December 4, 2013

The Problem with Myth

One of the things that has become persistently clear to me throughout my PhD work is that we have to be pedantic about our terminology. The vast majority of our technical terms are used “out there” by people in their everyday lives. But how “they” use a word and how “we” use it can often be markedly different. In fact, how “we” use a word is an overgeneralisation that assumes “we” all use the word in the same way. So as interesting as Paul-François Tremlett’s introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss was, one thing persistently bugged me throughout the interview: what is a myth?

“Myth” is a fairly common occurrence throughout the interview and not once is it defined. Is the meaning of myth so obvious that all the listeners know what it means? Perhaps it might be, perhaps the meaning of myth is self-evident to all who hear the word. But I wonder, while it might be self-evident to many, if pressed on the matter and forced into giving verbal expression would they all say the same thing? Perhaps not:

  • Mircea Eliade:

Every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment – an island, a species of plant, a human institution … [it] becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities’(1957[1987]:97-98).

  • Ninian Smart:

A story which forms the identity of an individual, his/her fellows, and/or the cosmos in which they inhabit (Smart, 1981:26).

  • Alan Dundes:

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form … The critical adjective sacred distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional (Dundes, 1984:1).

  • David Leeming:

the expression of a social ethos’ or the ‘basic assumptions that define a person, a family, or a culture – with the informing reality that resides at the centre of being (Leeming, 1990:4).

  • William Hansen:

a traditional oral story of alleged historicity (Hansen, 2002:2-5).

  • Joseph Nagy:

a collectively shared story about supernaturally powerful beings whose adventures and interactions are set in some primeval time before the “historical time” of legend (2002:125)

  • Finally, Levi-Strauss:

a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (1955[1993]:229)

This is to mention but a handful of the various definitions of “myth” and what should be obvious is that they do not all cohere. Hansen and Nagy, for example, in speaking of “primeval time” and “alleged historicity” understand myth as something inherently false. A definition which many argue corresponds to myth’s everyday use: e.g. ‘in ordinary English to say ‘It’s a myth” is just a way of saying “It’s false”’ (Smart, 1969:18). Further, Eliade, Dundes and Nagy confine themselves to an understanding of myth that indicates that it can only occur within religions. But for both Eliade and Dundes the extent to which we apply myth is dependent on a definition of religion which in both cases relies on a definition of “sacred” (and its dichotomous “secular”). And as Bascom points out in Dundes’ volume, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a fairly messy matter (Bascom, 1984:12). Indeed, could we not then include Evolution and Big Bang as myths? Both explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Such is certainly possible in the case of Smart, Leeming, and Levi-Strauss. The latter in particular put the point quite vividly: ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and […] the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of things to which it is applied’ (Levi-Strauss, 1993:230). All that is perhaps consistent across these definitions and more is that myth is a kind of story.

What is interesting about this latter problem – that myth can be applied to religious and non-religious things alike – is that it nevertheless reduces to the former problem of the implied falsity of a myth. But perhaps more vividly than the former problem it gives us good reason not to use “myth” within our scholarly language. Take the following point from Tremlett’s extremely useful introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss: ‘Levi-Strauss argues that what “we” in “the West” call history is in fact myth by another name’ (Tremlett, 2008:56). Conversely, what we call myth is also history. But if so, what difference is there in calling a story myth or history? If Evolution can be called both history and myth what differs between each usage? It is, I suggest, the fact that when we speak, for example, of the Evolution myth we think of something that is false-prone and when we speak of the Evolution theory (here a synonym for history) we think of it as true-prone. The question of which is used depends on who is speaking. Smart points out that an anthology of mythology is unlikely to include the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and rebirth: ‘This is a leftover from Christian (and Jewish and Muslim, be it said) tendencies to treat their own stories as true and historical and other people’s stories as unhistorical and untrue’ (Smart, 1996:130). While Christian stories may well find themselves included in anthologies these days, the point to be taken from this is that for the Christian these stories are true and not regarded as myth. No one, I hazard, thinks of their own stories as myths.


Stealing some terminology from Smart’s “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” (1965[2009]) and applying them to Schutz’s discussion in “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the World” (1957[1964]) I suggest the following: to call something a “myth” is to engage in a particular way of hetero-interpreting the stories of others. Schutz makes a distinction between subjective and objective interpreting. All subjective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Me” or “Us” and all objective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Him/Her” or “Them” (Schutz, 1964:251-257). I replace “subjective” and “objective” here with Smart’s terminology of auto-interpreting and hetero-interpreting. The reason for this is because Schutz accepts that objective interpreting is nevertheless subjective in that it is performed in the “Here and Now”, an idea expounded earlier in “On Multiple Realities” (1945[1962b]). That is, all subjective interpretations are those interpretations which are framed in terms of the “Here and Now” that I occupy. By auto-interpreting I conceive whatever is being interpreted as within my “Here”. Thus my “Here” may extend to a number of fellows (my in-group) when I speak in terms of “We/Us”. By hetero-interpreting something I conceive it as not within my “Here”. Anything that is not “Here” is “There”. But this “There” of the out-group is understood in terms of my “Here”. Underwritten in any positive definition of “Them” is the implied “I/We are not Them”.

Both the in-group and the out-group have their own stories. When auto-interpreting the stories of our in-group we conceive these stories as history (true-prone) because to do otherwise would be to call into question the “Here and Now” we occupy. When it comes to hetero-interpreting the stories of the out-group we can conceive them as either history or myth. The most common reason for calling these hetero-interpreted stories myths is because they contradict the stories that have been auto-interpreted as history. E.g. if Evolution is part of our history, Creation becomes a myth. If the two stories are contradictory and the former has been accepted then the latter must be denied. Insofar as the stories of the out-group do not contradict the stories of the in-group they may be hetero-interpreted as history. The in-group might be quite happy to accept the out-group’s story of a bloke called Jesus who went around preaching. The example of the “Historical Jesus” also indicates the complexity involved in some hetero-interpretations as while there may be universal agreement that Jesus was baptised by St. John and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, other elements of the story of Jesus may still be regarded as myth. The point to be taken is that hetero-interpreting can conclude that stories are history or myth but the same cannot be said of auto-interpreting. If the in-group auto-interprets a story as myth this begs the question of against what this story is being compared to. What happens in moments of “mythicisation” – when history becomes myth – is not auto-interpreting but rather partitioning whereby the in-group is divided into a new in-group and out-group. Such an example would be the inclusion of Christian stories in anthologies of myth. What occurs here is not that the story is auto-interpreted as myth, but rather the stories are removed from the “Here and Now”. This partitioning is affected by shifting the stories “There” if some members of the group try to retain them as history and/or “Then” if the distinction is one between contemporaries and predecessors.

Based on this sketchy argument the point to be emphasised is that even if we accept Levi-Strauss’ line that what “we” call history is really myth by another name it nevertheless does not escape the fact that to call a story myth is to render it false. The critical issue for scholars of religion is how, then, to use “myth”. Can we call a story a myth if the members of that group who tell it do not regard the story in question a myth? Surely to do so would be to treat them as an out-group and in calling those stories myth imply their falsity, and thereby imply the stupidity of the out-group for taking them to be true. The problem here is not in treating them as an out-group. It would be quite unproblematic to speak in terms of myth if we are studying the out-group’s responses to the stories of another out-group. But this involves objective interpretation: interpreting, that Schutz suggests in “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation” (1953[1962a]), involves no “Here”. Properly speaking the “Here and Now” is never lost, rather the objective interpreter attempts to reconstruct the “Here and Now” of the out-group. The question is whether as scholars of religion we engage in this objective interpretation, or engage in subjective interpretation establishing our own new “Here and Now”, or continue to uphold the wider “Here and Now” of some in-group. The problem of myth is not the term in itself but rather the sort of “Here and Now” from which it is deployed. The recognition of Levi-Strauss and others that myth is no different from history contains within it a call to further reflexivity about the “Here and Now” of we scholars of religion.


  • Bascom, W. (1984); “The Forms of Folklore: The Prose Narrative” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London; pg.5-29
  • Dundes, A. (ed.) (1984); Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London
  • Hansen, W. (2002); The Handbook of Classical Mythology; ABC-CLIO, California
  • Leeming, D. (1990); The World of Mythology; Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Levi-Strauss (1993); “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structural Anthropology vol.1; trans. by C. Jocobson and B. Schoepf; Penguin, Harmondsworth; pg.206-231
  • Nagy, J. (2002); “Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland” in Myth: a New Symposium; ed. by G. Schrempp & W. Hansen; Indian University Press, Bloomington; pg.124-138
  • Schutz, A. (1962a); “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.3-47
  • Schutz, A. (1962b); “On Multiple Realities” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg. 207-259
  • Schutz, A. (1964); “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the Social World” in Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory; ed. by A. Brodersen; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.226-268
  • Smart, N. (1969); The Religious Experience of Mankind; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1981); Beyond Ideology; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (2009); “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” in Ninian Smart on World Religions vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Ashgate, Farnham; pg.53-62
  • Tremlett, P.F. (2008); Levi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind; Equinox, London


1 reply to “The Problem with Myth

  1. Erik Johnson

    I would suggest that your picture is a better representation of the reality than your statements about “in-groups and out-groups”

    In the end, it isn’t about “me or them”. It really is about “true or false”.

    While no one may consider their stories to be false, what we believe has no bearing on the objective reality of God. That I maintain that the God of Christian scripture is not only the true God, but the logically necessary one, will have no meaning at all in the end if I am wrong. And my belief (or lack thereof) adds or subtracts nothing to God’s existence.

    It is a good thing to treat others with respect. But in the end, subjective and personal truth really has no meaning aside from our experiences here and now, in this life. All of that will be wiped away when, in the end, we are faced with the ultimate objective truth, the truth upon which all other truth is premised.

    And given this reality, perhaps treating other truths, other stories, as being somehow co-equal to our own is not doing anyone any favors at all.


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