As I researched the major theories about the origin and function of myths, I found those rooted in the behavioral sciences to be the most ambitious and the least satisfactory, probably for the same reason. Studying myths from fragmented remnants of ancient civilizations is like reconstructing Trojan civilization(s) from fragments found at contaminated sites (see POST #4. THE ARCHEOLOGICAL RECORD). By the same token, theories of what goes on in the recesses of the human mind, based only on what’s observable on the surface, and theories on the dynamics of “culture,” which is itself a theoretical construct (and whose parameters change with different theorists), produce a cyclical accretion of rising, prevalent, and abandoned theories with rotating conceptual and methodological flaws. The psychological, sociological, and anthropological theories of myth all set out to explain everything about myths without the technology or methodology to explain much at all. It’s for these reasons that I’ve adopted a different perspective.
All scholars of myth, whether behavioral scientists or classical scholars, agree that myths, or the stories that become myths, undergo change over time. References in POST #6, to different variations of sub-myths about the House of Atreus, are prime examples of this variation. It thus seems that myths aren’t created as myths, magical stories with mystical properties. Instead, stories with variations become mythical when people in a society or culture respond to the story in ways that imbue it with mythical elements. With this in mind, I was drawn to two concepts of what myths were about, rather than theories of what myths were by their nature.
In a Teaching Company course on classical mythology, Professor Elizabeth Vandiver defines, or rather describes myths, as traditional stories a society tells itself that encode that society’s world view, beliefs, principles, and fears. Because she’s a classical scholar, rather than a behavioral scientist, she’s able to sidestep anthropological, sociological, and psychological definitions of what a myth intrinsically is, and focus on an accepted body of classical mythology, by which she means Greek and Roman mythology. In her course, she treats the accepted myths (and variations, where they arise) as a given, and explores what they tell us about classical Greek and Roman society, world view, beliefs, and fears. It’s methodologically unsound from a behavioral science perspective, because she defines its basic unit of study, Myth, the way Justice Stewart defined pornography, “I know it when I see it.” However, one needn’t be a social scientist to know what stories Greek or Roman societies have consistently told themselves over the centuries, because we know what stories have become classical myths. Similarly, we in modern society know what stories have become myths for us (Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, America The Melting Pot, non-alcoholic intoxicants as the scourge of society, “Honest Abe”, american doughboys/GIs coming to the rescue, Norman Rockwell’s thanksgiving family, just to name a few), and we can use them to explore what our underlying beliefs, principles, and fears are. To me, these underlying beliefs, principles, and fears tell us a lot about why the story became a myth, and what the myth’s function in society is. To me, the underlying beliefs and fears (particularly the fears) are interesting in themselves.
Joseph Campbell is the most popular scholar of myth in recent times. Some of that popularity is, no doubt, attributable to the fact that he’s promoted his work on audio and audio-visual recordings as well as in print, so people can listen to and/or watch him, even on the go, as well as read his work. But the recordings wouldn’t have been so well received if his ideas hadn’t resonated with so many people. Though his methodology has been roundly criticized, with at least some validity, some of his basic ideas are well grounded, and compatible with Vandiver’s (who, ironically, is one of his critics). The following is Campbell in a nutshell, as I understand him:
Humans of all cultures are struck by the mystery of life and existence. They want and need to come to terms with this mystery, and to feel connected to it. The primary function of myth is to help humans experience this mystery in a humanly manageable way, either through ritual, or contemplation of mythic meaning. Campbell can become more metaphysical than I’m comfortable with at this point, but humans are awed by the mystery and enormity of existence, and myth can alleviate the anxiety of that enormous and unknowable mystery. I’m comfortable with this narrower point because it blends with his second function of myth, proto-science. Myth explains the shape and form of the universe for cultures that don’t have the technology or objectivity to explore such issues scientifically. The third function of myth is to explain and validate the existing social order, and the fourth function is to guide the individual through successive stages of life. I see these four functions as tending to overlap. The need to find a place in the enormity and unknowability of the universe also leads to proto-science, which may lead us to wonder why things in society are the way they are, and wonder what the best way is to transition from childhood to adulthood, and from adulthood to old age and eventual death.
Campbell says that we in modern society need new myths to serve these functions. I disagree with him on this point. I believe that in modern society, myths can no longer serve these functions. I don’t know what can or will take the place of myth, but I do believe that myths, as social and psychological devices, are obsolete. Our contemporary culture wars, now being played out in the political arena, are not conflicts over which myths to subscribe to, so much as whether to subscribe to the conventional, traditional myths, or none at all.
In this blog, our interest in myths will be directed at traditional stories (or images) a society tells itself (or repeatedly alludes to) that encode that society’s world view, beliefs, principles, and fears. These stories or images sometimes help people deal with (or avoid) anxiety about the unknown and unknowable mysteries of existence, or act as proto-scientific explanations of the structure and form of the known and observable world. Sometimes myths justify and validate the existing social order, and sometimes they guide an individual through successive stages of life within that social order. Myths are probably not created as myths. Rather, some stories or images resonate with people as serving one or more of the above functions, and become myths as they’re told, retold, (or repeatedly alluded to) and perhaps changed in the process. At some point, stories and images clearly become part of the body of myths of a culture. They can, at that point, be examined, analyzed, or “deconstructed” (apologies to Jacques Derrida) to tell us about the culture’s beliefs, principles, and fears.
I added the term “images” at the end, after going through this discussion without mentioning it. I think that images sometimes tell us a story of sorts, though not in so many words. Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving family is a good example of such an image; newly married people posing in stylized wedding photos is another. I thought of images as stories without explicit words as I was writing this post. Adding the phrase “and images” every time the word “stories” appeared would have made the post’s language awkward, and re-writing would have been tedious. It was easier to acknowledge the mid-post thought, and mention it at the end. This way of avoiding tedium does not mean that images are not myths in our modern society.