[NB] Myth in History, briefly considered

I feel like I should say something about the place of myth in history given the last few posts emphasizing the Biblical ‘history’s’ mythological character. It’s a deep pool to wade into but I think there are some statements that I can make which hold in a general sense for most myths, Biblical and otherwise. For those interested in the gritty details of the Mesoretic material I’ve been discussing, let me just point you toward the two Wikipedia articles on Source Criticism and the Documentary Hypothesis as guides for deeper diving.

Keep in mind that one of the reasons we have so much detail about the Biblical material is because we have put so many scholarly resources toward this; consider how comparably fewer have been put toward analyzing other myths.

What I can say generally relate partly back to structuralist notions of myths. Claude Levi-Strauss’s core assertion is that myths are rational and possess a logic which is expressed in the ways in which myth develops variations. Just like logic, though, there is a limit to focusing only on the variations. At a certain point, we have to acknowledge that these variations occur in response to something.

This is where things get hairy and where an emphasis on formal structures alone will not do justice to mythology. Myths vary because people think with them. They are modifying them, in part, to suit the needs of the situation with which they are thinking. A little like Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, these myths make possible these thoughts by limiting how things are thought about. Unlike a research paradigm, though, a mythic structure is very loose, defined by very flexible categories and relations. They are patterns of relations as much as anything else.

So, when we deal with a myth, we ought generally assume that it speaks to several domains of thought. It is descriptive and proscriptive, political and religious, ‘scientific’ and allegorical. To the extent that a myth lives, it retains its vitality through its participation in multiple registers. The engine of its dynamism lies in the implicit contradictions in this situation. It is an allegory for the heavens even as it examines, endorses, and qualifies a certain set of social relations, for example.

This just looks at mythic structure synchronically, within one moment of its history. Over time, diachronically, that structure will be used to speak to many situations. In most cases, the situation being addressed is only partially explicit, leaving those of us outside the situation with a dim view of how or why a mythic structure has been brought to bear.

This is true of the Bible’s texts as well as for any other body of myths. I would caution turning this into an overly romantic account of the unifying nature of myth. People using myth in this way tend to appreciate that there are multiple registers of reference and are mostly able to distinguish one from another.

Which is to say, in its fullest historical sense, any given set of myths is only ever partially religious or spiritual. I focus on the spiritual side because, in most cases, that part is most pertinent to discussions here. I do so from a gnostic attitude, which is to say that I take my spiritual experience to be primary and the mythic material to be an essential ancillary tool for contemplating and appreciating that spiritual experience.

That sounds more straightforward than it is. My spiritual experience is not itself ahistorical and spiritual presences often have elective affinities for families of myths (though I have found those families to cross easy historical divisions). Spiritual presences often have a key role to play in anchoring many forms of human sociality, so that the spiritual dimensions of the myth already overlap with the practical, descriptive, and social dimensions of it.

A myth becomes interesting to me in this context for the way in which it permits the invisible world to communicate presently.

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