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Reply To: Is mythology like a cult?


Excellent question! My immediate reflex is to say no – but then, my opinion should not be considered a definitive answer (we each have to arrive at our own conclusions). And then I might well be biased – so I’d like to unpack that initial reaction and dig a little deeper.

Much depends which definition of “cult” is in play, as well as what we mean by “mythology.”

In addition to the meaning you supply for “cult,” my American Heritage Dictionary lists the primary definition as “a system of religious worship and ritual” (which is how historians, anthropologists, mythologists, and others who study human beliefs over time use the term: the cult of Dionysus, the cult of Isis, the cult of Christianity, etc. – these don’t refer to specific organizations or institutions, but a broad set of beliefs commonly held).

The second meaning listed corresponds to your definition of cult (“a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange”): “A religion or sect considered extremist or false.” That’s generally a pejorative term that includes more than just strange beliefs: cults in that sense tend to be authoritarian with often corrupt leadership, rigidly controlled followers, destructive patterns, and generally rely on a variety of brainwashing techniques.

That meaning strikes close to home for me. I was raised in a strict, authoritarian Christian cult – Herbert W. Armstrong’s Radio Church of God, which changed its name in 1968 to the Worldwide Church of God. HWA, considered an “apostle” by church members, and his son, playboy televangelist Garner Ted Armstrong (GTA), broadcast “The World Tomorrow” radio program and television show daily, offering free literature (including a slick monthly magazine called The Plain Truth). It wasn’t until someone joined the WCG that they learned they had to donate 30% or more of their income before taxes to “the Work” (which paid for HWA’s and GTA’s private jets, five mansions, Rolls Royces and such). Beliefs were indeed strange (British-Israelism – the idea Americans and British are descended from the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel; members forbidden to celebrate Christmas or Easter or Valentine’s Day, which were replaced by the Jewish Holy Days, including fasting on Yom Kippur and removing all trace of leavening from one’s home, including crumbs in the toaster the seven days following Passover; no smoking, no eating pork or shellfish, no voting, no military service, no divorce, observe the Saturday sabbath from sunset to sunset, etc.). Lives of members were strictly controlled (had to get the local minister’s permission to get married, change jobs, etc.), and Christ was prophesied to return in 1975. They had three college campuses (in Pasadena, CA, Big Sandy, TX, and Bricket Wood, England), all unaccredited, to train ministers.

Membership eventually peaked at close to 100,000 believers scattered around the world – not large at all, yet the Church took in more money than Billy Graham and Oral Roberts combined! Of course the leadership (HWA and his son and other top leaders at the Church headquarters) proved corrupt: besides innumerable financial improprieties, Garner Ted eventually admitted he had affairs with over 200 coeds on his college campuses, as well as the wives of other evangelists – and it turns out Herbert W. Armstrong himself had committed incest for decade in the 1940s with his youngest daughter.

After HWA’s death, the cult broke up into several smaller splinters (one, of about 2,000 people, just announced last week that Jesus Christ would return to Earth before dawn on New Year’s Day: they have been very quiet since then).

The third definition of cult in my dictionary is “obsessive devotion to a person or principle.” These are often called “personality cults” – there have been cults of personality centered on Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Louisiana Governor Huey Long, Saddam Hussein, even Donald Trump, consisting of slavish devotion by hardcore followers. I’ll come back to this in a bit, as I believe it is particularly relevant.

In addition to those three definitions of the word “cult,” there are two different meanings for mythology that are relevant. One is “the study of myths. ” Mythology in this sense is a field of research (like history, anthropology, psychology, geography, etc.): mythologists study the myths and beliefs of people past and present (e.g. Joseph Campbell was a mythologist). In this sense, mythology is no more a cult than is history, geography, or anthropology.

The other definition relates to the mythology of a specific people or culture. Campbell defines this as follows:

Mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time⁠. Myth is a universal language that takes on its own local forms from society to society.⁠ It is not just the fantasy of this, that, or another person.⁠ Mythologies put the members of a culture in touch with deeper concerns than those of everyday economics⁠ and politics⁠.” (from a manuscript currently being prepared for publication) .

This as well is not a cult in the sense of the meaning you provide – mythologies are not a fringe belief of a small group of people considered extreme, but often the prevailing belief in a society. Every culture has its own mythology, as do subcultures within the larger community. Each society has its own unique mythology, in the same way as each society has its own unique history.

It is true that some mythologists, like Joseph Campbell or Mircea Eliade, recognize patterns that appear in multiple mythologies of cultures widely separated from one another in time and in space, in the same way some historians (Spengler, Toynbee, Barzun, etc..) recognize patterns that recur in the histories of multiple cultures – but other mythologists and historians will disagree.

So though mythologists may study the myths of different cults (as do historians, anthropologists, and psychologists), mythology itself  is not a cult by the first definition (it’s not “a system of religious worship and ritual”, but studies systems of worship and ritual).

Nor is mythology (when conceived of as “the spiritual beliefs of a people”) a cult in the second sense (an authoritarian fringe belief), though there may be small fringe cults within the broader umbrella (e.g., Christian mythology is a belief system very much mainstream in the societies that embrace it – but there are numerable small fringe movements within Christianity that are considered cults). “Mythology” as a field is not an institution with members who subscribe to a rigid set of beliefs: there is no “apostle” who runs mythology, controls the lives of followers, and excommunicates heretics.

That is why my immediate response is to answer “no” to your original query (is mythology a cult?).

However, there is that third definition – the cult of personality.

That is something we do our best to guard against at the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

Many people who discover Campbell’s work are so enamored of his ideas that there can be a tendency to place him upon a pedestal (which is one reason why Joe resisted writing a memoir or sharing much biographical information – he didn’t want to be considered a guru, nor replace the focus on his work with a focus on his personality). Hence, when JCF had an online Amazon aStore with nearly a thousand titles, we included the work of mythologists who arrived at different conclusions than Campbell, and had a section devoted to “Campbell Criticism.” Indeed, some of the recent MythBlasts take issue with a few of Campbell’s conclusions (mythologist Norland Téllez, for example while acknowledging areas where he builds on Campbell’s work, also notes areas where he believes Campbell’s thought falls short). Indeed, right here on COHO “Why I Disagree with Joe Campbell” is one of the longer threads in our Conversation with a Thousand Faces forum (which is not something an extremist cult would allow).

So generally, no, I would say mythology – whether we are talking the various mythologies of different peoples, or mythology as a field of study –  is by no means a cult.