What is the relationship of myth to social organization?

24th May 2013

‘This day … everything was possible … Future became present … that is, no more time, a glimpse of eternity’

                                                                                                                    Michelet (cited Levi-Strauss 1955:430)


Humans have always speculated about their past. As a result, traditions of mythology exist in every society around the globe, with most cultures having developed their own independent foundation myths to explain why society is as it is. Their abundance throughout human history argumentatively embodies the notion that myth provides the underlying essence of human culture and social organization. This however poses a number of quandaries since “myths are still widely interpreted in a number of ways” (Levi-Strauss 1955:428). But what is a myth? And what connection or influence do they hold over societal organization? According to Joseph Campbell, myth can be summed up simply as, “other people’s religion” (Campbell 2001:8,111). Independently, myths often arise either as factual representations or embellished accounts of historical events, as allegory or the personification of natural phenomena, or as explanations of ritual and cultic customs. Within the cultural environment in which the narrative is articulated, it is almost always, generally accepted to be a true and accurate historical reference. As such, they are imparted as a means of communicating religious or ideological experiences, to teach, and to provide behavioral models. Mythological characters are frequently considered as “personified abstractions, divinized heroes or decayed gods” (Levi-Strauss 1955:428), purported to have lived on the Earth during an unspecified time period, thousands of years ago – typically this is between the point of creation and the emergence of humans (Oring 1986:124 cited Moro 2013:46). They are often enmeshed in extraordinary events or circumstances which are accepted as existing discretely to those experienced during regular human lives. Some of these entities, referred to as ‘creator gods’, constructed the world in which we live, everything in it that we now experience, and provided the substructure of the cultural, dichotic, representations that construct our own reality.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, although contemptuous of notions formulated on religious interpretation, in favor of myth being secular (Panneerselvam 1999:19), similarly believed that mythical thinking analyzed options or intricate codes concerned with distinct levels of life, which are then grouped as explicit mental structures of specifically oppositional pairs[1] (Panneerselvam 1999:26; Bowen 2011:18) This concept was also expounded by Hunter and Whitten (1976:280-281 cited Moro 2013:46-47) who wrote that “structural anthropologists … view myths as a cultural means of resolving critical binary oppositions… that serve as models for members of a society”. Malinowski called myth “a way of coping” (Gullette 1975). This perspective of myth according to Gullette (1975) provides a more comprehensive “meaning, direction, and purpose to a life that would otherwise be (thought of as being) meaningless”. Under the genre of sacred stories, myths are recurrently legitimized by ruling and priestly classes through their frequent attachment to religious or spiritual connotations. As with most religious symbolism, myth presents itself as an undisputable, factual account, “autonomous in character” (Panneerselvam 1999:20), and with no attempt to validate narratives regardless of the existence of any divergence between natural law or ordinary experience. A ‘myth’, therefore may be explained as:

Any account, offered in and reflective of a specific cultural system, that expresses cultural ideals, deep and commonly held emotional values, or fundamental assumptions and perceptions about the nature of the universe and of society. Examination is necessary in each case to determine whether the given account functions in any way, or in a combination of ways, as metaphor, history, social charter, psychological projection, observance of ritual, or simple narrative. (Klass 1995:125-126)

As a result, the immense variety that occurs makes it difficult to propose any grounded generalizations pertaining to the nature of myths. Bowen (2011:18) accounts for differences in similarity between myths as a result of regional divergence “as they are transferred from one place to another [and] are recast in the light of local conditions”. It is clear though, regardless of their place of origin, that the general characteristics and details of a communities myths reflect the core conceptions of their worldviews, as they express, and explore their self-image, their relationship to one another and their environment, and their perceived construction of the world which they inhabit.

The role or station of myth pertaining to human experience and reality Panneerselvam (1999:19) writes, “can not easily be rejected because, to some extent, it shapes human experience and reality”. From preliterate societies to present, valuable information about the past, even the remote past, is often enshrined in the recording of myths. Most functional mythologies concern an explanation of facts, natural or cultural, and serve as justification of the physical environment. Cohen (1969:338) rationalizes that in essence, there are several primary theoretical blocks that form the foundation of all myths: A mystical function or explanation; A cosmological or symbolic statement that is an expression of mythopoeic thought[2]; The unconscious expression of sociological function through the creation and support of certain social orders which legitimize social institutions and practices; and as a Pedagogical function pertaining to the symbolic statements regarding social structure, which may possible be linked with ritual. Campbell (1991:519) in a similar manner concurs, expressing that “In the long view of the history of mankind, four essential functions of mythology can be discerned” he states that the first and most distinctive function of myth concerns the elicitation and support of “a sense of awe” at simply ‘being’. This he says “antecedes and defies definition, [since it] is, on the primitive level, demonic dread; on the highest, mystical rapture; and between there are many grades. Defined, it may be talked about and taught, but talk and teaching cannot produce it. Nor can authority enforce it”. He continues by remarking that, the second function of mythology is that it “render[s] a cosmology, an image of the universe that will support and be supported by this sense of awe before the mystery of the presence and the presence of a mystery” (Campbell 1991:620). Similarly Eliada (cited Panneerselvam 1999:21) argues that “myths have no other function than to explain how something came into being”. For him (1954[1949] cited Bowen 2011:27), “religious objects, acts, and roles are symbols that have multiple meanings but eventually come together in a cosmological unity”. Campbell (1991:521) extends his idea adding that, “cosmology has to correspond … to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of the culture folk involved”.

Frazer’s comparative study of mythology and religion, The Golden Bough (1890), aligned a very literal sense to the perception of mythology as being the repository of central cosmological formulae, and explanations of origin in the sense that it acts to explain and / or validate how the present configuration of the world was realized, and the methods through which taboo, customs and institutions became established. Although this would appear akin to the frequently forgotten interpretations of the intellectualist position, that “myths are thought of as literal and right explanations of the world” (Thomas Lawson 1978:508), Thomas Lawson (1978:508) cites Frazer as writing, “myths were [in fact] mistaken explanations of phenomena”. The condition of the cosmos prior to the arrival of mankind is hence discerned to be both explicit and distant from the alterations occurring during the cultural dawn and of the human world. All cosmogonic narratives maintain certain conventional characteristic, that is, they speak of irreconcilable opposites, yet simultaneously discuss objects or events totally discordant to common ranges of perception and reason. Regardless of narrative diversity which exist between periods, the inhabitable world or cosmos remains the primary concern. In most cosmogonic traditions the climactic event is the creation and earthly appearance of humankind.

Frequently, in ancient civilizations the justification for elitist positions of rulership occurred through the invocation of myths, such as those pertaining to divine origin. In many cases, subsequent ritual development and ceremonies, by different societies, occurred as the response to a symbolic necessity acting towards its well-being. While Malinowski (cited Lambek 2008:168) emphasizes that myth should be “‘studied alive’, with all its discursive and pragmatic functions”, it would be incorrect to suggest that all myths have political functions or that it is possible to reduce them to their instrumental political functions, “he was undoubtedly correct [Lambek opines,] to look at the place of myth in legitimating particular forms of social organization and [the] loci of power or interests” (Lambek 2008:168). Campbell’s third function of mythology addresses these functions as a means “to support the current social order, to integrate the individual organically with his [or her] group … [through] a gradual amplification of the scope and content of the group” (Campbell 1991:520). He proclaims that, “The social function of a mythology and of the rites by which it is rendered is to establish in every member of the group concerned a ‘system of sentiments’ that can be depended upon to link him spontaneously to its ends”. (Campbell 1991:520) To achieve this Bath (cited Panneerselvam 1999:23) refers to a systematic abuse of the process of signification. He notes that there were two methods in which myth could be seen to conceal a system of class domination. One is that myths which are expressions of definite social forms become represented as natural and inevitable occurrences, and in the second, myth eclipses the conditions of its production (Panneerselvam 1999:23). After a period of time, the former become referred to as Socially Institutionalized, acting as a response to the habitualization and customs developed through mutual observation, resulting in subsequent agreements on the ‘way things are done’. Levi-Strauss claims that myths explaining social relationships “tell us a great deal about the societies from which they originate, they help us to better lay base their inner workings and clarify …beliefs [and], customs” (Levi-Strauss 1981:627 cited Panneerselvam 1999:22). While one would anticipate that the observance of institutionalized practices and principles would persist based on prior agreements, “habitualization carries with it the important psychological gain that choices are narrowed” (Berger and Luckmann 1991:71). According to Berger and Luckmann (1991:74), “The most important gain is that each will be able to predict the other’s actions”.

Social dominance theory[3] is, a theory of intergroup relationships that addresses the preservation of status quo between “group-based social hierarchies driven [by] three proximal processes, [of] (1) institutional discrimination, (2) aggregated individual discrimination, and (3) behavioral asymmetry” (Sidanius and Pratto 2001:39). If consideration is made to tenants proposed by these concepts, legitimizing myths become a vehicle for the intellectual and moral justifications for intergroup behaviors that are resultant of widely shared cultural ideologies and prejudicial beliefs. Durkheim (1961:419-420 cited Cohen 1969:343-344) explained that, “the linking of myth with a group gives it an identity as against another group with another such myth”. Sidanius and Pratto (2001:38) in their review of anthropological literature concluded that group identities based on “racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia and ethnocentrism can be regarded as different manifestations of the same basic human predisposition to form group-based social hierarchies”. Social myths therefore, as understood in the light of this theoretical model, conventionally provide the doctrine for bias, discrimination or the subjugation of individuals or groups, for a specific purpose. Berger and Luckmann posit that the conferment of Institutionally derived attribute ‘roles’, such as ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘teacher’, ‘pupil’, ‘hunter’, ‘gatherer’, to various actors creates a move toward specialization, resulting in a division of labor, followed by adjustments in social perceptions toward those whom the roles are attached. This they claim, adds to the notion that the combined knowledge of any given society is constructed in terms of what is either relevant to the general populace or relevant to specific role, such that “the social distribution of knowledge entails a dichotomization in terms of general and role-specific relevance” (Berger and Luckmann 1991:94-95).


The creation of symbolic universes occurs in response to a required necessity of proving the legitimacy of created institutional structures. Under normal circumstances, symbolic universes are specific, commonly known and understood social beliefs directed toward developing, for the individual, a degree of credibility about the institutionalized structure. They not only provide an explanation for specific methodologies, but through the use of “proverbs, moral maxims, wise sayings, … explicit theories, … symbolic processes,” (Berger and Luckmann 1991:112-113) and other value systems, provide a common order and loci through which institutions become legitimized. Malinowski (1954 cited Lambek 2008:169; Thomas Lawson 1978:509) rejects this position, asserting that there is nothing symbolic about myth rather it is “a direct expression of its subject matter; it is not an explanation … of scientific interest[4], but a narrative … of deep religious wants, moral cravings, social submissions, assertions, even practical requirements”. This provides the alternate possibility, that the narrative is important in and of itself by locating particular moral values at an earlier point in time, and by creating a time-sequence of events that anchors events of the past to the present. Cohen (1996:334) writes that, “the rules which govern everyday life are always, in some respects and to some extent, in doubt: real history, real patterns of migration and settlement, real claims to property and power, always involve inconsistencies and irreconcilable demands: myths in recounting the events of an invented or partly-invented past, resolve these inconsistencies and affirm one set of claims against another”. By introducing contrived or mystical events, as is seen in myth, the point of origin becomes detached from the realm of memory and provides the narrative with a certain set of characteristics which transcend normative human existence. Durkheim points out that “myth, along with other religious beliefs, provides the basis of all cultural means of categorizing the world: and this forms the basis of philosophy and science” (Durkheim 1961:419-420 cited Cohen 1969:343-344)

“The fourth function of mythology is to initiate the individual into the order of realities of his own psyche, guiding him toward his own spiritual enrichment and realization … [impressing] archetypes, the ideal roles, of the social order” (Campbell 1991:521). There are several means that can be, and frequently are, used to achieve this but perhaps the most common is through the use of legends and folktales. Although the words folktale, legend, and myth all hold slightly different meanings in academia, common usage of them has become interchangeably, based on the understanding that a story, deemed true and therefore a myth in one society may be considered a fictional folktale in another. Since they all provide narratives intended to disseminate the vital aspects of communal education that each culture seeks to instill in its members, Yolen (1986:8 cited Samovar 2013:45) remarks that “such tales are [often] described as cultural history”. In most societies the socialization of an individuals is at best a dichotic relationship between child and adult, Berger and Luckmann (1991:149) state that, Individuals are “not born a member of society. [They are] born with a predisposition toward society, and become a member. … In the life of every individual… there is a temporal sequence, in the course of which he is inducted into participation in the social dialectic”. Typically, the ‘stories’ provide simple morality lessons focusing on daily occurrences of positive and negative ideologies, however, they also provide the means of addressing, and proposing answers to, the many existential questions people have asked throughout time, ‘such as Who am I? How should I live my life? Where do I belong?’, by creating a personalized communal link between the present and the past to deal with culturally specific interpretations. Japanese tales, for example, often impress the importance of patience, honesty, hard work and conformity they also learn about the importance of duty, obligation and loyalty’, while in Australia, Indigenous People, recite the teachings or legends of ‘The Dreaming’ to explain why the land is sacred and how the people are the caretakers of the land and not its owners. Rodregues (1999:269 cited Samovar 2013:45) claims that “Folktales are not only regarded as some of the best keepers of our language and cultural memories, they are also great helpers in the process of socialization, they teach our children the sometimes difficult lessons about how to interact with other people and what happens when virtues are tested or pitted against on another”.

How well a community, social group or gathering ‘works’ together is dependent on each of the individual members of that group. Differing ideologies, cosmologies and social upbringing all greatly alter the effectiveness of teachings and the corresponding learning outcomes. In attempting to answer the questions ‘what is a myth? And what connection or influence do they hold over societal organization?’, it becomes an exercise in defining how exactly it is that myth, and by association ritual, legend, and folklore are expressed by the various proponents of each school of thought. Many of these notions are fundamentally exclusive, while at the same time preserving a number of other inter-relating ideas. Ultimately though, myth provides a means of delivering messages and teachings that remain outside the ability of ordinary language to convey. When people share a body of myths their society becomes more cohesive because they all share a common purpose. Myths “govern and control many cultural features [to the extent that] they form the backbone of … civilization” (Malinowski 1954 in Lambek 2008:170).



Bowen, JJ 2011, ‘Religions in Practice: An approach to the Anthropology of Religion, 5th edn, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Berger, PL and Luckmann, T 1991, ‘The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge’, Penguin Books, London, UK.

Campbell, J 1991, ‘Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God’ vol.3, Penguin Books, New York, NY.

Campbell, J 2001, ‘Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor’, New World Library, Novato, CA.

Cohen, P 1969, ‘Theories of myth’, Man, New Series, vol. 4, no. 3, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland pp. 337-353, [Online] Accessed: 2 May 2013, http ://www.jstor.org/stable/2798111

Gullette, A 1975, ‘Myth as a Way of Thinking’, Honors, University of Tennessee-Knoxville, [Online] Accessed: 5 May 2013, http ://alangullette.com/essays/philo/mythway.htm

Klass, M 1995, ‘Ordered Universe: Approaches to the Anthropology of Religion’, Westview Press, Boulder, CO.

Lambek M (ed.) 2008, ‘A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion’ 2nd edn, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.

Levi-Strauss C 1955, ‘The structural study of myth’, The Journal of American Folklore, vol.68, no.2, The American Folklore Society pp. 428-444 [Online] Accessed: 11 February 2013, http ://www.jastor.org/stable/536768

Malinowski, B 1954, ‘Myth in Primitive Psychology’, in Lambek M (ed.) 2008, ‘A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion’ 2nd edn, Blackwell Publishing, Malden, MA.

Moro, P 2013, ‘Magic, witchcraft, and religion: a reader in the anthropology of religion’, 9th edn, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY.

Panneerselvam, S 1999, ‘Myths as Discourse in the Structural Hermeneutics of Levi-Strauss’, Indian Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.26 No.1, pp. 19-28

Samovar, LA, Porter, RE, McDaniel, ER and Roy, CS, 2013, ‘Communication Between Cultures’, 8th edn, Wadsworth Cengage, Independence, KY.

Sidanius, J and Pratto, F 2001, ‘Social Dominance’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Thomas Lawson, E 1978, ‘The Explanation of Myth and Myth as Explanation’, The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol.46, no.4, Oxford University Press, pp. 507-533, [Online] Accessed: 2 May 2013, http ://www.jastor.org/stable/1463046

“World Folktales,” ESL station (ESL Department, San Jose City College, n.d.), [online] Accessed: 15 May 2013, http ://www.eslstation.net/theREALWF/Introduction.htm

[1] Levi-Strauss’s work with myth themes and their transposition using these oppositional binary pairs is particularly interesting.

[2] See also Max Muller (1878) who saw myth as a “disease of language, the compounding of linguistic change, ‘mythopoetic thought’ and a metaphoric expression of natural phenomena” (Klass 1995:125)

[3] It should be noted here that Turner and Reynolds also presented material in their commentary ‘Why social dominance has been falsified’, British Journal of Psychology, vol.42 Iss.2, 2003, pp. 199-206

[4] Robin Horton argued that traditional religious thought (including myths) had a formal identity with scientific thought


One thought on “What is the relationship of myth to social organization?

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