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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Indo-European Poetry and Myth By M. L. West

Author: M. L. West

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Publishing Year: 2007

ISBN: 978-0-19-928075-9

Pages: 539

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Synopsis: The Indo-Europeans, speakers of the prehistoric parent language from which most European and some Asiatic languages are descended, most probably lived on the Eurasian steppes some five or six thousand years ago. Martin West investigates their traditional mythologies, religions, and poetries, and points to elements of common heritage. In The East Face of Helicon (1997), West showed the extent to which Homeric and other early Greek poetry was influenced by Near Eastern traditions, mainly non-Indo-European. His new book presents a foil to that work by identifying elements of more ancient, Indo-European heritage in the Greek material. Topics covered include the status of poets and poetry in Indo-European societies; meter, style, and diction; gods and other supernatural beings, from Father Sky and Mother Earth to the Sun-god and his beautiful daughter, the Thunder-god and other elemental deities, and earthly orders such as Nymphs and Elves; the forms of hymns, prayers, and incantations; conceptions about the world, its origin, mankind, death, and fate; the ideology of fame and of immortalization through poetry; the typology of the king and the hero; the hero as warrior, and the conventions of battle narrative.

Review: The Introduction to this book was very organized. In it the author gives you a timeline for the Indo-European and places them and he also talks a little about all the people who made this possible. He talks about the sources he is going to use and the methodology he will employ so by the end of the Introduction you have some background on the people he will be talking about, where he got his main sources from, and how he will arrive to where he wants to take you.

I really liked the way he described his methodology. It helps to smooth out a lot of things that the “old comparative method” doesn’t. Though in a way this is comparative mythology too.

In Chapter One we learn about the author’s definition of poetry, all about who the poet was in the Indo-European cultures, the structure of poetry and the occasions and genres of poems in the Indo-European world.

It was certainly an interesting chapter especially when the author talked about the different types of poets and all the training they had to get through to be poets, their relationship with their patrons, as well as all the different occasions poems were recited.

Chapter Two talks about the phrases used and the figures that can be seen in Indo-European poetry.

To be honest this chapter was both interesting and a bit confusing (not in a bad way) just that I had to unlearn a few things that I thought I learned correctly.

In Chapter Three we go into everything to do with the gods and goddesses. This includes what they were/are, how they were worshipped, the distinction between them and mankind, characteristics of their divinity, their names and mythical themes associated with the.

I found this chapter very informative and forms a great basis for further study of the gods both in the Indo-European sense and later if one is to go into in depth study of any of the gods of the daughter Indo-European cultures.

The Sky and Earth are the subject matter of Chapter Four. In this chapter the author talks about the Sky god and Earth goddess, their divinity, their relationship to each other and their children.

I loved how the author showed that the gods may have started out as one thing and then evolved into another. Most of the time though, this other is a small part of the first association.

Chapter Five was about the Sun and his Daughter and Dawn. There are quite a bit of motifs and associations that are put forward in this chapter.

The whole chapter made me think. I know a lot of people think that Miranda Green saw the Solar God everywhere with association with the Celts and while the author does not agree with her excesses in that respect, he does show that there is some evidence for a Sun God. Also he puts forward an interesting association of the Dawn goddess with Brigit.

More on the Gods in Chapter Six on this time it is the gods of Storm and stream.

I was really interested in reading about all the parallels and similarities between these gods.

Nymphs, gnomes, elves, dwarfs, and satyrs are just some of the deities and supernatural beings discussed in Chapter Seven.

I loved reading this chapter, I always assumed that some things were just unique to certain cultures but boy was I wrong.

Chapter Eight talks about one of my favorite subjects, hymns and spells.

I’ve always talked about how pagans should go back to the fact that the paths of Paganism are religions, and that part of that is worship and prayers. The chapter also talks about spells, magic and healing.

Cosmos and Canon is the title of Chapter Nine. In the chapter the author talks about cosmology, cosmogony, and the world wide wed.

I really can’t describe this chapter it needs to be read to be believed.

Two component of Indo-European cultures are morality and fame and they were the subjects covered in Chapter Ten.

This chapter explores the relationship between death, life, names and reputation. It really struck me how some of the concepts discussed are so similar to Arab (mostly nomadic Arab) philosophies of old.

Chapter Eleven speaks of King and Hero. The chapter looks at the King and his relationship with his Queen, with the horse with the priest and many other concepts that go with Kingship.

This chapter reminded me a lot of what I read in a book on Celtic views of Justice. It explained a lot of where the concepts in that book came from.

The final chapter of the book has to do with battle. Chapter Twelve talks of arms and the warriors who wield them.

This is a very interesting chapter to me because a lot of what we know about that Celts we know from that stand point. It is good to see where that originated.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It is one of these expensive books that are really worth every penny. I always had problems with Georges Dúmiezil’s methodology when it came to comparison but M.L. West smoothed out the rough edges for me with his tweaking of it.

West’s writing style is so easy to read and it is never dry. I keep getting the impression that I was listening to a friend talking about everyday life rather than a scholarly work, but make no mistake this is definitely a scholarly book. The information is interesting and well organized. The book just flows beautifully. It took me a bit to read it mostly because I needed to digest it. Lots of information in there to process, and I know that this is one book that I will be referring to time and again.

Beyond the Mist by Peter O’Connor

Beyond the Mist is a book that intrigued me from the moment I read a synopsis of it on Amazon.  It is a book that is written by a psychologist called Peter O’Connor.  I really wanted to see what psychologist had to say about Irish Mythology.

In the preface of the book the author tells us that he is approaching the subject as a student of mythology who happens to be a psychologist rather than an expert on both mythology and psychology.  His hope is that the world of Irish mythology will re-orientate our thoughts to the imaginal and re-establish a sense of awe, uncertainty and mystery concerning the human psyche.

Chapters one and two set the stage for the rest of the book.  Chapter one gives us a little background on how mythology and psychology are connected and some of the theories from the famous names in psychology like Freud and Jung.  The author delivers the best explanation of mythos and logos that I have ever read.  His definition of myth is one that I absolutely love and agree with.  He also laments the fact that people have elevated logos above mythos.  Chapter two is a little bit of history and everyday social circumstances of the Celts to get a background on the people we are going to “analyze” through their myths.

The next ten chapters look at the cycles of Irish mythology, and at the main characters and events in it through the eyes of the psychoanalyst that is Peter O’Connor.  The chapters are interesting with interesting points of view on what these myths could mean for us today.

In the final chapter, the author tells us why he doesn’t talk about the Historical cycle of Irish mythology and concludes the ideas he put forth in the ten chapters before.

I absolutely enjoyed reading this book for two reasons.  First I was able to see the application of theories of mythology (psychology theories) on Irish myths, which is very rare (at least I’ve never seen it before).  And second because the myths were shown for what they could mean to us today, and what we could learn from them as modern people. 

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Myths and Legends of the Celts by James Mackillop

Mackillop began his book with a very comprehensive Introduction.  It was so jam packed with wonderful information that it kept me wondering what the rest of the book was going to be like.  He started out the introduction by talking about the history of the Celts, and the controversy of whether or not they really existed as a people.  He explained in his easy way how that controversy started (without being petty about it and you don’t really get the sense that he thought it was a controversy, most people who don’t know about it wouldn’t guess he was talking about it), and why and then he explained how we should see the Celts and what defines them as a peoples.  The next part of his introduction is about the sources of our knowledge of the Celts, from the classical writers, to archeology to the vernacular records he explains it all in such easy terms for the beginner and the advanced reader will get a great refresher too!  He also explains the term Celtic mythology, and what is encompassed in this term, he also discusses something that is not usually discussed in books of this type.  He tells us the names and dates of the manuscripts that have survived of the Celtic myths and from which branch of the Celtic people it came.  Keep in mind all this is still just the introduction AND HE IS NOT DONE YET!  The final part of the introduction talks about the interpretation and reinterpretation of the Celtic myths, the theories surrounding them and he even gives us a taste of a little bit of theories of mythology in general to help explain the theories on Celtic mythology.

After the introduction the book is divided into three parts.  The first part is called Contexts and it has six chapters.  This first part gives you the background information you need to read the mythology.  It talks about Celtic deities, the Celtic religion and what we know about it today, sacred kingship in early Ireland, Goddesses, warrior queens, saints, Celtic feasts and Otherworlds.  Part two discusses the Irish myths and it too has six chapters.  It begins with the Lebor Gabála Érenn, then goes on to the Irish mythological cycle, continues to the Ulster cycle (devoting two chapters to it) and the last two chapters discuss the Fenian cycle and the cycle of the Kings.  The final part of the book is about the Welsh and oral myths and it has two chapters.  The first chapter is about the roots of the Welsh tradition and the second is about the survival in the oral tradition of the Celtic lands.

The end of the book has a beautiful selected bibliography but even more beautiful than that is the list of leading names and terms in Celtic mythology.  It gives short explanations of the names and terms, sort of like a glossary.

This can be easily called the best book I’ve read so far on Celtic mythology.  The author’s attention to not just the myths themselves, but the background behind them makes it an interesting and fact filled read.  You are not just reading a story you are also seeing the people behind them.

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Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions By Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson

In her introduction Davidson gives a short history of the three peoples she intends to talk about and compare, the Celts, the Germans, and the Scandinavians. The aim of the book is to look at these three peoples and use archeology, iconography, literature and folklore to explore their religious beliefs and practices. And bring this knowledge back to what it means to us today.

Through out her chapters she gives examples of how the three peoples are similar and in some cases the same when it comes to certain things in their religion like holy places, feasting, sacrifice, rites of battle, land spirits, ancestors, foreknowledge, destiny, the Otherworld, and the ruling powers. She also offers a conclusion at the end of the book to summarize all the chapters that came before. The list of references in the book are also VERY impressive. I do love a good reference list.

The book is a scholarly read. It is a bit dry but the information included in it is fresh, well presented, and well researched. I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in any of the three peoples, because it talks about things together that not a lot of other books mention when talking about one of the peoples alone. It is a reference that you will go back to time and again.

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Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Berresford Ellis

Celtic Myths and Legends is a collection of Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton tales brought together by Peter Ellis in one volume.  Ellis, tells the tales in his own words, from manuscripts that he has read.  Now you can say what you will about Ellis’s loyalties but he is a great storyteller.  He may idolize the Celts, but the stories are worth telling and he certainly brings them to life.

He begins the book with an introduction to the Celts.  He gives a short abridged history both of the people and the language.  He compares them and their mythology to that of the Indians to show that they come from the same mother language, that of the Indo-Europeans.  He also gives an overview of the sources from which he got his stories (read myths), and how old those sources are, though he didn’t do a very good job of that because I ended up being confused about it all.  The first chapter after the Introduction was termed The Ever Living Ones and it is the myth of how the Tuatha De Danann had come to Ireland.  It is most likely from the Book of Invasions though the author never told us so.

What follows the introduction are the myths from Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany.  He prefaces each section of the myths with a little history and some of the works that he is getting the myths from.

The best point of this book is that the myths are recounted in a very easy way, which can be understood by anyone.  Peter Ellis is a great storyteller.  Here is where I think he went wrong, first I don’t know why he chose these specific myths (other than some sentimental reasons) and he didn’t tell us exactly where he got these myths from and a short history of these manuscripts would have been nice.

This is a good book to read if you want a good storytelling of some of the myths from each Celtic country.

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.