of an ethnocentric definition of myth. According to him, a more appropriate definition needed to take into consideration the function and aesthetic elements of myth as well as the effects of myth-retelling on the audience. Okpewho criticises not only universal narrative genre classifications – such as the divisions into myth, legend and folktale – but also classifications that are meant to be exclusively African when the classifications ignore the processes and productions involved. He looks instead at the continuum of the creative approach to reality, which he calls ‘fancy’.

Myth is not really a particular type of a tale against another; . . . it is simply that quality of fancy that informs the creative or configurative powers of the human mind in varying degrees of intensity’. ‘Myth is the irreducible aesthetic substratum in all varieties of human cultural endeavour, from one generation to another. (Okpewho 1983, pp. 69, 70)

Under this aspect, African myths do exist, and the debate prompted R. Finnegan to revise her definition in later works (Finnegan 1992, pp. 146–148).

Although from a different perspective, Okpewho's definition seems to converge with that of others from other fields, such as the social anthropologist P. S. Cohen and the historian of religions A. Brelich, for all of whom the mythopoeic approach (productive of myth) creates and establishes the reality of storytellers and audience through the narration itself:

More recently, studies of myth have focused on the contemporary adaptations and changes of oral and written storytelling. A field of growing interest, for example, has been the processes of empowerment or disempowerment of individuals and groups linked to the telling of mythical narratives, especially in new social and historical contexts. The emergence of new kinds of media, such as the internet, has led to amazing means of storytelling, but it has also raised concerns about hybridisation and about cultural loss and gain; new theories of myth may be needed to cover these technological changes.

At the same time, the discussion of universality and particularity has turned into the effort of understanding differences instead of erecting insurmountable dichotomies.

The articles presented in this symposium tackle the above-mentioned problems about comparison, myth definition, power and contending voices from various points of views and across various disciplines.

In ‘Myth and Science’ Robert Segal approaches myth from the standpoint of theory. He considers one of the key questions raised by theorists: What is the function of myth? He focuses on what in the nineteenth century had commonly been assumed to be the main and even sole function of myth: accounting for events in the physical world – why the sun rises and sets, why rain falls, why trees grow, and why living things, including human beings, are born and die. The answer was a decision of a god. Mythology was tied to religion. Segal argues that the function ascribed to myth by nineteenth-century theorists doomed myth, for science, by now the commonplace explanation of physical events, could explain them at least as well. More to the point, moderns were born into a scientific culture. Myth had to try to find a place amidst science. Segal argues that modern science doomed myth by rendering it not merely superfluous but incompatible.

By contrast, Segal argues that theorists of myth in the twentieth century recharacterised the function of myth to make it distinct from that of science and thereby make myth compatible with science. He also notes that, alternatively, twentieth-century theorists recharacterised the meaning of myth to make it compatible with science. Myth was no longer to be read literally and so was no longer to be assumed even to be referring to the physical world in the first place.

Segal then considers a contemporary attempt to restore myth to the physical world: the personification and even worship of the earth as Gaia. He considers whether this myth, which itself goes back to ancient times, manages to reconcile myth with science – the approach of the twentieth century – while keeping the subject and even the function of myth scientific-like – the assumption of the nineteenth century. Segal contrasts the deference to science shown by both twentieth- and nineteenth-century theorists of myth to the easy dismissal of science shown by postmodernism.

In ‘Myths of China’ Ye Shuxian discusses first the traditional Chinese wariness towards mythology, a wariness that he contends is rooted in Confucianism. As, apparently, part of a gradual opening by China to Western ideas, mythology in the twentieth century became a proper subject of study and was even supported by the government. Ye Shuxian distinguishes between traditional Chinese respect for male rulers and traditional scepticism towards female ones, if any there were. That disparity in status had mythological consequences. On the one hand there were, or at least there survive, far fewer myths of female gods than myths of male gods. On the other hand female gods come to lose either their femininity or their power.

Coming from a Chinese tradition of scholarship, Ye Shuxian draws our attention to the fact that in Han script the very character referring to ‘god/body’ has female connotations. In other words, originally the capacity to bear children was directly associated with creativity, as visually reflected in the character for this concept. He argues that these connotations reveal early Chinese views of divinities as rather female than male. He believes that myths of female gods might well be linked to an early matriarchal stage in Chinese history. In a later phase of history either those female gods got completely lost or they lost their primordial role, so that, according to him, their function in later myths changed drastically. Ye Shuxian notes the centrality accorded to myths of female gods by the Jungian scholar Erich Neumann.

Van Binsbergen then offers his own distinctive approach to myth, one that combines what might be called the outsider's point of view with the insider's. Most theories assume a critical, sceptical, reductive approach to myth, and risk to dissolve the existence (and sense) of the myth by replacing it with ‘more valid truths characterised by scientific rationality, objectivity and universality’. The theorist would know better than the person whose myth it is. Van Binsbergen does not reject the scientific approach. He rejects it as the only approach. He proposes a balance between it and an alternative approach, that of the person – better, the culture – with the myth. He strives to combine what he calls ‘rupture’ with what he calls ‘fusion’: ‘deconstructing’ myth with ‘celebrating’ myth. To approach myth in this double way would be to succeed in reconciling theory with area studies. This would occur when anthropologists temporarily adopt the owners’ ceremonial or ritual enactment of myth, or when literary analysts accept the emblematic value and deep truth of ancient myths re-enacted in latter-day texts. Van Binsbergen's paper yet warns the readers that ‘fusion’ can only be carried out in a constantly renovating tension created by the (apparently contradictory) adoption and celebration of myths in the critical scientist stance.

Short Biographies

Daniela Merolla's research focuses on African oral literary productions and their interactions with written literatures in African and European languages. She specialised in Intercultural Comparative Literature and in Anthropology of Religions, and her interdisciplinary perspective has allowed her to problematise anthropological and literary approaches to orality/literacy, gender, ethnicity and narrativity in African literatures and African migrant artistic productions. Her most recent books are Oralité et nouvelles dimensions de l’Oralité (Paris: Publications Langues O’, INALCO 2008) edited together with Mena Lafkioui, De l’art de la narration Tamazight (berbère). 200 ans d’études: état des lieux et perspectives (Paris – Louvain – Dudley, MA: Peeters 2006), Migrant Cartographies: New Cultural and Literary Spaces in Post-Colonial Europe (Lanham, MD: Lexington 2005) edited together with Sandra Ponzanesi, and Transcultural Modernities: Narrating Africa in Europe, Matatu: Journal of African Culture and Society, Special Issue (Amsterdam: Rodopi 2008, forthcoming), edited together with Elisabeth Bekers and Sissy Helff. Daniela Merolla is Senior Lecturer in African Literatures at the Department of Languages and Cultures of Africa, Leiden University, The Netherlands.

Mineke Schipper's research concentrates on intercultural comparison, at the intersection of comparative literature, oral traditions and African studies. She published in journals such as Présence Africaine; Theatre Research International; Comparative Literature; Research in African Literatures; New Literary History. Among her many books are Beyond the Boundaries. African Literature and Literary Theory (London/Chicago 1989); Imagining Insiders (London/New York 1999); and Imagining Creation (with Mark Geller; Boston/Leiden 2008). Her comparative study Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet. Women in Proverbs from Around the World (London and New Haven 2004, Eureka Award 2005), argues that in cultures all over the globe proverbs reveal intriguingly common patterns across centuries and continents. The book has been translated into many languages (most recently Arabic). Her current research is about the origin of the first people in myths worldwide. After appointments at the Université Libre du Congo and Amsterdam Free University, she presently teaches at the University of Leiden. She holds a PhD from Amsterdam Free University.


* Correspondence address: Daniela Merolla, African Studies Department, Leiden University, PO Box 9500, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands. E-mail:

1 The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) funded this publication within the framework of the project Creation Stories and Mythologies: New Questions and Comparative Approaches. The project is part of the Internationalisation of Research Schools programme (in cooperation with SOAS, London, UK). We thank Religion Compass for providing a forum for the publicising of this research.

Works Cited

Bascom, WR, 1965. ‘The Forms of Folklore: Prose Narratives’, Journal of American Folklore, vol. 78, pp. 320.

Brelich, A, 1970. ‘Prolégomènes à une Histoire des Religions’, Histoire des Religions, Encyclopédie de La Pléiade, Gallimard, Paris, pp. 359.

Cohen, PS, 1969. ‘Theories of Myth’, Man, vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 337353.

Finnegan, R, 1970. Oral Literature in Africa, Clarendon House, Oxford, UK.

Finnegan, R, 1992. Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts, Routledge, London and New York.

Okpewho, I, 1983. Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Pinker, S, 1995. The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind, Penguin Books, London.