Introduction to The World of Myth, London: British Museum Press, 2003
Maps may be coloured to show many things: the ebb and flow of empires; density of populations; volcanoes, tundra and moraine; ruined castles and the sites of battles; standing stones; waterfalls. I suppose an atlas might exist – though I have never seen one – which charted the presence of myths over time and showed Baldur the Beautiful in Scandinavia, Harpocrates with his finger to his lips in Egypt, Persephone swallowed up by the earth in Sicily, and Atlas shouldering his burden in present-day Morocco. Yet because the telling of stories is inextricably bound up with the presence of cultures, mythical geographies can track civilisations as surely as the rise and fall of cities. When the British Museum unfolds the character of a people over time it assembles traces and artifacts from daily life and artistic production, but even the most humdrum tool or cooking pot will probably offer some evidence of the imaginary cosmos inhabited by that people through its myths. A Grecian urn, with satyrs pursuing nymphs around the brim, introduces you to the stories that civilisation told, as religious belief or entertainment.
A myth is a story – a certain kind of story – about gods and goddesses, questing heroes and not a few persecuted maidens, about the origins of creation and natural phenomena, about deep time past and the ultimate possible destiny of this moment in which we find ourselves now. Frequently the stories puzzle at the meaning and purpose of it all, and they show quite extraordinary inventiveness in their responses. The word ‘story’ comes from the Greek istoria, inquiry, and myths are indeed stories that inquire into everyday realities, projected on to an eternal and supernatural horizon. They offer family trees of divinities; these divine powers embody the elements and every kind of natural phenomenon, and their immortal adventures provide explanatory stories for the origins of things and their interconnections. For example, myths observe the diurnal cycle of the earth from our human vantage point on its surface as we look up at the skies in wonder, and speculate on the relationship between the sun, moon and stars. They are consequently intertwined with the establishment of the calendar by which we still plant, work and enjoy ourselves even after the brilliance of electricity has shone light into the darkness. The months of the year and the days of the week are called, in English and Romance languages, after a mixture of Roman, Norse, Celtic and Christian divinities. Myths form a deep substratum to knowledge held in common, often (as in the case of the calendar) so deep as to be forgotten. Roland Barthes commented in ‘Myth Today’, his 1957 polemic against the ideological thrust of myth, that the stories that myths tell seem to describe the way things just are, not the way things have been made to be: ‘[Myth] transforms history into nature’, he writes. And later, ‘things lose the memory that once they were made.’ He is stressing that myths do not present themselves as fabulous creations but as fixed eternal verities. He wanted to warn his readers against accepting invisible moralities encoded in the handed-down stories. For myths are made-up stories, and they belong to the order of human cultural artefacts as surely as a wheeled chariot or a tragedy on the stage.
If a myth is a kind of made-up story, then, what kind of stories do myths tell? According to the anthropologist Georges Dumézil, myths arise from inquiring into the three dominant spheres that constitute societies: sovereignty (or kingly political and military power), wisdom (knowledge systems involving scholars, magi, priests), and fertility (sex and reproduction). While journeying into fantastic realms, myths continually engage with questions about due order in politics and human relationships. In an oblique, inaccessible fashion, myths encipher the story of the past for a certain group. Virgil’s Aeneid follows the Homeric character Aeneas from the fall of Troy to the foundation of Rome in order to glorify the history of the Latin empire under Augustus. The myth of Cú Chulainn and Gráinne and others from Celtic legend became crucial to the identity of Young Ireland during the Celtic revival in the battle for Irish independence, for example. ‘Tell the Truth – and Tell it Slant’, as Emily Dickinson writes, becomes an inevitable principle of mythic testimony. Historians are increasingly alert to the ambiguities of evidence and try to register the pressure of fabulist interests in the reconstruction of the past: I’m thinking of Noel Malcolm’s writings on the Balkans, R. F. Foster’s studies of Ireland. The spheres of political power and priestly power contend over controlling the slant on the story as it is told.
With regard to power in the sphere of fertility, societies are so different in their ways that even a law that might seem axiomatic to human beings, such as the prohibition against incest, undergoes different kinds of regulation in different groups. Stories reproduce these twists and turns. Gods and goddesses in many different cosmologies show a decided tendency to intermarry even when they are brother and sister. Isis and Osiris’ union warranted the brother-sister marriage of the Pharaohs in Egypt, but in Greece the permissiveness of the gods remained an exclusively immortal prerogative. Zeus in Greek mythology loves several of his sisters while remaining unhappily married to another, Hera. His adventures define both rape and incest as off limits for mortals. Meanwhile, after God’s vengeance on human iniquity has destroyed all other men in Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s daughters in the Bible make him drunk in order to seduce their father and conceive by him. By contrast, medieval Catholics responded with profound anxiety to original incest between Cain and Abel and their sisters and even banned unions between couples who shared the same godparent, regardless of blood ties.
The stories that mythologies develop establish borders between decorum and transgression, and this carries them into highly charged sexual territory. Though for a long time mythology was relegated to the nursery in influential compilations such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, Charles Kingsley’s The Heroes and Andrew Lang’s series of Fairy Books, its characteristic content does not on the face of it make soothing or improving reading. The fantastic fate of Horus, vividly recounted in this anthology by George Hart, reveals the many strange adventures of divine body parts in Egyptian myths. A principle of inversion often applies and myths tell of ‘heavenly crimes’, for to a god all things are possible, and gods can do things that human beings expressly cannot: their very boundlessness helps to set out the boundaries of mortal conduct. The mythic structure of permission and prohibition, the valences of consent and recoil, conjure the nature of outsiders, of monsters and malignant forces; as noted on early maps, at the edges of the known world: ‘Here Be Dragons’. Such monsters vary from one body of stories to another: a dog’s head may mark out a supreme embodiment of power and knowledge in one group’s mythology (Anubis the jackal is the ferryman of the dead for the Egyptians), whereas in an Homeric and Ovidian story of metamorphosis, the beautiful nymph Scylla is turned into an horrendous sea monster and finds twelve dog’s heads snapping and barking round her waist.
One sphere these stories explore, however, lies within every human being’s earthly experience, for myths almost always deal with the reality of death. They travel to the land of the dead and bring back news of its arrangements. They dramatise the passage from life to afterlife for the individual and inquire into the justice or otherwise meted out to mortals by those in supreme authority over them. When Christopher Columbus left a Christian monk – Fra Ramón Pané – on the island of Hispaniola in the New World on his second transatlantic voyage in 1493, and ordered him to discover what the local Taino Indians believed about the gods and what they thought happened to the dead, he was in effect going to the very heart of myth.
How are myths different from religious belief? In one obvious way the answer to this question lies in history. Mythologies are other peoples’ faiths when those other peoples existed in the distant past, as in the case of the five cultures represented in this anthology, or when, as in traveller’s reports and Victorian anthropological studies, the peoples may still be surviving but are somehow conceptually placed on the other side of the perimeter wire of Western thought: Australian aboriginals represent the most vigorous living example of this effect. Their complex body of stories, developing their relations with one another, with territory, with the dead, and with cosmological forces, would be quite ordinarily termed ‘myths’ rather than ‘religion’ in almost any contemporary context. But myths also differ profoundly from the theological tradition in one respect quite distinct from the question of belief: in our time they are not told by priests and their integrity is not zealously guarded by designated scholars (this is a separate question from history and memory). While they communicate all manner of values about sex and love and honour and mourning, they do not form a moral code that can be or would be appealed to by authorities. Victorian anthropologists argued that myth was narrated ritual, and indeed many of the most powerful we know were re-enacted in religious mysteries. The abduction of Persephone into the underworld, the grieving of her mother Demeter, and the subsequent bargain that Demeter struck with Hades in order to restore her daughter to life and bring back spring on earth, shaped the secret rituals at Eleusis. The second-century fabulist Apuleius, in The Metamorphosis of Lucius or the Golden Ass, concludes with the hero’s initiation as a priest of Isis and an account of her deeds and wonders. The Catholic Mass also recapitulates in symbolic and ritual form the sacred Christian story of Christ’s sacrifice. But today the ritual embodiment of divine myths has fallen away, along with the cultures that performed them, while the stories endure.
Of course, some objections to my broad distinction between a living religion and the mythologies of different cultures instantly spring to mind: scholars do ponder problems in the texts, and they refine and define authorship and corrupt and incorrupt manuscripts; while, with Sigmund Freud triumphantly leading the way, therapists of the soul today most definitely invoke the stories of Oedipus, Orestes, Electra, Narcissus or Psyche to illuminate emotional and psychological states of mind. But the stories themselves fly free of these tethers: they are themselves polymorphic and can be told and retold and shaped and reshaped over and over again. Euripides wrote a play, Helen, in which Helen never goes to Troy at all. In his version, the Greeks fight a bitter ten-year war and destroy a great city for an illusion. Rather more recently, Christa Wolf from the former East Germany returned to the story of Medea, the witch who is most notorious for murdering her children in revenge on Jason after he abandons her. In Wolf’s impassioned vindication, Medea is blameless and the whole story a political witch-hunt, a tabloid conspiracy, a lie. The structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss declared that every retelling of a myth is another myth. In this sense, no revealed scripture of mythology exists analogous to the Bible or the Koran: as this anthology shows, there are only fragments of papyri, crumbling inscriptions, vase paintings, late variations and word of mouth moving down the traffic lanes and sea roads of the centuries. The process of transmission continues unabated through writings and rewritings in a myriad languages by generations of authors telling stories in oral, visual and verbal forms. Film, television and video have largely inherited the role of the griot of West Africa, the ballad-seller of eighteenth-century Britain, and the storyteller of the bazaars of the Ottoman empire. What we are making of this inheritance through our new narrative media remains a hugely difficult and troubling issue.
The continuous exchange of voices as the stories are told implies that the nucleus of the myth is held in common: variations on a theme can only be heard if the theme is first established for its audience, and so the force of Euripides’ anti-war challenge to Homer’s story about Helen of Troy depends on the audience knowing the earlier version. We can appreciate the irony if we know the Greeks thought Paris had abducted King Menelaus’s wife from Sparta to Troy. The hidden connection to an original reveals a fundamental characteristic of myths: they are publicly known stories which circulate through a culture and beyond, through authored works (Ovid of the Metamorphoses, Snorri Sturluson of the Norse sagas). But they do not only remain uniquely embedded in these writings. Shakespeare read Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the richly encrusted Elizabethan translation of Arthur Golding, and he did not stick to its version. He performed many acts of metamorphosis himself; his freedom to do so conveys not just his own imaginative daring and brilliance, but the very relation that writing bears to myths: it refashions them. As the French classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant has pointed out, the Greek word muthos (myth) stands in close affinity with the concept of the Word (logos), as public declaratory speech conveyed and understood in common. But whereas logos or the Word strives to a condition of permanence and law (speech as edict or pronouncement), muthos or myth remains more closely tuned to the fluidity and instability of conversation (speech as communication); the first institutes truth above and beyond individuals and their personal sympathies and feelings; it does not truck with pleasure if it does its duty properly. By contrast, myth shares publicly all manner of pleasures; the stories of mythology contain truths, perhaps, but fantastic wild delightful plots and characters, and they address with amoral festivity the audience’s whole sensory and emotional being: these are materials that provoke passions and sympathy, wonder, pity and fear, that invite identification even if the events described seem so extremely outlandish and far-fetched. It is also the case that the split between official worship and mythology places mythic stories in the private memory palaces of individuals, rather than in the archives of a state priesthood.
This collection of stories from five different cultures reveals that, even while myths bore in the past a close relation to each people’s metaphysics, to tribal memories and the life of their language, and to their imagined history and self-portraiture, myths’ rich multiplicity does not institute a series of discrete fortified enclaves of ethnic purity. The stories meld and merge with one another across time and place in an organic process of compost and sediment. As the Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger explores in Splitting the Difference and The Bedtrick, many of the motifs of the monumental Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana twist and turn through the body of Greek and Roman myths, and then return in the best-loved themes of popular cinema such as Some Like It Hot, Psycho and Dead Ringers.
Two opposed theories offer explanations of this phenomenon: the theory of archetypes advocated by Karl Jung argues that certain concepts are embodied in figures such as the Nymph and the Crone and have an independent life of their own. They take up occupation of the human mind and structure its imaginative and psychological inquiries, providing the very building blocks of stories. In contrast to this universalising vision of mythological unity across time, the diffusionist argument proposes that stories migrate along with peoples and follow trade routes and caravans and shipping lanes, just as now e-mail transmits ‘urban myths’ all over the globe on the instant.
The two arguments need not be seen as mutually exclusive if you accept that certain fundamental questions – about the metamorphoses of a person over a lifetime, about sexual desire and love, about the state of the dead – are indeed universal and will inspire any body of mythological story. But I am of the view that the profound differences between cultures cancel any idea of consistency or stability of such universal figures, while the values ascribed to them also mutate across cultures. In Chinese mythology, the highest and wisest divinities can be very aged, all bent and bald and halt, whereas in Greek myths the gods are prized for their youth and beauty and athleticism as zealously as in any contemporary gym.
Shakespeare presents a model of the mythological process in action: he decocted mythical ingredients from many sources. He sailed on the sea of stories ranging from North to East and as far West as the New World, and he picked up cargo on the way from different cultures, languages and peoples with a blithe disregard for originality or fidelity to his source. He drew on Celtic faery lore, early world travellers’ tales, and Mediterranean myths and legends as well as the classical corpus. Ovid and Apuleius number among his most closely read writers. Myths offered him raw material and his procedure was eclectic. He transmuted the figure of Circe the enchantress (Sycorax/Prospero in The Tempest), Lucius the ass (Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Pygmalion and Galatea (Hermione as a statue in The Winter’s Tale), and he blended and mingled official documents, ancient and contemporary poetry, broad groundling comedy, orature (oral narrative) and learned literature. As he recast these elements, he exemplifies the organic life of myths. He produced in turn new polyglot and motley myths for his own time, and they have since themselves metamorphosed into many other more recent myths about England (Henry V, Richard III) and the beginnings of empire (The Tempest), and even the popular myth of the original creative genius sparked by passion (Romeo and Juliet/Shakespeare in Love).
Myths’ associations with fantasy banished them for a long time from higher consideration and branded them as proper to the minds of heathens, barbarians and children. Real adults would grow out of them just as they would mature beyond childish things and acquire morality and decorum – aspects of the logos. But many changes in ideas about culture and about the role of fantasy itself have transmuted this prejudice: few poets today would repeat Philip Larkin’s scathing remark that there should be no more ‘dipping in the myth-kitty’. Instead we see Seamus Heaney translating Beowulf, Ted Hughes revisiting the Metamorphoses of Ovid, the Canadian poet Anne Carson reassembling some sherds of a little-known Greek poem about the monster Geryon to write a fully-imagined verse novel (Autobiography of Red) about a gay love affair in the here and now. A younger poet, Alice Oswald, has returned to the haunted terrain of the river Dart in Devon and evokes its local legends and stories. Meanwhile, the success of reconfigured epic mythologies has never been surpassed (J. R. R. Tolkien, Philip Pullman). J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series relocates the combat myth of ancient Babylon in a kind of Mallory Towers British boarding school.
The bardic relationship between spoken and written forms of mythological storytelling has come back through recordings – both Heaney and Hughes recite their own work superbly – and through mass marketing of film versions and offshoots such as figures and cards with which children can play make-believe games and invent new dramas. Dungeons & Dragons and Pokemon teem with extravagant populations of mythical beasts and characters: their devisers have combined and recombined hybrids, heroes and demons into a syncretic world mythology. Personal growth gurus and anger management consultants are also turning to myth and fairy tales, as in the best-selling Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and John Gray’s Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars. It would be a truism to say that contemporary culture is being leached of lifeblood at the same time: global mass media tend to standardise and homogenise, and by needing to be understood anywhere a myth loses particularity, thins out, deprived of local oxygen. Forgetting has become a constant danger. Like the amnesiac who, in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, writes labels for this and that in order not to forget what they are, we have to reinvigorate failing cultural memories: this anthology brings back stories behind so many of the objects and images in the British Museum collections.
Yet the very word ‘myth’ still casts a shadow of fraud: it is used in common parlance to describe not just an illusion but a falsehood, intended to deceive or at best inadvertently constructed to delude its receivers. If I refer to ‘the myth of male superiority’, few people will think I’m talking about the fabulous exploits of a Hercules or an Achilles: the phrase means a lie peddled about in a culture. The contradictory meanings of the word ‘myth’ persist: myths are stories which illuminate and explore transcendent and urgent questions in a gripping series of plots but at the same time they perpetuate false consciousness and dupe the public through the spell they cast over impressionable minds. This last stance derives from Enlightenment dislike of fabulation: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a Utopian educationalist, wanted his model child Emile to study beetles and rock formation and other sensible empirical data to hand. Anything else, he warned, would over-excite a child’s reprehensibly over-excitable imagination.
Apart from the overheated extremes of their narratives, mythical stories have also come under attack for their relations with ideology – as in Barthes’s critique already quoted. The historical record includes recent malignant examples of an unholy alliance of political dictatorship with ethnic myth and folklore. In Italy and in Germany, the regimes of Mussolini and Hitler invoked imperial might through a revived body of stories: the Third Reich in particular annexed the legends of Teutonic and Northern heroes that had been recovered through the popular nationalist revivals of the nineteenth century, and co-opted them to serve their racist tyranny.
Can a case be made for myths in the face of this justifiable anxiety about the sick delirium of the imagination (as deplored by Rousseau) and the damning record of use in dangerous propaganda?
An answer can be broadly given: it depends who tells the story, on who listens and how they listen. The fault does not lie so much in the tale as in the tellers, and the trouble starts when the tales are held to enclose some inalienable truth that serves the purposes of the narrators.
A story will possess certain intrinsic aspects: Medusa’s head turns to stone anyone who looks upon her and the story would no longer be the story if her head lost its fatal power. But the meanings such stories communicate extend to limitless possibilities, and some of the most familiar interpretations in circulation begin to look odd when you pause to give them a second thought. For example, Freud cast the Gorgon’s head as the chief protagonist in his castration theory. He argued that the petrifying sight of the bristling snakes on her head recapitulated in symbolic form the sight of a mother’s genitals and induced the same terror a male child feels when he first realises that his mother does not have a penis, and becomes alarmed that such a fate might befall him. This highly ingenious reading forms a foundational step in the discipline of psychoanalysis – with huge repercussions on ideas about sexuality and about male and female difference.
Accepting and confronting myths’ polyvalence seems to me the strongest line of defence against the problem of atavistic ideological use. We can watch how the Nazis applied the legend of the Ring and take lessons from it. Interpretations like Freud’s are attaining their own mythic status and floating away on the ocean of stories. The excesses of nationalist drum-beating mythologies, however tragically damaging they still continue to be, can be set against the inspiration offered in other contexts and historical times: in Auschwitz Primo Levi pieced together from memory the magnificent speech of Ulysses from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Summoning an ideal of human striving, as dramatised in one of the highest literary achievements of the imagination, gave him courage to endure the camp. Today the memory of myths sustains many persecuted peoples over many continents where conditions still necessitate – unfortunately- that concepts of identity and belonging be kept alive against destruction through stories shared across time.
Imagination is necessary to thought and stories exercise its energies. Every culture on earth has created myths to inquire into life and death and to try to explain their mysteries. It seems that myth-making marks out human beings in the same way as language does: we are a speculative and fantasticating species and our consciousness and storytelling are bound up together in a defining cognitive process. The complexity and infinite variety of the stories in this book inspire awe, and however many hermeneutical tools are applied to prising open their meanings, the peculiarity of their inventions will always place them beyond reason’s reach. There is no need to make excuses for the sheer enjoyability of myths: the fascination of the stories is reason enough for exploring them. However, ‘the reason of myth’ – to use the title of a celebrated essay by Jean-Pierre Vernant – lies in myths’ deep relation to our social and human concerns; they communicate what people have seen, over the millennia, when they looked through the charm’d magic casements at themselves and their existence.