How to Read a Myth


Title: How to Read a Myth

Series: Phylosophy and Literary Theory

Author: William Marderness

Publisher: Humanity Books

Published: 2009

ISBN: 9781591026402

Pages: 152, including notes, bibliography and Index.

Synopsis

Roland Barthes and Mircea Eliade pioneered two contrasting yet equally influential theories of myth. Until now, no one has successfully integrated Barthes’ interpretation of myth as a system of signs and Eliade’s interpretation of myth as a sacred narrative. In this important contribution to the study of myth, philosopher William Marderness proposes a comprehensive theory that accounts for the diverse interpretations of Barthes and Eliade, among others. 

Marderness articulates four ways of understanding myth: mythical reading (myth as truth), cultural reading (myth as cultural convention), extra mythical reading (myth as enigma), and mythological reading (myth as artifice). Through this interpretive framework, Marderness explicates portions of the Bible, Virgil’s “Aeneid”, Anchee Min’s “Red Azalea”, and Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies”. Marderness shows us through diverse contexts how his comprehensive theory enriches our understanding of myth as cultural expression.
  

Review:

For a while now I’ve wanted to work on my study of the myths. I decided to begin at the very beginning. This books seemed like the best place to start. The text is made up of four chapters, an Introduction and a conclusion. The aim of the book is to offer a way to read and understand myths that accounts for different varied interpretations.

The first chapter explains the hypothesis that the author is trying to prove in his book. I found the whole chapter confusing, until I got to the last section entitled “Four Readings”, then it all clicked for me. Basically, when reading a myth four things need to be kept in mind. Mythical reading believes that the narrative is what it claims to be. The cultural reading accepts the narrative as literature and the myths that support it as cultural and religious conventions. The meaning of the myths come under the heading extra-mythical reading. Finally, mythological reading looks at two similar myths and tries to determine what narrative of the two is the accurate one.

The rest of the chapters take four examples and apply the method above to them. It works for the examples he cited. I decided to see if it worked for the Irish myths in the same way. For the most part it did until I got to the last part which is the mythological reading. In Irish mythology we sometimes have different versions of the same myth, and trying to say which one is accurate is not possible and counter-productive. Both can be accurate if we took them as versions of the myth coming from different provinces. 

How to Read a Myth gave me a lot of food for thought and for the most part proved to be very helpful in giving me a way to look critically at the Irish myths. It is a short read and an informative one. I would recommend it to people interested in different hypotheses of how to read myths, but approach it with the mindset that it might not work on all the myths.

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6 thoughts on “How to Read a Myth

  1. Faoladh says:

    In Patrick Dunn’s The Practical Art of Divine Magic, he advocates a similar four-level reading of myths, based on Jewish hermeneutics: the Literal, the Symbolic, the Moral, and the Mystical readings. Literal reading takes the words of the myth at face value; Symbolic reading analyzes what the symbols in the myth mean; Moral reading derives lessons for living from the myths; and Mystical reading asks how the myth can bring us to the gods. He then provides examples of those readings by analyzing the story of Hermes’s theft of Apollo’s cattle, the invention of the lyre, and Apollo’s forgiveness from the Homeric Hymns. (Dunn, pp.85-90)

    • celticscholar says:

      Yes, it seems to work for a lot of myths but the Irish ones…well, Ireland has always been hard to pin down lol.

    • celticscholar says:

      I like this approach, I’ll look into this book thanks. I think I might actually have it.

  2. Dymphy says:

    Fascinating! I’ve always wanted to dive deeper into the irish ones. I’m going to see if I can get a hold of a copy.

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