The interpretation and critique of myth constitutes one of the perennial concerns of Western culture. From the heritage of fifth-century Greece we have the distinction between mythos and logos and from the biblical tradition, the distinction between mythos and history. It thus appears that dominant rational modes of interpretation of human reality in the Western tradition have always been defined in tension, if not in opposition, to the reality portrayed by myth.
What is myth, or mythology, and why has it played such an ambivalent role in the history our culture? Mythology has two interrelated meanings. In one meaning, the word refers to the actual body of myths of a particular culture or to the total body of myths of all the cultures of the world. In the other meaning, the word refers to the study, interpretation, and understanding of these stories.
What is Myth?Â
Myths are narratives, stories about fantastic and extraordinary beings and of happenings that took place in a time and space that is radically different from out own. Australian aborigines call this mythic time and space Alcheringa, the Dreaming Time. Mircea Eliade refers to this locus of the myth as a primordial time and space, in illo tempore. The quality of distanctiation is an essential element in the structure of the myth. Because the situational locus of the myth is removed from the ordinary forms of culture that we experience, the norms, rules, and laws of our reality no longer apply. Fantastic and fabulous beings are possible within the realm of myth. For this reason, classical Greek philosophy undertook a critical assessment of myth and set forth the logos as a statement of the forms of order that are common to all human experience. The logos as an ordering principle enables one to understand in a reliable manner the norms, rules, and laws of nature and community; all forms of rationality in Western culture are derived from this logocentric principle.
The notion of history offers another understanding of commonality of human beings and events. History as a description of a temporal order always has reference to that which is publicly accessible. In both cases, logos and history, the stress on the observable and the commonplace clashes with the metarational experience. From the temporal standpoint of history, myth is untrue and does not refer to any aspect of reality.
A new and intense concern for the meaning of myth occurred in the modern post-Enlightenment period. This development was connected with the new appreciation of religious antiquities that European Romanticism fostered. This concern was also prompted by the increasing availability of two general bodies of mythology–those from the so-called primitive cultures of the world, and from extra-Western cultures of the contemporary world that possessed written languages, such as India and China. To this body must be added myths from the ancient Near Eastern cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Interpretation and comparison of these newer bodies of mythology with those myths of the Greeks and Romans which were already known in the West produced a lively debate.
From this discussion we may isolate some general theories about the nature of myth: (1) myth as experience and story; (2) myth in its relationship to ritual; and (3) myth as a mode of human awareness and speculation.
Myth as Experience and StoryÂ
Walter Burkert, a classical scholar, has recently analyzed myths from the point of view of what he called “programs of action.” This notion is rooted in the biological nature of human life. At this level all living things are oriented toward the completion of an act. Actions consist of a beginning, a middle, and an end. In most cases, the beginning and end are clear, while the middle is seldom as carefully delineated. According to this view, myth is a narrative with a fixed order that can be told and retold within the life of a community. The biological strata of the story bring together the unconscious dynamics of the psyche and the goal-directed structure of action. This is the source of the fabulous and fantastic contents of the myth. Myths are those tales that specify the beginning, the origin of culture, and specify a range of possible cultural development, programs of action, from that point.
Though expressed through stories and tales, myths are also lived experiences before they are made into stories. The earlier work of Maurice Leenhardt, a missionary-anthropologist in Melanesia, set forth a position similar to this. Leenhardt argues that the myth is felt and lived before it is conceived and narrated. For Leenhardt, the myth constitutes an affective mode of knowledge that complements rational explanations of the world. In fact, myth is an attempt to make accessible as an even what is already known experientially.
Through myth, objects and actions within a culture acquire value and become real for the culture. The myth is the primordial reality that establishes the initial and essential meaning of actions, objects, and things.
While myths are lived experiences, they are also expressed in stories, in language. Language presupposes community, and thus myths have reference to communal and social reality. The primordial positioning and relationship of objects within a myth create the moral values and imperatives of the community that tells and reveres that particular narrative. In this sense, there are myths that become what anthropologist Bronislav Malinowski has called “charters” for social action. Mircea Eliade describes this same phenomenon when he observes that myths delineate the archetypes that guide the actions of a community. The actions and objects of a community become real or participate in reality to the extent that they imitate the archetypal model.
Myth as Expressed in RitualÂ
The notion that myth sets forth the basic archetypal modes of reality within a community leads to another interpretation of myth–its relationship to ritual. The relationship of myth to ritual adds a dimension to the meaning of myth that moves it away from a purely literary form. If myth is the setting forth of the basic, primordial, archetypal meaning and modes or reality, there is a correlative mode of action within human communities that consciously expresses this structure as the legitimate and official meaning of the most important human actions.
One could say that ritual action dramatizes the “truth” of myth. Ritual action and drama confer reality to an event or action through their proper performance. The performative action of the ritual in imitation of a primordial sacred meaning in the myth grants reality to the ritual. In the ritual as ceremony, the community, through the celebration of a mythical meaning, effects and gives official and legitimate meaning to a human action. Thus, in almost all societies, birth, marriage, and death are ritualized. In addition, chiefs, kings, and other figures of authority come to their offices through ritualized actions. The modes of livelihood, whether in hunting or agriculture, are ritualized activities, as are the laying out of the plan for a house, city, or building.
From this perspective, the meaning of the myth as story or narrative takes on another dimension. Ritual as expressed in such forms as institutions, architecture, and work represents an exfoliation of the meaning of the myth. It embeds the cultural programs of action into the more generalized forms of community life. The archetypal and primordial forms are thus lived through on the ordinary levels of life in the community.
Myth as Speculative ThoughtÂ
The myth-ritual interpretation situates the meaning of myth within a cultic or institutional framework. This infusion of meaning is one of the obvious functions of myth. However, in the study of myth several typologies and classifications of myths have emerged. There are, for example, cosmogonic myths–myths that relate the origin of the world, myths that tell us why death came into the world, myths of the first agriculture, and myths of cultural heroes who bring the first fire or a specific art or craft to human beings. The same classifications do not exist in the cultures in which the myths themselves originate, but that does not mean that no distinctions are made among and between the myths within a specific culture. Certain myths are indeed correlates of particular functions and ceremonies within the culture and are classified accordingly.
The classifications and typologies of myths have led to their analysis in literary and logical terms. From these interpretations one is able to derive meanings of myth that are not limited to their action or role in the particular culture of origin. From this point of view, mythology as the interpretation of myths is an example of a function of another level of human consciousness. These interpretations of mythology allow for a meaning of the human in universal terms that is not limited to the rationalistic mode of the Western Enlightenment. This is most obvious in the use of myth in the studies of the two most famous originators of depth psychology, Freud and Jung, well as in the religious and ontological analyses of Mircea Eliade, and the structural analysis of Claude Levi-Strauss.
The speculative meaning of myth should not be limited, however, to those cultural situations and those scholars outside the cultures in which the myths originated. It is clear that the myth, or the mythic mode of consciousness, is present in almost all cultures. Marcel Griaule tells us that there are generally two mythological cycles among the Dogon in West Africa. One consists of a cycle of “popular” myths that are known, recited, and enacted in the common life. He discovered another cycle of myths of an esoteric and philosophical kind known only to a few. He learned of this second cycle of myths from an old hunter, Ogotemmeli. The myths known by Ogotemmeli described some of the same motifs and meanings of the popular myths, but in the case of Ogotemmeli, the range of meanings were more refined and subtle, and possessed more philosophical depth.
A similar situation is described by W.E.H. Stanner, an anthropologist who did work among the Murinbata in Australia. In his ethnography of the Murinbata, Stanner shows the meaning of myth as it is related to the rituals of Murinbata, but he also devotes a great deal of attention to the myth of the Rainbow Serpent among the Murinbata; this is a riteless myth. This is even more surprising, for all students of this religion have noted that this myth is the most detailed and dramatic of the myths is the myths of the Murinbata. The myth of the Rainbow Serpent relates a religious drama concerned with ultimate things. Like the myths related by Ogotemmeli, this myth has a surface stratum and a depth stratum. As Stanner puts it, this myth is primarily a myth of self-understanding, and in it other meanings and myths are synthesized and integrated.
Myths as modes of self-understanding and as synthesizers or integrations of modes of thought and action are present in all cultures. To paraphrase Claude Levi-Strauss, myths are good to think and not simply to act out. Stanner’s statement regarding the meaning of myth in this mode is equally apt:
There were no Aboriginal philosophers and one can thus speak of “philosophy” only metaphorically. But there is ground for saying that they lived–and therefore thought–by axioms, which were “objective” in that they related to a supposed nature of man and condition of human life. Myths presented the axioms in an intuitive-contemplative aspect.
Myth in the Modern WorldÂ
Some theories of myth, following an evolutionary model, relegate myth to a prerational, precritical era, or age of ignorance, of the human race. The goal of human consciousness is rationality. The more rational human beings and culture become, the less they will depend upon mythic thought and its meanings. This view is widely held in some circles. However, the revival of mythological modes in depth psychology and the employment of mythological motifs in literary criticism, that is the analysis of mythical thinking as a general form of human consciousness, have created a new interest in myth.
Frank M. Turner has suggested that the Victorian interest in Greek heritage in general and Greek myths in particular was occasioned by the necessity of the intelligentsia in the culture to find a way of orienting themselves in the midst of the vast transformations brought on by industrialism, democracy, and the Enlightenment. The intense study and interpretation of Greek culture and its myths represented a kind of archaic return to a primordial source. Such a return enabled them to conceive of an ideal mode of the human and to find a way of evaluating their lives in a nonexistential manner.
In like manner, Ernst Cassirer discovered that he had to reevaluate the meaning of myth in light of contemporary life. Early in his career, Cassirer had placed myth at the lower strata in the evolution of human consciousness. In his last book, Cassirer undertook another evaluation of myth in light of the situation of the world after World War II. Cassirer felt that his new evaluation was necessary as he noted the resurgence of mythical thinking in modern life, particularly in the theory and practice of the modern national state.
Before proceeding to the meaning of myth in our contemporary world, a word may be in order about the problem of interpreting myth. The fact that the interpretation of myth has always dealt with the myths of non-Western or ancient Western cultures marks a distancing of the meaning of myth and its interpreters. There is, to be sure, another mode of distancing–this one found in the internal structure of myth itself. Myths portray an ideal or primordial world in illo tempore, in another time. The myth mediates between that world of the myth and present reality. Or in another vein, the myth mediates between the biologically given “programs of action” and the social realities of the human mode of being.
The understanding of myth from one point of view has been predicated on the fact that myths have to be distant from our present situation in time and space. In like manner, the very nature of myth sets forth a distance between existential reality and primordial or paradisiacal reality. In our contemporary world, the distancing between the meaning of myth and the interpreters of myth has been removed or narrowed in several ways. Foremost of these is the way in which depth psychology and psychoanalysis have made pervasive use of myth, incorporating the interpretation into the myth itself.
In the case of Turner’s discussion of the Victorians and Ernst Cassirer’s reevaluation of myth, both returns were made as a result of felt or perceived disorganizations and transformations in their cultures and the cultures of the world. These transformations have not ceased since the Victorian period; they have, indeed, become more intense. The former ways of distancing the myth were to study others through the methods of philology, anthropology, or objective and normative forms of rationality in Western philosophy. These ways are not ruled out of court nowadays, but the meaning of the mythic within the cultures of the interpreters raises new issues regarding myth and its meaning.
The entire world is undergoing a radical transformation. Notions such as “one world” and “global village” and the intensity of transportation and communication systems remind us of the simultaneity of this disruption. For some of the areas of the world this transformation began some five hundred years ago with the beginnings of Western conquest and colonization. In these cultures there was also evidence of the beginnings of a new mythic age, and this mythic age continues into the present. For some time the Western world was able to shield itself from the more fundamental meanings of this transformation through its superior military and technological power. It was thought that the effects of the conquest and colonization were limited to cultures outside the West. Since World War II, it is clear that this is not the case.
The paradigmatic example of the meaning of the mythic as experiential, cultic, existential, and speculative is found in those movements of the modern world called “cargo cults.” These are new religious movements that for the most part take place outside Western culture among so-called primitive peoples. They live in cultures that have been destabilized by the impact of the West through conquest, the importation of Western economic goods and behavior, Western colonization, or all of the above. The response of the cargo cult is to undertake a demythologizing of the Western mythology and the development of a new myth regarding the creation of a new myth regarding the creation of a new human being. Thus, they make clear that the true god of the West is not the God of the Bible, but economic goods and the modes by which these goods are produced. In addition, they carry on rituals that will restore these goods to their rightful place and, in the process, new human beings, neither Western nor those of their old native cultures, will be produced, bringing about a new cosmos.
Charles H. Long is the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of History of Religions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and professor of religion at Duke University. He was a founding editor with Joseph Kitagawa and Mircea Eliade of the Journal History of Religions. Among his numerous publications are Alpha, The Myths of Creation and Significations: Images and Interpretation of Religion.