Myth and Malinowski in Primitive Psychology


The Finding of Moses.

[Malinowsi B. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. London (1974).]

The role of myth in life according to functionalism. The Nature-Mythology School (mainly Germany). this school – according to Malinowski “…maintain that primitive man is highly interested in natural phenomena…his interest is predominantly of a theoretical, contemplative, and practical character.” (96).

To writers of this school “…every myth possesses its kernel or ultimate reality some natural phenomenon or other, elaborately woven into a tale to an extent which sometimes almost masks and obliterates it.” (96). Some are “…extreme lunar mythologists…”. Some are supporters of Ehrenreich, Siecke, and Winkler. Others of Frobenius who “…regard the sun as the only subject around which primitive man has spun his tales.” (97).

Max Muller, Kuhn = “…school of meteorological interpreters…” (97) thus wind, weather, skies = essence of myth. The “….naturalistic interpretation of myths…” (97). Criticised by Wundt, stated untenable by Frazer.

The Historical School – Germany, America and Rivers in England. Contrast to naturalists = myth is naturalistic, symbolic, and imaginary.  Stands “…the theory which regards a sacred tale as a true historical record of the past.” (p7). The naturalist ignores “…the cultural function of myth…”. “Mythology, the sacred pore of the tribe, is…a powerful means of assisting primitive man…”. Also “…that the services to primitive culture performed by myth are done in connection with religious ritual, moral influence, and sociological principle.” (98).

Close connection – religion, myth. Mentions – Wundt, Durkheim, Mauss, J. Harrison (influenced by Frazer). These “…have all understood the intimate association between myth and ritual, between sacred tradition and norms of social structure.” (98).

Malinowski – tried – to formulate a sociological theory of myth. Thus  – “Myth as it exists in a savage community…in its living primitive form, is not merely a story told but a reality lived…it is a living reality, believed once to have happened in primeval times, and continuing…to influence the world and human  destinies.” (100). Myths – transformations – scribes, commentators, priests, theologians.

Studied live – myth – not symbolic but a direct expression of “…a narrative resurrection of primeval reality…” (101). Functional analysis = therefore – “Myths fulfils a primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief, it safeguards and enforces morality, it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man.” (101). Malinowski maintained there existed “…a special class of stories, regarded as sacred, embodied in ritual, morals, and social organisation, and which form an integral and active part of primitive culture.” (108).

Malinowski further quotes (109) – “Myths are stories which, however marvellous and improbable to us, are nevertheless related in all good faith, because they are intended, or believed by the teller, to explain by means of something cncrte and intelligible and abstract ideas or such vague and difficult conceptions such as Creation, Death, distinctions of race or animal species, and different occupations of men and women; the origins of rites or customs, or striking natural objects or prehistoric monuments; the meaning of the names of persons or places. Such stories are sometimes described as etiological, because their purpose is to explain why something exists or happens.” [ (Notes and Queries on Anthropology (210-11). @ Burne, C. C. & Myres, J. L.]

Malinowski disagrees on all points – on the basis of the Trobrianders. Malinowski’s theory is “…the theory of the cultural function of myth, accounting as it does for its intimate relation to ritual and tradition…” (144).

Therefore – “Between myth and nature two links must be interpolated: man’s pragmatic interest in certain aspects of the outer world, and his need of supplementing rational and empirical control of certain phenomena by magic.” (144-145). But also “In the study of myth the classical scholar must learn from the anthropologist.” (145). Thus myths “…live in the context of tribal life…”. (145).

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