Myth, Literary

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The investigation of "literary" myth is not limited to those forms that are found in highly developed civilizations with a written literature. As a matter of fact, it is essential for an exact understanding of myth to give special importance to primitive and archaic cultures because the more sophisticated forms of the so-called high civilizations frequently conceal or cloud myth's true nature and function.


In a very general way, myth can be defined as a story about the holy. Already in the oldest Greek texts where the word occurs, it is usedthough not exclusivelyfor narrative or story, and at an early period it became the technical expression for the traditional stories about the gods. The evolution of the concept of myth, partly of a merely semantic nature, and partly caused by a changing religious consciousness or attitude, is very instructive with regard to the present confusion in the use of the term.

The Greek term μ[symbol omitted]θος, which means word, is derived from the Indo-European root meudh or mudh, i.e., to reflect, to think over, to consider. This seems to indicate an original stress upon the deeper content of the word, the definitive and final expression of a reality. However, the opposition between μ[symbol omitted]θος and λόγος, introduced by the sophists, who disbelievedor misunderstoodthe stories about the gods, gave later on a rather pejorative connotation to μ[symbol omitted]θος. Xenophanes made a radical criticism of the mythologies as related by Homer and Hesiod. Theagenes of Rhegion interpreted them allegorically, whereas Euhemerus invented a pseudohistorical explanation of myth, which, to this day, continues to be called after him (euhemerism). Plato repeatedly equated myth with legend or fairy tale, although he himself used myths as appropriate means to convey a mystery. Aristotle regarded myth as a product of fancy and fabulation. All these authors, to be sure, knew myths mainly through the literary transformations of the poets, where legendary and etiological elements are plentiful. In Lucian μυθολογε[symbol omitted]ν means to lie, to tell tall stories. This Hellenistic conception is typical also for the Judeo-Christian tradition: myths were discredited fictional narratives and were rejected as absurdities and falsehoods, if not as abominations and diabolical inventions.

renewed interest since the renaissance

With the revival of classical antiquity, the Renaissance renewed the interest in myth. Natalis Comes considered myth to be a symbolical or allegorical expression of philosophical speculations. vico, a remarkably independent figure in an era of rationalism, interpreted myth as a spontaneous reaction of primitive man to natural phenomena, but also as a poetic expression of historical events. His interpretation combined allegorical explanation and historical reductionism. The Romantic movement gave much emphasis to the religious factor in myth, e.g., J. G. herder and especially schelling, who saw myth as a necessary stage in the self-revelation of the Absolute. In the second half of the 19th century, the systematic and comparative study of religions, then first established as a science, although naturally interested in myth, still largely shared the old prejudices of the enlightenment. Max Müller's (18231900) ingenious and widely popular, but rather extravagant, thesis about myth as a disease of language is well known, but even Frazer, an arduous and rather well-informed student of religions, regarded myths as mistaken explanations of human or natural phenomena. rationalism called myth everything that did not agree with its own concept of reality. For W. Wundt (18321920) it was a product of imagination; for L. Lévy-Bruhl (18571939), of a prelogic, a primitive mentality.

The neo-Kantian philosopher cassirer attempted to evaluate the mythical function in the structure of human consciousness. He rejected the allegorical interpretation and stressed the autonomy of myth as a symbolic form and an interpretation of reality: it was the primitive intuition of the cosmic solidarity of life. Freud, jung, and their psychoanalytical schools gave a new impetus to the study of myth by pointing out the striking similarities between their content and the universe of the unconscious. Their error, all too often, was to reduce myth altogether to the dynamics of the unconscious.

20th-century developments

In the mid-1960s, philosophers such as K. jaspers (18831969) and P. ricoeur (1913) gave a very positive evaluation of myth as an expression, or as a cipher, of the transcendent, a language of being. It was, however, the diligent study of primitive religions, where myths exist in a more or less unadulterated form as living and functional religious values, that proved to be the determining factor in the new understanding of myth. Although, in the common acceptance of the word, myth still belongs more or less to the world of imagination, there was a growing awareness of the fact that myth is par excellence the language of religion. Anthropology, ethnology, phenomenology, and the history of religions, completing the insights of sociology, psychology, philosophy, and folklore, were instrumental in the 20th-century revalorization of myth.

From the works of scholars such as J. Baumann (18371916), A. E. Jensen (18991965), and M. eliade (19081986), it was easy to extract a synthetic view of myth, although not so easy to define or to describe it in such a way as to take care of the variety of forms and types of myths resulting from its intricate development. Fundamentally, myth is the sacred story of a primordial event that constitutes and inaugurates a reality and hence determines man's existential situation in the cosmos as a sacred world. Myths deal with the so-called limit-situations of man, as expressed in the great mysterious moments of his existence: birth, death, initiation. But they make such limitations transparent for their sacred meaning, referring them to a divine prototype that happened in mythical time, or, rather, mythical no-time.

recognition of sacred character

It is this sacred character that distinguishes myth from related literary types: saga, legend, and fairy tale, although, in fact, it is rather difficult to discover pure myths. Most myths, by the time they are recorded, appear as hybrid literary types, and it is not always simple to make out where myth ends and legend begins. Sagas, and to a certain extent also legends, are founded on something that really, or at least supposedly, happened in time, whereas myths deal with metahistorical events. Fairy tales, however, have no fundamental relation whatsoever to time or reality. But myth has this relation in an eminent way because it founds reality, brings a reality into time. Moreover, as Eliade, among others, convincingly shown, fairy tales and legends are often secularized myths. There is no doubt that myths are primary; no longer understood, they ceased to be revelations of a mystery or expressions of a mode of being in the world, but became diversions told for entertainment. However, their initiatory character very often can still be recognized. One could say, in a certain sense, that myth becomes less and less myth when it becomes more and more literature, because it enters a process of secularization in which it is blended and embellished with many nonmythical elements. But even in its highly sophisticated forms as a literary work, myth cannot be understood unless its religious nature is first recognized.

R. Pettazzoni gave due importance to the fact that the Pawnee and other North American Indian tribes make a distinction between true and false stories. According to this distinction, which can easily be substantiated and corroborated with evidence from archaic peoples all over the world, myths are true stories that deal with the holy and the supernatural, whereas false stories, those that have a profane content, are just make-believe.

It is important, however, to stress the difference between the truth of myth and its historical veracity. Myth, of its very nature, repels historicity, because the event it relates happened before history began, in an eternal instant. Myth, therefore, is not some sort of garbled history; it tells what really happened, not in time, but in the beginning, in the era of the gods. It is the story of a primordial event that accounts for the way a reality came into existence, i.e., began to exist in time. If myth is true, it is because it deals with what is real par excellence, because it deals with the reality that accounts for what exists in time and space. It reveals the true nature and structure of the hic et nunc realities by relating them to a metaempirical reality. It reveals the deeper, authentic meaning of life by showing how this particular mode of being in the world came about. In general one might say that the etiological concept, and consequently the etiological criticism of myth, misses the point, because it misunderstands the true nature of myth. Myth does not explain as much as it reveals and is unconcerned about apparent contradictions, because such contradictions exist in the empirical realm only. Historical and logical precision are irrelevant in the world of myth, because myth expresses not an erudition but a consciousness of a reality. It expresses what, in the religious consciousness of the believer, is true and valid.

The distinction between true and false stories in archaic cultures is also a distinction between sacred and profane. Myth is holy because its protagonists are gods or superhuman beings who intervene in the universe and establish it as an ordered cosmos. Myth is holy also because of the sacredness it makes present. Already the mere recitation of the myth results in the supernatural being present hic et nunc, and in this way mediates to those who hear it an insight into the holy ground of empirical or phenomenological reality. Usually this recitation is restricted to certain periods of sacred time. Frequently it is performed in the course of cult ceremonies, in which the myth is then the ερòς λόγος, by certain authorized members of the community only, priests or elders. There may be certain taboos involved with the recitation too, e.g., the presence of women. Myth is not common property; one has to be initiated into it. Usually the stories about the gods are known thoroughly to certain experts only, who have the task of initiating the boys coming of age into the sacred traditions of the tribe.

exemplary character

Another fundamental characteristic of myth is its exemplarity. The intervention of the gods in this world, related in the myths, is paradigmatic and normative for man's behavior, ritual as well as social. One could say that myth prescribes for man the mode of being in the world, which it reveals to him: his place in time and space, his participation in the world of animals and plants as well as in the society of men, his cosmic dimension, the laws that govern the specific nature of his human existence, etc. The order the gods established, because it is powerful and holy, because it is reality, has to be safeguarded. Their deeds, because they constitute reality, life, salvation, have to be faithfully repeated, and therefore they become models for all significant human activities. This explains why archaic man is fundamentally imitative and traditional: he wants to secure the power of his actions and gestures by patterning them after the powerful deeds and gestures of the gods. The order of the cosmos and the regularity of its phenomena are reflected in the sacred norms that determine social relations and ethical behavior, as well as ritual procedure. Moreover, since the model is no part of the temporal, but some sort of an eternal instant, it remains paradigmatic and can be repeated over and over again in time. For archaic man, reality is a function of the imitation of a mythical archetype.

myth and ritual

The exemplary nature of myth is most evident in the ritual reenactment of a holy, primordial event. As suggested above, the recitation of a myth is in itself already some sort of a ritual because of the solemnity connected with the recitation: "Der rezitierte Mythus ist immer ein Schöpfungswort" (G. van der Leeuw). Very often, however, the recitation of the myth is accompanied by a dramatic representation of the event that it relates. The ritual execution of the myth makes the primordial creative event infinitely repeatable and hence continuously present in time. By reenacting the deeds of the gods that brought about reality, life, fecundity, etc., man is able effectively to maintain or renew them. Ritual projects man into the era of the gods, makes him contemporary with them, and lets him share in their creative work.

This close association between myth and ritual gave origin, beginning with the work of W. Robertson Smith (18461894), to widely opposed theories about the nature of their mutual relationship. Is myth the offshoot or description of the corresponding ritual, or is it, on the contrary, some sort of libretto or script for the dramatic representation in ritual? Both theories found very articulate defenders. The first one, in particular, was brilliantly proposed and widely popularized by the English myth and ritual school (S. H. Hooke) and the Scandinavian school of Uppsala (Mowinckel). However, they did not always escape successfully the pitfall of some sort of panritualism, which attempts to reduce almost everything to a ritual origin. In a certain sense the opposing theories carried on a sterile discussion, because, historically speaking, it is impossible to substantiate any linear or genealogical evolution from ritual to myth, or vice versa. All agreed that one can find examples of primary rituals as well as of primary myths, but nothing allows one to project this present situation into the origin. True enough, at a certain stage of the development of religious consciousness it is possible to find the awareness that a myth sanctions a rite. But since myth, as B. K. Malinowski (18841942) put it, vouches for the efficiency of a rite, this awareness may very well be an a posteriori etiological interpretation. It would be hazardous to conclude from this to the chronological priority of the ritual. Myth certainly is not fundamentally an etiological explanation of a ritual or a rationalization of an existing custom. It would be wrong to reject the possibility, or even the fact, that in the later development of both myth and ritual the former assumed the function of explaining or justifying obscured aspects of the latter, but to accept as the origin of myth a rite that has to be explained would leave no alternative to the shaky theory of the magical origin of religion. (see religion; religion in primitive culture.)

Neither myth nor ritual really explains anything; rather, they express in parallel, more often intertwined, and always mutually complementary ways the fundamental religious experience of archaic man in a cosmos that reveals the creative presence of the gods. It does not make too much sense, for example, to say that the recitation of the enuma elish by the Babylonian priests at the Akitu festival served the purpose of explaining the ceremonies. Rather, it is the presence, within its temporal reenacment, of the ideal, eternal model. The mystery of creation is expressed simultaneously in word and in imitation. The ritual in the strict sense of the term presents the event, and the myth relates this presentation to its transcendental model and meaning. The concomitant myth, in a certain sense, identifies the ritual reenactment with its divine prototype, and, by so doing, intrinsically determines or prescribes the process to be followed.

The dichotomy of myth and ritual seems to be a recent phenomenon. For primitive man they were not two things brought together, but two aspects of one reality, one experience expressed in the two fundamental forms of human expression: word and gesture, each one clarifying, complementing, and requesting the other. Really primary is the divine model or archetype as it is revealed in the reality of the cosmos and of life. "We must do what the gods did in the beginning," says the Śatapatha Brāhmana, and this old Indian adage is valid all over the world. Even where myth, because its justifying or etiological character is obvious, can be proved to be chronologically secondary to the rite, it would still be imperative to distinguish between the formulation and the content of the myth. Myth and ritual are not to be separated; where they are, myth enters a process of secularization and ritual becomes superstition.

types of myth

Myths are usually classified according to their subject matter: cosmogonic, theogonic, and anthropogonic myths, Paradise myths, myths of Fall and Flood, soteriological or eschatological myths. The various types can, of course, be further subdivided typologically; the cosmogonic myth, for example, could be further divided into myths of emergence, of the earth-diving type, of struggle with the primordial dragon, of dismemberment of a primordial being, etc. Such divisions have their practical usefulness but are quite artificial, and there would be a good case for reducing all myths, if not to a single type, at least to one prototype. Indeed, all myths have a very definite common denominator: they deal with the beginnings of realitiesthe origins of the world and of human-kind, of life and death, of the animal and vegetable species, of culture and civilization, of worship and initiation, of society, its leaders and institutions. The only apparent exception, the eschatological myth, in fact also deals with the restitution of creation in its original purity and integrity. Because it reveals how the totality of the real came into being, the cosmogonic creation myth is the prototypical one, continued and completed by the other myths.

myth and the bible

Where the word myth is mentioned in the Bible, almost exclusively in the NT, it is invariably in the pejorative sense of fiction, old wives' tale, lie, or error. Typical is the well-known text of 2 Tm 4.4: "They will stop their ears to truth, and turn to myth." It is obvious, however, that this negative attitude is nothing more than a conformity with the prevalent use of the term, together with a rather exclusivistic religious absolutism. Foreign religious traditions are not false because they are myths; they are called myths because they are, or are supposed to be, false. This does not necessarily imply a fundamental incongruity between Holy Scripture and myth, as myth is understood. The incongruity is not between Bible and myth, but between Bible and falsity.

It is evident that the narratives of Genesis about the creation of the world and of man, about Eden and the Fall, etc., are not really history in the ordinary sense of the word, but very much stories about events that took place "in the beginning," events that constituted the cosmos as a reality, and about man in his specific mode of being in the world, his existential situation as a created, mortal, sexed, and cultural being. If it could be substantiated that the story of Genesis ch. 1 was recited at the Hebrew New Year's festival, this association between the creation myth and the annual ritual of cosmic renewal would be a further confirmation of its mythic character. Other examples of this association between narrative and ritualwith the essential difference that the mythical archetype is replaced by an historical prototypeare the Exodus story, reenacted in the Passover ceremony, and the mystery of Christ's redemptive sacrifice and Resurrection, renewed in the Eucharistic celebration of the Mass.

The Bible, as a literary work, has a tradition that includes myth as a literary genre and does not reject mythical patterns from other civilizations. This is not surprising; what is surprising is the remarkable restraint Israel used in this regard. One could say that, in a certain sense, the authors of the Bible demythologized to a great extent whatever myth they used. In the cultural and civilizational context of the Bible, the use of mythical language in order to express the supernatural and transcendental content of a religious message is self-evident. Because myth reveals in a dramatic way what philosophy and theology try to express conceptually and dialectically, it adapts itself naturally to the expression of an active divine presence in the cosmos. Because myth is not limited by the laws of logic, it expresses naturally the divine reality as something that transcends thought in a coincidentia oppositorum. Because myth takes place in a nontemporal era, it presents naturally a transtemporal or metahistorical event that never happened, but always is, ab origine.

With regard to the mythical outlook of religious man, there is, however, in the Judeo-Christian tradition a totally new factor. Although mythical patterns remain discernible, the decisive events are no longer extratemporal, but, in a very real sense, historical: God intervenes effectively in human history. Myth reveals the existence of the gods as the ground of all created reality, but the Bible reveals God's activity on the scene of time. In myth, as in Platonism, time is but the moving image of unmoving eternity, a never ceasing repetition of creation through a process of periodical regeneration. But in the Judeo-Christian tradition time is creation itself in the act of being accomplished. Historical events have a value in themselves because they mark God's interventions in time. They do not mark a recurrence of archetypes, but a new, unique, and decisive moment in an irreversible process. The message of the Prophets, for example, is much more about these interventions of God in history than about His presence in the cosmos. As a matter of fact, one could very well, with Tresmontant, define the nabi (prophet) as one who has the understanding of the sense of history. Here again there is an implicit demythologization in the Bible.

Creation, Fall, and Flood can be said to be events of the beginning, but not the Exodus, the passage of the Red Sea, the crossing of the Jordan, the invasion of Canaan. These are historical events. Again, the mythical pattern is discernible in the ritual repetition of creation of those events as well as in the liturgical year that periodically repeats the events of the Nativity, life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. But, although the reactualization is obvious, especially in the Sacraments, this repetition is nevertheless, in the awareness of the believers, a remembrance of an historical fact, an ephapax that already achieved its soteriological end "once and for all." In 2 Pt 1.1618 one can see the importance given to this historical aspect by early Christianity, and again it is in opposition to myth: "We were not following fictitious tales when we made known to you Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses. We ourselves heard.We were with him."

After strauss, renan, and others in the 19th century, Rudolf bultmann (18841976) stressed the mythical character of the NT and the need to demythologize the Christian kerygma, i.e., to strip it from its obsolete, mythological elements, caused mainly by Hellenistic gnosticism and Jewish apocalyptic ideas, in order then to interpret it anthropologically or existentially. Since this question is extensively dealt with in other articles, a few general remarks will suffice here (see demythologizing; form criticism, biblical). Sometimes demythologization really stands for deliteralization, a nonliteral interpretation or understanding of an imagery that became inappropriate because it was based on an outdated, mistaken, or incomplete knowledge, e.g., an erroneous cosmology. This is, of course, what respectable theology did throughout the ages, and it is imperative as long as the message is not evacuated with its expression. Insofar as myth, for Bultmann, is to conceive and to express the divine in terms of human life, the only alternative to some sort of re -mythologization seems to be complete silence. Finally, demythologization sometimes stands for an effort to salvage in the narratives of the NT the historical kernel from its so-called "mythical husk." To assess critically what is strictly historical and what is not is certainly to be commended. But to distinguish does not mean to separate or to oppose. What is denounced as mythical garb may be a necessary or at least a convenient instrument to reveal the historical event as a theophany. To eliminate myth in this sense would be disastrous because both myth and fact are demanded byand coinstrumental inthe revelation of divine presence in history. As such they validate each other.

See Also: myth and mythology; myth and mythology (in the bible).

Bibliography: j. de vries, Forschungsgeschichte der Mythologie (Freiburg 1961). m. eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, tr. r. sheed (New York 1958); Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries (New York 1961); Myth and Reality (New York 1963). t. j. sebeok, ed., Myth: A Symposium (Bloomington, Ind. 1958). h. a. murray, ed., Myth and Mythmaking (New York 1960). r. caillois, Le Mythe et l'homme (Paris 1938). b. malinowski, The Myth in Primitive Psychology (London 1926). a. e. jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, tr. m. t. choldin and w. weissleder (Chicago 1963); ed., Mythe, Mensch und Umwelt (Bamberg 1950). w. nestlÉ, Vom Mythos zum Logos (Stuttgart 1940). e. cassirer, Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, tr. r. manheim (New Haven 195357) v.2. h. m. and n. k. chadwick, The Growth of Literature, 3 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 193240). c. g. jung and c. kerÉnyi, Einführung in das Wesen der Mythologie (Amsterdam 1941). r. queneau, ed., Histoire des littératures (Encyclopédie de la Pléiade 1, 3, 7; Paris 195558) v.1. r. pettazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions, tr. h. j. rose (Leiden 1954). h. baumann, "Mythos in ethnologischer Sicht," Studium generale 12 (1959) 117. g. van riet, "Mythe et vérité," in his Problèmes d'épistémologie (Paris 1960).

[f. de graeve]