In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Myth

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Myth as Oral Literature and Expressive Culture
  • Language and Myth
  • Myth and Music
  • Myth as a Theme Expressed in the Arts
  • Myth and Folklore
  • Myth and Religion
  • Myth and Ritual
  • Myth, Memory, and History

Anthropology Myth
Sean O'Neill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0191


Myth has been on the shortlist of key concepts in anthropology from the very start, emerging out of work with “oral literature” in preliterate societies, where “sacred narrative” is all but universal throughout the world’s many thousands of indigenous cultures. As anthropologists—with their broad pan-human perspective—have long suspected, many of the classics of early literature—from the Jewish Torah to Homeric epic—likely have their deepest roots in oral performances, originally delivered before a live audience, often with musical accompaniment. Myth, in this sense, is a human universal, something that is present in all societies, whether or not there is a system of writing to record these performances for all time. Yet, over the years, anthropologists and other scholars have moved away from this sense of myth as “oral performance” to a more generalized sense of “myth,” which embraces any backdrop of shared conceptions that are imposed on the understanding of everyday reality—starting with religion, but also including everything from folklore to science. Over time, attention has turned away from “myth” in the original sense of oral performance, and the concept was eventually reworked to include a number of parallel areas of culture, where everyday discourses come to be naturalized and accepted as “timeless truths,” including everything from nationalism to gender roles. Today, myth, as a concept, is often applied to everything from political ideology to race and racism—poignant “myths” to which most of humanity still subscribes. In this way, myth retains a valued place at the core of anthropological thought, as a conception that unlocks many aspects of culture, from religious beliefs to larger cultural ideologies.

General Overview

Myth as a subject is vast in scope, stretching across all of human history to encompass a vast range of academic disciplines—from psychology and comparative literature to anthropology and philosophy. Nevertheless, there are a number of useful introductions, for the novice and even the expert. For a general introduction cutting across disciplines, see Segal 2015. For a sample of the popular stories that encircle the entire planet, see Eliot 1990 (cited under Comparative Mythologies). For statements by key anthropological theorists, aimed at a general audience, see Goody 2010 and Lévi-Strauss 2014. For further reading on the central place of myth in the history of anthropological thought, see Malinowski 2014.

  • Goody, Jack. 2010. Myth, ritual, and the oral. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511778896

    An anthology of Goody’s groundbreaking essays on the cognitive aspects of myth as a foundation for culture, including its place in ritual practices.

  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 2014. Myth and meaning. Routledge Classics. London: Routledge.

    A general statement on myth by one of anthropology’s premier theorists on the subject, from a broad, comparative perspective; originally published in 1978.

  • Malinowski, Bronisłav. 2014. Malinowski and the work of myth. Edited by Ivan Strenski. Princeton Legacy Library. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A recent compilation of Malinowski’s musings on mythology, as a key aspect of his functional school of anthropological thought, with emphasis on his work in the South Pacific.

  • Segal, R. A. 2015. Myth: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780198724704.001.0001

    A broad introduction to myth, drawing on theoretical insights from both comparative literature and anthropology.

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