alt.mythology General FAQ ver. 1.11

Created: 10/12/99
Last Altered: 6/23/03 - added a few words about astrology and updated a couple of e-mail addresses 10/24/01 - changed address & some URLs
6/8/01 - fixed a typo
3/6/01 - revised Robert Graves entry
7/14/00 - added two new general pics links & a new search engine link to parts V.B.iii. and V.B.iv.
5/4/00 - added netiquette links to part I.C. & mythinglinks URL to part V.B.i.
4/26/00 - ammended Dejanews link in I.C.
3/9/00 - added additional netiquette link to part I.C.
2/29/00 - added links to Greek myth family trees to part V.B.i.; added question about Plato's Symposium to part III; added Robert Graves entry to part VI.
2/25/00 - added Mircea Eliade entry to part VI.
1/12/00 - fixed a typo. You'll hardly notice.
12/5/99 - added more phoenix and Egyptian links

Contents:


I. Welcome to alt.mythology! (What is this newsgroup? How should I post here? What is appropriate here?)

A. Charter

Welcome to alt.mythology! In this newsgroup we discuss myths, legends, their details, their historical contexts, their interconnections, etc. - in short, just about everything concerning mythology. John A. Johnson started this group back in December 1991. His charter for the newsgroup serves as general guidelines for the scope of discussions here, although we have since evolved to become more inclusive than the more academic tone the charter may indicate:

Charter for alt.mythology

"The purpose of this group is to promote insights into, and understanding of, human nature through the discussion of mythology, where mythology is defined as the metaphorical expression of the human psyche through symbols and images. While focusing primarily on myths expressed as oral or written stories, the group also welcomes material on dreams and on semiotics generally, as these areas may further our understanding of myths. The group welcomes articles written from any perspective, including, but not limited to, the anthropological, philological, etiological, ethnological, psychological, and personal viewpoints. The group encourages contributions from any frame of thought, including, but not limited to, ritualism, diffusionism, structuralism, parallelism, psychoanalysis, and culturalism."
in addition Johnson adds:
"As you see, the group is open to a multitude of approaches to mythology. I would like to make one thing clear, though: This group is intended to be a forum for intellectual discussions of mythology, and not for religious proselytizing or flame-wars."

Proselytizing for or denegrating against someone's religion is considered both rude and off-topic in this newsgroup. Assertions of the imminence of the apocalypse, or that the characters in our myths were extra-terrestrial aliens are also inappropriate. Discussing creation and flood stories here is fine. Debating the truth of those stories is not, and is better suited to talk.origins.

Similarly, astrology is, in general, off topic. While discussing the relationships of myths to constellations, star and planetary names, would be on topic, the use of such correspondences to make predictions or retroactively cast the horoscopes of the deceased is best left to alt.astrology.

B. How can I get help on homework assignments?

C. What are good/bad ways to ask for information in alt.mythology? - tips on posting

II. But what really is mythology?

A. What is Mythology?

The word "myth" has several meanings. In the most general sense, it refers to any invented story, but in the sense used on alt.mythology, it refers to a traditional story, usually very old, which has or once had significant spiritual, moral, or social significance. "Mythology" refers both to a body of myths (such as all Greek myths) and to the study of myths.

Important to the definition is what myth is not. Stories which, from their origin, are set in print and passed down unchanged are not myth. Myth is a form of folklore, which means that it is shaped by the "folk" in general, and not just one or a few authors. Many myths are collected in books, but they have had long oral traditions before that. Second, folklore is not myth if it is not a story, so proverbs, superstitions, riddles, etc. are not myth as such. However, they may appear in myths, and isolated elements of myths are often discussed in alt.mythology.

Note that most stories associated with current religions are, by definition, myths. This does not belittle them; on the contrary, it says that people consider them important enough to repeat over many generations.

Professionals distinguish between mythology, legend, and folktale, although all get discussed without distinction on alt.mythology. Very briefly, myths are considered true by the people who tell them; they are usually set near the beginning of time and often concern the origins of things. Legends are also regarded as true, but are set later in history when the world was much as it is today. Folklore is considered false by the people telling it, and its setting in time and space is usually irrelevant. Myths are considered sacred, legends are more often secular, and folktales aren't taken seriously (although the overall message might be). Although this classification is useful, there is plenty of overlap, and stories range over too much territory to fit nicely in any simple classification.

III. Who is/are (fill in the blank)?

A. What's this about Adam's first wife? Who was Lilith?

If you look at the first two chapters of Genesis you'll find that there are two creation stories. In the first chapter, God makes man and woman at the same time. In the second chapter, man is made from dust and woman, Eve, is made from his rib. These two accounts led to the idea that there was a first Eve, prior to the Eve that is the mother of Cain and Abel.

Prior to this confusion, there existed a Sumerian demoness or type of demoness called lilitu, who was either adopted by or was the etymological antecedent for the Hebrew "Lilith". For the Hebrews, Lilith was originally a demoness who was held responsible for crib death.

Sometime between 800 CE and 1000 CE, The Alphabet of Ben-Sira was written, combining these two traditions. There, for the first time, Lilith is named as the first Eve, stating that she left Adam because she refused to be treated as an inferior to Adam (particularly, in bed).

Because she refused to return, she is made to kill 100 of her children every day.

For more information, see:

B. What is the phoenix?

The phoenix is a fabulous bird that was to have renewed itself through periodic deaths and rebirths. As such, this bird is often used as a symbol of resurrection and immortality. References to the phoenix have been found in the writings and tales of China/Japan, ancient Egypt (Benu), and the Classical writings of Hesiod, Ovid, Pliny, Tacitus, Herodotus, and Seneca.

For more information - Offline: For more information - Online: For illustrations - Offline: For illustrations - Online: NOTE: Since finding good phoenix pictures on-line is a bit like questing for the Holy Grail, please forward URL's of good phoenix pictures to the FAQ staff for possible FAQ inclusion.

C. Who was the guy who had to roll a rock up a hill, and it always rolled back down? What did he do to deserve it?

Sisyphus. Zeus had seduced the daughter of the river god Asopus, and Sisyphus ratted on Zeus to Asopus. Zeus was very angry and had Sisyphus punished in this way, although Sisyphus didn't go down without a fight. First he managed to trick Death and tied him up; after he'd been taken down to Hades, he managed to get out, and lived happily at home until he died of old age!

D. Who stole fire from the gods?

In Greek myth, it was Prometheus. Other cultures had/have tales with similar themes featureing different characters, such as Coyote or Beaver in Native North American myth and legend.

E. Who was the guy who got turned into a woman by two snakes?

Tiresias. The story can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, book III. See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Ov.+Met.+3.314

F. Where does the story come from about man and woman splitting?

The Speech of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium. See:
http://plato.evansville.edu/texts/jowett/symposium5.htm

G. "Hercules" and "Xena:" The Mythological Roots

These two television series draw heavily on mythology from around the world, but, by and large, they don't let accuracy get in the way of entertainment. Once in a while there is a real blooper, as when the scriptwriters christened nasty little vampires "dryads"-as we all know, real dryads are gentle tree-nymphs-and we can certainly disagree with the interpretation of various characters, but, mostly, they do a pretty fair job, considering their priorities. Here, for the curious, is some "real" information about some of the recurring characters-no gods or monsters, as they're easy to find information about elsewhere. Hercules himself was as "real" as they come, of course (his original Greek name was Heracles, which means "glory of Hera"). Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer and many other leading "Xena" characters are fictional, though the idea of the fighting Amazon is very much a part of Greek myth. (Gabrielle, as a name, would not exist, until the Middle Ages.)

ALCMENE:
While married to Amphitrion, she gave birth to twin sons, Heracles and Iphicles. Herc's real father, however, was the god Zeus. (In mythological stories about twins, it is common to attribute the paternity of one of them to a god.) One of the odder twists of the TV series is to give Alcmene Jason as a second husband. There is no Greek base for this. Moreover, Jason, both on TV and in myth, was of Herc's generation, and, in myth, had a complicated married life of his own.
AUTOLYCUS:
Yes, he really was the "king of thieves," a master thief of such skill that he reputedly could magically disguise the objects he stole. And, yes, he was widely acquainted. He really did know Heracles, Iolaus, Sisyphus, Salmoneus, Jason and most of the rest of the "regulars." Fun fact: His grandson was Odysseus, who appears in The Iliad and The Odyssey-Odysseus is also considered a tricky character. Fun fact #2: He turns up again as a lovable-and tuneful!-rogue in Shakepeare's play, "The Winter's Tale."
CALLISTO:
Not nearly as tough a cookie as her TV counterpart. She was one of the band of nymphs attending Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt. Seduced by Zeus's wily ways, she got pregnant. When Artemis, who demanded strict chastity of the girls, found out, she went into a rage, turned her into a bear, set the dogs on her, and called the other nymphs to join the hunt. Callisto wouldn't have had a chance, had Zeus not intervened to catch her up to the stars as the Great Bear.
CYRENE:
Xena's mom, in the show. The "real" Cyrene was a tomboy Lapith princess, a huntress so brave and strong that she caught the eye of Apollo himself as she wrestled with a lion. He kidnapped her in his golden chariot, and bore her away to a city that she would eventually rule. She slept with him, but also with Ares, bore several sons, and eventually became a powerful occult priestess. The "Xena" writers seem to have borrowed from her legend for Xena's own personality.
IOLAUS:
Herc's charioteer, best friend, sidekick-and nephew, son of Herc's twin brother, Iphicles. Thus he was a good deal younger than Herc; one story has Herc trying to pass a discarded wife on to him when he was only 16. (The "real" Herc was nowhere near as saintly as his TV counterpart.) Iolaus participated in most of the Twelve Labors central to Herculean mythology, and many of his other adventures. Just as in the TV series, he never got much credit for his aid.
JASON:
One of the four great Greek action-adventure heroes, the others being Heracles, Theseus and Perseus. His character on the show has been almost entirely changed from the original, and his story is too complex to summarize here. But he never married Herc's mother!
SALMONEUS:
Not a bit like the TV character. The "real" Salmoneus was mostly known for his bitter rivalry with Sisyphus, that bad man, but he was also thought to be a rainmaker. He was the great-grandfather of Jason, which just goes to show how chronology gets mixed up.

H. What are the origins of vampires?

In addition to earlier folkore, two historical personages are deeply imbedded in the modern conception of the vampire: Vlad Tepes, and Elizabeth Bathory. Their stories are told at number of websites. One such site is:
here

J. What is name of the the serpent that eats its own tail?

  1. Ouroboros (from Greek Alchemy)
  2. Jörmungand, the Midgard Serpent (Norse Myth)

IV. The Tide's a coming...

A. Flood myths

There are lots of flood myths from all over the world, but not everywhere and there are many variations, see:

http://www.best.com/~atta/floods.htm

Comparing these stories is on topic here. Debating or asserting the veracity (or lack thereof) of these stories is not and is better suited for talk.origins.

Caveat lector ("let the reader beware") as it's a commercial site, but http://www.flood-myth.com/ also includes comparisions of the Near Eastern flood myths including Noah's flood.

V. What about other resources? Where can I find more information?

A. Offline

i. What books should every myth fan have in their library?

We asked some of the frequent posters to alt.mythology, and here are their recommendations: Runners up:

ii. Sources for young people

The following books all belong to the World Mythology Series from Peter Bedrick books. These books are richly illustrated, include a very nice cross section of myths and history from the respective culture, and are reasonably accurate retellings. Unfortunately not all of these volumes are still in print:

Some other very nice books for younger readers follow. Same proviso applies - not all of these volumes are still in print.

[If you have any suggestions for really great sources for readers of all ages, please forward them to the FAQ staff. We'll review them for possible inclusion!]

iii. Where can we find references on various animals in myth and folklore?

Here are some sources that will aid in researching the symbolism or mythological/folkloric references of animals.

Should you know of other sources that would be a great help to others doing similar research, please pass the information along to the FAQ staff for possible inclusion in this list.

Sources on multiple animals and creatures:

Encyclopedias and Dictionaries not specifically focusing on animals and other creatures: Sources on the lore of specific creatures:

B. on-line sources

i. A few good general online sites for mythology information include:

ii. Other related faqs and newsgroups

There are a number of FAQ's associated with special topics that come up in the group. They include:

A number of other newsgroups are related to discussion here as well including:

iii. Where can we find pics of (fill in the blank)?

iv. Best search engines for mythological subjects

VI. Myth Studies and Myth Authors

A. The Traditional Myth Authors [Frazer, Jung, Graves, Claude Levi-Strauss, Joseph Campbell, Kerenyi, Cassirer, Eliade, etc.]

Robert Graves (1895 - 1985)

Graves, a considerable poet, essayist and novelist, wrote two books that have had a great influence on the modern study of mythology. The first is The Greek Myths, published sometimes in two volumes, also, more usefully, in one. This is probably the handiest reference guide to any mythology ever compiled.* (It is not the one to get if you just "want the story.") Graves, also a learned classicist, in effect invented a form of hypertext for the printed page many decades before html was ever dreamed of. The brief chapters are first divided into alphabetized paragraphs which tell all or part of a myth (subsequent chapters continue it). Each paragraph is end-noted to its source(s) from Greece or Rome (Roman authors are sourced, but only Greek mythology is considered). Following that, brief numbered paragraphs give Gravesís explanations and interpretations of the text. At the end of the book is an index of names, giving pronunciation, translation of meaning (when applicable) and all citations. Hebrew Myths, written with Raphael Patai, uses the same wonderfully flexible format, but canít be said to be so influential, possibly because the Bible, for many people, is inadmissible as mythology.

Graves's other big book, The White Goddess, may be the most eccentric non-fictional work ever written by a classicist. Its influence on the popular perception of mythology, both Greek and Northern European, has been enormous, not necessarily a good thing, but certainly an interesting one. The book has been hard-wired into 20th-century cultural history despite being almost entirely romantic (or poetic) personal theory. Its theories underwrite modern neo-paganism, and, even more, have promoted or anointed the concept of the Triple Goddess to a point past common sense--and scholarly protest. Otherwise hardheaded people, with a nose for hokum, can love The White Goddess--its charms are many--without necessarily embracing it, or is that her? Beware, she's dangerous.

A number of Graves's novels may be of interest to alt.mythology readers: Hercules, My Shipmate; Homer's Daughter; King Jesus; his translation of Apuleis's Latin novel The Golden Ass; and the two non-mythological novels about the Emperor Claudius that are the basis for TV's great mini-series, "I, Claudius."

* If you know how to read it, that is. It is important, but easy, to learn how to read Graves as a solid reference tool. Take all the alphabetized material, the footnotes and the index as gospel -- heís completely reliable there. Take the numbered material (the interpretations) with a great big pinch of salt (remembering, however, that he was a learned, cultured and well-traveled man, also that he respected the reader enough to keep his opinions separate from the facts). Keep in mind that the poetic mind does not work quite as other minds do. If you doubt that, read The White Goddess.

Joseph Campbell (1904 - 1987)

The most popular disciple of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and his ideas about archetypes and universal myths are no strangers to this forum. He does tend to be criticized here for, among other things, making overly broad generalizations. Also his fans are often chided for not seeing much of Jung's work in Campbell's. Still it can not be argued that Campbell has not been a major force behind the popularity of the study of mythology over the past thirty years. Check dejanews before starting another Campbell thread here. Other arenas perhaps more suited to discussion of his works are:

If you're not looking for newsgroups specifically, there are *lots* of Joseph Campbell forums out there. (And there may be J.C. newsgroups, too... we just don't know of any.)

Mercea Eliade

Eliade's principal goal was to demonstrate that religion was something worthy of study in its own right. It was not, to him, just a consequence of other factors (ala Marx or Freud, for example.) In Eliade's study of religion he noted three themes that seemed to run through all religion (at least all archaic religion.) First there was a distinction between the sacred and the profane, that is, everyday life. Since it is impossible for men to directly describe the sacred it must be done symbolically, which is how mythology enters the picture. One way to rise out of the profane and into the sacred is to abolish history, that is, we want to return to that moment before the profane and sacred split apart. To do this we can view history as cyclic so that we are always going back to the moment of creation. One of the major criticisms of Eliade is that the globalism that he sees in religion is not really there and is only made to appear there by a superficial view of things that are colored by Eliade's own beliefs. Another criticism is he often did not define his terms very well, and so sometimes the concepts he talks about seem very vague. Eliade never wrote a systematic treatise on his ideas, which is one thing that led to the second criticism above, and parts of his ideas appear in the various books that he wrote. Thus to get an overall view of Eliade's thought one has to read many of his writings. The following are a few that can get one started: Images and Symbols; The Myth of Eternal Return; Myth, Drama and Mystery; Patterns in Comparative Religion; The Sacred and the Profane. Also of interest are Eliade's autobiography and his journals.

VII. What about mythological symbols and other tangentially related topics?

These are usually off topic here but...

A. Amulets & Talismans

Get ye to http://www.luckymojo.com and the newsgroup alt.lucky.w

VIII. Acknowledgements

The members of the alt.mythology FAQ committee are: Kim Burkard greenman@servtech.com, Chris Camfield: ccamfield@DELETEMEemail.com, Dick Eney dicconf@DELETERadix.Net, Katherine Griffis-Greenberg egylist@DELETEgriffis-consulting.com, Mark Isaak atta@DELETEbest.com, Don Redmond dredmond@DELETEmath.siu.edu, Chris Siren cbsiren@DELETEalum.mit.edu, and Alice Turner: aturner6@DELETEnyc.rr.com, and have been assisted by the rest of alt.mythology in authoring this FAQ.