Department of Social Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand


Ritual and Power – Lecture on myth § 1


27 August 2001



Aleksandar Boškoviè





In this week of your course, I will talk about myths – in particular, about anthropological interpretations of myths. Today I will begin with a general outline, including some philosophical and linguistic explanations, and on Friday I will talk more about specific anthropological theories – in particular, the ones on “myth and ritual”.

            The word “myth” is a very ambivalent one.  It is sometimes taken to represent sometimes opposite (and incommensurable with) “reality” – either as an outright lie, or something that is a bit removed from “truth”. This assumes that many (or most) people would agree what “truth” or “reality” are. (For example, for a religious person raised in Christianity or Islam, the “truth” is what is written in the Bible or the Qur’an – for an atheist or a communist, these are just “myths”.) This also opens a whole set of problems about the anthropological interpretations, as most anthropologists tended to dismiss “myths” of the “primitive” peoples as obvious delusions. (At the same time, as almost all of them were Christian, they never questioned their own myths.) The issue of the study and interpretation of myth is obviously a very contentious one.

            I mentioned Christianity and Islam, but myths are part of all religions. (Even though not always nor necessarily referred to by the same word…) Furthermore, they are part of all the “ideologies” (meaning here systems of ideas) and politics. For example, many peoples claim certain sites or territories because they are “sacred” for them or of special historical significance. In practice, this means that they have linked their myths of origin with them. The myth of the “chosen people” (people to whom god has spoken directly) is also a very present one and a dangerous one. For if a nation is (was) “chosen” – the other nations are not, so the “chosen” ones will appropriate for themselves the right to kill, torture and exploit the “non-chosen” ones (as is the case with Zionism in the Middle East, for example). Here we see how myths are closely linked with history, and political ideologies and concepts always work back in time to re-construct a nation’s (or people’s) past and make it look glorious: it is not people’s myths that determine their history, but their history determines their myths.

            In the English language (the language of this course), it comes from the ancient Greek. Another problem obviously arises: what to do about the cultures or traditions that do not trace their “mythic” origins from the ancient Greece or Rome? – and I will come back to it later. But first about the etymology of the word and some early interpretations…

            The English word myth (as well as the Spanish and Portuguese mito, French mythe, etc.) comes from the old Greek muthos (muqos), which has been associated with a  variety of meanings and different concepts since the antiquity. According to one interpretation, this word originated from the Indo–European root *mau/mou  and it is closely related to the Lithuanian mausti (“to long for something,” “to wish something”) and the Serbo-Croatian misao (“thought”). According to another theory, it is derived from the old Greek onomatopoeic mu, for example, in the verb mudzo — “to murmur”, “to complain.”

            In the ancient Greece (as well as in the interpretations of the ancient Greek thought), this word came to be contrasted with another one, logoz -- which gradually assumed the meaning of “thoughtful” or “rational” speech or discourse. It is widely recognized today that the distinction between muqos and logoz did not take place until late antiquity, despite the fact that our modern (everyday) usage could be dated to the distinction made by the Ionian philosophers from the 6th century BCE. The word muqos is recorded for the first time in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (ca. 750-650 BCE), where it has a variety of meanings, although the main meaning seems to be “word” or “speech.” However, it also means “a public speech” (Odyssey I, 358), “excuse” (Odyssey XXI, 71), “conversation” (Odyssey IV, 214), “fact” (Odyssey IV, 744), “threat,” “order”[1] (Iliad I, 388), “task” (Iliad IX, 625),  “advice” (Iliad VII, 358), “intention” or “plan” (Iliad I, 545; Odyssey IV, 676), “reason” (Odyssey III, 140), and “story” or “tale” (Odyssey III, 94).  This last meaning leaves open the question of whether it is a true or fictional story (Popovic 1987: 7).

            Other Greek writers also used muqos for “saying” (Aeschylus, Choephori 314), “hearsay” (Sophocles, Aiax 226), or “report” or “message” (Sophocles, Trachiniae 67). After the beginnings of Ionian philosophy in the 6th century BCE, muqos was used to denote a “fictitious story,” something that has been made up (Pindar, Ol. I, 29; Plato, Phaedo 61b), or a “legend” (Herodotus, Historiæ II, 45). It is this set of meanings that comes close to the modern (at least dictionary) translations of the word “myth.” As Burkert (1985: 312) puts it, the great change comes with the age of classical Athens in the 5th century BCE: “Myth is left behind. The word mythos, obsolete in Attic, is now redefined and devalued as the sort of story that the old poets used to tell and that old women still tell to their children.”

            It is from this period on that the now famous distinction between “real” versus “mythic” takes place, as exemplified in the famous passage from Plato’s Phaedrus (229b-230b):

            Phaedrus: Tell me, Socrates, isn’t it somewhere about here that they say Boreas[2] seized Orithya from the river?

            Socrates: Yes, that is the story.

            Phaedrus: Was this the actual spot? Certainly the water looks charmingly pure and clear; it's just the place for girls to be playing beside the stream.

            Socrates: No, it was about a quarter of a mile [sic] lower down, where you cross the sanctuary of Agra; there is, I believe, an altar dedicated to Boreas close by.

            Phaedrus: I have never really noticed it, but pray tell me, Socrates, do you believe that story to be true?

            Socrates: I should be quite in fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do. I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmacia, was blown by a gust of Boreas down from the rocks hard by, and having thus met her death was said to have been seized by Boreas, though it may have happened on the Areopagus, according to another version of the occurrence. For my part, Phaedrus, I regard such theories as no doubt attractive, but  as the invention of clever, industrious people who are not exactly to be envied, for  the simple reason that they must then go on and tell us the real truth about the appearance of centaurs and the Chimera, not to mention a whole host of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegasuses and countless other remarkable monsters of legend flocking in them. If our skeptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them to the standard of probability, he’ll need a deal of time for it. I myself have certainly no time for the business [emphasis mine], and I’ll tell you why, my friend. I can’t as yet ‘know myself,’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don’t bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet, un-Typhonic nature. By the way, isn’t this tree we were making for?[3]


            Of course, one must add that even in this ancient Greek “age of reason,” the same author (Plato) uses myths to explain and expand his own philosophical theories — like, for example, the myth of the Prometheus and Epimetheus in Protagoras (320d-322e), or the allegory of the cave in the seventh and the myth of Er in the tenth book of the Republic, etc.[4] But the die has been cast, and the new horizons opened. Another good example of these new horizons comes from Herodotus’ famous discussion of the flooding of the Nile (Historiæ II, 23-25), where he uses deductive reasoning to arrive at what he believes to be the correct answer.

            In his study of the ancient Greek attitudes toward myth, French historian Paul Veyne claims that “in Greece there existed a domain, the supernatural, where everything was to be learned from people who knew. It was composed of events, not abstract truths against which the listener could oppose his own reason...” (1988: 24).[5] Veyne goes on to offer a definition that is based on the understanding of myth in antiquity, up through the 6th century CE:


Myth is information. There are informed people who have alighted, not on a revelation, but simply on some vague information they have chanced upon.  If they are poets, it will be the Muses, their appointed informants, who will tell them what is known and said. For all that, myth is not a revelation from above, nor is it arcane knowledge. The muse only repeats to them what is known — which, like a natural resource, is available to all who seek it.

                                                                        (Veyne 1988: 23)


            It was only after the advent of a radically different system of knowledge in the Middle Ages that this Weltanschauung began to change. But the debates of antiquity are in many ways re-enacted in modern scholarship. And one of the many paradoxes of the study of myth is the fact that interest in it peaks in the 20th century, the age of great technological discoveries and a desperate human search for meanings.

            Dictionaries usually define myth as something that is not true or something that should be taken only as a figure of speech.[6] The Oxford American Dictionary gives the following definitions: “1. a traditional story containing ideas or beliefs about ancient times or about natural events (such as the four seasons). 2. such stories collectively... 3. an imaginary person or thing. 4. an idea that forms part of the beliefs of a group or class but is not founded on fact.” The most widespread popular meanings are those listed under definitions 3 and 4, despite the fact that myths generally operate on a different level of “reality,” so any positivistic attempt to compare them to the “facts” must fail or simply produce nonsense. After all, the questions of who, why and how produces “reality” is very much open to debate. All myths are true within their own cultural and symbolic systems.[7]

            The word “myth” became established in the English language only after the 1850s. F. Max Müller wrote “mythe,” and even “meith” was not an uncommon spelling (Müller 1909: 4n). But let me turn now to another Müller and the beginnings of the critical study of myth…

            Otfried Müller is one of the first scholars who began a critical study of myth. In 1825 he published his Introduction to a Scientific System of Mythology. In this work, Müller claimed that the real nature of myths can only be found through a general historical and cultural study. In order to achieve this, one must know Greek language, geography, history, religion and society of ancient Greece. In this way, one could see how myths refer to various events: an invasion, emigration, construction of a city, establishment of a colony, or, in cases of more ancient myths, their connection and correlation to religious rites. One myth could explain why something was used in a certain way, the other – why some rule is in place, yet other may refer to festivals dedicated to some god, etc. Reality is the origin of mythology, claimed O. Müller. As myths present the sum of “the real” and “the ideal” – they explain facts that are clear and easy to observe in the human life.

            However, F. Max Müller (1823-1900) was one of the first scholars to attempt a rational analysis of myths. F. M. Müller began with a linguistic hypothesis, assuming that Sanskrt, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Celtic, and other languages are descendents of a common ancient language – and this could be deducted comparing similar words in the languages that we know (e.g.: Dyaus Õ Zeus Õ Dies Pater Õ Iuppiter). In practice, F. M. Müller used Sanskrt as this primordial language, and the Vedas (ancient Indian texts) as the original scripture. This was the language of the Aryans, from whom all the European peoples descended. In the mid-19th century’s quest for “origins” and “primeval races”, these “Aryans” were (first according to linguists) supposedly ancestors of all the present-day “civilized races.” In 1856, in the article “Comparative mythology”, Müller claimed that these “real primitives” (the Aryans) were “noble and pure… ancient poets of the language.” For Müller, the power of language is absolute, the language presents the most obvious example of reality (we all speak, don’t we?). All the human activity is derived from language and is oriented by language. Even the character of a people or a nation could be deduced from its language.

            Deities of the “primitive religion” personify natural phenomena. The original knowledge was derived through the metaphors and symbols inspired by nature. These metaphors and symbols are personified and adored as gods and goddesses. Thus, language serves as the mediator that organizes these expressions, elevating them to the level of representation. In this way, Müller’s aim was to research the origin of of deities in general, through etymologies of names given to gods and goddesses, behind which one encounters natural phenomena. Each deity originated from the observation of nature.          Myths are products of some sort of a “disease of language,” originating from the human incapacity to express their emotions in relation to nature within the limits of language they use. Here, “primitive man” has to use metaphor as the only way to reconcile his emotions with their expression and representation. Mythology (which for him meant both the body of myths and a “scientific” attempt to explain them) was a product of the primordial sense of awe in the face of the forces and phenomena of nature.[8] “Mythology is inevitable,” wrote Müller, “it is natural, it is an inherent necessity of language, if we recognize in language the outward form and manifestation of thought; it is in fact the dark shadow which language throws upon thought, and which can never disappear till language becomes entirely commensurate with thought, which it never will” (Introduction to the Science of Religion , London, 1873, p. 353, quoted in Cassirer 1953: 5).

            The criticism of Müller’s theory marks the beginning of the anthropological approaches to the study of myth. Müller was himself quite aware of the limitations of his approach, and limited himself only to the area of his linguistic expertise (Indo-European languages, especially sanskrt) — unlike his followers. However, despite his heroic efforts (and his brilliant critique of evolutionism in anthropology!), most of his linguistic analogies now seem extremely naïve. Although people recognize the connection between the natural phenomena and the names of the deities, no one would today attempt to base an entire theory on these connections (cf. the discussion in Burkert 1985). 

            The philosophical attempts to interpret myth reach their most elaborate level with the works of Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945). In the Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (published in three volumes between 1923 and 1929), Cassirer  sees myth as one of the stages in the process of “humanization”. It is a necessary step in making humans what they (we) are today. It is on a lower level than philosophy or science, but the stage of “mythic thinking” has in itself (in a Hegelian way) the kernels of the stages that are yet to come. Although “lower” and “primitive” (and here is a bit of evolutionistic influence – I think, primarily through the sources that Cassirer used) it is a necessary stage in human development — and any higher stage is simply unthinkable without it.

            Cassirer worked exclusively with secondary sources, and he had at his disposal a fantastic ethnographic collection in the library of his close friend Aby Warburg. His first critical study of myth was published in 1922, during his close association with the Warburg Institute. However, the anthropological data that he had access to were not always assembled in a critical manner — as becomes apparent to anyone reading his essays on myth today. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Cassirer clearly recognized the importance of myth, as well as the connection between language and myth (1953) and the importance of language in human understanding. 

            The psychological approach to the study of myth culminates in the work of Joseph Campbell (1904-1987).  In the third volume of his monumental The Masks of God he states the four functions of mythology (1959-1970, Vol. 3: 519-522). The first one is installation of a sense of awe before the “mystery of existence,” a feeling that incorporates the recognition of the numinous, which is characteristic of all religions. The second basic function is the establishment of a cosmology, or image of the universe. The third is support for the existing social order, since myths are always essentially conservative. Finally, the fourth basic function is introducing the individual to the order of reality of his own psyche, leading this individual towards his or her spiritual self-realization.

            Despite his enormous contributions to popularizing interest in myth, Campbell lacks any serious theoretical background (except for the strong influence of C. G. Jung). Another problem with his work stems from his emphasis on one specific cultural horizon (India); this makes it difficult, if not impossible, for him to have an equal amount of information about different parts of the world (which is what he was attempting). 

            Another very influential theory of myth in the 20th century is associated with the impressive work of Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who regarded myths primarily as sacred stories related to the events that occurred in illo tempore, in the mythical time following the creation of the world, and long before the advent of history. This mythical time, illud tempus, is separated by an immeasurable gap from our (modern) time, and the only way to  approach it is through myths. Unlike Campbell, Eliade did not allow his strong background in India (Hindu religion, yoga) to bias his research. On the other hand, I believe that in shaping his theory of myth, Eliade was strongly influenced by the conceptions of the native Australians (particularly regarding the concept of the Dreamtime, the altjeringa of the Arunta of Western Central Australia). Despite the claim that he was interested in two basic types of understanding myths, ancient and modern, he put strong emphasis only on the former aspect (Masuzawa 1989: 321).

            The fundamental difficulty with his approach is that, although it stimulates phenomenological understanding of myths[9] (as well as religion; for Eliade, these two concepts are closely related [Eliade 1974]) from within the tradition where they originate and generates some kind of empathic Einfühlung, it is hard to see how this theory can be tested less subjectively, and this poses serious obstacles for any serious scholarly research.  For, if the gap is immeasurable, why try to measure it at all? If something is unspeakable (by its very nature), why try to speak about it at all?

            I will continue on Friday with more anthropological theories of myth…

[1] That is to say “to order someone to do something.”

[2] The North Wind.

[3] Translated by R. Hackforth. (The translation of the original Greek measure was done by the editors of Plato’s dialogues [Plato 1963]). This is the same passage that F. Max Müller uses to begin his discussion of comparative mythology (Müller 1909), as well as Cassirer to begin his masterly essay on  language and myth (Cassirer 1953: 1-2).

[4] Cf. Ricœur (1969: 165): “We are encouraged in this attempt [toward dissociating myth and gnosis] by the great example of Plato. Plato inserts myths into his philosophy; he adopts them as myths, in their natural state, so to speak, without trying to disguise them as explanations; they are there in his discourse, full of enigmas; they are there as myths, without any possibility of confusing them with knowledge.”


[5] This sharply contrasts with O’Flaherty (1988: 25-27), who states that the opposition between myth and truth comes from Plato. 

[6] For example, The Penguin English Dictionary 1985-86, Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English (A. S. Hornby), El Nuevo Larousse Básico, etc.  On myth as rhetorical truth in ancient Greece, cf. Veyne (1988: 79 ff). This is also related to the idea of the distinction between muqos and logoz as the distinction between “true” and “untrue” (cf. Bolle 1987, Detienne 1990, Ricœur 1990).

[7] As noted by O’Flaherty, it is much easier to say what myths are not than what they are; therefore, “myths are not lies, or false statements to be contrasted with truth or reality” (1988: 25).

[8] Cohen (1969) and Segal (1980b) both represent excellent examples of studies that take into account more anthropological works.

[9] I am using the term “phenomenological” here in accordance with Husserl’s original usage: a model of explanation from the phenomena themselves, essentially transsubjective. In this sense, it would mean the effort to interpret myths “from the native’s point of view.” Eliade himself preferred the term “morphology.”