Theories of Myth

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • 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.

The various theories about myth, old and new, are reviewed and assessed by G.S. Kirk in his indispensable Penguin book The Nature of Greek Myths (1974), in which he uses the results of his earlier detailed study entitled Myth: Its Meaning and Function in Ancient and Other Cultures (1970). With firm English common sense, he shows how each theory fits some myths but not others: it is safer not to talk about ‘myth’, as though all myths had one tangible element in common. Kirk casts a somewhat cold eye upon the various theories which try to explain myths as a product of the human psyche. Freud’s notion that myths are designed to purge us of the unhealthy preoccupations with which Freudian psychology is so much concerned obviously fails to explain the great majority of myths. In America, a person ignorant of Greek or Latin may get himself paid for teaching the ancient classics by acquiring a smattering of Freud, taking care not to dilute it by an acquaintance with the writings of more recent psychologists. Even some learned and intelligent writers who have devoted themselves to the attempt to explain myths in Freudian terms have been notably unsuccessful. Neither has the application of Jung’s theory of archetypes yielded very valuable results, though it was carried out with skill and erudition by his disciple, the Classical scholar Karl Kerenyi. Symbolist interpretations have little connection with the part myths actually play in the lives of the people to whom they belong; Ernst Cassirer’s theory of myth as a symbolic form of expression suffers from the vagueness of its concept of a symbol.

Far more in the public eye at present is the theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Influenced by Durkheim and Mauss, and acting on the analogy of the structural linguistics initiated by de Saussure, he finds a second meaning which may be more significant than the surface sense in the ordered arrangement of the different recurring elements which make up an individual myth. The human mind is a complicated machine, whose structure is reflected in that of human societies and the myths which they create. Since Lévi-Strauss assumes the structure of the human mind to be at all times and places identical, his theory is rightly classed among those which explain myths as a product of the human psyche. The mind tends to polarise experience in the manner of a binary computer, classifying it in terms of sets of opposites. These opposites reflect the contradictions which we encounter in our lives, such as that between desire and reality, individual and society, possible and impossible, nature and culture. Myths often have the function of mediating between these contradictions.

The two books before me are by two of the most distinguished scholars now active in the field of Greek mythology and religion. Jean-Pierre Vernant is a Professor in the Collège de France; his book is a collection of essays published over a long period. Walter Burkert is a Professor at Zurich, and the author of a remarkable history of Greek religion in the Archaic and Classical periods, soon to appear in English. The only one of Vernant’s essays which appears here for the first time is an article of more than fifty pages called ‘The Reason of Myth’, which is a slightly amended version of an article on myth written for the Encyclopaedia of the 20th Century. The first two chapters of Burkert’s book contain interesting reflections about the interpretation of myths in general, which the remaining four chapters illustrate with detailed treatments of individual problems. Both books contain valuable statements of their authors’ general views about mythology, and it is natural to start a discussion of them from their respective attitudes to the work of Lévi-Strauss.

Vernant, like Lévi-Strauss, has been influenced by the work of Mauss, so it is not surprising that he views Lévi-Strauss’s work more sympathetically than Burkert does. Mauss saw myth as a system of symbols, comparable with language itself, which classifies the facts relevant to the structure of archaic societies and helps to determine not only their religion but their ethnical and social attitudes. Vernant’s own teacher, Louis Gernet, studied the influence of religion and the myths connected with it on the earliest legal systems. Vernant regards this work as the very first attempt to produce a structural semantic analysis. He also acknowledges the influence of Georges Dumézil’s learned study, developed over a long period of time, of the structure of early Indo-European society. Burkert, like Kirk, is not attracted by the pretensions of the theory to an almost mathematical precision. Mathematical formulas, he points out, can he effective only if they contain true variables, and in the field of myth this cannot often be the case. It is by no means easy for structural analysis to distinguish the essential from the accidental, especially if, like Lévi-Strauss himself, one insists that a myth consists of all its versions. In reading the specimens of structural analysis of Greek myths by Lévi-Strauss’s followers, a Hellenist is continually amused by the respect accorded to Hellenistic and Roman forms of various myths which are highly unlikely to be relevant to the mythopoeic process of the truly creative era of mythologising. During the course of transmission, even in its early stages, the structure of a myth can easily be altered. Very often, a structure simply does not lend itself to plausible decipherment. Paul Ricoeur has already pointed out that Lévi-Strauss’s method, developed for the most part while he was studying the mythology of the Indians of North and South America, works best for those societies whose mythology has been affected by totemism. In the mythology of these societies correspondences and oppositions tend to be more important than they are in Semitic or Indo-European mythologies, where semantic content is on the whole both richer and more significant.

Burkert is more interested in the kind of structural analysis promoted by Vladimir Propp, who reduced the entire body of Russian folk tales to a linear series of 31 functions in a book published in Russian in 1928 and not translated until 30 years later. Burkert denotes these by the ugly Americanism ‘motifemes’. A sequence of Proppian functions may and often does reveal a programme of action, deriving from the basic realities of life, and very likely from biology. An example of such a programme of action is the seizure of a coveted object, followed by a pursuit and magical flight. This is to be found in innumerable myths, such as those of Perseus and the Argonauts. Burkert offers examples of myths made highly effective by the complicated interplay of multiple structures of this kind. He cites traditional tales that make a secondary reference to something of collective importance and myths that are connected with genealogy, geography, history and human experience in a way which Lévi-Straussian analysis lacks the equipment to bring out.

The belief that myth is always linked with ritual has come under heavy fire in recent times, and Burkert is far from upholding it in its extreme form. But he has drawn attention, both here and in his other publications, to several myths that can hardly be explained in any other terms. He notably extends the concept of ritual by using the work of ethologists like Konrad Lorenz and Sir Julian Huxley to show that animal rituals may be no less relevant to myth than human rituals. With animals, according to Lorenz, ritual is ‘a behavioural pattern which acquires an entirely new function, that of communication’. The great Swiss scholar Karl Meuli, whose work has had decisive influence on Burkert, has similarly defined ritual custom as ‘spontaneous reaction artifically exaggerated for the purposes of demonstration’. In the wake of the ethologists, Detlev Fehling has accounted for the ithyphallic processions that figured in the cults of Dionysus and Priapus in terms of the ithyphallic processions made by the adult male leaders of groups of apes in order to scare off interlopers. Burkert uses the same evidence to explain the Greek use of ithyphallic statues of Hermes to mark off boundaries. One important kind of ritual demonstration is the offering of first fruits: the demonstrative element so predominates that in some cases the offerers are not even quite clear as to the destination of the offering. Another is sacrifice, which is of prime importance in Greek religion, as Burkert, following Meuli, has insisted in his brilliant book Homo Necans.

In his third chapter Burkert deals with various forms of ritual that resemble the Hebrew practice of driving out a scapegoat, and with the myths connected with them. In his fourth he handles the figure whom he rightly calls the most popular and also the most complex in Greek mythology, Heracles: he connects the pursuit of formidable animals that looms so large in the legend of the labours with the importance of animals and hunting in pre-agricultural cultures, and argues that the notion of Heracles as the conqueror of old age and death came only later. The fifth deals with the myths of the expendable human consorts of great goddesses, Attis, Adonis and Hippolytus. In the sixth and final chapter, Burkert treats the Hittite myth of Telepinus, so startlingly similar to that Eleusinian myth of the rape of Persephone and the anger of Demeter, which is one of the most signal instances of a myth indubitably linked with ritual.

Vernant includes an article about class struggles in Antiquity, written to teach vulgar Marxists behind the Iron Curtain that we cannot deal with pre-industrial societies by the methods we apply to modern ones. There is a long and interesting review of Moulinier’s study of the notions of purity and uncleanness in ancient Greece, and a review of the various kinds of Greek marriage. Vernant reprints his admirable introductions to the collective volume Les Problèmes de la Guerre en Grèce Antique and to Marcel Detienne’s book Les Jardins d’Adonis, a work available in English translation which has excited a discussion well-calculated to bring out the uneasiness aroused in many scholars by Lévi-Strauss’s manner of structural analysis. Such analysis is seen at its best in Vernant’s own treatment, reproduced here, of two versions of the myth of Prometheus given by Hesiod in his Theogony and in his Works and Days, but even in this case the meaning revealed by structuralist analysis hardly adds much to the content of the myth which is apparent on the surface. An article called ‘The Society of the Gods’ reveals the connections between the various members of the Greek pantheon. These tend to be obscured in manuals of Greek religion which devote a separate section to each god. In another chapter, Granet’s treatment of social history and the evolution of ideas in early China is followed by Vernant’s account of corresponding phenomena in early Greece and his illuminating comparison between the two.