History and mythology

Thursday, December 11th, 2003

In our most recent English/Humanities Department meeting, our respected and energetic chair, Francena Dwyer, brought up the idea of a mythology course. I claimed that we already had several, one being U.S. History. This of course drew dark looks from Bob Brown, an esteemed historian.

Of course, mythology, rather than the course, say Mythology 101, implies a kind of logic not a subject. A friend of mine, Ron Weber, liked to define mythology as those stories that give people an identity, a locus, an anchor. The question becomes one of how to determine reality, truth, and causal chains, and what tools do we have to determine these.

Unfortunatly, we must use tools to figure the world. But we can’t figure all of it. We can dig up accurate pictures of why Crassus was given command of Syria in BC 55. The question is: why should we?

The question “what did the writers of the constitution intend” is important because law and policy today will be shaped by the answer, and this creates a world we must live with somehow (one based on interpretation). Interpretation, therefore, matters a great deal.

For me the answer is: history is a kind of mythology. Dark looks?


10 responses to “History and mythology”

  1. Neha says:

    How about an entire course on Arthurian mythology? Hopefully, if we find liberated souls, some day we’ll be able to discuss some of the religious texts out there in Mythology courses.

  2. Rina says:

    Mr. E. When you say that history is a kind of mythology…do you mean that in a devaluing way?To me, mythology is a collection of didactic instructions from the gods. Mythology is wildly interesting but I never considered mythology to be of this world.Just for the record, I think that TCC should offer a class in mythology. I would totally take it…for fun.History, on the other hand…is the story of the dead. To love history is to love dead people. It’s a story of human evolution.I would say that…there’s a big difference between history and mythology.

  3. ersinghaus says:

    Rina,

    No devaluation here. But this is how some will take such a gesture. To some mythology is associated with idols of the tribe or of the theater, but this not how I mean it. The question becomes: why do we still care about Achilles?

    You writes: “History, on the other hand…is the story of the dead. To love history is to love dead people. It’s a story of human evolution.”

    This could intend: history is, therefore, a subset of Anthropology.

    We could also say: History is the story of human change. Therefore, history is poetry.

  4. Christopher says:

    Let us not forget that mythology was passed down generation to generation, sometimes written on parchment, sometimes spoken, sometimes carved into clay tablets without bias. The stories of the egyptian gods don’t conflict with the stories of the Greeks or Aztecs.

    History on the other hand is written by the victor and tells the story from rarely more than one viewpoint. History by it’s very nature is skewed. As an example, to some in this country the conflict of 1861-1865 is known as the Civil War. To others it’s the War of Northern Aggression. Why is it taught in schools as the Civil War? Because the north won.

    Mythology in all of its aspects is very interesting. I don’t think of history as mythology however. To me history is more grounded in concrete details. The student most remember however to look for all of the details, including those left out, before making their own judgements.

  5. Deb says:

    Mr. E-

    Ok- I’ll jump in, why on earth not…

    You wrote, “A frined of mine, Ron Weber, liked to define mythology as those stories that give people an identity, a locus, an anchor”. This having been said, I would agree that in spirit, if not in content, history is a kind of mythology. If I were asked the question, ‘why learn about history?’, at least part of my response would be that it gives us context and helps us to form our interpretations of the world. I do heartily agree though that it is important to take perspective of the writer into context when being given someone’s version of a historical event.

    Of course all of those statements apply to many things that we are exposed to in our educations and our lives (history, religion, literature…).

    I also want to say, using the popular interpretation of what mythology is, I would be interested in a class on it.

    ok- back to my cave… :-)

  6. Rina says:

    Unfortunately, Christopher…for whatever reason, history is not taught based on primary sources but based on secondary and tertiary sources, unless you’re studying to be an historian. One almost can’t blame people for being ignorant because the flaw is in the teaching method. As a student of history, I think it’s far more interesting to read someone’s diary or letters than to memorize a series of bullet points for later regurgitation.I guess I shouldn’t be embarrassed to say because I wasn’t the only person in my class that had no clue but…I had to wait for a 300 level class in my junior year of college to learn how to gain an appreciation for searching through periodicals for primary sources. Library skills?…What’s that?History in itself, I think, is meant to be a quest not an indoctrination, I agree with you on that point. That’s not to say that history is subjective…it’s just to say that it deals with the gray so that in order to judge, it is important to gather as much evidence as possible. And even still, there is always bias…but that is more a human flaw than an historical one.

  7. Maureen says:

    Well, we have a mythology class here at SJC [Saint Joseph]…Eng 256: Moral Decision Making in Greek Tragedy…

    The focus is on ethics in Greek Tragedy…[Ion, Iphigenia at Aulis, Antigone,Hecuba, etc…]

    We study the works and then inquire as to the motivation and the actions of the characters…

    There are parallels to be found between Greek and Shakespearean Tragedy…That is, is the character an “actor” [act of his own accord], or is the character a victim of events foisted upon him?

    I remember “Hecuba” and how she felt imposed upon by the Gods..In the beginning, there was order and rationality to her world..but as tragic circumstances increased…she became less and less sure of the “order” of the world…

    Well, applying “Ethics” to Mythology is just one way to make it relevant [alive] to today’s students [audience]…

    You can do that with history as well.. History is not dead…It is the path from which we came…

    I hope this makes sense..I can elaborate if it does not…:)

    Most Graciously,

    Maureen
    *A Mayde in her own little woode….

  8. Maureen says:

    Let me add that there is mythology in history for do we not make myth of our great victories and/or leaders?…

    A class can take a closer look at this and how it evolves and why it evolves…

    Why can’t history be what it is…? Why does it need to by “mythologized?” [Think JFK and the whole “Camelot” thing…]

    Most Graciously,

    Maureen
    *A Mayde in her own little woode…

  9. Jason says:

    The difference is that History is conceived to simply tell the people what events occurred in the past and why. Mythology tries (like all religion) to explain and anthropomorphize the unknown. In ancient times, everything unexplained was the work of a god or supernatural being.
    As far as a class, it all depends on how its done. Too many Mythology books are almost all interpretation, instead of just appreciating the actual stories that make up a belief. That’s where the enjoyment and interest would be the greatest.

    Jason

  10. Christopher says:

    In my own mind the “good” history teacher doesn’t so much teach history (or the bullet points mentioned above) but instead talks about the period and does all that is possible to immerse the students in the time and make them question what they are being told.

    Students should learn to question and dig deeper not just accept what is on the surface. That is the goal I have set for myself in life but also for when I become a teacher of History.