James McGrath has asked me to explain what it is that mythicists do believe. Here is the answer from the best I have been able to ascertain:
They believe William Tell was not a real historical person, but a legendary or fictional creation of some sort.
What do historicists believe about William Tell?
Now, let me ask what “historicists” believe. I would expect them to say something like, “We historicists believe William Tell, whom our historian Karl Meyer can connect with known places and events, and whom Schärer can even identify personally, was a real historical character, and not at all a fictional creation.”
I suspect someone like a Garth McJames would not be satisfied with the mythicists’ answer, and he would refuse to relinquish historicity until mythicists could clearly demonstrate who made up the story and all the details about how they did it and exactly when and where.
Unless William Tell mythicists can come up with a detailed model of how the myth developed, the Garth McJames’s will feel they can safely ignore them.
All the evidence in the William Tell story for borrowing from Nordic legends would be dismissed as parallelomania and irrelevant when it came to the question of historicity. “I mean, I even have a Nordic name! Therefore I’m a myth,” they would chuckle. The silence of the record, the absence of evidence for the earliest supposed carriers of the tradition would be rationalized. The humiliation of Tell’s imprisonment would be declared as sure evidence of the historicity by virtue of the authenticating tool of the “criterion of embarrassment”.
What do mythicists believe about Rama?
The mythicist has reasons to believe Rama was a mythical being, although she cannot explain how the myth arose, who was responsible for it, or why it came into being.
The historicist (Hindu fundamentalist), on the other hand, knows Rama was historical, can point to his birth-place, show the site of a temple there, list the names of his immediate and extended family relatives, cite his many heroic deeds, describe the colour of his skin, his size, and even tell you the exact day and year he was born, and again the date of his marriage. They can also use the criterion of embarrassment to prove the historicity of Rama’s 14-year exile by his father. Parallels with the Jesus Christ story can be dismissed as irrelevant coincidences.
The Hindu historicist may well demand of the Rama mythicist a full accounting of exactly by whom and how the “supposed myth” emerged before he can be expected to take the claim that all this abundance of historical detail is myth.
A pre-Darwinian mythicist challenges the historical God of the Bible
But James has said he thinks analogies with the physical sciences, particularly those related to evolution, are more instructive. Okay, so let’s try that analogy for size.
A pre-Darwinian mythicist does not believe the historical Genesis account that all life began with a historical God. Let’s call this mythicist “Gomy”. Gomy declares that the God-in-History did not touch earth, walk around in the Garden with Adam, or create all life forms 6000 years ago. Gomy rather thinks that this idea of God-in-History somehow evolved like the life-forms around us. This pre-Darwinian who thinks God is a myth does not understand how that God idea originated, or how life could have begun without a God-in-History, but is convinced that the evidence of remarkably similar phalanges across species, and that other cruel events are enough to convince him God is a myth, too.
The historicist retorts that this mythicist is talking nonsense, and that the evidence really points to a designer, a real God in real historical time and place, who created everything with his own word of mouth. Until the God-in-History-hating-mythicist can produce a complete explanation of how this God idea emerged, and how evolution occurred, as complete as anything found in Genesis 1 and 2, then he can be dismissed as an ignorant crank.
True story: mythical or historical Atlantis?
One more: I have a friend who believes in the historicity of Atlantis. She can point to the historical records of how the tradition was preserved and handed down faithfully through the centuries by the most reputable statesmen and philosophers of the times. She can point to the vivid detail of the early narratives and confidently declare such detail could only be explained as originating from real eye-witness testimony.
She dismisses my views to the contrary as overly sceptical mythicism. The reason my friend and I have different interpretations of the same evidence is because: (i) I have found reasons to think that the documents containing the “tradition” show signs of narrating something other than real history; (ii) while my friend, on the other hand, accepts the documents at face value (as attempts at recording history) with a few “rationalist” modifications, and dismisses my scepticism as something akin to nihilism.