The Compact Oxford English dictionary defines myth as a traditional story concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, typically involving the supernatural1. Whilst this may be an accurate definition of the word myth, the concept of a myth in terms of history cannot be so easily explained in just one sentence. A myth is the result of hundreds and sometimes thousands of years worth of re-telling a story concerning either an event, an explanation of concepts that are beyond observation and reason or a tale carrying a cultural message to be passed down the generations.
A myth gives an insight into how particular cultures view different events, how past cultures have explained such concepts as the beginning of life and the universe, and how individuals are illuminated above others to create heroic figures that are still influential in modern times. Historians can learn a great deal from myths however further analysis and research is needed to get beyond the story, and to the message that lies beneath. Many myths incorporate supernatural themes into the story however this does not, to any extent, make them mere fairytales.
The supernatural components of many myths make them more interesting and unique, therefore far more appealing to be re-told, to be heard and to be remembered. It is not the supernatural component of a myth that a historian should be interested in, but perhaps what the supernatural is representing, or is in place of. For example, in Greek mythology, Achilles was said to have been dipped into the river Styx to make him immortal, however the place on his heel where his mother had held him remained dry and therefore his heel was his weak spot2.
A historian researching this myth would not take the story literally and attempt to explain the powers of the river, but look at the message underneath. The myth explains that everybody has a weak spot or a weakness and that nobody is totally perfect and exempt from harm. Although this is not much use to a historian, the knowledge that everyone is vulnerable in one way or another, the myth is useful because it gives us an insight into Ancient Greek culture.
It was a warrior who was used as the focus of the story and from that we can make inferences such as soldiers and warriors were an important part of life in Ancient Greek times, or that in terms of entertainment, stories concerning soldiers and great battles were popular, hence why the myth was so popular. Myths can be used to observe the morals that are taught to different cultures at all different times through history. The Myth of David and Goliath, that is if we do not interpret the story as a literal event, teaches courage to those who read it or hear it.
A historian can find out the different morals that are respected and valued within different cultures in different periods of history. The myth of David and Goliath allows a historian to infer that within Christian culture, bravery and courage are respected traits. It is not necessarily the myth itself which provides interest to the historians, but the purpose of the myth. The myth of Achilles has the purpose of teaching the fact that no individual is resistant to harm. Many aboriginal myths are linked to rituals.
One particular ritual is the initiation of young boys becoming men. The elders of the tribe relay myths to the boys that are kept secret from the females in the tribe. These secret myths unite the men in the tribe, and important bond for a group who much hunt and live together in harmony3. In this case it is not the individual myth that appeals to a historian, but rather the consequences of retelling the myth, and its use for other purposes than to spread messages and for entertainment.
Historians should be interested in myths because they help to show how previous generations understood life, natural phenomena, and events that are still not fully understood today. The aboriginal myth of the Rainbow serpent concerns a magical serpent like creature who reveals itself to humans in the form of a rainbow as it travels through rain and water to shape the landscape around it. This myth shows a historian how the ancient Aborigines in Australia explained the natural occurrence of rainbows, mountains, valleys and the shape of the landscape.
Myths allow historians to understand how ancient civilisations viewed the world, and how they explained the complicated themes of nature. Historians should be very interested in myths because they have so much information to offer about different cultures, and how a particular culture’s reflection on life changes over time however historians should approach mythology with slight scepticism in order to gain as much information from the myth as possible. A historian should not study the myth for facts, but for what the story and characters in a myth represents.
The historians focus should be on the message that the myth carries, and how that message reflects on the culture and time period that the myth comes from. A historian should not dismiss supernatural myths as just stories, but use them to understand how previous cultures thought, and how they explained facts beyond their knowledge. A myth is a message or explanation exclusive to just one culture and therefore carries a lot of information for a historian to use.
Analysing myths can provide so much information to historians that they should be interested in them. Historians should be interested in myths because they are so unique. Every culture from every age has myths of some sort and although many have similarities with each other, each is different in its own way. A myth provides an insight into the teachings, the beliefs and the rituals of different communities and cultures in different periods of time.
A myth is a simple explanation or version of events used to relay information from generation to generation of a particular culture. Some are exaggerated and ‘spiced-up’ in order to become more interesting, hence the supernatural component in most myths. Some are extravagant tales containing only a small moral or message. Despite this, every myth has use for historians. As historian Richard C. Carrier writes in his journal entitled ‘The Function of the Historian in Society’, “it is naive to suggest there is no truth in history to be sorted from the myths”4.
Whether the myth shows a historian what morals and values were respected by a society such as the David and Goliath myth, whether it shows a historian what types of lessons and messages were passed down and taught to other members of a society such as the myth of Achilles, or whether it shows a historian how a particular culture explained the mysteries that they didn’t fully understand such as the myth of the Rainbow-serpent; every myth has some use to historians and myths should be of a great deal of interest to historians.
Despite the wealth of information that can be locked in a myth, a historian must be aware of the cultural background and setting of a myth in order to fully exploit it for its information. In the simplest of terms, a myth is a valid historical source with a great deal of information that appeals to historians who must have the necessary skills to extract the information.