Saturday, March 15, 2014


“It is the charm of mythic narrative that it cannot tell one thing without telling a hundred others. The symbols are an endless inter-marrying family. They give life to what, stated in general terms, appears only a cold truism, by hinting how the apparent simplicity of the statement is due to an artificial isolation of a fragment, which, in its natural place, is connected with all the infinity of truths by living fibres.”-- William Butler Yeats.
Though in Part 5 I allowed that there were attractions to Joseph Campbell's "supernormal stimuli" theory of myth, it didn't offer a sufficient basis for an "essentialist" definition of myth.  If anything Campbell's theory would seem to be more applicable to the general concept of "fantasy," as a way of potentially explaining why human beings are widely (though not universally) attracted to images that go beyond the boundaries of consensual experience.

Myths as defined in the functionalist sense almost always contain fantasy.  Myths belonging to the ritual or religious category impart a sacramental quality to either the world as a whole or some aspect of the creative whole (the Hindu rituals relating to the Soma-drink, for example).  To achieve that sacramental quality, myths dominantly invoke larger-than-life fantasy-creations like Campbell's angels, gods, and dragons in order to explain how sacred presences gave rise to the world or to some part of the world.

However, an essentialist idea of myth would not necessarily be limited to overt fantasies.  If the "myth-essence" can appear in literature as well as in religious myths, must we believe that it appears only in overtly fantastic literary works?

By this standard, the only works of a poet like the above-cited William Butler Yeats that would possess the "myth-essence" would be those that seem to depict worlds of fantasy, ranging from early works like the narrative poem "The Wanderings of Oisin" to somewhat more metaphorical fantasy-worlds like those of "Sailing to Byzantium" or "The Second Coming."

But if one continues to define the "myth-essence" in terms of inspiring "excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration," then I would say that it appears irrespective of overt fantasy-material.  Here's an example of Yeats finding mythic import in the drab facts of life, in his "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop."

 'But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'  

I think that we are closer to the essence of myth when we regard it as a continuous elaboration of symbolic interactions; Yeats' "endless inter-marrying family."  As such, this symbolic complexity can appear not only in religious myths, but also in folktales and fairytales, in literary works like the poems of Yeats, and even in popular culture.  At times this complexity may even explain why some pop-cultural works succeed with their audience over several generations, much as popular folktales like "Red Riding Hood" succeed thanks to the symbolic issues they address.

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