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Are there any books/essays/discussions about the idea that ancient cultures didn't value individualism (for a variety of reasons) like we do today, and so poetry, literature, and art were primarily about celebrating deities or deities interacting with archetypal humans, rather than so much of what we see from recent history (say the last two thousand or so years), where art works develop towards a lack of deity, even no deity at all, or any kind of super human interaction, instead featuring a story of everyday humanity?

Perhaps I'm misreading history, or misunderstanding much of mythology, but that seems to be my impression. Thanks!

  • I mean there are entire books written about the history of individualism. A good way to whet your appetite might be this blog post that I wrote about individuals. I can recommend some books if you like. – user62 Mar 21 '16 at 4:05
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    That said, I'm not sure if "mythology" (however you define it) is the best way to look at individualism. It could work on this site, but it's more of a history question. More importantly, it's a really bad idea to lump thousands of unique cultures into the label "ancient cultures": Depending on the location and the time period, different "ancient cultures" had different ideas about individualism. So the answer to the question "did ancient cultures value individualism" depends on: (a) which ancient culture you are talking about, and (b) what do you mean by individualism. – user62 Mar 21 '16 at 4:10
  • Read some of Karen Armstrong's books. She discusses something called the Axial Age and how it changed religion so that it focused less on religious sources of authority and more on personal experience. – vastra360 Mar 23 '16 at 22:16
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Perhaps for something to be mythology it needs some superhuman or extra-human element, otherwise it's classed as a story or tale?

For instance, I don't think I've seen the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant described as a myth. But it might fit as a tale of everyday humanity.

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The history of individualism is quite complex. But one of the interesting things about individualism was that it developed partially in tandem with developments in christian doctrine.

A modern "relic" of this is the idea of having a personal relationship with god. This is about as individualistic as you can get: everyone has their own, individual, personal connection. But at the same time, this idea involves the celebration of a deity.

So no, I don't think it's fair or accurate to say that individualism and the belief in deities are incompatible. Furthermore, even if we assume that all "ancient cultures" believe in deities, I don't see how anyone can argue that this belief stems from a lack of individualism, given the history of the concept.

Some interesting sources on the subject (I haven't read all of them, but they all look interesting):

Dumont, L. (1986). Essays on individualism : Modern ideology in anthropological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morris, C. (1972). The discovery of the individual, 1050-1200. (Church history outlines, 5). London: S.P.C.K. for the Church Historical Society.

Schooler, C.. (1990). The Individual in Japanese History: Parallels to and Divergences from the European Experience. Sociological Forum, 5(4), 569–594. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/684686

If you want something that's available for free online, again, my blog post is a good way to start.

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  • Thanks so much for the response, a lot of that resonates with my original thought, especially the part about christianity as a movement, even early on, encouraging the idea of individualism in cultures. – Jesse Johnson Mar 23 '16 at 22:18
  • @JesseJohnson be careful with that. I don't think it's completely accurate to say that these changes took place due to inherent properties of Christianity; there might be some connection, but it's not the whole story. I think it's more accurate to say that these changes were reflected in Christianity, if that distinction makes sense. – user62 Mar 24 '16 at 3:14
  • @JesseJohnson on second thought, I partially take that back: later on in the history of Christianity doctrine did play a big role in causing individuality. If you want to pursue this further, you really need to learn more about specific details in the history of Christianity. Talking about vague terms like "ancient cultures" and religion isn't very helpful. Like I said, these are more history questions than mythology questions. If you want to have more of a discussion about this, you can email me (instructions for doing so can be found on my blog). – user62 Mar 24 '16 at 3:21
  • I think it's a bit of both, since Romans were getting interested in mystery religions that involved individual salvation at the time Christianity was gettin going. Some commentators give the imprerssion that they regarded the Christians as another odd sect, alongside Mithra, Isis, Cybele, Demeter and Serapis. I think the world was turning that way anyhow, and Christianity filled that need. – solsdottir Mar 25 '16 at 14:45

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