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Mythology, Religious Symbols and Taboos


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Title: Mythology, Religious Symbols and Taboos

Mythology, Religious Symbols and Taboos
  • The Nature of Myths
  • Worldview
  • Stories of the Supernatural
  • Myths
  • The Nature of Oral Texts
  • How Myths change through time
  • Understanding Myths
  • Functional Analysis
  • Structural Analysis
  • Psychoanalytic Analysis
  • Common Themes in Myths
  • Origin, Flood, Trickster, Hero

  • Religious Symbols
  • What is a symbol?
  • The Swastika
  • The Pentagram
  • Christian Symbols
  • Sacred Art
  • The Sarcophagus of Lord Pakal
  • The Meaning of Color
  • Sacred Self
  • Body Alterations and Modifications
  • The Symbolism of Music and Dance

The Nature of Myths
  • Myths- religious narrative or stories that
    provide the basis for religious beliefs and
  • Tell origins, creations, and history of the world
  • Worldview- the way in which societies perceive
    and interpret their reality.
  • EX Navaho and Euro-Americans.

Stories of the Supernatural
  • People describe their world and express their
    worldview in stories and other creative
  • This may include modes as diverse as art, drama,
    jokes, writing on the walls of public bathrooms,
    folk music, and festivals.
  • EX the story of Snow White.
  • This story is European in origin and was first
    published in 1823 from oral presentations.
  • EX The Yanomamö and the Origin of Plantains

  • How the Yanomamö got Plantains
  • This is a story of the Yanomamö, a fierce and
    warlike tribe of slash-and-burn cultivators who
    live in Southern Venezuela and Northern Brazil,
    as they tell it.
  • Plantains are a staple food of the Yanomamö
    today. However, it was not so always. In the
    beginning only Boreawa used to eat plantains.
    This was because no one knew about them. Only
    Boreawa knew about them and how to cultivate
    them, and he did not let the others know. So
    everyone else ate only earth and animals. One
    day, Horonama, who lived by eating earth, was
    caught in a downpour. It rained so much that he
    got lost in the forest. Then, quite by chance, he
    stumbled upon the place where Boreawa had hidden
    his plantains.
  • At first, Horonama did not know what to do with
    the plantains, but by and by he figured out that
    they were good to eat. Then he sought out Boreawa
    and asked him how to cultivate this wonderful
    food. Boreawa told him how to do it and since
    then, the Yanomamö have always eaten plantains.

  • In contrast, myths are sacred stories.
  • The tell of the origin of
  • world
  • humankind (regardless of the society)
  • the activities of gods and spirits.
  • the nature of illness and death
  • morality (good from evil)
  • Myths are not negative.
  • people often think of them as false stories told
    by primitive peoples.
  • they are real historical events that took place
    in the remote past

The Nature of Oral Texts
  • In nonliterate societies, and in many literate
    societies as well, texts are recited .
  • They are more than simple presentations
  • recitation is performance
  • speech may change
  • costumes
  • facial expressions
  • body posture
  • changes in the quality of voice
  • All this serves to create an experience.
  • Some are specialists

  • Oral narratives are frequently very long and
  • Not always recited as a single, complete
    narrative and may not even be seen as a single
  • Particular segments might be recited at certain
    times and in particular instances.
  • One of the consequences of the oral transmission
    of stories is that they are frequently
    unconsciously altered with each generation.
  • EX each family may have different versions.
  • EX Yanomamö and fire.
  • EX Genesis 24-323 and 11-23

  • Folklorist Alan Dundes notes that written texts
    that are derived from oral narratives frequently
    incorporate more that one version of a particular
  • EX the Old Testament opens with two creation
  • The earlier text, Genesis 24 to 323, dates from
    the period of the Two Kingdoms, Israel and Judah.
  • It might have been written between 960 and 915
    BCE and contains the story of the Garden of Eden
    and Mans Fall.
  • This story sets forth the order of creation as
    man first, then a garden for him to cultivate,
    next the animals for his entertainment, and
    finally woman.

  • The later text, Genesis 11 to 23, might have
    been written after the fall of Jerusalem in 586
    BCE during the Exile, but might have been written
    much earlier
  • This is the story of the seven days of creation
    in which the plants and animals were created
    before man and man and woman were created
    together on the sixth day.

  • These stories are reflections of the
    Judeo-Christian worldview.
  • They are very patriarchal in many ways
  • EX woman (Eve) is derived from man (Adam)
  • in many Western societies men dominate woman and
    many positions of authority, such as the
    priesthood, are restricted to men.
  • here the religious text is acting as a social
    charter that explains the proper organization of
    human relationships.

  • Genesis also expresses the Judeo-Christian
    worldview with respect to nature.
  • This worldview appears to be based on two
  • The universe is mechanistic and human are its
  • Humans are a categorically different form of
    creatures than all other forms of life.

How Myths Change Through Time
  • Written narratives tend to be very stable,
    especially if they are not translated into other
  • EX Quran forms the foundation of Islam
  • Muslims believe that the Quran represents the
    workd of God as revealed to Mohammad by the
    archangel Gabriel in the early 7th century.
  • It was spoken to Mohammas and was initially
    handed down orally but was soon set down in
    written form.

  • Wogeo Narratives
  • Inhabit a small island off the coast of New
  • Their myths are called nanasa.
  • Took place before recorded time.
  • For the Wogeo they are historical and reflect
    actual events.
  • They are stories of the ancestral gods or
  • The nanarang created the world and the landscape.
  • Invented important material objects.
  • Set forth customary behavior.
  • The look and behaved as people do.
  • Eventually, they disappeared and were replaced by
    the Wogeo ancestors of the people living on the
    island today.
  • Read excerpt

Understanding Myths
  • Approaches to Analysis of Myths
  • Functional Analysis
  • Structural Analysis
  • Psychoanalytic Analysis

Functional Analysis
  • The functional school analyzes cultural traits in
    terms of the function they serve the society.
  • In this view myths are seen as a force to help
    maintain the society.
  • EX Emile Durkheim focused on the impact of myth
    on social structure.
  • He emphasized the role of myth as the basis for
    rituals and saw rituals as the means by which
    individual come together and bond with one

  • Bronislaw Malinowski wrote
  • Myths fulfils in primitive culture an
    indispensable function it expresses, enhances,
    and codifies beliefs it safeguards and enforces
    morality it vouches for the efficacy of ritual
    and contains practical rules for the guidance of
    man. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human
    civilizations it is not an idle tale, but a
    hard-working active force it is not an
    intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery,
    but a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and

Structural Analysis
  • This analysis focus on the underlying structure
    of myth.
  • This approach is based on the work of Claude
  • he pointed out that humans tend to think and
    categorize the world in terms of binary opposites
  • ex Genesis 14-8
  • This focused on structure, not content
  • Ex Gururumba Creation Story

What does this Myth tell us?
  • Nature vs culture dichotomy is related to the
    differences between the sexes.
  • Women associated with nature
  • Men associated with culture
  • Sugarcane is symbolically male changing a
    unuseful woman to a useful cultural wife.
  • Her son.

Psychoanalytic Analysis
  • Freud saw individual dreams as symbolically
    expressing unconscious wishes and a similar
    process occurring with myths for groups.
  • Myths are therefore a type of shared dream.
  • Much of his analysis is sexual in nature.
  • Ex Little Red Riding Hood
  • Girl who is sexually mature
  • The red cap represents menses
  • The unbroken wine bottle represents virginity
  • She meets a wolf/man in the forest
  • The trees represents phallic symbols
  • The wolf eats her representing aggressive

The Oedipus Complex
  • This story is most associated with the
    psychoanalytic analysis
  • Oedipus is a Greek tragic hero who unknowingly
    kills his father and marries his mother.
  • Freud argued that this story represented a deep
    psychological conflict experienced by all boys.
  • Freud believed that these were universal
    developmental issues.
  • As a result, he expected to find these stories

Common Themes in Myths
  • Carl Jung
  • In contrast to Freud, Jung thought the myths
    stemmed from something beyond the individual
  • Collective unconscious- inborn elements of the
    unconscious that are manifested in dreams and
  • The main characters are called archtypes
  • Origin Myths
  • Flood Myths
  • Trickster Myths
  • Hero Myths

Origin Myths
  • Some common metaphors
  • The birth metaphor
  • When the supernatural creating power is female,
    generally a spontaneous and independent birth.
  • When the supernatural creating power is male, the
    birth is more symbolic
  • EXThe god vomits or excretes the world or
    perhaps sacrifices part of his own body to make
    the world
  • EX Bushongo, a Bantu people from Zaire (read).
  • Creation out of Chaos, Darkness, or the Void.
  • EX Yoruba, West Africa (read)

Flood Myths
  • Stories of floods are widespread.
  • One reason lies in the fact that floods are
    likely to be frequently experienced, as people
    need to live near a water source.
  • EX Noah
  • EX Aztecs (read)
  • The Aztec flood story is also a story of
    apocalypse, or the end of the world , another
    common theme in religious narratives.

Trickster Myths
  • Unlike origin myths, Trickster myths tell of
    other smaller things.
  • They usually provide explanations of why things
    are the way they are.
  • How people should and should not behave
  • They are found in stories all over the world.
  • Best know
  • Raven (Northwest Coast)
  • Coyote (American Plains)
  • Spider (West Africa)
  • They are adventurers, gluttons, searchers of
    sexual pleasures, lazy, and easily bored,
    dishonest and impulsive.
  • Responsible from creating or bringing certain
    elements into the world (fire or the sun).

Hero Myths
  • Monomyth (Joseph Campbell The Hero with a
    Thousand Faces)
  • All heroes follow a basic theme
  • A hero ventures forth from the world of common
    day into a region of supernatural wonder
    fabulous forces are there encountered and as
    decisive victory is won the hero comes back from
    this mysterious adventure with the power to
    bestow boons on his fellow man.
  • The monomyth is a common theme encountered in
    many myths.
  • Can you name others?

Religious Symbols
  • What is a Symbol?
  • Like myths, symbols too are important for the
    study of religion
  • Minimally, a symbol may be though of as something
    that represents something else.
  • We can also use symbols to stand for things that
    are more complex than simple objects.
  • Symbols can stand for emotions and complex
    philosophical concepts that exists only in out
  • Symbols can create a supernatural world or create
    myths about the past.

Religious Symbols
  • The Swastika
  • Basically a pattern of lines set at right angles
    to one another, and as such, carries no inherent
  • A person seeing this symbol for the first time
    will have no idea of its meaning.
  • However, this symbol can stand for complex ideas
    and can carry an emotional resonance.
  • Meaning for Nazis, Europeans, Jews
  • Meaning for Japanese Buddhist.

The Pentagram
  • Comes from the Greek pente, meaning five, and
    gamma which is a letter in the Greek alphabet.
  • It can refer to any five-sided figure but is
    generally used to refer to a five-pointed star
    called a pentacle.
  • Pentagrams are among the most widely used
    religious symbols, both historically and

  • Some believe it originated as a symbol of a pagan
  • her sacred fruit was the apple
  • Was associated with Hebrew Scriptures as a symbol
    of the five book of the Pentateuch (The Torah).
  • Early Christians had a variety of meanings
  • Five wounds of Christ
  • Star the prophesied the birth of Jesus
  • It was only during the Witchcraze that the
    pentagram began to take on a connotation of evil.
  • During this time the symbol was referred to as
    the witchs foot.

  • This association with evil became stronger for
    many when 20th century Satanists adopted the
    pentagram as their symbol.
  • The Satanist symbol is an inverted pentagram,
    shown most commonly with a goats head in the

Christian Symbols
  • The cross is the symbol that is most associated
    with Christianity.
  • However, the cross did not gain general
    acceptance for many centuries after the founding
    of the Christian religion.
  • The cross that is widely used today is the Roman
  • However, there is considerable variation in the
    exact look of the cross symbol.
  • However, the cross was not the earliest important
    symbol in Christianity.
  • What was it?

  • It was the simple fish symbol
  • One reason given for this is because Jesus was
    labeled fisher of men.
  • The most commonly given reason is that the
    letters of the Greek word for fish, icthus, form
    an acrostic.
  • icthus is derived from
  • Iesous Christos Theou Uiou Soter
  • (Jesus Christ of God the Son the Savior)

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Sacred Art
  • Artistic representation are often used to
    illustrate and supplement religious texts.
  • The Sarcophagus of Lord Pakal
  • 1949 Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruiz working
    at a temple in Palenque.
  • By 1952 workers finally reached the bottom of the
    staircase to find a large stone blocking the

  • In side the tomb was perhaps the greatest king
    who ever ruled Palenque.
  • Hanab-Pakal, Pakal the Great
  • He was 80 when he died on August, 31 683, after
    having ruled for 67 years.
  • The sarcophagus lid measures 127 ft. and is the
    epitome of Mayan religious art.

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Meaning of Color
  • Colors have cultural meaning.
  • The ancient temples of the Greeks, Romans, and
    Mayans at one time, all contained color.
  • In English we have 11 basic color terms
  • Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink,
    black, white, and grey.
  • A color term, such as blue, is a symbol.
  • Symbols, including color terms, are arbitrary and
    learned they are parts of cultural traditions.
  • EX Navaho ideal blue is turquoise. That color is
    considered as celestial and earthly attainment,
    of peace, happiness, and success.

Sacred Self
  • Symbols are also used to create sacred realities
    supernatural worlds, sacred spaces, sacred
    divisions of time, and interpretations of self.
  • All people have cultural images of themselves.
  • These images serve to separate humanity from the
    rest of the animal world
  • That is, an expression of anthropocentrism.
  • These images serve to distinguish a particular
    society from other societies (this is an
    expression of ethnocentrism).
  • All cultures change their physical appearance to
    conform to cultural images (either good or bad)

  • Permanent alterations of the human body.
  • Infibulation or body piercing
  • Tattoos- James Cook 18th century
  • Tahitian for ta-tu (to mark or strike)
  • Karen Padaung of Northern Thailand
  • Chinese foot-binding
  • Cranial modification
  • Body modification in religious practice.
  • Male circumcision