Mythology and history are flip sides of the same coin, the past. According to the German historian Leopold von Ranke, “History tells us as it really happened.” It shares the objective truth supported by evidence from archives, epigraphs, archeology, monuments, etc. On the other hand, mythology stands at the other end of the spectrum of objectivity, equating it to fiction. It evolved as a product of imagination and creative projection rather than truth or evidence.
Originating from Greek, the term mythology translates to “the spoken story of people”. It is the study and interpretation of tales or fables associated with a culture. It may deal with different aspects of human conditions like good and evil, life and death, suffering, moral values, the afterlife, etc. The term history, also originated from Greek, meaning – “to know”. It is the discipline that studies the chronological record of events, with critical scrutiny of source materials and evidence, with a causal explanation.
The Dichotomy of Mythology and History
Mythology and history are alternate ways of looking at the past. Mythology refers to the study of myths, or bodies in the genera of myths. It has relations to other narrative forms like fables, fairy tales, folktales, epics, legends, parables, and etiological stories. Alternately, history is the study of past events or people in a particular time period, which are traceable through their path of occurrence.
There are significantly these types of history- social, cultural, political, economic, and diplomatic. The areas of study in mythology consist of Symbolism, Theology, Creation mythology, Religious mythology, Nature mythology, Hero mythology, etc.
Usually, the characters in myths are Gods, Demi-gods, or supernatural human beings. Zeus, Hector, Achilles, Oedipus, etc are some of the famous characters of mythology. Even though myths exist in almost every culture and across all geographical boundaries, the most well-known across the world are those of the Roman and Greek myths. Writers like Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles have gained inspiration from various Greek-Roman myths in creating their Epic masterpieces. We can find numerous amounts of literature and forms of art based on myths. History is about real individuals who have lived in the past.
Mythology finds uses in a range of academic fields from psychology and anthropology to folklore studies. While history uses academic disciplines to study, analyze and question a sequence of past events. It caters to understanding the present and foretelling the future based on the past. Pieces of evidence support history, in contrast to myths, which are not more than mere stories. These include written and oral accounts, material objects such as pottery, etc. to back the narrative.
historic cave paintings, etchings in stones, all suggest that, long before the oral form of communication evolved, humans had already developed a belief structure corresponding to the concept of myths. Myths have also helped study the history of civilizations as it describes the origins or nuances of long-held customs. Even if myths are grounded on culture, we can find objective reality in them which governs our attitudes and behaviors as social beings.
Myths can be broadly categorized as Etiological Myths, Historical Myths, and Psychological Myths. Of this, the Historical myths are based on past events, retelling them with an elevated level of meaning. Examples are the Siege of Troy and its fall as described in Homer’s Iliad and Odysseus’ journey home in the Odyssey or Aeneas’ adventures in the work of Virgil.
Just as various art and literary pieces have evolved inspiring from mythology, history has also influenced many. Many great movies like Schindler’s List, Dunkirk, Braveheart, 12 years a slave, are all inspired by true events of history. Likewise, just as there are several versions of the same myth, there are many accounts of the same historic event. Even in the so-called “authentic” histories, we find certain groups, genders, races, castes, etc. either absent or hugely misrepresented. We cannot consider partial truths or mistruths as truths.
Commonality of Differences
We often consider Mythology and history as dichotomous terms as they stand at two far ends of the spectrum. One deals with truth and objectivity, while the other is based on imagination and subjectivity.When this dichotomy between the two is subject to scrutiny, we see certain similarities between the differences.
History involves the recollective account of an individual based on his/her perspective and judgment. We cannot claim that history is fully removed from these flaws, because of the human element present in them. Similarly, myths are often founded on religious or cultural beliefs connecting actual events. In the context of religious myths, humans have always found ways to authenticate them by connecting them with places, people, monuments, etc. from history. History and mythology cannot be mutually exclusive. It is easier to identify a myth from the past rather than the myths in the present, while we are living it. Especially in a time when it is simpler to make a lie gullible than proving a truth, the line between fact and fiction is thinning.