Etiology (alternately aetiology, aitiology) is the study of causation. Derived from the Greek αιτιολογία, "giving a reason for" (αἰτία "cause" + -logy).[1]

The word is most commonly used in medical and philosophical theories, where it refers to the study of why things occur and the reasons behind the way that things act. It is also used in philosophy, physics, psychology, government, medicine, and biology in reference to the causes of various phenomena.

In a religious context, an etiological myth is an effort to explain a name or create a mythic history for a place or family. The Oxford English Dictionary defines myth as "A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces or creatures, which embodies and provides an explanation, etiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon."[2]


Humanity often searches for meaning in science, religion, or philosophy through a quest for the origins of things. Yet, many religious traditions teach that a preoccupation with etiology distracts one from the importance of daily life, living in the current moment, and seeking to improve the world's conditions.


In medicine, the term "etiology" refers to the causes of diseases or pathologies. The medical study of etiology in medicine dates back to Muslim physicians in the medieval Islamic world, who discovered the contagious nature of infectious diseases such as scabies, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted disease. In Ibn Sena's (Avicenna) text, The Canon of Medicine, he discovered that many infectious diseases are caused by contagion that can spread through bodily contact or through water and soil.[3] He also stated that bodily secretion is contaminated by foul foreign earthly bodies before being infected.[4]

Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) was the first Muslim physician to provide a scientific etiology for the inflammatory diseases of the ear, and the first to clearly discuss the causes of stridor.[5] Through his dissections, he proved that the skin disease scabies was caused by a parasite, a discovery which upset the Galenic theory of humorism, and he was able to successfully remove the parasite from a patient's body without any purging or bleeding.

When the Black Death (bubonic plague) reached al-Andalus (Spain) in the fourteenth century, Ibn Khatima posited that infectious diseases are caused by microorganisms which enter the human body. Another Andalusian physician, Ibn al-Khatib (1313-1374), wrote a treatise called On the Plague, stating that contagion can spread through garments, vessels and earrings.[4]

Etiological discovery in medicine has a history in Robert Koch's demonstration that the tubercle bacillus (Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex) causes the disease tuberculosis, Bacillus anthracis causes anthrax, and Vibrio cholerae causes cholera. This line of thinking and evidence is summarized in Koch's postulates. However, proof of causation in infectious diseases is limited to individual cases that provide experimental evidence of etiology.

In epidemiology, several lines of evidence together are required to infer causation. Sir Austin Bradford-Hill demonstrated a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer, and summarized the line of reasoning in the epidemiological criteria for causation. Dr. Al Evans, a US epidemiologist, synthesized his predecessors' ideas in proposing the Unified Concept of Causation.

Further thinking in epidemiology was required to distinguish causation from association or statistical correlation. Events may occur together simply due to chance, bias or confounding, instead of one event being caused by the other. It is also important to know which event is the cause. Experimental evidence, involving interventions (providing or removing the supposed cause), gives the most compelling evidence of etiology.

Etiology is sometimes a part of a chain of causation. An etiological agent of disease may require an independent co-factor, and be subject to a promoter (increases expression) to cause disease. An example of the above, which was recognized late, is that peptic ulcer disease may be induced by stress, requires the presence of acid secretion in the stomach, and has primary etiology in Helicobacter pylori infection. Many chronic diseases of unknown cause may be studied in this framework to explain multiple epidemiological associations or risk factors which may or may not be causally related, and to seek the actual etiology.

Some diseases, such as diabetes or hepatitis, are syndromically defined, by their signs and symptoms, but include different conditions with different etiologies. Conversely, one etiology, such as Epstein-Barr virus, may in different circumstances produce different diseases, such as mononucleosis, or nasopharyngeal carcinoma, or Burkitt's lymphoma.

Etiological Mythology

An etiological myth is a myth intended to explain the origins of cult practices, natural phenomena, proper names and the like. For example, the name Delphi and its associated deity, Apollon Delphinios, are explained in the Homeric Hymn, which tells of how Apollo carried Cretans over the sea in the shape of a dolphin (delphus) to make them his priests. While Delphi is actually related to the word delphus ("womb"), many etiological myths are similarly based on folk etymology (the term "Amazon," for example). In the Aeneid (ca. 17 B.C.E.), Vergil claims the descent of Augustus Caesar's Julian clan from the hero Aeneas through his son Ascanius, also called Julus. Other examples of etiological myth come from the Bible, such as the setting of the rainbow in the heavens as a sign of God's covenant with Noah (Genesis 9); or the story of Lot's wife in Genesis 19, which explains why there are pillars of salt in the area of the Dead Sea. The story of Prometheus' sacrifice-trick in Hesiod's Theogony relates how Prometheus tricked Zeus into choosing the bones and fat of the first sacrificial animal rather than the meat to justify why, after a sacrifice, the Greeks offered the bones wrapped in fat to the gods while keeping the meat for themselves.

By the Christian era, the Greco-Roman world had started to use the term "myth" to mean "fable, fiction, lie" and early Christian writers used "myth" in this way.[6] Now this use of the term "myth" has been passed into popular usage.[7]

The term mythology, meaning "the study of myths," has been in use since at least the fifteenth century. The additional meaning of "body of myths" dates to 1781 Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Myth in general use is often interchangeable with legend or allegory, but scholars strictly distinguish the terms. Some religious studies scholars limit the term "myth" to stories whose main characters "must be gods or near-gods."[8] Other scholars disagree with such attempts to restrict the definition of the term "myth." Classicist G. S. Kirk thinks the distinction between myths and folktales may be useful,[9] but he argues that "the categorizing of tales as folktales, legends, and proper myths, simple and appealing as it seems, can be seriously confusing."[10] In particular, he rejects the idea "that all myths are associated with religious beliefs, feelings or practices."[11]

In contrast to the OED's definition of a myth as a "traditional story," most folklorists apply the term to only one group of traditional stories. By this system, traditional stories can be arranged into three groups:[12]

  • myths–sacred stories concerning the distant past, particularly the creation of the world; generally focused on the gods
  • legends–stories about the (usually more recent) past, which generally include, or are based on, some historical events and are generally focused on human heroes
  • folktales/fairytales–stories which lack any definite historical setting; often include animal characters

In extended use, the word "myth" can also refer to collective or personal ideological or socially constructed received wisdom.


  1. "Aetiology," Oxford English Dictionary. (Oxford University Press, 2002) ISBN 0195219422
  2. "Myth," Oxford English Dictionary. (Oxford University Press, 2002) ISBN 0195219422
  3. George Sarton. Introduction to the History of Science. (Krieger Pub Co., 1975.)
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph.D. (2002). "Islamic Medicine: 1000 years ahead of its times," Journal of the Islamic Medical Association 2: 2-9. Retrieved July 11, 2008.
  5. Prof. Dr. Mostafa Shehata, "The Ear, Nose and Throat in Islamic Medicine." Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine 1 (2003): 2-5 [4].
  6. Mircea Eliade. Myth and Reality. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1998), 162.
  7. Eliade. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. (Fontana, 1968), 23.
  8. Robert A. Segal. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5.
  9. G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. (Berkeley: Cambridge UP, 1973), 37-41. ISBN 9780521098021
  10. Kirk, 22.
  11. Kirk, 11.
  12. Segal


  • Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. ISBN 9780809013692
  • Eliade, Mircea. Myth and Reality. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1998. ISBN 978-1577660095
  • Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. Fontana, 1968. ISBN 978-0006416784
  • Kirk, G. S. Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. ISBN 9780521098021
  • Meletinsky, Eleazar Moiseevich. The Poetics of Myth, Translated by Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky, foreword by Guy Lanoue. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0415928982
  • Segal, Robert A. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 9780192803474
  • Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science. Krieger Pub Co., 1975. ISBN 978-0882751726

External Links

All links retrieved October 8, 2013.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.