Theories of Myth
- Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual by Walter Burkert
California, 226 pp, £9.00, April 1980, ISBN 0 520 03771 5
- Myth and Society in Ancient Greece by Jean-Pierre Vernant, translated by Janet Lloyd
Harvester, 242 pp, £24.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 391 00915 X
Until a comparatively short time ago most books purporting to deal with Greek mythology were content only to relate the myths, fighting shy of any attempt to explain that part of their significance which is not apparent on the surface. The proliferation of theories of myth which started about 1830 and finished, roughly speaking, at the beginning of the First World War was followed by a positivist reaction. One of the main causes of this reaction was the insistence of most of the proponents of theories about myth that their theory alone explained all myths, or at least most of them. Some of the theories could be made to explain almost anything: for example, an American scholar could use the theory, widely canvassed during the 19th century, that all myths originated as nature myths to prove that its advocate, Max Muller, was himself a sun-myth. The members of the ‘Cambridge’ school, who did valuable pioneering work on the use of anthropological methods, made the mistake of insisting too strongly that myth originated from ritual. This provoked a strong adverse reaction.
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