The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of George Dumézil By C. Scott Littleton

This edition of the book was printed in 1982 so it is considerably older than most of the books I have read on the theories of myth. It is mainly concerned with George Dumézil’s theories and the author tells us that he is not an Indo-Europeanist and is looking at these theories from the point of view of a social anthropologist. The author defends his right to write about Dumézil’s theories by arguing that Dumézil’s comparative mythology is based upon sociological and anthropological assumptions heavily.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part is about the backgrounds of both the Proto-Indo-European culture and Comparative mythology. The second part is about the development of the tripartite system and the third part is about the people who supported the theory, the people who went against it and an anthropological assessment of it. The book also contains an Appendix, which is split into two parts. The first part is a survey of the recent (in 1982) contributions made by both Dumézil and others and part two is a reprint of a paper on the differences between Dumézil and Lévi-Strauss that originally appeared in the Journal of Asian Studies in 1974. The book also has a references cited section, which is huge and very interesting.

The introduction gave us two very important pieces of information that are the basis of Dumézil’s work and will help the reader move forward through the book. The first is the assumptions that are the basis of Dumézil’s comparative analysis of the varied social and mythological forms presented by the ancient Indo-European speaking world and the second is an overview of the tripartite system.

The first chapter in part one discusses the nature and location of the Proto-Indo-European culture. It starts with linguistics and moves on to archeology. It is short but gives the general idea of where Dumézil’s ideas on the Indo-Europeans started. Chapter two discusses comparative mythology, Frazerian anthropology, and Durkheimian sociology. Those two chapters form the background to the Dumézil system.

Part two is made up of three chapters and it talks about the development of the tripartite system and how it evolved.  Chapter three covers the years between 1924 and 1938.  During this period Dumézil was very enthusiastic about Indo-European matters and this enthusiasm caused him to develop many theories regarding the nature of the Indo-European myths and rituals, which he later was forced to discard.  Despite that though it was also during that period that he began to be aware of the functional relationship between social and supernatural phenomena, it was this awareness that allowed him to discover the tripartite system and see it as the keystone of a common Indo-European ideology.  The next chapter discusses the years between 1938 and 1949.  It was during these years that his system started to develop and his way of thinking changed.  He no longer subscribed to the Frazerian-Mannhardtian approach but turned to the social method.  Dumézil recognized that the tripartite system was not merely an Indo-Iranian phenomenon but was a unique and widespread I-E trait manifesting itself in social organization, myth and religion.  He was able to show that the tripartite system was present in ancient Iran, India, Rome, as well as the Germans and Celts.  He was also able to show common concepts and patterns that were present in the I-E cultures.  He was able to show that all these elements were part of a common I-E ideology.  Chapter five discusses the years between 1949 and 1966.  During these years Dumézil perfected his tripartite system and laid out the course of action that he and his colleagues will take to further their studies of cultures like the Celtic, Baltic and Slavic cultures.  The final chapter in part two deals with the years from 1966 to the present (the time the book was published of course).  During these years Dumézil continued on his research and wrote many articles and books.

The final part of this books looks at the disciples, and critics of Dumézil and gives us a glimpse of what they thought of him and his theories and why.  It also has an anthropological assessment of the system and theoretical implications of it.  There is also a chapter on recent contributions in the field.

The book was a pleasure to read.  I had read bits and pieces of George Dumézil’s tripartite system but the overview given in the beginning of the book really put things into perspective for me.  Also it was a good thing to see how the system developed and the assumptions it was based on.  Also some of the data he based the system on and the live examples that the book included.  I also liked the fact that the author included the people who followed him and their contributions in the field as well as the critics of the system and what their thoughts were on it.  The author’s own anthropological assessment was also something that I very much enjoyed reading and assimilating.  The book gives you the minimum you need to really get interested in George Dumézil and his tripartite system.  It is an excellent introduction to George Dumézil.

A Short History of Myth (Canongate Myths Series) by Karen Armstrong

A friend of mine recommended A Short History of Myth to me when I asked her opinion on books that I could read to help me with an essay that I wanted to write.  The name sounded familiar so I went looking for it in my library and ended up buying a new copy because mine had somehow either disappeared or I lent it to someone and forgot about it.

The book is about the history of myths as opposed to the history of the theory of myths.  Karen Armstrong takes you on a tour of what myths are and what they meant to humanity through the ages.  She starts with the Neanderthals and goes right up to the present.  You must read the book though knowing that she has set ideas.  She believes that myths are stories that accompany ritual and that without the rituals the myths really have no meaning.  Also they help humans cope with human predicaments, in essence they tell you how to behave and interpret things that happen in your life.  And though the stories change as humans change they still speak to the same basic conditions.  To her a myth is true not because it gives you factual information but because it is effective.  If it does not give you a new insight into the deeper meaning of life it has failed.  She also looks at the roles of artists today and presents the hypothesis that they are making the myths of today.

I like the book because of the history and development of myth and because it talks about the myth itself rather than the history of the theories of myth.  However, because of the big scope of the book and the small amount of space she has to give it all to you the book is very limited.  Her views come through loud and clear (and she is very up front about those views so I can’t fault her there) and sometimes she makes conclusions with out giving you the evidence to back it up (I’m assuming because of the limited space she has at times, and because sometimes her views just can’t be verified).  All in all it was an ok book that serves as a good introduction to myths, with the caveats mentioned above.

Myth (The New Critical Idiom Series) by Laurence Coupe

This book is part of the series The New Critical Idiom edited by John Drakakis. It is written by Laurence Coupe who is a Senior Lecturer in English at Manchester Metropolitan University. Myth was written with the students of literature in mind. It gives them a comprehensive overview of the development of myth, showing how mythic themes, structures and symbols persist in literature and entertainment today. This book shows the relation between myth, culture and literature, it explores uses made of the term “myth” within the fields of literary criticism, anthropology, cultural studies, feminism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis, it discusses the association between modernism, post-modernism, myth and history, it familiarizes the student with themes such as the dying god, the quest of the Grail, the relation between chaos and cosmos, and the vision of the end of time. And finally demonstrates the growing importance of the green dimension of myth.
The introduction of the book is trying to establish a definition of myth that will take us forward into the book. The author starts by giving simple examples of how the myth is seen from different angles by different people. In literary and cultural studies myth is usually used as a synonym of ideology for example when we say “the myth of progress” or “the myth of the free individual”. In the entertainment world it is used as a synonym for fantasy. In either case the meaning is illusion. Then the author gives us four stories that define different types of myths, fertility myths, creation myths, deliverance myths, and hero myths. These are not the only types but they are the most seen in mythology. The author believes that mythology is an important element of literature and that literature is a means to extend mythology. The author decided to use the approach outlined by the theologian Don Cupitt to define myth. Don Cupitt considers that there are so many conflicting definitions of myth because each theorists takes one sort of myth and makes it the center of his studies that it is better to list a number of “typical features” and then act on the assumption that a narrative is mythic if it has most but not necessarily all of these features.
Part one is about reading myths.The author uses as his vehicle the film by Coppola Apocalypse Now. Through it we discuss the work of Frazer, T.S. Eliot and his “mythical Method”, Edgell Rickword’s mythopoeic program and Mircea Eliade’s work. Chapter one focuses on the fertility myth and Frazer’s work on it. Chapter two focuses on the creation myth and Mircea Eliade’s work on the subject and in chapter three the myth of deliverance is discussed and through out all three chapters the hero myth is discussed in relation to the material. All this is done with an eye on the literary and cultural texts and contexts.
Mythic reading is the subject of part two. Chapter four talks about two kinds of mythic reading: allegory, which is identified as realist; and typology, which is identified as non-realist. Chapter five and the subsequent chapters talk about the theories of the past and present. The people whose works are discussed are Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Claude Lévi-Strauss in Chapter five; Ronald Barthes, Northrop Frye, Fredric Jameson and Marina Warner in Chapter six; Gary Snyder, James Lovelock, Theodore Roszak and Michel Serres in Chapter seven.
I really loved this book and enjoyed the examination of three types of myths in relation to the movie Apocalypse Now. I also very much enjoyed the easy explanation of the theories of myth in part two of the book. I think what makes it really good is the fact that it uses examples from works we have all read or seen at some point or another in our lives. It keeps the book fresh and makes the thought process very easy on the student (or in my case reader). It also brings about the conclusion that with the loss of myth we lose our environment, and that if the natural world is not alive (as is portrayed in myths) then it is a “wasteland”. Another idea that came across loud and clear was how to read myths and how to be a mythic reader. It is all in how your “see” the myth and from what point of view. A wonderful book indeed!

Myth – A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short Introduction is an overview of the major nineteenth and twentieth century theories of myth.  It is clear, very well organized and surprisingly comprehensive.  This is a book for people who want a helpful orientation to the field of mythological studies.  The author uses the myth of Adonis to illustrate the different theories he is discussing.  Robert A. Segal is a Professor of Theories of Religion at Lancaster University.

The author in his introduction tells us that the theories of myth may be as old as myths themselves and are at least as old as Presocratics but that it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that it became scientific in approach.  Scientific theorizing is based on accumulated information.

The author sees theories of myth as theories of some larger domain with myth as a mere subset of it.  Anthropological theories of myth are theories of culture applied to the case of myth, while psychological theories of myth are theories of the mind applied to myth and so on.  He feels that this is because we really don’t know exactly how to define myth.

The theories of myth are united by the questions asked in these theories: (1)origin: how and why a myth arises, (2)function: why and how myths persist and (3)the subject matter of the myth.  The theories of course differ in what they deal with and only a few deal with all of the three questions together.

Segal feels that the difference between the theorists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is that in the nineteenth century myth was seen as the “primitive” counterpart to science and so myths were rejected.  In the twentieth century theorists saw myth as anything but the outdated counterpart to science so they weren’t obliged to abandon it in favor of science.

Segal also proposes his own definition of myth in the introduction.  He sees myth as a story.  For folklorists the story is about creation of the world.  For theorists in religious studies the story must be about gods or near gods.  But he doesn’t want to be too rigid in his definition so he defines myth as a story about something significant in the past or present that involves characters with personalities (human, god or animal).  It is a story that accomplishes something significant for the reader and it must express a conviction (true or false is not a criterion).

As mentioned above Segal uses the myth of Adonis to illustrate the differences between theories.  He chose this myth because there are different versions of it, and it was popular with theorists like J. G. Frazer, Levi-Straussian, Marcel Detienne, and C. G. Jung.

The first chapter discusses myth and science.  There has always been opposition to myth.  In Plato’s time it was an ethical opposition (he couldn’t believe that the gods were made out to behave so immorally) and in modern times the opposition comes in the form of science.  The author offers three ways in which myth and science are seen in modern times.  The first is that myth is true science, and this is a view held by such people as the creationists and in this view modern science must give way to myth, not vice versa.  The second view is myth as modern science and here any element that does not conform to the scientific view is removed.  The process is called demythologizing.  The third view is that myth is primitive science, and this is the most common of the three views. Myth is considered as the pre-scientific counterpart to science, which is assumed to be exclusively modern. Myth is here part of religion.  The author then goes on to give examples of people who supported each view.  The People he discusses are: E. B. Tylor, J. G. Frazer,Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Bronislaw Malinowski, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Robin Horton and Karl Popper.

In the second chapter the author discusses myth and philosophy.  He feels that there are seven different views on the relationship between.  The views are: (1) myth is part of philosophy, (2) myth is philosophy, (3) philosophy is myth, (4) myth grows out of philosophy, (5) philosophy grows out of myth, (6) myth and philosophy are independent of each other but serve the same function and (7) myth and philosophy are independent of each other and serve different functions.  The theorists discussed in this chapter are: Paul Radin, Ernst Cassirer, the Frankforts, Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and Albert Camus.

Myth and religion is the subject matter of chapter three.  The author starts by saying that to relate myth and religion myth needs to be under religion.  And this exposes myth to the challenge of science and so to reconcile myth and science you need to reconcile religion and science and there are two ways that the theorists have used to do that.  The first is to re-characterize the subject matter of religion and by association myth and the second is to elevate secular phenomena to religious ones.

In the first tactic religion is said to be not about the physical world and so it is safe from clashing with science.  Myth is this case is a traditional myth and is read symbolically rather than literally.  In the second tactic myth is not confined to religious ancient tales.  Stories about heroes, who are at face value humans, are raised so high that they are virtual gods.  Their actions are not superhuman and so are safe from science.  This way means that myths are read literally.  Theorists discussed in this chapter are: Rudolf Bultmann, Hans Jonas, and Mircea Eliade.

Chapter four discusses myth and ritual.  The myth-ritualists say that myth does not stand-alone but is tied to ritual.  It is an action as well as a statement.  William Robertson Smith, E. B. Tylor, J.G. Frazer, Jane Harrison, S.H. Hooke, Rene Girard, and Walter Burkert are all discussed in this chapter.

The relationship between myth and literature is next.  Myths were thought to be used in literature, and literature derived from myths.  Also myth is considered a story, and you can see patterns in myths.  Theorists cited in this chapter are Lord Raglan, Frye, Burke, and Girard.

In myth and psychology two theorists dominated the field, the first is Sigmund Freud and the second is C.G. Jung.  Both of these psychologists parallel myths to dreams.  To Freud myth constitutes a compromise between the side of oneself that wants the desires satisfied outright and the side that does not even want to know they exist.  Myth to Freud functions through its meaning.  People who followed in Freud’s footsteps are Otto Rank, Bruno Bettelheim, and Alan Dundes.

With the advancements of psychoanalysis things changed and psychoanalysists like Jacob Arlow saw myth as contributing to normal development rather than perpetuating neurosis.  C. G. Jung pioneered the concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious.  Someone who followed in Jung’s footsteps is Joseph Campbell.

Cluade Levi-Strauss invented the structuralist approach to myth and he 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 different 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.”   A structural approach should account for all versions of a myth, as all versions are relevant to the function of the myth as a whole. This leads to what Levi-Strauss calls a spiral growth of the myth, which is continuous while the structure itself is not. The growth of the myth only ends when the “intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted.”  Theorists who have taken the same track are Vladimir Propp, George Dumézil and the Gernet School.

In myth and society we see that for Malinowski myths deal with social phenomena like marriage, taxes and ritual.  They help people to deal with what they have by taking it to the ancient past.  George Sorel sees myth as ideologies; they are eternal and serve to topple society instead of strengthen it.

The last chapter of the book deals with the future of the study of myth.  The author summarizes what the theorists of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century thought of myth and then offers his own view of how myth should be seen in the twenty-first century.

The book is a great introduction on the subject of theories of myth and should be supplemented by more in depth analysis and other theorist opinions as this is one man’s look on the subject from the point of view of the field he practices.

Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland

This book was a gift from a relative in ireland, I had said the last time I was there that I wish I could take him back to Kuwait with me so that I could listen to him tell me the history of Ireland.  So in 2005 he sent me this book with a little note saying that since he could not come, Malachy McCourt will do just fine.  And he was right.

This book will give you the history of Ireland in snapshots of the most important people, places and historical events.  The author starts with Ireland before St. Patrick and continued until Mary Robinson and Bertie Ahern.  The tone of the book is very beautiful.  I keep seeing myself sitting near a fireplace or in a pub listening to a very good storyteller.  This is a book that people of Irish decent would want to read, and perhaps read from to their children and they won’t be bored.  How do I know that? I had a bunch of kids at my apartment two months ago that I was supposed to keep an eye on, needless to say it was chaos.  So I asked them all to sit down and I started to read a few of the chapters on the more heroic characters in Ireland like Brian Boru and Turlough O’ Connor.  The children were entertained AND they learned some history.

Is this a scholarly book?  No, is it factual, absolutely.  McCourt himself says that this book is not meant to be scholarly nor is he qualified to write one.  It is a storyteller’s book who happens to be delivering the history of his country.  A very enjoyable read.

The Modern Construction of Myth by Andrew Von Hendy

The Modern Construction of Myth is a book that gives a critical account of how myth came to be seen in modernity.  It starts in the eighteenth century with the reinvention of the concept of myth and then follows the major branches of the theories, of which the author tells us there are three, as they appear in the works of theologians, philosophers, literary artists, political thinkers, folklorists, anthropologists, psychologists and others from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Generally, what I took away from the book is that there were three phases of development in the field of theories of mythology, the first was in the eighteenth century called the romantic era; the second is in the nineteenth century where the origin of myth was important, and the third phase was in the twentieth century when the function of the myth was important.  These distinctions of course were not always clear and co-existed.

Also of these three phases and during the last two phases, you have three strands of mythological theories, what the author calls ideological, folklorist and constitutive and all three stem and stand in relation to romantic or transcendental origin.

I have to say that for me the book was a bit hard to follow.  I knew all the names mentioned in the book from other books that I have read and dealt with the same material but it was hard for me to follow what the theories were and how these people developed them.  Some chapters I’ve had to read more than a few times just to get what he was talking about.  The author used really hard words that sent me to the dictionary (and really he could have used easier words that were still big words if you know what I mean…).  This book is not for anyone beginning to study theories of mythology like me, but rather for someone who is already extremely familiar with the theories and want to trace them to their origins and to see how they evolved.

The Power of Myth By Joseph Campbell

As I started to read this book I decided that it would have been much better to get the audio version.  The book is a conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell that took place between 1985 and 1986 at George Lucus’ Skywalker Ranch and the Museum of Natural History in New York.

The book addresses the fundamental and difficult subject of myth from the point of view of Joseph Campbell and his studies in comparative religion.  The book is a must read for anyone who is studying theories of mythology because he tackles the myth from the point of view that says that myth are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance.  They are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.  They help you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive and they tell you what the experience is.

The Power of Myth is essentially a summery of Campbell’s life work and provokes the reader to view his/her world with different eyes.   He discusses five concepts in the book and they are: myth and the modern world, the journey inward, the first story tellers, sacrifice and bliss, the hero’s journey, the goddess, love and marriage, and the many faces of myth.  The book is full of examples from other cultures and religions that help illustrate his concepts and though I do not agree with everything he says in his book I really enjoyed reading it very much as one of the theories of mythology.