Myth as Thought: Modern Theory and Myth
How to define "myth" and "mythology"?
mythos originally = "thing spoken", thus "story", that is, a narrative account unmarked by the imposition of reason or argument (which is, of course, logos)
Myth as "traditional tale"
Myth :: legend, folktale (aristocratic basis of Greek myth)
Myth :: sacred tale: myth as religion. Ernst Cassirer: "In the development of human culture we cannot fix a point where myth ends or religion begins. In the whole course of its history religion remains indissolubly connected and penetrated with mythical elements."
The special nature of Greek myth: what is Greek myth vs. what is myth: literary, systematic
Five "monolithic" theories of myth (after G. S. Kirk): The Externalists
1. All myths are nature myths [Max Müller]:
All myths refer ultimately to meteorological, cosmological, or agricultural phenomena
Ouranos: separation from Gaia
Helios: return each night in a golden cup
Zeus: weather god as top of pantheon
Zeus: ravishing nymphs: a more difficult example
hero defeating a monster = dawn overcoming the darkness of night, or the heat of noonday dispelling the mists of an autumn morning
But: Heracles' enslavement to Lydian queen Omphale, Pasiphaë's love for the Cretan bull; Hermes theft of the cattle of Apollo; Zeus' displacement of his father Kronos
Why did mythmakers go to such a lot of trouble simply to create allegorical statements about obvious natural phenomena
2. All myths are aetiological (=etiological, aitiological) [Andrew Lang]
All myths offer a cause or explanation of something in the real world
Myth as a kind of primitive science: myths are not simply allegorical but are explanatory in some way (very influenced by Aristotle, who saw early formulations such as those of Thales, Anaximander, Parmenides, Empedocles as halting steps towards the path to perfection of knowledge, which is to say towards the path to Aristotle himself). But myth and "science/philosophy" are neither polar opposites nor successive phases in the attack on a common set of problems
"Just-so" stories. Hephaestus the cripple: why? Why is the Hellespont (= "Sea of Helle") so called? (Helle and Phrixus, ram with golden fleece) Why do we sacrifice bones and fat to the gods, and keep the meat for ourselves? Why are women the way they are?
Demeter, Demophoon, & the Eleusinian mysteries: in what sense explanatory?
Aphrodite, sea-foam: explanatory?
3. All myth functions as a "charter" for the customs, institutions, or beliefs of the society [Bronislaw Malinowski: Trobriand islanders]
In a traditional society every custom and institution tends to be validated or confirmed by a myth, which states a precedent for it but not seek to explain it in any logical or philosophical sense
Plausibility in historical or realistic terms is unimportant. Indeed, the validation is a myth, a tale, and it must be striking and entertaining apart from anything else (that is why a particular story is passed down rather than another)
Prometheus and the tricking of Zeus; Demeter and Eleusis
But the idea that myth is purely for social bonding and validation, and does not regard thought seems contradicted by examples such as the duality between Artemis and Aphrodite; Oedipus and his dilemma of ignorance; the killing of Agamemnon; Daedalus and Icarus. Myths seem, at least sometimes, to concern themselves with abstractions like the limits of mortality or what constitutes just behavior.
4. Purpose of myth is to evoke the creative era ("the eternal Dreamtime"),and by recapturing the sense of that creative era, mankind is able to revive some of its unique creative power. [Mircea Eliade]
Myths allow us to share in "the time before our time" when divinity walked the earth. The result, for primitive man, is religio-magical. Telling how Demeter found her daughter Persephone, with the result that crops sprouted once again, is effective in increasing the power of the crops as they thrust their way out of the soil each year.
But myths of the "Golden Age" are few in the Greek tradition: Cadmus founds Thebes; the Trojan War is long after the Golden Age; Greek myth is oddly silent about many origins, such as the origin of man, or of childbearing (Pandora simply appears)
5. Underlying all myth is ritual ["Cambridge School": J. G. Frazer, the Golden Bough; Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray, F. M. Cornford] - very influential, still vigorous among a minority of scholars [Walter Burkert]
Either myth derives from ritual, or at the least is closely associated with ritual
Ritual (= a religious ceremony in which a prescribed series of actions are scrupulously observed) is the doing, myth is the saying. Ritual and myth are, then, two sides of the same coin.
Birth and early life of Dionysus & the annual festival of Dionysus at Athens. Frazer: "the story that Attis unmanned himself under a pine tree was clearly devised to explain why his priests did the same beside the sacred violet-wreathed tree at his festival." Labors of Heracles, and supposed oral recitations at his tomb.
Ouranos, Gaea, Kronos, Rhea, Zeus: no cult associations
Jason and the Golden Fleece, Medea and Jason (ritual: 7 boys & 7 girls spend at year at the sanctuary of Hera at Corinth, at the end of which time a goat is sacrificed and the children depart), Phaedra and Hippolytus: even if these are all recited at the hero's tomb or have some other ritual link, what does that tell us about the nature of myth? Is there anything non-trivial or non-casual about the linkage?
Presumption: Myth as the "sacred"
Fantasy, thematic complexity, thoughtful explorations: char. of myth, not of ritual