A mythographer, or a mythologist, according to a strict dictionary definition, is a compiler of myths. Mythography (from Greek μυθογραφία - muthografia, "writing of fables", from μύθος - muthos,"speech, word, fact, story, narrative" + γράφω - graphō, "to write, to inscribe") is then the rendering of myths in the arts. These are rather restrictive definitions, which can be said to fail to take into account the large body of twentieth century work on myth from many angles. The compilation of myths assumes some field work; and the aim may be to produce something of value to cultural anthropology, religious studies, or a myth theory, rather than simply as raw material for transformation into artistic productions.
Already in the nineteenth century there was a tendency to produce large-scale myth theories, such as those of Max Müller, Andrew Lang, Wilhelm Mannhardt, and James Frazer. Scholars such as Carl Jung, Georges Dumezil, and Claude Levi-Strauss have continued this tradition in the twentieth century.
It has been a consistent strand of Romanticism, to insist on a level of validity of myth, and these arguments have often connected myth with the creative imagination. These notions come together in the concept of mythopoeic imagination, which has been articulated in the anthropological work of Jadran Mimica (Intimations of Infinity, 1988), among others. Theories with an academic basis which support this thinking have been popular, in the sense of receiving much attention; without ever being able to support claims of reliability acceptable to more rationalistic perspectives.
Mythography is the study of the study of myths (the study of myths itself being mythology), as well. In examining how mythology has been studied, one can see the differences and similarities readily, as evidenced by William Doty's Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals.
Besides the anthropologist's reason — better understanding of a particular culture in its own terms, that is, for the purposes of cultural anthropology — there are very varied reasons behind the interest of the mythographer. The origins of Greek drama were the immediate cause of the rise of the myth-ritual school, of Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray and others. Karl Kerenyi, also involved in Greek mythology, was an associate of Carl Jung, who adopted mythological material in his psychological theories.
In general literary criticism, myth criticism was put forward by Maud Bodkin, Philip Wheelwright, and others such as Francis Fergusson, Leslie Fiedler, and G. Wilson Knight. The critic Northrop Frye, working from Blake and the Bible as fundamental, always wished to distinguish himself from the myth-ritual school, but is often seen as in some sense having summed up the whole tendency. Robert Graves was interested in poetic theory, and supported his celebrated White Goddess with analysis harking back to Müller and Frazer, as well as the myth-ritual tendency.
There were numerous other mythographic 'schools' in the first half of the twentieth century. Ernst Cassirer's approach was through philosophy, specifically the so-called Marburg School of Kantian thought; it had a direct influence on Susanne Langer, and has been traced as an influence on Mikhail Bakhtin.
The direction of comparative religion is represented by Mircea Eliade, and also to some extent by the literary critic René Girard. The French sociological school has argued in terms of myths having social function.
Universal myth theories
The old idea of a universal myth theory, derided by Voltaire, is in modern times most famously represented by Joseph Campbell. There were many books written in the seventeenth century purporting to explain all myths. But Voltaire was deriding a Christian myth theory, while Campbell proposes a psychological one.
The philosophes, such as Voltaire, were interested in dispelling myths, not explaining their existence. While the basic understandings of the Western world were informed by Christianity in all areas of study, the term mythographer referred to someone who attempted to explain pagan myths in terms of misremembering the events of the Old Testament or wilfully altering them. Some of the theories of explanation from classical times were also used, such as the apotheosis of a local hero. This was before the Enlightenment, or, speaking more precisely, before the arrival of historicism.
With the arrival of social science, and the understanding that the thought patterns of human beings can change over historical time, this interest faded. It is still possible to think such thoughts; and believers might elaborate them somewhat. They could not expect to be taken seriously, in today's marketplace of ideas.
Perhaps the last work which employed this earlier use of the term mythography was George Eliot's novel Middlemarch. Its character Casaubon was involved in such a project in the mid-nineteenth century. The story tells of a woman who proved unable to finish the project after his death and abandoned it. Casaubon's character is a satire on academic pedantry and hubris.
- Religion and mythology
- Comparative mythology
- Allegory in the Middle Ages
- Myth and ritual