Theorizing Myth

Making sense of mythology

Religion 31(2001), pp 164-5

Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology and Scholarship (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1999)


Is the word ‘myth’ a synonym for the word ‘ideology’? Lecturers in cultural studies, influenced by Roland Barthes, generally think so. More traditional teachers of literature, influenced by Northrop Frye, wish to honour myth as the sacred paradigm from which all subsequent stories derive; as such, it transcends ideology. Barthes’s interest is in images which endorse the status quo, the most famous being the black soldier saluting the French flag on the cover of Paris Match. Frye’s assumption is that, while there is a body of symbols on which writers draw, the starting point for tracing the influence of myth on literature must be the notion of a certain restricted number of ‘narrative modes’. In this perspective, Barthes is hardly talking about myth at all. Not only does he confine his attention entirely to the modern world, but he has nothing to say about myth as story. In short, he is only talking about ideology, however he tries to complicate his argument.

Though Bruce Lincoln curiously omits Barthes and Frye from this comprehensive study, his position is nicely mediatory. He defines myth as ‘ideology in narrative form’. In the field of the history of religion, this ranks him with the social-scientific approach, since his assumption is that myths have always been instruments of cultural construction. Yet he retains the distinction between myth and ideology by emphasising the crucial differentiating factor, namely narrative. Thus, while he is not inclined to validate myth as a revelation of eternal truth, he goes to considerable pains to avoid appearing to reduce the status of the material he considers. Indeed, when he comes to assess the conventional scholarly account of the ‘Greek miracle’ by which mythos was supposedly superseded by logos, in or around the fifth century BC, he deconstructs the rhetorical manoeuvre that was involved in the discrediting of mere ‘fantasy’ by a supposedly superior ‘reason’. He refers us back to the narratives associated with Hesiod: there mythos was the form of speech appropriate to a noble warrior, while logos was the form of speech associated with those weaklings who wished to undermine the ethics of war and courage. Plato’s victory, in this light, should be seen as a strategic reversal of received values rather than a decisive emancipation of humankind from the naivety of narrative. (Lincoln leaves aside Plato’s own deployment of myth, which might have helped his case by illustrating its indispensability.) This strategy was historically specific, we are told, and must be understood in the context of ‘the consolidation (and contestation) of Athenian democracy, the spread of literacy, and the eclipse of poetry by prose’.

This kind of placing is typical of Lincoln’s strategy in this book. The point is not to establish a case for or against myth, but to demonstrate how and why myth has been understood in particular ways. Thus, as the title suggests, it is about mythography itself as much as it is about mythology. But as the title also indicates, that does not mean that it concerns the nature of theory at the expense of the nature of narrative. Rather, Lincoln is alert to the connection between the two spheres. Thus, he defines myth scholarship itself as ‘myth with footnotes’. By that, he means that, though mythographers can always claim the advantage of hindsight, exemplified in their meticulous research skills, this should be treated with as much caution as they themselves claim to exercise with regard to the primary material. Myth scholarship is ideological; myth scholarship is narrative in form. Therefore we should approach it carefully.

According to Lincoln, there are two main traditions of theorizing myth. The first runs from Plato. As might be expected, this tends to treat myth negatively, regarding it as juvenile and irrational. The legacy of Plato’s condescension is felt in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which proclaims the power of reason and assesses the ignorance of ‘savages’ in the light of that proclamation. The Platonic line is still active in the twentieth century. With Frazer, for example, magic and religion are subsumed and explained by the ideal of scientific rationalism. Lincoln even detects the legacy in Levi-Strauss, given that structuralist anthropology privileges a universal logic or grammar over the peculiarities of narrative. But of course, as he hints, the Platonism gets turned on its head, with the ‘savage mind’ being honoured rather than humbled.

The synchronic model that Levi-Strauss represents has the advantage of proving resistant to the excesses of the second tradition which Lincoln’s book traces. Stemming from Herder, the Romantic line, by contrast with the Platonic, treats myth positively, regarding it as primordial and authentic. But an important lesson which Lincoln wants us to learn is that the friends of myth have all too often proved the enemies of other people. Thus, the cult of the Volk, the endorsement of nationalism in the name of a ‘pure’ Aryan legacy, was the impetus behind the anti-semitism of Wagner. We must not forget what disastrous consequences this ideology had when put to political work in the twentieth century. Plato and his heirs may have denied myth its full narrative power; but Herder and his heirs used narratives for dubious ends.

So who shall escape whipping? Modern mythography seems to have learnt little from the perils which Lincoln documents. For example, Eliade’s claim to study myth in its own right, exempt from any agenda, turns out to be far more ideologically dangerous than most others. It allows him to perpetuate the idea of a sacred, Indo-European, mythic past which is in effect another expression of his extreme right-wing politics. On the other hand, as we have seen, Levi-Strauss, whatever his Platonic tendencies, at least knows how to approach primitive thought with neither condescension nor sentimentality. However, one weakness of this book is that its historical overview has some curious omissions, particularly from the later twentieth century. The presence of Ricoeur, Vernant, Geertz – and, come to think of it, Barthes and Frye – would have allowed Lincoln to test his two traditions, with the possibility of enrichment rather than confusion.

As things stand, we are left with one figure emerging from Lincoln’s book with (shall we say?) the least qualified praise. This is Malinowski. While carefully placing him within the context of Herder’s romanticism, and acknowledging a tendency to glorify tribal integrity in the face of modern atomisation, Lincoln implies that the lesson of ethnography, as evident in Malinowski’s work, was that myth serves present needs even or especially when it narrates a distant past. This kind of functionalist approach would seem to be quite close to Lincoln’s own, unless I am wilfully misreading this book. But then, as he himself proposes, theorizing myth is always partial, interested and ideological. Learning to take that into account is one of the many benefits conferred by reading this complex, provocative work.

Laurence Coupe