“A Glance into Mythography”
(Published in The 3rd Stone: Archaeology, Folklore, and Myth, #36. Oct-Dec 1999. 39-44. Also graciously posted on Bob Trubshaw’s folklore site, “Foamy Custard”)
by Wade Tarzia (c) All Rights Reserved
A myth is a story that is sacred to a group of people; to those people, the story is true and concerns foundational events -- from the origin and organization of the cosmos to the origin and organization of fundamental human institutions (examples: kingship, gender roles). In a very brief survey I will talk about the history and major modern theories of myth study (“mythography”), leaving out much that is important but suggesting more in-depth readings. A quick note: Myths are sacred stories but they are not sacred in the same way to everybody. For example, I am human and desire (even need) some explanation of the cosmos. For the fundamental aspects, I prefer a scientific explanation. I eagerly follow, as best as my layperson education in physics allows, the physical explanation for the creation of the cosmos. I have not labeled The Big Bang as a sacred narrative, yet I must confess my deep fascination with the creation and fate of the universe of matter and energy. Perhaps that’s what ‘sacred’ means, or feels like (1). Consider that we will from some distance examine the myths of others and that we still hold our own ideas about these cosmic matters – we can be both student and subject matter.
(1) Interestingly, David A. Leeming, who provides many examples of myths in his book The World of Myth, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990, classifies scientific theory of creation (the Big Bang) alongside traditional creation myths (p. 41ff.).
This is also a good time to remind readers of The 3rd Stone that translations of sources for Northern European myths are to be found in the Elder Edda for the bulk of the surviving Germanic myths and a few of the Old Irish myths, which have not survived so well (see, respectively, P.B. Taylor and W.H. Auden, trans., The Elder Edda, a Selection, New York: Vintage, 1970; Lee. M. Hollander, trans. (1986 rpt./1962). The Poetic Edda. 2nd ed. Revised. Austin: University of Texas Press; T.P. Cross and C. H. Slover, trans., Ancient Irish Tales (refer to the section on the mythological cycle), New York: Henry Holt, 1969 rpt./1936.
Similarly, we all have theories, and I’ll review some myth theories. Sometimes you will hear someone cast derision on theorists or a particular theory (of anything from myth to the mysteries of horse racing!) but understand -- you don’t get out of this life without having a theory (an explanation of how and why things exist and work), although you may get away with keeping your theory unstated, or, more likely, unlabeled and unclassified. (Fair warning: I will not spend any time on Joseph Campbell despite his popularity among nonspecialists in mythography. Campbell is not taken seriously by most anthropologists and folklorists.(2) ) Keep all this in mind as we follow the track of myths, a track not at all straight, simple, safe, and of known destination.
(2) See Robert A. Segal, “Joseph Campbell’s Theory of Myth: An Essay Review of his Oeuvre,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44:97-114, 1978.
Review of Myth Theories
Summary of Early Theorists
Requirements of efficiency and application force me to focus on the modern theorists and leave to other writers the history of the Greek, medieval, renaissance, and romantic era mythographers. (3) Yet know that these areas are well worth study. The Greek intellectuals engaged in the critique and re-use of myths through ‘demythologization’ (as opposed to the unquestioned belief in myth) during the Greek enlightenment (beginning around the fifth century BC). The medieval era in Europe also witnessed alternative views of myth: Saxo Grammaticus, (d. ca. 1220) a Danish historian, collected and recorded his people’s native Norse folklore, and Snorri Sturluson, an Icelandic chieftain and historian (d. 1241) theorized that the Norse gods were actually heroic humans of the past whom, because of their great deeds, the story tellers had associated with divine attributes; further, that they had a glimmer of the truth despite the pagan basis of their beliefs. Mythology was revived in the European Renaissance (14th through 16th centuries AD) as Greek and Roman culture became a topic of interest (when the pagan stories were to be ‘safely’ seen as allegories). A growing phenomenon of rationalism during the Enlightenment (18th century) made mythology the target of suspicion (again) by those concerned with promoting reason. The rationalist era led to the Romantic Movement among some artists and intellectuals, which began another cycle of valuing myths as exemplars of sensuous experience of the “natural” life in answer to the scientific, industrial philosophy that had been growing since the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution in Europe. Out of the Romantics came pioneers such a the Grimm brothers, who were capable of rigorous investigation even if originally inspired by the drive to create a national folk-sense. (4)
(3) I introduce the study of mythography and folklore briefly for readers of general background in “Myth and Folklore,” Religion and Culture: An Anthropological Focus, Raymond Scupin, ed., Prentice-Hall (2000; second edition forthcoming in 2007). For a chapter-length survey of each major theory of myth, see William G. Doty, Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1986. Alan Dundes has collected a series of important articles covering a range of approaches to myth, prefacing each article with helpful commentary, in his Sacred Narrative, ed. Alan Dundes, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. For readers of The 3rd Stone, who may be most interested in Northern European myths, a good source is Hilda Ellis Davidson’s The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe, London: Routledge, 1993.
(4) Hilda Ellis Davidson (Chapter 7 of her book cited above) and Fritz Graf (Chapter 1 in his Greek Mythology: An Introduction, Thomas Marier, trans., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987/translated 1993) review these early mythographers.
In the early modern period (let me call this the 19th century to the early 20th) mythography burst forth in the works of Müller, Lang, Tylor, and Frazer. The Romantics had made the theme of nature a focus in mythography. The movement led to the decoding of mythology via nature themes perceived to be encoded in myth. Max Müller (d. 1900), an important early theorist, sought to explain previously unexplainable myths (Example: Cronos swallowing his children as they are born) through a theory of “solar” myth: myths were born in explanations of weather and solar phenomenon made increasingly anthropomorphic as humans made the explanations metaphoric over time: thus, Cronos was a symbol of the sky devouring and then releasing the clouds. As time passed, people came to forget this was a poetic symbol and instead believed in an actual supernatural personage (Müller called this process the “disease of language”). Andrew Lang (d. 1912) was Müller’s gentlemanly opponent. For Lang, myths were preserved traditions from early phases of human development. His idea of myth boiled down essentially to a collection of ‘outworn ideas’ -- fossils of cultural evolution. Lang would trace themes in myths back actual social practices: H. Davidson compares succinctly the two scholars: “Thus while Müller explained the myth of Cronos devouring his children as evolving from a poetic description of sun devouring the clouds, Lang saw it simply as based on memories of a time when cannibalism was a common practice among savage tribes.” (p. 148) (5)
(5) For an excellent account Müller’s and Lang’s ideas see Richard M. Dorson’s, “The Eclipse of Solar Mythology,” Journal of American Folklore 68: 393-416, 1955.
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (d. 1917) (6) also studied contemporary ‘tribal’ people to theorize about past human behaviors. The modern undeveloped “savage” (now considered a pejorative, ethnocentric term) represented, he felt, the ancient childhood of all humankind; he theorized that a modern child thinks like a grown-up “savage,” and children learn first to understand themselves and so attribute familiar (human) motives behind other things in the world (a rabbit, or the wind, is to be engaged in conversation and reasoned with) – the process of making analogies. Further, Tylor felt that contemporary folk beliefs were ‘survivals’ of these ancient ‘child-like’ analyses of the world. These assumptions led Tylor to think that myths followed comparable stages of development: the “rough” nature myths of contemporary tribal people engaging in “childlike” contemplation of the world were like the very earliest myths lost in ancient times.
(6) Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, two vols., 5th edition, London: John Murray, 1913.
Sir James Frazer (d. 1941) and his The Golden Bough (7) strongly influenced the comparative study of folklore and religion in the early 20th century. His theory was that humans had a common inheritance in a way of thinking, which they applied in ways specific to their local environment. He focused on a single case, the ritual of sacrifice of a king, for which he saw evidence from cultures worldwide. People were trying to control their destiny by sacrificing a king whose luck seemed to have gone bad and was tainting his kingdom – the sacrifice of the king and the initiation of a new one was an act of control, a decision as rational for the times and as planned as a Parliamentary act against the reigning Prime Minister. Later, though, people might question the need, and so a myth would evolve to explain the ritual, or at least ground it in ancient inviolable tradition. Indeed, his approach is called the ‘myth-ritual’ theory, which posits that myths evolved to explain previously existing religious rituals -- the theory may still apply in certain cases, but its extreme form is now considered flawed. As Tylor did, Frazer saw myth as an early phase of human understanding of nature through a misguided theory of ‘magic’ which was a misunderstanding of causality, even though the seeking of causality is itself sound (scientists do this all the time with good results, although the sacrifices are now usually rats and exploratory satellites).
(7) Sir James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, abridged edition, New York: Macmillan, 1963 rpt/1922.
These scholars’ theories had major problems, including an ethnocentrism common to their times (and to ours, too often with fewer excuses). As well, they did not see that all modern features of culture are, indeed, modern, not survivals or living fossils (fossils are indeed dead; but if something ‘breathes’, it’s alive and thus ‘modern’). Yet Müller advanced mythography by developing a philological and comparative approach, and Lang taught us the importance of making ethnographic comparisons to help us understand culture. Tylor has done good service in showing myths to share some fundamental processes and that such stories tell us more about folklore process than historical events. Frazer’s use in anthropology and mythography is doubtful because his lack of critical rigor but his charming and extensive writing did expand the role of mythography in academia. (8) We must not kill off our past theorists with a shake of the head; we stand on their shoulders even now!
(8) Edmund Leach wrote a critique of Frazer "Golden Bough or Gilded Twig?" Daedalus 90/2:371-387, 1961.
What early approaches often lacked -- from the ancients up through the scholars of the near modern period -- was the realization that all people have myth and ritual that can seem strange to outsiders. Even sincere, educated people had difficulty in avoiding posing ‘our advanced society’ against the ‘interesting but primitive and child-like culture of others’ (or non-White, non-Western peoples, or even the ‘simple’ people of our own locale). The social and religious views of Europeans usually was seen as the top of an evolutionary mountain despite a lack of a way to evaluate anyone’s beliefs by an absolute system of measurement. These attitudes were not unusual for educated people of these periods and unfortunately are still with us in various forms -- but such ethnocentrism does not aid the study of society; we are warned to take note of our own biases.
We now pass to more recent theorists. We have not abandoned the idea that myths can reflect natural events (some myths probably do), or that some myths help explain rituals (some might; and of course some rituals are influenced by myths…) – we have merely abandoned the idea that any single theory is the “key to all mythologies” (with due respects to Rev. Casaubon of Middlemarch). (9)These theories continue to be interesting, but others were soon growing and are still being discussed today….
(9) In wonderfully humorous as well as educational article, Stith Thompson trounces single-theory ideals: “Myth and Folktale,” in Myth: A Symposium, ed. Thomas Sebeok, 169-180, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, rpt. 1971/1958. In contrast, Elli Köngäs Maranda’s “Five Interpretations of a Melanesian Myth,” Journal of American Folklore 86, 339:3-13, 1973, shows how 5 theories can be applied one myth.
The Psychoanalytical Approach
A psychological approach to myth uses studies of the human mind to help explain why individuals produce out of group traditions certain recurrent patterns in myths. The psychoanalytical scholar Sigmund Freud (d. 1939) (10) declared that humans share many basic experiences (such as childhood maturation), so humanity has a shared tradition of dreaming. Myths have seemed to share the themes of dreaming and reflect processes of the unconscious mind, especially those processes related to the child’s development. This idea provides a universal method to approach the myths of all societies. Freud (like Tylor and others before Freud) believed contemporary people living a so-called ‘simple’ tribal life represent the kind of life led by our own ancient forbears; the folklore of contemporary “savages” was to be seen as a record of their psychology which could, in turn, be compared to the psychology of the neurotic. Here is where his theories of society and dreams combine to explain an element in folklore.
(10) A convenient reference for Freud’s ideas is A.A. Brill, ed. and trans., The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud: Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, Wit and its relations to the Unconscious, Totem and Taboo, The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, New York: Modern Library, 1995.
Freud says the neurotic person has a minor disturbance of the mind stemming from repressed desires. Humans accustomed to the rules of the social world may not do whatever pleases them, so they submerge their desires. Most of us can handle the conflicts, but when we cannot, these hidden psychological drives arise again and transfer into neurotic behavior -- usually this is a harmless ‘safety valve’. Still, the conflicts (or unconscious memory of them) remain and can arise to be ‘painted’ (projected) across other people’s actions and the outside world in general. Freud observed these desires in neurotic individuals and theorized that myths (and other aspects of religion in general) were a projection not of an individual but rather of an entire society. The well-known Oedipus complex (the son’s subconscious jealousy of his mother against his father) can arise in individuals and be expressed in a group-tradition, which it did, in the old Greek story of Oedipus the King.
Carl Jung’s psychological method also relied on relations between archetypal dream symbols and symbols found in legends and myths. Dream symbols, he said, are a common psychological inheritance. Jung wanted us to study myth to help guide our lives by helping us find parallel symbols in other myths and religions. This study would help us revive and strengthen contemporary religions to make them more broadly meaningful by showing the parallels with other religions. Jung Jung was willing to become part of religious life instead of a scientific observer of it (Does it matter, you ask? Many functional scientists also held and hold religious views. How does it affect a scholar’s work when the religious pursuit is entwined in the academic one? A good question.) As well, Jung relied heavily on Indo-European culture and history in his formulations, so his theory loses strength as a universal explanation of myth.(11)
(11) Carl. G. Jung and Karl Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology: The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis, R. Hull, trans., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.
Mircea Eliade worked within the methods of myth-ritual theory and Jungian archetypes. He suggests that people understand their myths to be both part of the distant past of 'mythic time', a time of primal, foundational acts of the divine beings, or guides for modern life composed in the sacred past. In the re-enactment of myth in the present (say, in a Christmas drama put on by a church) the people model themselves after the mythical archetype; they perceive the myth as having happened in the past and as being revived in the present during the reenactment. In a sense, the people experience again the primal moments of creation. However, these theories, like Jung’s, are not provable. Generally both Jung’s and Eliade’s theories are difficult to reconcile with some of the aims of anthropology. Freud has had greater success in anthropology because his theories are based in observable, universal aspects of human development. (12)
(12) Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, Rosemary Sheed, trans. New York: World Press, 1958; and Myth and Reality, trans., William R. Trask, New York: Harper and Row, 1963. (1969). “Cosmogonic Myth and Sacred History.” The Quest: History and Meaning in Religion, 72-87, Univ. of Chicago Press. See also, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return New York 1959.
The psychoanalytical approach to culture and narrative continues vigorously into the present, especially in the work of Alan. Dundes is not a ‘single theory fits all’ kind of man, however. He may seek a universal psychological symbolism in a narrative but does not assume such universals can always be found. This theoretical flexibility keeps the psychoanalytical approach alive without negating other theories. Freud’s theory of “typical dreams” may explain the existence of similar tale-types around the world, says Dundes. His “Earth-Diver: Creation of the Mythopeic Male” is representative of his psychoanalytical methodology. Dundes’ analysis of this myth shows how we may be able to find universal themes in world myths through psychoanalytical approaches. Still, we must continue to analyze societies in their own contexts, he warns, which means that a psychological method will not always be useful or appropriate, depending on the circumstances behind each myth. (13)
(13) Alan Dundes, “Earth-Diver: Creation of the Mythopeic Male,” American Anthropologist 64: 1032-50, 1962. For more of his psychoanalytic studies, see his From Game to War, and Other Psychoanalytic Essays on Folklore, University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Michael Carrol critiques Dundes: see “The Rolling Head: Towards a Revitalized Psychoanalytic Perspective on Myth,” Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology, 1:29-56, 1982. And see D. Hufford, “Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and Folklore,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 38: 187-197, 1974, for other psychological approaches.
Functionalist Interpretation of Myth
Functionalism is an anthropological theory holding that a cultural custom provides a relatively practical benefit to a society. Some customs are easy to interpret functionally, such as mode of dress: a desert- or arctic-dweller’s clothing can be shown to be well adapted to the environment and of immediate benefit to the user. Similarly, a ritual such as drinking beer in a hut or coffee at a local cafe can be functional when the group of people partaking of the ritual are sharing useful information, such as how to solve a conflict between farmers or where to seek employment. Other features of culture are less easy to interpret as being functional.
The pioneering anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski (d. 1942), did not prefer to think of myth as symbolic or of psychological significance (in the Freudian sense) but rather as a direct expression of its subject matter.(14) From his fieldwork among the Trobriand Island tribes, he theorized that, when a ceremony or rule requires justification, the myth relating to the practice is narrated, associating the modern custom with the sanctity of ancient mythical times. So myths were to be considered functional mechanisms in society -- a “social charter” that affirmed the customs of a people by anchoring customs back in the sacred past. However, his conception of 'myth as social model' was an oversimplification. Nowadays the anthropologist differentiates between two kinds of models in stories -- those that reflect social realities (as Malinowski thought) and those that pose ideals of the way people think society ought to be -- or even warp or reverse social practices to comment on the alternatives (as Levi-Strauss suggests; see below). Malinowski's theory ought to be considered among these other possibilities: myths may reflect and support social realities but also may prescribe behaviors and set up ideals in the belief that the ideals are good and may be followed by society.
An example of a functionalist interpretation of myth are the stories of treasure hoards in Germanic tradition. Archaeologists see the ritual burial of treasure hoards as a way for elite to rid themselves of status goods to either reduce social tensions (reduce the envy of the locals for the conspicuous wealth of the fortunate) or as a way to out-compete other elite in status struggles (you sacrifice treasure to the gods until the other local elite – also sacrificing -- are ruined!). Of course, what is to prevent the recovery and re-use of these goods by thieves? Legends and myths about treasure hoards! The dragon-guarded treasure hoards found in Beowulf (legendary tradition based on Norse myth) and the Norse stories about the Rhine Gold (mixture of mythic and legendary tradition) cause nothing but problems for those who handle the previously sacrificed treasure. The stories are functional by supplying an ideological and emotional charter to support actual social rituals.(15)
A more familiar example of functionalism can be made of the Judeo-Christian Genesis myth, in which gender (roles assigned to men and women by society rather than physiology) are founded. From the creation of woman from man, societies might draw inferences about the ‘appropriate’ social status of women. If society is patriarchically organized, then men can refer women to the Genesis myth to justify a subserviant role for women. This possible functionalism of the myth may be disagreeable to one-half of humanity living where Genesis is so used -- comforting conclusions are not part of a scholar’s contractual obligations. Certainly, cultural rules can help one portion of humanity to control another.
(14) Bronislaw Malinowski, Magic, Science, and Religion and Other Essays, Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1948. W. Bascom reviews him in “Malinowski’s Contributions to the Study of Folklore,” Folklore 94: 163-172, 1983. R. Rappaport critiques functionalism in Ecology, Meaning, and Religion, Richmond, CA: North Atlantic, 1979. Functionalism arose from Emile Durkheim: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, New York: Free Press, 1915/rpt. 1965.
(15) See two studies: Robert P. Creed (1989). "Beowulf and the Language of Hoarding." Medieval Archaeology. Ed. Charles L. Redman. Binghampton, NY: State University of New York at Binghampton. 155-167, and Wade Tarzia, (1989). "The Hoarding Ritual in Germanic Epic Tradition." Journal of Folklore Research 26/2: 99-121.
The Structuralist Study of Myth: Claude Lévi-Strauss
A primary and recent influence on myth studies has been Claude Lévi-Strauss (born 1908), an anthropologist associated with the structural approach to culture. A structuralist approaches a cultural system by assuming that much human behavior is determined by communication, and communication has underlying patterns. The cultural system may be any sort of communication; for us, it is mythic narrative. More than one kind of structure exists. Vladimir Propp, a Russian folklorist, studied the sequence of actions in folktales (this is called ‘syntagmatic’ structure; a sentence has a sequence of parts that is syntactic, or syntagmatic) (16). Levi-Strauss’s kind of structure, binary structuralism, see elements of a system balanced in oppositions. A simple example: Norse cosmology includes a “world tree” Yggdrasil, which runs up through the cosmos, from the foundations to the ceiling, with different sets of beings at the different levels, which could be seen as an ‘up vs. down’ structure in the Norse sense of the universe. The strength of structuralism is that it offers a method to compare cultural features – the general “rules” of structuralism, like those of linguistics, can apply across the globe. Culture in effect is shown to have ‘rules of syntax’, which would include traditional narratives.
(16) Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, Laurence Scott, trans., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.
In “The Story of Asdiwal,” Lévi-Strauss analyzed Tsimshian (North American, North Pacific Coast) myth to finds its underlying pattern.(17) In his sociological analysis (he used others as well) Lévi-Strauss suggests that the story tradition functions to justify reality --disagreeable reality!-- by showing an imaginary situation (a binary opposition to reality) that (tradition suggests) would not work in actual life. Asdiwal marries matrilocally -- moves in with his wife’s folk – a settlement pattern that is not successful in this story. In the end of the tale, we find him residing patrilocally (with his father’s folk): normal for the Tsimshian people. Why go through the trouble of posing these situations? Because the marriage and settlement system in Tsimshian life offered complications, said Levi-Strauss, with both the maternal and paternal sides of families competing for influence over children, especially over inheritance. In the story, real life-patterns could be reversed to show that an alternative (matrilocality) would not operate. The tale soothes some of the tensions of life by suggesting life couldn’t work any other way than it does now.
(17) Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of Asdiwal is found in Edmund Leach, ed., The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism, London: Tavistock, 1967. For in-depth study see Lévi-Strauss’s Introduction to a Science of Mythology, 4 vols.: The Raw and the Cooked, Vol. 1, New York, 1969; From Honey to Ashes, Vol. 2, New York, 1973; The Origin of Table Manners, Vol. 3, New York, 1978; The Naked Man, Vol. 4, New York, 1978. For other applications of structuralism to folklore see Pierre Maranda and Elli Köngäs Maranda, eds., Structural Analysis of Oral Tradition, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.
All scholars worth anything attract criticism, and so has Lévi-Strauss. Critique focuses on his reduction of human thinking to binary oppositions while ignoring the narrative sequences discussed by Propp. (18) A criticism of structualism itself is that it isolates a text from its social context so that study of the relations between structures in the text crowd out study of meaning and the world beyond the text. The usual warning applies: use a theory while recognizing its weaknesses, and do not forget the other theories.
(18) Edmund Leach, Claude Lévi-Strauss, revised, New York: Viking, 1976. Critique of structuralism in folklore: Alan Dundes, “Structuralism and Folklore,” Studia Fennica 20: 75-93, 1976. Critique specific to Lévi-Strauss: Alan Dundes, “Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect," Western Folklore 56: 39-50, 1997; and David G. Mandelbaum, “Myths and Myth Maker: Some Anthropological Appraisals of the Mythological Studies of Lévi-Strauss,” Ethnology 26:31-36, 1987.
Let us now apply some of these theories to a Norse myth to gain some footing in practice. I wonder if the structural approach can combine with a gender approach to analyze the Lay of Thrym, in which Thor’s hammer is stolen by the giants. Heimdal suggests Thor dress as a bride (Loki will attend as a handmaid) to gain entrance to gianthome to steal the hammer back. “They busked Thor then in a bridal veil,/hung about him the Brising necklace,/Bound to his waist a bunch of keys,/Hid his legs in a long dress,/Broad brooches to his breast pinned,/With a neat cap covered his locks.” (19). At the moment of marriage, the giants bring out the hammer as part of the ritual, and Thor lays his hand on it, and the slaughter begins. The most manly god of the North cross-dresses; outright attack must be replaced by trickery. The structural oppositions might be man-woman/bravery in battle-wily scheming. We can play with the terms and so select the judgment we most desire. Is “wily scheming” somehow unmanly, or treacherous, and thus a negative trait being associated with women? Or is the “scheming” a positive thing, a use of brain where brawn would fail? Is the opposition man/woman expressing a truth about ideas of gender from the medieval North, ideas so important that they are encoded in stories about the gods? (Remember that “gender” means not the biological capabilities of either sex but rather the roles society assigns to each sex.)
(19) P.B. Taylor and W.H. Auden, trans., The Elder Edda, a Selection, New York: Vintage, 1970, p. 86.
So does the Norse myth encode gender rules in structure? Thor changes clothing to be a bride, a position he would rather not have: “With coarse laughs you will call me a She/If I busk myself in a bridal veil.” However, he tries out a perfectly clever feminine role, and succeeds. His success is in fact perfectly manly as he hefts his stolen hammer and lays about with it. Has he then ‘affirmed’ manly bravery (combat) as he unveils himself as a man? In other words, has he affirmed a man’s role in society (action) only after the role is taken away for a time? You cannot affirm a role until it has been in jeopardy. We might also see this story as an affirmation of a woman’s role. For the ancient Norse, one of those roles was sexual honor. The giants, having stolen Thor’s hammer, demand the goddess Freya be sent them as a wife. Freya refuses: “In the eyes of the gods a whore I should seem,/If I journeyed with you to gianthome.” (p. 85). There you have it: a woman’s sexual and matrimonial honor is not to be toyed with, even to get back the gods’ most potent weapon. I have expressed a structural approach and mixed it with a gender approach to illustrate that no approach need be unalloyed.
The gender approach might lead us to psychoanalysis. Dundes has discussed in his folkloric research that the male sex can subconsciously envy powerful female functions.(20) He has suggested that some folklore patterns involve males symbolically taking on enviable female powers of creating life. If this is supportable, then it is not too far a stretch to see Thor’s cross-dressing as a psychological projection of male envy of female power. After all, even in a patriarchy females can wield considerable social power (not to mention their procreative power). The role of women as ‘peace-weavers’ is expressed in Beowulf. In this warrior’s epic, Queen Wealtheaw stands out in a powerful ritual role, one in which she, through diplomatic speech, essentially draws from Beowulf important promises to rid King Hrothgar of Grendel (he promises this as soon as Wealtheaw bears him the ritual cup of mead). After the ogre battles, Wealtheaw again speaks with Beowulf, hoping he – a now in a friendly relationship with the king – will deal well with her son in the future (the tradition ‘knows’ that her son Hrethric will be betrayed by his uncle Hrothulf). Later, as Beowulf readies for the voyage home, we do indeed hear him say that Hrethric will always find friends at the courts of Beowulf’s tribe. Here a woman has affected action in ways as important as a man’s physical or political action would.
(20) See his "A Psychoanalytic Study of the Bullroarer," Interpreting Folklore. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 176-198; and "Wet and Dry, the Evil Eye,” pp. 93-133 in the same volume.
Given these powers of the female – social, ritual, and procreative – does it sound too stretched to suggest that a society could express in myths a subconscious psychological desire to take on female powers – even the men? Thor being made to switch clothes with a woman may indeed bring out guffaws, and is overtly parodying a woman’s role, but could the chuckles be a mask for the subconscious notion: “I, a man, want some of these ritual and biological powers of a woman. Luckily, Thor has endured some of the process for me, and since he’s a god, he can also better endure the laughs than I can.” Or is this the Norse people experimenting with social alternatives in myth (as Asdiwal did) and concluding conservatively that (in the myth at least) that ‘men are better off being men of overt, physical, bold action’?
You the reader will have noted (and become tired of) my endless questions in this section. Yet I posed them all with purpose. One, the topics are suggestive but I do not have the answers! The only honest method for me was to pose questions. Two, enough theoretical background exists to at least give me license to ask these questions. Now, what shall we do with our experimental barrage of approaches aimed at this one myth? I suggest we think about this and make no swift decisions. Theorists have left a lot of good tools laying around the bench. Some of them might work simultaneously in taking a myth apart. Some might be too subtle or may not suit you, may not suit anyone. Fine. Not all approaches to myth will work on all myths. But let us fumble around at the bench – explore! -- and heft the tools, and try them out carefully.
One of the early responsibilities of folklore students ought to be the differentiation of sacred stories from folk histories and folktales – not that this is easy! Differentiating myth from folktale has caused confusion because the same story patterns can appear in stories used differently in different societies. And not all societies make the same divisions in the genres of their stories as do the scholars who study them.
Folktales are generally defined as oral narratives (becoming oral-literary hybrids when edited and published) believed by the society to be fictitious. Folktales tend to be generic: usually their characters are fictitious and the places mentioned in them not local (the setting may be in a castle or near a mountain, but not exact ones that the local people can visit). And folktales can deal with the fantastic elements (monsters, magic) without being about gods, myths, or religion.(21) In contrast, myths and legends are believed to be true (legends offer a complex option in belief, but that deserves an essay itself). Myths and legends are a kind of history, then, but even here differences can be made in some cases. Myths may deal with the distant sacred past of a specific people and region, whereas legends deal with the more recent (or historical) past and real places, times, and people. But I emphasize these differences between genres are a scholar’s idealization. No hard barriers exist because the same story pattern can cross the boundaries, and people can use stories in complex ways.
(21) On the folktale see Dan Ben-Amos, “Folktale.” Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments. Ed. Richard Bauman. New York: Oxford University Press. 101-118.
Again the story tradition of northern Europe provides telling examples. The pattern of the hero who slays a dragon and then dies appears in a myth of the god Thor slaying the World Serpent in the Norse myth about the end of the world. The same basic pattern appears in the epic Beowulf, where the mortal hero interacts with both the supernatural, legendary, and historical events – the world does not end when Beowulf and the dragon die, but Beowulf’s tribe expects to be overwhelmed by enemies at the news of the death of their great protector-chief.(22) The pattern’s relation to the Thor myth is suggestive, but the difference is, Beowulf slays ‘only’ a dragon, not a serpent that entwines the cosmos.
(22) Lee. M. Hollander, trans. (1986 rpt./1962). The Poetic Edda. 2nd ed. Revised. Austin: University of Texas Press. A good, accessible translation of Beowulf can be found in Burton Raffel, trans., Beowulf. New York: New American Library, 1963. For the dragon story in Norse saga, see Jesse L. Byock, trans., The Saga of the Volsungs, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
The ability, then, of similar narrative patterns to co-exist in different genres and regions is general trait of folklore: the same pattern is a myth in one society, a legend in another, and a folktale in yet another. Such transfers are made possible because folkloric ideas exist as a general fund of knowledge across regions, and individual societies use these ideas for various purposes, but not always for the same purposes.(23) Not only narrative form but what people do with that form is important.(24) This does not mean that genre (myth vs. legend vs. folktale, etc.) carries no meaning; but when we encounter stories with similar patterns, we must not be quick to label them myth or folktale or legend without first engaging in some careful thought about their context in the specific society and what the people think of them, and how they use them. The god has killed a dragon for the sake of the cosmos, the folk hero has not, and that’s a difference worth thinking about.
(23) On genre variance see William Hansen, “Homer and the Folktale.” A New Companion to Homer. eds. I. Morris and B. Powell. New York: Brill 1997, 442-462.
(24) For a definition of genre, see Richard Bauman, “Genre.” Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments. Ed. Richard Bauman. New York: Oxford University Press. 53-59. The challenges posed by the idea of genre are discussed in Trudier Harris, “Genre,” Journal of American Folklore 108:509-527, 1995.
Myth and Science
Since we witness daily the perception that science and religion are opposed, our discussion seems to lead naturally to this final section. The issue is huge and has many book-length treatments of it. What can I do here but leave you with a few things to think about? I can start with a common occurrence: the derision of myth as ‘falsehood’ (“Oh, that’s only a myth!”) or ‘silly superstition’ especially when science is posed as the ideal ‘way of knowing’. True: myth involves belief that is not necessarily (or even usually) based on evidence. Yet, please consider that humans have always seemed to study the world’s operation and compare its workings with the more familiar (human) logic of operation: i.e., we always make analogies, and these analogies have been woven into our sacred stories (Tylor wrote about this process). So ‘mythic thinking’ is not devoid of thoughts about ‘reality’. It is true, though, that myth relies more on belief than empirical reasoning: we do not synthesize antibiotics from myths’ instead we hold societies together with sacred stories.
When critics of science try to bring this way of life in line with other ways of believing, they sometimes cite the way science and religion function similarly.(25) They remind us that both ways of knowing can provide a person with a way of thinking that becomes a membership card into a desired social club. In such an approach I prefer to divide science process (its method of devising knowledge) from the social benefits of science evocation (the use of science as a ‘membership card’ to certain social ‘clubs’). I also prefer to remind myself that the methods of science and myth are not the same, although both can sometimes work toward the same social goals. At any rate, whether you are a Presbytarian or a believer in the Gravitationally-Open Theory of the Big Bang, your stated beliefs enable you to easily make friends with those of similar stated beliefs.
To close: science will not explain the meaning of death. A myth will not explain the action of antibiotics. They do not have to do each other’s work. Science attempts a universal explanation of phenomena in the natural world for people of any social identity, although scientists sometimes speak and write in “narratives” akin to myths. Myth explains the origins and meaning of the world to a certain cultural group by using terms of more psycho-social function than precision and consistency with detailed physical phenomena (although a myth may include observations about the material and social world). The terms of myth may be said to be socially appropriate to the society using the myth, as are the terms of science method proper for its own uses. As students of myth, we may find tastier fruits in our studies by not worrying about the “truth” of myth but rather seeing myth as reflecting basic human concerns about life.
(25) See David F. Noble’s The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. He sees that these two ways of knowing often merge, suffusing technological endeavors with religious beliefs.