ymbols and ymbolism

Myths and Rituals:  Religious Symbols & Anthropology

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Introductory section  Myth and Ritual as Symbols:   The ultimate symbol, whether the primitive with his acts to continue the earth and sun, or the modern, seeking connections to his past and his community, is the mythic ritual that embodies meaning and signifies that life is more than physical matter, more than physics with a little chemistry added.  Indeed, in many cultures, myths were originally not told as much as acted out (thus beginning drama.)  Thus was portrayed the heroic acts and/or theophanies that became the myths and religious rites in later generations.  Although, in contrast, at least one investigator characterizes rituals as distillations of "many secular customs and natural regularities" (VTurner, 1967, 50). 

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  But, before analyzing myths, rituals, and mythology in general, one needs to become familiar with specific myths and practices.  For this purpose there are many collections of myths, as well as dictionaries of mythological creatures and places.  The dictionaries are covered in Chapter 2, Encyclopedias & Dictionaries of Symbols, Signs, and Myths.  Below, you will find collections of myths (with general collections first, followed by topical.) These are then followed by regional collections and individual myths, as well as some books that describe and interpret myths and symbols in a specific, local context.  After that come the more general studies and analyses of myth, ritual, and symbol:

General and topical collections of myths                                                   bibliography
Regional collections of myths & symbols                                                  bibliography
Analysis of myths, rituals, & related symbols, general & topical                 bibliography
 

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General and topical collections of myth: 

Gods & goddesses: 

Ritual & worship: 

Traditions: 

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Numbers & numerology: 

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Geographically/culturally specific mythology & symbols:  

- Africa - America, North - America, South - Asia (excluding Middle East) - Australia, Indonesian archipelago, & Pacific -
- Europe - Middle East (including the Levant & ancient Egypt) -

  Anthropology may have started out with studies of local populations, tribes, and groups, their practices, stories, and beliefs.  Indeed, the discipline can likely be traced back to people who became aware of the significant differences between "my group" and "your group," and wondered "Why?"  Then came the attempt by such people as James Frazer and his generation who attempted to agglomerate then arrange the findings of the local researchers into a whole.  The emphases of the anthropological approach, through its various schools and theories over the years, tend to swing back and forth between these two extremes.  Indeed, many anthropologists of the late twentieth century tended to try to combine the two efforts, to some extent.  Indeed, in the more interesting anthropologists, there is the constant tension between applying theory to observations and modifying theory due to observations and their interpretations. 

African mythology & symbolism: 

  In his collection of papers, articles, and newly written chapters on the rituals of the Ndembu, The Forest of SymbolsAspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y.:  Cornell University Press, 1967,) Victor Turner takes issue with those over-cautious anthropologists who would restrict interpretation to that known by the practicioners (26), as well as some other aspects of anthropology's beliefs, in order to understand the fullness of the ritual practices of his subjects, a tribe in Zambia.  Indeed, the first chapter, "Symbols in Ndembu Ritual," emphasizes the need for both the anthropologist's acceptance of the native exegesis while adapting the analytical psychologist's perception of the symbols and their meanings in the context of the whole system of ritual symbolism for a society.  The first five chapters concentrate on examining anthropological theory and practice, but are thoroughly pervaded with examples of Ndembu ritual and the author's experiences in observing and interpreting it.  Here he considers and expostulates on the relation between symbols and, on the one hand, signs, and on the other hand, rituals, of which he finds the symbol the most basic component (19).  He describes the rituals of unity while showing how they also include symbolism of conflict between various sub-groups within the community.  Turner also devotes a chapter to the colors (white, black, and red) and their breadth of meanings, as well as dealing with rites of passage then witchcraft vs socery, all in considering how far classifications help and how greatly they hinder the anthropologist in his interpretation of a society.  In contrast, one of the most important influential ideas of this book is the author's classification of interpretation types (or steps or levels) of ritual & symbol (50-51 [note the series of 4 quotes beginning here.]).  In the second part of the book, a further 5 chapters look at specific aspects of Ndembu life and ritual.  However, just as the 5 chapters of theory are permeated with concrete examples, so these discussions/interpretations of concrete practices are interleavened with theoretical considerations.  Yet, throughout the book, Turner's writing style is fresh, engaging, and clear.  This writing style combines with his intermixing of observed rituals, theory, and interpretation to make this an excellent introduction to anthropology, despite its highly specific, local focus.  (Selectively indexed in Chapter 19, Thematic Index of Images with Major Commentary.)

North American mythology: 

  Lankford, George E., ed.  Native American LegendsSoutheastern LegendsTales from the Natchez, Caddo, Biloxi, Chickasaw, and Other Nations.  (Little Rock:  August House, 1987)   Beginning with an Introduction and 2 chapters (1. Preliminary Reflections; 2. The Native American Southeast) that reflect on the history and study of myths of American Indiansl, the book then recounts the stories of various "southeastern" tribes, arranged by two general topics with several chapters within each:  The Ways of the World (3. The Above World; 4. The Under World; 5. The Middle World; 6. The Tribes of People; 7. The Plant World) and Adventures (8.The Twins; 9. The Wonderful Garments; 10. The Bead-Spiter/Marooned Hero; 11. Other Adventures; 12. Tricksters.)  The book concludes with Notes and an 8-page bibliography.  The book does include some drawings of various characters and implements, as well as several charts comparing the distribution of types of story among the various tribes.  Both in the introductory material and in the brief Epilogue, the author discusses the various possible provenances of the stories: native, other tribes, African, or European. 

Central & South American mythology: 

  Bierhorst, John, Ed. & trans.  Black RainbowLegends of the Incas and Myths of Ancient Peru.  (New York:  Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1976.).   Beginning with an introduction to the land and culture, this book contains the recounting of myths, legends, and folktales of the Peruvian native peoples.  Following the stories are several addenda: Notes on Sources, Glossary of Indian Terms, Quechua Pronunciation, and a brief list of Suggestions for Further Reading.

Asian mythology: 

Mythology from Australia, Pacific islands, & the Indoneasian archipelago: 

European mythology: 

Middle Eastern mythology, including the Levant and ancient Egypt: 

 

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Myth & ritual:  anthropological analysis: 

  An anthropological study of myths and rituals may begin with studying the myth or ritual and the culture in which it is found.  Yet, especially in those early studies from the mid-19th century to the beginning of the twentieth, there is also the attempt to formulate a woldwide application from the study of similar myths and/or rituals from diverse cultures and regions.  The most famous is, of course, James Frazer's The Golden Bough, which began as a single volume looking at kingship then eventually, through several editions, expanded into a 12 volume work that had to have a supplementary 13th volume "aftermath" to complete it.  (This was only one of several major studies in myth which Frazer published in his lifetime.)  One of the big "debates" in anthropology (and any other field that studies multicultural aspects of myths and ritual) is how much, if any, is unique and how much is diffused from other cultures, even across oceans.  Thus most anthropologists began by either favoring the "diffusion" theory or the "independent origin" theory.  In addition, some of the works included in this section are by scholars from fields other than anthropology, but are included due to their analyzing some myth or ritual that relates to their interests. 

  (Also, see Victor Turner, The Forest of Symbols, under "African Mythology and Symbolism," above, for an interesting application, and questioning, of theory in a specific situation.)

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  One of the anthropologists writing in the generation after Frazer was Donald A. MacKenzie.  His publications include collections of myths from every continent as well as analyses of myths and myth-types.  In the foreword of The Migration of Symbols and their Relations to Beliefs and Customs (1926, reprinted 1970), he laid out 3 positions:  1) The psychological, which he dismissed as having too little evidence at the time; 2)The independent origin, which he described briefly but hinted that we had not the information to justify (and also equates this with the "psychic unity" theory); and 3) The diffusion theory, wherein symbols started one place geographically then were transmitted from one culture to another.  Actually, there is a fourth theory, Art for Art's Sake, which he dismisses derisively.  As can be guessed from the title of this work, MacKenzie is a staunch diffusionist.  Indeed, in this book he presents 4 visiual images (the swastika, spiral, ear, and tree symbols) and describes how they change in meaning from one culture to another, while presenting arguments for the diffusion of these images across geographic boundaries.  The reader must decide for himself whether the evidence and research over that last 80 years still supports this theory adequately or not.  However, the accumulation of the symbols and the discussion of related myths and applications across cultural boundaries is a great value of this book.  Even better, the author does not presume that the reader knows the appearance of the items discussed and, therefore, has made heavy use of line drawings to illustrate the text throughout. 

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  On the other hand, an Associate Professor of Classics, Eric Csapo, has created a textbook with the descriptive title, Theories of Mythology (2005).  In the succeeding years since MacKenzie wrote, there are now many distinctive theories, not just his three.  Csapo admits in his preface that the description of the theories he includes are selections to demonstrate the various schools of thought, and are not comprehensive.  The contents of this book seem to bear out this caveat.  As was true with MacKenzie, he seems least comfortable with the psychological schools, which he lumps together with his description of Freud's theory, dismissing Jung in two widely separated, ambiguous statements.  (He later labels Joseph Campbell, in the structuralism chapter, as a "Jungian," even though he does not define the term in either section.)  Curiously, no other field of study, mythology, semiotics, nor anthropology, is set up as a "school" or "methodology."  With the exceptions of psychology and the complete absence of any reference to Mircea Eliade, Csapo seems very inclusive of all the other major figures in development of mythological theories.  His critical descriptions and analyses of the major schools of thought and their approaches/interpretations of myth, including a view of the historical development of the theories, provides a valuable comparative sourcebook.  His bibliography is more inclusive of the theories than his text, including most of the original publications (for Frazer's The Golden Bough, perhaps too many versions!) as well as some important critical works. 

 

 

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Bibliography

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Collections of Myths, General & Topical

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Collections/retellings of Myths and Symbols, Regional & Cultural

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Studies in mythology, rituals, & symbols

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Symbols and Symbolism, Chapter 5:
    Myths and Rituals:  Religious Symbols & Anthropology
URL:  http://www.fiu.edu/~morriss/bookword/symbols/symbolism5.html
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