Myth: A Very Short Introduction

A useful guide to the interpretation of myth

Religion 38 (2008), pp 77-78

Robert A. Segal, Myth: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004)


Robert Segal is a world authority on the theory of myth, having written several scholarly treatises on the subject, and having launched and maintained a series of studies of particular theorists (his own study of Joseph Campbell forming the first volume). Though his reputation has been largely academic, his clarity of style and his capacity for summary make him particularly appropriate as a guide to the world of myth for the non-academic reader as well as the undergraduate student. He refuses to mystify a subject which seems to invite mystification.

In this accessible volume in a useful series of ‘short introductions’ (ranging from Aristotle to Derrida, from ancient philosophy to postmodernism), Segal begins by stating his case as simply as possible. He tells us that there are three basic questions to be asked concerning myth: what is its origin? what is its function? what is its subject-matter? He suggests that, in practice, most theorists fail to answer all three questions. For example, Rudolf Bultmann concentrates on subject-matter (the place of human beings in the world), while Bronislaw Malinowski concentrates on function (the sanctioning of customs). Segal further argues that theories of myth are theories of some category wider than myth — society, nature, and so on. This being the case, we had best be on our guard against theorists who purport to provide a ‘key to all mythologies’ (George Eliot’s phrase, not Segal’s): whatever that theorist claims, s/he will inevitably have assembled the evidence to suit the theory; the interpretation of the myth will be some to extent partisan. Segal’s scepticism towards theories of myth makes him a dispassionate guide to myth itself, particularly as he abstains from offering any meta-theory himself – though he does end by endorsing the ideas of D. W. Winnicott as offering a firm basis for future study.

The structure of the book makes it accessible in two main ways. First, the use of one myth – that of Adonis – as a focus for all the theories discussed is helpful to readers who might otherwise feel bewildered and overawed by the sheer diversity of mythic narratives. People who are likely to read this book will have some familiarity with this popular tale, and will find the exposition of the variety of possible readings to be fascinating.

Second, starting off the survey of theories with the category of ‘Myth and Science’ allows for a logical progression of topics. For Segal’s claim is that most twentieth-century views of myth are responses to the nineteenth-century challenge that myth has been superseded by science and is no longer relevant. Hence we are guided through the various attempts to justify myth in modernity – for example, by identifying it with religious wisdom (Mircea Eliade) or by celebrating it as the source of literature (Northrop Frye). Most audacious of all these attempts is that which focuses on what a given story might reveal about the human mind itself: myth, that is, is seen as expressive of the unconscious (Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell). But Segal takes us further, covering other, less well-known justifications of myth: in relation to linguistic structure (Claude Levi-Strauss, Georges Dumezil) and also in relation to social order (George Sorel, Rene Girard).

By virtue of both these devices – that is, taking the same myth and giving it different readings, and charting the way a theoretical challenge has been met – Segal ensures that the book covers a great deal of ground without wandering off down too many byways.

Specific criticisms might be made, of course. For example, Chapter 5, ‘Myth and literature’, correctly foregrounds Frye’s seminal work, but perhaps forces Girard into the picture, particularly as his theory has by Segal’s admission limited applicability to the Adonis myth, and is also discussed separately in Chapter 8, ‘Myth and society’. For me, the name of Girard is inseparable from that of Kenneth Burke, who influenced his view of the relationship between myth and violence. But Segal makes only one reference to Burke, and then merely to suggest an affinity with Levi-Strauss. For me, Burke is far more important than Segal allows: I would even go so far as to say that his theory of myth as strategic, symbolic action contains much potential for the future of myth study – perhaps even more than that of Winnicott. All in all, though, this is probably the most comprehensive introduction to myth that there is.

Finally, it is worth emphasising the virtues of Segal’s manner of writing. Having read more or less everything else he has written, I can vouch for the fact that clear, short sentences are typical — which must endear him to many students, who are so often greeted by obfuscation when they seek clarification. At the same time, this book is no ‘bluffer’s guide’: it is a genuine attempt to clarify an area of knowledge that has suffered from vagueness of expression. Non-academic readers will benefit, as will those studying sociology, anthropology, literature, psychology and, of course, religion.

Laurence Coupe