Robert Segal *84 is a mythic figure. He holds the chair in religious studies at Aberdeen University and is one of the world’s leading experts on myth and religion. His focus for the past 40 years has concerned myth as a category of human expression — not the analysis of one myth or set of myths.
“It is the explanation of the category that grabs me. There is no one answer. There are as many answers as there are theories of myth,” he says. “The origin and function of a myth are flip sides of the same coin. Both fulfill a need. The need is what keeps myth going for as long as myth lasts and may be as old as humanity.”
Segal has been “a force to reckon with” in religious studies, according to Thomas Ryba, the director of religious studies at Purdue University. “He has shaped how religionists think about meaning, interpretation, explanation, reduction, theory, and myth.”
His peers honored him last year with a festschrift, or celebration writing. Titled Explaining, Interpreting, and Theorizing Religion and Myth: Contributions in Honor of Robert A. Segal, this anthology of essays by 19 scholars addresses questions Segal has raised about how to approach myth and religion as academic categories. The book’s five sections cover hero myths, myth and science, politics, the physical world, and psychoanalysis.
“There is hardly any book or academic article on the study of either subject that does not cite Robert,” says the book’s co-editor Nickolas Roubekas, assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Vienna.
When he is not contemplating all things transcendent, Segal’s love of musical theater keeps him grounded. He grew up in Philadelphia, a try-out town for Broadway plays. His mother took him to shows, and he says he was “smitten” from an early age.
“Before I start work, listening to recordings of scores of famous musicals carries me away from the ordinary tasks at hand and helps me proceed to focus on the subject of that day's research,” says Segal, who reports that Carousel and The King and I rank among his favorites.
After becoming “hooked” on myths as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, Segal earned his Ph.D. at Princeton, becoming fascinated with Gnosticism and writing his thesis on a Gnostic myth, the Poimandres.
He finds Gnostic myths to be among the world’s richest, because they take the history of the cosmos back much further than the creation accounts in Genesis. “These myths are more grand because they postulate worlds and gods beyond our own. They deal with philosophical issues like the nature of time and the nature of reality,” he says.
One issue raised in Segal’s festschrift is whether myth still plays a role in modern life. Segal says he worries about the corrosive impact of today’s trends on the mythic idea of the hero.
“Cancel culture assumes heroes must be heroic in all respects. Someone who falls short of heroism in just one respect should be cancelled — rather than still remaining heroic,” he says. “One might note that ancient Greek gods, ranked even higher than heroes, were usually divine in just one respect each. Maybe Mount Olympus should be torn down.”