Myth In Religion Research Paper

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Definitions of myth vary. Some definitions focus on the content of myth. Others focus on the function. Defined by content, myth would be a belief about something significant. The subject of myth might then be specified, such as the world, society, or god. Myth here could be a sheer conviction, such as the American ‘rags to riches’ myth, or could take the form of a story. Defined by function, myth would accomplish something significant for adherents. The function might likewise be specified, such as explaining the world, supporting society, or encountering god.

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1. Theories Of Myth

To study myth is to apply to it theories from the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, psychology, literature, religious studies, and philosophy. There are no theories of myth itself. What unites the study of myth across the disciplines are the questions asked: what is the origin, the function, and the subject matter of myth? Theories differ not only in their answers to these questions but also in the questions they answer. Some theories concentrate on the origin; others, on the function; still others, on the subject matter. In addition, some theories judge myth false; others judge it true; still others take no stand.

Theories of myth are hardly a modern invention. They go all the way back to the Presocratics (see Chase 1949, Chap. 1, de Vries 1961, Chap. 1). Only in the last century and a half, however, have theories become scientific, for only since then have there existed the social sciences. Some social scientific theories may have counterparts in earlier theories (see Feldman and Richardson 1972), but earlier theorizing was largely speculative and philosophical. Modern theorizing is far more empirical and testable. Even modern theories from literature, religious studies, and philosophy reflect the influence of the social sciences.

The most straightforward way to compare theories of myth is by discipline. But the differences among disciplines are often blurry. For example, the theories of E. B. Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Claude Levi-Strauss are as much psychological as anthropological. It is more telling to compare theories by the questions they ask and by the answers they give.

1.1 Myth As Primitive Science

An apt starting point is the theory of the pioneering English anthropologist E. B. Tylor (1832–1917). For Tylor, myth originates and functions to explain physical events. Myth is the ‘primitive’ counterpart to science, which is exclusively modern. ‘Modern myth’ is a contradiction in terms. By science, Tylor means natural, not social, science. The events explained by myth are primarily those in the external world such as the rising and setting of the sun, though also explained are human events such as birth and death. The payoff of myth is wholly intellectual: it is not control over the world—the position of James Frazer (1854–1941)— but knowledge of the world: ‘Man’s craving to know the causes at work in each event he witnesses … is no product of high civilization, but a characteristic of his race down to its lowest stages’ (Tylor 1871, I, pp. 368–9).

For Tylor both myth and science originate through observation, inference, and generalization. Both cover the same range of phenomena. Both are meant literally. The difference is in the explanations themselves. Myth, a part of religion, attributes events to the decisions of gods. Science attributes events to impersonal processes. Myth and science duplicate each other in function but exclude each other in content. One must therefore choose between them. While myth is as rational as science, it is false. Primitives create myth rather than science because they think less critically than moderns. Tylor died far too early to envisage a stage post the modern one.

In the twentieth century, Tylor’s theory has been spurned on many grounds: for pitting myth against science and thereby precluding modern myths, for subsuming myth under religion and thereby precluding secular myths, for deeming the function of myth intellectual, for deeming myth false, and for reading myth literally. Postmodernism would dismiss myth as explanation and would treat myth as sheer story. Nevertheless, Tylor’s theory remains central to the study of myth, and all other theories can be seen as rejoinders to it. One response to Tylor has been to take the function of myth as other than explanatory, in which case myth runs askew to science and can therefore coexist with it. Another response to Tylor has been to read myth other than literally, in which case myth does not even refer to the physical world and can therefore likewise coexist with science. The most radical response to Tylor has been to alter both the explanatory function and the literal reading of myth.

1.2 Myth As Other Than Explanatory In Function

The most influential reinterpreters of the function of myth have been Bronislaw Malinowski, Claude LeviStrauss, and Mircea Eliade. It is not clear whether for Malinowski (1884–1942), the Polish-born anthropologist, moderns as well as primitives have myth. It is clear that for him primitives have science as well as myth, so that myth cannot be the primitive counterpart to modern science. For Malinowski, myth is no more applied science—Frazer’s view (Frazer 1911–15)— than theoretical science—Tylor’s view. Primitives use science to explain and, more, to control the physical world. They use myth to reconcile themselves to aspects of the world that cannot be controlled.

Myth reconciles humans to the travails of life by rooting those travails in the primordial actions of gods or humans. Humans age because a god or human once did something that brought old age irremediably into the world: ‘the longed-for power of eternal youth and the faculty of rejuvenation which gives immunity from decay and age, have been lost by a small accident which it would have been in the power of a child and a woman to prevent’ (Malinowski 1926, p. 104). Myth pronounces the world not the best possible one but, in the wake of irreversible events, the only possible one. Still, the world becomes less capricious than it would otherwise be. In tracing back the origin of phenomena, myth does explain those phenomena, but as a means to an end rather than, as for Tylor, the end itself.

Whereas for Tylor myth deals primarily with physical phenomena, for Malinowski it deals equally with social phenomena like customs and laws. Myth still functions to reconcile humans to the unpleasantries of life, but now to unpleasantries that, far from unalterable, can be cast off by members of society. Myth spurs members to accept the impositions of society by tracing them, too, back to a hoary past, thereby conferring on them the clout of tradition. Myths say, do this because this has always been done. In the case of physical phenomena, the beneficiary of myth is the individual. In the case of social phenomena, it is society itself. The modern counterpart to myths of social phenomena, if moderns do not have myth, is ideology.

The most influential contemporary theorist of myth, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss (b. 1906), at first glance seems a throwback to Tylor. For Levi-Strauss, myth is an exclusively primitive enterprise yet a rigorously intellectual one. Levi-Strauss denounces nonintellectualists like Malinowski as vigorously as Malinowski denounces intellectualists like Tylor. Indeed, in declaring that primitives, ‘moved by a need or a desire to understand the world around them, … proceed by intellectual means, exactly as a philosopher, or even to some extent a scientist, can and would do’ (Levi-Strauss 1978, p. 16), Levi-Strauss seems indistinguishable from Tylor. Yet he is in fact severely critical of Tylor. For Levi-Strauss, primitives think differently from moderns, not fail to think as well.

Primitive, or mythic, thinking is concrete. Modern thinking is abstract. Primitive thinking focuses on the observable, sensory, qualitative aspects of phenomena rather than, like modern thinking, on the unobservable, nonsensory, quantitative ones. Yet myth for Levi-Strauss is no less scientific than modern science. It is simply part of the ‘science of the concrete’ rather than part of the science of the abstract, to which it is less at odds than askew. Myth is primitive science, but it is not inferior science.

Myth is an instance of thinking per se, modern and primitive alike, because it classifies phenomena. According to Levi-Strauss, all humans think in the form of classifications, specifically pairs of oppositions, and project them onto the world. Many cultural phenomena express oppositions. Myth is distinctive in resolving oppositions: ‘the purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction’ (Levi-Strauss 1958, p. 105). Myth resolves a contradiction by providing either a mediating middle term or an analogous, but more easily resolved, contradiction. Either tactic narrows and thereby alleviates the contradiction, but neither fully resolves it.

Like the contradictions expressed in other phenomena, those expressed in myth are apparently reducible to the fundamental contradiction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture.’ Humans experience themselves as at once animal-like and civilized. This split stems from the projection onto the world of the oppositional character of the mind. By diminishing that opposition, myth makes life more bearable and, even more, solves a logical conundrum.

In calling his interpretation of myth ‘structuralist,’ Levi-Strauss distinguishes it from ‘narrative’ interpretations, which adhere to the plot of myth. Levi-Strauss dispenses with the plot of myth and locates the meaning of myth in the structure. The plot is that element—say, event—A leads to event B, which leads to event C. The structure, which is identical with the expression and dimunition of contradictions, is either that events A and B constitute an opposition mediated by event C or that events A and B are as opposed to each other as events C and D, an analogous opposition, are opposed.

Levi-Strauss confines himself to primitive myths, but other structuralists analyze modern myths. In Mythologies (1972) the French semiotician Roland Barthes (1915–80) takes as myths various cultural artifacts and shows how they serve to justify the bourgeois outlook of postwar France. The function of myth here is not intellectual but ideological. Myth has nothing to do with natural science. Whereas LeviStrauss largely analyzes myths independent of their social context—the grand exception is his analysis of the myth of Asdiwal—others inspired by him have tied myths to their contexts. For the classicists Jean-Pierre Vernant (1983), Marcel Detienne, Pierre VidalNaquet, and Nicole Loraux, the relationship between myth and society is much more malleable and ironic than it is for Malinowski or even Barthes. Myth can as readily challenge as bolster existing ideology.

Unlike Malinowski, the Romanian-born historian of religions Mircea Eliade (1907–86) has no hesitation in making one function of myth explanatory. For him, as for Tylor, myth attributes events to the decisions of gods. Like Malinowski, Eliade includes social phenomena as well as physical phenomena. Explanation for Eliade is both an end in itself and a means to another end, which is magically to return to the time of the myth, the time of the origin of whatever phenomenon it explains. In this ‘primordial time’ gods are nearest to humans, as in the biblical case of ‘the Lord God[’s] walking in the garden of the cool of the day’ (Genesis 3: 8). The return to primordial time reverses the everyday separation from gods, a separation that is equivalent to the fall, and is regenerative spiritually: ‘what is involved is, in short, a return to the original time, the therapeutic purpose of which is to begin life once again, a symbolic rebirth’ (Eliade 1968, p. 8). The ultimate benefit of myth is proximity to gods, one or more.

Eliade ventures beyond the other respondents to Tylor in proclaiming myth panhuman rather than merely primitive. He cites modern novels, plays, and films with the mythic theme of yearning to escape from the everyday world into another, often earlier one. If even professedly atheistic moderns have myths, then myth must be universal. How modern myths, which do not involve gods, provide entree to gods, Eliade never discloses.

1.3 Myth As Other Than Literal In Meaning

The most prominent reinterpreters of not the function but the meaning of myth have been the German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) and the German-born philosopher Hans Jonas (1903–93). Both were followers of the early Martin Heidegger and offer existentialist readings of myth. While they limit themselves to their specialties, Christianity and Gnosticism, they presuppose a theory of myth per se.

Bultmann acknowledges that, read literally, myth is about the physical world and is incompatible with science. But unlike Malinowski and Eliade as well as as Tylor, Bultmann reads myth symbolically. In Bultmann’s excruciatingly misleading phrase, one must ‘demythologize’ myth, by which he means not eliminating, or ‘demythicizing,’ myth but on the contrary extricating its true, symbolic subject matter. Once demythologized, myth is no longer about the external world but is instead about the place of human beings in that world: ‘the real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. Myth should be interpreted not cosmologically, but anthropologically, or better still, existentially’ (Bultmann 1953, p. 10). Myth depicts the human condition.

Read literally, the New Testament in particular describes a cosmic battle of good and evil anthropomorphic gods for control of the physical world. These gods intervene miraculously not only in the operation of nature but also in human lives. Humans are therefore not responsible for their actions. Demythologized, the New Testament still refers in part to the physical world, but now to a world ruled by a single, nonanthropomorphic, transcendent God. Because God does not act directly in the world and because no evil powers exist, humans are free and therefore responsible for their actions. Because a literal interpretation reduces humans to the pawns of larger, competing forces, it concentrates on those forces, which means on the world. Because a symbolic interpretation pronounces humans free, it concentrates on the actions they choose in response to the world.

Demythologized, myth ceases to be purely primitive, as for Tylor, and becomes universal, as for Eliade. Myth ceases to be false, as for Tylor, and becomes true. Whereas Eliade invokes the existence of modern myths as ipso facto evidence of the compatibility of myth with science, Bultmann actually tries to reconcile myth with science. Whereas Eliade claims that moderns have myths of their own, Bultmann claims that moderns can retain biblical myths.

Bultmann’s boldest response to Tylor is to circumvent the function of myth. In translating the meaning of myth into terms acceptable to moderns, he sidesteps the issue of why moderns, even if they can have myth, need it. Unlike other symbolic interpreters of myth such as the religious philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1967) and the philosopher Philip Wheelwright (1968), Bultmann never maintains that the meaning of myth is untranslatable into nonmythic terms. Since he takes the meaning of myth from philosophy, he can hardly do so. Why, then, is myth needed? Bultmann never says.

Like Bultmann, Jonas seeks to show that ancient myths have an eternal meaning that speaks to moderns. For both Bultmann and Jonas, myth describes the alienation of humans from the world as well as from their true selves prior to their acceptance of God. Because Gnosticism, unlike mainstream Christianity, is radically dualistic, humans remain alienated from the physical world and from their bodies even after they have found the true God. Indeed, Gnostics find the true God only by rejecting the false god of the physical world.

Unlike Bultmann, who wants to bridge the divide between Christianity and modernity, Jonas acknowledges the divide between Gnosticism and modernity. In Gnosticism, the state of alienation is temporary. In modern, secular existentialism, alienation is permanent. Alienation is the human condition, not a fall from it. What, then, Jonas ‘demythologizes’ is not the source of alienation or the solution to it, for there is neither source nor solution, but the fact of alienation. He translates Gnostic myths into existentialist terms not to make Gnosticism palatable to moderns but only to show the similarity between the Gnostic and the existentialist outlooks: ‘the essence of existentialism is a certain dualism, an estrangement between man and the world …. There is only one situation … where that condition has been realized and lived out with all the vehemence of a cataclysmic event. That is the Gnostic movement’ (Jonas 1963, p. 325). Like Bultmann, Jonas bypasses the function of myth and confines himself to the meaning.

1.4 Myth As Both Other Than Explanatory And Other Than Literal

The most radical departures from Tylor transform both the explanatory function and the literal meaning of myth. The most influential theorists here have been psychologists, the Austrian Sigmund Freud (1856– 1939) and the Swiss C. G. Jung (1875–1961). For both, the subject matter of myth is the unconscious, and the function of myth is to express the unconscious.

Because the unconscious for Freud is composed of repressed sexual and aggressive drives, myth functions to release those drives, but in a disguised, vicarious way, so that the creator and the user of a myth need never confront its meaning and thereby their own nature. Myth, like other aspects of culture, serves simultaneously to reveal and to hide its unconscious contents. The classical psychoanalytic study of myth is that of Freud’s one-time disciple, the fellow Austrian Otto Rank (1884–1939). Focusing on myths of male heroes, Rank sees the myths as providing an unconscious, vicarious fulfillment of, above all, Oedipal drives. Myth serves neurotic adult males fixated at their Oedipal stage: ‘Myths are, therefore, created by adults, by means of retrograde childhood fantasies, the hero being credited with the myth-maker’s personal infantile [i.e., childhood] history’ (Rank 1914 p. 82).

Contemporary Freudians like Jacob Arlow (b. 1912) take myth positively rather than negatively. For them, myth helps solve the problems of growing up rather than perpetuate them, is progressive rather than regressive, and abets adjustment to society and the outer world rather than childish flight from both. Myth serves less to vent repressed drives than to sublimate them. Consequently, ‘myth can be studied from the point of view of its function in psychic integration—how it plays a role in warding off feelings of guilt and anxiety, how it constitutes a form of adaptation to reality and to the group in which the individual lives, and how it influences the crystallization of the individual identity and the formation of the superego’ (Arlow 1961, p. 375). Myth serves everyone, not only neurotics.

Jungians have taken myth positively from the outset. For them, the unconscious expressed in myth is not the Freudian repository of repressed, antisocial drives but a storehouse of innately unconscious ‘archetypes,’ or sides of the personality, that have simply not had an opportunity at realization: ‘contents of an archetypal character … do not refer to anything that is or has been conscious, but to something essentially unconscious’ (Jung 1968, p. 156). Myth is one means of encountering this Jungian, or ‘collective,’ unconscious. The function of myth is therefore less release, as for classical Freudians, than growth, as for contemporary ones. But growth means less adjustment to the outer world, as for contemporary Freudians, than cultivation of the ‘inner world.’ The payoff is self-realization. Some Jungians and Jungian-oriented theorists like the American Joseph Campbell (1904–87) so tout the payoff of myth that it becomes a panacea for all humanity’s problems (see Campbell 1949). Jung himself never goes this far. For Jung, myth works best as part of therapy.

For even contemporary Freudians, myth harks back to childhood. For Jungians, myth points forward. Myth especially serves adults already settled in the outer world but severed from the unconscious. Myth is to be read symbolically, as for Freudians, but not because its meaning has intentionally been disguised. Rather, the unconscious speaks a language of its own. Contemporary Jungians like James Hillman (b. 1926) seek to rectify what they consider the monotheistic orientation of Jung’s psychology and in turn his approach to myth (see Hillman 1975).

1.5 Recent Theories Of Myth

The most notable recent theories of myth have been variations on myth as primitive science, theoretical and applied. Cognitivists led by the French anthropologist Pascal Boyer (1994) analyze the mental processes that shape thinking—processes far more rigid than Tylor’s open-ended sequence of observation, inference, and generalization. Cognitivists investigate the constraints on mythic explanations more than, like Tylor, the explanations themselves. The German classicist Walter Burkert (b. 1931) and the French literary critic Rene Girard (b. 1923) have revived the theory that ties myth to ritual. Whereas for Frazer and his English follower Lord Raglan (1885– 1964) myth is the script for the ritualistic killing of the king, whose death and replacement magically ensure the rebirth of crops, for Burkert myth reinforces the ritual that commemorates the past hunting of animals. The function of myth is not physical but psychological and social: to cope with the guilt and anxiety that members of society feel toward their own aggression and to unite society by turning that aggression onto outsiders (see Burkert 1996). Whereas for Frazer and Raglan (1936) the king is heroic because he is willing to die for the sake of the community, for Girard the hero, who can range from the most marginal person to royalty, is killed as a scapegoat for violence in society. Rather than directing the ritualistic killing, as for Frazer and Raglan, myth for Girard arises afterwards to cover it up by making the victim first a criminal and then a hero. The function of myth is social: to preserve the ethos of sociability by hiding not only the killing but, more deeply, the violence endemic to society (see Girard 1972).


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