March 20, 2008


The theme at Goat Rope lately is myths, what they are and what they mean. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts. You will also find links and comments about current events.

There are several different kinds of myths. Etiological myths explain why things are the way the are or how the world came into being. Creation stories are an example. Charter myths explain how institutions or rituals came into being.

In Greek mythology, for example, marriage as an institution came about as a promise the goddess Hera made an extremely amorous Zeus agree to before got to sleep with her. (Obviously, he didn't read the fine print...) Myths also can provide moral guidance or examples of good or bad behavior.

There are any number of theories of myths, some of which hold up better than others. Euhemerism is of ancient origin and gets its name from a Macedonian sage who believed that myths were basically exaggerated stories of real people that got more elaborate with the retelling or else were poetic descriptions of natural events. Goat Rope verdict: well yeah, there's some of that, but if that's all you see, you're missing out.

One of the most bizarre theories was that of the 19th century scholar Max Muller, who considered mythology "a disease of language." He also believed that all myths were basically solar in origin and were about the literal struggle between light and darkness. Whatever. It's hard to believe now that people took that seriously (but they did).

A stronger theory holds that myths are explanations of rituals. Both by nature are things that are repeated. Myths have been around as long as human speech and rituals have probably been practiced longer than that--in fact they can be seen as a vestige from the animal kingdom.

As Walter Burkert wrote in The Creation of the Sacred,

Religion may well be older than the kind of language we know, insofar as it is bound to ritual, which entails fixed behavioral patterns marked by exaggeration and repetition and often characterized by obsessive seriousness--patterns which are prominent even in the most modern varieties of religions communication. In principle, ritual reflects a preverbal state of communication, to be learned by imitation and to be understood by its function. It seems to be more primitive and may be more ancient than speech; it clearly has analogies in the behavior of animals.

Sir James Frazier, for example, developed the idea in The Golden Bough that myths remain long after the ritual has disappeared. He believed that many were based on the ritual of the killing of a sacred king and his replacement by a younger contender. Those views are no longer generally accepted but they did influence a group of scholars called the Cambridge ritualists.

No doubt they were onto something. Greek tragedy, for example, developed as part of the festival of Dionysus. Sometimes the connection is fairly easy to see. The Homeric hymn of Demeter, which recounts the abduction of Persephone by Hades, god of the underworld, may reflect ancient marriage rituals (the distinction between marriage and abduction being closer than we imagine today).

In other cases, however, the connection is harder to see and the insistence on the derivation of myth from ritual can become a restrictive dogma.

DELUSIONS OF COMPETENCE. In a recent speech defending the indefensible Iraq war, President Bush declared that "The world is better, and the United States of America is safer." But if you prefer something more reality based, here's Leonard Pitts Jr. on the subject.

RURAL AMERICA and stereotypes thereof are the subject of this item that originally appeared in Orion.

A BETTER WAY. This piece from the AFLCIO blog lays out an agenda for shared prosperity.

SPEAKING OF ECONOMICS, here's a conservative critique of market fundamentalism.



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