Fables with a private past

World of Myths
May 7, 2004

In 1990, the British Museum Press began publishing a series of slim, sprightly, accessible overviews of the mythologies of cultures worldwide. The focus is on past myths, hence the title of the series: The Legendary Past. Each volume, the work of a distinguished authority, is written with verve, finesse and often bemusement. So far there have been volumes on Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, Celtic, Aztec and Mayan, Chinese, Inca, Mesopotamian, Persian and Russian myths. Lamentably absent is a volume on Hebrew or early Christian mythology.

Now the publisher has collected the first five of the named volumes in a glossy yet inexpensive hardback and has added both a helpful glossary by Rosalind Kerven and an introduction by Marina Warner, who has written much on myth.

The authors of the individual volumes amassed in the present work all raise the same questions, though some more self-consciously than others. What is myth? Does it differ from legend (the series title aside)? Is myth always popular or ever elitist? Is it always part of religion? Is myth tied to ritual? Is myth wholly fictional or sometimes historical? Who invents it? Why does myth last even after the culture that created it has died out?

Because the authors naturally confine themselves to their specialities, they forgo answering these questions about myth per se . But when they cite specific instances from their specialities, their answers in fact presuppose generalisations. If, for example, myth is tied to ritual in one named case, surely the reason is not confined to that case.

Other questions are largely sidestepped by the specialists. How similar are myths worldwide? What accounts for similarities? What is the function of myth? Of the authors who consider this question, the answer is invariably the old-fashioned, social-functionalist one: myth legitimates one group over another. None of the authors considers functions other than sociological. There is no mention of any theorist of myth save Freud. Jung, Tylor, Frazer, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, Eliade, Barthes, Burkert and Girard do not garner a mention. Because the authors treat myths as the myths of whole societies, they assume that myths serve their function for a group rather than for the individual. Myths are assumed to be public rather than private, explicit rather than implicit, and old rather than new.

It is taken for granted that myths are to be read literally. Myths about gods are really about gods and are not, say, symbolic depictions of natural processes or of human nature. Myths are read straightforwardly. The notion of a non-narrative, structuralist approach is never entertained.

Because the series restricts itself to past myths, other kinds of questions are not even broached. Is myth compatible with science? Is science itself mythic? Are there modern myths? Are any modern myths automatically secular?

While it would be most unfair to burden the individual authors with answering questions outside their specialities, it is not unfair to ask Warner to do so. And in under ten pages she eagerly provides answers to almost all the questions I have posed and does so by invoking almost all the leading theorists I have mentioned. But instead of appealing to the myths told in the chapters that follow, mainly she cites her own examples.

There is no attempt to integrate her introduction with the rest of the book. And she cannot resist restating her trademark themes: that myths get interpreted in changing ways and that those ways at once reflect and bolster the values of the group at hand.

Sadly, Warner's knowledge of theories is tenuous. Most conspicuously, she remains absolutely wrong about her nemesis, Jung, who scarcely claimed that the meaning of myths is universal - no less than she does, he insisted on interpreting the meaning of a myth in its context, which is personal as well as collective. That is why for Jung myth is fully deciphered as part of an individual's analysis. The opposition that Warner, like so many others, draws between the universal and the particular is a false one and, if it fits anyone, it fits unnamed, pseudo-Jungian theorists such as Joseph Campbell.

Robert Segal is professor of theories of religion, Lancaster University.

World of Myths

Author - G. Hart, L. Burn, J. F. Gardner, M. J. Green and R. I. Page.
Introduced by Marina Warner
Publisher - British Museum Press
Pages - 410
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7141 83 3

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