The Meaning of Myth


Baathsheba.  Artemisia Gentilleschi.

Symbols and ‘sacred tales’ invest lives with ‘cosmic grandeur’. [Lewis: Perspectives in Social Anthropology]. “Myth is the dream-thinking of a people, just as the dream is the myth of the individual.”  [Harrison, J.  Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion.].

Myth frequently postulates a time before time, a sacred prehistory – a ‘Golden Age’. A primordial dawn, a ‘dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ – the Mungun Aborigines in Australia and the Wawilak women is a totemic story. The ‘Dream-time’ or wongar is an Aboriginal creation myth.

Myths, fairy tales proclaim great truths by telling great lies – somewhat oxymoronic. Myths have a chronological framework and are altered oral history. A type of allegorical ideology. The first part of a myth story has a divinely instituted foundation for what follows, which is the pure myth. The middle ground is where the ingredients are juxtaposed but the ending is the mundane fact. The assumption here is historical continuity. Therefore – how much does oral tradition underlie myth telling?

Total recall is not common in recollecting the past. Also selective representation of great events in mythical form. Resolution of ambiguities and conflicts myths involve primordial incest, and the endogamy of Palaeolithic savagery. Lewis is presumptuous here. He ignores matriarchy, pre-Neolithic matrilocality and usual exogamy.

Lewis says “…the structuralist approach uproots myth from its socio-cultural context and treats it as a universal art form to be analysed and evaluated by whatever stylistic or aesthetic canons one chooses”. He also stresses that “…the behaviourist theory of myth as a mere adjunct to ritual and contemporary activities.” However, both the structural and behavioural methods strip myth of its historical context thereby divorcing it from its historical and ideological context. Neither can thus understand either the origin or change of myth. Thus we come back to the structuralist and behaviouralist impasse – they only see the isolated phenomena, the ‘bits’.

Malinowski treats myths as “…symbolic, intellectual (cognitive) explanatory statements”. His “…view of myth as an anchor for the contemporary realities implies an explanatory role and does not, and cannot, exclude symbolic imagery.” (Quoting Lewis). We have – uncertainty as to what real events lie behind the myth. For example – dynastic usurpation, principle of parsimony, myth as logos as mythos. [See Dogon of Mali]. For Lewis – “…myths are often very far from holding and epiphenomenal position. Frequently ritual is simply the enactment of myth”. Thus two great dimensions of religiosity – “…myth is to ritual as mimic is to dance.”

To be continued


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