|Myth and Religion: The Same or Different?
Evaluating the Good and the Bad
By William Doty, Ph.D.
William Doty, Ph. D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies at the University of Alabama and editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth, and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and editor who has published fourteen books and over seventy essays in a wide range of journals on topics including religious studies, anthropology, psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best-know book is Mythography.
When they learn that much of my professional work of the last several decades has concerned mythological materials, much of the general public tends to assume that my interest in all things mythological must indicate that I am quite religious. At the same time, religious people tend to assume that myth is something antithetical, indeed opposed to religion!
This latter position has a long history, begun already in the KainE DiathEkE/New Testament with letters that certainly post-date Paul by at least a generation, but are ascribed in the canon to him, most biblical scholars think falsely -- the so-called Pastoral Epistles of Timothy and Titus. 1 Tim 1.4 warns its recipients that only its interpretation of Christianity is orthodox, and that they should not "occupy themselves with myths and endless genealogies that promote speculations rather than the dogma that is known by faith." Verse 4.7 admonishes them to "Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives' tales."Titus 1.14 suggests that the main anti-Christian attack is coming from what we can but call "the mother church," namely Hellenistic Judaism readers are not to pay "attention to profane [that must mean in context Jewish] myths," which may well derive from proselytizing Jewish missionaries, but may also refer to Hellenistic Gnostic movements built on Jewish principles. One reads the NT blindly if one does not recognize the vast range of ways of being Jewish -- or Christian -- that were followed in the first centuries of the Common Era.
This rejection of Jewish myths is not quite what the West came to refer to as "anti-Semitism," but rather a blanket rejection of Christian theologies opposed to particular localized interpretations, schools, or sects of Christianity that its supporters were pushing as "divine truth." Nonetheless, it was certainly reinforced later in the church's subsequent antipathy toward Jewish monotheism, as it struggled to develop its own form of tritheism called trinitarianism -- whether a godhead might be one or two or three beings;or four if you take seriously the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950 -- the feminine aspect being incorporated into deity at last, as Carl Jung liked to emphasize.
More recently, the divide between religion, represented in this case by Christianity and Judaism, and myth resulted from the emphasis in biblical studies after the late nineteenth century discovery of texts from antiquity being dug up across ancient Mesopotamia, including contemporary Iraq, Palestine, Israel, and Egypt. These texts were fairly easily dated many centuries before materials in the Hebrew scriptures, so that episodes such as Utnapishtimís account of the Great Flood and the saving of humankind on a great ship, found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and other ancient texts, seemed to threaten the independent creation of biblical materials. Might they derive not from a revelation by a deity but from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures?
Was it possible that some materials came to be included in the Bible familiar to Jews and Christians as a way of co-opting the power and appeal in stories of competing interpretations of a particular sect or party? One has to think carefully about such apparent reshaping of common Ancient Near Eastern stories as is found in the famous voice from the whirlwind at the end of the book of Iyyov/Job, that undoes much of the point of the entire traditional parable of unrequited faith already well known. Or one thinks of the Eastern Orthodox rejection from the Christian canon of the Apocalypse to John (the book of Revelation), or of Martinus Luther desiring to exclude from the NT canon the book of James, calling its anti-Pauline contents "an epistle of straw."
While most of the scholarly world has found such issues meaningless, considering all literature essentially "intertextual" and extremely fluid in preliterary oral transmission, theologians such as the Early Christian Fathers, and the fourth-fifth century Augustine of Hippo soon developed the claim that Christianity and Judaism rested upon historicalrather than mythological foundations. "An Exodus from Egypt " had really to have happened, or it wouldnít have been recorded in Bereshith/Genesis -- regardless of the extensive mythological reworking that such traditions clearly received over the generations of Israelite religionists, largely no doubt from those whose primal traditions began in Palestine itself.
And in primitive Christianity after the Gospel of Mark, the clearly-mythological story of The Empty Tomb was devised to demonstrate that there was a space from which the dead Jesus must have been resurrected. And so on. Our faith in historical stories being verifiable is amusing, if not quite realistic, as a volume Iíve just read, entitled Mythistory, indicates (subtitled The Making of a Modern Historiography, Mali 2003).
Recent volumes in biblical criticism from many hands, many from decidedly ministerial or pastoral hands, have demonstrated how thoroughly theological-mythological biblical accounts actually are, on the one hand. On the other, they also demonstrate how each of the recensions or editions of the Tanak/OT were attempts to revise previous theological interpretations in favor of more recent faith-claims. (the following can flesh in this scenario well: Bruggeman 1997; Batto 1992; Brown 1999, Cross 1973). The work of the French semiotician Roland Barthes (Mythologies 1972) mined and exposed just such ideological constructions in modern French society: an advertisement for the Foreign Legion in Paris Match might appeal to centuries-old images, but it was selling French imperialism of the mid-1950s when Barthes was writing (Myth Today, 109-59).
Call it theological or mythological or ideological: my point is that any community preserves its central traditions by re-telling them, and no re-telling can ever be the same, since it is dependent upon audience anticipations and reception of what is told. It's something perhaps most easily grasped in terms of something like Greek mythology, where the mythical stories were so familiar that poets didnít have to retell the basic stories but could just refer to names and themes and then transform the stories as they wished.
Each performance was crafted to satisfy a particular audience, and the central aspects of a single myth could be realized very differently in performances in different areas. Any original telling gets lost at the second telling. Usually it is impossible to recover "primal" myths. And a myth is essentially all its versions and interpretations, as the French mythographer Claude Lévi-Strauss asserted after Freud, is a myth in all its variations.
The various versions are held together within a respectful community because they are part of a participantís self-identity: because they provide cosmological structures and interpretive frameworks. Ergo, they are "religious," even though at least ancient Christianity considered ancient Greeks and Romans non-religious or, famously, pagani/pagans. But they are religious in the strict meaning of Latin religio, a word that was built from re- (an emphatic particle) and legere, to tie together -- that verb is found in the English "igature," a stitch that ties the skin back together after surgery, related to "league," "alloy," and "ally." It is of some interest that a term from another language stem, the Sanskrit yoga, likewise means yoking together.
The standard contemporary association of "religion" with institutionalized faith communities would have made no sense in Rome, where it generally referred to respect for authority, common law, and patriotism, nor earlier in Greece, where "the pious life" referred to lived by an engaged political citizen, and where civil laws were inscribed on temple walls (see Sissa and Detienne2000).
While Hesiod and the much later Orphic writers develop religious cosmogonies in their accounts of the origins of everything, most Greek philosophers paid little attention to religious aspects of the gods, yet felt free to use their stories. Can one believe in myths that were never part of "religion"? Regardless of one's answer, it is important to recognize that Greek mythologies were preponderantly not about divine beings, but human heroes.
Furthermore contemporary religious assumptions about the nature of deities have to be bracketed as well: the ancient goddesses and gods retired to mountain tops such as Mt. Olympos (olympos in Greek simply means "mountain top") when they needed to party and to rest, but they were never "heavenly" beings. Indeed they were born on the earth, sweated, and left footprints when they walked on its soil, their voices could be heard clearly, and they suffered from sexual jealousy and unrequited love just as mortals did (Sissa and Detienne 2000: 4, 27, 31, 49). Tithonos, the lover of Eos, granted immortality by Zeus, did not get a full portion of the nectar or ambrosia that the Olympians lapped up, so she had to watch in dismay as his handsome body aged and withered the way yours and mine will.
Lists of Olympians vary even as those of Jesusí disciples do in the NT. Nor were the various members respected uniformly across Greece, so that we learn of a number of different rituals that Hera or Hermes or Herakles were offered in various towns. The god of a Greek temple in Windsor might have been thought to have very different characteristics and actions from those praised in his temple in Dearborn, and to be less or more important in status among the gods.
My focus changes now from myth opposed to religion, and turns to discussion of how we make moral or religious judgments about myths.
A survey of the ways myth has been interpreted historically, by Kees Bolle states:
In recent years we have had our share of self-styled scientists who explained all mythology away in one fell swoop. Thus, the Egyptian darkness has no meaning except as a curious record of planetary catastrophes. A Buddhist description of the experience of duhka, torn out of its context, becomes another illustration of the same. The factual mistakes made by [Immanuel] Velikovsky ["catastrophism"] are negligible compared to the wide-spread ignorance of elementary rules in the order of knowledge. Is it necessary to mention the curious popularity, even among people who should know better, of [Erich] von Däniken? [Chariots of the Gods, 1968] Again: thoughtless jumping from supposed facts to an ultimate explanation of religious documents. (1983: 315-16)
It seems to me that the many Christian Internet sites devoted to showing just how the cybernetic superhero Neo in The Matrix film trilogy is the most recent Christ manifestation just prolong such ridiculous appropriations. Instead I want to provide a sort of toolkit for myth analysis that I hope will provide a way to talk to people about why some myths contribute to mature communal values, and why others do not. Why it makes sense to talk about the fascism in Star Wars, all mingled together as it is with the latest technocinematic bells and whistles of cyberpunk.
So excuse a short teaching tape from a college intro class, as I lay out a fundamental triad of the way people with my academic training are taught to approach cultural texts -- even movies such as the Matrix trilogy and all its related franchised products (I am coediting with an evolutionary anthropologist in Michigan a volume on their cultural reception for Continuum Press). Like ancient Gaul in the study of Latin -- or the construction of religious sermons -- tres partibus, it has three components: exegesis, interpretation, and application.
1. Exegesis is simply a traditional technical term for critical analysis. It refers to determining carefully what and how a text says what it says. It studies the derivation of its terms and its possible literary models. It surveys its intertexts inside and outside its own contextual network -- for instance, a religious canon, or the expansive mythos of Baseball in America. That last refers to Deeanne Westbrookís book, Ground Rules: Baseball and Myth, which is a highly technical discussion of myth criticism, the literary and rhetorical shapings and dimensions of the text. Exegesis of materials in foreign languages will involve word studies and grammatical explanations, and many critical theory semioticians work this terrain.
2. Interpretationrefers to explicationof the likely meanings of a text or mythic story or theme to its original author/s and audience/s, and its influences within particular trajectories and histories of ideas. Is it a founding story? A prohibition that silences other texts? A "classic" or an artifact of pop culture? Of childrenís literature? What sort of authority was it granted? Are there competing interpretations possible? It is important in terms of understanding the original socio-historical interpretive contexts to understand the audience reception (Wirkungsgeschichte) of the original texts -- which may differ substantially from more recent interpretive contexts. What are referred to as fundamentalisms are precisely those attitudes which seek to freeze-dry one specifically privileged moment of transmission, while denying the significance of ongoing evolutionary change or development.
3. Finally, thepractical application: the ways the material may be taken to mean in a particular contemporary situation: allowing that every telling is a reinterpretation of some earlier version, that a myth encompasses all its telling, or that we are selecting only one of several possible interpretations: a myth, as French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss established after Freud, is a myth in all its variations. For the fundamentalist, epiphanies of meaning are important only insofar as they have at some antique point had significance. They are walled off from any subsequent reappropriation or revitalization, but have significance only as what Marxists refer to as the dead hand of the past.
It is in #3 that the evaluative aspectof interpretation appears: does the myth or does it not support a particular moral goal that we hope to further? If it seems (as myths of heroes usually seem) to be about an individual or specific group of people, does it yet have potential for wider application, or does it threaten stories that we consider to be promoting the values our commonweal values positively? Beyond the narcissistic adoration of the self-made toned young male in recent American culture, are there not openings to visions of the social self, of life in community that transcend privatized cell-phones and enormously bloated SUVs?
It is important to remember that there are different sorts of interpretation or hermeneutics, although most people are acquainted only the negative type, the hermeneutics of suspicion (Mackey-Kallis 2001, ch. 9 was influential in this section). This approach looks for deceit or deception -- the myth seems to be about the pleasure of giving gifts, but it is "really" about expanding the sales of a particular product (here we meet Marxian and Freudian interpretations). This approach generally sees underlying causes to be that of purely personal ego-building or of debunking a position one does not agree with.
The positive hermeneutics of discovery or empowerment shows how a myth possesses latent within it ways to reconfigure society so that it is beneficial to yet more people: this is the type of much theological interpretation, especially by Paul Ricoeur. It is oriented toward what the ego can contribute to the community, and may be positively utopian. It now seems almost impossible to believe that any utopian prospects may be able to grow our future responsibly, because of the horrifically negative Republican retreat to astonishingly regressive denials of any possible renegotiations of positive imaginations of gender, urban life, ecological restoration, or international affairs.
Interpretations may have some of both hermeneutics: for instance, positively in showing how mythic patterns establish ideals of the hero as the aggressive defender of good and progress, yet negatively, in exposing how such mythic models can be so overemphasized as to become antihumane and so unrealistically inflated. Here an example would be the myth of the American superhero sold in the movie and television industries (see Lawrence and Jewett 2002, Jewett and Lawrence 2003): actually in spite of Rambo or the Terminator, might does not always make right, the martial hero trained to fight like a destructive robot may have serious problems becoming a responsibly caring marital partner and parent.
Hence we come to see that master narratives do not automatically need to be considered repressive (as ideological critics suggest) or liberating (as pop Jungian criticism usually suggests; Mackey-Kallis 230). Some specific manifestation of universal archetypes may in fact reinforce static, repressive, hierarchical relationships -- as can be seen easily in the heavy patriarchal mythos underlying the Disney movie The Lion King, or the lack of Africans in Tarzan.
Most myths are made familiar by means of repeatedly-represented images or performed narratives (plots, mythoi) and we must recognize that narrativizing is a move by which coherence and significance are assigned to a particular series of events -- that narrative, in short, has moral purposes, something quite clear from the time of both Platon and Aristoteles (Platon excluded poetic mythmakers from his Republic, Aristoteles was the first to formulate how dramatic plots go about effecting their points of view). "Dramatic movement, particularly as a result of the protagonistís character arc developed over the course of the story, is a widely accepted criterion for judging the value of a narrative. So it is not a leap to say that liberating myths are those that allow for, and indeed invite, change in the audience as well" (Mackey-Kallis 235, my emph.) The question is "what kinds of (mythological or ideological or political) change?" and of course that context can be provided only by the moral climate of the receptive audience. No text can ever be read in isolation as if it had appeared on aluminum plaques found ten nautical miles underwater.
This is precisely what is at stake in the parent or teacherís concern about violence in mass media entertainment: perhaps playing the video game Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance, with its endless ways of harming and eventually offing an opponent, wonít cause Johnny to run out and try the offensive moves on his playmates, but it surely does anaesthetize him against the idea that any violence against another human is morally wrong (except perhaps in cases of self-defense or "just war").
One aspect of myth interpretation that now seems to have been a red herring, introduced about the time of the Enlightenment, was the veracity-value, the truth of mythological expression. Even those on the positive side who thought that myths could convey truths tended to suggest that it was "metaphorical truth," one in other words that didnít matter with respect to day-to-day life in the world. My own approach has moved away from this philosophical issue to that of the application, the third phase of interpretation outlined earlier. I am in agreement with Mackey-Kallis that "Myths, neither true nor false, are rather more or less functional for interpreting the human condition and, thus, are more or less instrumental in moving a culture toward [healthy] individuation" (Mack-Kal 231). Accordingly I suggest that the results of acting in terms proposed by mythological materials ought always to be kept in mind when judging their value for the individual and the society.
An example can be found in an essay by Melvyn Hill that suggests that traditional Western culture did not suddenly break apart into postmodernist fragments as a result of modernist social preaching or philosophy. It shattered largely because the West came increasingly to recognize that its culture had been so unprepared mythologically to face the horrendous challenges of the two World Wars. "Surely the modern era began with the realization that contemporary experience was unprecedented -- unforeseen by tradition" -- which is the mythological underpinning of society (Hill 1985: 406).
"In the modern era the threat of tradition suddenly came to an end. Authority no longer reassured the faithful that they knew the meaning of the symbol. People felt abandoned in the dark--or, if you like, the symbol once more came to signify an absence that was open to interpretation but, failing that, was often experienced as a void. This void came to be seen as the effect of secularization, and the various metaphysics of history came to fill the emptiness. Among these we find the vulgarized belief in national and material progress, the belief that history consists of a series of inevitable class conflicts leading to a socialist utopia, and the belief in the biologically given right of certain races to dominate and exploit others" (406). "[T]he problem for the postmodern world is not just the interpretation [as in traditional metaphysics] of the absence with the aid of symbol and myth, but more radically, the loss of shared symbols and myths in a world that is vaster as a result of the European and American empires while it is more interdependent and, in that sense, more compressed than ever"(407).
Myths die when they are no longer retold and revised. Mackey-Kallis proposes that myths "must change in culturally specific fashions if they are to speak to the changing conditions and concerns of the culture. Myths that do not evolve are no longer useful and often fade away. A living myth, therefore, is a responsive myth (233, my emphasis; she gives examples using the myth of the American West). Such a requirement leads her to an emphasis that falls within the third aspect of mythological interpretation: "The mythic critic can also ask to what extent does the story that is being told open up interpretive possibilities rather than close them down?"
Such a critic may become quite unpopular when dealing with new potentials for revered and familiar myths within a scriptural canon! Imagine applying to a parable of Jesus the following question by Mackey-Kallis: "To what extent does the myth allow for, even invite, multiple stories, with possibly different moral lessons for living, to coexist in the same mythic universe and possibly even inside of the same story?" (233).
In Mythography,my own book on the study of myths and rituals (2000), I propose that any myth speaks with many voices. One characteristic of culturally-important materials is that they can be shown to convey different values -- they are polyvalent -- and to be heard differently by different hearers -- they are polyvocal. But each must be evaluated according to the probable results of its application. As Hill notes, "[T]he postmodern agnostic is invited to go beyond the narcissism of the ego toward a confusing, unmapped, and largely unexplored series of encounters with difference and otherness in order to enrich the experience of life and enhance the possibility of meaning in the world" (409; I would like to refer to one article that I find absolutely compelling in recognizing one vastly important myth functioning in our world today, Betty Flowers's "Practicing Politics in the Economic Myth"). I invite you to join us.
Barthes, Roland. 1972. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang.
Batto, Bernard F. 1992. Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.
Bolle, Kees. 1983. "Myths and Other Religious Texts." In Frank Whaling, ed. Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion. Berlin: Mouton; 297-363.
Brown, William P. 1999. The Ethos of the Cosmos: The Genesis of Moral Imagination in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Bruggeman, Walter. 1997. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress.
Cross, Frank Moore. 1973. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge: Harvard UP.
Doty, William G. 2000. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. Revised 2nd ed. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P.
Flowers, Betty S. 2000. "Practicing Politics in the Economic Myth." The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 18/4: 65-86. (Repr. in Thomas Singer, ed. 2000. The Vision Thing: Myth, Politics, and Psyche in the World. New York: Routledge; 207-12.)
Hill, Melvyn A. 1985. "Symbolic Authority in the Postmodern World: A Psychoanalystís Response." In Social Research 52/2, "Myth in Contemporary Life"; 403-10.
Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. 2003. Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Lawrence, John Shelton, and Robert Jewett. 2002 The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Mackey-Kallis, Susan. 2001. The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.
Mali, Joseph. 2003. Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
Sissa, Giulia, and Marcel Detienne. 2000. The Daily Life of the Greek Gods. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford UP.
Westbrook, Deeanne. 1996. Ground Rules: Baseball and Myth. Urbana: U of Illinois P.