Theories of Mythology by Eric Csapo

I think that the best way to describe the purpose of the book is to just quote the author since he put it so beautifully in his preface.

This book presents the major schools of mythological interpretation: their theories, their methods, their insights, and their shortcomings. Each school of thought is represented by one or two key or founding figures. Their theories are explained, placed in their social and historical contexts, and problemized.” (p. x)

The author begins by telling us about the difficulties of defining the term “Myths” as a way to show us that the definitions that are presented to us today predispose us to a certain way of thinking about myths. The discussion on this issue in the first chapter is very interesting and takes your mind on an amazing trip. At the end of the chapter he tells you his definition but he also says that this definition is not to be taken as gospel just like any other definition of “Myths”.

The first theory of mythology to be discussed is the Comparative mythology theory. It has its origin in the time when the Europeans were expanding their empires and finding new cultures and people. The theory itself did not and indeed could not take root until the Europeans realized that their culture is not the absolute culture that everything must be compared against but rather that it is just one of many. The chapter offers the story of how and by whom the method was devised and how the people who made use of it used it progressively. Muller used it by applying linguistics, James Frazier compared myths to myths and rites to rites since he had no interest in linguistics. This chapter is full of interesting comparisons between certain myths that are very interesting.

The following chapter is about psychology and its effects on mythology. Myths like the ones associated with Prometheus, the Medusa, Perseus, and Oedipus were discussed from the point of view of Psychology, also concepts like ambivalence, totemism, taboo and social relations. The chapter mainly used Freud theories and put them into context with myths.

Chapter three talks about ritual theories which began with the discovery that myths held social functions. The people who developed these theories are Emile Durkhiem who replaced the Victorian anthropology with the new concept of Society. It was no longer about individuals, economies and materialists. Another person to influence the ritual theories was Bronislaw Malinowski who published a short book called “Myth in Primitive Psychology”. Myths according to Malinowski perpetuated hard work, social order, practices, customs and moral codes. Jane Harrison also influenced the ritual theories and was perhaps the first to be called a ritualist. Her work “Themis” was influential in explaining the Greek Religion. Myth and ritual became intertwined and indeed it was long thought that you can not have one with out the other.

The next two chapters discuss structuralism and ideology in depth. In Structural anthropology, Claude Levi-Struass, makes the claim that “myth is language.” Through approaching mythology as language, Levi-Strauss suggests that it can be approached the same way as language can be approached by the same structuralist methods used to address language. Levi-Strauss clarifies, “Myth is language, functioning on an especially high level where meaning succeeds practically at ‘taking off’ from the linguistic ground on which it keeps rolling.” Levi-Strauss breaks down his argument into three main parts. Meaning is not isolated within the specific fundamental parts of the myth, but rather within the composition of these parts. Although myth and language are of similar categories, language functions differently in myth. Finally, language in myth exhibits more complex functions than in any other linguistic expression. From these suggestions, he draws the conclusion that myth can be broken down into constituent units, and these units are differ from the constituents of language. Finally, unlike the constituents of language, the constituents of a myth, which he labels “mythemes,” function as “bundles of relations.” The chapter on ideology deals with myths about women and their place in myths as well as agriculture and marriage.

This book attempts (and in my opinion succeeds) in showing the development of the Theories of Myths as well as their relationship to each other and how one builds on the one that comes before it. In essence I think that you can not really study one without studying all because they tend to build on each other. The book is very interesting because it shows you ways of analyzing myths and what problems you will face if you use one method instead of another. Each analysis method has its pros and cons, and each one needs careful thought.

I’m beginning to think that perhaps it is easier to use each one of the theories taking into consideration that each one is flawed in some way…But that would also mean that it will take forever to analyze the Celtic Myths…Well no one said it was going to be an easy task…