In a recent article on flood myths, Alan Dundes wrote: "Theories of myth interpretation may be roughly divided into two major groupings: literal and symbolic. Literalists tend to seek factual or historical bases for a given mythological narrative while advocates of one the many symbolic approaches prefer to regard the narrative as a code requiring some mode of decipher-ment. It is important to realize that the literal and symbolic exegeses [interpretations] of myths are not necessarily mutually exclusive" (167). As you read through what follows, you might want to classify each "way" of looking at myth as literal or symbolic. You will also want to remember what Dundes says about interpretations not being mutually exclusive: myths can be looked at in many ways, which often can be employed at the same time without contradiction. For example, in the story of Ra, Isis, and the snakebite, the possible political interpretation (Isis being advanced by her priests to position of top god) doesn't rule out a consideration of Ra as sun-god, or possibly seeing some ritual significance to his sickness and subsequent cure. As G. S. Kirk puts it, "a myth may have different emphases or levels of meaning." Since it often serves more than one purpose, "a tale about human actions [can] contain more than a single aspect and implication" (39).
1. As a belief system.
Often books on mythology conveniently forget that myth stories were once all believed to be "true" (in some sense). The problem arises when we try to figure out in what sense. For example, most Greeks probably believed that there was a god in the sky named Zeus, but did they really believe that this god had all those affairs with mortal women? Because belief is often so personal and individual, questions like this are hard to answer. The question of belief is especially difficult to unravel in polytheistic ["many gods"] systems, because worshippers often follow personal, family, or local gods rather than bothering about the pantheon ["all the gods"] as a whole. Also, polytheistic religions often lack centralized priesthoods and/or central sacred texts which are considered the word of god(s). In general, polytheistic systems allow for a greater latitude of belief than monotheistic ["one god"] religions do, if only because these systems offer a greater variety of deities to worship. In this course, students and the instructor will respect individual beliefs while also exploring the many ways of reading and understanding religious stories.
2. As disguised history.
Early philosophers tried to rationalize the fantastic events in myth by claiming that they were distortions of historical fact. One of these fellows was a Greek named Euhemerus (c. 300 BC), who gave his name to any theory that claims that the gods were originally historical heroes who were later deified. While this sort of euhemerism (Zeus seen as an ancient tribal hero who gradually took on attributes of a god, for example) is considered naive by some, theorists still look for historical truths hidden behind mythological stories. For example, (sticking with Zeus for a moment) many scholars see the thunder god's many love affairs with goddesses and mortal women as a reflection of Greek religious history: nomadic, sky-god worshipping invaders from the north came into the Greek peninsula to find an agricultural, goddess-worshipping people. The invaders (and their god, Zeus) took over, but not before adapting aspects of the goddess-worship of the natives. Each "marriage" of Zeus would then signify that the two religious traditions had been combined into one belief-system. (Sky-god marries earth-goddess: see "Gods and Men in Greek Religion" below.)
Since the end of the 19th century, archeologists have searched for the site of the historical Troy....