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THE POETICS OF MYTH

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THE POETICS OF MYTH


ELEAZAR M. MELETINSKY

ROUTLEDGE
A MEMBER OF THE TAYLOR & FRANCIS GROUP

NEW YORK AND LONDON

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First paperback edition published in 2000 by


Routledge
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New York, NY 10001
Published in Great Britain by
Routledge
11 New Fetter Lane
London EC4P 4EE
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group
Copyright 1998 by Eleazar M. Meletinsky
Previously published in hardback as vol. 1944 in the Garland Reference Library of the Humanities.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Meletinski, E. M. (Eleazar Moiseevich)
The poetics of myth / by Eleazar M. Meletinsky ; translated
by Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky.
p. cm. (Theories of Myth ; vol. 9) (Garland reference
library of the humanities ; vol. 1944)
Includes bibliographic references and indexes.
ISBN 0-8153-2134-1 (alk. paper)
ISBN 0-415-92898-2 (pbk.)
1. Literature, Modern20th centuryHistory and
criticism. 2. Myth in literature. I. Lanoue, Guy. IL Title.
PN56.M94M4413 1998
809.3915DC21
97-24453
CIP
Printed on acid-free, 250-year-life paper
Manufactured in the United States of America
1 0

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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CONTENTS

FOREWORD

BIOGRAPHICAL

vii

NOTE

xvii

PREFACE T O THE RUSSIAN EDITION (1976)

xix

PART I: MODERN THEORIES OF MYTH AND APPROACHES TO LITERATURE

Historical Overview
Remythification in Philosophy and in the
Ritualism and Functionalism
The French Sociological School
The Symbolic Theories
Analytical Psychology
Structuralism
Myth, Ritual, Archetypes, and Literary Criticism
Mythopoetics in Russian and Soviet Thought
Preliminary Conclusions
Notes to Part
I

Study

of

Culture

3
14
19
25
29
39
53
73
92
116
125

PART II: THE CLASSIC FORMS OF MYTH AND THEIR EXPRESSION


IN NARRATIVE FOLKLORE

Preliminary Observations
The
General
Characteristics
of
Mythological
Thought
The
Functional
Orientation
of
Myth
Mythical Time and Its Paradigms
Ancestors, Demiurges, Culture Heroes
Archaic Creation Myths
The Origins of Society
Chaos,
Order,
and
the
Creation
of
the
Universe
The Cosmic Model
Seasonal Myths
Cosmic
Cycles
and
the
End
of
the
Universe
Heroic
Myths
and
Rites
of
Passage
The
Semantics
of
Mythical
Plots
and
Systems
Myth, Tale, Epic
Notes to Part II

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151
152
156
158
163
177
181
183
192
196
200
203
207
235
249

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The Poetics of Myth

PART III: MYTHIFICATION IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY LITERATURE

Historical Introduction
259
The Mythological Novel in the Twentieth Century:
Some Preliminary Observations
275
An Antithesis: Joyce and Mann
277
Kafkas Mythopoetics
313
Various Aspects of Mythification in the Contemporary Novel 329
Notes to Part III
341
BIBLIOGRAPHY

353

APPENDICES

Subject Index and Glossary


Index
of
Name Index

Literary

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Works

413
478
483

FOREWORD
It is generally believed that Herodotus was responsible, in the Western
tradition, for the opposition that has come down to us between myth, from the
Greek mthos, legend, and lgos, word or true story Yet this distinction
was probably not the fruit of his thought but part of an older belief in the ancient
world, attested, in band and tribal cultures, by the widespread notion that myth
and fact are two distinct but not completely incompatible forms of discourse. It
is our own relatively recent cultural tradition that would wrongly label myth as
something completely false, as if we did not invent our everyday conversation
with an eye to bending others to our will, presenting ourselves in a particular
light to reinforce our self-image, or convincing ourselves through our own rhetoric that our inner beliefs are true. In brief, truth or falsehood are not categories that distinguish myth and other forms of discourse.
There is no definition of myth as an acceptable form of truth in the popular
culture of modern industrialized societies. Myth is no longer a distinct way of
approaching truth; it is a lie. In modem and post-modern Western societies, we
no longer have the symbolic and poetic tools with which to judge the extraordinary, never suspecting for a moment that it is perhaps our definitions of the ordinary and truth that have changed.
In the same light, literary creations are usually seen only as a temporary
falsehood used in order to propose a truth that is normally masked by everyday
non poetic logic. Poetry is only acceptable to many readers if there is a message
that takes the form of a moral exhortation or commentary. Again, the truth value
of our discourses is measured by their conformity to our carefully constructed
definition of normal. Yet it must be admitted that, at some level, we do not completely abandon as a lost category that which we are no longer capable of assimilating as non empirical truth: arcane novels and generally inaccessible poetry still
occasionally receive Nobel prizes; airport books are often considered light and
unchallenging reading; classics and serious literature are still thought of as a
means of improving our minds. We suspect something is there and are afraid to
dismiss it completelyas in the Bible, for examplebut are no longer sure how
we can deal with it except by elevating it to some lofty status and thinking of it
in explicitly moral or ethical terms whose loftiness apparently transcends the
limits of everyday empirical discourses while barely hiding its banality. Yet these
elements are almost always solidly wedded to a concrete social reality, since in
the modern era it is difficult if not impossible to think of moral and ethical
problems in terms other than vaguely Benthamite. Even in literature, therefore,
the aesthetics of the poetic imagination and the insights it generates are used to
deny the very origin of its source, mytho-logic.
The realization, largely due to the work of Claude Lvi-Strauss, that myth,
like literature, adheres to determined formulas and structural operations
(repetition, inversion, projection, and mediation), has led some researchers to

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treat myth as a form of oral literature,1 although in my opinion no one has examined the relationship between the two in as much detail and with as much acuity
as Meletinsky. Although objective conditions of existence are generally the scale
with which we measure reality, certain regularities in thought are seen to emerge
in myth, literature, and political ideology, to name just a few arenas.
The modern approach to the scientific analysis of myth and literature was
relatively new when Meletinsky wrote The Poetics of Myth in 1976. Today the
amount of scientific literature is testimony to the pioneering character of Me
letinskys book.2 The field is still lively and the debate still continues. Meletinskys approach to myth and literature only superficially resembles, though it is
inspired by, Lvi-Straussian structuralism. He examines syntagmatic links, oppositions, and their resolution/mediation, but his real contribution consists in
tracing the development of literature from its mytho-poetic base. Unlike some
myth and ritual theorists, he does not merely trace the survival of past mythical
motifs in modern literary genres but concentrates on the survival of myth as a
form of thought, arguing that myth emerges more and more frequently in our
centurys great literature as the rhetorical strategies of realism and objectivity
reveal themselves inadequate to the task of describing the concerns of people
Irving in contemporary societies. His argument, formulated in the early 1970s
without full access to the literature and debates then current in the West, sounds
very current today. Despite the postmodern criticism of Lvi-Straussian structuralism for the privileged objectivity it adopts vis--vis data, a weakness Meletinsky pointed out to his Russian readers in 1976, no one has done more to
show the versatility and power of mytho-logic than Lvi-Strauss. I think it is
precisely this aspect of Lvi-Strausss work that Meletinsky finds intriguing and
applicable to his ideas on mythopoesis in modern literature.
Meletinsky distinguishes myth from fable, legends, and more advanced
forms such as the lyric, poem, and novel. In his words:
It is not so much that literature was born at a specific time, and then
began to evolve on its own . . . To a certain extent the history of literature is the history of a continual process inasmuch as particular
formulas are created and reinforce each other. These are general
formulas within the language itself, not literary language as such but
an artistic agenda, exemplars of linkages, and models of images and
genres. The result is a common background in which writers continually situate themselves. Although they transform the elements
that are placed at their disposal, the link with the background is always present.3
In The Poetics of Myth, Meletinsky begins with a discussion of the basic
elements of mythological thinking, especially the manner in which these elements
were considered within historically important approaches (Vico, Schelling,
Schiller, Jung, Freud, Lvy-Bruhl, Lvi-Strauss, Frye, the Soviet school, and the
myth and ritual school). In the third part, he examines the mythological basis of

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modern literature, especially in Kafka, Mann, Eliot, and Joyce. Even if his assertion that mythological activity is partly based on a universal and unconscious
poetic principle seems somewhat strong today, Meletinskys thesis is still provocative.4
The author suggests that the historical approach he uses is more valid and
fruitful than the mechanistic approaches of the myth and ritual school, since a
myth must be seen in its total social and cultural context in order to decipher the
message (content) it sends by means of its internal organization (form). Given
anthropologys huge ethnographic database, one of the problems of this paradigm is the vast amount of specific knowledge that one needs to evaluate the
contribution of a myth or a cycle of myths to the working of a particular culture
without falling into the trap of reductionist functionalism. In the second part of
the book, therefore, Meletinsky uses data drawn from many cultures and examines myths, especially cosmogonic myths, from various primitive cultures in
order to establish, in his words cited above, exemplars of linkages and models
of images. A second problem, not addressed by Meletinsky, is the reliability of
the ethnographic sources. We now know that many texts that are considered
important myths, if only because they were collected so long ago that several
generations of scholars have cut their teeth on them, are in fact secondary or even
unimportant in terms of the variety of discourses available in a society. One example is the Northwest Coast of North America, where the Centrality of Raven
myths and symbolism have recently been called into question.5 Meletinsky, with
little direct access to the primary texts or to archives in the West, could not and
does not call into question if the texts are indeed myth.
The division into archaic and classical cultures is important to Meletinskys
evolutionary approach. Yet in a sense his approach renders the question of
authenticity academic. Meletinsky argues the poeticizing principle that gives
birth to myths and finds expression in literature is universal. The key to Poetics
of Myth is Meletinskys historical approach, which is not based on the classical
nineteenth-century approach, that myth simply and mechanically evolved into
literature, a view that might be described as diachronic diffusionism. Rather,
myth, like literature, is linked to the Z0145symbolic, modeling and classificatory
language that people use to impose an interpretative structure on the social, cos
mological, material, and political aspects of everyday life. Meletinsky attempts
to demonstrate the coherence of mythological thought insofar as the poetic principle links ideas to events, which is history manifested in its mundane forms. At
the same time, ideas and events are seen as expressions of the transcendental
dimension of human thought.
In Meletinskys approach, myth is a semiotic phenomenon even if it contains a semanticizing aspect in archaic societies. In these societies, myth as a
total social fact (pace Durkheim) is expressed in a limited metaphorical expression with a strong metonymic weighting and semantic content. The code switching that is typical of myth, which depends on the semantic value attributed to its
symbols, is more important than the message. In fairly small-scale societies with
highly integrated and homogeneous cultures, in other words, there is little for

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The Poetics of Myth

which mythical symbols can act as metaphorseveryone knows and shares the
metaphorical link between mythical signifier and social signified. The heterogeneous aspect of modem society is instead linked to the strong metaphorical coding of its discourseswhat is the social signified in a cultural context in which
people must adopt generalized codes to talk to one another? Myth, therefore, is
distinguished from literature not by its form but by its themes, since no one discourse, mythical or literary, can lend itself to both aspects: myth continually
switches codes, while literature switches scenes and points of view within a unified armature of psychologically or socially motivated action.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that thought in a predominantly mythoriented society cannot absorb true metaphors (though myths are replete with
them), just as thought in a literary-oriented society is not attuned to signs
(though rhetorics are full of them: if Elvis Presley is Jesus Christ, then the
Seven-Eleven is the Garden of Eden). It is only in this sense that myth can be
considered a precursor of literature, that its metaphorical quality is common to
both forms of expression. Although the narrative structure and its metaphoric
links to the social context organize the text in myth and in literature, the social
dominates in literature not only because mytho-logic is more attuned to transforming chaos into order but because the social context is of secondary importance in relatively homogeneous cultures.
In fact, Meletinsky links the re-mythification of modern literature to the
universality of the poetic unconscious. This argument derives in part from his
tendency to favor an evolutionary scheme that inevitably introduces a gradation
between the so-called primitive origins of myth in simple societies on the one
hand and the complexity of modem societies on the other. I think this approach
risks undermining the usefulness of Meletinskys analysis of the function of
myth in primitive societies by reducing all band and tribal societies to the same
mold. In the same way, his sometimes polemical criticism of the myth and ritual
school as based on a static understanding of myth inevitably depends to a certain
extent on a reified view of the role of myth in maintaining social order. Meletinsky repeatedly criticizes a one-sided functional approach but does not really offer
much of an alternative. To be fair, however, this is not his goal here.
Similarly, Meletinskys insistence that myth is solidly linked to the regulation of a particular social and cultural order can lead him to underestimate myth
as a source of the imaginary (or the fantastic) in a given culture, as well as to
overemphasize a clear division between semantic content and metaphor, between
sign and symbol. If, however, it is true that myth must justify and legitimate a
historically determined social configuration because culture is the only means of
assuring human survival, it is also true that every society must have an easily
available source of alternative configurations in order to deal with continually
changing ecological and political conditions. In the archaic societies examined by
Meletinsky, this source, which in complex societies is partly derived from the
heterogeneous quality of the social structure and the consequent presence of
localized subcultures, is mythology and, in part, art. In this sense, Meletinsky is
almost functionalist in his approach to myth despite his constant reiteration of

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myths metaphorical potential, which he attributes to the universal problem of


linking origins to the needs of social order. It is in fact Meletinskys acknowledgment and emphasis of these universal aspects of myth (its goals and
poeticizing forms) that merit our attention and the re-publication of his book for
a contemporary audience. Nor should it be forgotten that Meletinsky does offer a
powerful theory that explains the modern tendency toward a metaphoric treatment of mythical materials. He reconciles the semantic power of myths with the
metaphoric quality of modern mythicizing literature.

NOTES ON THE ENGLISH EDITION


In writing this book, Meletinsky encountered many difficulties, not the least
of which was political censorship from legal and academic authorities then in
power in the Soviet Union. Any book or theory that privileged thought (the
superstructure, in Marxist jargon) at the expense of empirical contingencies
and economic infrastructure was not readily welcomed in Soviet ideology. The
first Russian translations of Lvi-Strauss, for example, only appeared in the
1970s, and some of Meletinskys publications, including the Poetics of Myth,
were threatened with censorship. Some of the obligatory references to Marx and
Engels that Meletinsky was forced to include have therefore been deleted in this
edition, and some of his reluctantly adopted S o v i e t terminology has been
modified or toned down in the translation: the collective has often become
people, tribe, or nation, and the bourgeoisie is the middle class, although
Sadetsky and I thought that Meletinskys use of bourgeois culture and
bourgeois prose was acceptable from an academic point of view.
Meletinsky uses many words that have a very specific meaning. For example, when he writes of an identity between two codes, motifs or themes, he
means congruence, that both elements are structurally and semantically identical. Similarly, the axiological dimension essentially means value or moral
systems and not merely values. It was decided to keep the translation of these
concepts as close as possible to the original not only for reasons of stylistic veracity, but because Meletinskys training in a European philosophical tradition
leads him to an extremely precise use of certain terms.
At the same time, stylistic changes have been made, references to debates
updated, and some sections deleted or moved for reasons of balance. As specific
as Meletinsky may be about single terms referring to ideas, he is sometimes
rather loose in assigning labels to scholars, especially when dealing with the
intellectual history of the myth and ritual school. He is argumentative and sometimes polemical, and readers should be aware that though his central thesis is
always thought-provoking, some of his assessments of other scholars may
sometimes be debatable. This may be related to the fact that the works of many
important European thinkers were long accessible in the Soviet Union, but many
anthropological works about myth were not available under the Soviet regime.
Meletinskys scholarship is generally impeccable when he had direct access to

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sources, but somewhat less so when dealing with theories that privileged the non
materialist origins of social institutions. This generally includes the myth and
ritual school and especially semiotics and structuralism. Ironically, Western
thinkers who use a non materialist approach when dealing with individuals (but
not with society) were more acceptable to the Soviet regime, and this shows in
Meletinskys extensive treatment of Freud and Jung, for example.
The book was written without an eye to publication in the West, which
means that it was intended for several hundred specialized scholars in the former
Soviet Union. Therefore, besides trying to provide an updated bibliography on
many topics and English versions of the references Meletinsky used, many original sources that had not been listed in the original (it was assumed that scholars
would know the references) had to be tracked down. I have tried to provide English equivalents to foreign language references Meletinsky read or consulted. For
example, Meletinsky discusses African mythologies without including the references he actually used; these have been added. I have also added what I hope are
accessible bibliographic references and explanatory notes in places where I felt
Meletinsky was assuming too much knowledge on the readers part, or when
there were appropriate English language works. My notes to the text are indicated by the use of square brackets. Third, I have added modern references which
I thought were significant and interesting. I have tried, though not always successfully, to keep my editorial comments to a minimum. Undoubtedly some errors have crept in and others have gone uncorrected.
Since some anthropological classics from the English-speaking world have
passed into Russian by way of indirect translations from non English secondary
translations, problems of transliteration of the names of mythical personages
meant that all references and names had to be checked against the originals
whenever this was feasible, either by checking the Russian reference to verify the
Russian authors original foreign language source, or by reconstructing the reference from the internal evidence. Names of people but especially of mythological
figures that remain not verified are indicated as such in the glossary. The same is
true for citations from certain literary works that were originally published in a
language other than Russian: I was unable to locate some passages in standard
English editions. In these cases, the citation is simply translated from the Russian, but the passage from, say, German to Russian to English may not correspond to the text in standard English editions.
A books public is a not inconsiderable consideration in the process of
writing, and certainly the same is true in translation. In the former USSR, there
were four grades in the student hierarchy; generally, what we consider the final
degree a student receives, the Doctorate, is awarded much later in Russia. It is a
sign of intellectual maturity, not the promise of greater things to come that it so
often is in the West. Russian candidates are usually highly specialized, and this
book was written for specialists. Therefore, I have tried to preserve its sense and
structure by aiming for a similar public here, namely graduate students, though I
hope that many professional scholars as well as undergraduates can profit from
the book as well. But given that Meletinsky was writing for a professional pub-

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lic, there is no getting around the fact that readers who are not well acquainted
with myth or literature will experience a rocky ride in spots. Meletinsky assumes
that the reader has read some of the classics of myth studies, most of the classics
of European philosophy and history, and almost all of the classics of world literature such as Joyce and Mann, and possesses a more than casual knowledge of the
myths of antiquity. I have tried to provide a road map of sorts by including a
glossary/analytical-index that supplements the sometimes sketchy information in
the text, but the reader who feels on unfamiliar terrain may do well to consider
this book a kind of general guide to further study. In general, names of mythological figures are explained in the glossary, while names of legendary or historical figures are explained in the notes.
A few parts of the text might appear redundant and even repetitious today,
but they certainly were not superfluous when the book was written and basic
information about Western thinkers was not available to Russian-language
scholars. Nor was it incorrect to use terms like primitive, which Meletinsky
takes as archaic. It is clear enough from the context that Meletinsky does not
believe that primitive thought is either simple or less advanced than the thought
of people in contemporary societies, and so Sadetsky and I have kept his use of
the term with no apologies. Meletinsky is no evolutionist in the usual sense of
the word, but there is no doubt that he believes that archaic cultures are less
structurally developed in the Durkheimian sense than the h i g h cultures of antiquity. The many references to the complexity of mythological thought in primitive or archaic societies and the many sections devoted to de-mythification in
modern cultures suggest that Meletinsky is simply referring to a technical division of labor when he uses terms like primitive or archaic. Highly developed
cultures, such as the Far Eastern systems of despotic political control based on
irrigation agriculture, are highly structurally differentiatedthey are generally
referred to as advanced systems in the text. This seems to me an acceptable
use of evolutionist language.
Other terms that seem a little too much like academic jargon (gnosiology,
axiological, hierogamy) have generally been retained. When speaking of the
gnosiological aspects of myth, for example, Meletinsky is not talking about
myths cognitive aspects but the manner in which cognitive aspects are viewed in
primitive cultures; a reflection upon cognition, in other words. To keep to the
spirit of the text Sadetsky and I decided to retain many of these terms, heavy as
they may be. Another stylistic problem sometimes encountered is the use of the
impersonal h e . I have usually substituted less gender specific terms when I
could, but there seemed little sense in finding a substitute for h e when the
mythical protagonist to which Meletinsky is referring is male, even in cases when
the protagonist is not named as such. Changes to the text have been approved by
Professor Meletinsky.
Some readers may note that the transliterations from the Russian are not
consistent due to existing conventions regarding personal and place names. For
example, in the literature Yuri Lotmans name is commonly spelled as I have
written it, though J u r i (which would have been my first choice) and I u r i are

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also possible interpretations. In general, Russian first names are simply given a
common English equivalent (Alexander rather than Alexandr). I would have
preferred Meletinskij to Meletinsky but chose the latter to be consistent with
already-established conventions. C in Russian words in the text is t s or t z in
other systems of transliteration (Kamenecky is pronounced /Kamen-et-skee/,
for example, and not /Kamen-eh-kee/), and k h is used for the voiceless velar
fricative (German ch as in ich) which is sometimes represented as ch or x
in other transliteration systems.
Finally, the many debts I incurred in editing this book cannot be paid back
by a simple acknowledgment since there were so many people who contributed
in major and minor ways. However, a few in particular should be mentioned:
Meletinsky himself, who gave a lot of his time and hospitality in Moscow, Pier
Carlo Bontempelli (Cassino), Norman Clermont (Montreal), Dominique de Ju
riew (Montreal), Giorgio Di Giovanni (Montreal), Remo Faccani (Treviso),
Claude Glinas (Montreal), Brenda Hosington (Montreal), David Lucking
(Lecce), Alessandro Lupo (Rome), Nikolai Mikhailov (Pisa), Nicoletta Misler
(Rome), Philip Smith (Montreal), Carla Solivetti (Rome), Tatiana Tsvetian
(Moscow), Kevin Tuite (Montreal), and the wonderful librarians of McLennan
Redpath Library, McGill University (Montreal), for whom I have no adequate
words of thanks. My greatest debt is to Alexander Sadetsky (Laval University,
Quebec City), whose attention to detail and linguistic capacity are far greater
than mine. Mr. Sadetsky worked tirelessly to assure a translation that was readable and accurate. The issue of readability or lack thereof, however, is my responsibilitySadetsky was responsible for the Russian, while the English is
mine. In addition, Mr. Sadetskys knowledge of the Russian sources was invaluable in the preparation of the notes and bibliography. Robert Segals comments
and corrections of the manuscript were also extremely helpful. To all these people, I offer my sincere thanks, though, of course, I assume all responsibility for
any errors and editorial opinions.
Guy Lanoue
(Rome-Montreal)
1
Specifically, many authors concentrate on the literary quality of mythic
narratives, what Sherzer and Woodbury call (1987:2) philological approaches.
The fact that myth is orally transmitted naturally lends itself to emphasizing
questions of pitch, tone, rhythm and other aspects of performance rather than
content as such. Cf. D. Hymes, The Wife who Goes Out like a Man, 1968;
Hymes, In Vain I Tried to Tell You, 1981; R. Darnell, Correlates of Cree Narrative Performance, 1989; J. Sherzer and A.C. Woodbury (eds.), Native American Discourse: Poetics and Rhetoric, 1987; D. Tedlock, Finding the Center:
Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians, 1972; Tedlock, The Spoken Word and
the Work of Interpretation, 1983; R. Bringhurst, T h a t Also Is You: Some
Classics of Native Canadian Literature, 1990; R. Bauman et al., Verbal Art as
Performance, 1977.

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2
Apart from the literature that specifically addresses particular topics,
listed in the various notes in the text itself, on myth and literature see: (coll.), Le
Mythe et le mythique, 1987; W.I. Aycock and T.M. Klein (eds.), Classical Mythology in Twentieth-Century Thought and Literature, 1980; S. Baehr, The
Paradise Myth in Eighteenth-Century Russia, 1991; D.Z. Baker, Mythic Masks
in Self-Reflexive Poetry, 1986 (Pan and Orpheus as models for the poets selfimage as reflected in poetryesp. Blok, Briusov and Crane); E.C. Barksdale,
The Dacha and the Duchess, 1974; S. Behrendt (ed.), History and Myth, 1990
(Blake, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth); D. Bevan (ed.), Modern Myths, 1993;
M.W. Bloomfield (ed.), Allegory, Myth, and Symbol, 1981 (English literature);
J. Boon, From Symbolism to Structuralism, 1972 (one of the first attempts to
use a structuralist approach in literary analysis); A. Bouloumie, Michel Tournier, 1988; D. Buschinger (ed.), Tristan et Iseut, mythe europen et mondial,
1987; P. Cantor, Creature and Creator: Myth-making and English Romanticism, 1984; R. Carbone, Mito/Romanzo, 1986; R. Clark, History, Ideology and
Myth in American Fiction 1823-1852, 1984 (myth in Cooper, Hawthorne,
Melville); A. Cook, Myth and Language, 1980 (Greek and folk literature, myth
and metaphor); L. Damrosch, Symbol and Truth in Blakes Myth, 1980; I.N.
Davydov, Myth, Philosophy, Avant-gardism, 1983 (European literature); W.G.
Doty, Mythography, 1986 (chap. VI: Myth Criticism in Literary Analysis, an
introductory text with an ample bibliography); Doty, Myth, the Archetype of
All Other Fable: A Review of Recent Literature, 1991; G. Dumzil, Du mythe
au roman, 1980; C. Falck, Myth, Truth and Literature, 1989 (myth as the basis
of poetical knowledge); L. Feder, Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry, 1971 (myth
in Keats, Pound and Eliot); W. Feuser, Myth, History and Literature in Africa,
1988; C. Fredericks, The Future of Eternity, 1982 (science fiction and mythology); W.K. Freiert, Classical Myth in Contemporary American Fiction, 1989;
E. Gould, Mythical Intentions in Modern Literature, 1981 (English literature,
archetypes, structuralism, Joyce, Lawrence and T.S. Eliot); C. Goux et al., Construction et deconstruction du mythe dans la littrature contemporaine, 1983;
A. Kodjak, K. Pomorska, S. Rudy (eds.), Myth in Literature, 1985 (modern
Russian literatureBulgakov, Majakovsky, etc.); J.L. Kugel (ed.), Poetry and
Prophecy, 1990 (mythology and prophecy in literature); G.L. Lucente, The Narrative of Realism and Myth, 1981 (Verga, Lawrence, Faulkner, Pavese); D.
Lucking, Beyond Innocence, 1991 (the motif of the Fall); Lucking, Myth and
Identity, 1995 (Canadian literature); G Mathieu-Castellani, Mythes de IEros
baroque, 1981 (myth and French poetry in the period 1570-1620); M.W.
McCune, T. Orbison and P.M. Withim (eds.), The Binding of Proteus, 1980
(articles by Campbell, Moorman, Vickery); M. Merlini, The Mythological Approach in Jacobs Room, 1992 (Virginia Woolf); J. Miller (ed.), Don Giovanni,
1990; A. Moss, Poetry and Fable, 1984 (sixteenth-century France); D. Patai,
Myth and Ideology in Contemporary Brazilian Fiction, 1983; M.C. Penuelas,
Mito, literatura y realdad, 1965 (myth and Spanish literature); D. Poiron,
Rsurgences: mythe et littrature lge du symbole, 1986 (classical myths in

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French literature before 1500); V.S. Pritchett, The Myth Makers, 1979 (the
chapters on Borges and Marquez); K. Raine, On the Mythological, 1969 (dated,
but has a bibliography specifically on myth and literature); W. Righter, Myth
and Literature, 1975; J. Rousset, Le mythe de Don Juan, 1978; K.K. Ruthven,
Myth, 1976 (esp. chap. III, Myths and Writers); W. Schmid (ed.), Mythos in
der slawischen Moderne, 1987 (myth in Slavic literature); R Sellick (ed.), Myth
and Metaphor, 1982 (myths in African and Australian literature); W. Soyinka,
Myth, Literature, and the African World, 1976; T. Spivey, The Journey Beyond
Tragedy, 1980 (Eliot, Hardy, Wilde, Lawrence, Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce
and Hesse); G. Stevens, Myth, Folklore, and Literature, 1973 (includes a large
bibliography); J.P. Strelka, Literary Criticism and Myth, 1980; J.B. Vickery,
Literature and Myth, 1982; Vickery, Myths and Texts, 1983; W.D. Wetzels
(ed.), Myth and Reason, 1973 (mythology and German literature); CB. Yoke
(ed.), Phoenix from the Ashes, 1987 (myths in American science fiction); T.
Ziolkovski, Disenchanted Images, 1977 (iconic images as symbols); A. Ziolk
ovsky, Themes and Texts, 1984.
A few important titles published before Poetika Mifa, yet not cited by
Meletinsky, are: C. Ddyan, Le thme de Faust dans la littrature europenne,
1954-67; W.B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a
Traditional Hero, 1954; R. Trousson, Le Thme de Promthe dans la littrature europenne, 1964; L. Vinge, The Narcissus Theme in Western European
Literature up to the Early Nineteenth Century, 1967.
3
Original in Italian; EM. Meletinsky, Tre lezioni di potica storica e
comparata, 1992, p. 98.
4
As concerns Meletinskys prescience, I refer the reader to his treatment of
the Australian Aboriginal concept of Dreamtime, in which he deduces that the
Dreamtime is a parallel dimension in which are situated processes of the reformulating of spiritual matter; it is not merely a pre-historic epoch of creation.
This view comes very close to recent arguments proposed by specialists in the
field (mentioned in Part II).
5
See, for example, M. Halpin, A Critique of the Boasian Paradigm for
Northwest Coast Art, 1994, and R Maud, T h e Henry Tate-Franz Boas Collaboration on Tsimshian Mythology, 1989.

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BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE
Eleazar Moiseevich Meletinsky is the author of over 200 publications, of which
at least 50 are articles that have been published in foreign-language (non Russian) journals, and 50 are articles in Russian; the rest are notes, book reviews,
etc. He is also editor of over 30 books.
Meletinsky was born on 22 October 1918 in Kharkov. His initial studies
were undertaken at the Philological Institute of the University Institute of
History, Philosophy and Literature from 1935 to 1940. In 1941 he began work
on his dissertation on Ibsens romantic works, which he completed in 1945 at
Tashkent after a period spent on the western front as an army interpreter. From
1946 to 1949 he held the chair of literature at the University of Petrozavodsk. He
was arrested in 1949 for cosmopolitan activities, incarcerated for six years and
only rehabilitated after Stalins death. He later worked at the Institute of World
Literature of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and received his doctorate in
1968 for a thesis on the origin of epics. In 1988, he was named professor at the
University of Moscow, and was recently named director of the Institute of Higher
Studies at the new University of Human Sciences in Moscow. In 1990, he
received the State Prize of the USSR for his work on the Myths of the People of
the World. He is also editor-in-chief of the journal Arbor Mundi.
Meletinsky is associated with the school that includes such semioticians as
A.V. Toporov, B.A. Uspensky, S.S Averincev, and V.V. Ivanov, most of whom
have been linked to the Academy of Sciences. These people (including
Meletinsky) are sometimes identified as the Moscow branch of the Tartu School,
which is connected to the work of Yuri Lotman.

MAJOR WORKS:

1958Geroj volshebnoj skazki. Proiskhozhdenie obraza (The Hero in Fairytales: The origin of the protagonist)
1963Proiskhozhdenie geroicheskogo eposa. Rannie formy i archaicheskie
pamjatniki (The Origin of the Heroic Epos: Primitive forms and archaic
monuments)
1968 Edda i rannie formy eposa (Edda and the First Forms of Epics)
1976Poetica mifa (The Poetics of Mythtranslated into Italian, Hungarian,
Polish, Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, Portuguese, Czech, Chinese and Japanese)
1979Paleoasiatskij mifologicheskij epos. Cikl vorona (Paleosiberian Epic
Mythology: The raven cycle)
1983Srednevekovyj roman. Proiskhozhdenie i klassicheskie formy (The
Medieval Novel: Origins and classical forms)

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1986Vvedenie v istoricheskuju poetiku eposa i romana (Introduction to the


Historic Poetics of Epics and the Novel)
1990Istoricheskaya poetika novelly (Historical Poetics of the Novella)
1990(editor) Mifologicheskij slovar (Mythological Dictionary)
1994O literaturnykh arkhetipakh (On Literary Archetypes)

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PREFACE
TO THE RUSSIAN EDITION
(1976)
The title of this book is perhaps an imprecise reflection of its contents since
myth as such is not the subject of the usual literary categories associated with
poetics such as style and expressive and artistic means. Yet myth expresses specific artistic images in concrete form, and artistic expression carries within itself
a considerable mythological inheritance. In fact, archaic mythology blended not
only the embryonic germ of religious sentiments and philosophical speculation
(which were later to follow their own paths of development and transcend
mythological thought), but also art in general and the verbal arts in particular; art
is a means of expression inheriting both the syncretic and the concrete qualities
of myth. I use the expression poetics of myth and consider myth as the prehistory phase of literature because various literary genres long put traditional myths
to artistic uses. The religious aspect of myth in my analysis has, in this sense,
simply been ignored. The expression poetics of myth (or poetics of mythopo
esis or poetics of mythification) has a legitimate application in the analysis of
the writings of some twentieth-century authors (Joyce, Kafka, Lawrence, Yeats,
Eliot, ONeill, Cocteau, and a few others who cannot be considered Modernists,
such as Mann and Garcia Marquez). These view myth either as the instrument by
which artistic organization is imposed on their material, or as stable archetypes
that are relevant for the cultures of different nations. There are other critics, especially the myth and ritual school, who see all poetics as the poetics of myth.1
Mythification is certainly linked to Modernism, but the ideological and artistic aspirations of mythicizing writers have allowed the process to go well beyond the confines of the Modernist movement. Mythification in literature and
criticism has replaced nineteenth-century Realism. The Realistss goal of verisimilitude allowed only tacit mythological input to surface in their writings. Literary mythification is dominated by the idea of an eternal, cyclical repetition of
mythological prototypes under different masks, which means that literary and
mythological protagonists can play various roles and be replaced by a variety of
characters. The mythic identity is fixed, and different figures simply come and go
and assume the part. Authors have tried to mythicize the prose of daily life, and
critics have sought to bring the hidden mythological bases of Realism to the
surface.
This rebirth of myth in contemporary literature is partly based on an apologetic attitude toward myth (exalted as the eternal principle of vitalism by
Nietzsche and Bergson), on Richard Wagners extraordinary fusion of music and
myth, and on the psychological theories of Freud and Jung. Modern ethnology
has also had its part to play in this process. Although they owe an important
intellectual debt to philosophy, these theories have brought new life to traditional
anthropological approaches to myth; I am thinking of Frazer, Malinowski, LvyBruhl, and Cassirer in particular. Myth is now studied not as the means by which

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xx

primitive man quenches his thirst for knowledge (the nineteenth-century theory
of survivals had argued just this point) but as holy scripture that is closely
linked to the ritual life of the tribe. To a certain degree, myth is now even considered as derived from ritual. This is not to take away from the practical (or perhaps functional) aspects of myth, especially its role as the regulator and bulwark of natural and social harmony (this aspect has been used to justify the importance given to the common motif of the eternal return). Myth has also been
studied as a symbolic and pre-logical system that is similar to other manifestations of the human imagination and its creative fantasies. The fact that many
contemporary authors are familiar with recent ethnological theories does not
lessen the fact that the crisis in Western culture at the beginning of this century
may have had a greater impact on their artistic concepts than archaic mythology.
Modern mythicizing is no doubt a reaction to the feeling that swept many
artists and intellectuals at the beginning of this century, that the crisis of bourgeois culture was somehow a crisis of an entire civilization. This led to questions
about positivist rationalism, evolutionism, and the liberal-democratic understanding of the dynamic of history itself. The American critic Philip Rahv2 sees
the idealization of myth as a direct consequence of the modern fear of history
Joyces protagonists desire nothing more than to be awakened from the
nightmare of history. And besides the influence of anti-historicist theories and
the suggestions of new philosophies, the traumatic effect of the First World War
also played a part. This sensitized people to the fragility and instability of modern civilization and the ruinous forces that threatened to destroy it. Modem
mythification also gained ground as the result of the Romantic revolt against
middle-class prose and of the warnings and menaces emitted by a growing Fascism (which tried to stake out its ideological position in terms of vitalism and to
revive archaic Germanic mythology). The present of the Twenties and Thirties
did not bode well for the future, and mythification was aided by the fear of
growing chaos as revolutionary changes threatened the established order.
These social upheavals all conspired to give credence to the then-current
idea that the thin layer of culture is not much more than a filmy coating that
keeps underlying and eternal forces at bay. These forcescreative and destructiveemerge from mans very nature, from psychological and metaphysical
principles that are universally human. The desire to harness these forces in order
to transcend socio-historic and spatial and temporal limits is what marked the
transition from nineteenth-century Realism to twentieth-century Modernism. The
archaic language of mythological symbolism and its link to deep or hidden
psychology was seen as the appropriate vehicle to express the eternal models at
the base of individual behavior and the fundamental laws of the universe.
There were other factors at work: twentieth-century mythification is compatible not only with an intuitive approach, but also with rationalism; it can be
suborned by right-wing as well as left-wing ideologies (Georges Sorels anarchic
trade-unionism, for example); and, finally, it is not always ahistorical but sometimes the expressive means of creating literary types (Thomas Mann, for example, whose brand of mythification was partly a response to Nazi mythicizing, or

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Third World authors who use myth and folklore as a means of expressing the
vitality of a nationalistic ethos). Twentieth-century mythification therefore goes
beyond Modernism. It is complex and contradictory. Many interrelated factors
are at work here, and mythification cannot be reduced to other, simpler factors
such as, for example, being considered the sum of various mythologies.
In one way or another, the history of culture was seen against the background of the history of primitive and classical mythology. The relationship between myth and culture considered as a whole has always been changing and
evolving, but there has been an overall tendency toward de-mythification. The
apogee of this process was the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the
positivism of the nineteenth. The present century has instead witnessed a return
to mythicizing, especially in the culture of the West. This recent phenomenon has
gone well beyond the Romantic infatuation with myth and stands diametrically
opposed to de-mythification. And the nature of twentieth-century mythification
cannot be understood without looking back to the characteristics of the mythology of primitive societies and of antiquity. To understand the present, we must
somehow come to grips with the past.
The re-mythification of culture and especially literature in the West has revived the problem of myth, both in general terms and in terms of its relationship
to poetics. As a first step, myth must be linked to the societies that produced it
just as modern mythification must be considered a phenomenon of this century
in order to identify the characteristics that distinguish modern mythification from
archaic mythology. But this is not sufficient, since most modem theories of myth
and ritual assume (or argue) that myth is a multi-faceted phenomenon that expresses the fundamental characteristics of human thought, social behavior and
artistic expression; hence the contributions from literary criticism must be given
as much weight as strictly ethnological approaches to myth.
This work therefore has two aims: first, to investigate myth in light of contemporary theories, while investigating these theories; second, to examine the
relationship between myth and literature from a perspective that takes into account the contemporary understanding of the classic forms of myth. I will examine older theories of myth, including pre-twentieth century views of the relationship of myth to literature. In particular, I will focus on the major theories of
myth, including the myth and ritual school of literary criticism and Soviet work
on the poetics of myth; the classic forms of myth; some aspects of the evolution
from myth to literature; and finally, the poetics of mythification in twentiethcentury literature.
I would like to take this occasion to thank my colleagues in the Department
of the History of Literature who discussed this work with me, as well as S.S.
Averincev, V.V. Ivanov, and D.V. Zatonsky, who read the manuscript and offered
priceless counsel.
E.M. Meletinsky

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1
The myth and ritual school, especially as represented by Maud Bodkin
and Northrop Frye, will be examined in detail in Part I.
2
[Cf. Rahv, The Myth and the Powerhouse, 1969].

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THE

POETICS

OF MYTH

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PART ONE

MODERN THEORIES OF MYTH


AND APPROACHES TO LITERATURE1

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW 2

Classical philosophy began with a rational reevaluation of mythological materials and, obviously, dealt with the problem of the relationship between knowledge and mythic narration.3 The Sophists interpreted
myth as allegory, while Plato favored a philosophical and symbolic approach to popular mythology. Alexei Losev, a modern scholar of Plato
and one of the most important specialists of the mythology of antiquity
and of the theoretical problems of the interpretation of myth, argues that
the doctrine of the universal being becomes in Plato the dialectical and
transcendental basis of all mythology.4 Aristotle, especially in his Poetics, saw myth as fable. Later, allegorical interpretations of myth came to
the fore. The Stoics saw in Greek deities the personification of the functions attributed to the gods, and the Epicureans argued that myths,
which they saw as based on natural facts, had been used by the ruling
and priestly classes for their own ends. The neo-Platonists evaluated
myth in terms of logical categories. Euhemerus argued that mythical
protagonists were nothing more than historical characters who had become imbued with a divine aura. Medieval Christian scholars explained
the Old and New Testaments figuratively and allegorically.
During the Renaissance, interest in the mythology of antiquity
emerged once again. Myth was seen positively as a series of poetic
allegories tinted by a moralizing veneer; as a manifestation of the
sentiments and passions that accompanied human emancipation; or as an
allegorical expression of religious, philosophical, and scientific truths.5
By contrast, the scholars of the Enlightenment were generally negative

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toward myth, believing it to be the result of ignorance and delusion.


Almost at the same time, several books were published at the beginning
of the eighteenth century that were to influence strongly the study of
myth: Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of
Primitive Times by Joseph Lafitau,6 On the Origin of Fables by Bernard
de Fontenelle,7 and The New Science by Giambattista Vico.
Lafitau, a Jesuit missionary who lived for many years among Canadian Indians, compared their culture with that of classical Greece and
gave birth to the comparative method in ethnology. He reached the
conclusion that both cultures had arisen from the same basic principles
and sought the seed of revealed higher religions in pagan mythology
and religion. Fontenelle, a Cartesian and an immediate precursor of Enlightenment scholars, explained the rise of myths in primitive societies
by the fact that, in their search for explanations, primitives attributed
human, though greatly exaggerated, characteristics to the otherwise incomprehensible forces of nature. According to Fontenelle, modern superstition and prejudice are survivals of this false conception. Despite
the similarity of the methodological principles they use, Lafitau and
Fontenelle are fundamentally opposed. The Cartesian Fontenelle contrasts the epoch in which the imagination held sway to the age of the
mechanical arts. He leans toward the latter because the former was too
clearly generated by ignorance and barbarism and therefore constituted
an obstacle to civilization.
In contrast to Fontenelle, Vico bases his thinking on a dialectical
understanding of historical development, in which gains are inseparable
from losses. He in fact favors a cyclical view of the history of civilization: the divine, heroic, and human epochs of civilization express the
infancy, adolescence, and adulthood of society and of collective reason.
Vico links poetry to an undeveloped culture and even emphasizes,
unlike the major players of the French Enlightenment, the sublime quality (later lost) of the poetry of antiquity. Heroic poetry of the Homeric
type was born, according to Vico, from the divineby which he
means mythologybut the originality of myth is largely defined by
specific and little developed forms of thought that can be best compared
with the psychology of an infant. Vico is referring to the sensual tangibility, the corporeality, the emotionality, and the richness of the imagination, all of which are associated with the absence of the rational. He also
invokes the projection of personal characteristics onto the material
world, even up to the point of equating the cosmos with the human
body: the personification of natural categories, the inability to separate
the abstract characteristics of a subject from its concrete forms and at-

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tributes, and the substitution of the essence for episodes.8 Vicos subtle
understanding of the metaphorical nature of myth and of the mythological genesis of many poetic tropes, as well as his emphasis on the fact
that every metaphor or metonym is at heart a miniature myth, broadly
anticipates not only the Romantic interpretation of myth but also the
modern view.
Vico had interesting ideas on the evolution of the poetic language
that developed out of myth and on the emergence of the language of
prose from poetry. His thoughts on the transformation of metaphor into
linguistic signs and on the language of symbols in the Greek epoch are
still worthy of note today. Vico hypothesizes
that all the tropes . . . which have been hitherto been considered ingenious inventions of writers, were necessary modes of expression
of all the first poetic nations, and had originally their full native propriety. But these expressions of the first nations later became figurative when, with the further development of the human mind, words
were invented which signified abstract forms or genera comprising
their species or relating parts with their wholes.9
Vico represents every aspectlogical, metaphysical, economic, political, physical, and geographicalof the archaic epoch as poetic and
rooted in myth, thereby demonstrating his understanding of the ideological syncretism of primitive societies. Vico is convinced that the oldest mythic poetry was an imitation of nature in the Aristotelian sense,
but only when viewed through the prism of the primitive mythological
imagination. He also believes that myth can be used as a historical
source when its peculiar mode of reflecting reality is taken into account:
particular historical personalities become imbued, in the logic of myth,
with natural qualities and actions, and mythological geography and cosmography have a basis in concrete reality. Vico, however, without any
ethnographic evidence (though perhaps no weaker than Lafitaus observations), combines a profound understanding of symbols with allegory
and ingenuous euhemerization, though his methods of philological
analysis and etymological research are imprecise. He is not, however,
able to resolve either concrete historical problems or problems that pertain to folklore. Vicos contributions in the area of philosophy of myth
are therefore more often remembered today than his scientific methodology.
Vicos theory of myth and poetry is placed squarely within the philosophy of history:

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The first men, the children as it were of the human race, not
being able to form intelligible class concepts of things, had a natural
need to create poetic characters, that is, imaginative class-concepts,
by reducing them as to certain models or ideal portraits all the particular species which resembled them. [209]
Hence poetic wisdom, the first wisdom of the gentile world,
must have begun with a metaphysic not rational and abstract like
that of learned men now, but felt and imagined as that of the first
men must have been, who, without power of ratiocination, were all
robust sense and vigorous imagination. This metaphysic was their
poetry, a faculty born with them (for they were furnished by nature
with these senses and imaginations); born of their ignorance of
causes . . . Their poetry was at first divine, because they imagined
the causes of the things they felt and wondered at to be gods . . . . At
the same time they gave the things they wondered at substantial being after their own ideas, just as children do, whom we see take inanimate things in their hands and play with them and talk to them as
though they were living persons . . . [375]
In such fashion the first men of the gentile nations, children of
nascent mankind as we have styled them in the Axioms, created
things according to their own ideas . .. but they in their robust ignorance, did it by virtue of a wholly corporeal imagination. And because it was quite corporeal, they did it with marvelous sublimity . . .
[376]
For it has been shown that it was deficiency of human reasoning power that gave rise to poetry so sublime that the philosophies
that came afterwards, the arts of poetry and of criticism, have produced none equal or better, and have even prevented its production . . . This discovery of the origins of poetry does away with the
opinion of the matchless wisdom of the ancients, so ardently sought
after from Plato to Bacons De Sapientia veterum. For the wisdom
of the ancients was the vulgar wisdom of the lawgivers who founded
the human race, not the esoteric wisdom of great and rare philosophers. [387]10
Vico is the creator of the first serious philosophy of myth. It is no
coincidence that Vicos view of myth as part of history developed alongside the emergence of middle-class prose. The decline of Renaissance
culture, which had consciously sought to amalgamate medieval Christian
traditions with the paganism of antiquity, resulted in the definitive disappearance of mythological traditions that had still been fueling Renaissance culture, albeit in a humanized and aesthetically transformed form
that was a sign of their poetic nature. It is no coincidence that this demythification did not originate in France, the seat of optimistic rational-

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ism and enlightenment, but in Italy, which was undergoing a general


cultural and political decline after experiencing the brilliant efflorescence
of the Renaissance. From a methodological viewpoint, Vicos polemic is
aimed at the Cartesian variation on the theme of historical progress.
Vicos philosophy of myth also contains in embryothat is, syncreticallyalmost all of the main tendencies of later mythological studies, varied and contradictory as they sometimes may be: Herder and the
Romantic poeticization of myth and folklore; the link between myth and
poetic language analyzed by Max Mller, A.A. Potebnja, and Ernst
Cassirer; the theory of survivals associated with English anthropology;
the work of the folklore historians; and even distant allusions to Durk
heims collective representations and Lvy-Bruhls notion of primitive
rationality. Even James Joyce was fascinated by Vicos analysis of myth
and by his cyclical theory of history. He cites his name several timesin
a serious though sometimes facetious veinin his mythicizing novel
Firmegans Wake. He even uses Vicos theories of myth to organize the
structure of the work.
Vicos philosophy of myth is not an ontological summary of the science of myth but it does anticipate many of the later developments that
were to characterize modern research into myth. It is commonly believed that Vicos philosophy of history anticipates many of Herders
ideas and a few of the principles behind Hegels philosophy of history,
while Vicos ideas on the cyclical unfolding of cultural development
have reemerged in the twentieth century in the work of Oswald Spengler
and Arnold Toynbee.12
Herders work acts as a bridge between the Enlightenment and the
Romantic view of myth. Herder is attracted to myths because of their
naturalness, their emotional charge, their poetic character, and especially
their link with national or ethnic character. Herder examines the myths
of many societies, including the myths of many primitive cultures. He
does not appear to be interested in myth as such but instead
concentrates his studies on how myth expressed the world view,
wisdom, and poetic richness of a nation.13
The Romantic philosophy of myth, which is perhaps most clearly
delineated in the works of Christian Heyne, KP. Moritz, the theoretical
critiques of Friedrich and Wilhelm Schlegel, Georg Friedrich Creuzer,
Johann Grres, A.I. Kanne, and the Grimm brothers, found its highest
expression in Schelling.14 In the Romantic view, myth is essentially
treated as an aesthetic phenomenon that, in contrast to earlier views, is
also privileged as the symbolic prototype of artistic creation. The waning of traditional interpretations of myth as allegoryan approach to

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some extent still found in Heineand the growth of the symbolic approach, are the nexus of the Romantic view. It is during this period that
the first tentative steps were taken toward a historical treatment of myth
and its different national forms, even if this new position was still essentially abstract and idealist. The stance assumed by a few of the Romantics toward modern individualism or medieval Christianity still
sometimes strongly smacks of the more traditional cult of antiquity.
While the young Schlegel seeks Dionysian effusiveness in ancient rituals
and in the works of Aristophanes, Schelling and, later, Hegel remain
faithful to Goethes and Winckelmanns views on the myth and art of
antiquity15
Schelling sees art and aesthetics, which he believes is isomorphic
with organic life, as the most important act by which knowledge is acquired and an efficient means of overcoming the antinomy between
subject and object, necessity and liberty, nature and spirit, and real and
idealan instrument, therefore, that is capable of faithfully representing
authentic essence; an instrument by which the absolute can contemplate
itself.16 Schellings aesthetics and even his entire philosophy constitute
from the start a classical model of objective idealism based on Platonic
conceptions. Mythology plays a key role in Schellings aesthetic system.
It is through the filter of mythology that Schelling develops his ideas on
art, on the assumption that the mythical godsunderstood as ideas
that are the subject of real contemplationplay the same role in art as
ideas per se do in philosophical speculation. Every form includes within
itself an integral divineness. Mythic imagination blends the absolute
with the particular and sees in the single part all the divinity of the
whole:
Mythology is a necessary condition and the raw material of
every art.
The nervus probandi is contained in the idea of art as a manifestation of the Absolute and of Beauty per se by means of objects
that are particularly beautiful, as manifestations of the Absolute in
its details, without, however, the Absolute being emptied of its content. This contradiction is resolved only by the idea of the gods, who,
for their part, can be given an independent and truly objective existence only by being developed to the level of poetic integrity and
autonomous universe that is called mythology.
Mythology is nothing else but the universe itself in majestic
guise, in its Absolute aspect, a true universe in itself, images of the
existence of chaos that are replete with the miracles of Divine creation, a universe that is itself poetry but which is at the same time the

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raw material of poetry. Mythology is the world and, in a manner of
speaking, the only soil in which artistic creations can grow and
flourish. Only within the limits of that world is it possible to have
the well-defined and stable images by which it is possible to reflect
eternal concepts.
Because poetry is the expressive principle of matter such as
the art of form in its most restricted meaning, mythology is absolute
poetry, or, perhaps, spontaneous poetry. Mythology is the eternal
matter from which all forms burst forth in their full splendor.17

Schelling places the accent on the aesthetic and spontaneous aspect of


myth and sees in mythology the primordial matter from which everything is derived, a world of primary imagesthat is, the primordial
element, base, and paradigm of all poetry and art. These views are fairly
close to Vicos.
In Schellings philosophical conception, art and nature play analogous roles, albeit on different levels, while myth is in some ways intermediate between the two. Polytheistic mythology is treated as the
apotheosis of natural phenomena, a kind of symbolism of nature. Unlike
Vico, Schelling rejects euhemeristic and allegorical approaches to myth
and clearly distinguishes among schematism (deriving the particular
from the general), allegory (deriving the general from the particular),
and symbol. The symbol synthesizes the first two expressions of the
imagination, schematism and allegory, but is nonetheless unique: it is an
absolute in and of itself. A symbol is in fact a higher synthesis in which
the general and the particular are indistinguishable. Schelling insists that
myth is the means of this representation, and symbolism is the underlying principle of mythology. The particular is not a sign of the general in
mythical representation but is the same as the general, so that each part
reproduces the whole. Mythical symbolism is primordial, and Schelling
also distinguishes between a symbol and an image, by which he means
an exact, concrete reproduction of the object. Schelling also argues that
an allegorical meaning is contained within the myth itself as one possible
reading, which is the reason for the plenitude of meanings in myth, many
of which are only partly attested by the allegorical, non poetic interpretations that were to become popular later. But Schelling, like Moritz,
offers bints of the idea that mythology is a paradigmatic system based on
the combination of wholeness and limits in the characteristics attributed to the gods. In fact, the Romantics speak of myth as language
only in the metaphorical sense: deprived of any concrete reality, Romantic symbolism permits a mystical view of the symbol. Nonetheless,
the Romantic emphasis on the symbolism of myths is an important step

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The Poetics of Myth

and has important repercussions for twentieth-century symbolic theories


of myth.
Although dealing with mythology as a general category, Schelling
always uses as his model the mythology of antiquity, which he sees as
the mythology par excellence.18 Basing himself on the aesthetic views of
Goethe and Winckelmann, Schelling emphatically presents Greek
theogony as a reordering of chaos and the transcendence of uniformity,
yet not without seeing chaos as the primordial basis of being. In
Schellings philosophy of art, there is also a schematic yet very insightful
comparison of classical, Eastern, and Christian mythologies. Schelling
believes that Greek mythology is profoundly symbolic, Indian mythology allegorical, and Persian somewhat schematic. He also believes that
Greek mythology is realistic and proceeds from the infinite to the finite,
while Eastern mythology is idealistic and takes a diametrically opposite
direction.
According to Schelling, the idealism of Oriental mythologywith
its continual emphasis on the essence, the idea, and the idealreaches
its logical conclusion in Christianity. He asserts that the subject matter
of Christian mythology is not nature but history. Above all, Christian
mythology is concerned with the working of fate and moral values. The
symbol that stands for the world of ideas in Christian mythology is not
nature and being but humanity and its actions: instead of the elevation of
humanity to the divine, there is the humanizing of God; instead of pantheism, there is a hierarchy (God, angels, and men) and a rigid division
between good and evil (angels and demons); instead of the religion of
poetry, there is the religion of revelation. All these ideas were to be developed in Hegels aesthetics. In a word, Schellings aesthetics can be
considered an original poetic philosophy of myth.
Starting from the idea that mythology symbolizes eternal principles
and continues to live in the arts, Schelling argues that mythopoetics
surfaces in art and can be harnessed to an individual creative mythology:
Every great poet is called upon to transform into something finished
that part of the world that has been revealed to him and, using this
material, to create a proper mythology. The mythological world is
always being formed, and the poets own epoch can reveal only a
part of it to the poet. This will continue till the distant time in which
the spirit of the world will complete the poem to which it gave birth,
and will transform the succession of the phenomena of the new
world into simultaneity.

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As examples of great poets, Schelling points to Dante, who derives


his myth from the horror of history and from the hierarchy that dominated his world; Shakespeare, whose myth is built on the basis of national history and the social customs of his time; Cervantes; and Goethe,
the creator of Faust. All these are eternal myths, says Schelling.
Schelling is open to the possibility of a new mythology and a new symbolism, even to the point of speculative physicsan idea that today
does not appear at all strange.
A first version of Schellings philosophy of myth emerged in the period 1801-9. This version was to serve as the basis for all his subsequent
work on myth, especially in his Philosophy of Myth and of Revelation,
written after 1815, when he abandons the philosophy of identity by
refusing to equate reason with being and by rejecting the orientation
toward intellectual intuition. After this, Schelling no longer confines the
philosophy of myth to pure aesthetics but elevates it to the sphere of
theosophy. Indeed, it is presented as an introduction to a specifically
religious philosophy of revelation.
Within this framework, myth is interpreted as the substantial unity
of Aristotles efficient, material, formal, and final causes. Its symbolic
nature is again affirmed, and its significance and fundamental role in human conscience are stressed. Myth transcends history because it precedes history. In this scheme, the mythological process is considered a
theogonie moment in which God, or the Absolute, reveals itself historically through the agency of human conscience. This is what
Schelling means when he refers to the movement from the subjective to
the objective. In his view, polytheistic mythologies have a historical
content that coincides with the dogma of true religion, and they therefore precede Gods self-revelation.
Hegel does not create a real theory of myth, although he goes beyond Schelling in developing a coherent historicity, though still always
within the framework of objective idealism. In his understanding of myth
and its relation to art, Hegel basically develops Schellings ideas
though heavily modifying their emphasesas well as a comparative
analysis of the various historically determined types of mythologies.
Hegel concerns himself not so much with mythological symbolism as the
basis of art, which he does not distinguish clearly from allegory, as with
the forms of art in history, symbolic art in the ancient East, classical in
the Graeco-Roman world, and romantic in the medieval period. At the
same time his brilliant definition of the substance of the symbolic form
of art can be perfectly adapted to characterizing mythology as both a
cultural form and an ideology that precedes art.20 This definition is also

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useful for understanding cultures that are more sensitive to an all-enveloping symbolism (including in part, for example, the medieval period) in
their relation to art, which was generally imbued with the pathos of the
objective conquest of the world starting from the Renaissance. Analogous phenomena are also found in the classical world, albeit to a much
lesser extent. In sum, the contribution made by German philosophy,
from Herder to Hegel, to understanding mythology even before the development of a separate science of myth studies, is a fundamental one,
even if it is essentially within an idealistic and objective framework.21
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence
of two contrasting schools of myth interpretation. The first, inspired by
the Germanic mythology of Jakob Grimm and by the Romantic
tradition (Adalbert Kuhn, Friedrich Schwartz, Max Mller, Angelo de
Gubernatis, Fedor Buslaev, Alexander Afanasev, and others),22 is based
on the insights that earlier had been successfully generated by
comparative and historical linguistics. This first approach attempts to
reconstruct ancient Indo-European mythology by comparing the
etymologies of words in European languages. Basing himself on these
studies, Max Mller, the leader of the school, sees the birth of myth as a
disease of language: primitive peoplesfor example, the ancient
Aryansused concrete signs expressed in terms of metaphorical
epithets when referring to abstract concepts. Myth is created when
people f o r g e t the metaphorical nature of these epithets, when their
symbolic referents become obscured with age. A similar problem can be
found in Vico, although in reverse: here the developmental path is not
from myth to language but from language to myth. (As the work of
Potebnja shows, Vicos version is much closer to the truth).
Mller basically sees the sun as a divine symbol. By contrast, Kuhn
and Schwartz see them as figurative representations of atmospheric phenomena, especially of storms. Obviously, the adherents of the nature
myth school pay more attention to lunar and solar myths in their research, but they also take into account the role of animals in the formation of myths.23 Following a logic that is the inverse of Schellings
based not on metaphysics but on the sensesthe gods are interpreted as
symbols of nature. The adherents of this school are therefore sometimes
said to espouse the natural viewpoint, whereas the folklorists sometimes call it the mythological school because its supporters always
attribute mythical origins to motifs in tales and epics, and these origins
are said to be governed by a mytho-logic steeped in the symbolism of
storms and heavenly bodies. This is, in fact, an implicit interpretation of

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the concept of survivals that had been earlier elaborated by their rivals,
the so-called anthropological school.
Later studies brought important innovations to this problem. IndoEuropean studies and the methodology of ethnological analysis demonstrate the mistaken assumptions of the diseased language theory,
which, as we have seen, attributes the origin of myth to mistakes and
delusions. Even in the nineteenth century, the extreme reductionism of
the solar school had been shown to be clearly wrong or at least too limited to be very useful. This first attempt to reconstruct myth through
language was followed by better results, while the attention paid to
symbolismespecially lunar, solar, or other natural cycleswas interpreted as one of the levels of the complex process of creating mythological models.
The anthropological school (E.B. Tylor and Andrew Lang, among
many others),24 which developed not in Germany, as one might expect,
but in England, is the fruit of the first truly scientific inquiries based on
comparative ethnography. Its main subject matter is not Indo-European
materials but archaic and civilized societies. In Primitive Culture by
Tylor, this comparison is based on the postulate of the uniformity of the
human psyche and on the principle of linear and progressive cultural
evolution. He argues that the living traditions of primitive peoples can
be located only as survivals in civilized societies, a claim which supports
the idea of the unity of the human psyche. Tylor believes that human
thought is rational but limited by historically determined experience.
According to Tylor, the birth of myth and religion had occurred in a
much earlier evolutionary stage than posited by Mller and is linked not
to naturalism but to animism, the belief in the existence of the soul.
This belief develops, according to Tylor, as a result of completely rational deductions by savage people on the nature of death, illness, and
dreams.25 People create their myths by means of logical and rationally
governed observations when seeking answers to otherwise incomprehensible phenomena. Tylor is completely hostile to Romantic traditions
and is closer to the rationality of the Enlightenment and of English empiricism. He was heavily influenced by Auguste Comte and other advocates of positivism. Unlike Tylor, Langwho was perhaps Max
Mller s greatest criticsaw an embryonic monotheism in the culture
heroes of myth.
The anthropological school had a wide-reaching scientific impact
and profoundly influenced ethnological research, but its understanding
of mythology was limited as much by its early evolutionary slantwhich
meant ignoring the specific quality of peoples social psychologyas by

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its defining mythology as a kind of primitive science without any poetic component. Mythology is thus deprived of any autonomous value it
may have and is linked to erroneous interpretations and survivalsthat
is, to an ingenuous pre-scientific method of understanding the environment.
In this sense, the contrast between the naturalists and the anthropologists is not particularly profound. Even Max Mller locates the origins of mythology in faulty logic and examines folklore with an eye not
to poetic expression of myth but to simple survival. Yet both schools
placed the study of mythology on a solid scientific footing. This created
the unfortunate impression that science now understood myth, and so
myth was dethroned from the privileged position and esteem that the
Romantics had accorded it.

REMYTHIFICATION IN PHILOSOPHY
AND IN THE STUDY OF CULTURE

In Germany, the Romantic tradition lingered on during the entire


nineteenth century in the fusion of Romanticism and sociology in Johann
Bachofen, to cite only one example,26 and the first signs of
understanding the crisis in Western bourgeois culture in a way
galvanized the apologists of myth into action. The first effects were felt
not in the scientific domain but in art and philosophy, especially in
Nietzsche and Wagner, both of whom will be examined in more detail
below. Both were strongly influenced by Schopenhauer. For a long time,
Nietzsche in fact saw in Wagner the ideal of the artist. Later, however,
he was to criticize severely Wagners theatrical quality, his social
demagoguery, and his leaning toward openly Christian ideals.
Nietzsches The Birth of Tragedy27 is strongly influenced by
Schillers ideas,28 by the German Romantics, by Schopenhauer, and especially by Wagner. The aesthetic and harmonious Apollonian principle
expressed in Greek mythology and drama, which for Western Europeans
like Schelling is the single most important source of their knowledge of
Greek mythology, appears in The Birth of Tragedy to be hidden by instinctive, vitalist, and rabid archaicism and by the naturalness of his
views on the Dionysian and on Titanism. Nietzsche sees in Greek tragedy the synthesis of the Apollonian with the Dionysian principles. Ecstatic and ritual Dionysian music is attenuated in plastic and figurative
Apollonian imagery. This stance places classical and primitive mythology on the same objective footing and emphasizes the significance of

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rituals in mythology and in the origin of forms and artistic genres; it


therefore anticipates a few modern interpretations of myth. No less
significant is Nietzsches linking mythology to the principle of irrational
and instinctive chaos, which, in his view, stands in opposition to measured and rational harmony. The problems of analyzing myth are repeatedly confronted in Nietzsches complex and sometimes contradictory
work.
Nietzsche criticizes Socrates and his philosophy for having destroyed the classical mythological conception of the world by means of a
skeptical rationality that robbed classical culture of its natural creativity.
There are other elements in Nietzsche that anticipate modern trends: the
opposition of myth and history; the conception of becoming as expressing the motif of the eternal return; and the belief in the illusory nature of
all logical and philosophical categories, which Nietzsche holds to be
subjective. The same contemporary slant can be attributed to the
Nietzschean opposition between, on the one hand, the drive to knowledge and, on the other, mythical thinking. Finally, his interpretation of
mythopoetics as the only means by which people and culture can be
reborn is another idea with modern echoes.
It is well known that German Fascist ideologues often cited Wagner
and Nietzsche to give a gloss of scientific acceptability to their attempts
to resuscitate German paganism and to create a racist political myth.
But Nietzsche and Wagner appealed not only to Nazis but to liberal
thinkers as well. In effect, their influence has been felt by writers of a
very different stamp, probably because they both anticipated some important aspects of twentieth-century studies on myth.
Nietzsche is the most influential proponent of vitalism, a stream of
thought that strenuously opposes the rationalism of the nineteenth century. One constant in the many variations on this theme has been a tendency to apologize for and even glorify myth. For example, Ludwig
Klages, one of the most vociferous supporters of this view, contrasts the
mythological imagination to rational knowledge, which he sees as suffocating the human spirit as much as it deadens cosmic life.29 Even
Spenglers theory of culture, which more or less espouses an updated
and modernized version of Vicos theory of cyclical development, has its
roots in something similar to the concept of the mythological
protophenomenon.
According to Henri Bergsonanother vitalist who had a notable influence on modern culturethe most important feature of the mythopoetic imagination is that it is opposed to those tendencies of the intellect
that weaken social bonds in the interests of personal initiative and indi-

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vidual liberty.30 For Bergson, mythology and religion are natures defensive reactions against the destructive force of the intellect, especially the
intellectual concept of the ineluctable nature of death. Bergson attributes to myth a positive biological function that sustains life, seeing myth
as a kind of antidote against the excesses of the intellect, excesses that
are dangerous to society as well as to the individual.
Myth has also been important to the existentialists, who in one
sense can be seen as the heirs of the philosophy of vitalism. For example, the motif of the eternal return is developed in tragic format by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus.31 Elements that reflect a positive attitude
toward myth are also to be found in Heideggers idealization of the pre
Socratic conscience.32 It is worth noting that even if re-mythification
(re-mythologizationthe re-emergence of myth) at the beginning
stressed the irrational component of mythology, its later history and
development do not inevitably lead to irrationality or ideological conservatism.
Georges Sorel, the theorist of anarchic syndicalism, was also influenced by Nietzsche and Bergson, as well as by Pierre Proudhon and
Ernest Renan.33 In his Reflexions on Violence Sorel became a supporter
of a political and revolutionary mythification.34 Sorel is sometimes labeled a neo-Marxist, but his political ideas are in fact closer to the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein, from whom he gets the idea of favoring
the revolutionary process itself at the expense of the outcome.35 Sorel is
a believer in general strikes as a necessary tool for undermining capitalism, but he believes that political actionwhich might not even arise
in explicit formis not so necessary as the reawakening of the will and
emotions in the individual. This leads to the unification of the masses
under the influence of the myth of the general strike, that obscure but
powerful image of a historical cataclysm and its radical aftermath. Revolutionary myth for Sorel is not part of a pragmatic political program, nor
is it a Utopian vision that can be used to plan rationally an austere socialist future. Rather, it is the result of imagination and will, and it is
founded on the same basis that allows religion to maintain the moral
tone and vital force of the masses. While elaborating his mythology of
revolution, Sorel had studied the crucial moments of history and the
pragmatic function of political myths in the French Revolution and in the
Napoleonic Wars. What is important is not only Sorels interest in myth
but his interpretation of myth as a modern ideological phenomenon, a
position that is extremely important for understanding Western views on
myth in the twentieth century. Political mythification is in effect one of
the aspects of the rebirth of mythology.

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Beginning with the second decade of this century, re-mythification


became an unstoppable process that in the end came to dominate different sectors of European culture. Besides the glorification of myth
(especially of its romantic aspects that are in opposition to bourgeois
prose), there are several aspects to the process of re-mythification: acknowledging myth as a vital principle that still plays a practical role in
modern society; the accentuation of its links to ritual in the motif of the
eternal return; and finally, the bringing together, to the point of identity,
of myth and ritual with ideology, psychology, and art. Even when rejecting historicity, the interpretation of modern ideology and especially political ideology as myth does not necessarily legitimate it in the same
way as Sorel does. This approach can unmask social demagogueryfor
example. Fascism or in the idea of mass culture in contemporary Western culture.
Political myths have been labeled as such by Ernst Cassirer and by
Thomas Mann, who wanted to counter Fascist mythopoesis with other,
truer myths. Many others beside Sorel have examined political myths:
Roland Barthes, Mircea Eliade, Henry Hatfield, John T Marcus, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Andr Sauvy, to name a few.36 Eliade, basically a student of traditional myths whose intellectual agenda is not too distant
from existentialism, has tried to analyze modern socialism as a new eschatological myth that is diametrically different from the consistent denial of historicity commonly found in classical mythology.
In Mythologies Barthes explains the birth of political myth as a
transformation of myth into ideology, a transformation brought about by
the mythic system itself. Barthes views right-wing myths as especially
dangerous. The bourgeoisie, in fact, does not want to be categorized
(or, perhaps, to betray itself) and so attempts to cancel its obvious political agenda by means of creating and disseminating myths. Barthes
suggests that this aspect of contemporary mythification defines the
modern epoch.37
In Mythology Today the sociologist Andr Sauvy includes a few
universal traditions among myths that he has unmasked: t h e golden
age and the good old daysthe eternal return to the past; the promised land, the horn of plenty, and predestination; the political myths
of Fascism and of liberal democracy; the social demagoguery of parties
and nation states; and the myths of popular opinion and the prejudices
of specific groups and persons. Every judgment that arises independently of experience and that does not coincide with scientifically validated data is considered by Sauvy to be a myth. At first glance, this
seems very similar to the lay rationality of the Enlightenment with its

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anti-clerical unmasking of myth, but there is an important difference. For


Sauvy, these prejudices not only belong to the past and persist even
when confronted with rational discourse but are continually re-created
by the social psychology of a culture.38
In modern sociology, m y t h has many shades of meanings and is
used in many ways. The result is a widening and modernization of its
meaning that is not always justifiable. As W. W. Douglas notes, m y t h in
this century has come to be used in the sense of illusion, lie, false propaganda, popular belief, faith, convention, the representation of values in
fantastic forms, and sacred and dogmatic expression of social habits and
values.39 Douglas also notes that the word m y t h has become more polemical than analytical, and its polemical usage derives from the oppositions between tradition and disorder, poetry and science, symbol and
affirmation, habit and innovation, concrete and abstract, order and
chaos, the intensive and the extensive, structure and texture, and myth
and logos.
Despite the near impossibility of unequivocally defining myth, myth
in the twentieth century has become one of the focal points in sociology
and in culture theory. And thanks to the popularization of psychology,
sociology itself has become closely intertwined with psychology. In
Jungian psychology, myth in the sense of archetype has become synonymous with the collective unconscious. In the philosophical domain,
interest in myth has developed almost independently of the new developments in ethnology, using as its point of departure the processes of
historical and ideological development of European culture from the end
of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. There has
also been a progressive change in the ethnological study of classical
myths. I will examine a few fundamental points of the revolutionary
interpretation of the nature of myth that have emerged from twentiethcentury ethnology, especially those points that have contributed to the
development of the myth and ritual approach used to understand literary
texts.
As noted, modern ethnology developed in an ideological atmosphere that was decidedly anti-evolutionary and, to a certain extent, antirationalistic. But notwithstanding its ideological agendas, contemporary
ethnology has produced some excellent scientific results. Classic ethnographies of the nineteenth century saw myth basically as a naive prescientific and perhaps even anti-scientific means of explaining the world
and satisfying the curiosity of primitive man, who was oppressed by the
forces of nature and was unsophisticated because of his limited experience. New approaches to myth that were sometimes one dimensional

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but generally more fruitful than their predecessors were already being
mapped out at the beginning of the twentieth century by Franz Boas,
James Frazer, and Emile Durkheim. These theories and the insights they
generated were further applied and refined in Bronislaw Malinowskis
functionalism, Lvy-Bruhls theory of the pre-logical nature of collective
representations among primitives, Cassirers logical symbolism, the psychological symbolism of Carl Jung, and Lvi-Straussian structuralism.
There are certainly other names of note that ought to be mentioned:
R.B. Marett, Alfred Vierkandt, Wilhelm Schmidt, K.T Preuss, Paul
Radin, Adolf Jensen, Joseph Campbell, Mircea Eliade, Georges
Dumzil, Georges Gusdorf, and Losev.40 Some of these writers have
made major contributions to the study of myth in literature, but it is only
their contributions to the study of myth that will be briefly examined
here.
Boas, the father of twentieth-century American ethnology, explores
many approaches to myth that later were taken up by other scholars. He
opposes linear evolution, which in its American incarnation can be
traced back to Lewis Henry Morgan, and concentrates on studying cultures and culture areas in their particular details.41 His work on myth and
primitive thought remains important today.42 Unlike Tylor, Boas explains
the logical lacunae of primitive thought by reference to the character of
traditional ideas, in which every new perception becomes linked to others using mechanisms that are more or less equal to those found in modern European civilizations. The linkages created by primitive thought are
heterogeneous, emotional, and symbolic: animals are represented an
thropomorphically; characteristics that we label as the attributes of an
object are seen in myth as having an objective life of their own; the
primitive mind defines the dividing line between human and animal in a
very different way than we do; and, in general, the primitive system of
classifying the world is very different from ours. Boas does not deny the
explanatory function of myth, but he asserts that rituals and mythical
representations are the result of unconscious and automatic processes.
He argues that myth is able to integrate material from everyday life and
can link present action to circumstances situated in mythical time.

RITUALISM AND FUNCTIONALISM

The idea of the primacy of ritual vis--vis myth is dogmatically argued by W. Robertson Smith, well known as a scholar of religions and
of Semitic history. However, it is Frazer who is often seen as the uncon-

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tested founder of the ritual school in this century, even though many of
his ideas were in fact inspired by Robertson Smith.43 Frazer is primarily
interested in studying myths that are linked to seasonal cycles.44 He is
part of the English anthropological tradition associated with Lang and
Tylor and continued to believe in the theory of survivals for most of his
life. He does, however, bring many innovations to Tylors theory of
animism, suggesting that magic is a sign of an earlier stage of human
thought in which people addressed themselves not to personified spirits,
as in animism, but to impersonal forces.
Frazer believes that magic is a complex of associations based on
analogy (that is, homeopathic, or imitative, magic) or on contiguity
(contagious, or contact, magic). In the spirit of the times, he argues that
magic is the product of erroneous thinking by primitive man. Sacrifices,
totemism, and seasonal cults are derived almost entirely from magic. It
is also true that Frazer acknowledges the positive role magic plays in
reinforcing existing power relationships, upholding the status quo in
marriage and in property relations, as well as generally consolidating the
social order. Even if rather sketchily presented and based on an older,
rationalistic interpretation of life, his ideas are precursors to the work of
others who were to make significant contributions to understanding
myth, especially Malinowski. Unlike Tylor, Frazer believes that myth is
not so much the product of a conscious attempt to understand the world
as the script for ritual. Since he bases many of his views on the primacy
of magic, he tends to underrate that component of myth that is based on
knowledge and substancethe content, in other words.
Frazer profoundly influenced the scientific study of myth not only
because of his emphasis on the ritual basis of myth but also because of
his research (mostly represented in The Golden Bough) on seasonal
agrarian rituals and myths that revolved around the image of the dying
and resurrected god. He argues that these myths contain many archaic
parallels with New Testament materials and with pagan mystery cults.
Frazers contributions include the discovery of what today is sometimes
called the mytheme of the king, who, as the magical embodiment of the
responsibility for a good harvest and the well-being of the community, is
periodically killed and replaced. Frazer examines in detail the Roman
cult associated with the sanctuary dedicated to Diana, whose priest,
armed with a sword, vigorously defended himself from every newcomer
and potential successor who managed to break a bough of the sacred
tree at Ariccia (identified as Aeneass Golden Bough). Frazer reconstructs this mytheme by means of ethnological data drawn from all over
the world: the ritual killing of the king among the Shilluk; the use of

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substitutes for the sacrifice of the king in moments of extreme danger in


times of war among some early Mesopotamian kingdoms; the ritual
humiliation of the king during the Babylonian new year; and the confused accounts of the killing of kings in a few other archaic societies.
Specialists in the study of ritual have minutely examined every detail of
the Frazerian mytheme.45
The renewing of regal dignity (the king who is caliph for an hour
and then the sacrificial goat) is interpreted by Frazer and his followers
against the backdrop of the rituals of dying and resurrected gods, sacred
marriage (hierogamy), and archaic initiation rites. The rituals and myths
described by Frazer have piqued the interest not only of ethnographers
but also of writers for the attention they call to the problem of human
suffering as a prelude to death and renewal, for the parallel between
human life and natural cycles, and for their cyclical themes corresponding to the never-ending circle of life and death in nature and in human
existence. Frazer, in short, is the spiritual father of the ritualist school
and doctrine.
Arnold van Gennep, author of Myths and Legends of Australia and
The Rites of Passage, also had a significant impact on the ritualists.46
Like Frazer, he is a disciple of the English anthropological school, but
unlike his contemporaries, he categorically rejects anything that smacks
of evolutionism. Today, he is perhaps better known for his work on the
rites that mark the many transitions in human life (birth, social and
physical maturity, marriage, and funerals) and in nature (the rites associated with seasonal cycles).
In terms of classical philology, the so-called Cambridge School can
trace its origins directly to Frazer. Its adherents include Jane Harrison,
Francis Cornford, Arthur Cook, and Gilbert Murray (who was at Oxford, not Cambridge).47 The common starting point in their work is the
assumption that ritual and myth are inextricably intertwined. Rituals are
considered the principal source from which emerged the myth, religion,
art, and philosophy of antiquity. The Cambridge group represents a particular approach that is largely informed by a sensibility to ethnological
data and to rituals and to problems of the origin of different cultural
forms including literature. In Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion Jane Harrison argues that the mythical Minotaur was the king of
Crete under his ritual disguise as a bull, while in Themis she suggests
that the motif of the ritual chthonic demon was the most important element of Greek mythology. Harrison sees myth as the verbal equivalent
(legomenon) to a cultural act (dromenon). She explains the origins of
Greek figurative art in the same way. Murray looks for the ritualistic

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roots of the most important figures in the Greek epic and in Greek tragedy, and his argument is perhaps stronger in the case of tragedy. Similar
research into the ritualistic origins of Attic comedy was undertaken by
Cornford, who, in From Religion to Philosophy, links Greek philosophical thought to models used in ritual.
The ritualist school flourished in the 1930s and 40s. Its adherents
interests reached out beyond their initial basis in classical philology to
include ancient Oriental culture, epos, the history of religion, and art. A
strong case for the primacy of ritual in ancient oriental culture is made in
the collections edited by S.H. Hooke, The Labyrinth and Myth and Ritual. Theodor Gaster in Thespis examines the ritual basis of sacred literature in the ancient Near East. 48 The same approach is used by E.O.
James in Myth and Ritual in the Ancient Near East.49
In the same period, Lord Raglan and Stanley Hyman drew on the
new myth and ritual school to propose theoretical generalizations that
are rather extreme. Raglan treats all myth as simply the textual component of ritual. Myths that somehow become disassociated from rituals
are mere tales and legends.50 He argues that the oldest and most universal myth/ritual complex is that of the ritual killing and substitution of the
priest-king, as described by Frazer, Hooke, and A.M. Hocart. According
to Raglan, this complex arose in the Near East as early as the Neolithic
period and includes among its themes the motif of the symbolic destruction of the old order by means of water (the Flood theme) and fire; the
burlesque re-enactment of a battle and of the killing of the sacred king;
his dismemberment and the creation of a renewed world from his limbs;
and the creation of the ancestors of all human beings (a brother-sister
pair) from clay or sacrificial blood, their being imbued with the spark of
life, and, finally, hierogamy. Even historical traditions that are associated
with flesh and blood personages (for example, Thomas Becket) are
considered by Raglan as explanatory myths that are re-enacted in ritual.
In brief, Raglans theory is essentially based on the migration and diffusion of rituals and their associated mythsan almost completely antithetical position to Frazers but one that insists on the ritual basis of all
folkloristic and literary genres.51
Hyman closely follows the trail pioneered by Frazer and especially
Harrison.52 He argues that primordial myths are concerned with the
gods. Like Harrison, Hyman thinks that myth and ritual are two faces of
a single entity that is essentially the basis for the dramatic genre. For
Hyman, the myth and ritual model not only is the source of the poetic
traditionand, in part, of the scholarly tradition as wellbut also is
synonymous with structure. Hyman also examines the ritual position

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against the backdrop of other scientific theories and viewpoints, including Darwinism. He concludes that only two approaches to myth are incompatible with ritualism, euhemerization and the myth-as-knowledge
approach, the theory that myth is the vehicle for satisfying mans thirst
for knowledge.53
There was a strong reaction in the 1950s and especially the 1960s
against what many saw as the excesses of the myth and ritual school.
There was especially heavy criticism from the American ethnologists
Clyde Kluckhohn, William Bascom, and John Greenway, as well as from
myth specialists G.S. Kirk, Joseph Fontenrose, and especially Claude
Lvi-Strauss.54
Fontenrose attacks the Frazerian mytheme of The Golden Bough.
His criticisms are certainly well documented but rather narrowly focused. Fontenrose demonstrates how the idea of king-killing at certain
periods and the ritual renewing of regal power is based on ethnographic
fragments taken out of context from many diverse cultures. The ritual
does not appear among any one people in its entirety. Fontenrose denies
the existence of the phenomenon, in spite of the regular appearance of
new and interesting data that support this position, such as the occasional substitution of the leading male in primate groups.55 The ritualists
do not really match particular myths to particular rituals but rather
mostly develop their theories on the basis of speculation. He also correctly points out that the ritualists often indiscriminately lump together
ritual formulas, myths, beliefs, tales, literary models, and social ideals.
They thus ignore the inevitable differentiation of genres and fail to consider the narrative aspect of myth, a point also noted by Bascom.
The whole issue comes down to the proverbial chicken or egg conundrum. Similarities between myth and ritual in primitive cultures are
beyond question, but even in the most archaic societies there are many
myths that do not act as a script for rituals but exist independently.
There are also rituals that derive from myths. Among the Aborigines of
Central Australia, for example, the myths of the Dreamtime ancestors
and their wanderings are staged as rituals. It seems clear that the sacred
core of these rituals (the dance representing the wanderings of the to
temic ancestors) is derived from myth. The ritual pantomime is presented as a dramatic dance that depicts the movements of the groups
animal totem, while the song that accompanies the dance glorifies the
totem in its own right. The research on Australian Aboriginal religion by
W.E.H. Statiner, for example, while showing that there are many linked
myths and rituals, also shows that many rituals and myths are independent of each other, even if there are some structural similarities.56

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Washington Mathews and Clyde Kluckhohn likewise show that


among the Pueblo and Navaho the relationship of myth to ritual is just
as complex, the symbolism of one does not completely correspond to
the other, and there are many myths that are not linked to rituals. There
are many societies that are certainly more complex than either the Australian Aborigines or North American Indiansfor example, the agriculturally based societies of the Mediterranean, India, China, and preColumbian Americawith many seasonal or cyclical myths that seem to
be linked to cultic rituals like those examined by Frazer. However, the
ritualists often reduce the Mediterranean myths they cite to simple
sketches. For example, they do not seem to understand the true nature
of the Sumerian god Dumuzi, who is the prototype for the Akkadian
Tammuz. Unlike Tammuz, however, Dumuzi is not reborn, at least in
the texts that have come down to us, and is not an agrarian divinity but
associated with pastoralism. In addition, there are no direct testimonials
from the Near East that describe the killing of the king, although there is
some evidence that substitutes were sacrificed among the Hittites and
the Assyrians.57
In brief, the thesis that myth is linked to ritual has not been demonstrated and is basically groundless, and this despite the fundamental role
played by action in formulating thought (a proposal from the French
Marxist psychologist Henri Wallon).58 The myth and ritual position consistently underrates intellectual meaning and its importance in constituting knowledge. This is especially clear in the Cambridge groups arguments that myth and ritual are the foundations of all cultural forms, even
of philosophy.
Myth is not an action masked by words or even a reflection of ritual. This is not to deny that in primitive and archaic cultures myth and
ritual complement each other. The common world view that each expresses, the similar function each plays in culture, the structure that is
sometimes shared by myths and ritualsall this is true. It is also true
that some rituals re-enact a mythical past and that myth and ritual represent different momentsverbal and active, t h e o r e t i c a l and
practicalof the same fundamental cultural problem. Malinowski is
especially adamant regarding the unity of myth and ritual and their similar functions within culture.
Malinowskis functionalism is a new and challenging theoretical development for the classic English anthropological school, and it is his
treatment of myth in primitive societies that in some ways is central to
his entire approach.59 It must be remembered that Malinowski came
along at a time when the goal of much ethnographic research was still to

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confirm the existence of archaic residuals in the mythology of antiquity


or in the modern folklore of European populations. Malinowskis viewpoint is not entirely new but offers fresh support for an emerging criticism of the older approach.
Malinowskis findings from his research in the Trobriands were
published in Myth in Primitive Psychology.60 He shows that in archaic
societieswhere by definition there could be no survivals, since it is
these societies that are considered the primary source from which other
forms arosemyth is not a means of expressing theoretical or prescientific or even pre-rational knowledge of the environment. Instead,
argues Malinowski, myth has a purely practical function. It maintains
traditions and cultural continuity by Unking past events to the supernatural. Myth codifies thought, reinforces mores, defines precise rules of
behavior, sanctions rituals, and rationalizes and justifies the social order.
Malinowski believes that the practical function of myth is as much to
solve critical problems associated with the well-being of the individual
and of society as to maintain social and economic harmony. He shows
that myth not only is a tale told by means of allegory and symbolism but
is also seen by primitives as a kind of Holy Scripture, a reality that
influences the destiny of man and the universe. The real character of
myth can perhaps be traced to events in some mythical prehistoric past,
but the psychological reality of myths for primitives is maintained when
myths are reproduced in rituals to which are attached magical significance. Malinowski makes a strong case for tracing myth to magic and
ritual, and his clearly articulated view of the function of myth in primitive societies is still relevant today.
In another influential work associated with the myth and ritual
school, K.T. Preusss The Religious Form of Myths argus the case for
the unity of myth and ritual, which reproduce and repeat events that
occurred in prehistory (Ur-Zeit).61 Preuss argues that myths are indispensable for instituting and later maintaining social and cosmic order.
Other writers with a similar thesis include Jensen, Eliade, and Gusdorf.

T H E FRENCH SOCIOLOGICAL SCHOOL

While Frazer and Malinowski were both influenced by the English


ethnological tradition, Emile Durkheim can be considered the father of
the French sociological school. Lucien Lvy-Bruhl was one of his most
famous colleagues. English ethnology was more or less based on individual psychology, and even Malinowski, who underlines the social role

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played by myth, presents Trobriand Island society as the sum of its individuals and culture as a complex of functions that satisfies the mostly
biological needs of individuals. Durkheim and his followers base their
theories on social psychology and the unique character of the community, which they call collective representations, the fundamental analytical category that came to characterize the entire school. Although
not dealing primarily with myth, Durkheims writings on religion and
symbolism were to become extremely important in later views of the
social aspect of myth, especially for such influential theorists of myth as
Lvi-Strauss.
In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life Durkheim seeks a
new approach to the problem of the origin of the first forms of religion,
myth, and ritual.62 His starting point is a critique of nineteenth-century
theories, especially of naturalism and Tylors animism. Durkheim argues that both positions reduce religion and mythology to a system of
hallucinatory representations, to metaphors without a base, since neither objects nor observations of natural phenomena or even introspection can give rise to religious beliefs. In his view, it is also not credible
that false and groundless explanations of the environmentif myth and
religion are in fact explanationscan survive very long. Durkheim
distinguishes religion and mythology from magic, which, in his opinion,
is not tied to a particular type of religious expression in the form of a
specific type of church or social organization. In his formulation, religion is associated with the collective representations that express social
reality. Society reproduces and apotheosizes itself through religion. The
specific character of religion derives from its sacredness, a quality that is
defined by its antithetical category, the profane. The sacred/profane antinomy corresponds to the collective/individual as two different moments of consciousness.
Durkheims research leads him to propose that religion is largely
based not on the cult of cosmic elements or on the spiritual (or mythical)
father/ancestor or, like Frazers argument, on magic but on totemism,
especially the type expressed in classic form by the Australian Aborigines. The totemic principle coincides with the clan or lineage that becomes hypostatized and transformed by the imagination into the plant or
animal form that functions as its totem.
Durkheim demonstrates that the mythology of totemism models and
legitimates the social and political organization of the tribe. By introducing the sociological factor into mythology, Durkheim, like Malinowski,
abandons nineteenth-century ethnographic theories that had looked only
at the explanatory function of myths. His emphasis is on the genesis of

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mythological and religious conceptions, not only on their functions, although Durkheim does stress that rituals are a form of expressing social
life in tangible form and periodically reaffirming the existence of the
group. Durkheim links totemism to what might be called pre-animism
(animatism, in Maretts formulation) because he believes that totemism
is a religion centered on impersonal forces, such as mana, that have not
yet come to be understood in abstract terms. Perhaps even more important than his ideas on the origins of totemism is his notion that totemism
sacralizes not so much particular objects and natural phenomena as the
group itself and a very precise model of the world. Its origin can be
traced to the fact that consciousness in tribal peoples is unable to separate itself from the surrounding world. Everything in the universe, in
other words, belongs to the tribe. The characteristics of totemic classification mirror the tribal collective. Totemism is a logical system sui
generis that sustains itself by logical oppositionsfor example, the sacred/profane antinomybased on a social sensibility to affinities and
differences. Different totems are attributed strongly contrasting characteristicsfor example, east wind/west wind.
Durkheims ideas on the role of metaphors and symbols in religious
and mythical thinking are also important. He does not consider religion
and myth as particular aspects of empirical nature but as the products of
human consciousness. Because of this, a part of a sacred object or being
elicits the same response as the whole. According to Durkheim, totemic
emblems are the building blocks of religious sentiments and are not mere
markers of social reality. Social life, in all its aspects and at all times, is
only possible because of symbolism. Only when primitives bring together various concepts for reasons of social coherence is it possible to
take the first tentative steps toward creating an explanation of the world
that eventually leads to philosophy and science. Durkheim, who is not
an anti-evolutionist as such, does not see any fundamental contrast between scientific logic and the logic of religion and myth. His orientation
and some of his views on mythical thinking are precursors to later
workby Lvi-Strauss, for examplewhich has, however, gone well
beyond Durkheims cursory and schematic sociology.63
Lvy-Bruhls work on the particular characteristics of primitive
thought is a major influence on the development of the theory of myth.64
His theories definitely break with the nineteenth-century conception of
myth as an ingenuous, pre-scientific form of knowledge that exists
merely to satisfy primitive mans curiosity about the world. His views
are also a break with the earlier evolutionism that had posited jumps in
intellectual ability from one stage to another, although Lvy-Bruhl ac-

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knowledges such a possibility in theory. He argues against the unilateral


evolutionism of British anthropology associated with Tylor and Frazer
and favors instead the French sociological approach (and a few psychological theories by Ribot, Meier, and others) because this approach includes the notion of collective representations and stresses the sensory,
emotional, and affective significance of these representations. LvyBruhl notes that contemporary Europeans, even if they are believers and
sometimes superstitious, clearly distinguish the natural from the supernatural, while savage thought perceives the world and all its manifestations as a single entity. This dichotomy holds only for collective representations because individual ideas and feelings derive from personal
experience in both modem and primitive thought.
While he is influenced by Durkheim, Lvy-Bmhl goes further when
he affirms that collective representations do not have logical properties
and characteristics.65 Collective consciousness does not refer to experience but attributes magical properties to objects in a way that transcends
the information received from the senses. Transcending the boundaries
between the observer and natural objects results in oneness. This view
of primitive mentality tries to explain the primitives mystical mode of
thinking. In Lvy-Bruhls words, the mystical and the pre-logical are
two aspects of the same quality.66 Emotional and motor-neural elements
take the place of logical operations in collective representations.
According to Lvy-Bruhl, collective representations are subservient
to the law ofparticipationbetween a totemic group and a cardinal
direction; or between a cardinal direction and flowers, winds, mythical
animals, forests, rivers, and so on. Mysticalparticipationmeans that
contiguous categoriescontaminateeach other in an apparently illogical
manner In primitive mentality, nature appears to be a fluid entity characterized by mystical interrelationships, and the conception of the continuity of mystical forces manifests itself before spirits make their appearance on the cultural stage.67 In myth, space is not equal in all directions.
Its cardinal points are imbued with different qualities and properties:
every part or aspect of spaceparticipatesin whatever is around one
particular point. Even the mythological representation of time has a
qualitative character Physical causality is limited to only one aspect of
an object, while another aspect is believed to be subject to the world of
invisible forces.
Using many examples, Lvy-Bruhl demonstrates the weakness of
purely logical explanations of mythological representations. In particular, he argues that the pre-logical quality of mythical thinking ignores the
logical principle of the tertium non datur, that an object cannot be two

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things at the same time. In myth, objects can simultaneously be themselves and something else. There is no acknowledgment of contradiction. Unity and plurality, identity and differentiation, and static and dynamic processes all co-exist. In pre-logical thought, synthesis does not
require prior analysis. A synthesis is indifferent to experience. It is indivisible and happily exists even when it is bursting with obvious contradictions. Memory is opposed to logical operations. One representation
elicited by another is presented to the mind as a logical deduction, and
signs are (mis)taken for causes. Memory privileges the mystical link
between the visible and the invisible, and abstract logic is contradicted
by the mystical. Collective representations substitute general concepts
and have multiple functions, in the sense that they can be applied even in
their very concrete manifestations to a variety of situations. In mystical
participation, there is nothing casual, but neither is there anything absolutely deterministic.
According to Lvy-Bruhl, mystical elements constitute the most
precious fonction of myth. They represent participation that is no
longer immediately perceived by the social actorsfor example, fusion
with a culture hero or with mythical ancestors that are half human and
half animal. Following in the path of Malinowski, Lvy-Bruhl sees myth
as a means of maintaining the integration of the individual in the social
group.
Lvy-Bruhls theory has had many implications for later studies,
even if in the Notebooks that followed (published posthumously in 1949)
he recants somewhat. Lvy-Bruhls greatest contribution is to call attention to the distinctiveness of mythical thought. At the same time he
may misrepresent primitive thought as a kind oflogicthat is autonomous and illogical, a rigid system hermetically sealed off from social and
personal experience and from the logical operations of thought. LvyBruhls insistence on the presence ofmystical participationblinds him
to the logical and rational sense of the mental operations in mytho-logic
that yield practical results and knowledge.

THE SYMBOLIC THEORIES

The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer relies heavily on ethnological findings in his fondamental monograph Philosophy of Symbolic
Forms.68 Cassirer argues against the metaphysical, deductive view
(Schellings view of myth as an indispensable factor in the development
of the absolute in the theogonic process, for example) as well as against

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