The Four Functions of Mythology

I view traditional mythologies as serving four functions.  The first function is that of reconciling consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence – that is, of aligning waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum of this universe, as it is.  TAT 2

1) … the first function of mythology is to arouse in the mind a sense of awe before this situation through one of three ways of participating in it: by moving out, moving in, or effecting a correction. 

   This I would regard as the essentially religious function of mythology – that is, the mystical function, which represents the discovery and recognition of the dimension of the mystery of being. 

2)  The second function of a traditional mythology is interpretive, to present a consistent image of the order of the cosmos.  At about 3200 B.C. the concept of a cosmic order came into being, along with the notion that society and men and women should participate in that cosmic order because it is, in fact, the basic order of one’s life. 

The gods themselves are simply agents of that great high mystery, the secret of which is found in mathematics.  This can still be observed in our sciences, in which the mathematics of time and space are regarded as the veil through which the great mystery, the tremendum, shows itself. 

3)  The third function of a traditional mythology is to validate and support a specific moral order, that order of the society out of which that mythology arose.  All mythologies come to us in the field of a certain specific culture and must speak to us through the language and symbols of that culture.  In traditional mythologies, the notion is really that the moral order is organically related to or somehow of a piece with the cosmic order.  Through this third function, mythology reinforces the moral order by shaping the person to the demands of a specific geographically and historically conditioned social group. 

4)  The fourth function of a traditional mythology is to carry the individual through the various stages and crises of life – that is, to help persons grasps the unfolding of life with integrity.  This wholeness means that individuals will experience significant events, from birth through midlife to death, as in accord with, first, themselves, and, secondly, with their culture, as well as, thirdly, the universe, and lastly, with that mysterium tremendum beyond themselves and all things.  TAT 5


There are four basic functions of a traditional mythology of this sort.  The first must be to open the mind of everybody in the society to that mystery dimension that cannot be analyzed, cannot be talked about but can only be experienced as out there and in here at once. 

   The second function of a mythology is to present an image of the universe that connects the transcendent to the world of everyday experience.  This cosmic image must reflect that mystery so that all the stars and little animals and trees and mountains are seen to express this unfathomable dimension.

   The third function is to present a social order by which people will be coordinated to the mystery.  The king, then, sits in the center as the coordinating principle of the city-state.  He radiates solar light: his crown represents the light of the Sun (or of the Moon).  His court moves about him in hieratic charade, as though they were planets, wearing the costumes of the cosmos and so forth.  We still see this symbolism in courtly protocol.

   Finally the fourth function of the mythology is to carry the individual from the attitudes of dependency of childhood to adult responsibility (responsibility as defined in the terms of that particular culture) and then out in the way of old age and passage beyond the Dark Gate.  MoL 5