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  In the twentieth century theorists saw myth as anything but the outdated counterpart to science so they weren’t obliged to abandon it in favor of science.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.

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3 thoughts on “Myth – A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

  1. very informative thank you

  2. Jadk Remick says:

    Thanks. I’m looking into the CG Jung Cl. Levi-Strauss connection and this is good work.

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