myth. A widely and variously used term referring to a culture's way of understanding, expressing and communicating to itself concepts that are important to its self-identity as a culture. There are two main uses of the term—the ritual/anthropological and the semiotic.

The ritual/anthropological takes the form of an anonymously composed narrative that offers explanations of why the world is as it appears to be, and why people act as they do. It is specific to its own culture, though it presents its explanations as universal, or natural. It is a crucial means of turning nature into culture, and thus works also reciprocally as a naturalizing agency.

The semiotic meaning refers to an unarticulated chain of associated concepts by which members of a culture understand certain topics. It operates non-consciously and intersubjectively. It is associative, not narrative; it is culture-specific, not transcultural or universal; it changes over time, rather than being eternal; and it is unarticulated rather than being textually expressed. Its prime function is to make the cultural natural, and it thus shares with other usages the function of naturalization. [See: signification] [from: O'Sullivan, 1994]


myth. Traditionally, myth is an anonymous tale relating heroic adventures, including encounters with the supernatural, which explain the world in allegorical form and thus ratify a society's beliefs and customs. 'Classical' myths, as one such set of stories, have continued to shape literary and other contemporary narratives in the West and have come to comprise a general cultural knowledge. Though this knowledge has receded in the present century, some names (Diana, Hercules, Bacchus) and stories from this tradition have continuing currency, if in abbreviated or transposed form. The story of Oedipus, derived from the Greek dramatist Sophocles and employed by Sigmund Freud to name the oedipal complex is a prominent example of this. Meanwhile, in what might be seen as a reaction to the centrality of Graeco-Roman mythologies, other traditional myths, from Irish, Caribbean, African-American and Indian cultures, have been newly mobilized in the twentieth century in the affirmation or re-making of national identities.

In some popular uses the term has a very broad application, as in references to 'the myth of the American West', for example, or 'the myth of the Orient'. In such cases, myth can imply a romanticized, distorted or false set of attitudes and is therefore close to the sense of 'stereotype' or, in a sometimes lighter vein, suggests a superstition or make-believe story. The 'myths' of black male sexuality or of female passivity would be examples of the first type while the 'myth of the Loch Ness monster' would be an example of the second.

In cultural theory, myth was given importance through the work principally of the structural anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss (1908- ) and the literary critic and semiotician, Roland Barthes ( 1915-80). Levi-Strauss saw myths as setting basic, universal themes in narratives which themselves follow universal structures. A 'mytheme' is the unit of this universal structure and can be differently articulated in individual myths. Structural anthropology in this tradition reads myths as the expressions of a narrative system and sees this as having the function not simply of reflecting a society back to itself but of resolving a dilemma or contradiction endemic to that society. The term 'mythology' is used to describe the system of such; myths. Levi-Strauss was led to conclude that myths were structured or coded in this systematic way according to a universal human mental disposition and as answering a collective human need. However, the term 'mythology' has also been used to describe an individual and esoteric system of coded symbols or symbolic narratives—as in descriptions, for example, of the thought of William Blake or William Butler Yeats.

In the work of Roland Barthes, myth is virtually synonymous with ideology and designates a level of symbolic or cultural connotation, active in a visual image or social narrative. Barthes developed this understanding of the term especially in the essays entitled Mythologies (1972a [1957]), a study of the activities and events of contemporary French cultural life such as wrestling, striptease, a new Citroen motor car, films and advertising. This has proved an influential model for the study of popular culture. Though the term 'myth' might not itself be used in this connection, the task of the cultural critic, following Barthes, is thought to be to 'de-mythologize' the embedded meanings of activities and representations as they shape and structure daily life, showing how their implicit class and cultural attitudes have become naturalized. [from: Brooker, 1999]