Don't Know Much About Mythology

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-09-01
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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What is an Egyptian pyramid doing on the U. S. dollar bill? Did a pharaoh inspire Moses to worship one God? What's a Canaanite demoness doing at a rock concert? Since the beginning of time, people have been insatiably curious. They've asked questions about where we come from, why the stars shine and the seasons change, and what constitutes evil. The imaginative answers crafted by our ancestors have served as religion, science, philosophy, and popular literature. In this latest installment of the New York Times bestselling Don't Know Much About? series, Kenneth C. Davis introduces and explains the great myths of the world using his engaging and delightfully irreverent question-and-answer style. He tackles the epic of Gilgamesh; Achilles and the Trojan War; Stonehenge and the Druids; Odin, Thor, and the entire Norse pantheon; Native American myths, and much more, including the dramatic life and times of the man who would be Buddha. From Mount Olympus to Machu Picchu, here is an insightful, lively look at the greatest stories ever told.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1(18)
All Men Have Need of the Gods
Gift of the Nile
The Myths of Egypt
By the Rivers of Babylon
The Myths of Mesopotamia
The Greek Miracle
The Myths of Greece and Rome
An Age of Axes, an Age of Swords
The Myths of the Celts and Norse
Bridge to the East
The Radiance of a Thousand Suns
The Myths of India
Everywhere Under Heaven
The Myths of China and Japan
Ancient People, New Worlds
Out of Africa
The Myths of Sub-Saharan Africa
Sacred Hoops
The Myths of the Americas and Pacific Islands
Bibliography 507(14)
Acknowledgments 521(2)
Index 523


Don't Know Much About Mythology
Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned

Chapter One

All Men Have Need of the Gods

What are myths?
Myths, legends, fables, folktales: What are the differences?
Where does the urge to make myths come from?
Are all myths historical?
Who was the man who "found" Troy?
How did an ancient myth cast doubt on the divinity of the Bible?
When does myth become religion? And what's the difference?
Are myths all in our minds?

You're driving down the highway and you pass an accident along the road. Admit it. Without even thinking, you slow down and rubberneck, just like everybody else. Instantly, your mind seeks an explanation for what you see.

You may have had only a fleeting glimpse of the accident scene -- maybe you saw sets of skid marks, a car upended, dazed people talking to the police. You hear an ambulance wail in the distance as a trooper or firefighter waves you past. You don't know what happened. But you see the effects and want to explain the cause. If you are like most people, you begin to stitch together a theory of what went wrong. Almost without consciously thinking about it, you begin to manufacture a narrative of what happened.

"That driver was probably drinking." "He had to be going too fast." "The driver must have fallen asleep and swerved across the road." "One car probably cut off the other."

In other words, without any facts or much evidence, you try to create a coherent story to explain what you have seen. Maybe it is that simple: this is what makes us truly human. The innate need to explain and understand is what has gotten us to where we are today, in the early days of the twenty-first century.

Myths may have begun, in the oldest sense, as a way for humans to explain the "car wrecks" of their world -- the world they could see as well as the world they could not see. Long before science envisioned a Big Bang. Long before Greek philosophers reasoned, Siddhartha Gautama sought enlightenment, or Jesus walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Long before there was a Bible or a Koran. Long before Darwin proposed natural selection. Long before we could know the age of a rock and before men walked on the moon, there were myths.

Myths explained how Earth was created, where life came from, why the stars shine at night and the seasons change. Why there was sex. Why there was evil. Why people died and where they went when they did.

In short, myths were a very human way to explain everything.

Mythic Voices

Look now how mortals are blaming the gods, for they say that evils come from us, but in fact they themselves have woes beyond their share because of their own follies.

-- Homer, The Odyssey (c. 750 BCE)

What are myths?

When people use the word "myth" today, they often have in mind something that is widely believed but untrue. Like alligators in the sewers of New York City -- which is really not a myth at all but an "urban legend." In another sense, it is now common to talk about the "myth" of the cowboys of the Old American West, and there are plenty of other so-called myths in American history -- old ones that die hard and new ones being created all the time. Myths about the Founding Fathers, the Civil War, slavery, the Sixties -- just about any period or movement in America's past has been "mythologized" and layered with legend to some degree.

In bookstores today, you'll also find a profusion of books with titles and subtitles that underscore this notion of a myth as something that is commonly believed but is not true: The Beauty Myth, The Mommy Myth, The Myth of Excellence. Most of these recent books with "myth" in the title tend to treat a "myth" as an old and possibly dangerous idea that needs to be debunked.

Like most words, "myth" means different things to different people, but in its most basic sense, a myth is defined as "A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the world view of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society." (American Heritage, emphasis added.)

"Explaining aspects of the world" -- that's another way to say "science" or "religion," the two principal ways people have used to explain the world.

"The psychology, customs, or ideals of a society." That's a large mouthful that covers just about everything else not covered by science and religion -- but gets to the heart of what we think and believe, even if we can't "know" it.

In the ancient world, myth had a meaning that is almost completely opposite to our modern concept of myth as an "untruth." In the earliest days of humanity, myths existed to convey essential truths. They were, in a very real sense, what many people today might call gospel. Or as David Leeming put it in A Dictionary of Creation Myths, "A myth is a . . . projection of a . . . group's sense of its sacred past and its significant relationship with the deeper powers of the surrounding world and universe. A myth is a projection of . . . a culture's soul." Ananda Coomaraswamy, a twentieth-century Indian philosopher, put it this way: "Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be expressed in words."

Viewed in this very ancient and much broader sense, myths are about what makes us tick. They are as old as humanity and as current as the news.

The word myth is derived from the Greek word mythos, for "story," and when the Greek philosopher Plato coined the word "mythology" more than two thousand years ago, he was referring to stories that contained invented figures. In other words, the great Greek thinker conceived of myths as elaborate fiction, even if they expressed some larger "Truth." Plato -- using the voice of Socrates as his Narrator -- criticized the myths as a corrupting influence, and in his ideal state, set out in The Republic, banned poets and their tales.

Don't Know Much About Mythology
Everything You Need to Know About the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned
. Copyright © by Kenneth Davis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Don't Know Much about Mythology: Everything You Need to Know about the Greatest Stories in Human History but Never Learned by Kenneth C. Davis
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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