Ideology and Mythology
By William Doty, Ph. D.,
Professor and Chair Emeritus, College of Arts and Sciences
University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa
Remembering the comment of German theologian Gerhart Ebeling, who tutored me when he was
guest faculty at Drew University graduate school, namely a maxim reflecting Continental scholarly agoras, that "one's
students are always also one's pallbearers" —I remain very sensitive to questions and challenges posed by my own
students. In this instance, I am grateful for the insistence from a Pacifica Graduate Institute doctoral student,
Norland Téllez, that I clarify the mythographic embrasure by which I approach specific myths from different cultures
(embrasure = an opening in the parapet or wall through which one views oncoming parties, but engrained in my
soma as the manner in which a French horn or brass player shapes the lips to produce music).
To be sure, I devoted the second appendix to the second edition of Mythography to a list of items I thought relevant
to address (466-67; and today I would add a similar list from Bruce Lincoln's 1999 work, 150-51). And sought to satisfy readers
of the first edition who wanted more applicatio than there was room for in that volume (or its subsequently expanded second
edition) by the several studies in Myths of Masculinity and materials such as "Unpacking," as well as "Exploring," and
"The Winnebago Road" (full bibliographic references are in the Works Cited below).
One might analyze methodological patterns by reviewing the works just cited (or the more recent introductory volume,
Myth: A Handbook), but Señor Téllez presses me for more than the external "how to set out an
analysis" proposals, and more the issue of what is "mythical" in the ways I perform my analytical and interpretive mythological
athletics. He would especially like me to expound upon "phenomenological" aspects — which I realize are indeed present,
at least in terminology, even though I do not follow any specific phenomenological philosopher.
My roots there are less Merleau-Ponty,
say, than the general training of the comparative religionist/mythologist whose kit includes
hermeneutical, semantic, and
semiological training in learning how to identify one's own perspectival embrasures or perceptions so as not to allow them to
tint interpretations of materials of other cultures — especially those of the past, antiquity, which have been my primary foci,
from prehistory through classical literature but also including Native American cultural riches, and more recently "popular culture"
as in postmodern writers and film — we are talking Lion King and Fight Club here!
Much on my mind as I organize these words are the preparations for a new advanced seminar in a premier undergraduate
program entitled Myths and Realities: From Traditional Cultures through Postmodernist Revisionings, which encompasses
ideologies and politics as well as traditionally-conceived mythological materials. I was never really charmed by the
approaches, nor that of Frederic Jameson
— although I have learned much from all of them, dating back to studies at Die Freie Universitãt Berlin in the 1950s.
Nor have I found the conflicting discussions of myth in relation to ideology of much use, since, except in the paltry stuff
that passes for the dominant rightwing cabals that ruled Thatcherism and now rule the anti-American values of Bushism,
where one finds only faux-innocent claims incessantly repeated that Americans regard their beliefs as pure truth established
by either a patriarchal and legalistic white deity or a fundamentalistically-frozen Constitution (it matters little to distinguish them,
agitprop). In these realms, theology/religion = divine revelation, timeless (that means, since the last liberal
administration) and unchanging — and of course non-evolutionary, which would sanctify McGuffey Readers no less than
the favored fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish, or Christian authors of the day.
My own liberalism cannot be by-sided when I come to definitions and mythographic histories: I much admire the explicit
attitudes expressed in Lawrence
(and Jewett and Lawrence). There are, according to these authors, pathogenetic
aspects of Western, specifically-USA imperialism, most specifically sighted in the current administration"s determination that the
United Nations remain totally subservient to the US, and that an invasion argued on the basis of tissues of lies and deceptions
could be justified by a need for (the ridiculous term) Homeland Security.
So there, you see at a glance that the cool, scholarly "Professor Doty" breathes and excretes and lusts. He has never
believed in disembodied scholarship, indeed has gone out of his way to emphasize the sitedness of any scholarship or any
interpretation of either religious or intellectual materials, and the importance of cross- and interdisciplinary approaches as
means of breaking the impossible hegemonies of the usual academic and lowest common denominator approaches.
I trust that the biographical tidbits here will not embarrass or repel potential readers, as I now shift to some further
responses to Norland's requests. There may well be a lockstep progression, so far as I can see: myth, mythology (perhaps
mythography as well, as Lincoln suggests), ideology. Certainly there are links between myth,
and semantics. Any myth will be rephrased (semiotics) and reinterpreted (semantics) in any telling; searches for the primal
Urmythoi were given up in the nineteenth century.
First, think of linguistic chains from early mythological expressions down into contemporary usage (see Asimov 1961).
But beyond such relatively-superficial linguistic/metaphorical developments, there are, second, the vastly-more-important
ways by which the linguistic expressions can phase into the ideological —"orthopedic" can slide from straight description
of a branch of medicine to an ideal for health, "orthodox" from a description of a particular Christian sect to "proper behavior."
I have consistently emphasized how the mythical "drives" society. Its "functional" roles have to do primarily with
establishing our sense of selfhood no less than community and "the natural." Precisely because myths set the contours of
the real, they determine pecking orders, definitions of what a society considers more or less important. And the ideological
becomes in effect the motor for mythical values, even when it is operative sub rosa or unconsciously. Its affect
may be more obvious, but also we are often strongly affected by simple relating of myths in elevated contexts.
Of course, patriarchal-masculinist (in the negative sense) values have ruled American films (any of several recent studies
of them will demonstrate what I mean). Of course, colonialist/anti-feminist/etc. values dominate pop culture: our society
long ago vested in a rejection of the contemporary as opposed to nostalgic regard for the imaginary suburban picket fence
before the petroleum-consuming "lawn" —see David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986) for a nasty view challenging
that Sweet Sue model.
Key myths are dominant in a culture; hence the importance of looking at Lawrence and Jewett, which is the most important
cultural analysis of a set of superhero myths
effective in our culture — but note that these myths now include violence to an extent seldom emphasized in our past,
our American past that indeed began by raping the land and killing its native inhabitants (see Sherrett). It begins to be apparent
that such myths hyperventilate the weaknesses of our society no less than its traditional Frontier strengths and its putative function
as the ideal for the universe, the American culture "set on a hill."
Not very comfortable with the Jungian archetypal analyses practiced by his epigones, and totally disenchanted with
"transcendental" factors of whatever ilk, I am yet —perhaps because a comparative-literature / literary-criticism graduate)—
aware of the importance of generic criticism. As I have said many times, a cheer for the football team is never couched as
"May the opposition falter in its aggressive behavior toward our team," but as "Get the bastards!"
Shades of the biblical emphasis of the Tanach,
of course, but precisely: one of the most important (to me) volumes in graduate study was
Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament. Smith's teaching there —
subsequently verified by many volumes in my ken — was that those who are the last in line set the interpretive contours for any
such "library" (biblia, hence "bible" or canon).
One instance: some of the latest of the Israelite revisions of Israelite scripture ruled the "creationist" perspective, uncritically
received now for generations within religious circles, so that the initial verses of Bereshith/Genesis —often the only segments of
the Jewish-Christian biblical canon truly (but uncritically) familiar to conservative religionists— receive an ideological overdetermination
that prompts state boards of education across the States to declare contemporary scientific interpretations of prehistory ("evolution")
to be nonsense. Were the government to declare a carburetor for the Model-T Ford to be divinely inspired, we would have identical idiocy.
A mythos —underlying set of regulative images and ideals; perspectives, values, and components of world views— gets
incarnated (I use the Christian theological term with reservation) in stories (narratives as well as visible symbols, even those of "the center,"
or "the highest peak"). These images and stories form mythological families (genetic trees, as in Greece, Islam, or Israel), and hence to
explicate any singularity implicates the whole framework. To deal with Hermes, one must elucidate human (Pleiad mother Maia) and divine
(father Zeus) contexts with all their consequences and alliances (Hermaphroditos, child of Hermes and Aphrodite; Apollon, the explicitly-
A mythology is, simply put, a collection of mythoi, hence an assembly of the most important stories of a people, regarded
informally as the folklore collected by die Brüder Grimm or desiccated by
classifications into an analytical geometry of parts. Only in recent studies have these been inclusive of imagic elements, as when
Timothy Gantz identifies how artistic representations from antiquity augment/supplement literary transmissions (and see the marvelous
Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 1984-99, 8 double vols.)
Mythologies establish social parameters (the "natural" or "real," as mentioned above; hierarchies, classes) that control human perceptions
("truth," "ultimates") and actions ("normal" vs. "aberrant," "patriotic" or "liberal" vs. "fundamentalist" or "originalist"). They create ideals
(the American superhero) and provide revisionist models (the work of Noam Chomsky, George Lakoff, Michael Moore).
When mythological (and religious and political) perspectives are dominant within a society, we can describe them (in strictly
contemporary, not historical terms) as ideological. No longer treated as a primarily-negative designation, as in classical Marxism (part of
"mystification"), the ideological today describes (neither negatively nor positively) the taken-for-granted, the assumed standards of a
society. How about "the American Way" or "Miss American Pie"?— or now ad nauseum from elected officials of whatever party,
the "will of the Amurikun people"?
The ideological today may be paraphrased as "the natural" or "normal," even in many mass media religious contexts as "what
Christians believe." It is indeed striking that the numerically dominant religion in the USA today has come to demand that its
highly-retrograde social politics (on abortion, immigration, gay and racial rights issues) are "divinely" sanctioned by the fully-secular
American Constitution that oh so carefully skirted the theocratic regimens of the earliest Founders, seeking broadest regulations possible
so as to leave it open to constant revision. Whenever I hear a claim about "naturalness" or "normality," I suspect obfuscation and
overreaching pretensions of a weak position.
Suddenly the mythological jumps out of arcane myth collections onto the budgets of political parties no less than in tithes to
religious institutions. It begins to be evident in both the outright invasion of another sovereign nation, Iraq, and the resulting massacres
of human lives there no less than the annihilation of the African American majority population in New Orleans as the aftermath of
two devastating hurricanes which should have been prepared for decades ago. There we could all observe that the politics of
governments —both national and state— are the most theologically-crucial elements of our commonweal, and in
this case they left thousands of Louisianans low and wet (as opposed to the "high and dry" lands of the rich).
Not religious "beliefs": who could track the ineptitudes, the total greed-oriented policies of the present US Administration
back to any sort of rational (in the sense of pro-human) decisions beyond supporting "faith-based" biases that the President just
happens to approve? While this may seem to have strayed into engagement with what I consider the total disaster of American
democracy thanks to a huge conspiracy of the "haves" against the "have-nots" in our society, I trust that it may be comprehended
as strictly an exposition of the ways in which mythologies lead to ideologies that drive actions set by political biases against this or
that subset of citizens.
We have, in the last decade, moved from being one of the most respected international entities to being despised as invaders,
jingoists, and dumbbells (recall the posters where the president's "W" gets inverted, Bush-the-Moron) across most of the planet.
Perhaps not without mythological justification, since mythologically, we have little mythical regard for the soul of this planet, only
greed on the part of the rich, and denial of the right to human fulfillment on the part of those who have not inherited millions of
dollars, or gained them by corruption and deceit. From such "high and dry" perspectives, the "low and wet" are but inferior creatures
the ideological perspectives of the rich lead them to detest.
Selected Works Cited
Asimov, Isaac. 1961. Words from the Myths. New York: New American Library.
Doty, William G. 2004. Myth: A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore Handbooks. Westport: Greenwood.
Doty, William G. 2000. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. 2nd ed. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P.
Doty, William G. 1999a. "Unpacking the Many Dimensions of a Mythic Story: The Cherokee 'Kenati and Selu and the
Thunder Boys'". "Mythosphere: A Journal for Image, Myth, and Symbol" 1/3.252-81.
Doty, William G. 1999b. "Exploring Politico-Historical Communications of Mythologies." Bulletin of the Council of
Societies for the Study of Religion 28/1.9-16.
Doty, William G. 1994. "The Winnebago Road of Life and Death: Reading a Ritual Drama Religiously." David Jasper
and Mark Ledbetter, eds. In Good Company: Essays in Honor of Robert Detweiler. AAR Stud. in Rel., 71. Atlanta: Scholars;
Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. 2003. Captain America and the Crusade against Evil. Grand Rapids:
Lawrence, John Shelton, and Robert Jewett. 2002. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids:
Lincoln, Bruce. 1999. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
Sharrett, Christopher, ed. 1999. Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. Detroit: Wayne State UP.
Smith, Morton. 1971. Palestinian Parties and Politics that Shaped the Old Testament. New York: Columbia UP.
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