Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Origins of Mythology: "Introduction"

This is an old-school weblog series, tracking my progress through The Origins of the World's Mythologies, by Michael Witzel, a thick monograph published by Oxford University Press in 2012.

Photo credit: Oxford University Press

In the intro, Witzel, a Harvard Sanskrit professor, lays out the terrain for his study, which intrigued me the moment I read this: review of it. I have formal education in religious studies and mythology, and I like writing what some folks call "mythic fiction" (which isn't actually limited to mythology). So I was intrigued enough to buy a copy, partly because I immediately recognized that the premise for this book is unusual, even unique. Let me explain.

Witzel claims that the far-flung mythologies of the world can be traced, scientifically (on the model of linguistics), back to an original mythological complex or "storyline." He promises to use various methods to recover this storyline in the upcoming chapters. But here (in the intro) he's setting out what's unique about his approach, and why it just might work. This is common fare for academic books (for good reason), but I won't rehash all the arguments. A brief catalog of the 36-page intro:

  • some older theories about why myths from different eras and geographical locations share so many similarities
  • weaknesses in said older theories
  • a survey of various attempts to interpret myths
  • how all of the above differ from the approach of Witzel in what is forthcoming in the book

The take-aways are more interesting than the bits just referred to. Here are a couple.

Witzel's definition of myth (a bit complex, but worth tackling):
a 'true' narrative that tells of cosmology and society as well as of the human condition and that is frequently employed to explain and justify social circumstances (p. 35)
 Or, more eloquently:
myth tries to make a significant statement about human life itself: 'where do we come from, why are we here, where do we go?' Just like Gauguin's enigmatic painting, myth artistically combines many motifs into a meaningful whole, modifying the older (even the reconstructed original) layout according to individual local conditions… Myth still binds humans to their natural habitat and social background; it provides people with reasons for the cyclical seasons of nature, for festivals, rituals, and social strata; myth also tells of a deep underlying meaning of human life itself, satisfying basic spiritual needs (p. 34)
This description nicely brings together some important observations about myth. One, that it "combines many motifs." In fact, its vitality and "meaning" are related to its combinatorial quality, the complex interactions of elements in the myths (see Claude Levi-Strauss). Another, that myth is tied to ritual and festival. That makes it public, social, cultural. And finally, Witzel helpfully keeps in view the religious dimension of myth, or its "spiritual" dimension if you prefer, which is important but surprisingly rare (among scholars of this material).

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to give a glimpse of his main methodological point, which is the purpose of his introduction. Witzel's unique contribution here is going to be to take whole complexes of actual mythologies (say in Japan, India, Greece, etc.) and compare them, searching for "path dependencies" or "descent lines" still in evidence across those cultures. Older approaches (some of them groan-worthy if popular) just compare individual stories. So Witzel's work is massive, cross-disciplinary, and so far pretty compelling. I'll let you know when I get through chapter 2, which promises to be a fairly quick run through theories of comparison.

I linked to Frederick Smith's review of the book above, but here it is again (PDF).
And I found a good shorter review of it here: "Comparing Mythologies on a Global Scale: A Review Article By N.J. Allen" (PDF)

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...