Myth of origins
An origin myth is a myth that purports to describe the origin of some feature of the natural or social world. One type of origin myth is the cosmogonic myth, which describes the creation of the world. However, many cultures have stories set after the cosmogonic myth, which describe the origin of natural phenomena and human institutions within a preexisting universe.

In Western classical scholarship
Classics is the branch of the Humanities comprising the languages, literature, philosophy, history, art, archaeology and other culture of the ancient Mediterranean world ; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during Classical Antiquity Classics (sometimes encompassing Classical Studies or...

, the word aition (from the Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek
Ancient Greek is the stage of the Greek language in the periods spanning the times c. 9th–6th centuries BC, , c. 5th–4th centuries BC , and the c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD of ancient Greece and the ancient world; being predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek...

 αἴτιον, "cause") is sometimes used for a myth that explains an origin, particularly how an object or custom came into existence.

Nature of origin myths

Every origin myth is a story of creation: origin myths describe how some new reality came into existence. In many cases, origin myths also justify the established order by explaining that it was established by sacred forces (see section on "Social function" below). The distinction between cosmogonic myths and origin myths is not clear-cut. A myth about the origin of some part of the world necessarily presupposes the existence of the world — which, for many cultures, presupposes a cosmogonic myth. In this sense, one can think of origin myths as building upon and extending their cultures' cosmogonic myths. In fact, in traditional cultures, the recitation of an origin myth is often prefaced with the recitation of the cosmogonic myth.

In some academic circles, the term "myth" properly refers only to origin and cosmogonic myths. For example, many folklorists reserve the label "myth" for stories about creation. Traditional stories that do not focus on origins fall into the categories of "legend
A legend is a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude...

" and "folk tale", which folklorists distinguish from myth.

According to historian Mircea Eliade
Mircea Eliade
Mircea Eliade was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. He was a leading interpreter of religious experience, who established paradigms in religious studies that persist to this day...

, for many traditional cultures nearly every sacred story qualifies as an origin myth. Traditional humans tend to model their behavior after sacred events, seeing their life as an "eternal return
Eternal return (Eliade)
The "Eternal return" is, according to the theories of religious historian Mircea Eliade, a belief, expressed in religious behavior, in the ability to return to the mythical age, to become contemporary with the events described in one's myths...

" to the mythical age. Because of this, nearly every sacred story describes events that established a new paradigm for human behavior, and thus nearly every sacred story is a story about a creation.

Social function of origin myths

An origin myth often functions to give the current order an aura of sacredness: "Myths reveal that the World, mythic and heroes as their role models, imitating their deeds and upholding the customs they established:

When the missionary and ethnologist C. Strehlow asked the Australian Arunta why they performed certain ceremonies, the answer was always: "Because the ancestors so commanded it." The Kai of New Guinea refused to change their way of living and working, and they explained: "It was thus that the Nemu (the Mythical Ancestors) did, and we do likewise." Asked the reason for a particular detail in a ceremony, a Navaho chanter answered: "Because the Holy People did it that way in the first place." We find exactly the same justification in the prayer that accompanies a primitive Tibetan ritual: "As it has been handed down from the beginning of the earth’s creation, so must we sacrifice. … As our ancestors in ancient times did—so do we now."

Founding myth

A founding myth is the etiological myth
Etiology is the study of causation, or origination. The word is derived from the Greek , aitiologia, "giving a reason for" ....

 (Greek aition) that explains the origins of a ritual
A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. It may be prescribed by a religion or by the traditions of a community. The term usually excludes actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers....

 or the founding of a city, the ethnogenesis
Ethnogenesis is the process by which a group of human beings comes to be understood or to understand themselves as ethnically distinct from the wider social landscape from which their grouping emerges...

 of a group presented as a genealogy
Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members...

, with a founding father and thus of a nation
A nation may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, and/or history. In this definition, a nation has no physical borders. However, it can also refer to people who share a common territory and government irrespective of their ethnic make-up...

 (natio, "birth") or a narrative recounting the spiritual origins of a belief, philosophy, discipline, or idea. A founding myth may serve as the primary exemplum
An exemplum is a moral anecdote, brief or extended, real or fictitious, used to illustrate a point.-Exemplary literature:...

, as the myth of Ixion
In Greek mythology, Ixion was king of the Lapiths, the most ancient tribe of Thessaly, and a son of Ares, or Leonteus, or Antion and Perimele, or the notorious evildoer Phlegyas, whose name connotes "fiery". Peirithoös was his son...

 was the original example of a murderer rendered unclean by his crime, who needed cleansing (catharsis
Catharsis or katharsis is a Greek word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, "pure or clean."-Dramatic uses:...

) of his impurity.

Founding myths are prominent features of Greek mythology
Greek mythology
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks, concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece...

. "Ancient Greek rituals were bound to prominent local groups and hence to specific localities," Walter Burkert
Walter Burkert
Walter Burkert is a German scholar of Greek mythology and cult.An emeritus professor of classics at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, he also has taught in the United Kingdom and the United States...

 has observed. "i.e. the sanctuaries and altars that had been set up for all time." Thus Greek and Hebrew founding myths established the special relationship between a deity and local people, who traced their origins from a hero
A hero , in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion...

 and authenticated their ancestral rights through the founding myth. Greek founding myths often embody a justification for the ancient overturning of an older, archaic order, reformulating a historical event anchored in the social and natural world to valorize current community practices, creating symbolic narratives of "collective importance" enriched with metaphor in order to account for traditional chronologies and constructing an etiology
Etiology is the study of causation, or origination. The word is derived from the Greek , aitiologia, "giving a reason for" ....

 considered to be plausible among those with a cultural investment.

In the Greek view, the mythic past was deeply rooted in historic time, its legends treated as facts, Carlo Brillante has noted, its heroic protagonists seen as links between the 'age of origins' and the mortal, everyday world that succeeded it. A modern translator of Apollonius
Apollonius of Rhodes
Apollonius Rhodius, also known as Apollonius of Rhodes , early 3rd century BCE – after 246 BCE, was a poet, and a librarian at the Library of Alexandria...

' Argonautica has noted, of the many aitia embedded as digressions in that Hellenistic epic, that "crucial to social stability had to be the function of myths in providing explanations, authorization or empowerment for the present in terms of origins: this could apply, not only to foundations or charter myths and genealogical trees (thus supporting family or territorial claims) but also to personal moral choices." In the period after Alexander the Great expanded the Hellenistic world, Greek poetry— Callimachus
Callimachus was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes...

 wrote a whole work simply titled Aitia— is replete with founding myths. Simon Goldhill employs the metaphor of sedimentation
Sedimentation is the tendency for particles in suspension to settle out of the fluid in which they are entrained, and come to rest against a barrier. This is due to their motion through the fluid in response to the forces acting on them: these forces can be due to gravity, centrifugal acceleration...

 in describing Apollonius' laying down of layers "where each object, cult, ritual, name, may be opened... into a narrative of origination, and where each narrative, each event, may lead to a cult, ritual, name, monument."

Contrasting examples of Roman founding myths are Virgil's The Aeneid and the popular cult of Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus
Romulus and Remus are Rome's twin founders in its traditional foundation myth, although the former is sometimes said to be the sole founder...


During the Middle Ages, founding myths of the medieval commune
Medieval commune
Medieval communes in the European Middle Ages had sworn allegiances of mutual defense among the citizens of a town or city. They took many forms, and varied widely in organization and makeup. Communes are first recorded in the late 11th and early 12th centuries, thereafter becoming a widespread...

s of northern Italy, manifested the increasing self-confidence of the urban population, and the will to find a Roman origin, however tenuous and legendary. In 13th-century Padua
Padua is a city and comune in the Veneto, northern Italy. It is the capital of the province of Padua and the economic and communications hub of the area. Padua's population is 212,500 . The city is sometimes included, with Venice and Treviso, in the Padua-Treviso-Venice Metropolitan Area, having...

,when each commune looked for a Roman founder, and if one was not available invented one, a legend had been current in the city, attributing its foundation to the Trojan Antenor
Antenor was an Athenian sculptor, of the latter part of the 6th century BC. He was named after the mythological figure also called Antenor. He was the creator of the joint statues of the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, set up by the Athenians on the expulsion of Hippias. These statues...


Foundation stories

Foundational stories are accounts of the development of cities
A city is a relatively large and permanent settlement. Although there is no agreement on how a city is distinguished from a town within general English language meanings, many cities have a particular administrative, legal, or historical status based on local law.For example, in the U.S...

 and nation
A nation may refer to a community of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, and/or history. In this definition, a nation has no physical borders. However, it can also refer to people who share a common territory and government irrespective of their ethnic make-up...

s. A foundational story represents the view that the creation of the city is a human achievement. Human control and the removal of wild, uncontrolled nature is underlined. There are two versions of foundational stories: civilization story and degradation story.

Civilization stories take a view of nature
Nature, in the broadest sense, is equivalent to the natural world, physical world, or material world. "Nature" refers to the phenomena of the physical world, and also to life in general...

as dangerous and wild. The development of the city is seen as a successful distancing of humans from nature. Nature is locked out, and humans take pride in doing so successfully. In 1984 the geographer Tuan suggested ranking cities according to their distance to natural rhythms and cycles.

Degradation stories (also called pollution stories) take a different stance. The city is seen as spoiling the landscape of the ecological relations that existed before the city was established. There is a sense of guilt for degrading the intact system of nature. In degradation stories true nature only exists outside the city.

Further reading

  • Nicole Belayche, "Foundation myths in Roman Palestine. Traditions and reworking", in Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 167-188.
  • Campbell, Joseph. "The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology." New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
  • Campbell, Joseph. "Transformations of Myth through Time." New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
  • Eliade, Mircea. "A History of Religious Ideas: Volume 1: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries." 1976. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1981.
  • Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. Trans. Willard Trask. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
  • "Encyclopedia of Ancient Myths and Culture." London: Quantum, 2004.
  • Lincoln, Bruce. "Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification." 1989. Repr. New York: Oxford U P, 1992.
  • Long, C.H. "Alpha: The Myths of Creation." New York: George Braziller, 1963.
  • Paden, William E. "Interpreting the Sacred: Ways of Viewing Religion." 1992. Boston: Beacon P, 2003.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. “Introduction: The Symbolic Function of Myths.” Theories of Myth: From Ancient Israel and Greece to Freud, Jung, Campbell, and Levi-Strauss. Ed. Robert A. Segal. New York & London: Garland, 1996. 327-40.
  • Schilbrack, Kevin. Ed. "Thinking Through Myths: Philosophical Perspectives." London & New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Segal, Robert A. "Joseph Campbell: An Introduction." 1987. Repr. New York: Penguin 1997.
  • Segal, Robert A. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Segal, Robert A. "Theories of Myth: From Ancient Israel and Greece to Freud, Jung, Campbell, and Levi-Strauss: Philosophy, Religious Studies, and Myth." Vol. 3. New York & London: Garland, 1996.
  • Segal, Robert A. "Theorizing About Myth." Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1999.
  • Spence, Lewis. "The Outlines of Mythology: The Thinker’s Library—No. 99." 1944. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2007.
  • von Franz, Marie-Louise. "Creation Myths: Revised Edition." Boston: Shambhala, 1995.
  • Wright, M.R. “Models, Myths, and Metaphors.” Cosmology in Antiquity. 1995.
The source of this article is wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The text of this article is licensed under the GFDL.