Saturday, March 15, 2014


Here's another remark I made on Shannon Knight's blog that I felt I should expand upon:

“Myth” is a many-sided affair, but there are some consistencies. For one thing, “myth” can be defined in a purely literary context– as stories told only in support of religious concepts– or in a more essential sense, as something that extends throughout many forms, which is the way I take it that Lucente uses his term.
Shannon mentioned that she thought an all-inclusive definition of myth was untenable, given that one can usually find inconsistencies that challenge the exclusivity of any single definition.

As I write this I think back on all the books on mythology I've read, and of them all, I think that the one that did the best job of covering as many permutations of this elusive term as possible is MYTHOGRAPHY, a 2000 work by religious-studies scholar William G. Doty, currently a professor at the University of Alabama.

That said, I must admit that it's been awhile since I reread it. I've seen some criticisms on Amazon alleging that Doty's non-academic style proved obfuscatory to his theme.  I'll consider giving the book a re-reading, but at the very least, I recall that Doty admirably covers the historical connotations of the word "myth" in philosophy, literature and the social sciences.

Doty, however, is principally dealing with myths in what I've elsewhere called the "functionalist" sense.  In my quote above I probably should have said a "purely religious context," rather than a literary one, because a functionalist is concerned with viewing myths that specifically support religious concepts or tropes.  To the best of my recollection I think I said "literary" because I was thinking of the way modern myth/folklore studies follow the principles of literary taxonomy, judging this or that story to be a "myth" if it functions in one manner, a "legend" if it follows another function, and so on.

The second definition of "myth," though-- what I called its "essential sense"-- would by its very nature cross all of these taxonomic boundaries.  It would have to have to possess some nature that could appear in many different types of story, regardless of the differences that allow scholars to separate them taxonomically.

Having set up that much of the problem, I'll defer talking more about this "essentialist" definition until Part 3 of this series.

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