Robert A Segal. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
The study of myth across the disciplines is united by the questions asked. The main questions are those of origin, function, and subject matter. Origin in this context means why and how myth arises; function, why and how myth persists. The answer to the why of origin and function is usually a need, which myth arises to fulfill and persists by continuing to fulfill. What that need is varies from theory to theory. Subject matter here means the referent of myth. Some theories read myth literally, so that the referent is the apparent one, such as gods. Other theories read myth symbolically, and the symbolized referent can be anything.
For example, a myth told by the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia, as described by Polish-born anthropologist Bronis-law Malinowski (1884-1942) in Myth in Primitive Society (1926), says that the world “was originally peopled from underground. Humanity had there led an existence similar in all respects to the present life on earth. Underground, men were organized in villages, clans, districts; they had distinctions of rank, they knew privileges and had claims, they owned property, and were versed in magic lore. One day humans came to the surface and established themselves, bringing with them all their culture to continue it upon this earth.”
According to Malinowski, whose theory will be considered in detail below, this myth was devised to secure support for the social divisions, ranks, and rights that were still to be found among the Trobrianders. Because no people will readily tolerate impositions, this myth was intended to provide a limited kind of justification. It does not assert that the impositions are deserved, but rather that they are traditional and go back even to the time before the proto-Trobrianders emerged from underground. The need being fulfilled is on the part of society itself, not on the part of individuals. Malinowski reads the myth literally: the subject matter is the social life of the Trobriand Islanders, both while underground and once above ground.
It is commonly said that theories of the nineteenth century focused on the question of origin and that theories of the twentieth century have focused on the questions of function and subject matter. But this characterization confuses historical origin with recurrent origin. Theories that profess to provide the origin of myth claim to know not where and when myth first arose but why and how myth arises wherever and whenever it does. The issue of recurrent origin was as popular with twentieth-century theorists as with nineteenth-century ones, and interest in function and subject matter was as common to nineteenth-century theorists as to twentieth-century ones.
Disciplines differ in their definitions of myth. Not all even assume that myth is a story. For political scientists, for example, myth can be a credo or an ideology, which may be illustrated by stories but is not rooted in them. Even when myth is assumed to be a story, disciplines differ over the contents. For folklorists, myth is about the creation of the world. In the Bible, only the two creation stories (Genesis 1 and 2), the Garden of Eden story (Genesis 3), and the Noah story (Genesis 6-9) would thereby qualify as myths. All other stories would instead constitute either legends or folktales. For theories drawn from religious studies, the main characters in myth must be gods or near-gods, such as heroes. Theories from anthropology, psychology, and sociology tend to allow for secular as well as religious myths.
Myth and Science
In the West, the ancient challenge to myth was on ethical grounds: Plato (c. 428-348 or 347 B.C.E.) bemoaned Homeric myths for presenting the gods as practitioners of immoral behavior. The chief modern challenge to myth has come from science.
One form of the modern challenge to myth has been to the scientific credibility of myth. Did creation really occur in a mere six days, as the first of two creation stories in Genesis (1:1-2:4a) claims? Was there really a worldwide flood? The most unrepentant defense against this challenge has been to claim that the biblical account is correct, for, after all, the Pentateuch was revealed to Moses by God. This position, known as creationism, assumes varying forms, ranging, for example, from taking the days of creation to mean exactly six days to taking them to mean “ages.” At the same time, creationists of all stripes tout their views as scientific as well as religious, and they enlist scientific evidence to refute “pseudoscientific” rivals such as evolution.
A much tamer defense against the challenge of modern science has been to reconcile myth with that science. Here elements at odds with modern science are either removed or, more cleverly, reinterpreted as in fact scientific. There might not have been a Noah who was single-handedly able to gather up all living species and to keep them alive in a wooden boat sturdy enough to withstand the strongest seas that ever arose, but a worldwide flood did occur. What thus remains in myth is true because it is scientific—modern scientific.
By far the most common response to the challenge of science has been to abandon myth for science. Here myth is taken as an explanation of its own kind, not a scientific explanation in mythic guise. The issue is therefore not the scientific credibility of myth but the compatibility of myth with science. Myth, here a part of religion, is considered to be the “primitive” counterpart to science, which is assumed to be exclusively modern. Because moderns by definition accept science, they cannot also have myth, and the phrase modern myth is self-contradictory. Myth is a victim of the process of secularization that constitutes modernity.
The pioneering English anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) remains the classic exponent of the view that myth and science are at odds. Tylor subsumes myth under religion and in turn subsumes both religion and science under philosophy. Primitive philosophy is identical with primitive religion. There is no primitive science. Modern philosophy, by contrast, is divided into religion and science. Primitive religion is the primitive counterpart to science because both are explanations of the physical world. The religious explanation is personalistic, the scientific one impersonal. The explanations are incompatible because both are direct explanations of the same events. Gods operate not behind or through impersonal forces but in place of them. One cannot, then, stack the religious account atop the scientific account.
Modern religion has surrendered the explanation of the world to science and has instead become a combination of metaphysics and ethics, neither of which is present in primitive religion. One now reads the Bible for not for the story of creation but for the Ten Commandments, just as for Plato a bowdlerized Homer (fl. 9th or 8th century B.C.E.) would enable one to do. This irenic position is like that of the American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002). Yet for Tylor, myths are too closely tied to gods as agents in the world to permit any transformation like that of the rest of religion. Where, then, there is “modern religion,” albeit religion shorn of its prime role as explanation, there are no modern myths.
In pitting myth against science, as in pitting religion qua explanation against science, Tylor epitomizes the nineteenth-century view of myth. In the twentieth century, the trend was to reconcile myth as well as religion with science, so that moderns can retain myth as well as religion.
Closest to Tylor stands J. G. Frazer (1854-1941), the Scottish classicist and fellow pioneering anthropologist. For Frazer, as for Tylor, myth is part of primitive religion; primitive religion is part of philosophy, itself universal; and primitive religion is the counterpart to natural science, itself entirely modern. Primitive religion and science are, as for Tylor, mutually exclusive. But where for Tylor primitive religion, including myth, functions as the counterpart to scientifictheory, for Frazer it functions even more as the counterpart to applied science, or technology. Where for Tylor primitive religion, including myth, serves to explain events in the physical world, for Frazer it serves even more to effect events, above all the growth of crops. Where Tylor treats myth as an autonomous text, Frazer ties myth to ritual, which enacts it.
The biggest difficulty for Tylor’s and Frazer’s view of myth as the primitive counterpart to science is that it conspicuously fails to account for the retention of myth in the wake of science. If myth functions to do no more than science, why is it still around?
Reacting against the views of Tylor and Frazer and other members of what he imprecisely calls “the English school of anthropology,” the French philosopher and armchair anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) insisted on a much wider divide between myth and science. Where for Tylor and Frazer “primitives” think like moderns, just less rigorously, for Lévy-Bruhl primitives think differently from moderns. Where for Tylor and Frazer primitive thinking is logical, just erroneous, for Lévy-Bruhl primitive thinking is plainly nonlogical.
According to Lévy-Bruhl, primitives believe that all phenomena are part of a sacred, or “mystic,” realm pervading the natural one. Phenomena become one another yet remain what they are. The Bororo of Brazil deem themselves red araras, or parakeets, yet still human beings. Lévy-Bruhl calls this belief “prelogical” because it violates the law of noncontradiction: the notion that something can simultaneously be both itself and something else.
For Lévy-Bruhl, as for Tylor and Frazer, myth is part of religion, religion is primitive, and moderns have science rather than religion. But where Tylor and Frazer subsume both religion and science under philosophy, Lévy-Bruhl associates philosophy with thinking freed from mystical identification with the world. Primitive thinking is nonphilosophical because it is not detached from the world. Primitives have a whole mentality of their own, one evinced in their myths.
One reaction to Lévy-Bruhl was to accept his separation of myth from philosophy but not his characterization of myth as pre-philosophical or pre-scientific. The key figure here was Malinowski. Invoking Frazer, Malinowski argues that primitives are too busy scurrying to survive in the world to have the luxury of reflecting on it. Where for Frazer primitives use myth in place of science, for Malinowski primitives use myth as a fallback to science. Primitives possess not just the counterpart to science but science itself. Where science stops, they turn to magic. Where magic stops, they turn to myth—not to secure further control over the world, as Frazer would assume, but to reconcile themselves to aspects of the world that cannot be controlled, such as natural catastrophes, illness, aging, and death. Myth explains how, say, illness arose—a god or a human brought it about—but primitive science and magic try to do something about it. By contrast, myth says that nothing can be done about it.
Reacting both against Malinowski’s view of primitives as practical rather than intellectual and against Lévy-Bruhl’s view of primitives as mystical rather than intellectual, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908) has boldly sought to revive an intellectualist view of primitives and of myth. At first glance, Lévi-Strauss seems a sheer throwback to Tylor. Yet in fact Lévi-Strauss is severely critical of Tylor, for whom primitives concoct myth rather than science because they think less critically than moderns. For Lévi-Strauss, primitives create myth because they think differently from moderns—but, contrary to Lévy-Bruhl, still think and still think rigorously. For both, myth is the epitome of primitive thinking.
Where for Tylor primitive thinking is personalistic and modern thinking impersonal, for Lévi-Strauss primitive thinking is concrete and modern thinking abstract. Primitive thinking focuses on the observable, sensible aspects of phenomena rather than, like modern thinking, on the unobservable, insensible ones. Yet antithetically to Tylor, Lévi-Strauss considers myth no less scientific than modern science. Where for Tylor myth is the primitive counterpart to science per se, for Lévi-Strauss myth is the primitive counterpart to modern science. Myth is primitive science, but not thereby inferior science.
If myth is an instance of primitive thinking because it deals with concrete, tangible phenomena, it is an instance of thinking itself because it classifies phenomena. Lévi-Strauss maintains that all humans think in the form of classifications, specifically pairs of oppositions, and project them onto the world. Many cultural phenomena express these oppositions. Myth is distinctive in resolving or, more accurately, tempering the oppositions it expresses. Those contradictions are to be found not in the plot but in what Lévi-Strauss famously calls the “structure.”
Karl Popper (1902-1994), the Viennese-born philosopher of science who eventually settled in England, breaks radically with Tylor. Where for Tylor science simply replaces it, for Popper science emerges out of myth—not, however, out of the acceptance of myth but out of the criticism of it. By “criticism” Popper means not rejection but assessment, which becomes scientific when it takes the form of attempts to falsify the truth claims made.
Myth and Philosophy
The relationship between myth and science overlaps with that between myth and philosophy. Yet there is an even greater array of positions held on the relationship between myth and philosophy: that myth is part of philosophy, that myth is philosophy, that philosophy is myth, that myth grows out of philosophy, that philosophy grows out of myth, that myth and philosophy are independent of each other but serve the same function, and that myth and philosophy are independent of each other and serve different functions.
The most abrupt reaction to Lévy-Bruhl’s opposing of myth to both science and philosophy came from the Polish-born anthropologist Paul Radin (1883-1959), who was brought to the United States as an infant. Radin grants that most primitives are far from philosophical but observes that so are most persons in any culture. Both the average “man of action” and the exceptional “thinker” types of temperament are to be found in all cultures, and in the same proportion. If Lévy-Bruhl is therefore wrong to deny that any primitives are reflective, Tylor is equally wrong to assume that all are. But those primitives who are get credited by Radin with a philosophical prowess keener than that granted even myth makers by Tylor. Contrary to Tylor, primitives, furthermore, are capable of rigorous criticism. Likely for Radin, as definitely for Popper, the capacity for criticism is the hallmark of thinking.
A far less dismissive reaction to Lévy-Bruhl came from the German-born philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945). For Cassirer, wholly following Lévy-Bruhl, mythic, or “mythopoeic,” thinking is primitive, is part of religion, and is the projection of mystical oneness onto the world. But Cassirer claims to be breaking sharply with Lévy-Bruhl in asserting that mythic thinking has its own brand of logic. In actuality, Lévy-Bruhl says the same and invents the term prelogicalexactly to avoid labeling mythic thinking “illogical” or “nonlogical.” Cassirer also claims to be breaking with Lévy-Bruhl in stressing the autonomy of myth as a form of knowledge—language, art, and science being the other main forms. Yet Cassirer simultaneously maintains, no differently from Lévy-Bruhl, that myth is incompatible with science and that science succeeds it. For both Cassirer and Lévy-Bruhl, myth is exclusively primitive and science exclusively modern. Still, Cassirer’s characterization of myth as a form of knowledge puts myth in the same genus as science—not quite where Lévy-Bruhl puts it.
As philosophical as Cassirer’s approach to myth is, he never contends that myth is philosophy. The theorists who do so are the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) and the German-born philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-1993), who eventually settled in the United States. They apply to their specialties, Christianity and Gnosticism, a theory from the early, existentialist work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).
Myth and Religion
Myth approached from the field of religious studies naturally subsumes myth under religion and thereby directly exposes myth to the challenge to religion from science. Twentieth-century theories from religious studies sought to reconcile myth with science by reconciling religion with science.
There have been two main strategies for doing so. One tactic has been the recharacterization of the subject matter of religion and therefore of myth. Here religion is not about the physical world, in which case it is safe from any encroachment by science. The myths considered under this approach to religion are traditional myths such as biblical and classical ones, but they are now read symbolically rather than literally. Myth, it is claimed, has been taken to be at odds with science because it has been misread—by those who, like Tylor, read myth literally.
The other tactic for retaining myth in the wake of science has been the elevation of seemingly secular phenomena to religious ones. Here myth is no longer confined to explicitly religious ancient tales. There are now overtly secular modern myths as well. For example, stories about heroes are at face value about mere human beings, but the humans are raised so high above ordinary mortals as to become virtual gods. This approach retains a literal reading of myth but recategorizes the literal status of the agents in myth.
The grandest exponents of a symbolic rendition of traditional religious myths were Bultmann and Jonas. Taken literally, myth for Bultmann is exactly what it is for Tylor and should be rejected as uncompromisingly as Tylor rejects it. But unlike Tylor, Bultmann reads myth symbolically. In his celebrated, if excruciatingly confusing, phrase, he “demythologizes” myth, which means not eliminating, or “demythicizing,” the mythology but instead extricating its true, symbolic meaning. To seek evidence of an actual worldwide flood, while dismissing the miraculous notion of an ark containing all species, would be to demythicize the Noah myth. To interpret the flood as a symbolic statement about the precariousness of human life would be to demythologize the myth.
Demythologized, myth ceases to be about the world and turns out to be about the human experience of the world. Demythologized, myth ceases to be an explanation at all and becomes an expression, an expression of what it feels like to live in the world. The New Testament, when demythologized, contrasts the alienation from the world felt by those who have not yet found God to the at-home-ness in the world felt by those who have found God. Myth ceases to be merely primitive and becomes universal. It ceases to be false and becomes true. It depicts the human condition.
Taken literally, myth, as a personalistic explanation of the physical world, is incompatible with science and is therefore unacceptable to moderns. Once demythologized, however, myth is compatible with science because it now refers at once to the transcendent, nonphysical world and, even more, to humans’ experience of the physical one. But to say that myth is acceptable to scientifically minded moderns is not to say why it should be accepted. In providing a modern subject matter of myth, Bultmann provides no modern function.
Jonas argues that ancient Gnosticism presents the same fundamental view of the human condition as modern existentialism—but of atheistic rather than, as for Bultmann, of religious existentialism. Both Gnosticism and existentialism stress the radical alienation of human beings from the world. Unlike Bultmann, who strives to bridge the gap between Christianity and modernity, Jonas acknowledges the divide between Gnosticism and modernity. Yet for Jonas, Gnostic mythology can still speak to moderns, and not to modern believers, as for Bultmann, but to modern skeptics. Like Bultmann, Jonas seeks to reconcile myth with science by recharacterizing the subject matter of myth. Yet no more than Bultmann does he offer any function of myth for moderns.
Hagiographical biographies of celebrated figures transform them into near-gods and their sagas into myths. For example, immediately after the First Gulf War, biographies of the American commander-in-chief, “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf (b. 1934), touted him as the smartest and bravest soldier in the world—so much smarter and braver than anyone else as to make him almost more than human.
The chief theorist here is the Romanian-born historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who spent the last three decades of his life in the United States. Unlike Bultmann and Jonas, Eliade does not seek to reconcile myth with science by interpreting myth symbolically. He reads myth as literally as Tylor does. Unlike Bultmann and Jonas, Eliade does not try to update traditional myths. But rather than, like Tylor, sticking to traditional, explicitly religious myths, he turns to modern, seemingly nonreligious ones. Yet instead of trying to reconcile those myths with science, as Bultmann and Jonas would, he appeals to the sheer presence of them to argue for their compatibility with science: if moderns, who for Eliade no less than for the others have science, also have myth, then myth simply must be compatible with science. Where Bultmann and Jonas argue meekly that moderns can have myth, Eliade argues boldly that they do. Where Tylor and Frazer assume that myth is the victim of the process of secularization, Eliade argues that only a superficial secularization has occurred.
Myth and Ritual
Myth is commonly taken to be words, often in the form of a story. A myth is read or heard. It says something. Yet there is an approach to myth that finds this view of myth artificial. According to the myth and ritual, or myth-ritualist, theory, myth does not stand by itself but is tied to ritual. Myth is not just a statement but also an action.
The myth-ritualist theory was pioneered by the Scottish biblicist and Arabist William Robertson Smith (1846-1894). Smith argues that belief is central to modern religion but not to ancient religion, where instead ritual was central. He grants that ancients doubtless performed rituals only for some reason. But the reason was secondary and could even fluctuate. The reason was a story, or a myth, which simply described the origin of the ritual. In claiming that myth is an explanation of ritual, Smith was denying Tylor’s conception of myth as an explanation of the world.
Yet Smith is like Tylor in one key respect. For both, myth is wholly ancient. Modern religion is without myth—and without ritual as well. Myth and ritual are not merely ancient but “primitive.” In fact, for both Tylor and Smith, ancient religion is but a case of primitive religion, which is the fundamental foil to modern religion.
J. G. Frazer developed the myth-ritualist theory far beyond Smith. Frazer, rarely consistent, actually presents two distinct versions of myth-ritualism. In the first version myth describes the life of the god of vegetation, and ritual enacts the myth describing his death and rebirth. The ritual operates on the basis of the voodoo-like Law of Similarity, according to which the imitation of an action causes it to happen. The ritual directly manipulates the god of vegetation, but as the god goes, so automatically goes vegetation. The ritual is performed when one wants winter to end, presumably when stored-up provisions are running low. A human being, often the king, plays the role of the god and acts out what he magically induces the god to do.
In Frazer’s second version of myth-ritualism, the king is central. Here the king does not merely act the part of the god but is himself divine, by which Frazer means that the god resides in him. Just as the health of vegetation depends on the health of its god, so now the health of the god depends on the health of the king: as the king goes, so goes the god of vegetation, and so in turn goes vegetation itself. To ensure a steady supply of food, the community kills its king while he is still in his prime and thereby safely transfers the soul of the god to his successor. As in the first version, the aim is to end winter, which now is attributed to the weakening of the king.
While this second version of myth-ritualism has proved the more influential by far, it actually provides only a tenuous link between myth and ritual. Instead of enacting the myth of the god of vegetation, the ritual simply changes the residence of the god. The king dies not in imitation of the death of the god but as a sacrifice to preserve the health of the god. What part myth plays here, it is not easy to see. Instead of reviving the god by magical imitation, the ritual revives the god by a transplant.
Outside of religion, the most notable application of the myth-ritualist theory has been to literature. The English classicist Jane Harrison (1850-1928) daringly derived all art, not just literature, from ritual. Using Frazer’s first version of mythritualism, she speculates that gradually people ceased believing that the imitation of an action caused that action to occur. Yet rather than abandoning ritual, they now practiced it as an end in itself. Ritual for its own sake became art, her clearest example of which is drama. More modestly than she, fellow classicists Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) and Francis Macdonald Cornford (1874-1943) rooted specifically Greek epic, tragedy, and comedy in myth-ritualism. Murray then extended the theory to the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Other standard-bearers of the theory have included Jessie Weston on the Grail legend, E. M. Butler on the Faust legend, C. L. Barber on Shakespearean comedy, Herbert Weisinger on Shakespearean tragedy and on tragedy per se, Francis Fergusson on tragedy, Lord Raglan on hero myths and on literature as a whole, and Northrop Frye and Stanley Edgar Hyman on literature generally. As literary critics, these myth-ritualists have understandably been concerned less with myth itself than with the mythic origin of literature. Works of literature are interpreted as the outgrowth of myths once tied to rituals. For those literary critics indebted to Frazer, as the majority are, literature harks back to Frazer’s second myth-ritualist scenario. “The king must die” becomes the familiar summary line.
For literary myth-ritualists, myth becomes literature when myth is severed from ritual. Myth tied to ritual is religious literature; myth cut off from ritual is secular literature, or plain literature. Bereft of ritual, myth can no longer change the world and is demoted to mere commentary.
Perhaps the first to temper the dogma that myths and rituals are inseparable was the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn (1905-1960). The German classicist Walter Burkert (b. 1931) has gone well beyond Kluckhohn in not merely permitting but assuming the original independence of myth and ritual. He maintains that when the two do come together, they do not just serve a common function, as Kluckhohn assumes, but reinforce each other. Myth bolsters ritual by giving mere human behavior a real, not to mention divine, origin: do this because the gods did or do it. Conversely, ritual bolsters myth by turning a mere story into prescribed behavior of the most dutiful kind: do this on pain of anxiety, if not punishment. Where for Smith myth serves ritual, for Burkert ritual equally serves myth.
Ritual for Burkert is “as if” behavior. The “ritual” is not the customs and formalities involved in actual hunting but dramatized hunting. The function is no longer that of securing food, as for Frazer, for the ritual proper arises only after farming has supplanted hunting as the prime source of food. The communal nature of actual hunting, and of ritualized hunting thereafter, functioned to assuage anxiety over one’s own aggression and one’s own mortality, and at the same time functioned to cement a bond among participants. This shift of focus from the physical world to the human world typifies the shift of focus from nineteenth-century theories of myth to twentieth-century ones.
Myth and Psychology
In the field of psychology, the theories of the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) have almost monopolized the study of myth. Freud’s key discussion of his key myth, that of Oedipus, fittingly occurs in The Interpretation of Dreams (1913), for he, and Jung as well, compare myths with dreams.
On the surface, or manifest, level, the story of Oedipus describes that figure’s vain effort to elude the fate that has been imposed on him. Latently, however, Oedipus most wants to do what manifestly he least wants to do. He wants to act out his “Oedipus complex.” The manifest, or literal, level of the myth hides the latent, symbolic meaning. On the manifest level Oedipus is the innocent victim of Fate. On the latent level he is the culprit. Rightly understood, the myth depicts not Oedipus’s failure to circumvent his ineluctable destiny but his success in fulfilling his fondest desires.
Yet the latent meaning scarcely stops here. For the myth is not ultimately about Oedipus at all. Just as the manifest level, on which Oedipus is the victim, masks a latent one, on which Oedipus is the victimizer, so that level in turn masks an even more latent one, on which the ultimate victimizer is the myth maker and any reader of the myth smitten with it. Either is a neurotic adult male stuck, or fixated, at his Oedipal stage of development. He identifies himself with Oedipus and through him fulfills his own Oedipus complex. At heart, the myth is not biography but autobiography.
The Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank (1884-1939), who was Freud’s protégé at the time but who later broke irrevocably with the master, works out a common plot, or pattern, for one key category of myths: those of male heroes. The heart of the pattern is the decision by the parents to kill their son at birth to avert the prophecy that the son, if born, will one day kill his father. Unbeknownst to the parents, the infant is rescued and raised by others, grows up to discover who he is, returns home to kill his father, and succeeds him as king or noble. Interpreted psychologically, the pattern is the enactment of the Oedipus complex: the son kills his father to gain sexual access to his mother.
Mainstream psychoanalysis has changed mightily since Freud’s day. Contemporary psychoanalysts like the American Jacob Arlow (1912-2004) see myth as contributing to normal development rather than to the perpetuation of neurosis. Myth abets adjustment to the social and the physical worlds rather than childish flight from them. Furthermore, myth now serves everyone, not merely neurotics.
The classical Freudian goal is the establishment of oneself in the external world, largely free of domination by parents and instincts. Success is expressed concretely in the form of a job and a mate. Jungians accept that goal, but as that of only the “first half” of life, or from infancy to young adulthood. The goal of the uniquely Jungian second half of life—of adulthood—is consciousness—not, however, of the external world, as summed up by the Freudian term reality principle,but of the distinctively Jungian, or collective, unconscious. One must return to that unconscious, from which one has unavoidably become severed in the first half of life, but not to sever one’s ties to the external world. On the contrary, the aim is return in turn to the external world. The ideal is a balance between consciousness of the external world and consciousness of the unconscious. The aim of the second half of life is to supplement, not abandon, the achievements of the first half.
The American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) provides the classical Jungian counterpart to Rank on hero myths. Where Rank’s pattern, limited to males, centers on the hero’s toppling of his father, Campbell’s centers on a journey, undertaken by an adult female or a male hero, from the known, human world to the heretofore unknown world of gods. Interpreted psychologically, that journey is an inner, not outer, trek from the known portion of the mind—ordinary, or ego, consciousness, the object of which is the external world—to the unknown portion of the mind—the Jungian unconscious. The successful hero must not only reach the strange, new world but also return. In psychological terms, success means the completion of the goal of the second half of life.
The most influential Jungian theorists of myth after Jung himself have been Erich Neumann (1905-1960) and James Hillman (b. 1926). Neumann systematizes the developmental, or evolutionary, aspect of Jungian theory. Jung himself certainly correlates myths with stages of psychological development, but Neumann works out the stages, beginning with the “uroboric” stage of sheer unconsciousness and proceeding to the incipient emergence of the ego out of the unconscious, the development of an independent ego consciousness, and the eventual return of the ego to the unconscious to create the self. Neumann’s emphasis on heroism in the first half of life complements Campbell’s devotion to heroism in the second half.
By far the most radical development in the Jungian theory of myth has been the emergence of archetypal psychology, which in fact considers itself post-Jungian. The chief figure in this movement is Hillman. Another important figure is David Miller. Archetypal psychology faults classical Jungian psychology on multiple grounds. By emphasizing the compensatory, therapeutic message of mythology, classical Jungian psychology purportedly reduces mythology to psychology and gods to concepts. In espousing a unified self (or “Self”) as the ideal psychological authority, Jungian psychology supposedly projects onto psychology a Western, specifically monotheistic, more specifically Christian, even more specifically Protestant outlook. The Western emphasis on progress is purportedly reflected in the primacy Jungian psychology accords hero myths and the primacy it accords the ego, even in the ego’s encounter with the unconscious: the encounter is intended to abet development. Finally, Jungian psychology is berated for placing archetypes in an unknowable realm distinct from the known realm of symbols.
As a corrective, Hillman and his followers advocate that psychology be viewed as irreducibly mythological. Myth is still to be interpreted psychologically, but psychology is itself to be interpreted mythologically. One grasps the psychological meaning of the myth of Saturn by imagining oneself to be the figure Saturn, not by translating Saturn’s plight into clinical terms like depression. Moreover, the depressed Saturn represents a legitimate aspect of one’s personality. Each god deserves its due. The psychological ideal should be pluralistic rather than monolithic—in mythological terms, polytheistic rather than monotheistic, or Greek rather than biblical. Insisting that archetypes are to be found in symbols rather than outside them, Hillman espouses a relation to the gods in themselves and not to something beyond them. The ego becomes but one more archetype with its attendant kind of god, and it is the soul rather than the ego that experiences the archetypes through myths. Myth serves to open one up to the soul’s own depths.
Myth and Structure
Lévi-Strauss calls his approach to myth “structuralist” to distinguish it from “narrative” interpretations, or those that adhere to the plot of myth. Nonstructuralists deem myth a story, progressing from beginning to end, be the story interpreted literally or symbolically. Where the plot of a myth is that, say, event A leads to event B, which leads to event C, which leads to event D, the structure, which is identical with the expression and resolution of contradictions, is either that events A and B constitute an opposition mediated by event C or, as in the Oedipus myth, that events A and B, which constitute the same opposition, are to each other as events C and D, an analogous opposition, are to each other. Apparently, all oppositions for Lévi-Strauss symbolize the tension between humans as part of nature and humans as part of culture.
Lévi-Strauss is not the only or even the earliest theorist of myth labeled a structuralist. Notably, the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp (1895-1970) and the French Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumézil (1898-1986) wrote both before Lévi-Strauss and independently of him. The French literary critic Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a contemporary of Lévi-Strauss but was his own person.
The common plot that Propp deciphers in Russian fairy tales is his structure, which thus remains on the narrative level and is no different from the kind of structure found by Rank and Campbell. By contrast, the structure that Dumézil unravels lies as much beneath the surface level as Lévi-Strauss’s. But it reflects the order of society rather than, as for Lévi-Strauss, that of the mind, and is three-part rather than two-part.
Barthes is concerned with myth as ideology. In Lévi-Straussian terms, he writes to expose the way that French bourgeois culture creates myths to make itself seem natural—a fusion of culture with nature rather than the mere alleviation of the opposition between them. For Barthes, the function of myth is social rather than, as for Lévi-Strauss, intellectual. For Barthes, the structure of myth is its cultural context. By “myths” he means artifacts and activities more than stories. His clearest example is of professional wrestling, which, much more than a sport, is an attempt to alleviate lingering misgivings over the behavior of some French citizens during the Occupation by presenting clear-cut Good (the wrestler) as triumphing over clear-cut Evil (his opponent).
A group of French classicists headed by Jean-Pierre Vernant (b. 1914) have proved the most faithful followers of Lévi-Strauss’s brand of structuralism, though even they have adapted it. Lévi-Strauss has regularly been lambasted for isolating myth from its various contexts—social, cultural, political, economic, even sexual. In his essay on the American Indian myth of Asdiwal, he does provide a detailed ethnographic analysis of a myth. But he does so almost nowhere else. Vernant and his fellow classicists—notably, Marcel Detienne, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and Nicole Loraux—have taken the analysis of Asdiwal as their model. As the heirs of Lévi-Strauss, these classicists have sought to decipher underlying, often latent patterns in myths, but they have then sought to link those patterns to ones in the culture at large.
Myth and Society
Where for Tylor and Frazer myth deals exclusively, or nearly exclusively, with physical phenomena—flooding, disease, death—for Malinowski myth deals even more with social phenomena—classes, taxes, rituals. Myth still serves to reconcile humans to the unpleasantries of life, but now to unpleasantries that, far from unalterable, can be cast off. Here, too, myths spur resigned acceptance by tracing these unpleasantries, or at least impositions, back to a hoary past, thereby conferring on them the clout of tradition. Myth persuades denizens to defer to, say, ranks in society by pronouncing those ranks long-standing and in that sense deserved. Here the beneficiary of myth is society, not the individual. The modern counterpart to myths of social phenomena—if for Malinowski moderns lack myths—would be ideology.
As the Frazerian counterpart to Rank and Campbell, Lord Raglan extends Frazer’s second myth-ritualist scenario by turning the king who dies for the community into a hero. The function of myth is now as much social as agricultural: inspiring present kings to sacrifice themselves so that their communities will not starve. The French-born, American-resident literary critic René Girard (b. 1923) offers an ironic twist to Raglan. Where Raglan’s hero is willing to die for the community, Girard’s hero is killed or exiled by the community for having caused the present woes of the community. Indeed, the “hero” is initially considered a criminal who deserves to die. Only subsequently is the villain turned into a hero, who, as for Raglan, dies selflessly for the community. Both Raglan and Girard cite Oedipus as their fullest example, though both scorn Freud. For Girard, the transformation of Oedipus from reviled exile in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King to revered benefactor in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus typifies the transformation from criminal to hero.
Yet this change is for Girard only the second half of the process. The first half is the change from innocent victim to criminal. Originally, the community selects an innocent member to blame for the violence that has erupted. This scapegoat, who can be of any rank, is usually killed, though, as with Oedipus, sometimes exiled. The killing is the ritualistic sacrifice. Rather than directing the ritual, as for Frazer, myth for Girard is created after the killing to hide it. Myth comes from ritual, as for Smith, but it comes to mask rather than, as for Smith, to explain the ritual. Myth turns the scapegoat into a criminal who deserved to die and then turns the criminal into a hero, who has died voluntarily for the good of the community.
Like Burkert, Girard roots myth in sacrifice and roots sacrifice in aggression. Yet like Burkert, myth functions to secure peace and not, as for Frazer, food. Myth deals with the human world; science, with the physical world. This shift of focus again typifies the shift from nineteenth-century of theories of myth to twentieth-century ones.