2011-05-25

Explaining (the Gospel) Myths

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by Neil Godfrey

There can be little doubt that when we read the Gospels and the books of Revelation and Acts we encounter many stories that sound remarkably like myths. Prison doors opening by themselves to release heroes, dragons descending from heavens to pursue comely women upon earth, finding coins in caught fish, raising the dead and walking on water. Anyone (except fundamentalist apologists) will be prepared to admit that biblical stories like these really have originated from mythical imaginations and wider literary influences.

The question remains open, however, whether such mythical stories originated as attempts to interpret or convey the great significance and meaning of a historical subject (Jesus), or if they are in themselves attempts to create from scratch a mythical narrative persona (Jesus).

I think it is reasonable to argue the latter is the case if, after removing all the layers of the mythical, there is nothing left over to be called historical. (Contrast ancient Macedonian and Roman rulers with whom myths were associated. Peel away the myths and there is still plenty of historical person left there to study.)

But when it comes to Jesus, that argument does not explain the source of the mythical narratives in the first place. Philippe Wajdenbaum wrote a chapter for Anthropology and the Bible, edited by Emanual Pfoh (2010), that argues for a structural analysis of myths according to the research of “the father of modern anthropology”, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

If we embrace Lévi-Strauss’s view of myths, then the myths of early Christianity can only be understood and explained as mutations of similar myths in other cultures, and also in earlier Jewish culture. They are not unique. Their constitutional ties with other myths are integral to understanding them. The Christian myths must be understood as myths no different in essence from any other myths if one can identify clear similarities (as in identical “mythemes” — units of mythical stories regardless of their place in each myth) between them. See an example of how this works in the case of the Greek myth of Phrixus and the Jewish myth of Isaac: tag:wajdenbaum-argonauts-of-the-desert

We have all wondered about the strange mix of “same but different” elements across different myths. Serpents appear in many origin myths, but why is the serpent a beneficent creature bestowing wisdom in some myths yet evil (because of the wisdom bestowed) in others? Why do we find a plucked fruit in one myth leading to doom for all mankind, yet in another myth we find a plucked plant in very different scenes offering life but being responsible for death for a hero in another? Lévi-Strauss’s approach begins to make sense of this sort of thing.

I also suspect that the same approach makes sense of the “same but different” myths we find in the Gospels vis-a-vis certain pagan and Jewish myths.

I am looking forward to posting more on these sorts of studies. I am particularly looking forward to discussing the application of (my understanding of) Lévi-Strauss’s study of myths in relation to the Gospel narratives. But this post is for theoretical background only. I expect I will be referring back to here regularly in those posts yet to come.

Lévi-Strauss argues that myths should be studied in much the same way as language (or even music) is studied. This challenges us to review our very understanding of what a myth actually is. In the past (as with the work of James George Frazer) myths were analysed through a perspective of cultural evolutionism. Meanings of myths could supposedly be explained as evolutionary developments from earlier cultural beliefs, and their meanings were also thought to be understood by comparing myths of cultures at an apparently comparable level of development. For Lévi-Strauss this particular view of myths led nowhere.

I quote here a passage from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s chapter, Jacob and David, The Bible’s Literary Twins, in Anthropology and the Bible:

For Lévi-Strauss, rituals or myths from a defined culture should not be analysed according to an evolutionary pattern . . . but rather as a part of an inner system of significances. Structural analysis of myths draws on the model of structural linguistics, for which a language must be analysed in comparison with other languages from the same linguistic group. Therefore, the first principle of structural analysis of myths is that: ‘Any myth consists in all of its variants’. Myths of a defined society should be analysed in comparison with other myths from that same society, and afterwards with related myths from the neighbouring societies. As linguistics speaks of morphemes, phonemes and semantemes, which constitute language, Lévi-Strauss considers that a myth is constituted by small narrative units, which he calls mythemes. The structural analyst’s task is to try to identify these ‘mythemes’ as recurrent elements within the myths and their variants. During twenty years, Lévi-Strauss applied these methodological principles to the myths of the Native Americans. . . . Starting from Brazil, he was able to discover variants of a narrative called ‘The bird nester’ throughout both parts of the American continent. Lévi-Strauss demonstrated, in an extent that had not been reached by previous cultural studies, that all the Native Americans shared a cultural background that was widespread and pertained through the millennia of diffusion of this people — starting from the Bering Straight to the very ends of Patagonia.

At the end of this long survey, Lévi-Strauss concludes that any myth is always derived from another version, which comes most of the time from another culture and from another language. A myth is always a ‘translation’ of a previous version, and it is also a perspective on another culture. . . . Any re-telling of a myth is an interpretation of it, and any interpretation of a myth is a new version of it as well. . . . Lévi-Strauss believes that only structural analysis can break this logical circle and avoid being a mere new version of a myth, since its role is to make explicit the relationships between the different variants of that myth. Once the structural analyst has demonstrated how a certain myth is derived from another one, and related several versions of this myth into a ‘group of transformations’, his task is over. Hence, the structural analyst will refrain from trying to find the supposed ‘hidden meaning’ of a myth. Lévi-Strauss believes that myths, although they are made of language, constitute a form of expression of the human mind that is beyond language, and that is somehow closer to music, which has no ‘meaning’ per se.

Therefore, Lévi-Strauss suggests using not only linguistics but also music as a model in analysing myths. A full score of a music orchestra can be read from the left to the right, showing the melody played by each instrument. From the top to the bottom, one reads what all instruments play together, the harmony. Melody and harmony are respectively the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of music. Lévi-Strauss proposes to read a myth in both its diachronic and synchronic dimensions, trying to identify ‘packs of relations’ that constitute the structure of the myth. When similar ‘mythemes’ are noticed — either between several variants of a myth of within the same myth — the analyst will have to compare them; which will allow him to understand the ‘pack of relations’. (pp. 135-7)


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Neil Godfrey

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