Nature versus Nurture in Myth

I’m teaching a new class on Comparative Myth for Gifted Homeschoolers Forum in the fall, so preparing for the class has gotten me thinking/reading about how to compare myths across cultures. As with so many academic issues, there are a huge swath of opinions as to how/if one should compare myths. I’ve been reading a book called Comparative Mythology by Jaan Puhvel, which provides a nice overview of how myths can be compared; different theories about the approach. He focuses on myth coming out of the Indo European tradition, how they share a common ancestry, and therefore can be compared because they’re from the same root tradition. My interest is a lot broader, as I’m looking at myths from the entire world. My take on the question falls into what I call the nature/nurture hypothesis. Nothing too profound, but it goes like this. We have similarities in stories that come out of our shared human condition (nature). Myths address psychological issues that every human being faces, and it is these myths that can truly be “compared” with others. You might call this the Campbellian school of comparative mythology.

Nurture myths, however, are stories that rose out of the particular circumstances of an individual culture. These are the ways that there are stories (for example) of the Inuit culture that are particular to that environment, that a myth of the Navajo wouldn’t have a need for.

So, as I prepare the syllabus for my class in the fall, I can use this a framing idea for how we look at myths from each individual culture. Is this a nature or nurture story? If it’s a nature story, what types of myths from other cultures can compare to it? If it’s a nurture story, what makes it particularly suited to the culture from whence it sprang?

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