His mother is a virgin and he’s reputed to be the son of a god; he loses favor and is driven from his kingdom to a sorrowful death—sound familiar? In The Hero, Lord Raglan contends that the heroic figures from myth and legend are invested with a common pattern that satisfies the human desire for idealization. Raglan outlines 22 characteristic themes or motifs from the heroic tales and illustrates his theory with events from the lives of characters from Oedipus (21 out a possible 22 points) to Robin Hood (a modest 13). A fascinating study that relates details from world literature with a lively wit and style, it was acclaimed by literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman as “a bold, speculative, and brilliantly convincing demonstration that myths are never historical but are fictional narratives derived from ritual dramas.” This book will appeal to scholars of folklore and mythology, history, literature and general readers as well. (Blurb from online edition of The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama by Lord Raglan)
The 22 typical incidents in mythical tales
(1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin;
(2) His father is a king, and
(3) Often a near relative of his mother, but
(4) The circumstances of his conception are unusual, and
(5) He is also reputed to be the son of a god.
(6) At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but
(7) He is spirited away, and
(8) Reared by foster-parents in a far country.
(9) We are told nothing of his childhood, but
(10) On reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.
(11) After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,
(12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and
(13) Becomes king.
(14) For a time he reigns uneventfully, and
(15) Prescribes laws, but
(16) Later he loses favour with the gods and/or his subjects, and
(17) Is driven from the throne and city, after which
(18) He meets with a mysterious death,
(19) Often at the top of a hill.
(20) His children, if any, do not succeed him.
(21) His body is not buried, but nevertheless
(22) He has one or more holy sepulchres.
The first thing that needs to be clear is that Lord Raglan has drawn these parallel motifs from what he terms “genuine mythology” — meaning “mythology connected with ritual”. That excludes mythical tales of the King Arthur sort. Raglan is interested in myths that appear to have been associated with ancient rituals as acted out in dramatic shows (e.g. the Dionysia, May Day rituals, Passion plays) and religious ceremonies. The sorts of myths under examination should be clear from the following words in chapter 13 of The Hero:
The theory that all traditional narratives are myths—that is to say, that they are connected with ritual—may be maintained upon five grounds:
- That there is no other satisfactory way in which they can be explained. . . .
- That these narratives are concerned primarily and chiefly with supernatural beings, kings, and heroes.
- That miracles play a large part in them.
- That the same scenes and incidents appear in many parts of the world.
- That many of these scenes and incidents are explicable in terms of known rituals.
The Hero is close to a century old now so much of Raglan’s discussion is dated, but not all. It is still worth reading, I think, especially where he discusses misconceptions that lead moderns into assuming historicity of many ancient persons and arguments for the link between rituals and myths. It is certainly essential reading for anyone who intends to take up a serious discussion on the relevance of the twenty-two motifs identified as parallels across so many myths.
Common errors in using the 22 points
Often discussions of Raglan’s 22 characteristics of the myth-hero falter for the following reasons:
- Discussions are often about counting points and deciding the historical or non-historical likelihood of a figure according to a number total.
- Raglan makes it clear, however, that the numbers alone do not address something else that is far more important for assessing someone’s historicity.
- Discussions very often fail to account for the real meaning or significance of the 22 characteristics.
- They therefore make assessments based on the letter rather than the spirit of mytho-types.
- Discussions centre around the truncated list form of the 22 points.
- As a consequence the full meaning of some of those points is lost and discussions go awry on misunderstandings.
1. When historical persons are on the list
The emphasis many place upon the number count for assessing historicity no doubt derives from Raglan’s own assessment early in his book:
It may be added that although several of the incidents are such as have happened to many historical heroes, yet I have not found an undoubtedly historical hero to whom more than six points can be awarded, or perhaps seven in the case of Alexander the Great. . . .
What is more important than the numbers, however, is understanding
- why so few historical persons score more than six or seven points
- and why even their higher scores make no dint in their established historicity.
On that latter point Raglan prepares the reader as follows, with my bolding:
It is possible that some of the heroes were real persons, whose actions were recorded, but whose real careers became for some reason swamped by myth. I shall discuss in the next chapter the attribution of mythical features to historical characters, but that is another matter, since in the case of these historical characters it is their historic deeds that are important, and the myths mere excrescence. Alexander’s alleged miraculous birth does not affect our view of the Battle of Arbela. But if we subtract the myths from the heroes with whom I have dealt, little or nothing remains. Miracles and mythical incidents are all we are told of them, or at least all that is of any interest. What would the story of Perseus be without the Gorgon’s head or that of Bellerophon without his winged steed? Very little, and even Moses would be much less interesting without his magic rod. It may be suggested that King Alfred is less interesting without the cakes, but though such foolish stories may amuse the unlettered, they are a nuisance to serious students of the life and times of this great ruler. Would anyone, however, venture to say that the story of Medusa is a nuisance to students of the life and times of Perseus? Of course this story, and the dragon-slaying, make up the life of Perseus; apart from these and his mother’s brazen tower there is nothing to distinguish him from a score of heroes. The difference between the story of a historical character and that of a hero of tradition is that in the former case we may find myths or fables loosely and as a rule unsuitably tacked on to a record of well-attested fact, while in the latter the story consists of some striking miracles against a background of typical myth.
In chapter 19, “Myth and the Historic Hero”, Raglan discusses this question in depth. He begins by addressing the fallacy of combining into a single narrative information that derives from quite different types of sources such as tradition and authoritatively documented events. I used to discuss this sort of “pseudo-history” with reference to a prominent social historian, Eric Hobsbawm. To Hobsbawm’s words we can here add Raglan’s:
So far has the process [of indiscriminately linking information from different types of sources] gone that we find eminent writers describing as “historical,” characters for whose existence there is no historical evidence at all. If, however, we take any really historical person, and make a clear distinction between what history tells us of him and tradition tells us, we shall find that tradition, far from being supplementary to history, is totally unconnected with it, and that the hero of history and the hero of tradition are really two quite different persons, though they may bear the same name.
Lord Raglan was writing for readers familiar with both the real history and the Shakespeare play of Henry V. He concludes:
I have dealt at length with Prince Henry and Falstaff because the myths are familiar and the facts readily accessible, but a study of any hero to whose name myths have become attached would show the clear-cut line that separates the historical hero from his mythical namesake. “From the researchers of Bédier upon the epic personages of William of Orange, Girard de Rousillon, Ogier de Dane, Raoul de Cambrai, Roland, and many other worthies, it emerges that they do not correspond in any way with what historical documents teach us of their alleged real prototypes.”
Of course, the problem with Jesus is that there is no data at all that enables anyone to separate the historical from the mythical person. For this reason scholars introduce criteria and methods to apply to the gospels on the assumption that their contents can be so analysed. The sad result of this is quite often that the historical events are so modest that one wonders how such a figure inspired the birth of a world-changing religion.
2. The real meaning of the 22 events
Firstly, the number twenty-two is not final:
The fact that the life of a hero of tradition can be divided up into a series of well-marked features and incidents—I have taken twenty-two, but it would be easy to take more . . . .
The fact, however, that our heroes sometimes go beyond this pattern does not indicate that they are historical, since they may merely get into another pattern. The Twelve Labours of Heracles, for example, are outside my pattern, but they are clearly ritual and not historical. . . .
No surprise, then, that Carrier identifies a couple more in On the Historicity of Jesus. In Raglan’s earlier discussion of the Trojan War he cites Professor Hocart who lists “twenty-six features that characterize the ceremonies attendant on the installation of kings in all parts of the world. . . .” Raglan opts to focus on only two of these. And this segues to our next point.
Secondly, the twenty-two points are found to cluster around three themes:
- the hero’s birth
- the hero’s accession to the throne
- the hero’s death
That is, they correspond to “the three principle rites de passage“:
Lord Raglan’s thesis is that these myths are the product of rituals. They originated as explanations (or even as dramatizations) of ritual ceremonies. That explains why in such stories the reign of the hero (after fighting demons or giants and marrying the princess and finally becoming the king) is as a rule uneventful. The stuff of history (building cities or monuments, expanding the kingdom, etc) is missing. The most eventful moment in some such stories is the king’s inauguration of laws. Historically we know no one person was responsible for introducing complete sets of laws out of nowhere; we are confident that such stories are etiological tales.
Royal weddings in certain ancient civilizations (e.g. Egypt) and even later were understood to be between a brother and sister (at least nominally) and restricted to a few interconnected families. This accounts for point 3 — that the hero’s father is often a near relative of his mother. In some cultures the king would approach his bride in the guise of or as a representative of a god. This may account for the frequent reference to unusual circumstances surrounding the conception of the hero. I am taking these points directly from Raglan book without checking such details against more recent knowledge. So if details like a king and bride being in some sense closely related or kings approaching their bride in some sort of divine role have since been discovered to have no basis whatever then I will have to retract this point.
As for the Jesus story we surely have something important to consider here. Rather than Christianity’s rituals such as baptism, the laying on of hands and the eucharist being established in order to remember historical events would it not be more typical (and scholars like Burton Mack have effectively said as much) if the gospel narrative grew out of the rituals?
Two gospel narratives begin with baptism and end with Lord’s Supper or Passover. Even the Gospel of John begins with the Baptist and accounts of baptism. Events following the Last Supper describe the meaning and value of that ritual. And the two gospels that extend the story prior to baptism by adding nativity scenes skip straight to Jesus’ adulthood. (Luke’s account of Jesus as a boy in the temple happens at the age of his entering his Bar Mitzvah and then skips to his adulthood.) Ritual at the beginning and again at the end.
Once we think of each of the 22 points in terms of their origins as dramatizations of rituals then we can apply them meaningfully to our narratives. We can make judgments based upon the principles or theory of the reason for the points. So though Jesus was not literally reared by foster parents in a far country he certainly was reared by parents who were not his original progenitors and he was indeed raised far from his heavenly home. At the same time his return to Jerusalem and being hailed as king is as significant as his prophesied return from heaven to rule. They both tell the same story — the former transvalues physical kingship by means of the glorification on the cross. These are not manufactured interpretations to make them fit the Raglan list. They are clear from the narrative itself.
3. What is the concept?
I have seen some criticisms of the way the 22 events are applied being misdirected because of an over-literal reading of the abbreviated statement in the list.
I will begin with one piece of data that is not in the list but is still important. That the hero fights his battles alone is also of significance for the dramatic ritual explanation of the myths. But don’t so many heroes have bands of followers?
The hero of tradition is usually alone. . . .
Let us take some examples. Robin Hood, though he has a large band of adherents, spends much of his time wandering alone through the forest, seeking out the single combats in which he is usually worsted.
This factor relates to the origins of myths in dramatic retelling of explanations for the rituals.
The hero must perform his feats alone, since it is by them that he demonstrates his fitness for the throne; he must perform them in public, since the public, or the required portion of it, must be satisfied as to his fitness. This result is attained by placing the hero on a stage or within an enclosure where he is separated from the spectators, but in full view and hearing of them.
Points 1 and 2 speak of royalty. Point 3 of close relatives.
So how royal and how near relative does one have to be? Lord Raglan gives some examples of what he meant:
[Oedipus’s] mother, Jocasta, is (1) a princess, and his father is (2) King Laius, who, like her, is (3) of the line of Cadmus. . . .
[Pelops’s] mother, Dione, is (1) a demigoddess . . .
[Joseph’s] mother, Rachel, is (1) the daughter of a patriarch, and his father, Jacob, is (2) a patriarch. . .
[Moses’] parents (1 and 2) were of the principle family of the Levites, and (3) near relatives. . .
[Watu Ganung’s] mother, Sinta, appears (1) to be a princess, and his father is (2) a holy man. . .
[Arthur’s] mother, Igraine, is (1) a princess, and his father is (2) the Duke of Cornwall. . .
Point 5: reputed to be the son of a god. So notice Moses and Robin Hood:
[Moses] is (5) also reputed to be the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. . .
[Robin Hood] is also (5) reputed to be the son of a great noble. . .
#21 says the hero’s body is not buried. Here is part of the explanatory discussion for this:
The last point to be considered in the hero’s career is that although he is usually supposed to have disappeared, yet nevertheless he has a holy sepulchre, if not several.
And the examples:
[Oedipus] . . . the place of his burial is uncertain. . .
[Theseus] . . . His burial-place is (21) unknown. . .
[Perseus] . . . His burial-place is (21) unknown. . .
[Jason] . . . His burial-place is (21) unknown. . .
[Bellerophon] . . . his burial-place is (21) unknown. . .
[Asclepios] . . . His burial-place is (21) unknown. . .
[Watu Ganung] . . . and (21) there is no mention of his burial. . .
[Robin Hood] . . . The place of his death and burial are (21) variously given. . .
And so forth.
Real life is not like that
I would like to make one more point. One scholarly study I have read attempted to explain the coincidence between the gospel narratives of Jesus and the structures and themes found in dramatic literature by saying that Jesus’ life just happened to work out that way. But that is not how real life works, ever. Lord Raglan’s thesis may add strength to other scholarly research that suggests that some of the gospels were written for performance.
There are three rules that apply to all dramatic performances. They are:
- Everything said or done upon the stage must be clearly audible or visible to the audience.
- Everything said or done upon the stage must be related to the plot or main theme of the drama.
- The interest of the audience must never be allowed to flag.
When we say that a situation is dramatic we imply that these rules have been observed, but in real life they never are. Nothing has ever happened in real life that, if presented on the stage exactly as it happened, would hold the attention of an audience for half an hour. The difference between a play which is regarded as realistic and one which is not is that while in the latter there is nothing which bears any resemblance to real life, in the former the actors say and do what real people might conceivably say and do, but they say and do in a couple of hours interesting and exciting things which in real life would take weeks or months. All the dull things that happen in between are left out; we spend most of our time in working, eating, sleeping, washing, and dressing and in talking about them when we are not doing them, but the actors in drama seldom do any of these things, or even mention them. The reason for this is that even in the most realistic drama the actors are not really attempting to imitate real life; they are acting a drama, and must conform to the conventions of the drama. . . . .
And not only is the manner of the drama totally different from that of real life, but the plots are like nothing that really happens. In a drama the leading characters must be the same throughout, and the incidents must follow one another in a connected sequence; everything must work up to a climax. How different are our own lives as we look back upon them from the life of a hero of drama! In our case everything, or at least everything that might be considered interesting, is completely disconnected.
The same applies to dramatic narrative in the form of text on a page. Authors must fabricate order. Historians need to find it, too, from the data they have before them. If the data itself just happens to come fully framed with a single inevitable order one would have to be quite naive not to at least raise questions.