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Explore Mythology
The Myths of Reality

an overview of mythological theory

Bob Trubshaw

Part of a chapter in Explore Mythology.

The earliest-known mythologists date back to the fifth century BCE, when Greek philosophers such as Herodotus and Plato questioned prevailing beliefs in their own culture's myths. Some of the more profound Christian writers, such as St Augustine, were interested in the myths of pre-Christian cultures. However, their 'agenda' was far from neutral and there is a big difference between the 'collecting' and inevitable dismissal of non-Christian world views with what we now think of as mythology. The first notable mythologist who we know by name is Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). He collected and edited Icelandic lore; in this he was following a precedent set by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (c.1150–c.1220). However Sturluson notably suggested that the Norse deities were based on human heroes whose great deeds have given them divine status.

Interest in Greek and Roman myths was revived during the European Renaissance of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and a knowledge of Classical myths became an essential part of a gentleman's education. By the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment led to myths being regarded as irrational, although the pendulum swung far the other way with the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. This formative period for what is now regarded as mythology has been well described by Burton Feldman and Robert Richardson (1972).

Around this time pioneer folklorists and mythologists were emerging. They collected traditional European and Scandinavian myths, legends and lore, then went on to take an interest in the cultures of the countries that were steadily being colonised. Although the collecting and publishing of myths was undertaken by a wide range of people, often specialists in particular regions, the more theoretical study of these myths has been dominated by a succession of high-profile men, each of whom imparted a very personal vision of what mythology should be. The history of mythology is, to a large extent, a history of the lives of these men.

Müller, Lang, Tylor and Frazer

The first such luminary was Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900). Although he can be considered as the father of what we now know as anthropology, his name is mostly associated with a long-since-abandoned theory of 'solar' myth, which suggested that myths explained solar and weather phenomena in an 'anthropomorphic' manner. Over time people forgot that these were poetic metaphors and came to believe in supernatural beings. These views were first published in 1856 and were more-or-less fully formed by 1864. Müller found an early adversary in Andrew Lang (1844–1912) who instead regarded myths as 'cultural fossils'. Richard Dorson has summarised these debates in his essay on 'the eclipse of solar mythology' (Dorson 1965).

Lang not only contested Müller's views but made an immense contribution to the study of folklore and mythology. In particular, he showed the importance of ethnographic comparisons. 'Comparative mythology' went on to become the dominant approach although, as we shall see later, some of the key proponents were more compilers than comparators.

Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917) was also prominent at this time. He initially supported Müller's solar myth theory but went on to suggest that myths were survivals of 'child-like' beliefs about the world. This was taken up by other authors, such as Francis Cornford (1874–1943), and some academics continued to support this notion until the 1970s. More usefully, Tylor recognised that the processes by which myths are recalled and passed on from one generation to another, especially in societies where writing is not the main means of transmission, is a key factor in understanding the content of the myths. Perhaps even more importantly, Tylor can be regarded as the father of what would later come to be regarded as the 'cognitive processes' of mythologising.

The most influential of all the people active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a reclusive Cambridge don who, in 1890, published the first volume of a vast opus. By the time Sir James Frazer died in 1941 this work, The Golden Bough, was a household name. Frazer's approach is broadly that of comparative mythology, although the lack of academic rigour makes it more a mix-and-match of material that fitted his interests in fertility myths. He attempts to argue that the 'myth' of the crucifixion and resurrection derives from a once-universal custom of a sacred king who reigned for a set term and was then sacrificed. Sadly, apart from a dubious example from Sudan, Frazer was never able to identify a sacred king of this kind. The multi-volume 'evidence' was a smoke screen for this crucial failure. Indeed, as Hutton notes (1991: 326) Frazer was never accepted by most of the historians and theologians of his day. But he was accepted by the public. And he inspired such leading writers as T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and Robert Graves. The Golden Bough cast a shadow over both folklore and mythology that can still be discerned, especially in more popular accounts.

Ethnology on a sound footing

In the early decades of the twentieth century anthropologists and mythologists struggled to rid themselves of the ethnocentric biases that were all-too-prevalent in previous studies. Bronislaw Malinowski, Franz Boas, Julius Krohn and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown are among the leading names in this attempt to put ethnology on a sound footing. For those who wish to pursue this further, Regna Darnell (1974) provides a useful introduction to the history of anthropology, and Marilyn Strathern (1987) looks specifically at how Malinowski influenced British anthropology and mythology, not least the extreme contrast between his approach and that of Frazer.

Malinowski (1884–1942) was the only one of these to deal extensively with myths. His ideas first emerged in print in 1922 with Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which discussed the myths of the Trobriand islanders off the coast of New Guinea. Trobiand myths are generally less problematical to interpret than those of many other societies; Malinowski's prior assumption that 'primitive' cultures did not include abstract ideas in their myths made his interpretation even easier.

Malinowski claimed that myths are intimately linked to rituals, although his own evidence poorly supports this view. Sadly, Malinowski's great standing in anthropology meant that his overly-simplified understanding of myths was widely applied. For a great many anthropologists of the mid-twentieth century myths not only implied ritual, but myth and ritual were effectively one-and-the same. The reality is rather that ritual is fairly incidental to the great majority of myths. However what has not been rejected is Malinowski's recognition that myths provide the framework for customs and 'rituals' in the widest sense.

Malinowski and most of his contemporaries have come to be regarded as 'functionalists'. Their ideas are now regarded as generally rather simplistic, although such criticisms do not detract from their importance in putting mythology 'on the map' of serious academic debate.

Georges Dumézil (1898–1986)

From the late 1930s until his death the French academic Georges Dumézil produced a substantial body of literature aimed at demonstrating how the myths and society of Indo-European peoples embodied an idealised social hierarchy of 'three functions'. This tripartite structure can be summarised as:

  1. religious sovereignty, notably in its magical and legal aspects;
  2. physical force, notably that of the warrior;
  3. fertility, notably in its erotic and agricultural aspects.
Dumézil's ideas have been strongly contested – it is easy to accuse him of trying to fit the facts to a succinct theory. Nevertheless a number of scholars have found his ideas to be a useful basis for further elaboration, notably Jaan Puhvel and Bruce Lincoln. (Dumézil's ideas are discussed further in Explore Mythology.)

Claude Lévi-Strauss (born 1908)

For all that Indo-European cultures, and their myths, came to dominate in most parts of Europe and adjoining regions, there are a great many other cultures besides (as anthropologists such as Malinowski and Boas had already shown). In recent decades there has been some attempt to see if Dumézilian theories also fit non-Indo-European myths, but with little agreement.

However the idea of cultures embodying an underlying structure was to reach its apogee in the works of another French scholar, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Unlike Dumézil's three-fold structure, Lévi-Strauss proposed a binary distinction. Whereas Dumézil considered that his ideas were only valid for Indo-European cultures, Lévi-Strauss regarded his as universal. He was, in part at least, inspired by the work of the pioneer Russian folklorist, Vladimir Propp, after his book The Morphology of the Folktale was published in English in 1958 (thirty years after its appearance in Russian). Propp offers his own pioneering structuralist analysis of 'wonder tales', such as fairy tales.

Lévi-Strauss's main ideas are conveyed in a book that appeared in 1962 as La Pensée Sauvage (the English translation appeared as The Savage Mind in 1966), although the earliest forms of his ideas had appeared in print, in English and French, in the mid-1950s.

Lévi-Strauss's theories famously draw a distinction between the motifs of 'raw' and 'cooked' in folktales and legends. He actually takes several hundred pages to make a linked series of dualisms, so that raw is to cooked as culture is to nature, profane is to sacred and silence is to noise. Edmund Leach illustrates this concisely:

    In classical mythology thunder (noise) expresses the anger of Zeus (sacred) whose drink is nectar, a distillation of (fresh) flowers (Nature).'
    (Leach 1970: 85)
As William Doty observes 'It is striking how many myths reflect societal polarities: rich:poor, servant:king, hero:monster, chaos:order, male:female, older:younger, light:darkness, destructive:constructive, socially approved:socially disapproved, gods:humans ...' (Doty 2000: 331). In many respects human thought inherently creates dualistic distinctions, so it is perhaps inevitable that social structures can be readily reduced to binary distinctions. Instead of this 'simplistic' reductionism, Lévi- Strauss attempted to show that these dualistic distinctions in lore and myth revealed 'intertwined' social structures of deeper significance.

People retelling myths usually will be unaware of the abstract 'deeper levels' of meaning attributed to the myths by Lévi-Strauss. This is probably quite valid – most people reading Genesis to do not consciously 'deconstruct' the relationships between men and women and between humans and god that are embodied in the tale.

Lévi-Strauss's 'structuralism' was for a number of years widely discussed in anthropology and other social sciences, only to be widely dismissed. As early as 1970 deeply-critical assessments of Lévi-Strauss were appearing. As Mandelbaum (1987), Webster (1995: 470–5), Dundes (1997) and Coupe (1997: 146–55) have all suggested, there is a fatal flaw in the underlying basis of Lévi-Strauss's structuralist theories. Underneath the dualisms Lévi-Strauss detects in the symbolism of myths, there is an implicit fundamental dualism as he considers that the human intellect can be considered quite independently of the human organism. This ideology is ultimately unsupportable, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have explored in Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought (1999). They argue that the mind cannot be independent from the input of the body's senses. This is revealed by the way human language approaches more abstract ideas through metaphors that derive directly from the experience of the physical world. For instance we express understanding through such figures of speech as 'I see what you mean', 'I hear what you're saying', 'I've got a feel for that now', 'I've got a grasp on it all', 'That's put things in their place'.

With hindsight, Lévi-Strauss's notable contribution was to alert mythologists to the ability for myths to convey complex abstract thinking, contrary to Malinowski's assertions. Where Lévi-Strauss differs from later theorists is that he sees myths as essentially static, part of a closed system in which the same mythical elements are combined over and over again.

Mercia Eliade (1907–1986)

If Malinowski's views can be reduced to myths being synonymous with ritual, then Mercia Eliade's view was that myths are synonymous with religion. He was not the first to make this misleading assertion. Lewis Spence's popular Introduction to Mythology (1921) adopted the stance that myths are mostly about religious beliefs, especially those associated with the origins of the cosmos.

Eliade was a Romanian whose political views prevented him returning there after the end of the Second World War and he settled in America. His reputation was built on three books – The Myth of the Eternal Return (published in French in 1949 and in English in 1954), Patterns in Comparative Religion (published in French in 1949 and in English in 1958) and The Sacred and the Profane (1959). Their key themes are sacred space and time, as is Myth and Reality (1963). These are broken down into notions of beginning (what Eliade terms ab origine and in illo tempore); repetition and cyclical time in cosmogonic myths as opposed to history; and the renewal of time or the abolition of profane time in New Year and initiatory scenarios. Indian myths and philosophies of time especially interested Eliade.

    Eliade especially emphasises the role of myths as they set exemplary models for societies, and hence he emphasises their contributions to later self-understanding. Humans understand themselves, in mythological terms, as having been constituted by events that happened in the primal times; and by recollecting myths and reenacting them in rituals, one becomes contemporary with the powerful time of the beginnings once again.
    (Doty 2000: 97)
The leading expositor of Eliade's ideas, Douglas Allen, states:
    As influential as Eliade was as a scholar of myth and religion, he has remained extremely controversial. Indeed, many scholars, especially those in social sciences, have completely ignored or vigorously attacked Eliade's scholarship on myth and religion as methodologically uncritical, subjective, and unscientific. Critics charge that Eliade is guilty of uncritical universal generalisations; reads all sorts of 'profound' mythic and religious meanings into his data; ignored rigorous scholarly procedures of verification; and interjects all sorts of unjustified, personal, metaphysical, and ontological assumptions and judgements into his scholarship.
    (Allen 1998: xi)
Bearing in mind that Allen takes a 'neutral' stance overall, it is not surprising that a number of overviews of the mythology make little mention of Eliade's ideas. Those that do tend to be as tersely dismissive as G.S. Kirk:
    The uncritical nature of much of Eliade's work is illustrated by his assumption [in Eliade 1954: 3] that the original aboriginal Australians, as well as the ancient Mesopotamians, must in all likelihood have possessed concepts of 'being', 'non-being', 'real', and 'becoming', even if they did not have words for them...
    (Kirk 1970: 255 n3)
One of the problems is that sharing Eliade's views on myths requires sharing his views on the study of religion. These include his insistence that to judge religious or metaphysical phenomena one must believe in the existence of such phenomena. Furthermore Eliade has his own views on symbolism that distanced him from increasingly sophisticated discussions about such matters among humanities scholars in the 1970s and 1980s.

There are serious problems inherent in Eliade's statement about the way myths, once created, take on an independent existence:

    For a symbolism does not depend upon being understood; it remains consistent in spite of every corruption and preserves its structure even when it has long been forgotten, as witness those pre-historic symbols whose meaning is lost for thousands of years to be 'rediscovered' later.
    (Eliade 1958: 450)
The absurdity of some 'perfect meaning' hanging around in perpetuity to be 'perfectly rediscovered' by another culture with entirely different concerns and concepts of belief is, I hope, self-apparent. Perhaps Eliade was led astray by Carl Jung's belief that 'Nothing to which the psyche belongs or which is part of the psyche is ever lost. To live fully, we have to reach down and bring back to life the deepest levels of the psyche from which our present consciousness has evolved.' (Jung 1960).

Elaide's work is characterised by 'nostalgia for the sacred'. 'The appeal as well as the weakness of Eliadeanism lay in a combination of vagueness and an evocative romantic style.' (Ellwood 1999: 79; 112)

Given that Eliade's ideas are suspect, his style of writing is obtuse, and that he failed to respond to his many critics, it would be reasonable to assume that his ideas would have had rather limited viability. But, somewhat akin to Frazer's The Golden Bough, Eliade's views became influential outside the author's disciplines rather than within them.

René Girard (born 1923)

Within the realms of academic mythology, René Girard ranks as the leading figure of the 1970s and 80s. Born in France, but long resident in the United States, Girard began as a literary critic but his writings are primarily about myths. His interests centre on biblical myths, although his critiques encompass structuralism, psychoanalysis and modern culture.

Three key ideas permeate Girard's work. The first is that humans copy their desires from other people; he terms this 'mimetic desire'. The second idea is that cultural and social order originates from acts of unanimous, sacrificial violence against innocent victims, or 'scapegoats'. Such scenarios form the core of a number of early myths, which Girard analyses to support his assertion. The third idea is that Christianity transcends these early 'scapegoat' myths.

Girard's work has been met with a wide range of criticisms. Richard Golsen (1993) has provided a useful summary of his ideas and his critics. Girard's approach to the study of myth is mainly of interest to students of early myths, and especially those related to Christianity. His concept of 'mimetic desire' is timeless but, if it is valid, it is as a 'literal' psycho-social phenomena underlying all human behaviour rather than a mythic motif. Girard restricts his discussion of this supposed underlying trait to the symbolism of myths, but the accuracy or otherwise of this suggestion is best assessed by considering 'real world' human activity, rather than human activity depicted in myths.

Unlike many other mythologists, Girard's work is known only among fellow academics. Despite a fairly high profile status in the 1970s and 80s, outside the realms of specialist biblical scholarship his work has not had any significant followers in more recent decades.

Sigmund Freud (1865–1939)

Psychology and mythology have long been close bedfellows, at least outside academe. Sigmund Freud used myths to help understand sexual anxiety and conflict, notably a take on Oedipus that is nothing if not imaginative. This is not the place for a detailed discussion of why Freud's writing ranks as myth-making, a smoke screen for self-aggrandisement. Herbert Marcuse was one of the first to publicly challenge Freud's ideas book Eros and Civilisation (1956). Marcuse contradicted Freud's premises by arguing that it was society that made people repressed, whereas Freud believed repression was an innate aspect of human minds. Thomas Szasz's The Myth of Psychotherapy (1978) is more wide-ranging in its scathing attacks on Freud's ideas and legacy. Richard Webster provided an even more thorough demolition of the Freudian edifice in his substantial book, Why Freud was Wrong (Webster 1995).

René Girard was one of the first mythologists to look critically at Freud's attempts at interpreting myths. For instance, in Violence and the Sacred (Girard 1977) he regards Oedipus as a scapegoat for a society hiding from itself the causes of an internal crisis. As Walter Ong has argued (Ong 1982), the characters in Greek tragedies and other myths lack 'depth'. Through them crises are 'externalised'. Only with the development of the novel in the eighteenth century do we begin to see 'internalisation' of crises. By Freud's day such dramatic 'internalisation' had been fully developed in novels. But attempting to read such sophisticated modern ideas of characterisation into earlier literary forms, especially as far back as Greek tragedies, is entirely anachronistic.

Freud was using Classical myths in an attempt to understand human thinking, yet his work, and that of his followers, ranks as perhaps the most pervasive example of myth-making in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, influential American folklorists of the 1970s reflected this myth-making back on itself and applied Freudian analysis in an attempt to understand traditional tales. In other words they tried to use a myth based on myths to understand myths. One of the most influential was Bruno Bettelheim's study of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment (1976). For reasons that can only be considered incompatible with the generally-sound scholarship of these folklorists, they sustained interest in Freud's ideas into the 1980s, long past their 'sell-by date'.

However mythologists seem to have been more discerning than folklorists. Among recent overviews of mythology, only Laurence Coupe and William Doty devote an extended discussion to Freud (Coupe 1997: 125–33; Doty 2000 Ch. 6). Coupe's interest is entirely justified as he is approaching mythology through the eyes of literary criticism, and Freud influenced a number of twentieth century authors. Doty dodges delightfully between fundamental criticisms of the Freudian approach and the 'nuggets' of insight revealed by Freudian and post-Freudian researchers. However it should be emphasises that Doty, like Alan Dundes who has also adopted Freudian-inspired analyses of myths, is critical of those who restrict their interpretation to any one arbitrary analysis. In other words, Freudian insights can at best be only one among many ways of approaching myths.

Freud was correct in supposing that the study of myth can help understand human thinking. However such understanding comes from a far wider range of approaches to myths than those countenanced by Freud.

Carl Jung (1875–1961)

Freud's one-time protégé Carl Jung took even more interest in myths than his mentor. But, again, Jung was less interested in understanding myths than using myths in an attempt to understand human thinking. Jung especially sought to understand the impulse for sacred meaning, and support for his beliefs in the existence of a 'collective unconscious', common to all people.

Jung's approach to myths emphases imagery over words, just as Jungian psychology goes beyond Freudian approaches, by attempting to understand the images of the unconscious rather than just the verbal language of the unconscious. Furthermore, while Freud's awareness of myths was mostly limited to Classical Greek and Roman myths, with all the ethnocentric bias that this implies, Jung's awareness of myths was more inclusive, although still predominately Indo-European. Somewhat ahead of his time, he did not regard myths as 'primitive' but rather as a supreme achievement of humankind.

For all that Jung asserted the frequent and universal occurrence of key symbolism, no convincing evidence has ever been presented . His ideas have to be accepted as an act of faith. According to Jung, the 'collective unconscious' is instinctive and pre-cultural. From it come archetypes, which manifest in dreams and myths. In a mystical manner, these archetypes operate independently of man's conscious mind. Since the archetypes exist a priori, man does not invent them but simply inherit or receives them.

    ... several of Jung's archetypes as so general - the great mother, the child, the wise old man, etc. – that they probably are very widespread and maybe even universal. It is hard to imagine a culture which has no image of a mother figure. But even if a general mother image were universal, there would be no need to postulate that such an image was part of one's genetic inheritance. That image might be acquired through the mediation of culture....

    There is unquestionably a mystical, anti-intellectual aspect of Jung's thought. Since the archetypes are part of the collective unconscious, they cannot, Jung maintains, ever be made fully conscious. They are therefore not completely susceptible to rational definition or analysis.
    (Dundes 1984: 244–5)

Jung uses the universal themes of myths as evidence for his notions of the collective unconscious. This seems to chop away an alarmingly high proportion of other possible functions that myths clearly serve, and which will are explored in the later chapters of Explore Mythology.

Jung looked to myths as support for his idealist model of psychology and the 'harmonious society' underlying this idealism. He is interested in a 'static' ideal that can be discerned in the symbolism of myths and not the 'dynamic' life of mythic motifs and narratives. As William Doty coyly states, 'To be fair to Jung, we must note that he wrote before the development of modern structuralism or semiotics.' (Doty 2000: 203)

I have tried to be fair to Jung too. I have tried to digest several recent studies of Jung – William Doty's chapter on Jung in Mythography (2000: Ch. 7), Robert Segal's Jung on Mythology (1998), and Steven Walker's Jung and the Jungians on Myth (2001). Despite these writers' qualified enthusiasm for Jung, they have failed to convince me that Jung's complex myths about myths provide an ultimately satisfying insight into human psychology, still less into mythology.

Jung's ideas have never become a significant part of the multi-disciplinary approaches to understanding human consciousness that have developed during the last ten years. The reasons for this have much to do with the 'untestable' nature of Jung's underlying beliefs. Nevertheless, Jung's influence cannot be ignored as popular interest in myths owes a great deal to his writings and those inspired by him.

Jung's followers

Despite the popular appeal of Jung's seductive elaborations about myths, generally they have failed to convince academic mythologists. Most of the 'Jungians' who have developed Jung's ideas on myths, such as Erich Neumann (1905–60), Marie-Louise von Franz (1915–98) and James Hillmann (born 1926), have been primarily psychologists with a particular interest in mythology. Neumann's significant contribution was to expand greatly Jung's archetype of the Great Mother, especially the development of this 'meta-myth' over time (Neumann 1949; 1955). At the time his views were seen as a radical critique of male intellectual consciousness. Von Franz famously made Jungian explorations of fairy tales and, in the process, also increased the importance of the 'old woman' archetype.

James Hillman has perhaps made the best of a Jungian approach to myths. Although Hillman was a Jungian analyst, his approach to myths has more in common with literary criticism. He believes that by telling mythical stories about our lives we can 'direct fantasy into organised, deeply life-giving psychological patterns' (Hillman 1975: 3). As such he was following closely in the footsteps of Joseph Campbell (see next section), whose book Myths to Live By had appeared in 1973. For Hillman, myths are 'living images' in the processes of the psyche. Myths are most powerful and psychologically-beneficial when they polytheistically embrace gods and goddesses, rather than the monotheistic emphasis of Judaeo-Christian myths. Around 1990 a number of books, such as Iron John and Women Who Run with the Wolves, adopt (intentionally or otherwise) a similar approach to Hillman and achieved considerably popularity; these will be discussed later in the article.

Unlike these 'Jungians' who were primarily psychologists, Carl Kerényi (1897–1973) was primarily a mythologist. His interests were restricted to Greek mythology and the titles of some of his books reveal how Jungian interpretations were key: Athene: Virgin and mother in Greek religion; Dionysos: Archetypal image of indestructible life; Eleusis: Archetypal image of mother and daughter; Asklepios: Archetypal image of the physician's existence; Zeus and Hera: Archetypal image of father, husband, and wife. Despite the number of books written by Kerényi he is rarely cited by later mythologists and has had little influence on popular perceptions of myths.

The current generation of mythologists who have taken an interest in Jung (such as William Doty and Robert A. Segal) seemingly regard him as worthy of study mostly because Jung's views have had wide appeal outside of academe. But, when reading recent books by mythologists about Jung, there seems to be little interest in applying Jungian-inspired approaches to the study of myths. Somewhat in contrast, Steven Walker has combined a 'believer's perspective' on Jung's psychology with his background in comparative literature to offer an up to date overview of Jung's contribution to the study of myths (Walker 2001). However, prior belief in the validity of archetypes and other Jungian concepts is a perquisite of much of his argument.

Jung is of interest as an imposing figure of the past, and one of the most influential myth-makers of the twentieth century. But his approach to mythology now seems lacking in focus and too dependent on his own mythic concepts, such as archetypes and the collective unconscious.

Joseph Campbell (1904–87)

Of all the writers inspired by Jung, Joseph Campbell has the greatest popular appeal. Campbell made his mark with The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 and, like Frazer, attempted to mask the lack of quality in his thinking with the sheer quantity of words in the multi-volume The Masks of God (1959–68). His popularity was renewed when he assisted George Lucas in the characterisation of Star Wars (1977), regarded by many as the defining mythology of our time, 'comparable to the role of Arthurian fantasy in Victorian England or Wagner's heroes in Wilhelmine Germany.' (Ellwood 1999: 128). In America he became all-but a household name when, after his death, a six-part television interview with Bill Moyers was broadcast.

Campbell's popularity outside academe is matched only by terse dismissal from within. Campbell's mythology is steeped in mysticism and obfuscation – although he borrows terminology from Jung he does not use these ideas with Jung's (comparative) precision. Although Jungian ideas of archetypes are a key part of Campbell's approach, his approach is too eclectic to be considered Jungian, as is sometimes suggested.

    In fact, it is difficult to know just what [Campbell] is talking about when he refers to myth, so diffused is his usage, so varied are his claims. He loosely holds his understanding of mythology together through his oft-repeated claim that traditional mythology has functions relating to four realms of being... The mystical and the psychological functions, rooted in human ontology and biology, have remained relatively constant through the ages and across cultures... Thus his claims about the consistent, archetypal quality of myths tend to refer to the mystical and psychological functions, while his comments about the protean, fluid nature of myths tend to refer to the cosmological and sociological functions.

    Because his notions of the myth are so fluid, internal contradictions crop up.
    (Gulick 1990: 35)

Marc Manganaro regards Campbell as
    ... guilty of freeze-dried reductionism, logocentric oneness, arbitrary interpretation of facts chopped from context, evolutionary ritualism, and ethnocentric valorizing of Western power. His appeal is caused by his "comparativist rhetorical authority, in the genealogy traced from Frazer, that organised the myriad voices of comparative cultures into the one authorial chord". "Mythic occurrences... are detached from historical processes and become elementary semiotic entities, symbols to be read". "Campbell's 'synthetic' master-myth ignores cultural holism in the colossal authorial effort of fitting together a piecework universalism" – precisely part of the modernist "finding an answer to everything" project, but it deconstructs as "an ethnocentric valorization of Western power mechanisms"
    (Doty 2000: 144–7, citing Manganaro 1992: 152; 163; 166; 175)
For Campbell, 'myth seemed to be a rather disembodied, timeless story of eternal human significance. It might happen to come from here or there, but in the final analysis all myths are equal and interchangeable – with the possible exception of "the Yahweh cult" upon which the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition is based, and which Campbell clearly disliked.' (Ellwood 1999: 130)

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949),

    Campbell delineates what he terms a monomyth (the term borrowed from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake). A monomyth supposedly refers to a standard cross-cultural hero pattern. Although Campbell does mention Otto Rank's The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909) in one footnote, he fails to refer to most of the earlier scholarly considerations of the hero pattern... Campbell constructs a composite hero pattern based, on bits and pieces from many different myths and legends. No one legend is analysed in full. For each proclaimed element in the pattern, Campbell adduces several examples.
    (Dundes 1984: 256)

    Then I realised how oddly exclusive Campbell's scholarship was: he almost never cited contemporary academic studies in the field, and seldom a journal essay, yet returned repeatedly to earlier figures such as Adolf Bastian and Arthur Schopenhauer – figures each important in his own way, but not considered particularly important in later psychology or philosophy...'
    (Doty 2000: 309)

Campbell's universal generalisations are, superficially at least, seductive. He has become, especially in America, the best-known populariser of mythology. But, so far, the profound criticisms of his approach have failed to achieve anything like the same wider awareness.

'Nothing but psychology'

Freud, Jung and Campbell have been hugely influential in raising awareness of mythology outside academe. But, in the final analysis, their works are less about the study of myths than the creation of mythical systems of their own. Rather than explaining the complexities of their subject matter (the workings of the human mind; mythical systems) they create a complex 'descriptions' which, by almost any definition of the term 'myth', are elaborate myths.

The imagery of traditional myths can be readily reduced to 'nothing but' psychology, as rather too many popular writers have demonstrated. Modern minds can only accept that there are spiritual entities, or a heaven and hell, if their reality is 'psychological'. However neither Jung or Freud regarded myths from such reductionist 'nothing but' stances; on the contrary, in their attempts to understand human thinking they were assuming (but not providing evidence for) the independent viability of myths.

The modern 'nothing but psychological' approach creates a huge discontinuity with non-western thinking. Traditional myths were told and heard by people who accepted that what was being described was in some way 'real', albeit in some way 'other' to everyday reality. As discussed in the introduction to cognitive linguistics the human mind constructs abstract ideas from deeply-nested systems of metaphors, but this has a different basis to 'nothing but psychology' reductionism.

Mythology and politics

Campbell, like Eliade and Jung, thought that rediscovering the meaning in ancient myths could help solve personal and social problems of the tumultuous mid-twentieth century. The past seemed in some ways preferable to the present. Myths could be unravelled to reveal a 'timeless truth' that the advances of modernism had concealed.

By the early twenty-first century, such thoughts seem idealistic and fundamentally reactionary. There is more to this than some loose links to the ideologies of right-wing politics. Campbell, Eliade, Jung and Dumézil have all been accused of anti-Semitism and, in some cases, of Nazi sympathies. After the Second World War such opinions are generally absent from their published work. Only in the case of Campbell is there clear and repeated evidence of anti-Semitism (Segal 1992; Ellwood 1999: 162); this was also combined with a strongly expressed anti-English stance (Ellwood 1999: 164). 'One is left with an unpleasant feeling of something very narrow lurking within the broad mind of the world-scanning mythologist.' (Ellwood 1999: 164)

The underlying ideologies of the 'big names' of mid-twentieth mythology can readily be regarded as reactionary, right of centre, and favouring an idealistic 'lost golden age' over the reality of modern life. Such views are, of course, very much a part of modern life too, whether manifesting as the New Age movement or in long-established right-wing political factions. As is discussed in a separate article, mythology cannot be readily separated from political and religious ideologies.

Wild Men and Wild Women

The study of myths during the twentieth century was dominated by several 'alpha males'. It should be no surprise therefore that since the 1970s a number of writers have rewritten classic fairy tale and myths from a feminist perspective, starting with Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber (1979). Susan Seller's Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women's Fiction (2001) surveys this territory.

A group of twenty-one women authors led by Carolyne Larrington brought together The Feminist Companion to Mythology in 1992. Thankfully 'feminism' here does not denote the more polemical approaches but reflects the special emphasis on the identity and function of female mythical figures. Immediately prior to this, in 1991, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford had published their massive study of The Myth of the Goddess. The quantity of information is impressive and thankfully their interests in Jungian analysis do not detract significantly from the scholarship. The goddess was the subject of a further academic study in 1996, with a collection of essays (mostly by female researchers) brought together by Sandra Billington and Miranda Green as The Concept of the Goddess.

No sooner had women begun reclaiming a feminist approach to myths, the so-called 'Men's Movement' adopted a Jungian-inspired self-help approach to liberating repressed aspects of men's personas, with Robert Bly's Iron John (1990), in which a Wild Man mentor reinterprets one of the Grimm's fairy tales, achieving best-seller status. Simultaneously, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette also found favour within the Men's Movement with their similarly-inspired book King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the archetypes of the mature masculine (1990). These were followed by a flood of books from writers rooted in alternative spiritualities and counter-cultures; see Simon Heywood (1998: 10–11) and Dick Leith (1998) for overviews.

Predictably enough, a female Jungian analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, considered that a fictionalised Wild Woman could empower women too, and her Women Who Run with the Wolves (1992) succeeded Iron John in the best seller leagues. Subsequently Gertrud Mueller Nelson's Here All Dwell Free (1999) also sought to soothe the wounded feminine. A collection of such 'sacred' stories claimed to have the power to transform and heal, written by leading authors in this field, was compiled by Charles Anne and Simpkinson (1993).

Critiques of mythological studies

As the over-concise summarise in this article have suggested, none of the approaches to mythology that came into prominence during the twentieth century can be regarded as the One True Way.

Back in 1970, G.S. Kirk was complaining that 'nearly all modern anthropological work on myths suffers from its smallness of scale, which prevents it from adequately considering the essential preliminaries of classification and definition ... ' (Kirk 1970: 6). Kirk was not criticising the need for 'nitty gritty' studies themselves, as this is the process by which any discipline elucidates finer and finer detail. The problem is that the details all-too-often risk being added to a ramshackle ruin with foundations that are little more substantial than clouds.

This is somewhat surprising since several decades have elapsed since postmodernist approaches to humanities asserted that what we 'see' depends on where are situated. Different 'viewpoints' emerge, each relating to the prior assumptions of the researcher. Yet one could read a large number of academic papers on myths and be unaware that such concerns had never been raised.

Way back in 1958 Stith Thompson humorously pointed out the weaknesses single-theory approaches. In a similar vein Elli Köngäs Maranda published a paper in 1973 showing how five different theories could be used to interpret the same Melanesian myth. A leading American folklorist, Alan Dundes, attempted to show the diversity of theoretical approaches to myth in the collections of essays (originally published in the 1920s, 50s, 60s and 70s) which he brought together with the title Sacred Narrative: Readings in the theory of myth (Dundes 1984). Dundes provides prefatory remarks to each essay that help to contextualise the authors' approaches, and in so doing offers an overview of mid-twentieth century approaches to myth.

Writers of the mid-twentieth century who took a broad view of mythology, such as Jung, Eliade and Dumézil, may have attained a status akin to that of mythical heroes within academe. Frankly their legacy to the study of myth has been the weaknesses of their ideas, rather than their strengths. Thanks to them myth is now equated with ritual, religion and the sacred. Although no fault of these academics, the popularist writers inspired by them have swamped non-academic publications with mystical psycho-babble.

One person who does not share many of these criticisms of the 'great men' of twentieth century mythology is one of the few women to have made the study of myths a major part of her academic career. Hilda Ellis Davidson (born 1914) has specialised in the detailed study of north European myths, starting with The Road to Hel (1943) and, after a number of important studies, culminating with The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe (1993). Davidson was also a prominent member of the Folklore Society and, during the 1970s, instigated some long-overdue reappraisals of the way British folklore is best studied. Her work is typified by a detailed look at the 'evidence' and a refusal to make this evidence fit into a meta-theory. Instead in her later work she recognises the complexity of beliefs associated with the myths. The start of the concluding chapter to The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe provide an excellent example of her approach:

    It is clear that there can never have been one simple period in early religion to which we can confidently look back, a golden age of well-established ritual shared by all communities in the early days, as scholars once believed. There cannot be one simple key to the understanding of systems of belief; all religions must be subject to change and development over a vast period of time, influenced by both enemies and neighbours, and by the differing needs of the people as their way of life changed… A detailed historic survey is necessary to check the tendency to depend on one prevailing theory…
    (Davidson 1993: 160)
Although Davidson's approach to myths is rarely cited by other mythologists (and the reason for this maybe more to do with north European myths being fairly incidental to the interests of the 'great men' of mythology), her recognition that there is considerable scope for improvement in the study of myths, and the 'temptation to oversimplify wildly' (1993: 160) is shared by the current generation of mythologists. Davidson's books demonstrate an approach to mythology that is far more rigorous than most of her contemporaries, although her work is not 'overtly' theoretical.

The fundamental weaknesses of all previous attempts at mythography were recognised by William Doty in his 1986 book (revised 2000) Mythography: The study of myths and rituals. While Doty's overtly pluralistic approach to the study of myths is a huge improvement on much of what has gone before, his style of writing favours extended discourse over focussed summary and Mythography is likely to frighten off someone fairly new to the study of myths who is looking for a helpful guide.

Around the same time Ivan Strenski also looked at different theoretical approaches to of myth (Strenski 1987), putting some of the leading figures of twentieth century mythology into their social, political and historical 'contexts'. Bruce Lincoln's Theorizing Myth (Lincoln 1999) discusses the problems associated with the major mythologists in a more sophisticated manner (and in a far more nuanced way than my overly-concise summaries in this article). While critiquing previous theories, Lincoln's recommendations are specific to those studying Indo-European myths rather than adopting a broader view of myths in modern society, although he does emphasise that all interpretations of myths are based on their authors' ideologies. He also makes the cogent observation that, all too often, scholarship itself no more than myth with footnotes (Lincoln 1999: 207ff, 215).

I have already made a brief reference to George Lakoff's studies of the way human language approaches more abstract ideas through metaphors that derive directly from the experience of the physical world. His ideas first appeared in the 1980s, notably in a book titled Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (Lakoff 1987). This approach to the underlying metaphors of human language and thinking became known as 'cognitive linguistics'. I am not aware of any mythologists adopting a cognitive linguistics approach to myths. This is surprising as all myths are, ultimately, metaphors. Mark Turner has provided an accessible introduction to cognitive linguistics, albeit written from the perspective of literary criticism rather than mythology (Turner 1996).

The ever-increasing quantity of 'fine detail' makes it increasingly difficult to have sufficient grasp to put them together into a 'bird's eye view' of the study of myths. Little wonder then that few modern-day scholars attempt to synthesise broad views – and the breadth of those that do is restricted to specific topics or cultures, such as Bruce Lincoln's approaches to Indo-European culture. The problem is further compounded because these overviews are written in a style that restricts their readership to fellow academics.

In the absence of accessible but academically-sound overviews, popular books on mythology recycle ideas that have long since been evicted from the ivory towers; indeed in too many cases never took up residence there in the first place. Even the best of the popular books pay little or no attention to issues of interpretation, context and such like. Yet it is these issues that underpin every 'meaning' we attempt to attribute to myths.

In recent years mythology has apparently been reduced to 'low profile' scholars picking over the fine details. Academics with the ability to provide broader views of their fields gain no merit (at least in the contorted systems of values that now dictate university activities) by trying to gain the attention of non-academics.

In contrast, the contemporary 'post-modern' world thrives on absorbing and mutating myths from all times and all places, including the myths generated by inadequate methods of mythological study. It is this richness that Explore Mythology and foamy custard attempts to explore.

bibliographical references

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copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003

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