The Story of Myth, by Sarah Iles Johnston

Book of the week: Robert Segal on a work that strives to restore the centrality of narrative to tales as old as time

March 14, 2019
Painting of gods
Source: Getty

The title of this book is likely intended as a pun. Not only is the book a study of myth, but it argues that myth is itself at heart a story – or as the author, like others these days, prefers, “narrative”. Sarah Johnston, a well-known classicist at Ohio State University, maintains that the narrative element of myth has sometimes lost its centrality, and she strives to restore it. For her, one key to narrative is ritual. Myth must be appreciated for more than its content. Myth is not like a book in the library. It is, or was, “performed”. Myth, for Johnston, is like a play. It must “engage” the audience and must entertain. The ritualistic aspect of myth is the connection of the text to its enactment.

The author enlists many experts on fiction and uses them most helpfully. But she seems unfamiliar with the contemporary focus on narrative among philosophers – most grandly, Hayden White and Louis Mink. They assert that philosophical explanations, such as myths for Johnston, should be seen as akin to fiction. The figures whom she cites for ignoring the narrative aspect of myth are the old-timers, E. B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer. But she misses the reason they do so: they see myth as the primitive counterpart to science, which is modern. They ignore narrative because they see myth as a causal explanation of physical events rather than as a story. For them, myth is not like literature.

A concentration on narrative means a concentration on context. The importance of context is scarcely new and really goes back to Bronisław Malinowski, for whom myth cannot be grasped when merely read; myth is recognised as other – or more – than scientific-like explanation when seen live in action by field-working observers. That is why he downplays the explanatory, or intellectualist, function of myth. Johnston mentions him but might have accorded him more credit. It is he, arguing against “armchair anthropologists” such as Tylor, who pioneers the study of myth as performance.

Johnston has a shaky familiarity with theories of myth and ritual. For William Robertson Smith, the undisputed pioneering “myth ritualist”, myth eventually becomes independent of ritual and therefore advances beyond its initial dependence. Myth becomes an explanation of the world, just as for Tylor, whom Smith was originally opposing. For Frazer, the chief myth-ritualist, myth-ritualism does not, as Johnston asserts, emerge between his first and second stages of culture. In the first stage, there is magic and therefore ritual, but no gods and therefore no myths. In the second stage, there are gods and therefore myths, but myths do not operate in conjunction with rituals. Myth-ritualism comes after, not between, the stages of magic and religion, despite their purported incompatibility. In this third pre-scientific stage, myth-ritualism brings back the first of Frazer’s laws of magic, that of imitation, and combines it with the myth, from the stage of religion, of the death and rebirth of the god of vegetation.

For Frazer, myth is equal in importance to ritual. Yet Jane Ellen Harrison, the leader of the group of classicists who developed the myth-ritualist theory for Greece, makes myth even more important. For her, myth itself, not just ritual, has magical efficacy. For Frazer, myth offers only the script for ritual. Johnston misses the big irony in Harrison’s dependence on Frazer, if also her independence of him. Frazer comes to repudiate Harrison and the other ritualists – above all in his translation for the Loeb Classical Library of The Library by the mythographer Apollodorus. Frazer becomes a Tylorean – the nemesis of the ritualists.

Presenting dozens of theorists of myth and ritual in her first chapter, Johnston gets them mostly right but sometimes slips up. For example, the heart of the myth-ritualism of the structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss is his pitting myth against ritual rather than, like every other myth-ritualist, paralleling them. They become an opposing binary pair.

The author continually castigates those who take myth out of its ritualistic performance for thereby “essentialising” it. But this is a misuse, albeit a common one, of the term “essence”, which, strictly, is a metaphysical and not an empirical claim. Theorists of anything seek the similarities that account for the origin and function of, here, myth. These similarities amount to the basic nature of myth, but not thereby to its essence. The essence of water, to use the conventional example, is H2O. It is not the fact that all water is wet. That in all myths, let us claim, the agents are gods is still not its essence.

The focus on similarities, according to Johnston, eliminates the particularities of any myth – for example, the names of its characters – and thereby misses exactly the way myth makes an impact on listeners and spectators. True, myths, unlike fairy tales, do name their figures rather than generalise about them by calling them, for example, “the old man” or “the beauty”. But then the naming of figures becomes a common characteristic of all myths. Furthermore, theories of myth must logically eliminate the differences between one myth and another in order to be able to encompass them all. Theories do not deny particulars. They deny the importance of particulars.

On the one hand, Johnston surveys the study of myth per se. On the other hand, she writes almost entirely on just Greek myth. She notes that Greek myth differs from myths elsewhere, but then why not put “Greek” in the title? As applicable to the study of myth worldwide as her book is, it is not itself a study of myth.

There are brilliant chapters on myth as narrative. Johnston maintains that the world of gods – the secondary world, to use a term from J. R. R. Tolkien – is not as rigidly separate from the human, or primary, world as is often assumed. Gods are not humans, but they are close to humans. Myth becomes real because gods are plausible and because myth takes place in a time and a place not so far removed from the present, human one. The world of myth is not the world of, say, science fiction.

The book distinguishes between five kinds of character in Greek myth. Johnston also works out a spectrum of heroes, who range from those close to gods to those far away. She observes that heroes were far more numerous in Greece than in other ancient Mediterranean cultures. She also discusses a characteristic found much more often in Greek than in even Hindu mythology: metamorphoses, or the transformation of humans into animals, plants and minerals.

While she covers many theories, Johnston ignores psychological ones, especially Freudian and Jungian ones. Their focus on the projection of the reader’s or spectator’s mind on to mythic characters explains much more fully the impact of myth. The real hero or god is the reader or spectator. Myth is autobiography.

Still, Johnston’s is an excellent overview of Greek myth and is much more sophisticated than G. S. Kirk’s Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and other Cultures (1973) or Eric Csapo’s Theories of Mythology (2005).

Robert A. Segal is sixth century chair in religious studies at the University of Aberdeen and the author of Myth: A Very Short Introduction (revised, 2015).

The Story of Myth
By Sarah Iles Johnston
Harvard University Press
384pp, £32.95
ISBN 9780674185074
Published 25 January 2019

The author

Sarah Iles Johnston, professor of Classics and comparative studies (and distinguished professor of religion) at The Ohio State University, was born in Bowling Green, Ohio, but grew up all over the Midwest and Upper East Coast of the US. Although she was always interested in Greek mythology, it was during a BA in Classics and then a BS in magazine journalism at the University of Kansas that she discovered “ways to look at myths that were completely new to me” and acquired “a deep respect for well-constructed stories (factual or fictional), which, years later, helped me think about the importance of how myths were narrated in Ancient Greece”.

In earlier books such as Ancient Greek Divination (2008), Johnston has written about religious practices but, given that “for the past 30 years or so, myth has been largely disregarded by people who study Ancient Greece”, she “decided to buck that trend and return to what had always been my deepest interest. New work on how such things as TV shows, films and novels are narrated encouraged me to do so…”

Since most people are unaware of the contexts Johnston describes in her new book, why are many of us still haunted by the stories of Greek mythology? “Because when Greek myths are skilfully narrated,” she replies, “they are among the most exciting stories ever created. The characters are engaging because they are complex and motivated by their emotions to make difficult choices. Remarkable – even marvellous, unbelievable! – things happen: gigantic nine-headed snakes are battled, heroes wear magical sandals to fly through the air, witches use potions to turn men into pigs. And, finally, all of this takes place within a single larger story-world in which the people and their adventures are interlaced with one another, much as they are today in a long-running TV series such as Nashville or Scandal.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: At one remove from the gods

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