Why is mythology so easy to learn?

As a child, I loved Greek mythology. My first exposure to Greek mythology was “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” by Rick Riordan, a retelling of the Greek mythological stories in the sarcastic narration of Percy Jackson. I loved this book; it made the myths easy to digest and I was genuinely hooked. I continued adding to my memory catalog of Greek myths by perusing Wikipedia pages and watching YouTube Videos. 

Learning about Greek mythology felt like the simplest thing in the world to me. It was no different than rote memorization, which I’ve always struggled with, but I was internalizing the myths at a rapid pace. I could regurgitate the entire Olympian pantheon at a moment’s notice. I could trace out more branches of the family tree of the Greek gods than my own family tree. I was shocked when I discovered that you can take Greek mythology as a college class. I’ve always wondered how I was so successful in absorbing mythology. I figured that if I could cultivate that specific learning technique, I could pick up any skill I wanted. There was something I did that was effective in knowledge retention, but I couldn’t pinpoint it initially. 

At first, I felt like it was mostly because I had a strong affinity for it. I would research Greek mythology in my free time and, in general, it’s typically easier to learn something when it aligns with your passion. This is true, but it doesn’t paint the full picture. There was something specific to Greek mythology that made learning it so effortless. 

I began exploring this question by sitting down and rereading a myth. This one was about Nike, the winged goddess of victory. She was closely associated with athletics and warfare, and to this end, she would be called upon by the ancient Greeks to bring about success. I remember as a child making the obvious inference that the name of the shoe brand Nike was inspired by the myth. When I made that connection initially, it felt like a moment of sudden insight. I hadn’t necessarily wondered how the name Nike originated, but when I learned the context, it felt good. I felt like I had gained a stronger understanding of my surroundings — like I had placed two pieces together correctly in this jigsaw puzzle of a world. Something random and ambiguous had become rational and unambiguous. This shifted my mindset: I started viewing all knowledge, regardless of its magnitude, as something that could contribute to a more complete picture. 

As I delved deeper into Greek mythology, more things started to click together. As a child, I loved astronomy. I’d observe the planets and constellations and memorize their names. I learned that the planets themselves are named after Roman gods, which were adopted after the Greek gods. Even the names of moons were named after mythological references. I read that Pluto’s moon Charon was named after Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, who is delegated the responsibility of carrying souls across the river Styx. Upon learning this myth, I felt like I had gained an intuitive grasp of the astronomical nomenclature. My logic was that the mythological Charon operates directly under Pluto’s supervision, bearing resemblance to the dynamics between a moon and a planet. I made a similar claim about Deimos and Phobos, Mars’ moons and the namesake of Deimos and Phobos, the Greek names for the sons of Mars, the Roman god of war. 

Moreover, I learned that the etymologies of many common words also stem from Greek mythology. For instance, words with the combining form chrono-,’ such as chronological, come from Cronos, the primordial god of time. An atlas, a collection of maps, is named after the Titan Atlas, who has the responsibility of holding up the Earth. The word “Arachnophobia” comes from a myth in which a girl named Arachne slighted the goddess Athena, who transformed her into a spider as punishment. 

We remember whatever is stored within the brain’s long-term memory. Therefore, to retain new knowledge, our brain must determine if the information is important enough to keep. One of the strongest techniques for tricking our brain into storing new knowledge into its long-term memory is to connect new ideas to background knowledge. When the brain sees a connection between a familiar concept and a new idea, it is more likely to assimilate that idea in its long-term memory. To my point, mythology is easy to learn because it is imbued with familiar ideas — planet names, words and clothing brands, to name a few. 

A thought occurred to me: Can we leverage the interrelatedness of mythology to further our understanding of the world around us? If mythology was easy to learn, perhaps we could utilize it as a context-providing tool, which could facilitate learning in areas that are potentially related to myths. This is simply the converse of the aforementioned discussion. For instance, you’re an astronomer and you’re tasked with having to memorize the names of celestial objects. You learn about Ganymede (a moon of Jupiter), which you’ve already mentally connected to the myth involving Ganymede, the cupbearer of the god Jupiter. In this scenario, a strong foundation in mythology would prove very serviceable.

This is a powerful idea because of the tremendous breadth and depth that span across all mythologies. There are innumerable connections to be made between mythology and real life and always something new to learn.

This objective has been implemented previously, such as in literature. Writers include mythological allusions as stylistic devices to contextualize their ideas. The premise of this action is that mythological stories are well-known enough to create a strong connection. When writers add these allusions to their works, they expect their allusions to be understood. But when these allusions aren’t understood, the writing can seem ambiguous and convoluted, which can have the opposite effect. 

Learning about stories from thousands of years ago can interestingly improve your understanding of popular culture. For instance, during my time in college, I’ve been able to bond with many of my friends over Anime, a hand-drawn and computer-generated animation originating from Japan. In “Attack on Titan,” a very popular anime, the founding Titan is a girl named Ymir, which is a reference to the primordial giant Ymir in Norse mythology (the body of myths belonging to the North Germanic peoples). In “Naruto,” another popular anime, there are numerous references to Japanese Folklore — the names Amaterasu, Susanoo and Tsukuyomi, which are mentioned in the show, are the Japanese gods of the sun, seas and moon respectively. 

The knowledge I’ve gained about mythology has deepened my appreciation for nomenclature; it’s nice knowing that those names aren’t completely arbitrary. That being said, the importance of mythology runs deeper than names. Mythology can shed visibility on our history and promote cultural understanding. These weren’t “myths” to disciples in ancient Greece; they were cornerstones of their lifestyle. 

Mythology is a fundamental part of the world we live in. Myths are constantly reinvented and repurposed to the lives of each new generation. If applied correctly, they can serve as a powerful learning tool. 

Rohit Ramaswamy is an Opinion Columnist from Florida. He writes about lifestyle advice, and enjoys playing chess and watching basketball. He can be reached at rohitra@umich.edu.

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