Bryan S. Rennie: Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York
CHAPTER 7: "Myths and Mythology"
It is not only in the writings of Mircea Eliade that myth appears one of the most tangled of conepts. In the broader arena of academic study, involving the classics, comparative mythology, regional studies, literary criticism, and the study of relligion, the situation is no better. To paraphrase a notorious quip on the phenomenonology of religion, there are as many interpretations of myth as there are students of myth. Eliade himself said:
It is not without fear and trembling that a historian of religion approaches the problem of myth. This is not only because of that preliminary embarrassing question: what is intended by myth? It is also because the answers given depend for the most part on the documents selected. (Quest, 72)
My purpose is not to validate Eliade's understanding of myth in competition with others--that would be a major work in its own right--but to clarify what Eliade's understanding was, and how it has been misunderstood. The "innumerable definitions of myth" which preceded Eliade, he claims, "have one thing in common: they are based on the analysis of Greek mythology." This may be less true today, but in 1966 when Eliade first delivered the lecture which later became this chapter of The Quest it was unquestionably the case. In this light I have elected to explicate Eliade's understanding of myth and the mythic through a specific consideration of the work of G.S. Kirk, a well-known classicist and contemporary of Eliade's. Kirk provides not only a broad-based analysis of then current theoretical approaches to myth but also a specific critique of the unique elements of Eliade's endeavors in this area.
Myth has been generally under attack at least since Xenophanes (565-470 B.C.E.) criticized the activities of the gods as related by the Homeric tradition and Hesiod (Myth and Reality, 148). More recently, Ivan Strenski has argued that myth is, in fact, non-existent and that the only real products of the academic "myth factory" are theories and "applied writings" about this otherwise non-existent category (Four Theories of Myth, 2). Somewhat more conservatively but in much the same vein, Kirk said of books about myth that "if they add anything at all in the way of interpretation it tends to be arbitrary and intuitive--in other words, valueless" (The Nature of Greek Myths, 13). This is the sort of charge frequently leveled against Eliade: that, like Frazer and other "armchair anthropologists," (fn1 omitted) he merely adduces examples to support his original intuitive insight. The fact is that examples are so many and various that support can be found for almost any number of conflicting insights. However, Kirk's statement is typical of those who reject the intuitive as worthless, immediately identifying intuition with the arbitrary, and I believe this attitude to be instrumental in the continuing inability to appreciate fully both Eliade's assessment and myth itself.
Intuition can be seen as the invaluable basis of all research--a combination of insight and intention, based on personal experience, which provides both direction and meaning to our inquiries. Alone and unsupported, one person's intuition has no more weight or sway than any other opinion, but the conclusion that intuition per se is valueless is not entailed. Even in the hard sciences, intuition (as guesswork or hunches) is seen to be a necessary part of the whole process of setting up a program of research and experimentation to produce valid conclusions in our inquiry into the nature of reality. In the humanities, where the very complexity and individuality of our objects of inquiry (humanity) renders experimentation problematic on many levels and often unrepeatable, the role of intuition is of primary importance. Intuition is also involved in the Kantian sense of actual sensory perception. As we have seen, several of the key elements of Eliade's perspective are grounded in experiential perceptions. The task of increasing our familiarly with actual examples drawn ultimately from sensory perception in order to render our insights increasingly accurate involves both senses of intuition. Unfortunately, this task is practically infinite; not only does complete familiarity with the actual data of a field as extensive as mythology exceed the capabilities of any individual; not only are all data increasingly recognized as "theory-laden"; (fn2 re Goethe omitted) but it is almost universally accepted (since the work of Karl Popper) that an infinitude of data is needed to validate any general hypothesis. This not only necessitates the move from validation to falsification; it also implies that any given hypothesis must be in some degree intuitively derived--any chain of induction leading to a conclusion must be incomplete, every hypothesis remain only thus far unfalsified. This is not the place for a detailed digression into the role of intuition in theory formation. Suffice it to say at the moment that intuition is not simply arbitrary but is conditioned by prior experience in a way which is (thus far) supra-rational. Certainly, bot intuition and reason are necessary elements of human thought, and it is the utility, applicability, and credibility of any given intuition which best validates it. That is to say, the degree to which it commends itself to and is in correspondence with the intuitions of others, rather than the degree to which it is held to correspond to or derive from "facts."
In accordance with his conceptions regarding authenticity and hierophany, Eliade certainly has made his personal intuitions the basis of his understanding of myth. This cannot be made an a priori criticism but must be considered in the light of the significance which that understanding can assume in our confrontation with myth.
We cannot know apodictically and exhaustively the significance of a myth (or any other religious manifestation) to any single individual, certainly not of all lmyths to all individuals at all times. We can only generate specualtive (that is, based on observations, speculari, as Eliade points out, No Souvenirs, 261) generalizations and attempt specific understandings. It will clarify Eliade's understanding of myth at this point to compare it in more detail with Kirk's analysis. Kirk considers that:
"myth" is such a general term, and its etymology and early applications are so unspecific, that one is compelled to take some notie of contemporary usage. . . . "Most people" assume that myths are a special kind of traditional tale, and that the qualities that make them special are those that distinguish them as profound, imaginative, other-worldly, universal or larger-than-life. (Greek Myths, 25)
By Eliade's lights, these qualities are truth and reality, in the sense that, as we will see, fables can exceed historical reality in truth value. Through its "truth," myth becomes hierophany and reveals the real, the sacred, to the listener. The cosmogonic myth "narrates a sacred history" (Myth and Reality, 5); it "tells only of that which really happened" (6); it relates the
breakthrough of the sacred that really establishes the World and makes it what it is today. . . . The Myth is regarded as a sacred story, and hence a "true history," because it always deals with realities. (6)
Association with the primordial period of creation is an archetypal persuasive argument. "The cosmogony is true because the world is there to prove it. (fn3: It seems like that Eliade shared this opinion with Raffaele Pettrazzoni, see "Mythology and the History of religions," 101: "as Prof. Pettrazzoni remarks, a myth is always a true story because it is a sacred story.")
Kirk admits that "on the whole I fel that the attempt to isolate some central specific quality of myths is misdirected. There are too many obvious exceptions" (Greek Myths, 27). However, he goes on to say that the distinguishing features of myth must be "not just one such characteristic like sacredness in some sense, but a whole range of possibilities" (27). Among the phrases Kirk uses to describe the possible distinguishing features of myth are:
Eliade's attitude seems to generally agree with Kirk's analysis thus far: First, the force or charm of the narrative can be assimilated to Eliade's concept of the "truth" of the narrative. Secondly, he positively insists on the etiological aspect of myth. Explanation, recording, and support flow together in the positive valorization of the etiological myth.
To tell how things came into existence is to explain them and at the same time indirectly to answer another question: Why did they come into existence? (Sacred and Profane, 97)
Thus, transmitting the mythic origins of an institution or phenomenon performs all three functions.
The third of Kirk's features can ve assimilated to Eliade's notion of a consolation from the terror of history and will be discussed elsewhere. Kirk concludes his introductory section on "Problems of Definition" with the declaration that
the position at which we have arrived is that myths are on the one hand good stories, on the other hand bearers of important messages about life in general and life within society in particular. (Greek Myths, 28-29)
The whole question of aesthetics is raised here; what is the exact relationship of the "important message" to the "good story"? In retrospect the two are obviously connected, but is that connection teleological (those messages considered important being deliberately associated with powerful vehicles of transmission to ensure their propagation and preservation), or causal (the importance of the message naturally generating a successful vehicle), or the reverse (the aesthetic power of the vehicle ensuring that its message is perceived and transmitted as important). An answer to this question might help to explain the perennial association of religious themes and (at least pre-Renaissance) art, but it is not my immediate concern.
A revealing statement of Kirk's analysis is that myths must "possess both exceptional narrative power and clear functional relevance to some important aspect of life beyond mere entertainment" (28). In order to "possess exceptional narrative power" must not a story have some a priori relevance to some important aspect of life, and can that relevance be anything but functional? That is to say the myth will explain, establish, support, reinforce, or express that to which it has relevance. It should be noticed in this connection that the types of relevance listed by Kirk are always positive. He, too, sees myth as a positive rhetorical device, whose function is supportive, establishing, and so on rather than destructive or hostile. The analytic method of philosophy gradually established since the Socratics serves a negative role more readily. Positive valorizations are made by more mythic means. Kirk points out that myth in pre-Socratic Greece, as powerful narrative pieces, was used as supportive material for philosophic standpoints. Even Plato, although reviling this poesis of myth as the enemy of philosophy, falls back on this tradition. In the post-Socratic tradition, the reliance on "rational" rather than "mythic" forms of persuasion can be seen as developing from an increased valorization of teh empirical/historical as the "real." This provides a convenient touchstone to determine the "reality" of an argument: that which actually historically occurred would be seen as more "real" (i.e., sacred; more powerful, meaningful, significant, and finally authoritative) than that which was a human fabrication. Thus rational discourse upon elements of common human experience would become more esteemed than mythic persuasion which does "not set out to give philosophical proofs, rather to effect an altered emotional response to an aspect of our experience" (83). This is entirely consistent with Eliade's insistence that myth is the true story par excellence.
In developing his own theory of myth Kirk gives a résumé of the most influential alternative theories, isolating "five monolithic theories of myth." The first of these theories is that made famous by Max Müller: "all myths are nature myths, that is they refer to meteorological and cosmological phenomena" (43). This theory was exploded largely by Andrew Lang. For his own part Kirk states that
exactly how and why the earliest myth makers thought about the world as they did, and what particular kind of anthropocentric and symbolic motives persuaded them to imagine the gods in the form of the sky, or the sky as behaving in some respects like a man, must remain unknown. (49)
However, the idea that myths are allegories of nature or meteorological events must have corresponded to the intuitions of the nineteenth-century Europeans who so readily accepted it. To Kirk it may now seem "incredible that many of the best minds in 19th century Europe could envisage myths as encoded descriptions of clouds passing over the sun etc." (17). Yet this "strange exaggeration" evidently was acceptable at that time, in that place; it accorded with the prevalent view of human nature. In his journal Eliade commented similarly on the acceptance of Freud's theories on myth despite the paucity of supportive evidence. However, Eliade at least has a partial explanation:
the interpretations of Freud are more and more successful because they are among the myths accessible to modern man. The myth of the murdered father, among others, reconstituted and interpreted in Totem and Taboo. It would be impossible to ferret out a single example of slaying the father in primitive religions or mythologies. This myth was created by Freud. And what is more interesting: the intellectual élite accept it (is it because they understand it? Or because it is "true" for modern man?)(No Souvenirs, 117)
The implication of Eliade's thought here is that the nineteenth century, naturalistic explanation of myths was, like Freud's primordial parricide, a myth itself. Eliade's usage of the term can be seen to be diametrically opposed to one aspect of the "contemporary usage" of the term which Kirk commended to our notice (Greek Myths, 25). It is not in the sense of "falsehood" or "fable" that Eliade uses the word "myth." This he considers a "semantic inheritance from the Christian polemic against the pagan world. (fn. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 23, although elsewhere he says, "if in every European language the word 'myth' denotes a 'fiction,' it is because the Greeks proclaimed it to be such twenty-five centuries ago." Quest, 72). Myth is seen rather as a narrative "considered to reveal the truth par excellence" (Quest, 73; see Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 23 on his opposition to myth as "untrue").
Evidently, the type of truth intended in Eliade's description of myth is quite distinct from historical actuality. This is quite consistent with the common alternative usages of "true" given in any sizeable dictionary. The sense of true as being in accordance with an actual, historical state of affairs is a rather recent and specialized usage. To give an example: even the most hard-line of Christian fundamentalists who argue for the absolute historical veracity of the Bible would not insist that it necessarily occurred on some historical occasion that a certain traveller was robbed and beaten by specific thieves, neglected by an actual Levite priest, and rescued by a historical Samaritan for the parable of the Good Samaritan to be a story revelatory of the truth. Once again, truth is not identified with historical actuality. This usage of the concept of truth is further clarified in Eliade's journals. For example, he states that "the Bucharest of my novella Pe Strada Mantuleasa, although legendary, is truer than the city I went through for the last time in August 1942" (No Souvenirs, 51). And in his narration of the story of Savonarola and Lorenzo de Medici from the same source, one can read more clearly Eliade's dissociation of truth from history. Popoular legend had it that Savonarola eventually denied extreme unction to Lorenzo de Medici when the latter would not restore liberty to Florence, and, apparently, learned critics accepted the historicity of this version. This Eliade takes to be because the
archetypal image--Savonarola the prophet of civil liberties, Lorenzo the absolute tyrant--was too "true," too suggestive, to be invalidated by documents and specific testimony. It was "truer" in legend than in history. In history Savonarola conducted himself as any Christian monk and absolved the repentant sinner. (No souvenirs, 57)
Thus mythic truth is seen as independent of, but certainly not in opposition to, historical actuality. As we saw in the preceding exposition on hierophany, Eliade considers the experience of historical actualities to be the perennial source and auditor of the truth which is expressed in creative interpretation.
The next theory which Kirk inspects is the etiological theory, attributed particularly to Andrew Lang--"all myths offer a cause or explanation of something in the real world" (Greek Myths, 53). It is remarkable that Kirk does not consider Eliade in the context of etiological myth. In one of his most widely read books, Eliade states his opinion clearly that
every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment--an island, a species of plant, a human institution. (Sacred and the Profane, 97)
It is one of the central tenets of Eliade's understanding of myth that the cosmogonic myth is the pattern of all myths because it is the exemplar of all genesis stories. It is a fundamental characteristic of a myth that it is
always related to a "creation," it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working were established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts. (Myth and Reality, 18)
In general, one can say that any myth tells how something came into being, the world, or man, or an animal species, or a social institution, and so on. But by the very fact that the creation of the world precedes everything else, the cosmogony enjoys a special prestige. In fact, as I have tried to show elsewhere [Eliade footnotes The Myth of the Eternal Return and Myth and Reality], the cosmogonic myth furnishes the model for all myths of origin. (Quest, 75)
Perhaps Kirk's reading of Eliade is not extensive, though this is not meant as a criticism of Kirk: it is a perennial problem in this field that one cannot cover all available sources, and it is a difficult with Eliade that one should need to read him so extensively in order to appreciate his thought. Kirk's objection to Lang stands just as well for Eliade. "Myths" he says, "are obviously not concerned just with that [etiology]; they plainly encompass such things as the emotional valuation of many aspects of personal life" (Greek Myths, 53). The only possible reply here is that it would seem that, by Eliade's definition, stories which do not encompass these etiological concerns are excluded from the category of myth. Yet stories which "encompass the emotional valuation" of phenomena can be interpreted as giving the origin of that emotional valuation and will thus not be excluded.
Kirk then considers a third theory, that myths are "charters" for customs, institutions, or beliefs. This was the theory forwarded by Bronislav Malinowski, whose
idea that the "serious" uses of myth are neither emotional nor reflective, but rather are connected with the mechanical functioning of social life, became the core of the exaggerated theory known as "functionalism" that developed into an orthodoxy in the circle of A. R. Radcliff-Brown, (Greek Myths, 32)
Although he evidently opposes this "orthodoxy," Kirk is more favorably disposed to Malinowski's understanding, conceding that Malinowski was right in requiring more observations of myth "in action" rather than theoretical speculation. It will soon become clear in what ways Eliade's undeerstanding of myth encourages a broader observation of myth "in action" in the contemporary world. Also, Eliade quotes from Malinowski's Myth in Primitive Psychology (101, 108) at some length to the effect that myth is "a narrative resurrection of a primeval reality," and "supplies man with the motive for ritual and moral actions." Eliade finds support here for the concepts of the internal coherence and exemplary status of myth (Myth and Reality, 20). Robert Baird has pointed out that Eliade and Malinowski are in agreement that "men in archaic cultures justify their actions in terms of the prior acts of the gods," although the significance of this differs for the two scholars (Category Formation, 79).
To a certain extent the etiological and the "charter" concepts of myth overlap. As we have seen, Eliade points out that insofar as a myth describes the origin of a given institution or phenomenon it thereby supports it. The "accidents" of one's personal life experience are orientated within a given extended matrix of significations and thus "justified." As with any language, from the most natural to the most formal, each element is defined in terms of other elements in the whole structure of meaning. Thus the act of description in the mythic framework simultaneously operates as justification. The significance of a number, for example, is not fixed, not essential, but is given by its relationship to other elements of the mathematical system. [fn5 omitted] Similarly, the significance of one's own existence is not given a priori by its form; it lacks essential significance. Only by orienting the various experiential elements of one's own existence (mortality, sexuality, social duty, alimentation, in sort, one's existential situation, as Eliade often refers to it), in an extended matrix of interrelated significant entities, can one appreciate its significance and escape the dreadful social and psychological consequences of an otherwise utterly insignificant existence. In this aspect of myth, Kirk's concept of "palliating a recurring social dilemma" and Eliade's concept of countering the terror of history combine. To escape further from the implication that this extended matrix is itself insignificant, no more than a palliative or placebo, it must be grounded as frequently and firmly as possible in reality, in the sacred. However, as I have argued, reality itself is a conceptual element in the existential situation of the individual, direct experience of which is necessarily beyond our empirical senses. It, too, is given significance by its relationship to the various elements of our experience. Our concept of the real is grounded in those experiences which we hold to reveal most clearly that which is real, in hierophanies and archetypal intuitions, yet our experience of certain phenomena as hierophanic or ontophanic is determined by our "personal experience and religious background" (Mistress Christina, 7). Thus our very apprehension of the significance of the elements of our personal experience takes shape within a hermeneutical cycle of object-observation-subject-observation-object. This type of constructivist attitude, which ultimately makes humanity instrumental in its perceptions of reality, is implicit in both the Italian humanist insistence on the coherence of "primitive thought" (e.g., Vico) and in Goethe's observation that all facts are theory-laden, both of which certainly influenced Eliade's thought
The fourth of the "monolihtic" theories of myth presented by Kirk is the one which he attributes specifically to Eliade: that "the purpose of all myths is to evoke or actually re-establish in some sense, the creative era" (Greek Myths, 63). Certainly, this is an important and original element of Eliade's thought, but as we have already seen, it does not exhaust his understanding of myth. Eliade also subscribes to the etiological theory, and to some extent to the charter theory, and even allows some truth to the "primordial physics" concept. Yet it is the "Myth of the Eternal Return" which is unique and original to Eliade's interpretation, and it is that which Kirk critiques. (fn6: The fifth theory which Kirk considers "proclaims that all myths are closely associated with rituals." He recognizes that this "is one of the most long-lived and important," (66) but points out that "it is simply not true that myths are always associated with rituals" (67). This is not immediately pertinent to my analysis and so I have omitted my response to it.
"Many myths of many societies are not of this kind and do not respond to any such interpretation." Kirk states (64). Yet even the Amerindian myth which he offers as a specific exception takes place in "a mythical epoch that way, admittedly, the time when things were put in order" (65). It is Eliade's point that myths refer to such an "other time" in which the cosmos was either created or ordered. "Such works constitute properly speaking a cosmogony; the ancestors did not create the earth, but they gave form to a pre-existent materia prima" (Quest, 85, referring to Australian aboriginal myths). Furthermore, in establishing his own distinctions between myth and folklore, Kirk accepted that myth takes place "in the timeless past," rather than a remote chronological era or an anonymous period (Greek Myths, 34). Since the action of myths "take place" in such a timeless, eternal period, it seems pointless to deny that the telling of these myths "evokes" that period, and Eliade's numerous examples must stand as their own evidence that this is seen as the creative period par excellence. Whether or not the myths actually seek to re-establish that timeless period here and now is a more complex argument and will be considered later. When Kirk turns to the area of his own expertise, the Greek myths, to cast doubt on Eliade's theory, he occasionally adduces examples which actually support it.
Greek myths, too, utterly fail to support Eliade's universal theory. The whole range of Greek heroic myths lies outside any true "creative" era. (65)
Yet later in his exposition Kirk states that for Pindar
the "excellence" . . . that he celebrates in his victors seems to him to owe its value precisely to its heroic and divine connections, to its roots in a radiant mythical past of which the Olympic Games, above all other occasions, are seen as a rare surviving relic. . . . For Pindar, a least, the myths represented a past that was of higher value than the present. . . . In the use of myths as an active force for conserving a semi-divine past Pindar returns to a function that is more than merely literary, and reproduces in a way the evocative function of certain myths that was discussed on page 63ff. [That is, Eliade's theory of the evocation of the creative era.] (101,102, 103)
This certainly does not "utterly fail to support Eliade's universal theory," even when the aspect of the reinstatement of the primordial, creative period is artificially separated from its properly accompanying elements. As a highly valorized timeless time which is the object of nostalgia and of periodic re-establishment, Pindar's attitude to the Olympic Games is a clear example of Eliade's mythic nostalgia for paradise and eternal return to the primordial sacred time.
It is apparently Kirk's desire to isolate and criticize some "monolithic" and "universal" theory of myth and his resultant restriction of Eliade's theory to the notion of a re-establishment of a creative era which makes his criticism appear credible. The point is that Eliade's "definition" of myth is systematic and taxonomic. It is a deliberate attempt to classify so as to render comprehensible an extremely complex phenomenon. As Kirk says,
myths are not uniform, logical and internally consistent, they are multiform, imaginative and loose in their details. Moreover their emphases can change from one year, or generation to the next. (29)
Thus, accepting the complexity and polyvalence of myth (which is always and unavoidably a human classification of the broader category of narrative, itself a subset of human communication), Eliade's failure to cover all myths is hardly a serious flaw. Eliade makes an attempt to restrict the classification to a particular group of narratives having the characteristics which he highlights. Certainly, he thus cannot cover all tales, stories, records, and so forth which stake a claim to the title of "myth." In order to make one's analytic category of any value in this area, one must necessarily exclude some candidates from the field of mythology. Simply accepting the complexity of myth will always result in some broad and unusable definition. Eliade, though, in his desire to establish the coherence and the exemplary status of myth, has perhaps been too willing to impose upon that category a description which would not be immediately meaningful to those for whom a given myth is current. However, as I said earlier, the value of his intuitions concerning myth should be assessed in the light of the significance they reveal to his readers in their own confrontation with the mythic.
If Eliade's concept of myth appears more restrictive than Kirk's, we must look further to ascertain what it is that qualifies the myth beyond its narrative charm and functional relevance. The clearest expositions of Eliade's though in this area are in Myth and Reality (chapter 9 "Survivals and Camouflages of Myth") and in Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (chapter 1, "The Myths of the Modern World"). In the former, Eliade discusses first the continuation of mythic thought in Christianity and then he outlines specifically mythic elements in "secular" thought. The obsession with "the return to the origins" in modern society is related to the etiological function of myth. The "eschatological and millennialist structures" of Marxism are described as mythic. Perhaps more surprising is the perception of mythic structures in the mass media, comic art, modern art, the obsession with success, the exodus to the suburbs, the "automobile cult," the "myth of the élite," and in the novel. These are seen as the surviving, if camouflaged, myths of the modern world. This is where modern man finds his true reality, the meaningful, the powerful.
Despite the chapter heading of "Survivals and Camouflages of Myths," Eliade warns that these mythic elements do not
represent "survivals" of an archaic mentality . . . [rather] certain aspects and functions of mythic thoughts are constituents of the human being. Myth and Reality, 181f.)
This pronouncement might at first sound enigmatic and unclear, however, its implications were clarified in a work of six years earlier. There, although he warns of the enormous scope of myths in the modern world, he seeks to trace the general operation of myth. He writes,
of what is essential in mythic behavior--the exemplary pattern, the repetition, the break with profane duration and integration into primordial time--the first two at least are consubstantial with every human condition. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 31)
What is seen as essential to myth beyond its narrative power and relevance is the specific recognition of and response to exemplary patterns. Eliade considers that "foremost function of myth is to reveal the exemplary models for all human rites and all significant human activities" (Myth and Reality, 8). The response to, the repetition of, these exemplary patterns constitute a repetition of a segment of the primordial time and thus a break with profane, historical time. This is, in fact, integral to the "truth" of the myth. It is the exemplary, imitable elements of the narrative which give a story mythic status. (Allow me to emphasize once again that Eliade is using "true" in a sense which has more in common with the Classical Greek arete, virtue or excellence, and less in common with the notion of propositional truth or historical accuracy. This is, of course, consistent with the whole body of his thought.) It is the perception that the myth is exemplary that gives rise to the concept of the "re-actualization of the primordial, creative era. Insofar as a mythic act is open to imitation, insofar as we can narrate or reenact the events of the mythic era, illud tempus is open to re-establishment, we can discover and thus reactualize its meaning and its power.
The greatest suspicion of myth which Kirk expresses in his study is of myth "as a collective term" because this, and the forms such as "mythology,"
misleadingly imply that what one should be defining is some absolute essence of all myths, some Platonic Idea of "that which is truly mythic." (Greek Myths, 20)
However, "myths are a vague and uncertain category, and one man's myth is another man's legend, or folktale, or oral tradition" (21). This sort of suspicion is given free rein in Strenski's complete rejection of myth as a reality. However, it can readily be seen that, in Eliade's understanding, myth is determined by the prevalent attitude to a popular narrative. Myth is the popular narrative which is (either uncritically or with reference to other myths) held to be true, to represent the real, and thus to be exemplary--in Eliadean terms, to be sacred. No doubt, the hostile attitude to myth from Xenophanes to Strenski is grounded in a justifiable rejection of the a priori, uncritical positive valorization characteristic of myth. It is a typical and admirable characteristic of science and the "scientific" approach that everything, especially traditionally established values, should be open to rigorous criticism. It is this specific characteristic of criticism of tradition which Eliade has cited as definitive of "modern man." The problem here resides in the concomitant claim or belief that for the scientific or critical modern nothing is received from tradition without prior critical analysis; that "modern man" "does not believe in myths," that is, has no myths of his own--an assertion with which Eliade is in fundamental disagreement. The implication of his though is that myth is functional as much when the myth is concealed in the message as when the message is concealed in the myth. The reliance upon pre-reflective, narrative, "emotive forms of persuasion" will always draw upon mythic sources of power. Thus, for example, it could be said that when a specious statistical argument is utilized, one which strictly speaking is not rational, an appeal is being made to the myth of mathematics, that is to the popular and uncritical association of number and truth.
Only if all of one's persuasions are formed on the basis of fully rational support can one be said to have transcended all myth. One of the specific gains made by such an acceptance of our own mythic influences is that the problem of a "Platonic Idea" of the truly mythic repudiated by Kirk is completely avoided It is the intentional attitude of the believer which makes a myth a myth, not some necessary participation in an ideal form. In terms of Eliade's sacred it is the perceived participation in or revelation of the real which makes a particular narrative mythic for a particular believer. However, it is not necessary that the student of myth be party to that participation or revelation to recognize the mythic status of that narrative. It can thus be accepted that "one man's myth is another man's legend," as Kirk puts it (21), while simultaneously recognizing the truly mythic status of the narrative in its relationship to its hearers.
Given the preceding observations the foundationalism characteristic of much of modern thought since Descartes can itself be seen as a form of "nostalgia for paradise." The prevalent mythology of premodern society was not seriously challenged, one's firm location within a particular culture would ensure a certitude, a reality, a sacrality, to the mores of that culture. Nowadays, however, with the entry of the Orient into History and the propagation of the mass media, the "sacred" standards of the traditional religion of the West are challenged. That is to say, not simply the doctrines of Christianity, but all the heirs of our culture's positive valorizations. As Eliade states in his conclusion to "Cosmogonic Myth and 'Sacred History," "it is with such myths of sacred history--still alive in many traditional societies--that the Judaeo-Christian idea of history has to vie" (Quest, 87).
Secular modern Westerners are no more justified in their complacent acceptance of their idea of history than are Christians in their acceptance of the Atonement. Both are traditionally transmitted and in their apprehension as powerful, relevant and exemplary, with its self-referentially positive valorization, both can be seen as mythic.
It is only through the discovery of History--more precisely by the awakening of the historical consciousness in Judaeo-Christianity and its propagation by Hegel and his successors--it is only through the radical assimilation of the new mode of being represented by human existence in the world that myth could be left behind. But we hesitate to say that mythical thought has been abolished. As we shall soon see, it managed to survive, though radically changed (if not perfectly camouflaged). And the astonishing fact is that, more than anywhere else it survives in historiography! (Myth and Reality, 113)
Paradoxically, myth tends to re-establish itself as a fable, an illusion. As in the story of Visnu and Narada (Images and Symbols, 70f), what is the ultimately seductive fault is accepting one's own myths as real, and yet in order to reach this conclusion, we had to being with the recognition that the myth is the true story par excellence. Perhaps the paradox can be resolved in the recognition that the myth is a true representation of reality in the sense that it is honest and has integrity and excellence but it is not a reiteration of reality itself.
The hearer of myth, regardless of his level of culture, when he is listening to a myth, forgets, as it were, his particular situation and is projected into another world, into another universe which is no longer his poor little universe of every day. . . . The myths are true because they are sacred, because they tell him about sacred beings and events. Consequently, in reciting or listening to a myth, one resumes contact with the sacred and with reality, and in so doing one transcends the profane condition, the "historical situation." In other words one goes beyond the temporal condition and the dull self-sufficiency which is the lot of every human being simply because every human being is "ignorant"--in the sense that he is identifying himself, and Reality, with his own particular situation. And ignorance is, first of all, this false identification of Reality with what each one of us appears to be or to possess. (Images and Symbols, 59)
As he makes clear later on, this does not deny the relevance of the historical situation, or the reality of personal experience. In Indian terms he points out that
the great cosmic illusion is a hierophany.... One is devoured by Time, not because one lives in Time, but because one believes in its reality, and therefore forgets or despises eternity. (90-91)
In other words, the primary fault is not in perception itself, but in mistakenly assuming perception to be itself the Real rather than a secondary manifestation, a representation or imitation of the real, to mistake the perception for the perceived.
The emphases of myth have changed drastically, as has so much else of human life since the Industrial Revolution. So radical is the change that it is often difficult to recognize the connection of modern myths with archaic ones. The mythic importance of the narrative form has been much reduced; stories are now in enormously greater supply. This has resulted in a general demythologization of narrative and the occasional sundering of myth from its familiar narrative setting. Thus ideology, cosmology, ontology, and other, strictly metaphysical, assumptions might bear no trace of the "good story," but nevertheless be of degraded mythic status because of their perception as self-evident truths, their highly effective emotional persuasiveness, and their etiological character. Although superficially distinct, popular forms of media such as films and comic books (fn.7 Certainly, fantastic creations such as strip cartoons superheroes cannot be excluded from this later category. Note Eliade's photograph with Jack Kirby's comic art Asgardians, Waiting for the Dawn. 66-67, and see Myth and Reality, 185 on the "myth of Superman.") still share the common characteristics of myth of etiology, entertainment value, positive valorization but above all, exemplary status. If it is a first difficult to accept popular media as myth, it should be borne in mind that both Franz Boas and E.E. Evans-Pritchard refused to make any absolute distinction between myth and folktale, and that Kirk agrees that "the data show a continual flow of material from mythology to folktale and vice versa, and that neither group can claim priority" (Greek Myths, 31). Also of interest in this context is the widespread belief that the violence in children's cartoons is responsible for the violence in society--that the directly exemplary status of these tales is still effective.
One possible weakness of Kirk's analysis, common to many commentators, is the insistence that "it cannot be repeated too often" that myths are traditional tales (38), thus underplaying this concept of contemporary myths, and disabling any attempts to observe "myth in action" in our own society. This would imply that our modern society is in this respect radically different from all others in that it would be the only society ever known to exist without myths. It is a conceit typical of "modern" thought that we in the contemporary West are somehow essentially different from all other societies. Against this, Eliade has said,
a restriction of the inquiry to "primitive" mythologies risks giving the impression that there is no continuity between archaic thought and the thought of the peoples who played an important role in ancient history. Now, such a solution of continuity does not exist. (Quest, 73)
I would argue that Eliade's universal humanism is one of the elements which makes him a precursor of the "postmodern" rather than himself a typical modern. In defense of Kirk, however, it must be said that the cultural matrix which empowers a myth as a form of persuasion independently of its rationality is necessarily traditional--that is to say, the positive emotional response to a myth is received rather than innate. It is intuitive in the sense mentioned above. Unfortunately, with the devalorization of the "reality" of such a form of persuasion and such uninspected "truths" (that is, with the association of myth and the unreal and the concomitant devaluation of non-rational, intuitive insights), these received persuasions have largely become concealed and the traditions which support them largely unrecognized. One major cause of this unwarranted association is the longstanding tendency to study as myths exactly those narratives which are held by other peoples to be revelatory of the real, but are not so held by ourselves. The concept of "myth" was thus formed as "other peoples' myths" rather than as "myths" tout court (see Wendy Doniger O'Flahery's Other Peoples' Myths), and it is in correcting this misapprehension that Eliade's consideration of myths has diverged from the conventional understanding of the word.