MYTH IN THEORY: MYTHOLOGY AND HISTORY (Part 1)
"Every world is a sacred world.” (Mircea Eliade: The Sacred and the Profane)
The world of humanity is a rich playground of mythologies and each cultural mythology is brimming with individual myths, which in turn can overlap, contextually interplay, negate one-another and even change accordingly as times and audiences of these myths change as well. Whether or not myths are oral or written, they will forever be traditional stories that each culture proudly cherishes. Stories that may have individually far differently affected the global conception of humankind, but they nevertheless share various traits despite certain (by default) geographical and historical distinctions.
What I’m trying to provide here is a broader outline of the density and the pervasiveness of myths, so we can understand them better in a larger context. In this post specifically, I’ll be reflecting the interplay of mythology and history and how one discipline echoes through the other. Also, I’ll refer to mythology for the most part in the same breath as religion, even though this connection will be explored in greater detail in a future Myth in Theory post … just so there is no confusion (or at least less of it).
Mythological complexity is fast apparent in the works of most mythographers and scholars of comparative mythology or comparative religion (i.e. Rosenberg, Oden, Ford, Vandiver, Jones, Kimball, Thury and Devinney, Voth, etc.). These scholars point to this very same fact by providing a historical perspective and consequential development of theories that are applicable not just to mythology and religion, but are essential to human understanding in general. We have to consider that traditional stories are often the very rich (imaginary) source of all future endeavors, whether or not we view them as proto-scientific. It also must be stressed that the respective fields and modes of inquiry I’ll be discussing alongside mythology are taken as general premises with specific ideologies. Anthropology has for example been quite diverse, as its branches spread from philosophical, empirical to theological examinations. The study of psychology on the other hand has historically had a shorter time frame to expand, yet has been that much more potent … if not even more far-reaching. Therefore, while we can distinguish myth through the application and function of the subsequent methodologies and theories, it is paramount to notice that these positions are essentially merely outlines that inspire further deliberation on them and aspire to a provide the source of a life-long career (academic or not).
So, let’s dive into history.
When Herodotus, the “father of history”, sets to write his accounts of the Peloponnesian war, he outlines his work for posterity, “preserving the great and wonderful actions [of his time].” (Herodotus: The Histories. 1996: 3) With this foundation in mind and kind of squinting at the fact that Herodotus had let’s say a vivid historic imagination, history as such refers to the events of the past, which were formidable enough to be recorded.
The notion of formidability is fast becoming foreign to us in the current age, where everything is being recorded, everything rapidly loses its shine and the Big Brother is (evidently still) watching our every move (if not with more and more zeal). The study of history has long since presented the main aspect of studying the nature of living and consequent development of not just humanity, but being itself. Arguably, modern scientific study in theory refers to a larger playing field; however, even when for example observing the deaths and births of stars, we are essentially observing the past.
History in connection with myth refers particularly to the study of historical accounts and clues that allow us to come as close as we possibly can to understanding the past. I of course refer to the accounts in question that have either survived or have been (adequately!) translated. Both notions are far from obvious and indispensable, since present understanding cannot be pieced together without either element. Merely possessing all of the tangible pieces that make up the story of our past (surviving historic accounts) does not complete the proverbial picture. Only through placing those pieces in correct order (their translation) can we hope to begin to uncover the past, through it gazing into our present and future. What is more, the picture will always be missing certain (even crucial) pieces and given the cultural/linguistic diversity, the position and meaning of a particular piece can be far from obvious.
But why is understanding the past so important? Should we not leave the past behind, so we may focus on the present and the future? The Greek word historia in fact means inquiry. History has through the critical freedom of the Greek historians and philosophers become the vehicle for just this type of examination of the world (obviously more subjective for us Westerners). Only in studying the past can one learn from it and try to shed light on repeating patters or cycles of life … or discuss either arbitrariness (which would paradoxically be an arbitrary ordeal) or importance (for current and future development).
Clue is the crucial word in this context, since the further back we venture, the more inconsistent the evidence is and arduous the consequent facts may be; apart from the obvious postmodern dilemma of being skeptical of even the present, unless you have (actively) spatio-temporally experienced it for yourself. Myth strongly follows this historical model; the further back in time we go the more obscure and unconsciously insecure the accounts are. Consequently, myth as pure historic account (The Big Bang cosmogony) merges with myth as legend (King Arthur) or even further back myth as supernatural force (natural forces as divine manifestations).
The difference is that myth as storytelling (particularly, the many versions of the same myth, especially in oral form) is from outside the culture factually far less stringent than the question of validity and accuracy of historical records throughout human cultures and times. In such a way, the ordeals of Jesus or Muhammad are unquestionably omnipresent for their respective followers/believers, while erroneous to American Indian tribes for example, whose sacred animals like the buffalo essentially replace the two great prophets as sources of wisdom. Cultural relevance plays a vital role in determining the meaning of particular historical elements, the fact which is further stressed through extensive study of the tradition itself with all of its temporal nuances, not merely providing a verbatim translation of a newly discovered account.
We also have to keep in mind the cross-cultural historicity, since the study of history and archeology has for example been fueled by globalizing tendencies of the more industrialized countries, whose researchers had better sources and hence objectively better means of “conquering” the secrets of the past, even if initially foreign them. (Not to mention they were all aristocrats, because common folk had to work all day or fight wars for the powers that be.) Further, as such a privileged researcher (and an outsider) is inherently less plagued by cultural bias and historical emotional legacies of the researched traditions, s/he may actually be more objectively reliable than someone from within the tradition (the not so obvious implication refers to yours truly as well) … but this is still a far bigger issue in anthropology than history proper.
Since history primarily (and pragmatically) depends on written records, its connection to mythology as originally an oral tradition may seem inadequate. However, mythology as a body of stories has been conserved in large part through the invention of writing. Its consequent use is thus in preserving and restoring the sacred stories for the generations to come; quite apropos, since one of the central uses of writing has been to store information pertinent for the culture it was used by – which is in turn consequently tightly connected with self-comprehension, (material and ideological) excess, growth of commerce and development of civilizations.
The usefulness of writing may seem obvious to us nowadays, since we are heavily dependent on information served in largest part through the medium of the written word (or symbols of one kind or another), but it must be noted that the Greeks just like the Hindus for example initially put greater value of preservation to the spoken rather than written word. Thus, any written account could essentially be under greater threat of destruction than a spoken story, which could live forever through the meticulous and regular retelling from one generation to the next (with changes to boot!). This notion has to be viewed through the instability of ancient written accounts and scarcity of written material. On the other hand, oral storytelling as recordkeeping falls into the category of simplification for amplification, where stock phrases and repetitions were necessary for mastering the narrative from the storyteller’s perspective to be readily comprehended by the listeners ... just ask any ancient bard (if you find one, be sure to tag me). Especially in connection to myth, far greater value was placed on the oral story as a living, flowing account, adapted to a particular audience and time (as opposed to a myth that loses some of its fluidity and depth by being fossilized in only one, “final” version). Hell, even academic writing must be orally finalized before the research is deemed acceptable.
The mythological account may be to an extent seen as the precursor of modern scientific account of the world. The connection of myths as “false” stories and science as factual descriptions is not paradoxical, since myths may reflect actual historicity, but they do so by embellishing the facts (kingship becoming deified). Truthfully, this very aspect is central to the understanding of myths not as wishful thinking or wish fulfillment, but as historicity of human nature and the initial psychological and social levels of societies that these first human accounts have to offer modern scrutiny. In other words, if myth is proto-science, (god) bless its influential imaginary dimension that has given the best scientific minds a vessel for further exploration.
For reasons of extreme prejudice, the author of this blog wishes to remain anonymous …