Myths, and Mythologies as Meta-Myths

22 Dec 2023 19:50

First order myths: As stories. Empirical evidence for archetypes (apparently all negative; see Kirk's Myth); for other "deep" meanings and interpretations. Cross-cultural patterns. Historical patterns.

Mythologies as meta-myths: One of my long-nourished, pet, half-crank notions is that the late 19th and early 20th centuries were, in fact, a golden age of mythopoesis; it's just that the mythopoets were all academically trained intellectuals, writing for a newly-arrived mass audience that wasn't just literate but also schooled. So the myths took the form of theories and abstractions, rather than conventional narratives about people & gods. (Exhibit A: Freud.) So the characteristic form of modern mythology is a theoretical system where the abstract concepts of the theory are actually so loose, woolly, and close to every-day thought and feeling that one can't validly derive strong conclusions using them, or actually explain anything with them, but they seem to lend themselves to certain sorts of conclusions and explanation. Yet their pliability means that people who want to derive different conclusions from the same theory can easily do so --- just as narrative myths could easily be inflected to point to all kinds of morals or justify all manner of behavior and institutions.

Recursively, one important area for this sort of modern, theoretical myth-building is, in fact, general theories of myths, in "mythology" as an intellectual subject. These mythologies have in turn been taken up by writers and other artists and been used in some ways rather like myths themselves. (Exhibit B, because of its tremendous cultural reach, is how George Lucas used Joseph Campbell's ideas about myths in Star Wars, but it's not hard to find much more elevated examples, e.g., the influence of Frazier's The Golden Bough in the first half of the 20th century.) This suggests that people who consciously tried to create narrative modern myths were simply behind the times.

(I say "since the late 19th century" becuase the first such figure I'm thinking of as I write this is Max Müller. But it wouldn't surprise me to find general-theories-of-myths, and their artistic use, at any point from Romanticism onwards. [I am not counting the Enlightment conviction that myths are an amalgam of ignorance, cognitive illusions and deliberately manipulative priestcraft as a general theory of the kind I mean here, though it is of course a very good explanation of a lot of myths.])

If I ever try to seriously write up this unholy chimera of Gellner, Flynn and Sperber, I've gone emeritus and should be gently dosed with dried frog pills.

See also Joseph Campbell; Ernst Cassirer; Conspiracy Theories; Mircea Eliade; Sigmund Freud; Carl Jung; Millenarianism; Narrative Communities; Religion; Role-Playing Games; Structuralism; Superstition; Universal Signs, Images and Symbols