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KRONOS Vol IX, No. 1
ASTER AND DISASTER: Toward a Catastrophist Mode of Mythological Interpretation
ROGER W. WESCOTT
Copyright (c) 1983 by Roger W. Wescott
ABSTRACT: Although in contemporary English the word "aster" refers only to the Michaelmas daisy, in earlier English it meant ''star''.(1) In this projected series of articles, it will be capitalized and used as the proper name of a star-like planet which I assume to have orbited our Sun in prehistoric times and to have been orbited in turn by our Earth. (Because the precise relation of this star-like body to any or all of the larger, or Jovian, planets of recent historic time is unclear, I prefer not to commit myself to calling it Saturn,(2, 3) Super-Uranus,(4) or the like but rather to employ a relatively non-committal appellation.) The first article in the series, which appears below, deals with the nature of mythic tradition and its relation to other forms of oral and written literature Later articles will deal with the tradition of the Golden Age, the consequences of the Fall reputed to have terminated that blissful era, and disguised recapitulations of paradisial and lapsarian situations in subsequent human thought and behavior.
To ascertain the meaning of the term "myth", a number of procedures are helpful. Of these, the simplest is to look it up in a standard lexicon, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, where we find myth defined as:
Of these five definitions, The Random House Dictionary echoes the first, third, and fifth,(6) while the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (surprisingly) recognizes only the third.(7) The O. E. D., however, is less penurious in its definition of "mythology", which it equates with:
The next simplest source of definitions is a dictionary of synonyms. such as Webster's, where on a word-for-word basis, we find myth equated with:
and also compared, though not equated, with two sets of "analogous words":
Most lexicography, to be sure, is purely synchronic; that is, it lists discriminable meanings but does not order them chronologically or indicate the process by which one meaning gave rise to another. When lexical scholarship does provide historical or evolutionary perspective. it becomes lexicology. At this point, the O. E. D. comes into its own. For it is a rich storehouse of diachronic information. As regards English "myth" and its precursors, for example, it reveals that, while the lexical cluster as a whole is Medieval, the term "myth", as currently pronounced and spelled, is scarcely more than a century old:
As the 18th century English form "mythos" suggests, however, none of the words in the above sequence are native to English - or for that matter, to French or Latin. All are of Homeric Greek origin. And at this point we move from lexicology (in its narrower sense, which restricts it to the history of words within one language) to etymology (which relates the vocabulary of later languages to that of earlier, presumably ancestral, languages). By Classical times, the word muthos - pronounced mythos by the Athenians, whose Attic dialect became Standard Greek during the Hellenistic Age - had at least five clearly discriminable meanings:
Etymology itself is of two types - historic and prehistoric. Historic etymology deals exclusively with documented forms, which can be attested from written sources. Prehistoric etymology, on the other hand, deals, at least in part, with undocumented or unattested forms, which must be reconstructed in something of the same way in which prehistoric life-forms are reconstructed. While historical etymology is part of historical linguistics, prehistoric etymology is part of comparative linguistics, in that reconstructed words and other linguistic forms must be based on a comparison of the attested words and documented forms presumably derived from them.+
Linguistic comparison suggests that Greek muthos is derived by nominal suffixation, from a Proto-lndo-European stem *m(o)udh-, "to remember nostalgically, to pine for''.(11) This reconstructed form is based on such other attested forms as Persian must, "to lament", Gothic maudjan, "to remind someone", and Lithuanian maudziu, "to long for''.(12)
This stem may in turn be derived, by apical extension, from the Proto-lndo-European root *m(e)u-, "to perceive unclearly, to express oneself indistinctly". From this root, English has received a number of cognates by three different linguistic avenues. By way of Germanic, it inherited the verbs mew, mutter, and mumble, the adjective mum, and the noun moppet (originally meaning "infant"). From Latin, it borrowed the verb murmur, the adjective mute, and the nouns mule (originally "speechless beast") and motet (sacred song). And from Greek, it borrowed the nouns mystery (originally a religious rite celebrated by initiates only) and myopia (originally any condition of impeded vision).(13)
Once we leave the Indo-European family of languages, etymological consensus wanes. Most linguists, being polygeneticists, or believers in the multiple origin of speech, reject on principle the possibility that Indo-European words can have cognates in non-lndo-European languages that were inherited from some still older and more inclusive linguistic grouping. A few linguists, however, are monogeneticists, or believers in the unitary origin of speech. They maintain the likelihood that there were pre-lndo-European bases that have derivatives in more than one language family. Being, like many biologically oriented linguists, a monogeneticist myself, I accept the cognation of the Indo-European root *m(e)u- with the polyphyletic and probably onomatopoetic - base *mu-, "to make inarticulate sounds", as manifest historically in Estonian musu, "a kiss", and prehistorically in Proto-Finnic *muja-, "to taste", and Proto-Penutian (ancient Californian) *mom-, "to drink''.(14) My guess is that the semantic track from Mesolithic *mu- to modern myth led from weeping and wailing through the expression of nostalgia to the narration of traditional tales. (To the reader who objects that kissing, tasting, and drinking sound far too pleasant to be connected with lamentation, I would reply by quoting from Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to a Skylark. "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought." In any case, the primary reference of the base *mu- seems to have been to behavior rather than to mood.)
Lexicography and etymology, however, tell us only how "myth" and related terms have been used - and, presumably also, understood - by the laity. By the 6th century B.C., specialized study of myth had been inaugurated by Classical scholars; and it has continued, with intermittent intensity, ever since. These scholars, the mythologists, have employed and interpreted the word "myth" in disparate ways. Yet, however idiosyncratic their usages may have been, we must survey as many as possible of them in the effort to descry patterns in these usages and specify those semantic elements which they seem to share.
In the Greek world, three different schools of mythological interpretation already existed. The first of these was created by Theagenes of 6th century Italy, who regarded myths as allegories that personified the forces of nature. The second was instituted by Xenophanes of 5th century Ionia, who viewed the Olympian deities as scandalously anthropomorphic fragmentations of one eternal and impersonal god. And the third was established by Euhemerus of 4th century Sicily. who treated the Olympians as glorified human conquerors and rulers.(15) (It is interesting to note that, though they wrote in Greek, none of the Hellenic mythologists came from Greece. In this respect, they resemble the Islamic scientists of the 9th to 11th centuries A.D., none of whom, though they wrote in Arabic, came from Arabia.(16) Apparently some measure of ethnic or geographic alienation is conducive to the detachment needed by scholars if they are to gain fresh understanding of what others take for granted.)
It was not till the 19th century, however, that, following the recognition of folklore as an autonomous field of study, at least a dozen competing schools of mythological interpretation appeared in England, Germany, and Austria. By the 1950s, France, Switzerland, and the United States were also represented, and the number of "jarring sects" had risen to well over two dozen. To simplify this Babel, one could say that most of these modern mythologists are classifiable either as literalists, who hold that myths are imperfect attempts to depict momentous events as they really were, or as symbolists, who maintain that myths were never intended to be anything other than metaphors or allegories which made truths more palatable by disguising them. But, since so stark a bifurcation is simplistic, it may be fairer to the diverse exegetes and their positions to present them in tabular form (see the accompanying chart).
Despite the many different interpretations of myth represented here, the interpreters involved differ comparatively little about defining myth. By the 20th century, in fact, a clear majority of them seemed to agree (despite variable phraseology) on defining myth as sacred literature. On this matter, agreement might have been reached in the 19th century, were it not for uneasiness about applying the term "literature" to discourse which was, among preliterate peoples, invariably unwritten and, even among literate peoples, frequently so. Once it was recognized, however, that the effective narration of stories of any kind requires verbal art, it became usual to refer to traditional narratives as oral literature.(17) An analogous uneasiness about referring to non-Biblical scriptures as "sacred" probably also contributed to delay in reaching consensus on this definition, although such uneasiness was increasingly dispelled by the publication of works like Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East.(18)
SCHOOLS OF INTERPRETATION IN MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKlORE
To be sure, the definition of myth as sacred literature is itself less than wholly pellucid. It has therefore been qualified or expanded in various ways by various mythologists. One way to clarify the description of myth as literature is to call it ethnoliterature, meaning literature of the type encountered more often in ethnological investigations than in classical or general readings. Another is to call it protoliterature, meaning literature of a type that is presumably protohistoric rather than fully historic in origin. A third, which I have not encountered but would expect to be congenial to those evolutionary theorists who hold that organisms become fossilized only under catastrophic conditions, is to call myth fossil literature, meaning literature which is produced only as a result of catastrophic experiences.
Taking our lead from the implied primevality of protoliterature, we might also define myth as popular prehistory, opposing it to scholarly prehistory of the sort taught by and to archeologists. If so, we should probably make it clear that whatever is prehistoric is, by definition, also prescriptural, since whatever is fully historic must be written and must have occurred at a time when writing was practiced. To the extent that archeology is scientific prehistory, moreover, myth must be contrastively defined as pre-scientific prehistory that is, as an account of events that transpired before the rise of Ionian natural philosophy in the 6th century B.C.
Describing myth as pre-scriptural and pre-scientific suggests taking the further step taken by the French social philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl in his earlier writings, when he characterized preliterates in general as thinking and talking pre-logically.(19) To the extent, however, that defining myth as pre-logical narrative implies that its originators were incapable of logical thought, such a definition seems not only derogatory but implausible. All human beings of post-Neanderthalian type probably do share and did share the same capacities, both physical and mental. It might, then, be better to do no more than note that myths, with their abrupt, dream-like shifts of time, place, and identity, seem non-logical.
This observation, in turn, suggests an alternative definition of myths as collective dreams - or, in the numerous cases in which their content seems to be traumatic, as collective nightmares. Either way, emphasis is placed on the apparent irrationality of myth, a theme which dominated much Victorian mythological commentary and has persisted well into our century. Most analysts since the time of psychologist Wilhelm Wundt have described myth as highly imaginative, and many today would agree with anthropologist Ruth Benedict that "myth, like . . . folklore, is . . . wishful thinking".(20) While not denying the isomorphism of dream and myth, however, I am myself inclined to view myth as more wistful than wishful and more commemorative than imaginative. Whether as a pathway to paradise or as a highway to hell, myth seems to me to constitute the plaintive echo from a past which we can never fully recapture yet never wholly forget. "Mythology," wrote Carl Kerenyi, "like the severed head of Orpheus, goes on singing, even in death and from afar.''(21) Since it relates joys which exceed our joys as much as its pains exceed our pains, it strikes us as at once disturbingly strange and hauntingly familiar. If it seems illogical or unreasonable to us, that may be because it records, as nothing else so eloquently does, the traumatic mass-initiation of mankind.
The qualitative contrasts within mythic corpora are, as the preceding characterizations suggest, often so extreme as to be paradoxical. "On the one hand, it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen . . . But, on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity among myths collected in widely different regions."(22) Myths are at once startlingly bizarre and oppressively repetitious. In atmosphere, they shift quickly from the paradisial to the infernal. In time reference, they oscillate between the etiological, which relates the events of an aboriginally misty past, and the eschatological, which foreshadows the occurrences of an even mistier future. On the one hand, the fideistic aura of myths appears to demand suspension of disbelief, although the tales that they tell strain belief. On the other hand, the mythic quality of "impassioned tonality which makes certain verities vibrate inside us"(23) has, at least in recent ages, more often been felt by those who interpret traditional narratives symbolically than by those who take them at face value. Some myths seem wildly jumbled and others tightly ordered; more often, cosmos and chaos commingle in the same story or tradition. With this in mind, the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas spoke of "mythological worlds . . . built only to be shattered and . . . new worlds . . . built from the fragments".(24) For Alan Watts, the prime paradox of myth is that it simultaneously conceals and reveals. "The gods . . . the archetypes . . . are playing out . . . the cosmic drama of hide-and-seek, lost-and found, which is the mono-plot behind all plots."(25) For Claude Levi-Strauss, the paradox is that, while the myths themselves perform a delicate task of structural mediation between thematic extremes, they do this in so muddled a way as to leave all but the most skilled exegetes (such as himself) either baffled or wishfully self-deluded as regards their correct interpretation.(26) But to this he adds the lesser antinomy that myths, while highly poetic in content, as evidenced by their rich imagery, are extremely prosaic in form, with the result that, unlike verse, they can be translated and re-translated with virtually no loss of impact.(27)
RESPONSES TO MYTH
Another paradox of myth is the polarized reactions of mythologists to it. Some love myth, and others hate it, while many experience simultaneous feelings of attraction and repulsion. To Thomas Bulfinch, for example, most myths seemed beautiful, but to Andrew Lang they seemed revolting. The kind of mythic language that Joseph Campbell finds life-enhancing, Max Muller found diseased. And where Friedrich Schelling saw profundity in myths, other philosophers from the time of Xenophanes on have seen absurdity.
MYTHS, LEGENDS, AND FOLKTALES
A less emotive and more objective way of putting myth in perspective may be to compare and contrast it with other behavioral and expressive forms which it resembles or with which it has close connections. There are at least two other types of traditional oral literature which parallel and even overlap myths, and these are legends and folktales. To the extent that the three types are distinct from one another, their distinctness inheres in their primary protagonists. For myths, these are gods; for legends, human beings; and for folktales, animals. The difficulty with setting up such ideal types, however, is that they are rarely encountered in their pure form; in most cases, there is mixture of types. This mixture takes two forms, of which the first may be called fraternization of protagonists and the second, blurred membership in a protagonal class. Fraternization occurs when stories have protagonists of more than one type divine and human, human and animal, or all three together. And blurred membership occurs when gods are strikingly anthropomorphic, human heroes are godlike or beastlike, or animals employ human speech. (As if three different types of traditional narrative were not already enough, it is possible to posit at least one more - namely, the fable, in which fabulous creatures, such as composite beasts or monsters, play a prominent role. But there are two good reasons for disregarding this dubious narrative category. Of these, the first is that such anomalous creatures are never the primary protagonists except in modern fiction. And the second is that the term "fable" is more ambiguous than terms for other narrative types, being widely used for any myth, legend, or folktale that points a moral or explicitly advocates a pattern of behavior.)
To the extent, then, that myths differ only in degree rather than in kind from other types of traditional narrative, it may be more illuminating as well as more accurate to describe myth as one pole of folklore, the other pole being (by elimination) non-mythic narrative. If we do, we can characterize myth as sacred and other forms of folklore as secular; myth as commemorative and other forms as entertaining; myth as large-scale in setting and other forms as small-scale. We can further note that the narration of myths is often ritually restricted to hours of darkness, seasons of inactivity, or an audience of initiates either adolescents newly transferred (usually by ordeal) to adult status or members newly admitted (also by ordeal) to prestigious secret societies; whereas the narration of legends and folktales is permissible to nearly any audience on nearly any occasion.
MYTH AND RITUAL
On the non-narrative side, myth is closely related to ritual. Not only are myth and ritual characterized by a common solemnity, but the two often co-occur, as in religious ceremonies like the mass, to which both text and act are indispensable. Because of the close relationship between myth and ritual, a number of British scholars, such as William Robertson Smith, Jane Harrison, and lord Raglan (said to comprise "The Myth-Ritual School"), have argued that myth is derived from ritual.(28) Myths, in their view, began as textual commentaries on rites, explaining and justifying them. Because actions speak louder than words, however, rites are, as ritualists see them, less likely than myths to survive basic shifts in religious behavior and sentiment. And it is the epiphenomenal nature of myths, according to this argument, that makes them so hard to understand once they have been separated from the rites to which they were once almost indissolubly attached.
It is, of course, quite possible to invert this logic and maintain that rites are mere dramatizations of preexistent myths. This, in fact, was the stance adopted by anthropologists Sir Edward Tylor and Claude Levi-Strauss, though less vehemently than in the case of the ritualists. Nonetheless, few investigators have made any sustained effort to avoid both of these rather extreme partisan positions. One of those few is the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, who carefully surveyed a broad sample of cultures as regards the myth/ ritual relation in each. Predictably, he found that, although in some cultures (such as that of Classical Greece) myth clearly overshadowed ritual while in others (such as that of ancient Rome) the relation was reversed, there was, on a global scale, no clear preponderance of one over the other. And, as concerns temporal priority, his conclusion was substantially the same: the problem appears to be of the hen or-egg type to which no fruitful solution is likely to be found.(29) My own position on this matter is basically that of Kluckhohn, but with a qualification. If myth extends well back into the Paleolithic Period, there is a good possibility that the language in which it was first told was of a kinesic - that is, postural/visual rather than vocal/ auditory - type. In that case, the "hen" and the "egg" would have been indistinguishable, myth and ritual being jointly manifest as an awed reenactment of awesome events.(30)
THE DE-SACRALIZATION OF MYTH
The likelihood that myth and ritual were once undivided from one another seems to me to be parallelled by the still greater likelihood that myth and other forms of oral literature were once undivided from one another. In the case of myth and ritual, the separation was presumably brought about by the increasing localization of language in the speech organs. In the case of myth and non-mythic folklore, it was presumably brought about by a gradual process of desacralization. The first step in desacralizing myth was probably that of secularization - converting celestial agency to human agency and a cosmic setting to a terrestrial one, as in legend. The second step was probably that of desolemnizing legend itself, by converting human to animal agency and significant localities into places which are at once anywhere and nowhere, as in folktale.
In speculating about such progressive differentiation of behavior and tradition, I am well aware that I am reviving both the universalism and the evolutionism of the Victorian mythologists, whose views have recently been so wittily debunked by Richard Dorson(31) and so scathingly critiqued by Stith Thompson.(32) To justify such apparent back-sliding, however, I may make two observations. First, disappointingly little progress has been made during the past century or more in our overall understanding of myth and its role in the development of our species. And, second, what made so many of the 19th century theories of myth seem ludicrous even to their contemporaries was neither their avowed universalism nor their equally avowed evolutionism but their unavowed and therefore all the more pervasive - uniformitarianism. For myth as a stage in the slow but steady and direct march from contented animality to enlightened modernity made no sense either then or later. Yet, as a startled response to unexpected and overwhelming interruptions of that march, it makes good sense now and would have made equally good sense then had more Victorians been willing to follow the explicitly catastrophist lead of Ignatius Donnelly, who saw much of our oral tradition as a forlorn attempt to cope intellectually with a disastrous prehistoric cometary visitation.(33)
RIDDLES, PROVERBS, AND EPICS
Traditional prose narrative, whether it takes the form of myth, legend, or folktale, is apparently a human universal. In this regard, it resembles prayers and lullabies. But there are at least three other forms of originally oral literature that are of limited geographic distribution. In order of increasingly restricted distribution, they are: riddles, proverbs, and epics. Employing as broad as possible a cross-cultural definition of each, we may say that riddles are short puzzles; proverbs are pithy expressions of conventional wisdom; and epics are heroic narrative poems. Although riddles today are invariably interrogative in form and usually involve puns or other entertaining verbal tricks, ancient riddles tended to be enigmatic statements involving crucially serious matters.(34) The situation with proverbs is similar. In their most individualized and modernized form, proverbial utterances are known as aphorisms or even as wise-cracks. In their oldest known form, however, they were weighty, if often obscure, pronouncements on major human concerns.(35) Epics, like riddles and proverbs, seem to have originated as specialized offshoots of generalized prose narratives. Where riddles and proverbs, however, underwent condensation, epics apparently underwent expansion as well as versification.
Riddles are, apart from recent Western influence, found among all the world's peoples except the North and South American Indians. Proverbs are found in the Old World only (being, unlike riddles, absent from Eskimo tradition).(36) And epics are found only in Europe, Africa, and West Asia. From this distribution, Alfred Kroeber, the late "dean of American anthropologists", inferred that riddles are the oldest of these three forms of verbal art and epics the youngest, all three of them being more recent than prose narratives.(37)
UNIVERSAL MYTHIC THEMES
Because of the sometimes glib universalism of Victorian scholars, 20th century mythologists and anthropologists have tended to react with an exaggerated particularism, refusing to generalize even when generalizations fairly cried out to be made, especially on the basis of such greatly improved cross-cultural sources as the Human Relations Area File in New Haven, Connecticut. Luckily, however, there have been scholars, like Clyde Kluckhohn, who resisted the exaggerated particularism of their generation and continued to search for uniformities among the world's various oral traditions. The motifs that he found in a clear majority of narratives from the major culture-areas of six continents were:
While characterizing these themes as "near-universals", Kluckhohn adds that, although further research is unlikely to reduce these percentages, it may well increase them, even to the point of converting near universals into real universals. He further suggests that there may be crypto-universals, such as the castration theme, which, though it appears explicitly in only a minority of myths and legends, occurs in symbolic form in a majority of them. (In the same vein, I myself note that many of those oral traditions that lack a flood story do have an "earth-diver" episode, in which a courageous and persistent animal plunges beneath a world-wide sea to bring up earth from which dry land can be formed.(39) Such traditions seem to me clearly to imply a preceding flood and a subsequent, if only partial, restoration of antediluvian conditions.)
Without citing percentages, Kluckhohn also notes the wide-spread occurrence in traditional narrative of
Some of his "recurrences" interdigitate with one another in ways that seem to me to be significant. Parricide and sibling rivalry, for example, share the elements of intrafamilial conflict. And the flood and creation motifs, when combined with primal incest and replicated events, suggest repeated cataclysms and recoveries therefrom.
In any case, Kluckhohn is not the only scholar who explicitly recognizes catastrophe as a mythic universal.(40) So do Egerton Sykes,(41) Philip Freund,(42) and Monro Edmonson.(43) Considering the overwhelming frequency of catastrophic elements in myth, however, what is surprising about catastrophism of this sort is its comparative rarity. Apparently, most mythologists, while noting storied disasters of various sorts, discount them, regarding them either as projections of social stresses onto the non-human world or as metaphors of moral failure.
Because the largest single gulf between cultural and literary traditions is (not surprisingly) that between the eastern and western hemispheres, another and simpler - though perhaps less reliable - way to distinguish universal from parochial themes in the world's myths is to note which ones appear both among Old World peoples and among those New World peoples whose traditions appear to be freest of European influence. When we do so, we still find common themes, one of the most wide-spread of which in both hemispheres is that of the "ash child", an underprivileged young person who grows up in filth without the respect of either family or neighbors yet manages to rise to an elevated status in later life. In the Old World, where the protagonist is a girl (known as Cinderella in English), her story is the most popular of all traditional narratives.(44) In the New World, where the hero is male, he is known as Dirty Boy.(45) In both cases, however, there is a common element of rising from the ashes, which resonates not only with the "rags to riches" folklore of modern capitalism but also with the ancient phoenix motif in Europe, Africa, and Asia. And here too there may well be a catastrophist motif of the recovery of mankind and the attainment of new greatness following a global conflagration.
Author's Postscript: The foregoing pages constitute the first installment of a series of articles. Forthcoming installments will treat the following mythological subjects:
. . . to be continued.
1. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, two volumes (Oxford, 1 -
1, hereafter OED). 2. David N. Talbott, The Saturn Myth (N.Y., 1980).