ATH 346-01

What is myth?

  • sacred story
  • deals with the important things about religion: the sacred
  • ultimate questions
  • often acted out through religious ritual
  • sometimes serves function similar to documentary history
  • often contains elements that don’t lend themselves to historical analysis
  • often myths share common themes with myths from other cultures


  • archetypes
    • floods destroy world
    • creation; brothers or twins found the world
    • a royal person abandoned or lost at birth
    • raised by animals or by members of another group
    • children named for segments of society
    • humanity falls from or leaves heaven
  • serve as charters that explain and legitimize present-day cultural relations
  • help people reconcile contradictions between worldview and natural & social environment

Qualities of myth

  • indefiniteness of time: causality is not linear, often things happen all at once
  • “just so” stories: explanation for how world works by narrating how it came into being
  • often it describes reality on more complex level than that of the event

Myth, folklore and legend

  • often, myths can become unhinged from place of origin
  • legend: history-like tale not referring to sacred time/ultimate questions
  • folklore: body of common knowledge, performed with certain methods in certain social contexts

Mythology of the Koryak

  • the story of Big Raven (Koryak)
  • the Swan Maiden (Buryat)

What is a shaman?

  • used to describe a widspread kind of practice
  • religious specialists
    • S. America
    • Asia
    • parts of N.America
    • upper paleolithic EU
  • less common in contemporary EU and Africa
  • often associated with hunting & horticultural peoples
  • is it an evolutionary stage?
  • most “primitive religion?”
  • non-western counterculture?


  • ritualist who is able to divine, predict and affect future outcomes, provide medical care, who is believed to have direct access to the supernatural. tutored by animals or deceased ancestors
    • tends to be individual, not institutional
    • communion with spirit world thru trance
    • moves in & out of spirit world at will

Origin of “shaman”

  • Evenki of E. Siberia, (reindeer herders)
  • Saman: religious practitioner
  • Indo-European word Sa: to know (could be of Buddhist origin? Monks)

Siberian cosmology

  • world composed of many layers
    • connected by cosmic pole or tree
    • shaman can ascend/descend to various levels
    • origin of Jack & beanstalk/Santa?
  • afterlife vaguely defined, except spirits of dead shamans help out
  • bad events caused by malevolent spirits
  • can be altered by activities of good spirits
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