Dictionary of Mythology
What is a myth? The Greeks knew and, as usual, had a word for it; the word mythos which means word, story, talk, etc. So, for that matter, did the tribes of North America – for the Chinook ik!anam; for the Kwakiutl nayam; for the Thompson tribe spektakl; for the Tsimshian adaox, while in Alaska it was adaork. And so, of course, did many other cultures – and they had not only the word but the stories to go with it. To most of them it was a story passed orally from one person to another, from generation to generation, telling of some hero, some god, some formulation of an abstract idea such as creation. Some of these became written records and so survived for us to know them and such is their power that, despite the disappearance of the cultures that gave rise to them, modern literature abounds with allusions and direct references to these marvellous tales, many of which are still endlessly retold – as they are in this book.
Although they probably represent the most well-known body of mythological material, myths did not start with the Greeks. Many of the myths included here predate the Greeks by many centuries and there can be little doubt that men have constructed accounts to answer such questions as ‘What causes thunder?’ or ‘Where did we come from?’ ever since they were capable of thought. This implies that myths go back not centuries but millions of years but, since those early people could think and formulate the questions to which they had no real answers but could not write either the questions or the answers, we have no way of knowing what myths they constructed. One thing, however, is abundantly clear from the records that are available to us; the urge – the need even – to create myths seems to be inherent in all cultures. Although it can be argued that each culture took over and elaborated the stories of earlier cultures (as the Romans did, taking over virtually the whole of the Greek pantheon and their myths), it is just as valid to suggest that the many similarities between the major myths have no such connections since they appear in cultures so widely separated by both distance and time that no contact between them seems possible. Stories of creation, of floods, of the mating of gods with mortals, of heroes who brought fire – these and many others crop up in the myths of numerous cultures throughout recorded time.
One can regard these ancient tales as simple tales of derring-do – the work of a bygone Archer, Forsyth or Shute – or one can attribute to them the deeper significance that almost certainly prompted their creation. Some maintain that the similarities between many of the basic myths postulate a common origin, others that these similarities prove only that similar questions, similar phenomena, evoke similar answers in each culture. This book brings together under such headings as creation, first humans, flood, etc many of these similar stories but the significance of the similarities and the interpretation of individual myths is left to those whose interests lie in those fields and to the reader who is free to add his own interpretation – or none. Scholars divide stories of the imagination into categories such as myth, legend, fairy-tales, folklore, marchen and so on but, given that the stories relate to postulated entities such as gods, real characters such as Charlemagne, completely imaginary characters such as Ali Baba and characters such as King Arthur who live in that shadowland between fact and fiction, it is hard to see how one can slot all of them neatly into classes. Add to this the fact that huge swathes of what passes in the study of the world’s faiths as religion appear again in world mythologies and it is wise, in my view, to take a much more relaxed view of what constitutes mythology. As a result, this book contains entries that purists might well reject as being outside the realms of true myth but it seems to me that, if a demon such as Ravana in Hindu myth or the oni of Japanese stories are eligible for inclusion, there is no good reason to exclude the whole host of demons which inhabit the grimoires and demonologies of the western world.
Another feature of this book is that it attempts to encompass as wide a coverage of the world’s mythologies as is reasonably possible within one set of covers. If it opens a wider field to those whose reading has previously been confined to the well-known mythologies of the Greeks, the Romans and the Norsemen, it will have served the purpose for which it was conceived.
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