Myth and Symbol

Steven G. Smith
CC-11—office hours posted on door & website                                                                                  Work 601-974-1334, home 601-354-2290

Religious Studies 3750-01
also Classical Studies 3750/Communications 3750/English 3570/Philosophy 4800 (Philosophy of Narrative)
Fall 2010         T Th 2:45-4:00

Certain images and stories seem to have exceptional power to reveal important underlying realities of life and are designated “symbols” and “myths.”  How do symbols and myths work?  What kinds of realities do they show?  (Are they “archetypal”?)  How much of what is revealed by symbol and myth belongs to the world and how much to our minds?  How can symbols and myths be presented, and understood, as valid—or is that not possible for literal-minded “modern” people who so consistently separate truth from the “mythical” or “merely symbolic”?  How might symbols and myths be dangerous—scientifically, ethically, politically, theologically?  (On the other hand, how might literalism be dangerous?)  How might human communication and culture depend on symbols and myths?

This course addresses such questions while reviewing a wide range of relevant primary material and drawing on some of the leading theorists of myth, symbolism, and narrative.

Readings are required in the following books, available in the Millsaps bookstore, plus handouts:
Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (Cosmos and History)
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism
Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil

The course grade will be based on class participation and homework (20%), a take-home midterm exam (20%), a take-home final exam (20%), and a Project (40%).
subject to revision by announcement in class or by e-mail

Aug. 24  Introduction to course.

Aug. 26  Surveying our field of study.
READ:  Myth and symbol samples (handout)

Aug. 31  Classic anthropology of myth
READ E. B. Tylor, from Primitive Culture, and Bronislaw Malinowski, from Myth in                               Primitive Psychology (handout)

Sept. 2 Greek myth and philosophy
READ selections from Homer, Hesiod, Presocratics (handout)

Sept. 7  Plato and myth
READ selections from Euthyphro, Republic (handout)

Sept. 9  “Signs” and “symbols” in religious discourse.
READ Jewish, Christian, Islamic scriptural examples (handout)

Sept. 14  Allegorical theory and practice.
READ Origen, from On First Principles and Homily XXVII on Numbers (handout)

Sept. 16  Modern theology:  Rudolf Bultmann’s “demythologizing” program.
READ Bultmann, from Jesus Christ and Mythology (handout)

Sept. 21  Phenomenology of religion:  Mircea Eliade’s contrast between archaic archetypalism    and modern historicism.
READ Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, Foreword and pp. 3-62

Sept. 23  Eliade, cont.
READ Eliade, Chap. 3

Sept. 28  Modern psychological approaches:  Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell
READ Campbell, Preface and Prologue

Sept. 30  Elements of the monomyth (the hero’s quest).
READ Campbell, Part 1: Chaps. 1, 4 (skim 2-3)

Oct. 5  From psychology to metaphysics.
READ Campbell, Part 2: Chap. 1

Oct. 7  The female in myth.
READ Campbell, Part 2: Chap. 2; Epilogue

Oct. 8  SUMMERS LECTURE:  Jack Sasson (Vanderbilt University),
Time and History in Ancient Israel”
12:30 p.m., AC 215

Oct. 12 A literary alternative:  Northrop Frye’s analysis of kinds of story.
READ Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, First Essay

Oct. 14 Symbol and archetype.
READ Frye, Second Essay, pp. 73-76, 95-128


Oct. 21  Myth and literary design.
READ Frye, Third Essay, pp. 131-162

Oct. 26 A philosophical hermeneutical approach to religious language and the problem of evil:    Paul Ricoeur.
READ Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, Part 1:  Introduction and Chap. 1

Oct. 28  Ricoeur, cont.
READ Ricoeur, Part 1:  Chap. 2 and Conclusion

Nov. 2  Ricoeur, cont.
READ Ricoeur, Part 2:  Introduction and Chap. 3

Nov. 4  Ricoeur, cont.
READ Ricoeur, Part 2:  Chap. 5

Nov. 9  Cultural criticism of myth:  Roland Barthes
READ from Barthes, Mythologies (handout)

Nov. 11  Cultural criticism of myth:  Jack Zipes
READ from Zipes, Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale (handout)

Nov. 16  History and myth
READ from Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land, and Bruce Kuklich, “Myth and Symbol in                           American Studies” (handout)

Nov. 18  History and myth, cont.
READ William McNeill, “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians” and “The                        Care and Repair of Public Myth” (handout)

Nov. 23  Project presentations/discussions


Nov. 30  Project presentations/discussions

Dec. 2  Project presentations/discussions

Final exam due Dec. 6.  Final Project revision due Dec. 11.



To help you focus on the readings and set up fruitful class discussions, I require you to reflect briefly but thoughtfully in writing, in one or two substantial paragraphs, on some aspect of each day’s reading assignment before that class.  Your responses may be submitted by e-mail, posted on a blog, placed on my office door, or handed in at the start of class.  I may announce beforehand a question I’d like you to consider.



Our class is devoted to two objectives:  becoming more fully aware of narrative and symbolic content that seems of great human importance, and developing interesting and helpful means of interpreting such content (theories and methods).  In your Project, you will bring together your own choice of important primary material and interesting interpretive approach to produce an eye-opening, mind-expanding work.

Which material and approach you choose should be appropriate for the discipline listing in which you enrolled.  If you signed up for the course in religious studies, for example, you should work with ideas and methods from theology, phenomenology of religion, etc. (but not to the exclusion of other ideas and methods!) and toward the kind of conclusions that would be presented in a religious studies publication (but not to the exclusion of significance in other fields!).  You will consult with your instructor about all this, of course, in getting your Project organized, and you may also wish to consult with professors in other relevant departments.

Your material could be a story or story element (a kind of character or situation studied comparatively, for example), a particular literary work or a work of art in another medium, a cultural commodity or practice, etc.

Your Project consists of a Paper and a Presentation.

THE PAPER has these elements:

  1. Introduction: Define the myth- or symbol-related issue that your study addresses. Make its significance clear. Make clear also the appropriateness of the material you have chosen to interpret and the kind of approach you will be taking to its interpretation. Don’t give away all the goodies up front, but do indicate the kind of conclusion you are working toward.
  2. Exposition: Present your primary material selectively and in some kind of analytical framework.  For example, don’t simply recount a story; instead, discuss what you think are the most significant plot points, character elements, uses of rhetoric, etc.  Whatever kind of material you’re dealing with, your ideal should be “close reading”; you will be bringing to light significant things that could easily go unnoticed.
  3. Interpretation (which may be thoroughly intertwined with the Exposition but may also be a separate cycle of discussion): When you bring a theory into play, explain its logic; don’t just make summary assertions like “Jung would call this an archetype.”  Remember that you are not just applying your interpretive ideas in a cut-and-dried way, you are testing and refining them.  We should end up understanding them better.
  4. Conclusion: Offer a reasoned conclusion that is your own. Don’t just report a personal feeling or pontificate.  Don’t just agree or disagree with an author.

You will have an opportunity to revise this paper, but don’t turn it in as a rough draft.  The paper is expected to have a fully developed argument, to be free of writing and typography errors, and to employ correct citation with a complete bibliography.

THE PRESENTATION will be given on one of the last three class meetings.  You will give a concise “executive summary” of the significance of your topic and the essence of your interpretation.  Another student will facilitate a class discussion of your work.  You may ask the class to read or view or hear some of your material in advance.

in my possession if not in the Millsaps library


Source books

Eliade, Mircea.  From Primitives to Zen.  A Thematic Sourcebook of the History of Religions.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1977.

Leeming, David Adams, ed.  The World of Myth:  An Anthology.  New York:  Oxford U., 1990.

Long, Charles.  Alpha.  The Myths of Creation.  New York:  Georges Braziller, 1963.

Sproul, Barbara C.  Primal Myths.  Creation Myths Around the World.  New York:  HarperCollins, 1979.


Interpretation and Theory

Barthes, Roland.  Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers.  New York:  Hill & Wang, 1972. (Cultural criticism by a leading structuralist)

Blumenberg, Hans. Work on Myth. Trans. Robert M. Wallace. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1985. (Dense, wide-ranging, stimulating examination of a “working on myth” throughout the history of our culture)

Bly, Robert.  Iron John.  A Book About Men.  Reading:  Addison-Wesley, 1990.  (Jungian-literary approach to truths of masculinity in fairy tales)

Brisson, Luc.  How Philosophers Saved Myths.  Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology.  Trans. Catherine Tihanyi.  Chicago:  U. of Chicago, 2004.

Bultmann, Rudolf.  Jesus Christ and Mythology.  New York:  Scribners, 1958.

_______, et al.  Kerygma and Myth.  A Theological Debate.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1961. (Contains critiques of Bultmann’s position)

Campbell, Joseph.  The Masks of God.  4 vols.  New York:  Viking, 1959. (Compiles and discusses examples of “primitive,” “Occidental,” “Oriental,” and modern “creative” mythmaking)

_______, with Bill Moyers.  The Power of Myth.  New York:  Doubleday, 1988. (See the entry under Videos)

Cassirer, Ernst.  Language and Myth.  Trans. Susanne Langer.  New York:  Harper, 1946.

_______.  Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 2:  Mythical Thought.  Trans. Ralph Manheim.  New Haven:  1955.

_______.  The Myth of the State.  New Haven:  Yale U., 1946.

Csapo, Eric.  Theories of Mythology.  Malden:  Blackwell, 2005.

Doty, William.  Myth:  A Handbook.  Westport:  Greenwood, 2004.

_______.  Mythography.  The Study of Myths and Rituals.  Tuscaloosa:  U. of Alabama, 1986.

Dundes, Alan, ed.  Sacred Narrative.  Readings in the Theory of Myth.  Berkeley: U. of California, 1984.

Eliade, Mircea.  Myths, Dreams and Mysteries.  The Encounter between Contemporary Faiths and Archaic Realities. Trans. Philip Mairet.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1960.

Frazer, James.  The Golden Bough.  12 vols.  New York:  Macmillan, 1935.  (The granddaddy of modern synthesizing anthropological treatments.  There’s a one-volume abridgement)

Frye, Northrop.  The Great Code.  The Bible and Literature.  New York:  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

Gilkey, Langdon.  Religion and the Scientific Future.  Reflections on Myth, Science, and Theology.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1970.  (Chap. 3:  “The Uses of Myth in a Scientific Culture”)

_______.  Creation on Trial.  Evolution and God at Little Rock.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1985.  (Chap. 8:  “The Shape of a Religious Symbol and the Meaning of Creation”)

Jung, Carl et al.  Man and His Symbols.  London:  Aldus, 1964.

Kolakowski, Leszek. The Presence of Myth.  Trans. Adam Czerniawski.  Chicago:  U. of Chicago, 1989.  (Critical philosophical treatment)

Langer, Susanne.  Philosophy in a New Key.  A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard U., 1957.

Larrington, Caroline, ed.  The Feminist Companion to Mythology.  London:  Pandora, 1992.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude.  The Raw and the Cooked.  Trans. John & Doreen Weightman.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1969.  (The introductory “Overture”)

_______. “The Structural Study of Myth.” In Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobsen and Brooke G. Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 206-231.

Malinowski, Bronislaw.  Malinowski and the Work of Myth.  Ed. Ivan Strenski.  Princeton:  Princeton U., 1992.

_______.  Myth in Primitive Psychology.  New York:  Norton, 1926.

Marx, Leo.  The Machine in the Garden.  Technology & the Pastoral Ideal in America.  New York:  Oxford U., 1964.  (“Myth & symbol” approach)

Olson, Alan, ed.  Myth, Symbol, and Reality.  Notre Dame:  U. of Notre Dame, 1980. (Philosophy and religion symposium)

Propp, Vladimir.  Morphology of the Folktale.  Trans. Laurence Scott.  Austin:  U. of Texas, 1968. (Classic scheme of basic recurring elements in stories)

Reynolds, Frank, and David Tracy, eds.  Myth and Philosophy.  Albany:   SUNY, 1990.

Segal, Robert A.  Theorizing About Myth. Amherst:  U. of Massachusetts, 1999.

Smith, Henry Nash.  Virgin Land.  The American West as Symbol and Myth.  New York:  Viking, 1950.

Tillich, Paul.  Dynamics of Faith.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1957.  (Chap. 3:  “Symbols of Faith”)

_______.  “The Meaning and Justification of Religious Symbols” and “The Religious Symbol.”  In Religious Experience and Truth.  A Symposium.  Sidney Hook, ed..  New York:  NYU, 1961.   (Contains critiques of Tillich’s view)

Vickery, John B., ed.  Myth and Literature.  Lincoln:  U. of Nebraska, 1966.

Zipes, Jack.  Fairy Tale as Myth. Myth as Fairy Tale.  Lexington:  U. Press of Kentucky, 1994.


Videos of interest in the Millsaps Library or *Religious Studies office or **Language lab

Beauty and the Beast (directed by Jean Cocteau).**  FR-18

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (series of Bill Moyers conversations with Campbell; bonus interview of George Lucas, Campbell-influenced writer/director of Star Wars). DVD-64

L’Atalante (directed by Jean Vigo).  DVD-89

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (directed by Steven Spielberg).  DVD-135

The Lord of the Rings trilogy (directed by Peter Jackson).  DVD-113-115

The Mahabharata (directed by Peter Brook).  VR-764

The Matrix (directed by the Wachowski brothers).  DVD-39

Orpheus (directed by Jean Cocteau). VR-487

Opera Jawa (directed by Garin Nugroho).  Recent Indonesian film that brilliantly reworks the Ramayana.*

The Piano (directed by Jane Campion).  DVD-88

Pocahontas (Disney studio).  Potent visualization of American myth.  DVD-2

Sita’s Wedding (Indian TV dramatization of part of the Ramayana).*

Space Is The Place (directed by John Coney).  A fantastical mythic repositioning of African-Americans.  DVD-137

  1. A Space Odyssey (directed by Stanley Kubrick). DVD-541, VR-1094




  1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected.  One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late.  Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.  One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the third absence.  (For example, someone who missed class 7 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.)  The reason for this:  our in‑class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.
  2. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent.  Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date.  No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations.  Exceptions to this policy will only be granted to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.
  3. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances (as with the daily reading responses), e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.
  4. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism.  It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression.  Plagiarized work will receive no credit and will be referred to the college Honor Council.
  5. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end.  The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.
  6. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.