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Myth in Anthropology Study Religion Essay

Related Topics: Culture Religion Rituals Society

Pages:3 (1014 words)




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One of the most ubiquitous features of human culture, myth relies on storytelling as its primary vehicles. As a type of storytelling, myth depends on symbolism, which is why the substantive nature of a myth remains the same even when the details of the story may change or assume new meaning when it is applied to another society or historical epoch. The cross-cultural study of myths may explore similarities and differences between the overarching narratives told in different societies. Or, focusing on one society, an anthropologist might demonstrate how myth functions as a means of perpetuating the norms and values that bind together members of the community. Moreover, anthropologists study the way myth embeds itself into dimensions of culture such as art, music, language, or politics. Myth embodies meaning, adding tremendous weight to the differentiation between the sacred and profane aspects of life. Ultimately, myth is integral to the construction of identity, ethos, and ontology.

Myth becomes central to the construction of identity. In his analysis of Melanesian culture, for example, Malinowski shows how myth informs all the other dimensions of life that give purpose and structure to the society: aspects like morality and how to navigate ethical complexities. Myth is the basis for externalized activities that also define identity or membership in the community. Ritual is the best example, including the rituals that comprise initiation rites or rites of passage. Anthropologists work within a theoretical orientation similar to that of sociology, too, showing how the content of a culture’s sacred stories and myths have a strong bearing on the construction of gender roles and norms in a society. Myth also contributes to the construction of identity in that it forms the building blocks of semantics within any given society. Ellis points out that myth functions as a symbolic language and that language is then used to imbue other elements like dance with meaning. Tribes or large societies differentiate themselves from one…

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…marriage, and death. People in societies that rely more on science than religion may also continue to enact rituals and rites as a means of reinforcing identity and preserving the unique features of the culture to which they belong. Even when they no longer count as sacred stories, myths still provide keys to understanding the nature of heroism, or the importance of endurance in the face of suffering.

One of the ways anthropologists study myth in different cultures is examining symbols not just in the narrative content but also in performance, ritual, and other manifestations including rites of passage. Even when the substantive content of myth is similar among disparate cultures, the myth may function totally differently in other ways. For example, in one culture the myth may not have any bearing at all on ritual practices whereas in another it would. Myth also parallels the creative arts in the societies that sustain them, informing dance, art, and other forms of literary…

Sample Source(s) Used


Eliade Mircea. “Myth.”

Eller, Jack David. “Studying Religion Anthropologically.”

Lee, Dorothy. “Religious Perspectives in Anthropology.”

Lewis, M. “The Anthropologists’ Encounter with the Supernatural.”

Malinowski, Bronislaw. “Rational Mastery by Man of His Surroundings"

Nash, June. "Devils, Witches and Sudden Death"

Turner, Victor W. “Religious Specialists.”

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