The Study of Myth from Its Development in Ancient Times to the Present
THIS ESSAY. . . You will find an historical survey of the history of mythology, the study and analysis of myth. The essay begins with a short review of the philosophical mythology of the early Greek philosophers, proceeds to an overview of the various forms of allegorical mythology that dominated discussion of myth until the end of the European Renaissance, continues with an examination of how a rage for ethnic roots beginning in the 17th century CE availed itself of the methods of the comparative linguistics and developed into the various schools of comparative mythology of the 18th and 19th centuries, and concludes with a survey of the major modern mythologies that emerged when a variety of academic disciplinesanthropology, linguistics, literature, and psychologydeveloped their respective analyses of myth.
By the end of this chapter, you should understand the following:
• The difference between myth and mythology
• What allegorical mythology is and what forms it took from the time of Theagenes to the end of the European Renaissance (e.g. the differences between natural, euhemeristic, and Christian allegorical approaches)
• What comparative linguistics is and what its relationship is to comparative mythology
• What various nationalistic and ethnic movements have to do with the analysis of myth
• The preoccupations and methods that distinguish anthropological, linguistic, literary, and psychological approaches to myth
Just as there is no single “correct” definition for the word myth, there is not single “correct” way of studying and analyzing it. Each form of analysis generates insights, but each can also limitor even distortour perception of myth as a story. This essay concludes with the suggestion that we familiarize ourselves with mythology’s many kinds and methods in order to read myth on multiple levels at once.
What Is Mythology?
The last essay showed that the writings of Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Plato featured both newly minted, rational myths and discussion of traditional, poetic myths. In fact, since the time of Xenophanes, two parallel streams have flowed from their headwaters in the so-called Greek Renaissance (c. 850-500 BCE) down to our own time. The first is the mythic tradition itself: that is, the epics, dramas, and poems containing Greek and, later, Roman myths. The second is the ongoing conversation about the value and meaning of those stories. While the words myth and mythology are frequently used interchangeably, we will distinguish between them in this class. Therefore, myth will be used when referring to the stories themselves while mythology will be used when referring to the study and analysis of those stories.
This essay will demonstrate that questions about the truth value and cultural importance of myths have generated ingenious interpretations and heated disputes ever since the time of Xenophanes and Heraclitus. For two and a half millennia, competition among various schools of mythology has been a struggle over matters of ultimate truth, religious belief, political theory, cultural identity, verifiable history, and social custom. Myth has been variously understood as the revelation of divine mysteries, as primitive science and faulty history, as bad philosophy, as a code containing truths hidden from the uneducated, as the cultural DNA determining a people’s identity, as a resource for learning about the material culture of “primitive” peoples, as a window into the workings of the human mind, and as a justification for deplorable acts of cruelty. Indeed, the story of mythology demonstrates emphatically that there is a great deal more at stake in the study of myths than becoming acquainted with amusing cultural artifacts attesting how naïve and superstitious our ancestors were.
In the previous essay, we glanced briefly at the rise of rationalism and surveyed the earliest philosophers’ responses to the muthoi of the poets. The history of mythology begins here, with the first critical examinations of the methods and truth-value of myth. Both myth-telling and philosophy are preoccupied with fundamental metaphysical questions about the origin and ultimate nature of the universe and being, but philosophy is also intensely interested in logically consistent, rational methods for arriving at answers to such questions. Thus, the reason that Xenophanes, Heraclitus, and Plato rejected the myths of Homer and Hesiod as lies and silly stories for the simple-minded is that one cannot rationally and logically examine their truth-claims. For example, Hesiod claims to know how the kosmos began and how Zeus and the Olympians became its rulers because the Muses “breathed” the truth into him. How can one examine and question another person’s claim to divine inspiration? Either one believes Hesiod’s claim and reveres his narrative or one does not; no one can get inside the poet’s head and know for sure what he experienced or whether he sincerely believed this claim.
Rational inquiry faces the same problem when it attempts to weigh in on any matter of faith. People, including philosophers, believe all kinds of things that cannot be directly observed, measured in a laboratory, or even fully articulated. Does this lack of empirical evidence necessarily prove that true love, life on other planets, or a loving God do not exist? There is no way to proveor disprovesuch claims using philosophical inquiry or the scientific method. Instead, we can only construct arguments based on what any person can observe for him- or herself. And discovering what constitutes a reasonable argument and a logical proof was an important part of what preoccupied the early Greek philosophers. From their point of view, the poets did not follow the rules of fair and reasoned discourse because they laid claim to special, unverifiable access to the truth and didn’t bother to use arguments, evidence, and reason to convince others. Thus, the early philosophers dismissed their claims to knowing the truth about the origins and nature of the universe as illegitimateand heaped scorn on anyone gullible enough to take the “lies of the poets” seriously.
Early philosophical mythology, then, was the first intellectual movement to question the basis for the common person’s unquestioning faith in the muthoi of the poets. We can trace modern definitions of myth as “falsehoods” or “unbelievable stories” directly to the early Greek philosophers who were the first to apply rational thought and logical analysis to metaphysical questions, dispensing with unverifiable stories that appeal to supernatural entities and divine inspiration for their authority. While the contribution of philosophy to the study of myth is largely negative, the philosophers’ insistence on rational explanations, credible evidence, and fair arguments has made the objective, critical study of myths (and everything else) possible.
A second development that arose with the birth of Greek rationalism in the latter 6th century BCE is something that many have called allegorical mythology. Allegory is a form of extended metaphor by which objects, persons, and events refer symbolically to meanings outside the narrative itself. Thus, allegorical mythology is a way of reading the objects, persons, and events depicted in myth as symbolizing something beyond the story’s plot and the literal meaning of its words. From the time of the earliest philosophers until the 17th century CE, philosophers and Church scholars interpreted myths allegorically, looking beneath their literal surfaces to find hidden references to natural phenomena, historical events, or philosophical or religious truth.
Theagenes’ “Allegory of Nature” Unlike his philosophical contemporaries, the Greek philosopher Theagenes did not reject the muthoi of the poets out of hand as silly stories for the simple-minded. Yet, he was enough of a rationalist to have been bothered by their supernatural elements. His solution was to develop a system for reading myths allegorically in order to convert nonrational and supernatural mythic material into rational and natural terms. Unfortunately, none of Theagenes’ writings survive, but Kathleen Freeman in her The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, asserts that he interpreted the skirmishes among the gods that Homer and Hesiod describe as wars among the elemental and physical forces of the kosmos. Thus fire is at war with water, heat with cold, heavy elements with airy elements, and so on. He further associated various Olympian gods with the elements. So, for example, Apollo, Helios, and Hephaestus represent the element fire, while Poseidon and Skamander represent water. Such abstract qualities as wisdom and desire were represented by Athena and Aphrodite, respectively. It lies open to conjecture how Theagenes might have read, for example, the passage in the Iliad where Hera borrows Aphrodite’s girdle and distracts Zeus in her arms while Poseidon secretly provides aid to the Greeks so that they can turn the tide back against the Trojans (Il. 14). Probably, he would have seen this episode as an allegory of some kind of ongoing struggle between air (Hera) and water (Poseidon) against Zeus (the thunderstorm?) that has observable manifestations in our world. The allegorical school, then, does not deny that myths have some truth-value, but it assumes that its truths are encoded in poetic languagepresumably because the ancients lacked a truly scientific knowledge of the physical workings of the kosmos.
Euhemeros’ “Historical Allegory” About a century after Plato, Euhemeros joined the conversation about the value and importance of traditional myths. His particular contribution to mythology has been called historical allegory. Not unlike the philosophical mythologists and Theaganes, Euhemeros assumed that his ancestors were primitives lacking the scientific method, philosophical principles, and cognitive sophistication of the “modern” world in which he lived. Therefore, he reasoned, the ancients exaggerated the historical facts of actual persons and events and, because they did not have access to better forms of knowledge, accepted these embellished stories as truth.
In his Sacred History, Euhemeros claimed to have discovered on the island of Panchia (somewhere off the coast of Arabia Felix) inscriptions which indicated that Kronos and Zeus were at one time living, earthly kings. Based on this “evidence” (now generally believed to have been fabricated for the purposes of illustrating his theory), Euhemeros argued that all divine and semi-divine beings described in myth were, at one time, remarkable but nevertheless ordinary people whose deeds became so romanticized and sentimentalized over time that they were eventually honored as gods. In short, Euhemeros argued that myths were not true, per se, but fanciful tales that preserved traces of historical truth. His approach to myth is rational mythology at its most pungent. It is unknown how Euhemeros himself might have applied historical allegory to, say, the Iliad or the Theogony. Presumably, he would have read a passage like Hesiod’s titanomachia, the war between forces led by Zeus against the Titans, the monstrous race of immortals that preceded the future Olympians, as a time-distorted history of a great battle between a barbaric, primordial civilization and the forebears of what eventually became Greek society. Modern euhemerists, like their namesake, have tended to rewrite the myths they study in strictly rational terms. For example, Friedrich Max Müller, Sir James Frazer, and members of the Myth-Ritual School (see below), ignored the literary artistry of Classical myth and dismissed its uncanny and incredible elements in favor of their own, often ingenious interpretations of what these ancient stories were really saying.
The Stoics’ and Neoplatonists’ “Moral Allegory” Stoicism was one of the most enduring philosophical movements to emerge from the Hellenistic Period (323-31 BCE). The Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), was a famous Stoic and, indeed, Stoic societies exist in our own day. Founded by Zeno of Citium, Cyprus (c. 335-263 BCE), the Stoics made major contributions in logic, grammar, and the philosophies of language and mind. This ancient philosophical school’s moral philosophy of cultivating freedom from the passions that disorder our lives gives us our modern adjective, stoic, which means “a detached indifference to pleasure or pain.” In this connection, Martha R. Nussbaum has argued that the Stoics developed Theagenes’ somewhat loose allegorical method of reading myth into a potent and rigorous system of interpretation that would not only domesticate the wild irrationality of poetry but also train the philosopher’s mind to read literature dispassionately and critically rather than emotionally and egocentrically.
While the Stoics continued, as Theagenes had done, to interpret myth in terms of physical phenomena, they also became interested in reading the Iliad, Odyssey, and other ancient literature as encoded moral treatises. Thus, their allegorical readings of myth frequently described the heroes and gods of myth as embodying their own moral ideals and as resisting the vices and weaknesses that they themselves wished to avoid. For example, by the first century of the Common Era, Heraclitus the Stoic had written the Homeric Allegories in which he sought to defend Homer from the charge of immorality first laid against him by Xenophanes more than five centuries previously. In this work, he interprets Apollo’s killing the Greeks with his arrows in the Iliad as a plague diffused by the heat of the suna reading that not only interprets theologically problematic passages in the myth in terms of amoral natural processes but also retains Theagenes’ identification of Apollo with light and heat. Similarly, Heraclitus the Stoic identifies the gods with a variety of abstract qualities: for example, Athena embodies wisdom, Ares embodies courage, and Aphrodite, desire. But Heraclitus also argues that the Odyssey is a moral allegory from start to finish, declaring that Odysseus is the embodiment of all virtues and that Homer uses him to teach wisdom by depicting him as hating the vices which destroy human life. In fact, the Stoic takes his moral allegory so far that he completely discounts the literal, surface meaning of the Iliad and Odyssey (and presumably of all mythic literature), by assuming that its only value is its allegorical meaning.
Obviously, rendering the mendacity of Agamemnon, the pouting of Achilles, and the gods’ callous disregard for human life and suffering as morally edifying philosophy required a great deal of ingenuity on the part of the interpreter. One way that Heraclitus (and other Stoics) attempted to force hidden-but-salutary meanings to the surface was by offering etymologieshistories of the “original” or “true” meanings of wordsas evidence of the epics’ hidden moral message. Most of these etymologies are based on accidental similarities in the sound and spelling of words and result in little more than clever puns and word games. But some of these interpretations resulted in elaborate and highly creative systems for transposing the original characters, actions, and situations of myth into a subtle meditations on Stoicism’s core principles and chief virtues. Over time, these more elaborate allegorical interpretations became more important than the myths themselves.
More than a century later, the neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry (233-305 CE), also employed a form of allegorical mythology in his The Cave of the Nymphs in the Odyssey. In this work he declares that what is obviously absurd in myth positively cries out to be read allegorically so that absurdity will be transformed into that which is meaningful. Porphyry’s Cave of the Nymphs adds historical “research” to the etymological method of the Stoics. Thus, the Homeric cave mentioned in the title of his work is said to be based on an actual Ithacan cave sacred to the nymphs. But, Porphyry added, even if the cave where Odysseus hid his treasure upon his return to Ithaca were not an actual place, its symbolism remains intact. Because the cave is a material phenomenon, Porphyry argued, it represents the material universe. The nymphs, as water spirits, represent the on-going flow of time and change; the looms at which they are working when Odysseus arrives symbolize the process (the stone looms) whereby human souls are clothed in bodies (the woven cloth). Not surprisingly, Porphyry found that Homer’s episode of the cave allegorically affirms the key doctrines of neo-Platonismnamely, an ordered universe, the unworthiness of material existence, and the reincarnation of souls.
The Early Christians’ “Spiritual Allegory” Christianity emerged as a religious movement during the heyday of Hellenistic philosophy and culture. Not surprisingly, the early church fathers felt compelled to discredit its “pagan” religious culture. As, for example, Wendy Doniger summarizes events, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian developed the “Thesis of Demonic Imitation” which held that the demons, perceiving that Jesus would soon come, “suggested to the poets who created [Greek] myths that they give Zeus many sons and attribute monstrous adventures to them, in the hope that this would make the story of Christ appear to be a fable of the same sort, when it came” (69-70). According to this doctrine, the gods of non-Christian myths were demonic deceptions and ignorant distortions of historical and scientific fact while the story of Jesus’ miracle-filled life, death, and resurrection was not myth but unquestionable fact.
Nevertheless, the early Church fathers could not help being impressed by the allegorical mythology of the Stoics and neo-Platonists. Its intense focus on minute textual details and correct interpretation obviously held great promise for Biblical scholarship and the development of sound doctrine. Clement of Alexandria is credited with being the first to use allegorical interpretation on the Hebrew scriptures and the writings that eventually became the New Testament. He declared that God had hidden his pearls of wisdom from the swine that despise them, intending that the true believer would search for these hidden, Christian meanings. One of Clement’s disciples, Origen, further developed Clement’s adaptation of neo-Platonic allegorical interpretation, asserting that Holy Scripture had three levels of meaning corresponding to the three aspects of the human beingbody, soul, and spirit.
The bodily level of Scripture is the text’s most literal levelthe denotative meaning of the words on the page. The psychic (soulish) level is less literal, embodying the moral and ethical lessons that scriptural stories impart. The spiritual level is the least literal, most mystical (most allegorical) level of Scripture. At this third level, Origen believed, were hidden deep mystical/spiritual truths. Indeed, Origen believed that the entire body of Hebrew scriptures prophesied Christ, who in turn is the key for correctly understanding what Christians eventually called the Old Testament. Citing, for example, I Corinthians 10, Origen pointed out that even the Apostle Paul saw the parting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, and the death of the wandering Israelites in the desert as allegorical symbols for baptism, the eucharist, and punishment for sin, respectively. Origen also seems to have been the first to observe that the story of the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the whale prefigures the three days between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
When Augustine of Hippo moderated some of the more radical impulses in Origen’s allegorical approach and reworked his predecessor’s three-tier interpretive system into a four-tier system, the interpretive die was cast. Augustine’s four-part system analyzed the Bible’s 1) literal; 2) allegorical; 3) moral; and 4) analogical levels, and his interpretive method became the primary means for reading both the Bible and pagan myths for the next 1200 years. Thus, despite the Thesis of Demonic Imitation, Greco-Roman myths continued to be readas allegories of Church teaching. Following the neo-Platonist impulse, Christian scholars saw in the “absurd” and morally shocking passages of Greco-Roman myth an invitation to uncover veiled references to Christian teachings about the importance of, for example, chastity and sobriety. Throughout the Middle Ages, handbooks proliferated, featuring brief plot summaries of the myths to which were attached Christian moral lessons.
Renaissance and Enlightenment Mythologies
As the Church became not only the most important spiritual but also the most important intellectual and political power in Europe, a thoroughly Christ-centered view of history emerged. Everything that happened before the birth of Christ was considered preparation for His coming; everything afterwards, the fulfillment of God’s plan. While the Church preserved and admired the writings of the great Greek and Roman philosophers and poets, it read their works allegorically, viewing all they said as veiled references to the coming of the Christ and Church teaching. But, even before the invention of the printing press in 1450 and the resultant surge in literacy throughout Europe, a renewed fascination with ancient Roman thought and culture had begun to develop. Intellectuals began to resist the Church’s rigidly dogmatic and intellectually arrogant interpretation of history and to reconnect with such simple human feelings as love, loyalty, and the passion to understand how the universe works. While continuing to identify with Christian teachings, they nevertheless began to read the ancient writers as fellow humans beings with similar passions and concerns. Soon, instead of filtering Greco-Roman philosophy and poetry through the Church’s doctrine-reinforcing allegorical system of interpretation, Renaissance scholars began to read Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Ovid, and Cicero in the more literal, human terms that these writers had hoped to be understood by their ancient contemporaries.
At the same time, Europe’s monarchies, which had been subservient for centuries to the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor, began to assert their own, secular power. Soon political power came to be valued for its own sake rather than as an instrument of the Church in the service of God. Powerful rulers in France, Spain, and England soon pursued empires that rivaled the Holy Roman Empire in wealth and extent. One important effect of the rise of monarchial power was a potent form of nationalism that eventually gave a new impetus to the study of myth. As the Renaissance matured, many among Europe’s intellectual elite, including such politically active literary figures as Boccacio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Montaigne, began to admire Classical virtues and values regardless of the fact the ancient writers who discussed them weren’t Christians. Toward the end of this period, myths came to be valued for what they suggest about national origins and, eventually, for the insights they were thought to provide into a people’s essential ethnic qualities.
The Search for the “Language of Paradise” Thus, toward the end of the 17th century, a rage for roots swept through Europe. A number of books and essays speculated on the primordial “Ur-language”the language from which all other tongues developed after the calamity at Babel. Maurice Olender’s The Languages of Paradise: Race, Religion, and Philology in the Nineteenth Century provides a detailed and readable history of this linguistic search for origins. Patriotic scholars from many nationsoften using ingenious if specious linguistic comparisonseach “discovered” that the language of Eden was their own mother tongue. As early as 1569, Jan Van Gorp asserted that his native Flemish was the primordial tongue. In 1690, Olender tells us, Frenchman Père Thomassin created a method for “reducing” all languages to Hebrew and was thus able to demonstrate that his mother tongue and the language of scripture were “one and the same language” (“From Adam” 53). But there was more at stake than simply establishing which language had been spoken in the Garden of Eden. European scholars also sought to name the “Ur-people” and the true location of Eden (the Ur-place), thus bringing the prestige of being God’s chosen race to their respective nations.
Significant in this search for the language and people of Paradise is how the myths of Eden and Babel were adapted to form a rational framework for academic inquiry. Such scholarly investigation helped forge a nationalist identity within and among Europe’s fragmented and insular languages and ethnic groups. Not unlike Herodotus whose literal belief in Heracles forms part of his attempt to represent history rationally, these early European language philosophers accepted the historical accuracy of the Genesis myth, particularly its depiction of an original human unity based on a common language. And, not unlike Plato, these early scholars adapted and rationalized traditional myths to serve their immediate social and political purposes. Also like Plato, scholars towards the end of the Renaissance had developed the same ambivalence about their culture’s traditional (Christian) myths that Plato had about the poets’ muthoi. The scholars in both eras spent a great deal of energy attempting to reconcile the discoveries of rational inquiry and scientific observation with the nonrational elements in their culture’s myths.
Giovanni Battista Vico and The New Science These new language-oriented developments in mythology were soon combined with time-honored allegorical approaches so that scholars could peel away the layers of irrationality and error attributed to pagan myths and reveal the presumably rational, Christian truth at the core of these stories. For example, Giambattista Vico, in his New Science (1725-44) explicated the scientific principles that, he claimed, could finally make sense of the confused histories, geographies, and linguistics of his time. The result of his lifelong effort was an “ideal eternal history” (Vico 12) that organized the ancient accounts in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman literature and presented them in a rational orderan order, not coincidentally, that happened to confirm biblical history and church teaching. Vico theorized that languages and cultures undergo ever-repeating evolutionary cycles; human society began after the flood in a primitive state without language, moved through a heroic phase when language was identical with poetry, and culminated in our current stage in which language serves a wide variety of prosaic purposes. Eventually, Vico speculated, an upheaval would occur, starting the process all over again. Vico’s mythology, then, sought to rescue myth from the clutches of irrationality by reorganizing its chronology, symbols, and meanings into a logical system that used history, linguistics, iconography and a great deal of ingenuity to align Egyptian, Greek, and Roman myths with the key beliefs of his Christian culture.
Sir William Jones’s “Science of Language” In some respects, Vico’s New Science marks the beginning of allegorical mythology’s decline. While various forms of euhemerism continuedand still continueto be employed by scholars seeking to rationalize myth, interest in decoding myth’s hidden philosophical and religious truths steadily receded after Vico discovered the “ideal eternal history” hidden in ancient myth. A generation after Vico, Englishman Sir William Jones (1746-1794), unwittingly gave mythology a more scientific, language-based emphasis when he founded what is now known as comparative linguistics. While serving as a Jurist in India, Jones noticed numerous similarities between Arabic and European languages and the priestly language of Sanskrit. A prodigy who, even in his twenties, was an international authority in five languages and possessed a credible grasp of several others, Jones made a systematic comparison of the grammars and important nouns and verbs of Latin, Greek, and Latin, noticing that they had similarities that could not be explained away by accident. He later noticed that Gothic, Celtic, and Persian, too, seemed closely related to the Classical languages of India and Europe. Unlike Gorp, Thomassin, and Vico, who attempted to make their observations fit into foregone nationalistic or religious conclusions, Jones followed the evidence to a very different conclusion: that is, that these linguistic similarities could be explained only by the existence of “a common source [language],” which, he suggested, “perhaps, no longer exists” (Works of Sir William Jones 3: 34-35).
Following Jones’s suggestion, subsequent linguists methodically demonstrated that nearly all the languages of India, the Near East, and Europe derive from a single ancestor language today known as proto-Indo-European. This scientific approach to language study gave direction, method, and legitimacy to, among other things, the search for the Ur-people from whom, it was believed, all European culture and achievement emanated. As linguistic research advanced, scholars soon uncovered numerous myths outside the Greco-Roman tradition and discovered remarkable similarities between Greco-Roman and Biblical stories and those of the ancient Near East, India, and even China. Soon, mythologists began applying Jones’ “comparative method” to the world’s myths, and thus comparative mythology was born. Like the linguists who inspired them, some comparative mythologists hypothesized the existence of an original Indo-European myth from which the world’s many versions had descended.
The “Nature School” Not unlike their Hellenistic and Medieval ancestors, most 18th and 19th-century comparativists tended to assume that all mythsif read properlyreferred to a hidden original myth or myth-type. One of comparative mythology’s most widespread movements was the “Nature School.” This school asserted that the core elements of myth derived from a people’s most significant environmental influences. Thus, for example, the Solar Hypothesis proposed that all myths could be referred back to the ancients’ fascination with the sun’s waxing and waning throughout the year.
One of the chief proponents of the Solar Hypothesis, Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) was the Joseph Campbell of his timea man of immense learning, tremendous charisma at the lectern, and a single idea about myth that he vigorously defended long after others had found it intellectually suspect to do so. He argued that myth was “a disease of language” through which poetic descriptions of such meteorological features as the sunrise and the thunderstorm became distorted into the bewildering array of deities, rituals, and superstitions one finds in the world’s myths. Müller’s ideas resonate with Euhemeros because both believed that the ancients lacked the scientific and religious sophistication of their own, enlightened day and, as a result, imperfectly understood and ultimately twisted reality into the irrational pretzel-logic of myth.
Adalbert Kuhn (1812-1881)one of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s early influenceswas another enthusiastic proponent of the Nature School. Through extensive comparative research, Kuhn believed that he had deduced the original Indo-European myth from which numerous, cross-cultural variants eventually emanated. This “original” myth featured a division between earth and sky and a protagonist who mediated between these two realms by stealing something from the gods and bestowing it upon humanity. Sometimes, as for Prometheus, the stolen gift was fire; sometimes it was the elixir of immortality. Kuhn consistently saw these variants as allegories of natural phenomenaparticularly the rainstorm which bestows fire in the form of lightning and the life-giving elixir of rain which makes vegetative growth and, therefore, all life possible. Many others in Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland, and England employed Kuhn’s methods to uncover the basic plot of the Ur-myth, often reaching significantly different conclusions. Some preferred to see the Ur-myth as an allegory of the phases of the moon, others argued for the sun, still others found that prevailing winds or other meteorological conditions formed the arch-plot.
As has been shown, emergent nationalism and a revived scientific curiosity at the end of the Renaissance were among the most important inspirations for the first significant innovation in mythology in more than a millennium. Eventually these impulses matured into a so-called “science of race” which, by the 19th century, was known as ethnology. But well before this, nationalistic yearnings for authentic folk traditions gave rise to what we might call ethnic mythologythe study of myth as a way of learning about the supposedly essential qualities of a racial group or nation. As Bruce Lincoln observes, a translation of the Norse Eddas by Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807), the counterfeit translation of the blind (and fictitious) Gaelic bard Ossian by James Macpherson (1736-1796), the linguistic and mystical speculations of Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), and the books of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) all bear witness to the fact that, by the middle of the 18th century, myth was widely assumed to be “a crucial resource for collective identity” and that “myths convey historic, cultural, and practical knowledge while also guarding a [people’s] distinctive values . . . against forgetfulness and change” (Lincoln 53). Thus scholars, presuming that myths provided access to the authentic, primordial essence of the “Aryan race” and/or their own nations began studying them for the insights they might provide into these supposedly pure ethnic qualities. Indeed, it is a sobering and oft-neglected fact that mythology, in its most literal sense as the study of myths, was until the Second World War closely associated with the “science” of race.
Herder’s Organicist Volk Mythology Johann Gottfried Herder’s work was particularly influential among ethnic mythologists. Like his Medieval predecessors, he assumed the literal existence of a primordial, divinely sanctioned, and linguistically unified humanity. From this unity, Herder claimed, human beings devolved into the various linguistically, geographically, and culturally separate Volk (roughly, a “folk” or a “people”) that we see today. Herder further asserted that a people’s environment not only shaped their myths, culture, and language but also their bodies and characters as well. His theory of an organic relationship between a Volk and their landscape had great emotional resonance not only in his native Germany but also throughout Europeand with strikingly different long-range effects. For example, Herder’s Volkish theories were eventually seized upon to justify Nazi fantasies about an Aryan folk-spirit. Yet, Herder’s ideas do not automatically lead to racism or fascism. In Denmark, Herder-influenced thought fueled a romantic folklore movement with the idea of a “pure folk spirit” inspired the Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War II.
Herder’s organic Volk mythology was founded in part on a nostalgic view of rural life with close connection to the soil and other natural elements that produced simple, honest people whose language was believed to possess spontaneous vitality and transparency of meaning not found among city-dwellers. Indeed, myths were important to Herder and those influenced by him in part because it was believed that, as the most ancient narratives a culture possessed, they embodied the purity, virtue, and strength from which increasingly urbanized civilization had been receding for centuries.
The “Aryan Hypothesis” Arguably, 19th century mythology was obsessed with sorting out the races according to similarities and dissimilarities in their languages, myths, and ethnic characteristics. Herder’s ideas about the organic links among Volk, soil, and myth combined with a flood of information about exotic new cultures from European colonies around the world and fueled a widespread interest in theories accounting for racial differences. We can perhaps most quickly grasp the racial dimension of this mythology by taking a “core sample” of 19th-century German thought on the “Aryan hypothesis” about race, language, and culture.
Extrapolating from Sir William Jones’s theory of Central Asian origins for the world’s largest linguistic group, a variety of European intellectuals posited the existence of a strong, technologically superior race that conquered the prehistoric world from India to Iceland, thus leaving its indelible mark on the languages, myths, and gene pool of this vast territory. This hypothetical race, which they called the Aryans, provided 19th-century German nationalists with an ancient, heroic Golden Age upon which to base their theories of national greatness. If, they reasoned, Germans were actually descendants of the Aryans, then they were not the Barbarians so vilified by the Roman historian Tacitus or the vassals of French-speaking Prussia, but the inheritors of an ancient patrimony of conquest, strength, and mighty deeds. It was, many felt, the German branch of the Aryan family’s turneven its destinyto take a pre-eminent role on the world stage.
In the midst ofand to some degree creatingthis fierce search for German national identity were a number of important figures. In linguistics and mythology, there were Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (1785-1863 and 1786-1859, respectively) whose German Grammar exhaustively demonstrated the relationship between their native tongue and the other Aryan languages. The Grimm brothers’ famous “Fairy Tales” were one result of another line of inquiry: the search for narratives that would demonstrate that which was distinctive in the German Volk-spirit.
In music, there was Richard Wagner (1813-1883) whose famous Ring Cycle was a highly imaginative operatic synthesis of various Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and other Germanic myths about the dragon-slaying hero, Siegfried. In Wagner, we see an almost religious devotion to the values of the Aryan Volk. The composer asked for and received royal patronage to build Beyreuth, which he described as a modern “temple” wherein the Volk could celebrate the Germanic spirit embodied in this hero. The dark side of Wagner’s interest in Siegfried is revealed in his theoretical writings where we find the repugnant thesis that Jews are physically and irretrievably “other” than the descendants of the Aryan race. For example, in “Artwork of the Future” and “Judaism and Music” Wagner goes to some lengths to prove that, because they were without homeland, Jews were incapable of producing original art or music.
In philosophy, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872), Ludwig Schemann (1852-1938), Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), and, early in his career, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) provide some of the clearest examples of the intersection between myth and racial theory among the educated elite. Nietzsche wrote with great emotional force about the importance of German art, poetry, myth, ancient religions, and native soil:
We think so highly of the pure and vigorous core of the German character that we dare to expect of it above all others the elimination of the forcibly implanted foreign elements, and consider it possible that the German spirit will return to itself. Some may suppose that this spirit must begin its fight with the elimination of everything Romanic. If so . . . let him never believe that he could fight similar fights without the gods of his house, or his mythical home, without ‘bringing back’ all German things!” (Birth of Tragedy 23.138-39)
Nietzsche also coined the term “blond beast” which describes the Aryan warriors of the past as
not much better than uncaged beasts of prey. There they savor a freedom from all social constraints . . . [and] go back to the innocent conscience of the beast of prey, as triumphant monsters who perhaps emerge from a disgusting procession of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul . . . One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory . . . (On the Genealogy of Morals 11.40-41)
Nietzsche’s work is complex, and there is on-going scholarly debate about the degree to which he was (or was not) being ironic with these and similar notions elsewhere in his writing. But his description of the “noble races” and their “undisturbed” exercise of blood-thirsty power provides a compelling example of the conclusions that 19th century ethnic mythologists were drawing from their comparativist research. Nietzsche’s “blond beast” also demonstrates that myths and myth-making are not artifacts from the distant past but real and present activities even in our day when scientific rationalism is the dominant mode of thought. Whether he intended it or not, Nietzche’s powerful evocation of a ruthless master race became a sinister inspiration for German fascists and White Supremicists in the 20th-century. As reprehensible as we now find anti-Semitism, in particular, and racism, in general, it was nevertheless a fact that respected artists, intellectuals, and academics in the 19th century wrote extensively about the fundamental inferiority in spirit and kind between Jews (and other non-Aryans) and the “Nordic tribes” descended from the great Aryan race of warriors.
Conclusion: Shifting Paradigms
The early history of mythology may be summarized by saying that from the first flowering of scientific rationalism in Greece during the 6th century BCE until the revival of scientific rationalism in the 17th century CE, allegorical mythology of one kind or another was the only method employed for studying myths. As the Enlightenment (c. late 1600s-late 1700s) approached, allegorical approaches were overtaken and incorporated into the new, more scientific comparative mythology. Comparative mythology, in turn, gave rise to several related schools. The nature school made comparisons among the world’s myths to determine what key environmental or cosmological factor gave rise to myth. The ethnological school made comparisons among the world’s myths to discern a people’s folk-spirittheir essential ethnic qualities. The most intense form of the ethnological schoolwhich culminated in the Aryan hypothesiscoupled comparisons of the world’s myths with intensely racial and nationalistic political ideologies.
Thus, by the 19th century, whether their focus was the Aryan homeland, the relationships between environment, Volk, and myth, or the Ur-myth , mythologists of all schools employed the comparative method. In practice, comparative mythologists of whatever school locked themselves in libraries and studies, reading extensively and writing theories based on linguistic and literary analyses of the myths they studied. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, interest began to wane in unverifiable theories about the Ur-myth and partisan arguments about a people’s “folk-spirit.” A new school of mythologists was waiting in the wings to shift the conversation away from questions about tale-types and Ur-people to the matter of how living mythic traditions function in so-called primitive societies. The next chapter examines these new, modern mythologies.
Works Cited and for Further Reading
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Clay, Diskin and Andrea Purvis, eds. Four Island Utopias: Being Plato’s Atlantis, Euhemeros of Messene’s Panchaia, Iamboulos’ Island of the Sun, and Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 1999.
Cox, George William. The Mythology of the Aryan Nations. 1870; Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1969.
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Feldman, Burton and Robert D. Richardson, eds. The Rise of Modern Mythology 1600-1860. 1972. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000.
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