Monday, September 23, 2013

the history of myth


as-ysu | The last essay showed that the writings of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Plato featured both newly minted, rational myths and discussion of traditional, poetic myths.  In fact, since the time of Xenophanes, two parallel streams have flowed from their headwaters in the so-called Greek Renaissance (c. 850-500 BCE) down to our own time.  The first is the mythic tradition itself: that is, the epics, dramas, and poems containing Greek and, later, Roman myths.  The second is the ongoing conversation about the value and meaning of those stories.  While the words myth and mythology are frequently used interchangeably, we will distinguish between them in this class.  Therefore, myth will be used when referring to the stories themselves while mythology will be used when referring to the study and analysis of those stories.

This essay will demonstrate that questions about the truth value and cultural importance of myths have generated ingenious interpretations and heated disputes ever since the time of Xenophanes and Heraclitus.  For two and a half millennia, competition among various schools of mythology has been a struggle over matters of ultimate truth, religious belief, political theory, cultural identity, verifiable history, and social custom.  Myth has been variously understood as the revelation of divine mysteries, as primitive science and faulty history, as bad philosophy, as a code containing truths hidden from the uneducated, as the cultural DNA determining a people’s identity, as a resource for learning about the material culture of “primitive” peoples, as a window into the workings of the human mind, and as a justification for deplorable acts of cruelty.  Indeed, the story of mythology demonstrates emphatically that there is a great deal more at stake in the study of myths than becoming acquainted with amusing cultural artifacts attesting how na├»ve and superstitious our ancestors were.

The early history of mythology may be summarized by saying that from the first flowering of scientific rationalism in Greece during the 6th century BCE until the revival of scientific rationalism in the 17th century CE, allegorical mythology of one kind or another was the only method employed for studying myths.  As the Enlightenment (c. late 1600s-late 1700s) approached, allegorical approaches were overtaken and incorporated into the new, more scientific comparative mythology.  Comparative mythology, in turn, gave rise to several related schools.  The nature school made comparisons among the world’s myths to determine what key environmental or cosmological factor gave rise to myth.  The ethnological school made comparisons among the world’s myths to discern a people’s folk-spirit—their essential ethnic qualities.  The most intense form of the ethnological school—which culminated in the Aryan hypothesis—coupled comparisons of the world’s myths with intensely racial and nationalistic political ideologies.

Thus, by the 19th century, whether their focus was the Aryan homeland, the relationships between environment, Volk, and myth, or the Ur-myth , mythologists of all schools employed the comparative method.  In practice, comparative mythologists of whatever school locked themselves in libraries and studies, reading extensively and writing theories based on linguistic and literary analyses of the myths they studied. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, interest began to wane in unverifiable theories about the Ur-myth and partisan arguments about a people’s “folk-spirit.”  A new school of mythologists was waiting in the wings to shift the conversation away from questions about tale-types and Ur-people to the matter of how living mythic traditions function in so-called primitive societies.  The next chapter examines these new, modern mythologies.

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