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Indo-European Mythology 1, Requirement 9

To what extent do you think we can offer conjectures about Indo-European myths in general? Are the common themes strong enough that the myths seem like variations? Or are the differences so powerful that the themes are less important than the cultural variations? (minimum 300 words)

I am a cautious scholar and student of religions. After looking over Jung, Eliade, and Campbell, I admit that I am alternatively fascinated and appalled by their work. The desire to spout off about the similarities between myths (and the similarities can easily be seen by anyone looking for them) is strong, especially after hearing the persuasive arguments of these three leading commentators on mythology. Similarly, I feel that their methods of retrieval often go too far, and retrieve too much. Comparisons between religions often lead to some amazing speculations that can have no deeper grounding than the idea that both focus on "religious" facets of life.

When we work in an Indo-European focus, though, we find that the similarities are often more striking than they are outside of it. In every culture we can find divine wars, hero-cycles, and elements of a creation story that look wonderfully similar on the surface. Joseph Campbell made his name off the similarities in myth, and indeed, we like to see them.

Relying on similarities, however, can lead to serious problems associated with extending our sources beyond what they are capable of proving. It is extremely tempting to extrapolate a Celtic creation myth from the Norse epic we have, combined with the Vedic and Greek myths. What this ignores is the general contextualization of the mythology, that no matter where a myth is "born", it "grows up" in a culturally contextualized environment. This then comes down to a question of just how expert a person can be in both the culture that they are reconstructing and the cultures they are drawing from. Symbols are not one hundred percent consistent across cultures, even cultures as closely related as Indo-European cultures.

Despite this, comparative mythology is often the only way that we can reconstruct and understand what a culture's ideas of origins and reality are. It is important that we be honest about our attempts to reconstruct mythology, though: it is far too easy to take reconstruction as "fact" rather than as speculation, and that is an error that we should not make.


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