Friday, June 24, 2011

Marcel Detienne: "The Creation of Mythology"

Introduction/Summary: “Once Upon a Time”
When myths are not simply dismissed as pleasant stories told for the sole purpose of entertainment, a certain paradox exists in scholarship on the subject of the “myth” or “mythology.” On the one hand, scholarship takes mythology to be a universal form in which human cultures are articulated. An entire “science of mythology” has grown around this understanding of myths, beginning with 18th Century comparativists, engaging different disciplines from linguistics, 19th Century “racial sciences,” anthropology, theology, philosophy, psychoanalysis, history, and most recently structuralism (this book was written in 1981). All of these methods of approaching mythology share a broadly hermeneutical method, separating “mythology” as one genre of literature that can be interpreted in a peculiar fashion apart from others. Particularly, mythology as a genre is purported to in some way describe the “origin” or the most “primordial” or “primitive” state of cultures, the form humans use to describe their most basic consciousness of themselves and the natural and supernatural worlds around them, prior to conceptual, philosophical, or historical thinking.
On the other hand, the definition of the term “myth” is notoriously difficult to specify. The terms “myth” and “mythology” have historically been used in a variety of ways: in Aristotle’s Poetics, for instance, a myth is both “a well-constructed plot and a well-told tale,” an understanding of myth in no way related to distinctions between conceptual and preconceptual thinking, history versus memory, etc. (xii) In an even stranger turn, the term “mythology” has been used to describe some of the methods used by modern scholars as well. Seen as the telling of tales, the difference between Hesiod describing the development of humanity as a decline from a golden age to the present iron age and the comparativists’ description of human development as starting from a “childhood of the race” characterized by fantastic and mythic consciousness to a mature rational age of Enlightenment diminishes to the point of irrelevance (x). The term “mythology” refers both to the telling of tales and to the interpretation and commentaries on those tales, making it very difficult to define as a separate and unique genre.
Ancient Greece stands at a key point in this paradox (representin’). Since the Renaissance Ancient Greece has been considered the society that gave birth to reason, the unique origin of rational, scientific, conceptual thought we have inherited in modern times. At the same time, however, Ancient Greece is famous for its rich mythology, stories of gods and goddesses that are so irrational and morally scandalous as to offend not only modern sensibilities, but those of the Ancient Greek philosophers and historians as well. The Ancient Greeks appear to be, in Detienne’s words, “two-headed:” irrational and rational, mythic and scientific, primitive and enlightened. The question Detienne asks is whether there is another way to understand mythology that avoids embroiling it in this paradox? Is there a way to describe mythology that avoids attempting to treat it as a unique genre of literature but still explains the power myths appear to have over us, inspiring pleasure while also possessing a peculiar sense of truth: “Subtarranean thoughts in which the eye hears ageless tidings”? (xii)
For Detienne, mythology is tied to cultural memory: “in the darkness of Time some beginnings have eclipsed others, that all discoveries have been made infinite times and that, after so many obliterated progressions, there only remain fossils or traces in the form of proverbs, souvenirs of antique wisdom which have come down to us thanks to their brevity and truth.” (xii) Mythology can be understood as the memories that have survived and continue to have an effect upon us despite their age. Certain experiences have resonance in different times and cultures, and if mythology is not a universal statement of human culture, it at least preserves the experiences, morals, stories, and insights that are so resonant as to be impossible to silence. Detienne argues that what Milan Kundera calls “the struggle between memory and forgetting,” not simply the struggle to retain cultural memories against the generational change, but the active preservation of memory against political and ideological oppression, is not new, but is essential to all history: “There is no paradise either for memory or forgetting. Only the workings of both and ways of working that have a history. A history has to be made.” (xii) Mythology for Detienne constitutes the ways in which memories are preserved, from fantastic narration to scholarly history.
Chapter 1: “Ambiguous Borderlines”
Mythology has a peculiar double signification: first, it refers to a “combination of discursive statements, of matter-of-fact narratives or even, as the saying goes, of narratives and stories.” (1) At the same time, however, mythology is also “a dissertation concerning myths, a scholasticism that understands myths in general, their origin, their nature, their essence.” (1) The genre of mythology includes both myths and interpretations of myths. Detienne thus asks the question of where this semantic doubleness emerged: “Why is it that what is called ‘myth’ resides in or is possessed by a need to discuss, a wish to know, to search out the meaning, the reason for its own manner of speaking?” (1)
Detienne begins to answer this question by looking at the stated reasons the 18th and 19th Century comparativists gave for their studies of myths. A common thread running through the comparativists’ reasons for studying myths regards the strangeness and offensiveness of myths: myths are “foolish, barbaric, and absurd,” not to mention “disgustingly immoral” and “repulsive.” (2) The comparativists, embodying Victorian moral and rationalist sensibilities, find the ancient myths both intellectually and morally offensive, and thus must utilize some form of “scientific” interpretation to explain the origin of mythology. Detienne describes three schools of scholarship on mythology. The first is that of the 19th Century school of “comparative mythology.” This school interprets the offensiveness of mythology as a product of ignorance, “but of an inquisitive ignorance trying to account for phenomena and for the world itself.” (5) Ancient human societies, ignorant of the scientific explanations of natural phenomena, resort to mythology to explain that which they cannot understand. Pre-rational societies create fantastic stories that seem offensive to modern enlightened intellect and sensibilities, but which can be explained away as the imaginings of more ignorant civilizations. Mythology therefore need not be interpreted as “none of this barbarism affects Reason which feigns fright without allowing itself to worry.” (6)
If this is the case, however, there is also no need for scholarship on mythology. If mythology is merely the product of barbaric imaginings, there is nothing to interpret about them as they have no real meaning. For the linguistic school of mythology, however, the creation of myths, the “mythopoietic age,” corresponds to a particular phase in the development of language (9). In Fr.-Max Müller’s schema, for instance, language first develops the terms to express essential ideas, and then separates into the “Semitic” and “Aryan” dialects. After this division into separate forms of grammar, however, words originally meant to denote natural phenomena become anthropomorphized. Natural phenomena had always been represented as possessing human faculties such as a will and sexual ability, but “once the primary sense of the names given to powerful beings by the language which created them spontaneously has been altered, mythic personages make their appearance: the names of natural forces are transformed into proper names. “Zeus makes the rain fall” arises from the expression “the sky weeps.” (10) Primitive humanity’s myths are a result of the excess of signification of the words used to name natural phenomena. Mythology is, in essence, a “disease of language,” a flaw in the signification of primitive words, only resolved when reason and scientific observation provide a basis for naming natural phenomena without recourse to anthropomorphic characteristics.
The linguistic school’s theory of myths, however, cannot explain a peculiar fact about myths noticed by the third anthropological school of mythology. While the argument that linguistic development eventually rid language of the anthropomorphic valences of terms for natural phenomena can explain why, for instance, the Greeks transitioned from mythmaking to philosophy, it cannot be considered a universal schema for human development. Anthropologists such as Edward Tylor and Andrew Lang noticed that “savage” tribes such as “the Australians, the Bushmen, the Redskins and the inferior races of South America” (Lang, quoted in Detienne, 11) “continued to tell the same barbaric stories no one could dream of explaining as the strange result of a few misunderstood expressions.” (11) Instead, the anthropologists describe myths as corresponding to a particular stage in the development of human consciousness, that of childhood. Infantile consciousness, according to the anthropologists, attributes human life to nature while only possessing basic terminology to describe it: “actions were named according to sounds; names of animals were given according to cries; later, the words are modified to adapt sound to meaning.” (12) The anthropologists thus find a way to describe both why the Ancient Greeks were able to literally outgrow mythology, while present-day “savage” tribes are unable to do so: the Greeks were able to develop reason (as yet without an explanation) while the “savages” remain within the childhood stage of human consciousness.
This developmental model of human consciousness has the advantage of being able to describe how to tell apart myths from science. With “savage” tribes existing in various locations, anthropologists have plenty of opportunities to study how the human infantile consciousness functions, and thus will be able to see what is rational within Greek myth and what is irrational. Modern culture, stemming from the Enlightenment, can therefore differentiate itself from its primitive origins and the savage cultures that still exist. Ground is also prepared within the anthropological theory of mythology for Christianity and “natural religion” theorists to differentiate themselves from primitive mythology. The universal human consciousness of a “supreme being” postulated by the theory of natural religion was perverted by the infantile consciousness of primitive civilizations, as scandalous actions were attributed to the supreme being in mythology. As the Greeks outgrew mythology, however, they developed a new conception of a deity that “does not differ essentially from our own.” (P. Decharme, quoted in Detienne, 15). While an understanding of science is all that is required to differentiate what is rational in Greek myths from what is irrational, for the natural religion theorists a sense of morality is all that is required to differentiate what is “heathen” in Greek myths from what is essentially proto-Christian.
In sum, Detienne’s genealogy of 18th and 19th Century studies of mythology demonstrates that mythology is a category used to describe what is other from modern Enlightenment culture and can be discarded from its heritage. For Detienne, “the anthropologist is a frontiersman: between savages and the civilized, between the childhood of mankind and its maturity, between ourselves and our ancestors.” (19) By better understanding irrational and immoral mythology, we can understand what is truly our own culture and that from which we have developed. In other words, the 19th Century study of mythology stems from a particular experience, that of attempting to solidify and entrench its own sense of identity. This is accomplished, though, by excluding what it finds anathema to itself, to root out the “savage in ourselves but in order to eradicate foreign matter, to uproot an excrescence.” (19) The ambiguity of the borderlines between civilization and savages, between myth as a genre and other forms of literature, must be removed to articulate a coherent identity for modern culture.
For Detienne, however, that the semantic duplicity of the term mythology is based in the attempt to root out the scandalous material in narrative myths cannot be the whole explanation for the distinction. While 19th Century mythology on myths may have its origin in attempting to prove the fundamentally rational and moral nature of contemporary culture, this was not the case in Ancient Greece. 19th Century mythology had the problem of attempting to preserve its Ancient Greek heritage from seeming primitive. Ancient Greece, the source of rationality and morality, cannot have been a haven for scandalous mythology according to the anthropologists, and so what is scandalous must be explained away. However, since the anthropologists also claim that their practice of expunging the scandalous within myths originated in Ancient Greece itself, so Detienne deems it necessary to create a new genealogy of the Ancient Greek understanding of mythology to find the origin of mythology’s semantic split.
Chapter 2: “By Mouth and by Ear”
The understanding that Greek civilization possessed a fundamentally oral, not written, culture, must for Detienne form the basis of any understanding of the status of mythology in Ancient Greece. For instance, it has long been thought that Homer’s epics are literary masterpieces and can thus be understood according to the interpretive practices of literary criticism. M.I. Finley, for instance, believed that Homer’s epics were internally coherent narratives, and thus constitute a separate genre of literature from “hopelessly contradictory” myths (Finley, quoted in Detienne, 25). However, it is now understood that the narrative arc of the epics are merely the skeletons upon which a mass of “genealogical lineages to verbose apologues through proverbs, tributes of praise for the living, legends, eulogies for the dead, theogonies or tales of marvelous happenings,” are added (23). The written versions of Homer’s epics that survive are merely one version among countless others that have been lost.
It is therefore also not the case that, as Eric Havelock believed, the one written version of Homer served as the “encyclopedia of community knowledge” shared by all of Ancient Greece (27). Writing throughout the Archaic and Classical periods of Greek history was hardly ever used as a repository for information, whether technical, administrative, or moral. Written record-keeping only truly began during the 4th Century B.C.E. The model of cultural transmission used both by written and oral communication was that of sharing statements publicly. Oral discourse was recited to an audience, writing was generally used to print city laws in open venues for all to see, and even the few existing books were read aloud in groups.
Memory, then, was not preserved in writing, and did not need to be. Oral transmission of cultural memory was the model practice during the pre-Hellenistic period of Greek history. Detienne makes use of Jack Goody’s understanding of how oral transmission of cultural memory creates both stability and variability in the repetition of traditional material. First, oral traditions belong to everyone in the society: all members are familiar with the traditional material, which generally takes narrative form, “taking as a guiding thread a plot, a history, and its logical conclusions.” (38) Second, spoken performance only transmits some aspects of cultural memory: “If spoken memory cannot help transforming what it wishes only to say and to repeat, this is because it cannot be confused with mnemonic activity, emphasized and exploited in our society and which consists in stockpiling and reproducing faithfully series of statements or pieces of information.” (38) Oral transmission of cultural memory is inherently creative, as there lacks a written text used as a reference for performances.
In an oral performance, a performer has the obligation of telling the aspects of a story that are familiar to his or her audience, while being able to improvise the details. This does not mean, however, that the performer has free reign to create as he or she sees fit: “In order to find a place in aural tradition, a tale, history, or words of any sort must be heard, that is to say, be accepted by the community or the audience to whom it is addressed.” (39) Transmission by word of mouth must also be accepted by the ears of the audience of the transmission (hence the title of this chapter) to become memorable, a part of a culture’s oral/aural (ba-dum chi) tradition. So, for instance, the narrative arc of Homer’s myths is made part of Ancient Greece’s oral/aural culture by repetition and acceptance by different communities over time, such that regularity emerges amidst the repetitions and improvisations of performances. The basic plot of Homer’s epics consists of the aspects of those stories that have been accepted by audiences throughout many performances over a long period of time, and have thus gained a greater significance for the group.
It is in fact the continuous acceptance of aspects of a narrative over time that makes a story into a culture’s mythology. Detienne quotes Lévi-Strauss’ definition of his neologism “mythism:” “Individual works are all myths potentially but it is their adoption through collective use, if this occurs, which actualizes their mythism.” (40) Myths are not a separate genre of literature apart from others, but rather the aspects and works and stories that have been adopted through repetition and acceptance into a set of narratives that form the content of social memory. Myths are what a society deems worth remembering, the “essential thoughts, ironic or serious, but always fashioned by the long-continued attention of a group of human beings, rendered homogenous and conscious of self through the memory of generations who have also been dumbfounded.” (41) For Detienne, no formula given by human sciences can explain what makes certain aspects of narratives memorable for a society, what makes a society deem certain aspects of narratives worth remembering, thus placing mythology beyond the reach of anthropological knowledge.
Chapter 3: “The Mythic Illusion”
If myths do not constitute a separate genre of literature but rather are simply elements of narratives generally accepted throughout a society, then the intellectual history of Ancient Greece outlined by the 19th Century comparativists can be corrected. The Greeks appeared in Detienne’s terms “two-headed” according to the comparativists, standing at the border between irrational consciousness of nature and rational/scientific thought. According to the comparativists, as philosophy in Ancient Greece developed, the new rational consciousness outgrew its infantile stage and became ashamed of the immoral aspects of their mythology. Moral indignation against the stories of incest, violence, seduction, and other scandalous acts of the gods began with the early 5th Century philosopher Xenophanes and reached its zenith in Plato’s banishment of poets, mythologists, and all stories that could corrupt the youth of Athens from the city. The comparativists claimed that the Greek philosophers’ moral criticism of mythology was combined with allegorical interpretation of mythology to provide a model of their own activity, rooting out the false and scandalous mythology from Europe’s past to provide space for true, moral, Christian theology.
Detienne finds this history far too selective and self-serving, and so creates an alternative genealogy of the Ancient Greek understanding of mythology. Prior to the 6th Century, the terms mythos and logos were interchangeable, both referring to a discourse, an account, or a story. Anacreon provides the only semantic specificity given to the term mythos, using it to refer to the rebellious talk lower of class fishermen on the island of Samos, thereby associating mythos with politically subversive and dangerous discourse (45). The morally neutral usage of mythos, however, predominated, even in the works of the supposedly anti-mythical philosophers Xenophanes and Empedocles, contrary to the opinion of the comparativists.
Mythos experienced its first significant semantic shifts in the work of Pindar and Herodotus. For Pindar, a myth is a rumor cooked up by people envious of the glory and status of others. Praise sung by a poet such as Pindar celebrating the victory of a successful athlete carried his fame to the gods, raising those who are truly great to the divine stature they merit. As with Anacreon, a myth is still a form of subversive discourse created by the weak, but is now a vicious rumor designed to sully the reputation of those more deserving, “rumor which threatens the word of praise, the voices of envy which stand in the way of the rise of truth.” (47) Myths are thus deceptive stories that attempt to delegitimize true glory and give in its place false praise to those less deserving: “Appearing in many guises myth, born of rumor, signifies to Pindar the bad traditional narrative; it is the badge of the fictional, the illusory, which must be cast aside, removed from the ranks ‘of reliable witnesses.’” (48) Herodotus only adds to Pindar’s understanding of myth as a traditional rumor designed to obscure the truth that a myth is also a fantastical account, an unbelievable fiction that denies obvious evidence to the contrary. Myths for Herodotus are rustic tales told by the uneducated and ignorant masses. A myth for both Pindar and Herodotus still does not constitute a particular genre of literature, but is rather a term of abuse: “sometimes it is a relic, sometimes a beclouded rumor, an illusory word, a lying seduction, an unbelievable account, a ridiculous discourse, an unfounded opinion. ‘Myth’ is still only a word, like a gesture pointing out what it denounces as unbelievable, what it rejects.” (51)
The true revolution in the attitude towards myth, however, comes with Thucydides. Pindar and Herodotus use the term myth to denigrate false memories in favor of true ones. Pindar and Herodotus want to create literary monuments to the memories of glorious Greeks deserving of divine recognition, and so the only difference between mythos and a logos alethes is that the latter is true while the former is designed to obscure that truth. Thucydides, however, is uninterested in creating a monument to Athens’ glory, writing after the military, economic, and political disaster of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides seeks to preserve useful memories, memories of Athens’ past failures which can guide political action in the future. Thucydides is a political historian, citing past actions and words in order to construct a theory of political power that can explain why the Athenians went to war and more importantly, why they lost. For the first time Thucydides explicitly opposes mythos and logos, claiming that myth is dangerous not only for preservation of worthy memories, but for the city: “Would it were possible for us to subsume that which pertains to myth (mythodes) into reason (logos), after being expurgated, and have it appear as history. But when the mythic so boldly imposes on credulity and has no verisimilitude, we ask the listeners to be indulgent and to submit to these old stories with patience.” (Thucydides, quoted in Detienne, 53)
Myths are now not only false but irrational and misleading stories. Logical thinking, the sort that should guide politics, is grounded upon true accounts of past deeds, actions, and events which can help leaders in the present make good decisions. Myths are traditional tales, “ready-made ideas” people resort to in order to explain phenomena they do not understand, thus having no place in a useful history (55). Myths are meant to provide pleasure to listeners, relaxing reason when good politics requires constant use of reason. Myths must therefore be expurgated from rational histories designed to prevent catastrophes like the Peloponnesian War in the future. Finally and most significantly, Thucydides banishes myths from his history because they rely on unreliable, oral methods of communication and memory transmission, whereas only written history can be considered reliable. Memory transmitted through speech according to Thucydides fades, whereas written truths are always available to the statesman and thus recorded are unchangeable. The oppositions 19th Century historians use between rational and irrational histories, between the true accounts of history and popular myths and legends, historians is set up in Thucydides’ work.
Chapter 4: “The Earliest Interpretation – and a Smile”
Despite the radical shift in the meaning of the term mythos stemming from Thucydides, the 19th Century comparativists do not cite him as their forerunner, but rather the philosophers. Xenophanes, however, the first philosopher to condemn Homer on moral grounds, does not attack mythology as such, but the tradition of attributing violent, immoral behavior to the gods beginning with Homer and Hesiod through a host of other artists who “exalt without respite violence and revolt.” (65) Two aspects of Xenophanes’ critique of the tradition of the violent Homeric tradition are worth noting. First, the tradition Xenophanes criticizes is not merely that of rustic and ignorant people, but is diffused throughout Greek society: “From the outset the Greeks derive their knowledge from Homer.” (Xenophanes, quoted in Detienne, 65) Second, Xenophanes criticizes the Homeric tradition from the perspective of “wisdom,” sophia, which for Xenophanes refers to the good character statesmen require to effectively govern. Xenophanes’ critique of the Homeric tradition is, in other words, a critique of the pedagogical impact of Homer’s epics. The veneration given to the name Homer and the “countless more or less anonymous stories familiar to everyone both through having heard them always and seen them on vase paintings and sculptures, on Doric friezes on pediments,” continually reinforce belief in blasphemous stories about the gods and make hubristic behavior seem justifiable (65). In order to purge the body politic of corrupting influences, Xenophanes decides that the Homeric tradition must be removed from the city entirely.
The important moment in the history of mythology comes for Detienne not in Xenophanes’ critique, however, but in the defense of the Homeric tradition given by the rhapsodists, the performers of Homer’s epics. Detienne is particularly interested in the rhapsodist Theagnes’ defense of Homer, as it gives the first interpretation of the Iliad, using a form of hermeneutics Porphyrus will eventually label “allegory.” The war between the gods in the Iliad is not meant as a literal account, but as a way to express the opposition between the elements as described by the philosophy of nature: “between the dry and the humid, between the hot and the cold.” (67) Homer merely expresses in poetic meter what philosophers describe using different words.
Detienne marks this defense of Homer as a critical point in the Ancient Greek understanding of mythology, for the simply reason that to interpret Homer, Theagnes must assume the existence of a stable work of Homer’s that can serve as the model for different interpretations, ie. a text fixed in writing. For Detienne, this defense marks the historical origin of the distinction between exegesis and interpretation. Detienne argues that exegesis consists of the ongoing usage of elements within myth and their adaptation to new circumstances. Exegesis gives symbols new and greater meaning by applying them to different situations, such that their signification continually shifts. Exegesis is the practice whereby myths interact with experiences in a process of mutual enrichment: symbols within myths are used to give significance to experiences, and the specificities of those experiences are added on to the meaning of that symbol. Myths are given meaning through exegesis in “living traditions,” whereas interpretation is the way myth is understood when a group of individuals gain critical distance from the myth. In interpretation, interpreters attempt to grasp the original meaning of a myth beyond the literal grasping of the words within them: as Lévi-Strauss says, “One does not discuss the myths of the group, […] one transforms them in the belief one is repeating them.” (Lévi-Strauss, quoted in Detienne, 68). Theagnes is the first interpreter of Homer rather than an exegete: instead of applying stories, images, and other elements of Homer to illuminate particular situations, he determines the “true” meaning of Homer’s “fictional” narrative by taking recourse in natural philosophical doctrines.
It is therefore Theagnes, not Xenophon, who is the true critic of Homer. Xenophon still accepts the “literal” version of Homer and its exegesis throughout a diffuse tradition of art, whereas Theagnes argues that the words of Homer, what Xenophon worries corrupt the youth, are not Homer’s true meaning, and that the true meaning of Homer’s words are to be found outside of his text in the doctrines of natural philosophy. Theagnes thus inaugurates critical distance from the Homeric tradition, based on written interpretation rather than oral dissemination of the epics. At this time, however, reading and writing are still technologies available only to an elite group of intellectuals. For the vast majority of still illiterate people, interpretation based on a readable text is not an option, so oral transmission remains the norm throughout Greece.
A curious middle ground, however, appears between oral exegesis and written interpretation in figures such as Hecataeus, a “fabricator of accounts (logopoios),” individuals ignored in the comparativist account of Ancient Greek intellectual development (70). The literate Hecataeus collects different versions of traditional stories and compares them, consciously redacting accounts and creating new versions of stories “as they seem true to him.” (Aelian referring to Hecateus, quoted in Detienne, 73). He then recites his new, more probable version of the old story, simultaneously engaging in exegesis, the application of old stories to explain new situations, and interpretation, the finding of the true version of a story based on his own understanding of physics, geography, and human action. Like Theagnes, Hecataeus engages in interpretive practices, but avoids the anxiety surrounding having to defend the morals of old mythology by simply altering it as he sees fit, preserving the elements of tradition he chooses according to rational principles of interpretation. While Theagnes struggles to defend the Homeric tradition in such a way that will eventually petrify it, cutting off the ability to improvise necessary to oral transmission and exegesis, Hecataeus is a “logographer who smiles” (back to the title of this chapter – that Marcel’s a clever one ain’t he?), using the rational tools of hermeneutics to create new myths and orally transmit them, a practice that Plato will attempt to make use of in the Republic (80).
Chapter 5: “The City Defended by Its Mythologists”
The protagonist of the 19th Century comparativists’ intellectual history of Greece, however, is Plato, whose Republic is notorious for indicting not just Homer or Hesiod but all “mythologists” for constructing stories that corrupt Athenian youth, and banishing all mythologists from the city to allow for philosophical rule. In Plato the comparativists find the clearest opposition and victory of reason over myth, of scientific thinking over the infantile consciousness of primitive humanity. And it is true that Plato uses the term myth as a term of abuse like Pindar and Herodotus: in the dialogues, Socrates labels an absurd argument a myth, and the sophists influence the masses of ignorant people “with the help of a mythology.” (Plato, quoted in Detienne, 83). Plato is the first author to use the term “mythology”, referring to a set of fictions orators repeat, or in other words mythologize (the verb “to repeat” in Ancient Greek is mythologeuein), in order to lend credence to an opinion. A mythology is a collection of tales in narrative form about gods, demons, heroes, the dead, and human beings, which provide an explanation of a group’s identity and a justification for a particular set of morals.
Mythology for Plato functions by creating genealogies and archaeologies. Genealogies for Plato belong to noble families who trace their origins to “heroes of divine origin.” (89) By demonstrating their relationship to the heroes of old, noble families legitimize their rank and status within society relative to others. Archaeologies, however, are for the entire city: “In very ancient cities archaeology is founded on search for an identity and by way of inquiries concerning the past, usually the immediate past. Therein resides an active memory, connected with the new practices in politics.” (89) The legendary origins of a city (for instance the contest between Athena and Hephaestus for tutelage of Athens or the model provided by Castor and Polydeuces for Spartan military culture) are repeated and enjoyed by all of a city’s inhabitants together. Both genealogies and archaeologies provide a sense of identity and purpose to a group based on a shared legendary history. Furthermore, the recitation (mythologizing) of these stories provides great pleasure to those who hear them, such that the moral message latent within these myths are passed on to all.
For Plato there is therefore an essential connection between the archaeologies told to entire cities and stories of ghosts and demons nursemaids tell their children to frighten them into behaving well. Both possess the critical pedagogical ability to instill maxims into their audiences, shaping them to behave according to the myths’ morals. Furthermore, myths are everywhere in the city, as oral traditions are repeated to all and throughout generations: “The faintest whisper, the slightest rumor, can be transformed into one of those stories ‘we do not cease to repeat and about which everyone is in agreement.’” (91) Rumors, then, are the most effective myths. Spread rapidly across a group of people, rumors give notice of events and opinions that can be true or false, and which therefore can have a great effect on culture. The rumor of a good law, for instance, can inspire virtuous and obedient behavior, whereas a malicious rumor can inspire revolt.
Plato thus reaches the conclusion in the Republic for which he is infamous: to foster virtue throughout the ideal city, the philosopher must create a myth designed to mould citizens according to an image of goodness. The philosopher must create the “beautiful useful lie” that citizens are made up of three classes: gold, silver, and iron mixed with bronze, and that these classes cannot mix in marriage, fooling people into only marrying others of similar physical and moral worth (as decided by the guardians) so that the strongest, most beautiful and intelligent citizens will produce ideal philosopher-guardians of the city and separating them from the corrupting influences of the mass of commoners, ensuring good governance across generations (95-96). And furthermore, in order to ensure that this myth is accepted by all, Plato will banish all other mythmakers from the ideal city, especially those who spread the vicious rumors of violent and rebellious activity in the Homeric tradition. Homer’s epics are to be censored such that only the parts that can inspire virtuous behavior remain, and no evil acts will be attributed to the gods.
Before the comparativists can declare that at least their interpretation of Plato is correct, however, Plato recognizes that the creation of a beautiful noble lie will fail, as no one will believe it. Even if Plato expunges the Homeric tradition, banishes lying poets, and attempts to spread his noble rumor, the state itself cannot ensure that people will accept and believe it: “And it is at a sudden whim that the philosopher of The Republic gives up his myth which no one will believe. A disabused act acknowledging the failure of the influence of political authority over mythology.” (98) If a myth is to change behavior, it can only spread as a rumor according to the practices of oral tradition, repeated, altered, and eventually accepted over a long period of time.
Plato recognizes the philosopher’s impotence to create and disseminate myths by the time he writes the Laws, and so changes his sociological model for inspiring virtue throughout a city. Virtue-embodying myths cannot be imposed on the population from the state, but must be transmitted diffusely by various groups of people. In the Laws, Plato’s last unfinished work, he divides the labor of making public the philosopher’s good laws into four separate groups: children who repeat maxims, men and women under thirty who sing paeans bearing witness to high principles, mature men between thirty and sixty, and most importantly, “men over sixty who ‘are no longer strong enough to sing’ will tell stories based on exalted principles and behavior; they will be the ‘mythologists’ of the city, ‘inspired by a flying report emanating from the gods.’” (Detienne, quoting Plato, 100) Old men have the most important task of all: recounting myths that provide pleasure to those who hear them. Plato, even as an authoritarian moralist, still recognizes an essential fact about myths: to be effective, they must be pleasant to their audience. People must enjoy listening to myths in order to receive their message and for the myth to be accepted. If the philosopher wishes to foster harmonious and virtuous thought, he must ultimately leave the task not only to his own sociological imagination, but to the invisible oral tradition that entertains, combining the most stringent moral codes with the most relaxed practices of transmission.
Chapter 6: “Two-Headed Greek”
The comparativists’ intellectual history of Greece falls apart when reminded that the Greeks never fully abandoned the recognition that an irrational, oral, culture of myths is essential to a live tradition, such that reason never fully triumphed over primitivism in Ancient Greece. Even Plato, the consummate philosopher, knew that rustic stories told by old men are the most effective way to achieve cultural transmission. However, theories of mythology always seem to make reference to Greece as the borderline between philosophy and mythology, where the two can be seen most plainly in their opposition. If the 18th and 19th Century comparativists saw Greece as the borderline between rationality and irrationality, as the Greeks negating their mythological thought to give rise to rational philosophical thought, the 20th Century sociologists and anthropologists, beginning with Durkheim, recognize philosophy as the fulfillment of mythic thought: “It is thanks to the philosophy of the Greeks that scientific thought becomes, as Durkheim says, a more perfect form of religious thought or mythology.” (107) Anthropologists like Ernst Cassirer and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl argued that Greek philosophy was a form of self-consciousness that could conceptually explain the world that was edified and articulated in narrative form in mythology. Lévi-Strauss universalized this progression as the “autonomous movement of mythic concept toward abstraction” undergone throughout humanity (116).
For the 20th Century anthropologists as well, then, the Greeks remain two-headed. Detienne asks, however, whether, given his own version of Ancient Greek intellectual history, it might not be possible to understand philosophy and mythology as coexisting within Ancient Greece, rather than remaining at constant conflict with each other. For Detienne, mythology remains primary in Greek consciousness, and in fact possesses its own form of logic: mythology for Detienne consists of:
the deliberate fabulation of governing ideas which cannot be put within everyone’s reach at any moment. Primary metaphysics, so fascinating with regard to existential thought that it goes so far as to consider its own metaphysics as a second mythology. The ‘transcendence’ recalled by Cassirer after Kant is erased and philosophy bows to mythic experiences, the abundance of its experience of life and its boundless advantage in revealing a reality so inherent in every person that it entirely controls his behavior. (121)
In other words, for Detienne, myth:
a) Is a form of existential metaphysics, the repository of fundamental human experiences that are so basic as to be transmitted, received, and understood by audiences across both cultures and generations.
b) Reveals basic aspects of human behavior that are so inherent to us as to be considered our automatic ways of interacting with the world.
c) Is not a more primordial or primitive version of philosophy. Rather, the opposite is the case. Philosophy attempts to rearticulate the truths of mythology in a way accessible to all, and is therefore always responsive to the experiences revealed in mythology.
d) Not an encyclopedic system, and so cannot be put into one library encompassing all human experiences. Mythology is the articulation of human life in a changing world, and so changes with human experiences.
Mythology is not, however, therefore an incoherent mass of feelings repeated to please crowds. Greek myth embodies a “rationalism favoring subjectivity, alone capable of rediscovering religious meaning in worldly experience through symbolic images: a rationalism other and wider than conceptual intelligence, the logos able to discern if proceeding by sections but amnesic of the meaning of the whole.” (122) Unlike philosophy (and the human sciences that have grown out of it), mythology does not segment human experiences into biological, social, psychological, etc., domains, but rather is able to treat human experience as a unified whole. Through narrative mythology is able to express “a part of the lived experience, sufficiently basic to be repeated, to be reproduced, and thus to resist intellectual analysis attempting to break up its unity.” (122) In other words, Zeus’ raining blood onto the Achaean lines in the Iliad more faithfully expresses the experience of panic in battle than a treatise on crowd psychology, preserving the different aspects of that experience in their unity, rather than breaking them up into the objects of different intellectual disciplines.
Myth preserves basic human experiences in their wholeness without artificially dividing them into separate domains of experience. As Detienne says, this rationality points towards a religious understanding of experience: the articulation of experiences so basic as to transcend not only conceptual boundaries, but also those between cultures and times. A myth preserves particular experiences, whereas “the plurality of tales in a mythology gains credence from an inner cohesion wherein each story refers to yet another, all of them tending toward a final meaning which cannot be codified to which the whole system orientates the mind, the mind of the Greeks and subsequently our own.” (122) As stated above, a mythology is not an encyclopedia of all human experiences, but the collection of stories lending coherence and definition to our own lives, orienting our understanding of our experiences within a shared framework of symbols within stories. The descriptive logic of myths can unify all aspects of experience within a framework of symbols that transcend individual worldly experiences, and is thus able to capture even the details of human life and give them significance. For Detienne, this is only way divine symbols can remain convincing and meaningful to people: symbols contained within a religious system must adapt through the exegesis inherent within mythmaking. Religious systems must continually adapt with people’s changing life-experiences. Greek mythology succeeded in accomplishing this, and so is still read widely and gives pleasure today: “is it not enough to listen to mythology in order to live it since, despite Christianity which has never stopped working against it, nevertheless the fundamental experiences in which it is rooted always remain ours?” (122-123)
The Greeks, then, are indeed two-headed, but the two heads of myth and philosophy coexist, rather than continually fight. Even Plato recognized that myth carries a power unavailable to conceptual thinking, such that philosophy’s abstract manner of thinking is an addition to, rather than a replacement for, mythology. The semantic duality of the term “mythology” originates in the fact that both mythological and philosophical thinking, the rational interpretation of mythology that stems from mythology itself, are ways to accomplish the same goal of orienting experience using different forms of discourse. If mythology remains more widely-read than philosophy, it is only because mythology is the purest form of articulation and expression of human experiences, more universal and faithful to the details of human life than conceptual thought. Mythology, rather than philosophy or science, will always remain the primary way in which human life is interpreted and comprehended: “One becomes a botanist or a geologist but one is born a mythologist.” (123)
Conclusion/Chapter 7: “Untraceable Myth”
It scare may be believed,
This tale of Donkey-Skin;
But laughing children in the home;
Yea, mothers and grandmothers too,
Are little moved by facts!
By them ‘twill be received.
These are the last lines of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale “Donkey Skin,” and Detienne makes reference to them to begin his conclusion. Except that it is not simply women and children who gain pleasure out of Donkey Skin (which is actually a really weird story: a king wants to marry his daughter so she demands a dress made out of the skin of the king’s favorite donkey who poops gold, silver, and gems, and then wears it to hide from the king, and some other stuff), but also Lévi-Strauss and Detienne as well. At the beginning of his history of Ancient Greek myths Detienne argued that the fundamentally oral mode of transmission is what allowed for the particular aspects of mythology’s dissemination that made it vital, such as improvisation to allow for exegesis. Can myths remain alive even in a literate world, where interpretation has overtaken exegesis due to technological change?
For Detienne our distance from myths has been exaggerated by scholars who have used myths as a screen to project what they disavow about contemporary culture. Anthropologists in the various schools in the 18th-20th Centuries have treated mythology as “a provisional site, an open camping place; like the wrong side of a borderline from which the eye takes in the proximate horizon.” (129) Scholarship has understood modern culture by reference to that of ancient mythology from which it originated, and so ultimately participates in the archaeology and genealogy Plato claims is essential to mythology itself. Mythology, whether in narrative or scholarly form, is still the story of the world in transition from the long past to now, helping us to recognize our experiences in today’s culture, “the language that makes it possible to put into words the world that is coming to be.” (130)
Mythology in fact still exists today, but not as a specific literary genre, something it in fact never was: “To cite today or tomorrow, that which everyone agrees to call myth is to endorse an out-of-date faithful acceptance of a cultural model that appeared in the eighteenth century when the sum total of accepted ideas concerning pagan divinities between Ovid and Apollodorus are in the realm of fable which scholarly erudition then called mythology. But no episode in that long span of time warrants attributing to myth a literary genre or a specific type of tale. Mythology, a fish emulsified in the waters of mythology, is an untraceable form.” (131-132) Detienne thus calls for us to recognize a “myth-less mythology:” the stories, maxims, and other writings and sayings that we all know and have been familiar with since our youths (132). Within three generations, Detienne argues, cultural material that has not been recorded is subject to “unavoidable and continual metamorphoses, no matter what the authority and the number of ‘memory administrators’ there may be.” (133) It is the redaction, conscious or unconscious, of old stories based on an individuals’ memory or sense of reality that alters the contents of stories over time, the basis for the exegesis that keep myths meaningful. The truth is, concludes Detienne, that literacy does not threaten mythology any more than Plato’s authoritarian state: as long as there are women, children, and Detiennians who take pleasure in myths and repeat them, changing them according to their own experiences, people who take up Hecataeus’ role of editing myths according to their believability, myths will be repeated and still give pleasure to people, lending their experiences coherence and sense.
Or, we could just do this instead:

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