Monday, August 15, 2011

Myth-Making & the Spirit of Inquiry

An Artist Who is Looking for Commissions

For why-wolves, possessed as we are by both the spirit of Inquiry and the spirit of Bloodlust, it is natural to ask why have humans engaged in the making of myths?  For the historically-minded, answering this question would, among other things, give us historical context in which to ask why do humans engage in myth making?  At this point the major attempts to answer this question that are still popular seem to me to fall out into five broad tendencies, the last one, arguably, ahistorical.

  Five Kinds of Mythological Theory
  1. Humans created myths due to confusion about the past. (Euhemerism, F. Max Müller)
  2. Humans created myths as hypotheses to explain their world and how it works.  Myths have Ritual as their corollary.  (Edward B. Tylor, James G. Frazer)
  3. Humans created myths to create group identity and control behavior.  Myths are a major feature of Society.  (Plato, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Bronislaw Malinowski)
  4. Humans created myths because they were inspired to receive important encoded truths.  (Plutarch, Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, C. S. Lewis -- and in very different ways, Rudolf Bultmann and J. R. R. Tolkien)
  5. The creation of myths is actually an expression of the Human Sub/Unconscious. (Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung -- and thence, perhaps, Joseph Campbell)
Now, if you are one of those people whose eyes start glazing over when conversation turns historical, think about this.  If you want to skip history and say, "Who cares?  We make myths because myth-making is fun!"  Then how do you answer this: Why is myth-making particularly fun?  Why not just rather write romance novels, comic strips, cartoons, horror short stories, TV Western scripts, screenplays for blockbuster action movies?  Further, as significant as enjoyment is, there are questions of power and resilience entwined with considerations of entertainment: myths are a lot older than the other genres, and signs suggest that they are not declining any time soon.  Beyond that is the possibility that they exercise a profounder pull, a deeper reach, and not merely a longer lasting and more popular appeal.

Wrestling with theorists on the one hand and my own attempts to make various kinds of sense (history being but one way) out of mythos (originally "story, narrative, plot")  on the other, I am always alternating between fascination and frustration.  One the one hand, there is an abiding sense (or at least suspicion) that there is a unified something behind or beneath mythology, whether that something is human or divine or both.  On the other there are the errors of the theorists, their prejudices (both good and bad), and the resistant particularity of any given mythological datum.  Perhaps the fascination and the frustration are just two sides of the same coin.  Lack of consensus on whether the categories true/false apply to mythos, what it is, what it is about, what it is for, and how it works does not dampen the attraction of the mythic field and thus makes the search for theoretical answers persist in the face of such a lack of consensus.

The Encyclopedia of Religion and Society has a number of helpful entries that are worth checking out, including many of the figures named above.  Sadly, there is no entry for Myth.  But there is for Demythologizing!  Really, editors?  Still, I am happy that at least one contemporary reference work of religion is available for free online.  Theoretical entries fall in an area where dating is a more serious problem in older works, such as the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.

I hope this week's Mythopoeic Monday stirs your interest in such questions.  One place to begin furthering such interest is to start with Robert Segal's Very Short Introduction: Myth (Oxford), though this work will only introduce you to modern theorists.  Finally, I'd like to thank Trin and Droz for taking time in their post-Gen Con recovery to blog about their experiences in Indianapolis early this month.  Thanks again, guys!

According to at least one mythos, all questions stop with the Cosmic Owl.


  1. Somehow it doesn't surprise me to see Adventure Time go side by side with such elevated discussion. :)

    It strikes me that some of those explanations are at least in part reconcextualizations. Attempts, perhaps, to allow the myths to still be meaningful by recasting them in a different context (4 and 5 particularly) while the first couple just seem to suggest more that humanity has "moved beyond" that stage and left them behind (or at least that form of them behind).

  2. :D

    Trey, I think there is an element of truth in what you are saying. However, my take is this would make 4 & 5 not so much stand-outs from explanations, but rather marks a line of demarcation between explanations that proceed from a different pre-judgment. The issue: How to deal with falsity in the myths. The split in judgment: Do you come down in favor of the truth of the matter and falsity in appearance, or falsity in matter and true in what it can tell you about other things? Neither is a neutral explanation what is true and what is false about myths.

    (1-3) take the position that the matter of the myths is essentially a matter of falsehood and so to derive truth from them one must derive truths from something else in relation to the matter, while (4-5) take the position that the matter of myths is essentially a matter of truth, but that apparent falsehood is a mistake about what the myths are really about, and that realizing this gives one a clue to the true matter of the myths.