Page 14 || Encyclopedia Article || Fantasy Arts || Modern Surrealism Art Observation || Mythology
D The Age of Enlightenment
During the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), with its emphasis on rationality, the allegorical interpretation of myths fell into disfavor. At the beginning of this period, myths were dismissed by intellectuals as absurd and superstitious fabrications, in part because of a climate of hostility toward all forms of religion. The so-called Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, in which the relative merits of classical and modern literature were debated, lent additional force to the devaluing of myths and myth-making. French writer Pierre Bayle, in his Dictionnaire historique et critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary, 1697), ridiculed the absurdity of the ancient Greek and Roman myths.
In the late 17th century, a different approach to mythology arose in the context of new information about myth-making peoples (especially those in the Americas). Europeans had become aware of these peoples in the course of the voyages of discovery of the 16th and 17th centuries. Working on the assumption that these cultures could provide insight into the experience of prehistoric societies, European scholars sought the origins of mythology in the "childhood of man," when human beings supposedly first formulated myths as a response to their physical and social environment. The studies made in this period were consolidated in the work of German scholar Christian Gottlob Heyne, who was the first scholar to use the Latin term mythus (instead of fabula, meaning "fable") to refer to the tales of heroes and gods.
E The 19th-Century Science of Mythology
As more and more material from other cultures became available, European scholars came to recognize even greater complexity in mythological traditions. Especially valuable was the evidence provided by ancient Indian and Iranian texts such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Zend-Avesta. From these sources it became apparent that the character of myths varied widely, not only by geographical region but also by historical period. German scholar Karl Otfried Mller followed this line of inquiry in his Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie (Prolegomena to a Scientific Mythology, 1825). He argued that the relatively simple Greek myth of Persephone reflects the concerns of a basic agricultural community, whereas the more involved and complex myths found later in Homer are the product of a more developed society.
Scholars also attempted to tie various myths of the world together in some way. From the late 18th century through the early 19th century, the comparative study of languages had led to the reconstruction of a hypothetical parent language to account for striking similarities among the various languages of Europe and the Near East. These languages, scholars concluded, belonged to an Indo-European language family. Experts on mythology likewise searched for a parent mythology that presumably stood behind the mythologies of all the European peoples. German-born British scholar Max Mller concluded that the Rig-Veda of ancient India-the oldest preserved body of literature written in an Indo-European language-reflected the earliest stages of an Indo-European mythology. Mller attributed all later myths to misunderstandings that arose from the picturesque terms in which early peoples described natural phenomena. For example, an expression like "maiden dawn" for "sunrise" resulted first in personification of the dawn, and then in myths about her.
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