mythic thought

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mythic thought In mythic thought, the mythological ‘message’ can be repeated many times using different symbolic codes — most commonly sexual and dietary. For example, in myth, Thyestes sleeps with his brother's wife, thus becoming ‘too close’ sexually, and is punished by finding he has eaten the flesh of his own son, a further expression of becoming ‘too close’. Here transgression is followed by appropriate retribution, moving from the sexual to the dietary register. Marcel Detienne has shown how the myths surrounding the young god Adonis, whose precocious sexuality was cut short by his death, only serve to emphasize the accepted social norms of the proper use of sex in legitimate marriage.

Mythic modes of thought can be used in other types of knowledge, for example geography and ethnography. In the classical world, as in many cultures, it was thought that the further one travelled from ‘home’, the more strange would be the customs encountered. The Greek historian Herodotus listed the bizarre habits of the non-Greek peoples, focusing on their practices with regard to food, sexuality, and the treatment of the dead. The last two categories were conflated in the practice of necrophilia with corpses selected for their beauty, for example, by the Egyptians responsible for mummifying the dead. In his work Natural History, the Roman writer Pliny codified some of these beliefs in his influential account of the monstrous races; including the Blemmyae, who have their faces on their chests, and the Straw-Drinkers, who have no nose or mouth. Here, at the limits of the known world, the body has confounded its own categories. Fear was expressed that even a civilized person might fall short of accepted behaviour when travelling to the limits of the world; Roman anxieties, for example, centred on the harmful effects of adopting foreign lifestyles and eating foreign foods.

Helen King

See also Greeks; mythology and the body.