A brilliant overview of mythology

Religion 32 (2002), pp 166-8


William G. Doty, Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals, 2nd ed. (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2000)


For fifteen years William Doty’s masterly synthesis of perspectives on mythology has been proving itself indispensable. If one wanted to remind oneself of the various ways theorists have found to relate myth and ritual, narrative and ceremony, form and function, there was no more instructive or delightful way than to take Mythography off the shelf and browse through its contents. The pleasure gained was intrinsic to the information conveyed: one was responding to Doty’s informal but erudite manner, his willingness to make audacious connections, his fondness for the representative anecdote, his relish for the sheer fascination of research.

Now an already impressive volume has been revised and extended. The existing chapters have been reorganised and embellished. Further chapters have been written: there were eight, now there are fourteen. The connecting commentary has been updated to take account of the expansion of higher education, with students needing brief accessible pointers to the current state of mythographic play. A new appendix guides us through the massive contribution to myth studies made by the internet. There are several other pedagogically useful appendices (and by that I mean they will be used by the teacher as well as the student, the scholar and the ‘common reader’). The sheer size of the volume says a good deal: we have jumped from just over 300 pages to nearly 600. Doty could hardly have done much more for us.

The essence of the book’s documentation is done in parts two and three.
Here we are guided effortlessly though differing interpretations of the myth-ritual connection which were influential in the early twentieth century: in particular, Frazer’s comparativism is contrasted with Malinoswki’s functionalism. This might have been an opportunity to patronize the former, but Doty is scrupulously fair, conjecturing that The Golden Bough may have fostered cultural relativism rather than positivist individualism, despite its reputation for being magisterially condescending to the material it documented. Again, while the notion of social function was clearly an advance in understanding, Malinowski and his followers paid too much attention to society and not enough to symbols.

Moving beyond the parameters of ritualism (though still keeping the ritual dimension of behaviour clearly in mind) Doty proceeds to an assessment of psychological theories, with which he displays again his capacity for even-handedness. He gives credit to both Freud and Jung for opening up the mythic dimension of the psyche, but he is obliged to indicate the perils of both psychoanalysis and analytical psychology. If Freud was too fond of etiology (explanation of religion in terms of originary guilt), Jung was too inclined to essentialism (appeal to the Platonic archetype). While conceding the radical insights afforded by such extreme modes of closure, Doty looks to the neo-Jungian James Hillman for a more varied, less restrictive view of mythology: his ‘polytheistic psychology’ is all about finding significance in the myths without distorting them or misrepresenting ourselves, without imposing one dominant model. If this is the ideal, then Joseph Campbell is acknowledged for his attempt to articulate different ‘levels’ of mythic meaning even while his urge to relate them to one fundamental narrative structure, ie, the quest pattern of the ‘monomyth’, is criticised. Similarly, Northrop Frye’s application of Frazer’s seasonal model to the modes of literature is admired, but ultimately Doty withholds his assent from Frye’s mythic totalization of history.

Of the contemporary theorists assessed in the first edition, the two who have survived with least reservation are Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner. Again and again, Doty endorses the former’s reminder that myths not only offer a ‘model of’ reality but also a ‘model for’. And with Turner’s stress on the ritual process as a social drama, involving a ‘liminal’ crisis of disintegration and reintegration, a move from the given ‘structure’ to a new order of ‘communitas’, we get a clear sense of how the ‘model for’ model might be extended beyond the normative to the imaginative dimension.

Of the theorists who feature at length in the second edition for the first time, it is perhaps Pierre Vernant who receives the most unequivocal commendation. A structuralist who has moved beyond the abstract grammar of Levi-Strauss, he demonstrates what can be done when an ability to detect formal contradictions in a narrative is informed by the sense of a particular historical context and a particular semantic crisis. Vernant can tell us a great deal about myth as such because he is so good at articulating the workings of Greek myth at one crucial moment when its meanings were being transformed by way of dramatic performance and intellectual scepticism.

By contrast, another comparative newcomer, Rene Girard, is less interested in local culture than in universal human nature. Doty makes sure the various cases against the scapegoat theory are heard, but he himself seems more concerned with the advances in mythography it has made possible. Girard merits a whole chapter, because he more than anyone has demonstrated in the past two decades the necessity of relating myth to ritual. Even though his formulaic equation of the latter with violence and of the former with the disguising of violence is open to question from many fronts, and even though his answer to both is a rather partial reading of Christianity, Doty clearly values his contribution to the ongoing mythographic dialogue.

We can get a sense of how that dialogue progresses by reflecting that in 1986, when the first edition of Mythography appeared, the theory of ritual seemed to be in decline. Thus, there might have seemed something foolhardy about Doty’s subtitle. Would he not have been better concentrating on mythos, on myth as pure narrative? Now, with a major revival in ‘ritology’, we can see that he was looking forward rather than backwards. The association of mythos with cultus did not betoken nostalgia for the apparent certainties of Frazer-inspired ritualism. Doty was insisting on the need to understand myth as not only a tale told and received but also a mode of being in the world. For if mythos was inseparable from cultus, both were inseparable from ethos. Even in this second edition, in the theoretical reflections in the first and fourth parts, we do not get this triad affirmed unequivocally. But a book that ends with a section called ‘Mythographic Moralities’ has, one hopes, made its point.

For Doty, it matters enormously how a society receives and renews its myths, because otherwise it will conduct itself according to their repressed and misrecognized assumptions. This is not the same as naively equating mythology and ideology, but it is certainly quite distinct from any sentiment for a lost golden age of myth. The point for Doty is not the reassertion of origins but the projection of possibilities. Hence ‘ethos’ extends in meaning beyond any apparent consensus, Geertz’s ritual expression of a ‘world view’, to comprehend the imagining of possible ways of being in the world. (Geertz himself, of course, allows for this: disparity between world view and ethos can always trigger change.) According to the literary critic Eric Gould, cited frequently by Doty, what matters is ‘mythicity’. That is, we have to realize that even in traditional myth, the meaning, the ideal, the absolute, was always absent, having to be imagined and desired across an ontological gap. Modern, mythopoeic literature has made us exceptionally conscious of that gap. Learning to live without finality, without closure, may be the most important task we face, given that the presumption of finality has wreaked so much havoc within culture and nature alike. Indeed, Doty refers frequently to the environmental crisis of our time, and hints that mythography makes little sense without an awareness of human limits. Thus, I would infer from my reading of the closing pages that mythos implies cultus implies ethos implies oikos. Learning to live as modestly as possible within our earthly household may be the ultimate lesson of studying myth.

I wish Doty had been more explicit about this dimension of his argument, but perhaps that is asking too much from an exhaustive and exemplary work of scholarship. Again, his point is that mythography comprehends a number of possibilities, and to stress one at the expense of others would contradict the spirit of pluralism which pervades the book. Doty reminds us frequently that his own understanding of myth is ‘polyesmous’, ‘polyfunctional’, ‘multisemiotic’, etc. Complementing this understanding, he proposes a mythography that is ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘polyphasic’. The polysyllables should not detract us from the essential merit of his ambitious survey: ‘We are what we myth’. If we confine ourselves to one dominant paradigm as scholars then we are perhaps as guilty as those fundamentalists and ideologues who perpetuate what Blake called ‘the mind-forg’d manacles’.

Having defended Doty from my own objection, I am perhaps entitled to make one final quibble, in accordance with reviewing convention. It is this. Why is Barthes given detailed attention while Buber and Burke are ignored entirely? Barthes is, to my mind, something of a charlatan in the area of mythography; the others really matter. Having got that out of the way, it only remains to say that this second edition of Mythography will be welcomed by students of cultural studies, critical theory, literary studies, history of religion, comparative religion and philosophy, as well as by readers who are intrigued by myth. None of these groups of people will go away unenlightened.


Laurence Coupe