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Myths are tales of unknown origin handed down by tradition, sometimes orally and sometimes by written word. The stories are set in a primordial period during which the order of the present world is established. They tell the story of the origin of the world, of human beings and animal species, of death, and of the relationship between man and supernatural beings.

Until the fifth century BCE, the Greek word mythos was a synonym for logos (word). With Pindar and Herodotus, it came to mean words of illusion; rumor; the speech of others; irrational, barbarous, even scandalous speech (Détienne, 1979). For better or worse, Western mythology inherited this opposition between rational thought and mythical thought.

When ethnologists realized that the social organizations of the peoples they studied were significantly related to their mythologies, they helped move the study of myths from the impasse that nineteenth-century authors had become stuck in. Claude Lévi-Strauss saw myths as books without authors, their messages "coming, properly speaking, from nowhere" (1969-1981). Studying native American myths in their own terms, he demonstrated that they are transformations of each other and that their different codes express an underlying logical structure. In fact, myths are not only speculations about social organization but also, and above all, they reflect the structure of the human mind (Lévi-Strauss, 1969-1981). Georges Dumézil (1968-1973) laid bare the underlying principles of social organization in ancient Indo-European mythologies, particularly regarding the functions of sovereignty, war, and fecundity.

Freud related psychoanalytic theory to mythology in the broad sense of the term (myths, tales, sayings, jokes): "It is extremely probable that myths, for instance, are distorted vestiges of the wishful fantasies of whole nations, the secular dreams of youthful humanity," Freud wrote in 1908 (p. 152). In 1909 Karl Abraham developed this idea in Dreams and myths (1913) by showing that myths use the same mechanisms as dreams (figuration, condensation, displacement, and secondary revision), and that they are the realization of desires. They can therefore be interpreted in the same way as dreams (see ).

While Abraham used the Greek myth of Prometheus for his demonstration, Géza Róheim, a psychoanalyst and field anthropologist, directly studied Australian aborigines. For them, mythical time, the time of the primordial ancestors, is "dream time." These aborigines' notion of "eternal dream beings" enabled him to show "how the typical mechanism of all dream construction operates at the heart of mythology and aboriginal rituals" (Róheim, 1952).

Jean-Paul Valabrega (1967, 1992, 2001) devotes considerable attention to the epistemological question of the relation between myths and the unconscious, between myths and fantasy. For Valabrega, myths, which are neither individual nor collective, tend to metamorphose (as shown by the many different versions available) yet remain eternal and perpetually regenerate, in both respects like the unconscious. Moreover, myths are related to fantasies in that they both represent. Myths are made from the stuff of fantasies, and fantasies are made from the stuff of myths: there is a circular relationship between them in which neither is primary. "Psychoanalysis was practically born entirely out of a myth—Oedipus— . . . that Freud rediscovered by analyzing the dreams and fantasies of his first patients, as well as by analyzing his own dreams and fantasies" (Valabrega, 1994). There is also his use of mythical figures like Narcissus, Eros, and Thanatos.

The loose use of the term myth, encouraged if not created by Roland Barthes's work (1970), is more a matter of ideology. This usage, Valabrega (1994) claims, preserves the "function of myths" and the "structure of symptoms." In this usage, words without an author, productions that borrow the anonymity of myths and a few contemporary elements of content, bear witness to the persistence of a discourse that is both intimate and foreign to the self.


See also: Anthropology and psychoanalysis; "Claims of psychoanalysis to scientific interest"; Death and psychoanalysis; Dream and myth; Drive/instinct; Group psychology and the analysis of the ego; History and psychoanalysis; Mythology and psychoanalysis; New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis; Partial drive; Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality; Totem and Taboo; "Why War?" Bibliography

   * Abraham, Karl. (1913). Dreams and myths: A study in race psychology (William A. White, Trans.). New York: Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Co. (Original work published 1909)
   * Barthes, Roland. (1970). Mythologies. Paris: Seuil.
   * Détienne, Marcel. (1979). Les mythologues de la cité. Revue française de psychanalyse, 43 (3), 355-374.
   * Dumézil, Georges. (1968-1973). Mythe et épopée (vols. 1-2). Paris: Gallimard.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1908). Creative writers and day-dreaming. SE, 9: 141-153.
   * Lévi-Strauss, Claude. (1969-1981). Introduction to a science of mythology (vols. 1-4). New York: Harper & Row.
   * Rank, Otto. (1952). The myth of the birth of the hero: A psychological interpretation of mythology (F. Robbins and Smith Ely Jelliffe, Trans.). New York: R. Brunner. (Original work published 1909)
   * ——. (1975). The Don Juan legend. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1922)
   * Róheim, Géza. (1952). The gates of the dream. New York: International Universities Press.
   * Valabrega, Jean-Paul. (1967). Le problème anthropologique du phantasme. In Aulagnier, Piera, et al. Le désir et la perversion (pp. 163-206). Paris: Seuil.
   * ——. (1980) Phantasme, mythe, corps et sens: Une théorie psychanalytique de connaissance. Paris: Payot.
   * ——. (1992). Le motif du jumeau: Identité-altérité. Topique, 50, 181-183.
   * ——. (1994). La formation du psychanalyste. Paris: Payot.
   * ——. (2001). Mythes, conteurs de l'inconscient: Questions d'origine et de fin. Paris: Payot et Rivages.

Further Reading

   * Hartocollis, Peter, and Graham, I. (Eds.). (1991). The Personal Myth in Psychoanalytic Theory. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.
   * Kris, Ernst. (1956). The personal myth. Journal of the American Psychoanalysis Association, 4, 653-681.
   * Millar, David. (2001). A psychoanalytic view of biblical myth. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 82, 965-980.