Myth, its Nature, Function and Logic

A. F. Iduigwomen


  1. Introduction
  2. The nature of Myth
  3. The Function of Myth
  4. The Logic of Myth
  5. Notes
  6. Academic Tools
  1. Introduction

This work explores the nature, function and logic of myth. In discussing the nature of myth, it tries to show that although myth is pre-philosophic, nevertheless, it is a vital source of philosophic information for the people who hold it. Although myths do not constitute a people’s philosophy, their philosophy is possibly depicted in their myth and other cultural forms. This implies that a people’s philosophy can be discovered from their cultural forms which can be stated as: Given a particular view of the present, the past is simply what the present is. In trying to explain why he thinks the present is what he thinks it is, the myth-maker delves into the past for his reasons. Because his account of the past is immune to revision and modification, the myth-maker apparently lays claim to infallibility. However, we argue that no mortal (with all his subjective imperfection) can claim to have given the final word, view or account about the past.

  1. The Nature of Myths

What is myth? Myth relates to a primordial event that took place at the beginning of time. It is a special story about past happenings which are generally held to be real. The actors of the myth are in most cases gods or culture heroes, not human beings as such. There is the assumption that man cannot know his acts except they are revealed to him. The myth, therefore, is a recital of what the gods or the semi-divine beings did at the beginning of time. It tells how something began to be or how it was accomplished. It is as a result of this that myth is often bound with ontology, it speaks only of reality, or of what really happened or was fully manifested. Once told or revealed,1 it becomes absolute or ultimate truth.

Among the primitive societies, myths are recited only in reference to place or time or seasons that are ritualistically important or in reference to important religious ceremonies. In every case, the myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment-as island, a species of plant, a human institution.2 Encyclopedia Britanica (vol. 12), sums up the characteristics of myths as follows:

Myths are accounts with an absolute authority that is implied rather than stated: they relate events and states of affair surpassing the ordinary human world, yet basic to that world: the time in which the related events take place is altogether different from the ordinary historical time of human experience (and in most cases unimaginably long ago) the actors in the narrative are usually gods or other extra-ordinary beings (such as animals, plants, the very first people, or specific great men who changed the human condition).3

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (vol. 5) refers to Gambattista Vico as the first scholar to make a serious attempt at systematizing mythology. For Vico, each historical epoch has its own unity and character. Periods succeed each other in determinate order. Vico identifies three periods in the development of myth. The first is the age of gods which marks the beginning of civilization. This is the period men live in families and confine their activities to religion, marriage and burial or the dead. The second age is the age of heroes, the age which marks the emergence of aristocratic states. The third is the age of men, the age which marks the emergence of democratic republic. It is an age in which rational explanation of phenomena or philosophic thought emerges. While the first two ages can be referred to as the age of mythology, the third is the age of philosophizing. It is from the first two ages which express the vulgar wisdom of the people that we can discover the religion, law, morals and social life of the early society. What this shows is that myths express the collective wisdom or mentality of a given age. 4

Myths abound in different parts of the world. The major types of myth found all over the world are myths of origin, myths of eschatology and destruction, myths of culture and esoteriological myths, messianic and millenarian myths, myths of time and eternity, myths of providence and destiny and myths of rebirth and renewal. Others are myths of memory and forgetting, myths of high and celestial gods, myths concerning founders of religions and other religious figures, myths of kings and ascetics, and myths of transformation.5.

The same myths could be held in different places and times. Although local differences abound among different tribes, nevertheless, the pattern is somewhat the same in the traditional set up. For instance, myths of creation of the physical world and mankind and myths of witchcraft are universally held. Although the exact methods of creation of the first man may differ in different cultures, it is generally believed that the creation of man came after other creatures had been created. This is the reason why man is regarded as the crown of God’s creation in almost all cultures of the world.

Myths occur in different parts of Africa. Both the pre-history and history of African peoples are dominated by uncountable myths. There are myths of creation, of the universe, the first man on the planet earth, the withdrawal of God from the world as a result of man’s disobedience, and the origin of the community or tribe. In Yoruba tribe of Nigeria there are myths of objects of nature such as rivers, streams, oceans, seas, lakes, permanent ponds, animals, forests, the sun and moon, mountains, boulders, and so on. These objects are deified and personified. The obvious consequence of this is the belief in the plurality of deities or divinities.

In the eyes of the traditional Africans, spirits and divinities are real entities which have been in existence of eternity. People using some of these objects of nature have to appease the divinities before using them. Failure to do this is believed to have disastrous consequences. Such pre-history and history are telescoped by the traditional African society into a neatly fitted oral tradition handed down from generation to generation. But since oral history has no dates to be remembered, it becomes practically difficult to put some of these myths on a mathematical time scale. Consequently, the traditional Africans merely look back to when they came or the primordial times the mythical events took place.

6. Now, what is the connection between philosophy and myths? Is myth philosophic or pre-philosophic? We argue that myth is pre-philosophic. In fact, philosophy begins where myth stops. The transition from mythology to rational explanation of phenomena in Greek thought is a good case in point. Greek myths include accounts about the nature, abode and activities of the gods, cosmogonies, accounts of great discoveries and inventions, such as that of fire, accounts of the founding of cities, and of the ancestry of kings, in which the relationships between gods and men are codified.

In the mythic trend of Greek thought, objects, and the world around were usually personified. Consciousness, emotions, states and processes were usually deified. Things like the earth, sky, river, sun and night were personified and deified. Mythic thought of ancient Greece was also based on human analogy. Change, for instance, was depicted in form of generation and procreation. But in the philosophic trend of Greek thought, a rational attempt was made to understand the origin of things, and the nature and destiny of man. O’connor may be said to be drawing a demarcating line between mythic thought and philosophic thought when he said:

In the myths the great mystery is explained by analogy with, and using the terminology of biological process, and the actors are anthropomorphic monsters. In Milesian cosmology these biological processes are replaced by manufacturing processes (“separating off” and “felting”) and the gods are replaced by a material. It is not “more rational” to prefer manufacturing processes to gods, unless you have good evidence in your favour. But though they were not scientists, they (The Milesians) show a common sense and unmystical attitude which is a part of the scientific temper.

8. Apart from the above distinction, another distinction between mythic thought and philosophic thought is that whereas there is a blurring of classes of things in the former, the latter begins with classification of things in the world.

Another point of difference is that myth avoids questions of truth and falsity while philosophy raises questions bordering on truth and falsity. Thus, while myth is irrefutable, philosophy is refutable. Greek myth collapsed when men began to raise sharp questions about truth or falsity, questions which mythic thought tried to evade. This is not to say that there is no continuity between mythic thought and philosophic thought.

There is not only continuity but a connection. Indeed, it is on record that the mythic thoughts of Homer and Hesiod greatly influenced the Pre-Socratic philosophers in their speculations about the world. Needless to say that in African metaphysics, ontology is intimately bound up with myths. Apart from that, myths are a vital source of philosophical information for the people who hold them. An analysis of myths can give us useful information about the philosophical notions of the people who hold them. For example, the Yoruba myth of the origin of the universe really shows the metaphysical structure of reality depicting hierarchical order of power ascribed to different gods.9 In ancient Greek philosophy, Plato’s Myth of Eru recorded in his Republic gives us an insight into his ideas about the transmigration of the soul.

  1. The Function of Myth

Myth no doubt performs some functions for the society in which they are held. Some of the functions of myths can be summarized as follows:

  1. Myth expresses, enhances and modifies a belief generally held in the society.
  2. It safeguards and enforces societal norms.
  3. It vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man. It is thus a vital ingredient of civilization.
  4. It performs explanatory and narrator function. It narrates and explains natural, cultural, social, religious and biological facts. The explanatory and narrator function of myth gives it a significant place in traditional systems of education.
  5. It performs justifying and validating function. A great variety of myths answer questions about the nature and foundation of cultic customs. No cultural tradition exists without some mythological foundation.
  6. It performs descriptive function. Its descriptive function is linked with the authoritative presentation of facts that transcend ordinary reason and observation. A myth is capable of describing what persons using reason and observation can never see for themselves.
  7. Controlling the universe. In every tradition mythological society, one myth tends to be central. In African traditional society, the central myth is the myth of creation of the universe. In many events which have to be with man’s welfare, allusions are made to this primary or basic myth.
  8. Myth performs magical or healing function. In some societies healing is said to come as a result of the recitation of some myths, especially the cosmogonic myth. The cosmogonic myth is the paradigm for every creation and construction. “By symbolically becoming contemporary with the creation, one reintegrates the primordial plenitude. The sick man becomes well because he begins his life again with its sum of energy intact.”
  1. The Logic of Myth

The Logic behind the myth of origin is the argument that given a particular view of the present (as it is or ought to be), the past is really what the present is. What this implies is that myth is a means of acting upon the present. Really, myth is not only concerned with the past, it is also concerned with the present. In fact, it covers the entire spectrum of present social life. As a narrative that brings to life a supposedly moribund primordial reality, it is a story told to satisfy present moral, religious, social and even practical cravings. Much of the thrust of the argument of the myth-maker is about the present. In explaining why the present ought to be the way he suggests, he delves into the past for reasons.

For the myth-maker, the primordial event established the present condition of mankind. Through rites what happened in primordial times is re-actualized. The mythical event (and not personal memory) is what is important because it is the creative event. Primordial myth, therefore, is what preserves true history of human condition. “It is in the myth that the principles and paradigms for all conducts must be sought and recovered.”13 That is simply the logic of myth.

It is my contention that this logic is fallacious. The reason is that the myth maker tends to present happenings as though they were accurate representatives of the past. Obviously, his aim is to shield the past from revision or modification. This shows that myth determines irrevocably the meaning of the past which in turn compels a corresponding view of the present.14

The attitude of the myth-maker apparently shields the past from further research. Perhaps, an illustration will make this point clearer. In telling a familiar story, the African child can introduce new elements to save his listeners from boredom. But when he is narrating a myth (say, the myth of the origin of his clan or village of the myth of creation), he is rebuked by the older people around for distorting the truth or for not presenting it the way it is normally presented.

This shows that myth has a fixed or pre-determined pattern, which, as it were, closes its view of the past from further research. Research opens the past to scrutiny and thus brings us closer to the ultimate truth. But the myth maker has no need for another ‘ultimate truth’ as he assures himself that ultimate truth is already embedded in his account. He therefore resists or fights any attempt to destroy the cherished ultimate truth. His efforts are geared towards protecting the past from corruption by the present.

This boils down to the fact that myth is based on irrationalism. It invokes unusual or supernatural events. Since supernatural events do not fall within the sphere of human reasoning, their acceptance can only be based on faith. “Myth is told, not in order to argue about the contents nor to correct them, hut simply to accept them on faith.”15 Because his accounts of the past are immune to revision and modification, the myth-maker tends to project those accounts as infallible. No mortal can claim to have given us a final word, view or account about the past. Fallibility of memory and the fact that forgetfulness is a disease without cure confirm this fact.


  1. M. Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion. (New York: Port Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959), p. 95
  2. M. Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion, p. 97
  3. Encyclopedia Britanica, (vol. 12), (Chicago: William Benton, Publisher, 1981), p. 794
  4. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (vol. 5), edited by Paul Edwards, (New York: Macmillian Co., Inc. & the I’tee Press, 1967), p. 435
  5. The Encyclopedia Britanica, pp. 779-802
  6. J. S. Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy, (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. 1969), pp. 23-24
  7. Encyclopedia of Philosophy, p. 434
  8. D. J. O’connor, A Critical History of Western Philosophy, p. 3
  9. P. K. Roy, Philosophical Foundation of Nigerian Traditional Thought, (Ottawa: Canada Sociological Research Entre, 1985), p. 25
  10. B. Malinowski, Myth in Primitive Psychology, (1962) Quoted by P. A. C. Isichei, Second Order: An African Journal of Philosophy vol. IV, No2 July 1975, p. 14.
  11. Encyclopedia Britanica, p. 975
  12. M. Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion, p. 105
  13. Encyclopedia Britanica, p. 102
  14. P. A. C. Isichei, “Two Perspectives of the Past History and Myth” Second Order: An African Journal of Philosophy, Vol. IV, No. 2 July 1975, p. 15

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