Myths from around the world address the questions human beings have always posed about their origins, their environments, their ultimate destinies, and the meaning of their lives. Although myth tradition’s numerous accounts of the creation of the cosmos, the nature of the afterworld, or the deeds of culture heroes are richly various in their particular details, recurring patterns nonetheless appear in tales that emerge from distinctly different cultures. Many cultural traditions, for example, include an account of a tremendous flood, a deluge that inundates the earth and destroys most forms of life, and stories of a sacred tree, a heroic monster-slayer, or a cunning trickster are also widespread throughout myth tradition. The occurrence of repeated themes and motifs within the myths of disparate peoples is a phenomenon that scholars have examined from various perspectives in efforts to identify ways in which experiences that human beings share have been embodied in narratives that circulate within diverse communities.
According to some theorists, for example, myth’s recurring patterns reveal features of the human psyche. Thus, from a Freudian perspective, mythic events symbolize the workings of the unconscious mind, and a culture’s tradition of myths can be seen as resembling an individual’s dreams. The Freudian theory of dream condensation, for instance, might be used to explain the appearance across myth traditions of the figure of the chimera, the fantastic beast that is composed of parts from different kinds of animals. According to Sigmund Freud, condensation takes place when the dreaming mind conjoins disparate elements from the waking world, and indeed this kind of transformation is readily apparent in the characteristics of the mythical creatures that populate tales told by many different peoples. The Jungian theories advanced by Joseph Campbell and other students of myth also afford a psychological understanding of mythic patterns. According to Carl Jung, myth tradition’s recurring symbols, figures, or actions are archetypes that arise from the collective unconscious, a repository of timeless images that all humankind possesses. The Divine Child, one of the archetypes identified by Jung, thus emerges from the collective unconscious to appear in various myths as a symbol of rebirth or the promise of renewal. For Campbell, the hero who undertakes a quest is an archetypal figure whose journey represents the human desire to realize spiritual fulfillment.
Other explanations of myth tradition’s recurring patterns focus attention upon human beings’ experiences within the natural world. For example, the deification of the earth in many cultural traditions signifies ancient peoples’recognition of its importance as the source of life. The sun, sustainer of all life, is also commonly deified, and in many traditions the earth and the sky are together represented as the primal parents who give birth to the world. Frequent occurrences of stories of the Fire Bringer—sometimes an animal and often a trickster or a god—underscore the importance of the emergence of fire as a technological development among ancient cultures, and tales of the culture heroes who teach people how to hunt for fish or game or how to plant and harvest crops are also commonplace throughout myth tradition. Ancient human beings’ relationship to the animal kingdom is emphasized in the many myths that feature animals as deities, tricksters, helpers, or other significant characters; indeed, in many cultural traditions, a divine Animal Master oversees the welfare of the earth’s wild creatures.The inevitability of death is a common theme within the world’s myths, and many cultural traditions include stories of the origin of death that serve to explain why it exists. Most myth traditions also envision an afterlife in the land of the dead, and, according to many different peoples, this place lies beneath the earth, in an underworld.
That an underworld is frequently conceived as the home of the dead is an appropriate expression of ancient peoples’ observation that both crops and creatures are absorbed by the earth after death occurs. According to these myths, the dead therefore dwell in a land that lies below the surface of the world, and this conception of the location of the afterworld often plays a role in a society’s burial customs. In some cultural traditions, including those of the ancient Egyptians and certain of the indigenous Australians, the sun is described as entering the underworld each day after it completes its journey across the sky. For these peoples and others, the west, the direction of the setting sun, serves as a symbol of the netherworld. The mountain and the tree are among the many other natural features that assume symbolic significance in many myth traditions. Because the mountain and the tree both rise into the sky, the traditional home of the gods, these features of the natural landscape are often represented as sites where the separate worlds of the heaven and the earth are symbolically linked. Thus, accounts of a sacred mountain or tree appear in the myths of a remarkable number of the world’s distinct cultural traditions.
Striking similarities among myths’ motifs cannot always be attributed to polygenesis, the independent emergence of common themes within diverse traditions. Indeed, scholars have traced many instances wherein stories are apparently carried from one people to another and thus eventually assimilated by other myth traditions. For example, it is believed that the Hebrew account of Noah’s flood is a version of a Mesopotamian story that is recounted in Gilgamesh, an ancient epic, and that a later Greek tale of a great flood is possibly derived from these early sources. Although these particular stories might indeed be related, and would therefore serve as an example of monogenesis, the deluge motif is generally regarded as a universal theme, one that appears in myths from every continent on earth. Many of the tales that describe a devastating flood clearly invite a psychological interpretation, for often the deluge is represented as cleansing the world of imperfections or of evil in preparation for its rebirth. In these myths, the flood’s destruction of the world leads to a fresh beginning when the process of creation unfolds anew. In numerous myths, the occurrence of the deluge motif obviously also serves to address one of the great dangers that people must confront in the natural world. It is likely, therefore, that many traditional stories of a flood are mythologized accounts of actual catastrophes.
The Thematic Guide to World Mythology introduces thirty common motifs that appear in tales gathered from cultures spanning over four thousand years of myth tradition. While each section offers multiple examples of one of myth’s recurring themes, these collections of stories are merely representative of the patterns that emerge from traditions around the world, and readers might therefore readily identify one or more of these motifs in many other myths. Indeed, it is not unusual to find several of myth’s recurring themes within a single tale, and therefore some of the stories recounted in the Thematic Guide are discussed in various sections of the book. Furthermore, because interrelated or overlapping themes frequently emerge among the categories of myth motifs outlined by the Thematic Guide, a list of topics provided at the end of each section refers readers to additional relevant discussions within the book. The recurring figure of the trickster, for example, plays many roles in different myth traditions, and some of these roles are elaborated in the Thematic Guide’s discussions of the culture hero and the messenger. Moreover, the trickster is often represented as an animal, and thus references to this figure also appear in the section that considers animals in myth.
Because myths, which generally originate in an oral tradition, commonly undergo changes as they are passed down to succeeding generations, multiple versions of many tales have been recorded. The Thematic Guide to World Mythology occasionally makes reference to two or more versions of a traditional account, and readers might well be familiar with additional examples. Not only do readers of myth encounter variant recordings of tales, they are also inevitably confronted with the range of variations in the spelling of characters’ names that is a result of the process of translating phonemes from one language to another. The Greek sky deity Kronos, for example, frequently appears as “Cronus,” and the Pan Ku of Chinese myth tradition is also called “Pan Gu.” Yet further confusion arises when a figure from one myth tradition is related to a figure from another who is known by a different name. Thus, in Mesopotamian myth tradition, the Sumerian goddess Inanna is identified as Ishtar by the ancient Babylonians, and, among European cultures, the Greek god Zeus is known as Jupiter in Roman myths. Furthermore, various specialized terms or phrases are commonly employed in the study of myth, and these are not always familiar to all readers. Because the Thematic Guide makes use of certain of these terms, a glossary is provided at the end of the text.
The motifs described within the Thematic Guide to World Mythology offer an overview of patterns that emerge in myth traditions and trace the repeated occurrence of one of these patterns through several different categories of narratives. Indeed, a remarkable number of myths are concerned with the establishment, the maintenance, or the disruption of order in the world. In tales of the creation or in accounts of the deluge, order arises from a state of chaos, and this recurring theme appears once again in stories of the heroic monster-slayer who must confront and overcome the forces of disorder and destruction. Characteristically, the dragon or the serpent serves as the emblem of disorder within these tales, and in several myth traditions, including that of ancient Egypt, the image of a bird carrying a snake in its claws represents the triumph of order over chaos. In tales that depict the separation of the earth and sky, the order of the newly created world is given shape, and in myth tradition’s accounts of the afterlife, the idea of order is extended to incorporate the realm of the dead. In many fertility myths, a waste land is made fecund when order is restored, and in tales that envision the coming of an apocalypse, a new order arises from the chaotic destruction of the world. The world is also reordered in stories of the trickster, the agent of disorder and disruption whose subversive acts are instruments of change. Given the etiological nature of all myths, it is not surprising that an interest in explaining and defining the order of the world lies at the heart of many kinds of narratives.