Ted Thornton
Humanities II
Religions of the World
Working Definitions




SYMBOL -- (Greek: syn + ballow, "to throw together." ) Anything that stands for something more than it is. Symbols are best thought of as pointers, indicating the way toward the things they represent.   Hindus do not believe their gods and goddesses reside in their images.  The images merely show us the way.

MYTH-- (Greek: mythos, "story." ) Myths are defined as "symbolic stories that communities use to explain the universe and their place within it." (Fisher, 18) Often, myths are stories with an ambiguous sense of time and space ("A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...") that recount extraordinary deeds done by extraordinary beings for the purpose of telling why things are as they are.  Myths are frequently used to illustrate models of social behavior: courage, reverence, respect, loyalty, etc. 

Supplement:  Perhaps few capture the spirit of myth-making better than Chief Bromden in Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.   Before he begins telling us his tale, the Chief states, "What I am about to tell you is true even if it didn't happen."  The idea has appeared in other locations throughout history: for example, from the fourth century writer Sallustrius (Peri Theon - "This never happened, but it always is.") to Thomas Mann (1875-1955 - "For it is, always is, however much we say it was."). 

The truth of a myth, then, is not in the literal details (which often defy science) but in what it tells those who relate the story and those who hear it about their society: what that society believes in, how it sees the world, and what it regards as most important. As such, myths are highly important primary sources of information about a culture and the way it organizes the world around itself, and, therefore, students of social, cultural, and religious history need to pay close attention to them.

RITUAL -- (Latin: ritualis, ritus ) A prescribed set of actions often intended as a reenactment of a myth or a set of myths, as in worship (Old English: "to honor"), magic, sacrifice.

RELIGION -- (Latin: religio, ligo, "to bind together") A way of seeing, thinking, and acting inspired by questions about what things mean: i.e. Where did we come from?, What is our destiny?, What is true?, What is false?, What is my duty or obligation?, What is the meaning of suffering?, What is the meaning of death?, How shall we live? (Ezekiel 33:10)

THEOPHANY -- (Greek:  theos + phaneia, "god-showing")  An appearance of a goddess or god to a human being.   Examples:  The Hindu god-man (avatar) Krishna appearing to Arjuna in Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita;  the Hebrew god appearing to Moses at Mount Sinai in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and again at Sinai with the giving of the Law (Exodus 19).

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Last Revised: January 6, 2009