Four Miscellanies Thoughts On Myth

Thought number 1: Just in time for John Hobbins’ intriguing post “There are (no) myths in the Bible,” Shirley and I completed a series of lectures by Elizabeth Vandiver on Classical Mythology. Vandiver defines myth as “Traditional stories a society tell itself that encode or represent the world-view, beliefs, principles, and often the fears of that society.” As Vandiver acknowledges, this is a very inclusive definition. Like many but not all scholarly definitions of myth, it includes legend, epic, fable, and folktale. For her a myth must have some degree of lasting influence and therefore have some degree of lasting authority but it need not make a truth claim or for that matter even necessarily be thought true. Except from the highest perspective, such a definition goes well beyond myth as a literary (or oral) genre. Many literary genres (all literary genres?) preserve mythic accounts but myth does not necessarily have its own genre markers. Its markers are societal rather than strictly literary. Vandiver suggests that science fiction, for example, is one vehicle that modern western culture uses to express what she takes to be a general human impulse to make myth.
Thought number 2: In a comment to John’s post Alan Lenzi directs us to Bruce Lincoln’s Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative studies of myth, ritual and classification (pp. 15-37). While it is somewhat disingenuous to try to distill Lincoln’s discussion into a few words, perhaps his words, “Myth – by which I designate that small class of stories that possess both credibility and authority,” are a good start. He excludes, for deferring reasons but under a related governing principle, fable, legend, and history. More than Vandiver, Lincoln seems to see myth as a genre with its own unique literary as well as societal markers. For him myth makes truth claims, is creditable, and has authority. Note that making truth claims is different from being true. He tells us that fable has none of these three qualities while legend makes truth claims that are neither credible nor authoritative. Interestingly, he defines history as that which makes truth claims, is credible, but is not authoritative. I’m sure many historians lament but still agree with this characterization. Under Lincoln’s definition, scientific treatises, as far as they make truth claims, are credible and authoritative, are myths. Or so they seem to be.
While overlapping in a few ways, Vandiver’s definition and Lincoln’s definition are mutually exclusive in others. And these are but two of many competing definitions of myth. For this reason alone, I can’t help but wonder if the word “myth” hasn’t outlived its usefulness.
Thought number 3: In the next day or two, Loren Fisher will formally introduce his latest book Tales From Ancient Egypt: The Birth of Stories. The heart of the book is his fresh translations of

  • The Story of Sinuhe: A Wander on the Earth
  • The Enchanted Prince
  • The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor
  • The Journey of Wen-Amon
  • A Dialogue between a Man and His Ba

He was kind enough to give me an advance copy. In his introduction Loren writes,

Unlike some other ancient states, both Israel and Egypt wrote epic tales in prose. This prose, with a scattering poetry, is not only important for our understanding of Israel and Egypt, but it is also important for a clear understanding of the history of world literature.

To what extend do these prose stories reflect, on the one hand, the world-view, beliefs, principles, and fears of their respective societies or, on the other hand, to what extend do they make truth claims, are they creditable and have authority? I’m fairly sure they fit Vandiver’s definition of myth but not necessarily Lincoln’s. And then, are they really myths by any useful definition?
I’ll have more on Loren’s book soon.
Thought number 4: What do we make of Socrates’ claim in the Republic II:21, 382 d), “And also in the mythologies (μυθολογίαις) of which we were just now speaking, owing to our ignorance of the truth about antiquity, we liken the false to the true, as far as we can, and so make it edifying (χρήσιμον).” And when Plato launches out on his own myth making, he doesn’t appear to me to be making truth claims concerning the details of his accounts. He rather hopes his stories will be creditable and have authority in the sense that they are edifying. To be sure, ancient and perhaps idiosyncratic usage need not drive our own definitions, but I do think we need to make sure they have a place at the table of ideas.

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