By Charles Matthews

Saturday, May 14, 2011

28. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 617-640

Myth: Introduction; Myth in Primitive Thought (James G. Frazer, Bronislaw Malinowski, Ernst Cassirer)
From the introduction: 
The modern return to mythical forms is in part an attempt to reconstitute the value-laden natural environment that physical science has tended to discredit. At the same time, it is a repossession of a cultural heritage. Though history itself has produced the increasingly rational, disinherited mind of modern man, history may also be invoked as a non-rational, mythical memory, a man-made record of men's intuitive conceptions of themselves.... Myths are public and communicable, but they express subliminal mental patterns that come close to the compulsive drives of the unconscious.

James G. Frazer: The King of the Wood
J.M.W. Turner, The Golden Bough

Frazer's groundbreaking The Golden Bough (1890) centers on the story of a priest of the temple of Diana at Lake Nemi, southeast of Rome. The priest, who became known as the King of the Wood, held his post as long as he could fend off other candidates for the position. The candidate who killed him assumed the title and "retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier." Frazer examined the legend and the cult of Diana Nemorensis (Diana of the Wood) that gave rise to it, and discovered parallels to the story of the ritual murder of a king in other religious myths, including Christianity. (Which shocked many of his early readers.) Frazer asserts that "recent researches into the early history of man have revealed the essential similarity with which, under many superficial differences, the human mind has elaborated its first crude philosophy of life." Discovering parallels to the "barbarous custom" of the Nemi priesthood may, he says, help us "detect the motives which led to its institution."

Related to the King of the Wood story is that of the practice of sacrificing strangers to Diana (or Artemis) at her temple in Taurica in the Crimea. A less harsh version of the ritual was practiced at Nemi, where there was "a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs." If he succeeded, he would be "entitled ... to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood." This legend was linked with the Golden Bough that Aeneas carried with him in his journey to the underworld, and with the story of Orestes.

Along with Diana, the temple and grove at Nemi were also dedicated to the nymph Egeria and to Virbius, who was said to be the Greek hero Hippolytus, transported by Diana to Nemi, where he reigned as a king. Hippolytus also had a Christian avatar as Saint Hippolytus, who was martyred by being dragged to death by horses. That the saint's day was August 13, the day also sacred to Diana, suggests to Frazer that he "is no other than the Greek hero of the same name, who, after dying twice over as a heathen sinner, has been happily resuscitated as a Christian saint."
In the story of the tragic death of the youthful Hippolytus we may discern an analogy with similar tales of other fair but mortal youths who paid with their lives for the brief rapture of the love of an immortal goddess. These hapless lovers were probably not always mere myths, and the legends which traced their spilt blood in the purple bloom of the violet, the scarlet stain of the anemone, or the crimson flush of the rose were no idle poetic emblems of youth and beauty fleeting as the summer flowers. Such fables contain a deeper philosophy of the relation of the life of man to the life of nature -- a sad philosophy which gave birth to a tragic practice.

Bronislaw Malinowski:  The Social Psychology of Myth


Bronislaw Malinowski with natives on the Trobriand Islands in 1918
Inspired to become an anthropologist by reading The Golden Bough, Malinowski reported on the conclusions about myth derived from his fieldwork in Melanesia in Myth in Primitive Psychology (1926). In the primitive tribes (Malinowski still uses the word "savages") myth was an integral part of "their ritual acts, their moral deeds, their social organization, and even their practical activities."

He distinguishes his attitude toward myth from that of "the so-called school of Nature-mythology which flourishes mainly in Germany," which maintains that myth "is predominantly of a theoretical, contemplative, and poetical character," derived from observation of natural phenomena such as the sun and the moon. This approach has led to various camps, each determined to prove the primacy of their own natural phenomenon: "There are extreme lunar mythologists so completely moonstruck with their idea that they will not admit that any other phenomenon could lend itself to a savage rhapsodic interpretation except that of earth's nocturnal satellite." His own fieldwork, Malinowski says, leads him to conclude that myth "is not an idle rhapsody, not an aimless outpouring of vain imaginings, but a hard-working, extremely important cultural force."

There is also a historical school that claims myth is simply an embroidered chronicle of actual human events, but in Malinowski's view this "endows primitive man with a sort of scientific impulse and desire for knowledge," which is not entirely consistent with the fact that the "savage ... is, above all, actively engaged in a number of practical pursuits, and has to struggle with various difficulties; all his interests are tuned up to this general pragmatic outlook. Mythology, the sacred lore of the tribe, is ... a powerful means of assisting primitive man."

And then there are the psychoanalysts, who "teach us that the myth is a day-dream of the race, and that we can only explain it by turning the back upon nature, history, and culture, and diving deep into the dark pools of the sub-conscious, where at the bottom there lie the usual paraphernalia and symbols of psychoanalytic exegesis." Malinowski contends that myth is a conscious activity:
Myth as it exists in a savage community, that is, in its living primitive form, is not merely a story told but a reality lived. It is not of the nature of fiction, such as we read to-day in a novel, but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies. This myth is to the savage what, to a fully believing Christian, is the Biblical story of Creation, of the Fall, or the Redemption by Christ's Sacrifice on the Cross. 
(Thus Malinowski slyly slips in Christian myth as a parallel, without actually calling it a myth.) For the Melanesian tribes he observed, then, myth "is still alive." It hasn't been "mummified in priestly wisdom" or "enshrined in the indestructible but lifeless repository of dead religions," as, for example, the Egyptian or Greek or Roman myths have been. "Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man." It is "a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom."

Ernst Cassirer: The Validity and Form of Mythical Thought

Ernst Cassirer, date unknown
In this selection from Language and Myth (1925), Cassirer rejects the "naïve realism" that regards myth as a kind of mental self-deception. "From this point of view all artistic creation becomes a mere imitation, which must always fall short of the original." But in fact, he argues, "all mental processes fail to grasp reality itself, and in order to represent it, to hold it at all, they are driven to the use of symbols." And if the realist view is carried to the logical extreme,
all schemata which science evolves in order to classify, organize, and summarize the phenomena of the real world turn out to be nothing but arbitrary schemes -- airy fabrics of the mind, which express not the nature of things, but the nature of mind. So knowledge, as well as myth, language, and art, has been reduced to a kind of fiction -- to a fiction that recommends itself by its usefulness, but must not be measured by any strict standard of truth, if it is not to melt away into nothingness.
So Cassirer argues that "we must find in these forms themselves the measure and criterion for their truth and intrinsic meaning." Myth, art, language, and science are "organs of reality, since it is solely by their agency that anything real becomes an object for intellectual apprehension." They are the means by which man "reveals reality to himself, and himself to reality, in that he lets himself and the environment enter into this plastic medium, in which the two do not merely make contact, but fuse with each other."

Cassirer does not discount the emotional response in this "intellectual apprehension."
When ... the entire self is given up to a single impression, is "possessed" by it and, on the other hand, there is the utmost tension between the subject and its object, the outer world; when external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomes a man in sheer immediacy, with emotions of fear or hope, terror or wish fulfillment: then the spark jumps somehow across, the tension finds release, as the subjective excitement becomes objectified, and confronts the mind as a god or a daemon.
Primitive cultures are filled with the sense that some supernatural power "permeates all things and events." The Melanesians refer to it as mana, but similar concepts "may be found not only among the South Sea Islanders, but also among a great many American Indian tribes, as well as in Australia and in Africa." Thus, "students of ethnology and comparative religion have largely come to regard this conception not merely as a universal phenomenon, but as nothing less than a special category of mythic consciousness." In this way of thinking, "Every part of a whole is the whole itself; every specimen is equivalent to the entire species."

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