Saturday, March 15, 2014


As it happens Shannon Knight's comment here coincide with what I'm getting at in defining the "essentialist" meaning of the word "myth."

Shannon says, in part:

It's frustrating to read a myth theory and figure it could just as well apply to an episode of a TV series as to an ancient myth.
I will agree with her this far: no FORMAL theory of myth should make myth inseparable from literature.  The two forms are very different in terms of the ways they function in societies, and the separation of functions seems to apply in every human society, regardless of occasional overlappings.  For instance, if one could prove that some Christian religious beliefs had been influenced by the poet Milton seeking to "justify the ways of God to man," that would be one such overlap.  But it wouldn't change the fact that the orthodox belief professed by members of a religion would not be covalent with the quasi-beliefs readers derive from literary products.
But what does the overlap mean?  Why can literature influence religion, and vice versa?  Obviously both are, at least to the non-believer, constructs which constitute the symbolic universes of our societies. 

The meaning, I believe, can be found in keeping separate a formal and functional definition from myth from an essentialist one, much as the common dictionary will show more than one definition for the word "myth."

An example of a strongly functionalist definition is found in PYTHON, Joseph Fontenrose's massive 1959 study of the Apollo-Python myth and many if not all of its cognates in other cultures.  In his  introduction Fontenrose makes clear that he defines myths principally as:

that kind of story which purports to tell of the occasion on which some religious institution, a cult or certain of its rites or festivals, had its beginning, and of the divine acts which set the precedent for the traditional acts performed in the cult.
Fontenrose separates this type of "traditional tale" from that of the legend and the folktale, though he admits that on occasion his text "will use the term myth or mythology... to include them too."  I suspect Fontenrose makes that association because he makes occasional reference to legends and folktales to support his conclusions, since he admits that mythic materials sometimes "cross over" to appear in what he would consider non-mythic sources.

Fontenrose's strict definition of myth would certainly not include any concept of "myth" appearing in modern literary works, however, such as one reads in this quote:

“They’re very important, these comic book movies, because they’re our modern myths."

More on the context of this quote in Part 4.

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