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  • Hello!

  • My name is Mike Rugnetta and this is Crash Course: Mythology.

  • Mythology is a complicated subject.

  • It touches on literature, history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, religion, and even science.

  • Have you ever tried to make a Slurpee,

  • mixing all of the flavors together?

  • Mythology is exactly like that,

  • but it's a Slurpee of knowledge,

  • with no brain freeze and a lot to learn.

  • So maybe, actually a tiny brain freeze.

  • But a different kind of brain freeze.

  • What I'm trying to say is that

  • don't be surprised if some of what you hear during the next forty or so episodes

  • echoes some of the things you may have heard in other Crash Courses.

  • And don't worry if what you hear in one episode

  • reminds you of what you've heard in another.

  • We do that on purpose, and usually we know what we're doing.

  • Right, Thoth, Egyptian god of knowledge with an awesome ibis head? Right.

  • Do ibis-headed gods like bird seed?

  • We have so much to learn ahead!

  • [theme music]

  • There are a couple of reasons mythology is a more difficult subject than some of the others we've tackled.

  • One is that many myths are very, very old,

  • and often exist in many versions.

  • So just keep that in mind when we discuss a particular myth in the series.

  • If you've heard the myth in a different form,

  • it doesn't mean we've gotten it wrong,

  • though that is always possible-- just ask Atë, the Greek goddess of folly.

  • It just may be that we're working from a different version of the myth.

  • We'll try to put references to the versions that we're using in the show notes.

  • Sometimes we'll even be presenting composites of a number of different tellings of these myths.

  • Another difficulty with mythology is that it's open to so many interpretations.

  • Are myths records of historical fact? Deliberate fictions?

  • Ways of understanding otherwise incomprehensible events? Misunderstanding?

  • We... are not in a position to say.

  • The kind of thing that scholars spend their entire lives arguing about.

  • Along with the myths, we're gonna present possible interpretations, but let's be clear:

  • these are interpretations, not facts in the sense that their meanings can be confirmed by a weight of evidence.

  • Mythology has been argued about and theorized for over a hundred years,

  • and many myths can be read and understood in a number of ways.

  • When presenting interpretations, we're gonna let you know that we're doing that

  • so that you don't think that we're presenting an interpretation as a fact...

  • because that will get us into arguments, and we would love to avoid those.

  • This is also probably a good time to point out that in many instances, the line between myth and religion...

  • is blurry.

  • And, as we're gonna explain in a minute, we're working with a definition of myth that focuses on story,

  • rather than truth.

  • When one views myths primarily as stories or as literary artifacts,

  • it allows you to enjoy them and think about them apart from their value as structures of religious belief.

  • So, when we recount stories from the Bible as myths,

  • we're not definitively saying that they're either true or untrue,

  • just that they're stories that people have used in a variety of ways over time.

  • A third problem in discussing myth is that most myths don't have nameable authors,

  • or even when they do, like Homer or Virgil,

  • it turns out these guys were really just recasting older stories into new language.

  • Most of the time, we don't know who originated myths, or how, or why,

  • but, luckily, for our purposes here, that actually doesn't matter much.

  • But the last problem we have to talk about does matter.

  • And that's the difficulty of finding a good, working definition for the word "myth."

  • This is tricky, especially given the way we use the word in contemporary English.

  • Much of the time, when we say something is a "myth," what we mean is that it's not true.

  • For example, the idea that you swallow eight spiders a year while you're sleeping-- it's not true. It's a myth.

  • Not sure if this applies to Australians though;

  • I would wager that you guys swallow at least eight spiders a year.

  • Everything I know about Australia I learned from the internet.

  • Because we use the term "myth" to mean something that isn't true,

  • we can come away with the definition of "myth" as a story that is false and not to be taken seriously.

  • But myths have been taken seriously...

  • by scholars, sure, but more importantly, by generations and generations of people who've heard these stories,

  • and found in them something worth telling again.

  • Which is not to say people don't question their myths.

  • Philosophers were writing about the absurdity of Greek myths as far back as the sixth century B.C.E.,

  • probably even earlier.

  • So, if a myth isn't just a story that someone made up, or a word that we use to label something as false,

  • then what is it?

  • Myth comes from the Greek word "mythos"--

  • which means "word" or, more significantly, "story."

  • That doesn't mean every myth, or even the most important ones are Greek,

  • but those will probably be the ones most familiar with our to viewers in America and Europe.

  • At least, until the new Rick Riordan series gets going.

  • And honestly, if goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Freya, ever got into an arm wrestling competition,

  • Aphrodite would TOTALLY dominate, because Freya cries golden tears, and Aphrodite kills people. BOOM.

  • Sorry, I get sidetracked by Greek myths;

  • that's gonna happen a lot. Just ask Hermes, Greek god of roads.

  • So, we're gonna start by saying that a myth is a story,

  • but it's a special kind of story, that for the purposes of this series, has two primary characteristics:

  • significance and staying power.

  • This means that the subject matter is about something important,

  • something about how the world works, or how the world itself got going...

  • how things came to be.

  • And then there's staying power.

  • These are stories that have survived centuries, sometimes millennia,

  • and this is a testament to the deep meaning or functional importance of these stories

  • to the people who hear and tell them.

  • Now, if I know Crash Course fans, there are probably some people right now saying, "Mike,

  • it sounds like you might lump in folktales, and maybe even fairy tales, with your myths."

  • I'm not gonna lie.

  • There may be a folktale that creeps in from time to time,

  • but we're gonna steer clear of fairy tales for the most part.

  • For die hard folklorists-- and yes, that is a thing--

  • proper myths only deal with the creation of the world, or maybe the universe, and thus,

  • all real myths are religious... or quasi-religious.

  • Mythology theorists who come at myths from a religious studies angle

  • tend to say that the main characters of myths must be gods...

  • but this leaves out hero stories, which I think are pretty important, and also,

  • those are the ones with the sea monsters, so we're gonna include those too.

  • There are also those myths that don't feature any supernatural elements at all--

  • what Professor Robert Segal calls "beliefs," or "credos."

  • Most Americans will be familiar with the "rags to riches" story of the American dream.

  • Those stories are myths-- not because they aren't true

  • (sometimes poor people do become rich and successful in spite of tough upbringings,

  • and largely because of grit and hard work);

  • they're myths not because they have religious significance,

  • they're mythic because of their staying power...

  • and the tenacity with which proponents of the myth take them to be true.

  • Because these types of stories fit into our broad definition of a significant story

  • where personalities are the lead characters,

  • we will be talking about them-- but only in a later episode.

  • At this point, it might be a good idea to give an example of the kind of stories we'll be talking about in this series.

  • And, to do so, I'm gonna go to Greece.

  • YAY!! Greece!

  • Wine dark seas, delicious olives, beautiful ruins, anti-austerity protests,

  • and the setting for the story of Persephone.

  • Take us there, Thought Bubble.

  • Persephone was the daughter of the harvest goddess, Demeter, and supreme god, Zeus...

  • who were brother and sister (we'll get into all that weird incest stuff later)

  • and her original name was Kore, which can be translated as "girl."

  • One day, Kore was out picking flowers when she caught the eye of Zeus's brother, Hades,

  • who rode up from the underworld (also confusingly called Hades)

  • and kidnapped her to make her his wife...

  • and also probably raped her,

  • but again, we're gonna save the deeply uncomfortable sexual content for another episode

  • except for this brief mention right here. Sorry.

  • Kore was understandably... upset.

  • Demeter was full on enraged, and threatened to make all mankind starve,

  • so finally Zeus had to go and ask his brother to give Kore back.

  • In some versions of this myth, this was a problem for Zeus,

  • because he had promised Kore to his brother as a wife without telling Demeter first.

  • Hades was not a dumb guy, and before he let Kore go, he offered her a snack.

  • Kore had been warned to never eat anything in the underworld,

  • but she must've been extremely hungry by then,

  • and really, I mean, how much harm could six honey sweet pomegranate seeds really do?

  • Well, turns out, a lot.

  • In some versions, she eats them on purpose because she actually liked her husband.

  • In others, she's tricked into it.

  • Either way, even six seeds matter.

  • Kore has to remain in the underworld for six months out of the one month for each seed that she ate,

  • and will spend the other six months on Olympus with her parents.

  • During the six months in Olympus, Demeter would allow the fruits and grains to flourish.

  • The rest of the time, Demeter would mourn Kore, who had renamed herself Persephone,

  • and the ground would freeze, and nothing would grow...

  • and that is why we have winter.

  • Thanks thought bubble!

  • So, this is a story that is significant because of its explanatory power.

  • The fancy term for this is an "etiological narrative," or origin story.

  • The Persephone myth explains the seasons,

  • relating the cycle of planting and harvest

  • to the actions of the immortals.

  • For some mythologists, like E.B. Tylor, this story is an example of myth as primitive science.

  • Tylor and many other scientists drew a distinction between primitive people,

  • who used myths to explain the world in which they lived, and modern people, who use science for that purpose.

  • For Tylor, myth and science can't really be reconciled;

  • science has taken the place of myth, so we don't need myths anymore.

  • This is a pretty hard core theory, and since we like to view things complexly here at Crash Course,

  • we're not gonna subscribe to it, or any theory wholeheartedly.