We have tended to see such forms as the riddle, the parable, and the proverb systematically, as permanent resources for simple expression. These forms, if they are looked at historically, show traces of a kind of backward-looking battle against the total dominance of myth. The kernel story, the framed question, the simple expression of social wisdom, stand free of mythic beings by notably not naming them. Their content only feebly echoes any mythic story, and their language offers a low phenomenological incidence of mythic elements. More than this, the very form of the riddle, the proverb, or the parable tends in each case to replace, or at least to transpose, the concerns of myth. As for the metaphors which we persistently feel to be essential for poetry—even though poems can exist without them—our feeling attests to their very power, which is akin to that of myth. As poets from the Romantics on have said in various ways, metaphor is an access to that charged area on which myths draw. And of course metaphors do strongly parallel myths, offering a high phenomenological incidence of mythic elements.
These elementary forms tend to take firm shape just at the time in history when literary forms generally are coming into being. And this is also the large moment when religions, as Bellah represents them, in various places all over the world develop doctrines of “transcendence,” which often seem to entail a rejection of the world. Literature then, we may say, restores the world, sometimes to religion but never directly to myth. The literary forms perhaps secularize but certainly redefine myth. As Bellah summarizes the situation, (pp. 38, 43):
in the first millennium B.C. all across the Old World, at least in centers of high culture, the phenomenon of religious rejection of the world [is] characterized by an extremely negative evaluation of man and society and the exaltation of another realm of reality as alone true—Plato’s classic formulation . . . that the body is the tomb or prison of the soul. . . . in Israel the world is profoundly devalued in the face of the transcendent God. . . . In India we find perhaps the most radical of all versions of world rejection . . . in the Buddha’s [image that] the world is a burning house. . . . In China, Taoist ascetics urged . . . withdrawal. . . . [later] the Qu’ran compares this present world to vegetation after rain.
And the same phenomenon repeats itself in another phase as during the early middle ages Christianity replaces paganism while at the same time the literary forms of our era take on characteristic shape.
Generally, then, the period of “transcendence” also produces the rise of literacy, and of literature itself, in nearly all the forms we know. In dialectical interaction with a transcendent rejection of the world there emerges the possibility of an independent, personal, articulated re-representation of the world, those literary works of unparalleled richness and supreme value which include scriptural documents promulgating that transcendence. Along with these, and heralding them, come those humble forms of strong persistence, the proverb, the riddle, and the parable. Meanwhile, the metaphors that are notably scanty in the earliest epic poetry now come magnificently, and protractedly, into their own.