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Archive for May 3rd, 2017

Captain Obvious calling: What if Myths are just (you guessed it!) myths?

Posted by nouspraktikon on May 3, 2017

From unsophisticated lies to sophisticated rationalizations

I have spent more of my  life than I would care to admit trying to unravel the mysteries of myths and mythologies.   The dominant theories among anthropologists, psychologists and other scholars reflects the prevailing assumption that myth reflects a key to some deep primitive wisdom which modern people have gotten out of touch with.  Thus for Levi-Strauss, myth reveals the primitive meta-logic of the mind which is far more socially cohesive than the analytical categories of common sense logic.  Carl Jung goes further in seeing the primal spirituality of all human beings stored in a collective unconscious which from time to time is expressed in mythical terms.

The assumption is that there are truths too deep to be expressed in plain expository language.  But what if myth, far from expressing truths, is actually giving vent to falsehoods.  This is the viewpoint of Rene Girard, who sees in the incoherence of myth, a similarity to rationalization.  When the main character of a mythical narrative suddenly turns into a god or a totemic animal, Girard suggests that the hero was the subject of envy and fell victim to murder most foul.  To disguise the crime the survivors in society changed the narrative and promoted the hero from the status of victim to god.  Those who notice some similarity to Christ’s passion will not be surprised that Girard is a Christian and was influenced by the gospel narrative in framing his social theory.

One need not concur with all the details of Girard’s anthropology to see the wisdom of applying a forensic approach to myth.  If myths are primitive rationalizations of the great crimes committed in antiquity, this would go a long way to explaining the convoluted and contradictory logic which seems characteristic of all primitive societies.  As Mark Twain once said, “I don’t tell lies because its too much work to keep them all straight in my memory.”

From Fall to Falsehood

However the human race seems, on the whole, to have taken liberties with the truth at the price of developing a vast and often incoherent body of narratives which we call mythology.  To say that myths are lies and nothing more than lies, would seem to put the work of generations of anthropologists and folklorists to naught.  Yet this might be a true key to understanding the enigma of the human past.  All myths might be variations on one Big Lie which has been told generation after generation, growing in detail and complexity as each narrator attempted to put more distance between his contemporaries and some Primal Crime of deep antiquity.

In this context, it might be useful to note that the Bible, whatever “genre” we might assign to it, most certainly is not myth.  Even the most superficial acquaintance with scripture shows that its style and method is completely different from all the mythological systems which have been passed down through the traditions of the nations.  Indeed, scripture and myth are not just different but opposite, and comparing them is much like looking through a telescope alternatively from different ends.  Thus, while myths are human attempts at making a theology, the Bible was given us by God as a book of anthropology.  In understanding ourselves, we understand our relationship to God, or lack thereof.

Unlike myths, the Bible reveals to us the Great Crime which broke our fellowship with God.  It tells the truth in straight, unambiguous terms, in terms which would be recognized by any logician, whether or not such a logician accepted the moral of the story.  In contrast, mythology, the Bible’s primitive rival, is forever losing the logical thread of its narrative, much like dreams, which are simply the nocturnal counterpart of the mythological madness told in broad daylight.  When myth is on the witness stand the story is always changing, backtracking, and the names are changed to protect the guilty.

Not so with scripture, which radiates a clarity similar to the last pages in a classical “whodunit.”  Of course, this makes it unpopular with the criminal class, a class which (in regard to the Original Crime) includes the entirety of the human race.  Conversely this explains the popularity of myth which is, in the absence of other virtues…at least highly creative.

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