religion & myth

I have heard a mythology professor bemoan students’ unfamiliarity with the Judeo-Christian religion, but never paid it much heed. It seems that in almost every first year Classics course, at some point a student will submit a paper that is a mash up of half-forgotten, half-misremembered Sunday School stories and a few facts from lecture. While in some way these are easy papers to mark, I don’t think any of us enjoy them because they are so far off the mark. Is this really something we want to encourage?

In the most recent mythology course I worked for, we endeavoured to teach students something about structuralism, which to be really successful requires knowledge of some sort of mythology aside from Graeco-Roman. Our teaching guidelines assumed that most students would have some familiarity with the Judeo-Christian mythology because of its enormous influence on western art and culture. But of the 40 students I had, not one was familiar with any of the Judeo-Christian myths referenced; I know from conversation that other classes were similar.

But the more I have thought about this professor’s comments, the more I am inclined to agree that students need exposure to religions– not for the purpose of moralizing or proselytizing (I would never support that) but so they can understand the cultural artefacts produced within these systems. Many, perhaps most, of the great works of art and literature in the western world stem from two strains of mythology: Graeco-Roman and Christian. An inability to understand a society’s mythology hampers one’s ability to understand its cultural products.

Now, I know referring to the Christian religion, or any religion, as mythology, will no doubt stir up some ire among adherents. But I use the term in its academic sense, rather than as a value judgment (I won’t touch that subject!)  Although we call these belief sets religions today, they fit the criteria of a mythology: that is, these belief systems seek to provide a comprehensive, total explanation of the cosmos. They attempt to answer questions such as where we come from, where we go when we die, why we can’t see the gods, how we should live, how we communicate with the gods, etc. Graeco-Roman mythology also addressed these questions and was once the religion of its day; While there was no set canon, it was equally diverse (if not more so) as any religion today in terms of individual beliefs.

So that leads me to think: What is the difference between religion and mythology? Is it simply a matter of time and distance– that is, if the culture is sufficiently distant from one’s one, does that make it myth? I think this is problematic as it creates a value hierarchy and considers some belief sets as more legitimate than others. Rather, I would suggest that mythology is the underlying system of understanding and that religion is the expression of this system through ritual and enforced norms; that is, the religious expression both stems from and reinforces the mythology. With time, elements of the religious expression outside of the original mythology are also incorporated into the mythology as the system is altered to maintain its currency and authority in a shifting society.

To follow this idea further, I would suggest that knowledge of mythologies is necessary to understand and appreciate art and literature produced within (or with reference to) these systems not simply for the basic story that is depicted by a painting or poem, but to understand things such as the artist’s intention, how the work relates to the artist’s contemporary society, and how the artist’s work is interpreted by different audiences. Exposure to these mythologies (religions) is necessary not only to understand what a particular work of art is about, but to understand its importance and significance in a society. 


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