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There are so many.
I approach this question from the perspective of a public school teacher in the United States, so tend to think of what myths are important in terms of understanding our culture (e.g., what do students need to understand the mythic references that infuse literature, religion, history, contemporary journalism, and the popular media),
and then in understanding world culture,
and finally in conveying core values.
I’m not using “core values” as code for moral instruction (for example, one of the key values the knowledge of mythology conveys is awe of, and trust in, the human imagination – a realization that is morally neutral).
Given today’s dominant culture emerged from the Greco-Roman cultural nexus of the Mediterranean world, a familiarity with Greek mythology seems essential to understanding so many developments of western culture, from art and philosophy to government and law. This is a no-brainer; however, the Greek (and, to a lesser extent, its Roman cousin) is often the only mythology to receive more than passing attention in public schools today.
Usually, when teaching a unit on mythology in my literature class, I would ask my seventh-grade students to compile a list of at least 50 examples of mythic imagery in contemporary usage today. Most of the examples come courtesy Madison Avenue – branding that speaks to the power of the archetype when we realize images from archaic mythologies can still move millions today (if advertisers realize that and can wield mythic motifs to make money, seems this dynamic could be channeled in more positive directions as well).
From Mercury (Hermes) delivering flowers for FTD (am I dating myself?), to a Mars candy bar, or the USC Trojans in a bowl game, or the Apollo space flights, or best-selling novels like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” mythic references surround us – but, absent any mythic context, these are just names floating in space with as much meaning as “Nissan” or “Datsun” or “Toyota” had to the American ear when Japanese exports first hit the auto market.
So, answering the question “What myths should everyone know?,” a basic familiarity with Greek myth and the Olympic pantheon makes sense: The origin tale of each of the twelve gods (Zeus & Hera and their brood) and their relationship to one another, how they succeeded the Titans, etc.
Apart from the gods, I would specifically include the tales of
Psyche & Eros
The Twelve Labors of Hercules,
Jason & the Argonauts, Perseus & Medusa
Theseus & the Minotaur
One needn’t get a doctorate in classical mythology, or even need read Homer to do this. A single work – say Ovid’s “Metamophoses,” Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology,” Robert Graves’ “The Greek Myths,” or even Bullfinch’s “Mythology,” should suffice to provide a sense of this mythic framework embedded in modern culture.
While western culture has one leg in the Hellenistic world, the other is firmly planted in Jerusalem. So a familiarity with the Judeo-Christian mythic structure as well is key to understanding and living in contemporary western culture (one needn’t subscribe to Judaism or Christianity to recognize the relevance of these myths, anymore than one would have to sacrifice a goat to Jupiter to understand Greco-Roman mythology).
Biblical myths everyone should know:
Adam & Eve & the Serpent in the Garden of Eden
Noah & the Flood
Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac (or Ishmael, in the Quran)
Sodom & Gomorrah
Joseph & His Brothers
Moses, Pharaoah, & the Exodus
Samson & Delilah
David & Goliath
Daniel & the Lion’s Den
Birth of Jesus
Life & Ministry of Jesus
Crucifixion & Resurrection of the Christ;
The Apocalypse and the Return of Christ.
Again, it’s not necessary to earn a degree in theology – in fact, it’s difficult to avoid being exposed to most of these stories in one form or another, in the western world. These basic myths provide the foundation for the complex and elegant theologies that evolved in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and that fueled major movements from the Diaspora, to the adoption of Christianity as official religion of the Roman Empire, to the Reformation, and beyond; on a practical level, they present the mythic background to the tribal conflicts still roiling the Middle East today.
However, I am also drawn to a number of specific myths or motifs from other cultures.
Innanna’s Descent to the Underworld and the Epic of Gilgamesh are myths central to the Sumero-Akkadian civilization and it’s successors for over two thousand years, with motifs from each rippling through other myths (from the flood of Genesis, to Hades’ abduction and rape of Persephone, or the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ).
Similarly, from Egypt, the tale of the Love of Isis, and her search for, and re-membering of, the dead Osiris.
The Birth, Life, and Enlightment of the Buddha, from India – simple, sweet.
King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table – which opens the door to the entire Arthurian cycle. Poignant as is the love of Tristan & Isolde, powerful as is the compassion that reveals the Grail to Parzival, it is Merlin and Arthur and companions who draw us into that realm. The Arthur cycle not only points the way to the potent realizations of a Wolfram von Eschenbach or a Gottfried von Straussburg, but provides a bridge back to half-forgotten myths and deeds performed in the guise of Celtic gods and heroes.
Coyote tales – very short, and there are so many, drawn from the indigenous cultures in pre-columbian North America – everyone should know one or two or ten (I’m drawn to the one where Coyote eats the plant that makes you shit – he eats a lot of it, and, well, with friends like that, who needs enemas?).
And not just Coyote, but I might suggest a separate section for trickster tales of all cultures
… and speaking of Trickster, how can I leave out Loki? The Teutonic and Norse pantheons are never explored enough (apart from Wagnerian opera), and contain a colder northern perspective than the Mediterranean warmth of their Greek counterparts – making Asgard an Ibsen/Strindberg/Bergmann spin on Olympus?.
I would certainly include the tale of Baldur and Loki as one of the myths everyone should know.
There are so many more.
What have i left out?
tie-dyed teller of tales
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