To organize all aspects of life, to explain the relation between this-worldly activities and other-worldly ones, to reassure himself on every front, man everywhere in the beginning had recourse almost exclusively to myths. For the earliest societies science as well as religion, rules of kinship and exchange as well as who the dead are and how to treat them, the course of the seasons and the meaning of dreams, the management of plants and animals along with the cure of psychic illness—all come into place through individual myths and systems of myth. And in modern societies, too, the patterns derived from myths may be found to underlie our deepest personal histories and motivations, “the unconscious.” Myths stubbornly pervade the way we treat one another and organize the space around us; they charge our works of art with urgent meaning.
Myths must be formulated in language, and myth must be discussed in language. But myth, in Jolles’ suggestive characterization, provides an answer to a question we do not have. Myth handles material that lies in some way out of the reach of natural language, with a technique that for Freud is an emotional dynamic and for Lévi-Strauss an intellectual dialectic.
A myth, however, or what amounts to a myth, provides a technique for handling the unknown, for naming the unknown without offering a solution. Science, on the other hand, proceeds to name an unknown in order to solve it. But even the mythography of Freud and that of Lévi-Strauss, which explain myth as an emotional or an intellectual process, posit as the source or motive of this process something that does really remain an unknown: the unconscious or the savage mind. The myths that order the phenomena later studied by natural science also celebrate the connection between the phenomena and an unpredictable source. In the interpretations of Girard, Burkert, and Bataille, sacrifice rituals not only solidify society and perpetuate its means of food production or food gathering; they also carefully preserve a willful evasion of the extreme facts that the myths about sacrifice codify: they insist on the unknown.
Insofar as myth must be communicated in language, and insofar as myth—a particular myth, or “myth” in general—necessarily constitutes the central reference for statements of or about it, then myth is continuous with language. But myth, as that area which resists formulation, a permanent and powerful unknown, is also discontinuous from language, however much the principles ordering myths may be deduced to resemble the principles ordering a language. Lévi-Strauss bases himself on this discontinuity when he calls ritual a paralanguage and myth a metalanguage (9, p. 84).
As for language itself, the whole question of how to render a structural account of linguistic performance must not only always be supplemented by a theory of truth-functions for sentences and modes of reference for the lexical items that make up sentences (as well as for sentences themselves). All these questions, structure, truth-function and reference taken globally, interact—at least in the most intense forms of utterance, “literary” statements as well as “myths”—with a sort of “monstrous a priori” where the interplay of emotion and the resolution of contradiction are given names of only negative definition (the unconscious), or of hypostatized beings (daimones). Bateson calls the hypothetical center in consciousness for such activity the “black box,” the source that we may speak of but which is impenetrable to us.
The strategies for getting from myth to language, and from language to myth, are elaborate. And these strategies have undergone massive change in the course of human history. It is not only artful language, poetry, whose history can be related to changes in the interaction between myth and language; philosophy and historiography and other forms of formal human discourse become possible, it would seem from the historical evidence, only after and through a shift in the interaction between myth and language.
We may take myths, Greek or primitive, and subject them to the patterns of Freudian or Jungian analysis to lay bare their emotional content. We may also follow Lévi-Strauss and factor the events they recount into series of binary algorithms in order to diagram the thought-process they represent. But even if a writer like Marcel Detienne uses Lévi-Strauss’s techniques to go beyond Lévi-Strauss’s Frazeresque concentration on seasons and the fertility of crops and people, still, in order to give these patterns their full dimension, we should have to understand further how myth interacts with language. Freud “discovered” the unconscious; but the unconscious is known through its interactions with the ego as much as the ego is known through its manipulations of the unconscious. Similarly, the most comprehensive constructions about myth in language, literary works, would have to be understood in a reciprocity between the two systems. Otherwise, we would be left with the transmutation of myth into literature unexplained, which is in fact precisely where we are left after all of Lévi-Strauss’s masterly demonstrations. Or else we would translate literary functions back into simplified mythic functions, and come out with something like Northrop Frye’s quasi-Jungian categories.
Without a theory of the mediation between myth and language, we should effectually be caught in the false antithesis of honoring Apollo on the one hand, in a blind subservience to something like the god’s urgency, or just reading his hieroglyphic on the other hand, losing the urgency.
The system of myth has an inseparable relation to the system of language, and we owe it to Lévi-Strauss, on the one hand, to have shown us how complexly the myths of a culture can be read as a sort of grammar of implied ideas. On the other hand, the form of myth, even as Lévi-Strauss analyzes it, cannot be wholly free of the form of language. Myth is not only analogous to language; it must inescapably enter language in order to be transmitted.
Language itself, seen just as a system of rules for producing syntax patterns, can be described as content-free; myth never can;1 the content of language can be assigned to a separable lexicon, standing available to the speaker when he would invent a sentence, for which he would need given words.
Within the system of myths, there may be a systematic definition of the contents of the given “words”—the figures like Apollo and Dionysus or the story “bits” that Lévi-Strauss calls mythemes, the killing of the Python by Apollo or the sewing of Dionysus into the thigh of Zeus. Myth itself, once formulated within a society, is a given system, a sort of lexicon, where the relations between words are more fixed than in language: the words “Dionysus” and “Zeus” may be combined in a sentence much more freely than the mythemes about them can be.
We are, from as far back as we can know, a story-telling kind. And story-telling persists in our society for conveying what would seem to be otherwise inexpressible in language. So that under all the phases of interrelation between myth and language there is continuity. From very far back we also transpose our stories. Myth is another name for such a transposition; “mythos” originally means “story,” a story in language. The possibility of writing down language is inseparable, already in Egypt and indeed as far back as the caves of the Paleolithic, from the impetus to communicate in something like language the elements of myth.
But of course if there are phases, there have to be techniques for moving from one phase to another. The very holistic character of myth would necessitate a very large linguistic gesture to effectuate the movement from one phase to another. And so myth cannot, in the last analysis, be fully accounted for as a sort of metalanguage, thinking itself through the group that possesses it. In Lévi־Strauss’s posited faculty of mythmaking in the savage mind, the group is possessed by its myths. If so, it could not have transmuted them. We need a better account of the process than to say simply that myths die (Lévi-Straus’s 9, pp. 301-18), even if the myth is shown to develop into legend, romance, or novel.
The transition from “oral” to “written” culture, for example, could be seen as a “cause” of change in the relations between myth and language. Or else it could be seen as an “effect,” and literacy itself could be envisaged as a supremely powerful social by-product of redefining the relation between myth and language.
Without assignment of cause or effect, the purpose of this book is to examine some of the sensitized interaction between myth and language. My aim here has not been to provide a systematic account of myth, and so to define it. Rather, I have tried to see as far as I could into the interaction between myth and language at points where this interaction manifests itself with special salience.
While I do feel that the sections of this book bear on one another, I have organized it in such a way that they do so paratactically: I have not produced a step-by-step argument; points are argued separately. In Part One I examine Lévi־Strauss’s systematic and penetrating account of myth as a communicative system, and seek to show that the usefulness of his binary procedures is, in effect, confined to only one aspect of a corpus of myth, an aspect that manifests itself most exclusively and pronouncedly during just one particular phase of culture, the Neolithic. In the second chapter I sketch a typology of cultural phases, distinguishing them by the relation between myth and language, with particular attention to literary forms.
In Part Two, again somewhat paratactically, I set up three examples of how the Greeks redefined the relation between myth and language as they moved from the elaborate oral culture of Homer to the literate, analytical culture where an Aristotle was produced. Heraclitus strips Homer’s binary system of both meter and story to turn it into an instrument of thought; Pindar dynamizes a celebratory context by applying an arbitrary constellation of given myths to a particular occasion; and Herodotus applies a vast sorting process at once diachronie (historical) and synchronic (anthropological) to human behavior, wherein religious observances, both myths and rituals, are only incidents, one of the many attributes of the Egyptians or the Scythians. Some sense that Herodotus was redefining myth must have been felt by those who much later gave the names of the Muses to his nine books. The last chapter of Part Two examines how Ovid—heir several hundred years after Herodotus to a rich tradition of Greek and Roman myth, religion, philosophy, poetry, and history—plays fast and loose with the intrigue, the mystery, and even the absurdity of his mythic material.
In Part Three I again shift ground to look at the intimate dependence of the most elementary literary forms and procedures—proverb, riddle, parable, and metaphor—on a transposition into language of concerns associated with myth. At the end I try to make a case for the persisting vitality of mythic procedures in literary forms, and equally, by implication, for the necessity of literary forms to keep the mythic procedures alive.
Greece offers a powerful example of how the change in the technical uses of writing within a society goes hand in hand with a deep alteration of its whole world outlook. On the one hand, as Walter J. Ong reminds us (pp. 119-22), sound is “in certain ways a preferred field for the movement from inertness to intelligence.” There is found “increasing exploitation of voice as one moves up the evolutionary scale,” and man’s uses of sound are more “interiorized” than those of porpoises, bats, and apes, since sound serves man for interpersonal relationships rather than for marking objects or territories. Still, the cultures we loosely characterize as oral tend to lack a sense of history and a capacity for the sort of abstract induction that the Prometheus of Aeschylus, at roughly this transitional point, may be taken to symbolize. It is one thing to set fire on a stable hearth in a cyclic system—that is the Neolithic revolution. It is another thing to think back retrospectively to a stage where fire is included in a series of other general notions—that is the birth of philosophy, and Heraclitus, whatever his fire doctrines may mean, may well have been a necessary prelude to Aeschylus.2
The oral-aural, as Marshall McLuhan has taught us, tribalizes a society. The individual in such a society lacks what we think of as a special personal identity; he is defined wholly and comprehensively by his membership in a group. Ideas transmitted by word of mouth tend to follow the circumstances of auditory communication, and consequently they are centered; the hearer is in the middle of the sound waves. Everybody hears an oral announcement, proclamation, or recited poem at one time, inescapably caught in the group, as again Ong deduces. Ideas transmitted to the eye through written documents do not have this gripping simultaneity. They are as sequential as letters on a page, and they must be apprehended by a reader in separation from the group. To the oral culture in Greece one could connect everything in Homer’s conditions from ring composition, parataxis, and the formula to the closed world of staple societal virtues; whereas writing, once it has been firmly established by Plato, triumphs in the sequential, encyclopedic-taxonomie definitions of Aristotle. He is, however, still early enough to have defined an ideal city as one small enough for all the citizens to live within earshot of a single herald.3
So much is by now commonplace, and commonplace for good reason. In one sense it is the purpose of this book to flesh out this commonplace. But we must also beware of commonplace. There are a number of considerations we must raise before falling back on the distinction between oral and written.
Greece, to begin with, is unique as well as exemplary. As Havelock has pointed out, following Jeffery and I.J. Gelb, only in Greece are sounds further abstracted to become an alphabet of phonetic representation rather than just the given cluster-representations, morpheme by morpheme, of hieroglyphics; or a syllabary; or some combination of the two. Linear В was a syllabary, like every other form of writing in the world before the remarkable Greek adaptation of a Phoenician syllabary to produce the phonetic alphabet. The Greeks were not just literate; they were literate in a special way that allowed them (or at least occurred with) their special development.4 Greek literacy in itself differs from Hebrew or Chinese literacy as markedly as oral does from written in those cultures at various stages.
Moreover oral is not parallel to written as a descriptive term for cultures.
All language at any stage of culture is fundamentally oral. It has a phonological base, and it is built up first, and inescapably, from sound structures that may be omitted but are always present, not only for some pioneer of silent reading like Saint Ambrose but for any denizen of a highly literate culture.
The sound structures of natural language are supplemented, at least for poetry at any stage of culture, by further arbitrary sound structures. It is by sound structures that verse is defined, and even the “thought-rhyme” of Hebrew parallelism has complementary sound-structures above those of the natural language. Poetry also tends to occur in a specially selected diction and an especially modified syntax, in the Kunstsprachen or artificial languages that constitute Homers Ionic-Aeolic or Dante’s Tuscan. These special languages were never spoken anywhere, like the artificial language of Wordsworth or Pound that masquerades as a natural language, much as art song pretends to be folk song, by being supposedly but arbitrarily (in ways definably different from natural language) confined to “natural” dictions or rhythms.
In these Kunstsprachen, the special features of diction and syntax are always complemented and marked by special rhythmic features: the oral-aural component of rhythm and meter is as inseparable from these features as the phonological component is from natural language. This is true for the earliest Indo-European texts, the Rgveda, composed in staple meters and in a language whose very name for itself means artificial or confected (Sanskrit, samskŗta).
Oral, then, a term we may use loosely to characterize a stage of culture before widespread literacy, applies strictly (in the necessarily prior synchronic analysis) to all languages, natural or artificial, whether transmitted by mouth or by page.Written is not a term symmetrical with oral synchronically, though it too may be used for loose diachronie designation.Writing refers, strictly speaking, not to language, but to a special technique for transmitting language. And this would be true even of the “writing” of Derrida, which posits an epistemological rift between the “voice” and the “phenomenon” of a sort that in the phenomenology of perception any assignment of words to objects must involve a “primal writing” (archi-écriture) in the mind of the perceiver (1, pp. 8Iff, pp. 164ff). This process would have to be distinct from that of calling up the words and producing the sentences of a language, natural or artificial.
Writing is a technique that is defined by its social context: by the uses to which the technique is put and by the classes of people who employ it, often in early societies a particular group of scribes or priests. These, in DuméziFs “first function” of Indo-European society, are frequently members of the same large group as the singers or bards who recite, though priests and poets may constitute separate sub-groups. Calchas in Homer does not do the work of Demodocus, but he possesses a speciai knowledge of past, present and future, as the bard has a special knowledge of mythos. The Rgveda, of course, is a body of hymns; and so it is the property of a priestly class. Writing serves as a class function for the transmission of documents like sacred texts, inventory records, and laws—before it is used in any form to record poems—though the sacred texts do already provide a form of relationship between myth and language.
Looking ahead from a prevailingly “oral” culture, Havelock distinguishes three states in Greece from Homer to Aristotle: craft literacy when literacy belonged just to a class of scribes, recitation literacy when the ability to recite from a text was transmitted in schools, and finally a socialized literacy when texts would be freely and privately read. A vase from the early fifth century B.C. depicts recitation in school but the conning of a text is not represented in art until about 400 B.C., on a grave stele. As Jeffery notes in tracing the uncertain progress of inscriptional alphabets in archaic Greece, the verb for reading, epilegesthai, is derived by Chantraine from legein in its primary sense of “gathering” the word letter by letter:“il s’agit d’assembler, de recueillir pour comprendre.”
Looking backward from the “oral” societies of which we have record to Neolithic and even Paleolithic times, we find no stage of society of which we can confidently assert that it lacked “writing” for some use. Leroi-Gourhan (2) deduces the very possibility of language itself from the duality of interaction between hand and mouth. This procedure would lead not only to speaking but, through the use of the hand for instrumental work, directly to writing, through the fashioning of tools, to the cave paintings which he argues must be taken as proto-hieroglyphics, at once picture and writing at a time when picture and writing were indistinguishable. If all writing systems we know begin as ideo-graphs that become hieroglyphics, then going backward in time, one could not arbitrarily stop somewhere short of the cave paintings in defining a hieroglyph. For this “oral” people there is arguably a “writing” that consists of imaging animals and human sexual symbols on a wall, and possibly also of tallying up a count of moons by scratching “numbers” on a bone, for purposes from which we have no way of divorcing the legal, the “religious,” or the “mythical.”
Scripta manent. The cave paintings do remain, and they are writing at least in that sense. If there is arguably no stage of human culture since the Paleolithic in which writing did not exist, then one of the exchange-systems in any conceivable society would be the special assignment of some linguistic communications to a preserving code. Writing, too, would be defined in its societal context as an exchange. And any exchange, as Mauss has taught us, can be defined in a society only by defining all the institutions of the society. Writing is always in the picture.
At the point where a society would allow anything whatever—rather than, say, just laws or records—to be transmitted in writing, the society becomes self-conscious about its institutions. In this ethnological sense, without reference to the particular psychological conditions under which writing is apprehended, the birth of “sociological” literacy is the birth of philosophy. Neolithic questions about the nature of fire and the sun are quickly replaced, before Socrates, by the questions of epistemology and ontology in which man becomes the measure of all things (whatever that phrase of Protagoras’ may specifically mean).
The self-consciousness that breaks the dominance of the cyclic in time and the tribal in space also seeks to redefine—to incorporate or scrap but in any case to retransmute—the tales into which the cyclic in time and the tribal in space were both hypostasized and coded. Language begins to perform a new function in its inseparable relation to myth. There may have been series of “chthonic revivals” in Greece before the one in the sixth century B.C., when we suddenly see special attention given to chthonic deities over Olympian ones, but we know about that wave of revivals because it was subjected to a kind of linguistic examination which has preserved it for us. It is the post- Homeric Pindar who defines poetry in its function of preserving the tales of the heroes, sometimes with an unfair slant, as Pindar (Nemean 7) charges against Homer.
Cox follows Gogarten in reading the Pentateuch itself as a de-mythologizing in its humanization and abstraction of the Old Testament Jehovah. In Greece, too, humanization and abstraction tend to go together, though differently. There, too, de-mythologizing and the redefinition of myth are performed at about the same time in history, and sometimes by the same writer.
Language is haunted by myth, and the act of defining myth is an act of something like exorcism. To define myth and to invoke its power require a strategy that calls for more than the vast and algorithmic circular definitions of Lévi-Strauss, whereby the myth simply reflects both the underlying thought-processes and the institutions and procedures of the society. In a further strategy the dynamic of interaction between language and myth should be examined without either separating them or fusing them unduly. It is the aim of this book to move toward such a strategy.