Imagining Myth: Negatively and Positively
by William Doty, Ph. D.,
William Doty, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Religious Studies
at the University of Alabama and former editor of Mythosphere: A Journal for
Image, Myth and Symbol. Dr. Doty is a prolific writer, translator, and
editor who has published more than twenty books and seventy essays in a wide
range of journals on topics including religious studies, anthropology,
psychology, classics, and art criticism. His best known books include Mythography:
The Study of Myths and Rituals, Myths of Masculinity, and Myth: A
The first thing a person in our culture who wishes to speak positively about
myths must do is to stress that the term "myth" is not being used negatively.
Popular magazines exercise the negative slant regularly when they report on
studies that riddle or debunk customary opinions: "The Myth of Calcium
Supplements for Women," "The Myth of the Real Estate Boom." Often when myth is
used to cast aspersion on a common belief, we can easily replace "myth" with
"derogative stereotype" or "mistaken apperception": "The Myth of the Lazy
Mexican Worker," "The Myth of the Hyperactive Male Child."
A negative attitude toward myth can also arise from a contrast between (mere)
myth and (primarily religious) truth. For example, believing in miracles as
myth would take away from regarding them as divine works of a deity. I try here
to clarify how this situation came about (I provide a good bit more discussion
in ch. 4 of Mythography, "The 'Noble White Man': Why Myths seem Déclassé
in Today's Glitz Culture," and in the section of Myth: A Handbook
entitled "Myth and 'The Real Truth'").
Certainly the freighting of the term "myth" negatively has a long
heritage: already in Roman antiquity the older Greek term mythos had
come subsequently to be associated with all sorts of fantastic stories and
allegories. Hence the use of fabula instead of a Latinized form of mythos,
and the situation gets complicated because of the later use by Romans of
"fable" (ficta fabula
) for stories with simple moral teachings that often contained animal
Then there's the Christian anti-mythological bias found already when the
numerous late-nineteenth-century discoveries of many parallel mythological
motifs and stories in pre-Hebraic cultures initially were simply ignored. While
the parallel motifs to us are obviously metaphorical, matching stories in the
Tanakh/Old Testament - such as creation and flood materials in Genesis - they
were judged earlier (because "revealed") as real and historical, rather than as
(negative sense) mythical.
Already in primitive Christianity, the Koine Diatheke/New Testament certainly
had mythologically-slanted segments, such as the Christ-hymn in Philippians
2.6-11. References in later NT literature derive from the period when the early
Christians were differentiating themselves from the mother religious
institution, the Hellenistic Jewish synagogue. Hence when 1 Timothy 4.7
commands, "Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths," we may assume that
what then had come to seem silly to him were Jewish teachings (a fair
translation in this instance of mythos
) that did not recognize the divinity of the Christ. The similarly-dated book
of Titus 1.14 makes this obvious: faithful Christians are not to give "heed to
Jewish myths or to commands of men who reject the truth."
One can readily observe in subsequent Christian art (as in the catacombs) the
direct influence of illustrations of classical mythological figures and
scenarios (e.g., Christ as the Good Shepherd, directly aping the Kriophoros
, "Ram Bearer," in classical imagery of Hermes; or Christ the Noble Philosopher
reading from a parchment scroll). However on another plane the early-medieval
patristic theologians soon attacked "pagan" mythologies in no uncertain terms.
They established destructive patterns that persisted until the tremendous and
transforming recovery of classical culture in the Renaissance.
Very few medieval literary works had taken very seriously the then-devalued
mythological materials - except for the scriptural ones. Medieval biblical
criticism, applying allegorical or tropological (moralistic) interpretations,
had to back-peddle furiously to deny the mythological nature of many of the
biblical stories - they suggested that devout Christians ought to consider only
their "higher" theological significances.
And then eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought developed its own bias against
humanistic studies, from its take on classical culture that the logos
or scientific rationality had always been infinitely more valuable than mythos.
Today studies of Greek literature by Bruce Lincoln (1999) and others have shown
that the opposite was probably more likely: apparently in antiquity mythos
represented the authoritative words of a dominant figure, logos
precisely asseverations so weak that they had to be argued, debated rationally
and scientifically, before being accepted by the polis (see also the papers
from a very lively conference I enjoyed at Bristol University in 1996, ed.
It seems to have been mostly in the recent Modernist period that the concepts
of myth and fiction acquired the aura of "duplicitous, untrue, false," either
in religious circles where they are opposed by a revealed "truth," or in
popular culture where they were taken to indicate negative attitudes
established by cheap advertising or misrepresentation for commercial gain: "The
Myth of the Grapefruit Diet."
Even in academic study, since the late nineteenth century, there has been a
tendency to devalue myth at the same time as we have come to understand how it
often links societies to traditional patterns of the past. I am thinking for
instance of several analyses of hero myths that led to acknowledgement that if
certain elements of the heroic monomyth (poor parents, child often reared away
from home, gradual recognition of military or other powers) were not part of a
hero's biography or legend, the heroic pattern might well exert so much
pressure that missing elements would be inserted into the popular memory about
the hero. It is possible to sight this process in the growth of the Jesus
materials across the gospels (NT and non-canonical).
Marcel Detienne (The Creation of Mythology
) emphasizes that "myth" is a construct of our own times or more specifically,
of academic settings. James Hillman notes that myths in our culture are
considered positively only within academia (especially when they are recognized
as master-tropes of literature and styles of narrative). But this has to be
qualified somewhat by "within some of the disciplines of the humanities," since
I've had a mathematics-oriented/"symbolic" university philosopher yell at me
for suggesting there might be myths of science, and I remember painfully a
program for retirees - many of them professionals - where we were at
loggerheads as I presented some materials on Campbell, until the convener took
me aside and gently reminded me of the southern protestant conservatism of most
of the highly-educated attendees: in their churches, "myth" pairs with
"satanic." When I reviewed some of the history of negative takes on myth within
western Christian contexts, my audience was then more open to converse about
the ways myth might be approached more appreciatively.
Reviewers of these remarks asked me for more illustrations of the positive
approach to myth, and I guess I see how this would round out the piece. But I
must plead for attention to what I have written repeatedly in all my "positive"
publications. For instance: "Myth is understood [in my writings] as referring
to the fundamental religious or philosophical beliefs of a culture, expressed
[I'd add now, "sometimes"] through ritual behavior or through the graphic or
literary arts, and forming a constitutive part of a society's worldview" (2000:
13). "We do not just think about myths, but through them" (100).
"Myth is not unsophisticated science but sophisticated poetic enunciation of
meaning and significance
Or: "Myths are seldom fantasy constructions; more frequently they are the
backbones of practical ways of living realistically" (2004: 3 - this volume
should be available as a paperback from the University of Alabama Press within
a year). "Myth is not spacey talk about never-never lands. It is grounded in
pragmatic, realistic encounters with others and with important aspects of the
natural and cultural worlds in which we dwell" (30). "Clearly mythic narratives
are 'special'; I suggest that the special quality comes from addressing not
trivial but vital issues and situations in the human experience" (32).
And: "[I]t is clear that the term mythic names an element of all culture
that can never be ignored: it is one of the fundamental elements by which
'civilization' adds the communal sharing of the city (civis
; compare 'civic duty') to the individual experience of living in the world,
even when that world in its postmodernist dimensions lacks the cohesiveness and
elegance of earlier ideals" (1995: 193). "We ennarrate [set into narrative
flex] significances by revoicing mythemes [mythic units, themes] whose
significance derives from their situations in the cultural myth as a whole,
either by telling them on in new guises or by the equally poetic work of
interpretation and criticism, a work that need not overwhelm a text so much as
it can bring its living depth back to view in a later context" (213).
I am not an innocent spectator of the negative aspects of ideological,
religious, and political utilizations of our cultural traditions, and I am
often terrified by the now-politically-dominant fundamentalist refusals to
recognize change and development in our social lives across the last several
centuries. But I hope I have contributed to the "perennial" respect for the
traditional, including the ritualistic and (positive) mythic, that has remained
an important fundament of our culture. At the same time, I've frequently noted
how mythical elements do not just consolidate and reaffirm conservative
elements of the past, but at the same time are able to open new doorways into
reinterpretations and re-applications specifically relevant to this - and most
likely, future - generations.
(I am grateful to Jane Stewart and Mary Davis for suggestions on my initial
draft of these remarks.)
Cook. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
Buxton, Richard, ed. 1999. From Myth to Reason?: Studies in the
Development of Greek Thought. New York: Oxford UP.
Detienne, Marcel. 1986. The Creation of Mythology. Trans. Margaret
Doty, William G. 1995. "Silent Myths Singing in the Blood: The Sites of
Production and Consumption of Myths in a 'Mythless' Society." In
Doty, ed., Picturing Cultural Values in Postmodern America.
Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P; 187-220.
Doty, William G. 2000. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals.
2nd ed. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P.
Doty, William G. 2004. Myth: A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore
Handbooks. Westport: Greenwood.
Lincoln, Bruce. 1999. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and
Scholarship. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
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