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What Is Comparative Mythology?

Different cultures attribute thunder and lightning to different gods.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2014
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Comparative mythology is the study of the mythologies of different cultures and societies and comparing these mythologies to better understand each culture and humanity in general. This can be done in different ways, though it usually involves either studying different mythological systems in general or comparing similar stories within each mythology. Common themes or motifs among mythologies can be found, often dealing with similar issues that different cultures have faced or ways in which one culture impacted another. Comparative mythology is often studied by individuals interested in anthropology and storytelling as it has occurred and changed throughout recorded history.

One of the most important aspects of comparative mythology is an understanding of different mythological systems and how different cultures have used myths to explain the world around them. The Ancient Greeks, for example, created a complicated and robust mythological system filled with numerous deities, creatures, epic heroes, and other figures that were used to explain mysterious or complex aspects of the world around them. Most forms of mythology studied in comparative mythology arose as a means by which a world and universe that was seemingly unknowable was explained in ways that made random events or the natural world more orderly and understandable.

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Someone studying comparative mythology might look at different gods and creatures in various mythological systems and compare and contrast them. In Norse mythology, for example, one of the primary gods is Odin, who is the father-god figure in the Norse tradition and is the god of war and poetry. The god of the sky, thunder, and lightning in Norse mythology is Thor, who is not as powerful as Odin. In Greek mythology, however, the god of the sky, thunder, and lightning is Zeus, who is also the father-god for that mythological system. Someone studying comparative mythology might consider how the importance placed on these gods reflects the attitudes of each society.

Comparative mythology can also be studied with a focus on particular concepts or myths that are generally common among mythological systems. Nearly all mythologies include a creation myth, which is an explanation for how the universe and world came to be. The Japanese creation myth, for example, involves a sea from which a single plant grew and was turned into the first god who created other gods, who then created the islands of Japan and populated them.

This can be compared with the Norse creation myth, in which the world was created by the gods who rebelled against their father, a giant, and killed him. The gods then made the world from his corpse: using his bones to create the mountains, his hair to make trees, and his blood to make the oceans and rivers of the world. In comparative mythology, these different creation myths can be compared to consider what each story seems to reflect about the culture that came up with them. These considerations are not value judgments, however, and cultural differences are underlined by the common desire among cultures to explain the world through storytelling.

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