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Mythic Passages, 
		the newsletter of the Mythic Imagination Institute, a non-profit arts and education 
		corporation.  Copyright 2005

William Doty

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 Handbook.

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 characters.

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. Buxton).

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 " (94).

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.)

Works Cited
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
Cook. Chicago: U of Chicago P.
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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