At Anime Boston, a wonderful question was asked at my “Modern Mythology” panel, something that never occurred to me as I was working on it, and that deserves mention. One of the attendees asked me what the difference was between religion and mythology, and at what point does religion go from being a religion to being a mythology? I feel that this is a very important question to address, and would like to take the time to now. A word of warning: there will be no mentioning of anime in this essay, but I think my readers will forgive me for this. After all, before one can understand how mythology impacts anime, it should be discussed what mythology is.
At first glance, religion and mythology seem to be very similar, if not the same. In fact, the connotative associations of the word “mythology” seem to link it with “old” religions or “dead” ones- myths were at one point the same sacred stories as the Bible tales we tell now, only their parent religion no longer exists. This is a fallacy. The religious stories that modern day practitioners grow up with and learn are indeed mythology. They fulfill all the requirements set forth by Campbell (see entry dated 03/07/2010) and are indeed sacred stories. No, to understand the difference between religion as we understand it and mythology as we think of it, some clarifications must be made.
Firstly: All religions contain mythology, but not all mythology is still religion. Sacred stories are the backbone of religion, and there isn’t a religion in the world that does not contain them. These sacred stories are mystical, cosmological, pedagogical and social, and are necessary for a religion to remain viable. The reason why these stories are often not considered mythology is because, as I stated above, the connotations tied to the word “mythology”: our world seems to think that mythology is something old and outdated, a relic from the past.
Indeed, sacred stories from past civilizations may not hold the same importance now as our modern religious tales, but they did at one point. Regardless of whether or not the religion that spawned them is still practiced, sacred stories of any kind are the mythology of that religion, regardless of whether that religion is still being practiced or not.
Consider the following: In Greco-Roman mythology, there is a story of some renown about the inventor Daedalus and his son, Icarus. In the myth, Daedalus was imprisoned by the King Minos within a great tower at the center of his Labyrinth and forced to produce inventions for him. In order to escape, Daedalus crafted two sets of wings from wax and feathers, in order for him and his son to fly. As they made their escape from Minos, Icarus made the mistake of flying too close to the sun and the wax holding his wings melted. Icarus plunged into the sea and was killed.
This myth is, in addition to a clever and interesting story, a warning again hubris and arrogance in its forms, and a warning that man should not tarry into the realms of the gods. It contains science as the Greeks knew it at the time (the concept of crafting a set of artificial wings so one could fly like the birds), spoke of a well known King in Minos, and was tied directly to the Greek politics and cosmology of the time. We see this as a myth.
Now consider the following story. There was one a man with two sons. One day, his younger son came to him and asked that he divide the family fortune, so he may have his share of the inheritance. The father did so and the son took his inheritance and left. The man and his eldest son worked their fields and vineyards, while the younger son squandered his wealth on a life of excess in a far off country. One day, a great famine gripped the land, and the youngest son found himself without money, friends or material goods. He hired himself as a pig keeper, but realized that his life would be better if he served his father as a laborer. So, in his hour of greatest need, he returned to his father’s house to find work as a laborer. But when he returned, his father was so overcome with relief that he had his servants cloth his son in finery, kill the prized calf and hold a great feast for him, for he had returned home.
When the elder son heard of this, he became angry and confronted his father, desiring to know why his father had given his younger bother so much when he had wasted his wealth, yet had never given so much as a goat for he and his friends. His father replied that his eldest son would always be favored and given the wealth of the family, for he was faithful, but his brother had learned the error of his ways. He would go on to utter the famous words “But your brother here was dead, and was brought to life, was lost but now is found.”
This story is perhaps one of the best known of the Christian tradition, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Maybe I am choosing a very apparent example in selecting one of Jesus’s most important lessons here over something a bit more obscure or less obvious, like the story of Saul and the Amalekites (in which King Saul defies the orders of God- 1 Samuel:15), but this story, which is referred to as a Bible lesson, is just as much a myth as the story of Daedalus. It was written at a time when the oppressed yearned for some comfort in life, it was tied into a lifestyle that was commonplace in the Middle East, it metaphorically promised that all would be welcomed into the kingdom of God as long as they approached the Kingdom with humility, respect and the knowledge that they had sinned and sought forgiveness, and it showed the wisdom and compassion of the Christ. Like all mythology, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is sacred and instructional, yet if one were to refer to this as a myth, the reaction from one of the faithful might not be so warm.
As I stated previously, this is tied to what we think of and feel when the word “mythology” is used- on an emotional level assigning the term myth to the Parable feels wrong, almost disrespectful. Yet we have no trouble attaching the label of myth to the story of Daedalus. It all comes down to the belief that mythology is old and outdated, a relic of the past, which is plainly not the case.
Secondly: Mythology is an aspect of religion, but it is not the only aspect of their parent religion. This point could be considered obvious when you look at religions of today, but when considering religions of yesteryear, it requires a bit of explanation.
Religion contains several key aspects that make it a religion. These are: mythology, rite, ritual, practice, devotion and observance. Many of these aspects are tied together under the blanket term “theology.” Here is where the distinction between religion and mythology is most apparent.
Theology, or the concept of what a practitioner believes, is the benchmark of a religion. More than the mythology associated with a system of beliefs, theology embodies the practice and observance of rites tied to, and governed by, the beliefs the religion is set upon. Whereas sacred stories are often viewed as the history or cosmology of a religion, the theology of the religion contains the practical, or day to day, aspects of the religion. Sacred stories can tell you about the creation of the world or of the heroes that defended humanity and preserved the culture, but more often than not they do not dictate which days are sacred, or how one must build their altar, or what cities are holy to the gods, or at what point is a neonate a full member of the faith, or which is the proper ritual for the corresponding holy festival. These details that are central to the practice of the religion and the proper veneration of the gods, are the religion’s belief set, or its theology. And this theology is necessary in surrounding the mythology with sacred details and knowledge necessary for turning those sacred stories into a proper system of belief and practice.
Mythology, as the sacred stories upon which a religion is formed and codified, falls under the theology of any religion. When the ritual and practices of a religion are unknown, then it is the mythology through which outsiders will come to understand the religion. But while these sacred stories explain a good deal of what the religion believed with relation to the gods, monsters, heroes and villains, mythology often does not explain the specifics of belief, rites and the like, all of which are necessary when understanding the religion at hand. This is one of the major challenges facing archaeologists who find relics of the past: they often need to infer ritual practice from sacred stories and recovered artifacts without much in the way of recorded ritual. They need to guess what everything means and how it fits together.
So what does this all mean? Put simply, mythology is the sacred stories associated with a culture and its religion. Theology is the practice of the religion itself, and within theology you will find the component mythology of a religion. Fairly simple and straightforward, no?
So then how does a religion transform into a mythology? What processes need to happen before sacred beliefs become “mere myths?”