How can we understand myth in art?



There are a number of ways of approaching the understanding of myth, and throughout this essay I will define and compare different definitions. Three main opposing disciplines discussed are: the phenomenological, the anthropological and the structuralist (Luyster, 1966: 235). To interpret the phenomenological approach I will briefly examine Giambiattisa Vico and Mircea Eliade’s theories, for the anthropological I will look at Claude Levi-Strauss whilst focusing on Roland Barthes for the structualist approach. In order to answer how we can understand myth in art I will examine the origins of myth and how it operates in society by studying paintings from six different artists from various periods in history. In each section two paintings are interpreted using two different aspects of myth: first Revelation and Concealment, secondly Origins and Ends and finally the Universal and the Particular. The sections interpret two paintings by different artists within the context of theoretical understandings of myth. The essay determines which approach is most effective in understanding the paintings by evaluating how myth functions in society and concludes that art can ever really escape myth as the foundation of myth is rooted in the study of the social origins of knowledge. By studying how myth can be understood in art I believe we can gain an insight into the relationship between thought and social reality.

Defining Myth

The different approaches to how myths functions in society all agree that myths are not relegated to history but function in society today. In ‘The New Science’ for example, Vico concluded that myth has a social importance as a platform from which civilizations develop and identified its ability to instigate imaginative thinking necessary for civilizations to develop (Horkheimer, 1987: 63-70). Eliade reasons that what gives myths this ability is that it is a form of thought based upon symbols which narrates sacred stories concerning all significant human acts and therefore relates a true history (Luyster, 1966: 235; Eliade, 1963). Levi-Strauss also identifies in ‘Myth and Meaning’ that although mythical stories appear arbitrary they seem to reappear all over the world and are not simply false explanations that are consciously imagined but allow us to understand man’s ritual nature (Ricoeur, 1978: 1; Levi-Strauss 1978: 1-9).

Barthes (2000: 109-110) states in ‘Mythologies’ that myth is a type of speech which acts as a system of communication to convey a message. He aims to prove that myth can be found everywhere within our society: it doesn’t evolve from the nature of things but from the manner in which cultures find meaning in the world (Cultural Reader, 2012: 1). Levi-Strauss (1978: 47) on the other hand believes that we can only use language as the point of departure, although mythology stems from language it differs by emphasising sense and meaning. For Barthes like Vico, myths are not eternal but rather constantly mutating as a result of being historically produced. However, Barthes own political views led him to reason that myths are always political as they are created in response to specific power structures in a certain society at a certain time; furthermore myths have a signifying function which de-historicize and de-politicize meanings that are always historical and always political (The Cultural Reader, 2012: 2).


Part 1. Revelation and Concealment

 The myths upon which societies are founded offer a complex system of symbols which when experienced together presents humanity with affirmations about the ultimate reality of things (Ricoeur, 1978: 114). Paintings that are based on mythology are therefore charged with many meanings simultaneously and arrive at a metaphysical expression of our understanding of reality (Luyster, 1966: 236). It is through its use of symbols that myth has the ability to mystify or clarify our understanding of the world by simultaneously revealing and concealing its meaning. As myths do not convey their meaning directly, Barthes states the correct way to understand an image is to analyse how everything works together to produce the desired meaning and to establish the myth (Cultural Reader, 2012: 2). When analysed the process of interpretation and re-interpretation keeps the myth alive (Ricoeur, 1978: 114). Artists achieve this by constantly re-imagining ‘primitive’ mythologies within their art: John William Waterhouse’s Echo and Narcissus (See Fig. 1) is a Romantic realism-type depiction of Ovid’s classical myths collected in the ‘Books of Transformations’ (Metamorphoses). Myth and symbolism were highly valued in Romanic art. The romantics valued the imagination as the primary faculty for creating all art and saw it as an active power which helps humans to constitute their own reality, our ability to do this is key to our drive to create and re-create myths (Brooklyn, 2009).

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_ProjectFig 1. Echo and Narcissus (1903) by John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse’s depiction of Echo and Narcissus illustrates Ovid’s tale before the moment of Narcissus transformation into the Narcissus flower. There is a psychological element to the painting which is expressed by showing Narcissus mesmerized by his own reflection, being doomed to love only himself and the rejected Echo helplessly looking on (Galleryintell:1). The function of myth in Waterhouse’s painting is to express the pain and loss found in human existence through a symbolic narrative. In comparison Dali’s version of the Narcissus myth (See Fig. 2) shows Narcissus in three states of being: pre-transformation posing on a pedestal in the background with a crowd of admirers looking on, transforming into a hand holding an egg, post-transformation as the Narcissus flower (Wilson,1991: 163).

dali-metamorphosisFig 2. Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) by Salvador Dalí

According to Barthes painting is a material of mythical speech and art is reduced to a pure signifying function once used in a mythological way he argues that myth can be understood through the semiological system of the signifier, the signified and the sign (Barthes, 2000: 114). Both paintings can be read using this approach: Waterhouse achieves this through the direction of Echo’s and Narcissus’ gazes and by Dali choosing to combine the symbols of Narcissus story before, during and after his transformation. We associate signifers and the sign with the mythic meaning so when we see the Narcissus flower next to the man, this signifies his transformation. Symbolic thought is therefore an independent mode of thinking, as the viewer has to interpret the symbol to understand something of their reality (Luyster, 1966: 235).

The ability of myth to simultaneously reveal and conceal is due to the fact that myths are a distorted account of historical facts; the characters although supernatural, signify men, therefore the events which the classical myths record are deceptive, and the only way to understand them properly is to look beneath the surface to an understanding of our natures (Zwerdling, 1964: 447). Barthes argues that the unveiling that myth achieves is through its use of symbols used as a political act (Barthes, 2000:156). This can be found within Ovid’s Metamorphoses (the source for both artist’s paintings) in the transformation of writing, previously used for moral reflection into a work of artful manipulation: but politically it was used as part of the deification of Julius Caesar. Furthermore Metamorphoses acts as an artificial worldview as the extent and diversity of the poem make it an equivalent to the larger cosmos (Holleman, 1971: 458–66). By depicting mythic symbols from the poem related to the symbols of unrequited love, transformation and intervention both artists are referencing a meaning which is already complete, (Barthes. 2000: 117).

Although Waterhouse’s approach of interpreting the Narcissus myth initially appears to reveal and Dali’s to conceal, in both artworks myth conceals nothing, its function is to distort in order to reveal meaning (Barthes, 2000: 121). Therefore myth can be understood in both paintings by focusing on the mythical signifier as a whole made of meaning and form, the viewer by responding to the full dynamics of the myth lives it as a story both true and unreal (Barthes: 2000:128).


Part 2. Origins and ends

 Myth was born as a way for early societies to seek reassurance and answers from fears born from the forces of nature therefore origins and ends are always explored in myth to understand the forces that govern man (Horkheimer, 1987: 68; Eliade, 1963). As ‘Primitive’ Myths are a history of the acts of a society’s supernatural forces and gods, they were considered to be true and therefore sacred (Eliade, 1963). Furthermore everyday time was considered profane and insignificant (Luyster, 1966: 236).

In this section I aim to determine if the depiction of myth in art can still be a true and sacred experience when its a product of civilisations which no longer consider themselves to be living at the immediate sacred level of myth (Kearney, 1978:114). If myth in ‘primitive’ societies is a religious experience, then any religion practiced today performs the same sacred function as a living ‘primitive’ myth. Vico teaches that false religions originated not from deception but from a necessary human need (Horkheimer, 1987: 70). Vico was thus studying the cultural significance of religion by teaching that religion compensates for the repression of instinctual behavior found in modern civilization (Horkheimer, 1987: 70). Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (See Fig.3) is an allegory of the origin, diffusion, and punishment of sin revealed through the Christian myths of creation and revelation (Encyclopedia, 2004).

El_jardín_de_las_Delicias,_de_El_BoscoThe Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-15) by Hieronymus Bosch

Bosch presents a fantastic but utterly human world, which illustrates degradation and deterioration of the sacred in society (Van Laer, 2013). Bosch presents what could happen to humanity if we continue to sin through numerous symbols of the apocalypse e.g. defilement and transformation (Ricoeur, 2010: 1). Bosch invented a visual language of symbols, where everything is engaged in an act of becoming, within this process of re-creating the universe, Bosch takes the viewer from the sacred to the profane (Van Laer, 2013). Although Bosch illustrates the apocalypse in vivid and terrible detail it can be viewed as a positive and redeeming act as the end of humanity concerns itself with the liberation of mankind as a whole (Ricoeur, 2010: 3). Furthermore by showing the end alongside the creation, he allows us to re-imagine a present where we don’t end up damned therefore allowing humanity to enact change (Ricoeur, 2010: 3).

Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (See Fig. 4) performs a similar function to Bosch’s work however he sought to depict humanity’s origins and ends through a society he perceived as ‘primitive’ (MFA Boston, 2015).

UnknownWhere Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897–98) by Paul Gauguin

In Tahiti, he created paintings that express a highly personal mythology, which reflects the myths of the natives. He stated that the painting should be read from right to left, beginning with the sleeping infant, as the viewer moves through the painting they can see the figures representing the questions of human existence in the title until they reach the old woman at the far left, who is seemingly close to death (MFA Boston, 2015). The painting expresses its symbolic nature by means of symmetry: the main figure resembles Eve plucking forbidden fruit in paradise (mirroring the inquisitiveness of man in Bosch’s painting), which makes it impossible for humans to remain in a paradise of innocence (Scharfstein, 2009: 277). Gauguin was committed to transcending his own time and place, he believed he had painted a philosophical work which sought to explore the whole of nature that influences humanity and aimed for the painting to act as a consolation of our sufferings in relation to the mystery of our origins and our ends (Scharfstein, 2009: 276). Here myth is regarded as a true history, because it always deals with realities i.e. the cosmogonic myth is true because the existence of the World is there to prove it; the myth of the origin of death is equally true because man’s mortality proves it (Eliade, 1963).

Bosch uses mythic language which taps into a true and therefore sacred belief as it was painted it within a society which lived the myth as true. Gauguin seeks to achieve this by creating work in response to a society he viewed as ‘primitive’ and therefore more ‘true’. If myths of our origins make us aware of our place in the universe, then through myths of our end we become aware of our basis capacities and reasons for surviving as they make us question our being and continuing to be what we are (Kearney, 1978:114). Both artists present a vista, which spans the heavens, birth, life, and death. In myth these symbols gain a new significance and are placed within a narration that aims at a cosmic whole (Barthes, 2000: 111). The myth therefore seeks to reunite us with a lost wholeness by using symbols which give rise to thought (Barthes, 2000: 114). Both paintings can therefore be interpreted as a form of visual liberation of mankind from our fears (Kearney, 1978:114). By re-living myth through art we revisit the sacred time when the myth was formed, the social function of such paintings are therefore to embrace mankind as a whole into one ideal history from beginning to end (Eliade, 1963; Ricoeur, 2010: 3).


Part 3. Universal and Particular

 Levi-Strauss and Barthes agree that myth is a type of collective illusion society tells itself in order to justify the realities of the world (The Cultural Reader, 2012: 3). Myth does this by projecting the societies needs through a worldview (Barthes, 2000: 156). Within the worldview created, Barthes argues that an ideological apparatus functions which portrays reality in a certain manner and in compliance with a certain ruling ideology (The Cultural Reader, 2012: 3). Historically myths and ideologies are accumulations of symbols from cultures over generations and exert their effects from one generation to the next (Skirbekk, 2005: 11).

Picasso’s Guernica (Se Fig 5.) encapsulates the horrors of war by depicting a specific event in history; the bombing of the Spanish city Guernica. Levi-Strauss (1978: 36) believes that history has replaced mythology in Western culture, however by using myth within an historical war painting Picasso’s Guernica could be seen as reactionary towards the horrific reality of the deviant myths of absolute power (Kearney, 1978: 114). Patton (1996: 19) states that Picasso intertwines three mythological symbols of heroic sacrificial death: the Minotaur, the ritual of the bullfight, and the Christian theology of sacrificial death.

guernica                                              Guernica (1937) by Pablo Picasso

Guernica’s mythic nature makes it impossible to understand it as continuous sequence, it must be viewed as a totality as the meaning is not conveyed by the sequence of events in the painting but through the symbols used (Levi-Strauss, 1978: 40). Streams of ideas, emotions, traditions, myths, obsessions and symbols of the artists’ roots are embedded in the painting (NGV, 2015). Kearney (1978: 116) states that mythical structures are not entirely universal, instead what myth does is lay the foundations for the specific identity of a society whilst containing a universality which allows them to travel as a language and to be understood by other cultures. By using symbols of myth Picasso allows his painting to be understood collectively because the myth-making powers of the human imagination are finite, therefore the use of similar archetypes and motifs by Picasso means the language used to express his ideas will travel and be understood by all cultures (Kearney, 1978:117). By using myth to symbolise the death and destruction which occurred when the town of Guernica was bombed Picasso also gives shape to a universal struggle, the motifs of the woman screaming in agony as she clutches the limp body of her dead child or the wounded horse could easily allude to events from any and all wars. The artist therefore manages to express something particular and universal about human nature, as Guernica seems to be less geared toward inciting political action and more towards awakening the individual mind to the tragedy of war (Skirbekk, 2005:11).

In comparison to Picasso’s highly political painting Leonora Carrington eschews creating overtly political art, her politics are always implicit; her assertions of sensuality, ambiguity and free thought on canvas however can be seen as a radical act (Anderson, 2013:1). Carrington’s use of myth allows the viewer to explore other possible worlds, she shows that myth and imagination are linked, as myth allows us to invent new worlds and it is by exploring these worlds that we may arrive at a better understanding of ourselves (Kearney, 1978: 118). Her paintings suggest that art and the imagination can liberate our thinking. The Giantess (See Fig 6.) similar to Picasso use of myth contains many mythical references drawn from Carrington’s own personal mythology, which drew on Catholicism, Jewish mysticism and Celtic and Mexican myth and folklore to create an esoteric symbolism (Higgins, 2015).

Giantess   The Giantess (1947) by Leonora Carrington

If myths explain the origins of all things, the egg which the giant figure holds could be interpreted as symbolising the hatching of life (Aridjis, 2015). The painting seems to be a reflection on how man became what he is through mythical events, by creating her own god Carrington acknowledges that we create our gods through myth (Eliade, 1963). For Carrington myth was a living resource to conjure personal visions, which ask many questions but give few answers. By asking the viewer to fill in the blanks, she encourages the viewer to use their imagination (Anderson, 2013:1).

Through my examples in this section I have sought to determine if the artists use of myth is universal or particular by either acting as a vehicle to express a universal worldview or to present a particular ideology. Picasso’s use of myth compared to the original myths he has drawn from can be seen as symbolically charged ideologies. Guernica manages to be both universal and particular as it imposes a particular political understanding and universally condemns war (Barthes, 2000: 156). Mythological symbols are used by Picasso to interpret, and evaluate the world and gain political and social relevance through the historical context of war. Carrington’s uses myth to create a more genuine, universal myth which reflects the historical context in which sacred ‘true’ myths are born by projecting her imagination onto the symbols of myth and asking the viewer to do the same.


Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints. Although the theoretical approaches I have used to understand the use of myth in art differ, all agree that mythological beliefs historically were not free creations of the mind but rather distorted reflections of social reality which functions in society today (Horkheimer, 1987: 71; Levi-Strauss, 1978: 3). Art is a form of mythological engagement which resurrects a ‘primitive’ reality where the making of myths can be seen as a form of philosophy or scientific enquiry as it was born out of a need to understand the world (Levi-Strauss, 1978: 12). However when artists reference the narratives of myth when the narratives are no longer considered explanations they become demythologized and are used as symbols by the artists to express meaning (Eliade, 1963; Ricoeur, 2010).

I have argued that the use of myth by artists to create symbols, means that the artwork can be understood through semiology by analyzing the paintings formal properties, however it is also part of an ideology as their understanding can be gained historically (Barthes, 2000: 112). The writings of Barthes and Levi-Strauss therefore help to inform how to read art through the language and history of myth. In comparison Eliade and Vico’s writings make it clear of its value today as they argue that culture cannot be understood only through its political, economic and legal functions, instead the specific identity of a culture is seen in its myths, artists can therefore use the symbols of myth to reveal a true understanding of their society (Kearney, 1978: 112). The anthropological and structualist approaches are most useful for discovering ways to read the symbolic nature of myth in art whereas the phenomenological approach reaveals the purpose for artists using these symbols however all have their use in interpreting how myth can be understood in art.

To conclude, myth, like art is part of the imaginary nucleus of any culture, however art makes a society’s mythical nucleus recognizable and accessible (Kearney, 1978: 112). Art and myth are therefore intrinsically linked as both are products of our imagination. People need something to bind them so as long as humanities ability to imagine remains so will myth and art and subsequently myth will continue to be used by artists as both function in society to bring awareness and understanding to our reality. By projecting our imagination onto the symbols of myth, we are constantly mythologizing although we may not believe them to be true anymore. The power of myth in art lies not in their literal truth but what they say about us, how they give our life meaning and restore our sense of identity (Neuendorf, 2013).



Anderson, D. (2013) Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist, Available at: (Accessed: 8th December 2015).

Aridjis, C. (2015) My highlight: Leonora Carrington, Available at: (Accessed: 8th December 2015).

Barthes, R. (2000) Mythologies, London: Vintage.

Brooklyn College, (2009) Romanticism. Available at: (Accessed 1st December 2015).

Eliade, M. (1963) ‘The structure of Myth’, Available at: (Accessed: 15th November 2015).

Encyclopedia of World Biography (2004), Hieronymus Bosch, Available at: (Accessed 8th December 2015).

GalleryIntell, Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, Available at: (Accessed 1st December 2015).

Higgins, C. (2015) Leonora Carrington: Wild at heart, Available at: (Accessed: 8th December 2015).

Holleman, A. W. J. (1971) ‘Ovid and Politics’. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, 20, (4). pp. 458–66. (Online) Available at: (Accessed: 5th December 2015).

Horkheimer, M. (1987) ‘Vico and Mythology’. New Vico Studies, 5. p.p 63-76. (online) Available at:$FILE/newvico_1987_0005_0000_0073_0086.pdf (Accessed: 15th November 2015).

Kearney, R. (1978) ‘Myth as the Bearer of Possible Worlds’. The Crane Bag, 2, (½). pp. 112-118. (Online) Available at: http://www.jstor.orh/stable/30059470 (Accessed: 30th October 2015).

Levi-Strauss, C. (1978) Myth and Meaning, New York: University of Toronto Press.

Luyster, R. (1966) ‘The Study of Myth: Two Approaches’ Journal of Bible and Religion, 34, (3). pp. 235-243. (Online) Available at: (Accessed: 26th November 2015).

Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA), Available at: (Accessed: 7th December 2015).

National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), A Journey Through the Exhibition: Guernica, Available at: (Accessed: 8th December 2015).

Neuendorf, A. (2013) Contemporary Mythology, Availble at: (Accessed 1st December 2015).

Patton‪, L. and Doniger, W. (1996) Myth and Method. University of Virginia Press, Google books (Online). Available at: (Accessed: 8th December 2015)

Ricoeur, P. (2010) The Symbolism of Evil, Available at: (Accessed: 3rd November 2015).

Scharfstein, B. (2009) Art Without Borders: A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity. The University of Chicago Press. Google books (Online). Available at: (Accessed: 7th December 2015).

Skirbekk, S. (2005) Dysfunctional Culture: The Inadequacy of Cultural Liberalisme as a Guide to Major Challenges of the 21st Century. Lanham: University Press of America. Available at: . (Accessed: 9th December 2015).

The Cultural Reader, (2012) Roland Barthes – Myth Today – Summary, Review and Analysis, Saturday, Available at: (Accessed 24th November 2015).

Van Laer, L. (2013) The Esoteric Bosch, Available at: href=””> (Accessed: 8th December 2015).
Wilson, S. (1991) An Illustrated Companion, Available at: (Accessed: 1st December 2015).

Zwerdling, A. (1964) ‘The Mythographers and the Romantic Revival of Greek Myth’.
PMLA, 79, (4). pp. 447-456. (Online) Available at: Accessed: 5th December 2015).