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The Death Myth in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Literature

The Death Myth in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Literature

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Published by cristinadr
an essay for the scientific session at the Faculty of Letters (Romanian-English)
an essay for the scientific session at the Faculty of Letters (Romanian-English)

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Published by: cristinadr on Dec 14, 2009
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Culture. Myth-Mythology. Archetype
In order to analyze and compare the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxoncultures, it was necessary for me to explain the terms
myth, mythology
may be defined as the abstract values, beliefs, and perceptionsof the world--i.e. a world view--that shape, and are reflected in, a people’s behavior. Culture encompasses all that is human-made, learned and transmitted,especially through language, rather than what is inherited biologically. Peopleare not born with a culture; they learn culture through the process of enculturation. To take root and survive, a culture must satisfy the basic needs of  people who live by its rules, develop means to ensure its transmission andcontinuity across generations, and provide an orderly existence for members of the society.
can be defined as a body of interconnected myths, or stories,told by a specific cultural group to explain the world consistent with a people’sexperience of the world in which they live. Plato was the first to have used theterm, but to him
meant only the telling of a story which featuredlegendary characters.
(Cotterell: 2002, p. 10)
The word
comes from ancient Greek, meaning
, andwas applied to stories sacred and secular, invented and true. Myths often beginas sacred stories that offer supernatural explanations for the creation of theworld and humanity, as well as for death, judgment, and the afterlife. Amythology or belief system often concerns supernatural beings or powers of aculture, provides a rationale for a culture’s religion and practices, and reflectshow people relate to each other in everyday life. Some theorists consider thatfolklore and mythology can not be separated. They classify myths as folk taleswhich have been transformed by poets so as they would comprise religiouselements. Myths are sometimes based on less sacred events, having mundanematters as basis.
(Cotterell: 2002, p. 10)
We can classify myths into:
ritual myths
(they explain the performanceof a certainreligious practicesor patterns and associated withtemplesor centers of worship);
origin myths
(describe the beginnings of a custom, name or object);
(they are often seen as explanations for elaborate festivals
that magnify the power of thedeity);
prestige myths
(they are usuallyassociated with a divinely chosen hero, city, or people);
eschatological myths
(these are stories which describe catastrophic ends to the present world order of the writers; they extend beyond any potential historical scope, and thus can only be described in mythic terms). Some myths fit in more than one category.
Myths and mythology express a culture’s worldview, that is, a people’sconceptions and assumptions about humankind’s place in nature and theuniverse, and the limits and workings of the natural and spiritual world. Today,in common usage, non-believers are often too quick to dismiss other cultures'religious and sacred stories as mythology and myth. But serious cross-culturalstudy requires that we resist this dismissive impulse, and understand that whatwe might call myth can be another culture's religious belief.
Cross-cultural comparisons of the world’s myths have uncovered strikingsimilarities in themes, structures, images, and characters. For a better understanding of the phenomenon, myth critics approach myth, as well aslanguage, as a way of responding to the world and creating a worldview. Theydescribe myth as non-intellectual, primal, emotion-laden, experiential, andimagistic. They suggest that literature and oral arts tap into a universal humanmythic consciousness and reveal the dynamics that have given meaning andintelligibility to our world.
An allegorical interpretation of the similarities between myths states thatat one time they were invented by wise men to point out a truth, but after long periods myths were taken literally because the allegorical meaning wasforgotten. Some theorists suggest that what seems absurd in myth is the result of  people forgetting or distorting the meanings of words. Religious scholar MirceaEliadecontended that myths are recited for the purpose of ritually recreating the beginning of time when all things were initiated so one can return to theoriginal, successful creative act. Those who characterize the ordinary as profaneand secular, view myths as a form of sacred speech, and implicitly as particular manifestations of a universal religious sensibility.
are also related to the field of mythology; they can bedefined as a set of universal and elemental mental forms or patterns, e.g.recurring narrative plots, patterns of action, character types, images, found in awide variety of the world’s literary and oral traditions, myths, dreams, andritualized modes of social behavior. The archetype of archetypes has beenidentified as
the death-rebirth theme
, connected with the cycle of seasons andthe organic cycle of human life and death. Other archetypes include sacrifice of the king, gods who die to be reborn, the journey into hell, the ascent to heaven,the scapegoat, the earth goddess, the search for the father, the fatal woman, thewise old man, the divine child, the cross, the quest. Such archetypes express amythic conception of human life. As such, they cannot be understood by
intellectual, rational, or logical methods or procedures; rather, archetypes are thestuff of dreams, the unconscious, ceremony, trance, and ritual.
Drawing upon anthropology, linguistics, and psychology,
Claude Levi-Strauss
suggested that the meaning of myths lies not in their content, but in thestructure of relationships that myths reveal. Myths work to mediate amonglife’s extremes (e.g., life-death, agriculture-warfare), allowing humans toovercome life’s contradictions.
Representations of Death in Various Cultures and Religions
 Death and rebirth are two major themes that are recurrent in cultures allaround the world. Since I took specific interest in the death myth, first of all Iwill exemplify it by means of presenting some religions and cultures and howdeath myth is represented within those cultures.The ancient Greeks believed that the dead were ushered to theUnderworld, ruled by the god
, and had to pay a few coins to the ferryman
to cross
the River Styx
, and enter the afterlife. In fact, this belief wasso deeply held that the Greeks buried their dead with a coin or coins in their mouths, to afford the fee to Hades. Once in the
, the dead were judged to be good or evil. The good ascended to the
Elysian Fields
, or 
,a place of paradise. The evil descended to fiery
, where they were punished eternally, or in some cases sentenced to repent for long periods before being deemed worthy to enter Elysium. The Greeks also believed inreincarnation, with the judges at the gates of Hades deciding the next incarnationof each soul.
appeared in the sixth century BC, growing out of 
.It postulated a series of graded paradises, each more beautiful and sensual thanits predecessor. Ascent through these dimensions is dependent on individualvirtue and meditation. Yet in both religions the desire was not for ultimate and personal pleasure, but for a release from the bondage of 
. This purespiritual state is referred to as
. A soul may dwell in the levels of  paradise for eons, but ultimately it must leave to continue its pilgrimage. Thougha soul may spend ages in the various paradises, it must eventually return inreincarnation.
(Filoramo: 2003, pp. 306-307)
beliefs in afterlife and practices regarding the dead areimmensely complex and difficult to understand. A great deal of the Egyptians’ beliefs in the afterlife revolved around the pharaoh they worshipped. The belief was that the
was the personal representative of the
Sun God Ra
, andhis followers were assured everlasting life in the afterworld if his body was preserved for eternity through embalming. The embalming of every body was asolemn and sacred ritual for the Egyptians, with priests of 
(god of thedead) donning a death mask to perform their deathly duties. Many bodies were

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