Book Review: Myth and Reality – by Mircea Eliade, translated from the French by Willard R. Trask (Harper Colophon Books 1963, 1975)
Eliade is one of my favorite writer-thinkers, a master of comparative mythology and human psycho-spiritual patterns. This book is quite a good overview of how myths function and how they have arisen and changed in response to historical thought. Eliade understood that myth was not mere fable but a way of understanding reality through our inclination to understand through story. He noted recurring patterns in myths around the world and sought to explain them. He notes that the myths of more primitive societies offer a better way to understand their development as myths in cultured societies were often reworked many times over by bards and mythographers. In seeking to define myth he notes that it is difficult and variable and offers what he calls a least inadequate definition:
“Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the “beginnings.” In other words, myth tells how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality – an island, a species of plant, a particular kind of human behavior, an institution. Myth, then, is always an account of a “creation”; it relates how something was produced, began to be.”
Many societies, he says, distinguish “true stories,” or myths, from “false stories,” or mere tales. Myths relate origins and circumstances. Myths are often recounted at specific times: initiation ceremonies, times of trouble, etc., while the other tales can be told anytime. Myths teach how to repeat the creative acts of supernatural beings. Knowledge of origins and recounting those origins by reciting them is magical power. In the Finnish Kalevala, Vainamoinen recounts the origin of iron in order to heal a cut from a sword. Recounting of the origins of remedies, particularly herbal remedies, is a cause for magical healing. Myth always relates to origins and to live or re-enact a myth is to connect to origins, a religious experience. The Australian tribes have detailed origin stories for many pieces of the landscape: hills, rocks, forests, lakes, rivers, etc.
Often bards will chant the genealogy of the tribe from the gods to the present. This is a way of connecting to the beginning, the sacred. By ritually connecting to sacred beginnings, healing becomes possible. Eliade goes through many different tribal and ethnic examples of his comparative themes throughout the book. Sometime one invokes the primordial healer or the primordial shaman to connect current healing needs with the original (archetypal, universal) healer or shaman. The origins of medicines along with the origins of the cosmos are recited in times of need.
Cosmogonic myths are recited also at times of the new year as rituals of renewal. Return to origins is return to sacred time, the primordial time of creation. The New Year epitomizes the cyclic nature of reality and connects to creation at the beginning of each cycle. Typically, the New Year, represents the passage from Chaos to Cosmos. In order for the new world to be purified, the old world must be destroyed. Thus cultures that re-enact the New Year tend to have myths of the end of time, usually in a great cataclysm of chaos and destruction, but not always. Thus there is a return to Chaos, the situation before the beginning, so that the beginning can begin anew. He focuses this section mainly on Mesopotamia and the Near East. Indo-European myths of the end of the world abound. The pralaya of Indian myth probably reaches back to Vedic times. Pralaya refers to the dissolving of the world at the end of the world ages to be born anew. There are quite a few detailed explanations of how a world can be destroyed according to Indian myth, Jain myth, and Buddhist abhidharma. The Germanic myth of Ragnarok as the battle at the end of time is a prime example of one of these “eschatologies.” It is typical in these myths for the beginning to be a golden age of perfection and things to deteriorate into chaos and immorality toward the end times. The Indo-European myths seem to recount the long ages from beginning to end in similar ways to the yearly cycles in other tribes. Indeed some of these long cycles are called a “year” in the distorted time of the gods of different levels. The Greeks and the Gnostics also projected mythic time in world ages, but as history was taking hold, such ideas began changing. The apocalypses of the Judeo-Christians were quite similar in character with one major difference – the end of the world will only occur once. History had taken hold, likely due to the earliest reliance on written record by the Hebrews that eventually eclipsed the cyclicity of oral culture. The coming of the messiah and the return to the Garden of Eden are quite similar in character to other myths of renewal but are only slated to happen once. The world destroyed by fire does occur once in the New Testament, as it does in Stoic eschatology with the likely origin from Iranian sources. The reign of the Antichrist is similar to the reign of Chaos before renewal. Later on, especially around the 11th century, millennial movements appeared among Christians and Muslims, with features resembling cyclical renewal – great Chaos followed by peace and Cosmos. In more recent times, apocalyptic cults among Christians in America reinvigorated in the 19th century and Islamic ones as well. The current scourge of the so-called Islamic State is one of the most vile forms of brainwashed apocalypticism at present. For most of these movements the end of the world and often their own deaths are seen as ways to enter paradise, as dictated by some prophecy. The religions have taken up the reigns that tribal peoples have abandoned as the world became more integrated, to the detriment of us all. In apocalypticism, the purpose of the “end” is still to bring on the new paradise, the new “beginning.”
Interestingly, he compares some of these ideas with Freud’s psychoanalytic framework where the child lives in mythic time, the time that we are most impressionable and our future tendencies and dispositions are born. Psychanalytic technique often involves going back to the beginning and especially to the traumas that marked us. This could be considered an individual return to origins in analogy with the tribal return to origins in myth and especially in initiation rituals. Initiation is often related to symbolic re-birth, thus renewal. There is a return to the chaotic state of the womb and an emergence therefrom into an improved mystical or spiritual state. The same processes occur in nature: the sun is born anew each day from the chaos of night and the moon is born anew in the cyclical waxing and waning. Symbolic return to the womb leads to return to origins. The Taoists return to the womb symbolically in the practice of embryonic breathing to be born anew with “immortal” qualities, the bliss of youth and longevity.
By contrast, Eliade describes Yoga and Buddhism as soteriologies, with the aim of spiritual mastery, or liberation. He describes this goal of the liberation from the wheel of time and the effects of karma. One description of the goal is that of Timeless Awareness. Thus, one is freed from linear time and the cycle of life and death, by reaching the non-conditioned state that precedes the fall into time. Focus on the present as mindfulness involves constantly remembering the present while de-focusing on past and future. As such the flow of time is not emphasized and one might become free of it. Eliade notes that one frees oneself from Time by recollection, or anamnesis. One may burn up one’s karmic connections through recollecting them and overcoming them by hyper focus on the timelessness of the present. Thus, he notes that Buddha in his omniscience could recall knowledge of past lives.
Eliade notes the commonality of myths of a Supreme Being who creates the universe then fades away never to be heard from again and the creation finished by his son or offspring. This disappearing god, or deus otiosis, may be remembered in times of crisis, however. This absent demiurge is common to many belief systems. It may be that such a being represents that distance that we often feel to divinity by the prevalence of mystery in our lives.
Another common mythic scenario occurs where a supreme god is put to death by men, the mythical ancestors. The slain divinity typically creates other living beings so the death itself is a creative act. Typically this god appeared after creation so was not a creator deity. In many cases it appears that they appeared mainly to be sacrificed in the creative act. Eliade notes a typical theme-sequence: supernatural being kills men to initiate them, then men kill the being in vengeance, then ceremonies are created and enacted to relate to the original drama, and finally the slain being is invoked in these ceremonies through a ritual object or some oracle or another means. The murder is typically not regarded as a crime. He notes A.E. Jensen’s idea that this type of ritual sequence occurs in the paleo-cultivators of New Guinea and represents an end to an epoch and the beginning of a new one, a new way of life (cultivating tubers and plants), as the murdered divinity was transformed into food. These perhaps represent ideas similar to early ideas of the myth of the dying and rising god of grain that became prominent among the cities of the Near East.
Eliade notes peoples where the original celestial Supreme Being retains his religious power:
“… in certain pastoral cultures (especially the Turco-Mongols) and in the monotheism of Moses, the reform of Zarathustra, and in Islam. Even when his name is still remembered – Anu of the Mesopotamians, El of the Canaanites, Dyaus of the Vedic Indians, Ouranos of the Greeks – the Supreme Being no longer plays an important role in religious life and is but little represented in mythology… “
The gods thus became distant from humans as time wore on in these cultured polytheistic worlds. Gradually belief in the myths faded although belief in the gods remained. He mentions the beginning of “de-mythicization” in pre-Socratic Greece and Upanishadic India. Coincident with these new developments, in Greece and the Near East were the mysteries where myths of descent into the Underworld and other tragedies and dramas were celebrated as initiations. In Greece, philosophy gradually came to replace mythology, in one sense, but mythical thought remained. It was still ascertained that the search for origins is the noble quest and that essence precedes existence. It would take the historical, developed in the Judeo-Christian format, to wear down mythical thought although, he shows that it remained, veiled, in a different form, in historiography itself.
Eliade explains the mythic metaphor of remembering the teachings and techniques to counter to forgetfulness brought about by indulgence in the worldly pleasures. He gives the examples of the Indian stories of the Nath yogis, Matsyendranath and Goraknath and that of the Gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. Forgetting is equivalent to sleep and remembering to waking up. Waking up and remembering are equated to spiritual liberation, or enlightenment. Forgetting is to ignorance as remembering is to knowledge. The same is true among the Platonists and Neoplatonists. The goddess Mnemosyne, the Mother of the Muses, is omniscient. She inspires the bards. Hesiod acquired the knowledge of the genealogy of the gods from her. That which is forgotten is akin to death, the fountain of forgetfulness, Lethe, is encountered in death, as the dead lose memories. To become immortal is to retain memories. In the Orphic-Pythagorean mysteries the initiate is told to avoid the lake of forgetting and imbibe the waters of the lake of remembrance (Mnemosyne) so that a better reincarnation will be attained. This idea in some form is thought to have originated in Egypt, with some possible reference in the Pyramid Texts. Memory of former lives was claimed among Pythagoreans. Both Yogis and Pythagoreans practiced memory training and the overcoming of forgetfulness was considered a powerful accomplishment. Plato considered learning, particularly of the Ideas, to be remembering, or recollecting. It is that recollection that may overcome the forgetting power of the fountain of Lethe after death as one enters the primordial state of the Ideas and then those “truths” learned in former lives may be recalled in the next. This is the Platonic anamnesis. Sleep is akin to death in many cultures. It is akin to ignorance and delusion as well, particularly in the East. There are quite a few myths around the world where a hero must avoid sleep in order to gain a maiden or a boon: Orpheus and Eurydice, Gilgamesh, the disciples of Jesus, to name a few. The whole Gnostic cosmology of the soul’s descent or fall into matter is a fall into sleep. Eliade sees a similar motif in Upanashadic India where the Self is not of the world of matter (prakrti). The Self, as (purusa) is in the world but not of it. The world itself is illusory (maya). The Gnostic version is more mythic while the Indian version more philosophical in nature. Both seek to disassociate from the material world and its attendant tendencies.
Eliade considers historiography, that of Herodotus and the Greeks and Romans as a method of recording, much as we see it now, but the earlier Hebrew histories, he says, were more a religious history – of a divine plan and the interventions of a personal God. Historiography, as a means to preserve the memory of the past in great detail, basically developed from the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance it was the search for exemplary models toward the perfection of man, but also for civic and moral models. In this sense, historiography can be said to have taken over this function from myth, beginning with the Greeks and Romans. In modern times we can learn and become through history, and by knowing how other cultures think and their histories. This is what Eliade calls “historiographic anamnesis.” Through this “method” we can relate to characters and beings of the past and use them as exemplary models. In the past myth and ritual were the means of uniting microcosm and macrocosm. He thinks this historiographic anamnesis is not yet fully developed. He sees it as a continuation of the sacred evaluation of memory and forgetfulness. He thinks non-mythical documenting of historical time can actually lead to experiencing the primordial time venerated in the past.
Myths are typically supernatural stories:
“Myths are the most general and effective means of awakening and maintaining consciousness of another world, a beyond, whether it be a divine world or the world of the Ancestors. This “other world” represents a superhuman, “transcendent” plane, the plane of absolute realities.”
It is through such a means that ideas of reality, truth, and meaning dawned on archaic peoples. Periodic re-enactment of mythic dramas kept these ideas aloft. Through seeing one’s activities as mythic re-enactment one can know that what one is about to do has already been done and be reassured that it is correct activity. If the example is followed there will be success. That is the formula, says Eliade, of archaic myth. Symbol is the language of myth, and of ritual, dreams, visions, and sometimes contemplations. Symbol is the means for synching the macrocosmic and the microcosmic. Myth is also a result of the poetic genius of shamans and bards, those inclined toward ecstatic experience.
It is the ancient Greeks, who, in their new rationalism, first identified myth with fiction. We merely inherited the rational traditions. This new rationalism and fictionizing of the myths occurred due to the nature of the stories of the gods (in Homer and Hesiod), the ones where they were unjust and immoral. New ideas of higher, more just and moral ideal of divinity came to replace them. This fictionalizing of the gods also spurred the Christian apologists. Hesiod told of older more primordial myths while Homer’s were specific to the military elite. Hesiod brought out procreation in causal stages: Chaos then Gaia then Eros – this progression apparently inspired the early philosophers such as Empedocles and Parmenides. Eliade notes that the Greek philosophers departed from veneration of the gods from the beginning, with the Milesians. Perhaps they preferred a more idealistic God or gods not prone to passions and imperfections, as their writings indicate – said Xenophanes: “One god is the highest among gods and men; in neither his form nor his thought is he like unto mortals.” Eliade sees the trend as a move to “free the concept of divinity from the anthropomorphic expressions of the poets.”
Eliade notes that allegory and euhemerism are critiques not only to myth but to any imaginary world. Greek rationalism favored allegorical interpretations of the classical myths, although some authors say it was not so popular in Greece, but much more popular in Alexandria and Rome. In the third century B.C, the Greek author Euhemerus proclaimed in a philosophical romance that the gods were really ancient kings that were deified. Here was another way of accounting for the gods. Some authors still hold this to be true – among the Indo-European deity types especially. Thus, both allegory and euhemerism allowed the gods to be venerated alongside the new and seemingly necessary appetite for rationalism. Eventually the “mythological heritage” devoid of religious values became a cultural treasure, especially in post-Renaissance times. The triumph of the book over oral tradition means that we know myth as a literary tradition rather than as a participatory ritual tradition. However, even in rationalist times the mystery religions of Rome, Greece, and the Near East kept religious traditions amidst rationalism. The mystery religions focused more on soteriology and individual spiritual development and less on belief in the myths themselves. Thus, Christianity did not, he says, enter a vacuum due to rationalism causing de-mythicization. Secularized and de-mythicized Greek religion survived in European culture due to its literary works while popular religion mostly faded with some preservation among rural peoples and traditions. It is possible that some of those rural traditions reach back into Neolithic times when agriculture became established in Europe.
He goes through survivals and camouflages of myths through Christian times. Early Christians adopted the idea of myth as fable or fiction and so refused to see their Jesus story as a mythological saga as it is. Early Christianity certainly had many mythological elements and some have survived hidden into modern times. Early Christian compilers and exegetics like Marcion and Aelius Theon utilized the style of Greco-Roman grammarians to explain the doctrines that led to Christian orthodoxy. The same were used previously by rationalists to de-mythicize the Greek and Roman myths. Christians came to insist that their narratives were not myths but histories. It was Origen who came to promote an allegorical interpretation of many of the scriptures although he likely had precedents (and contemporaries) among the Gnostics such as Valentinus. However Origen’s “parables” can hardly be distinguished from myth. He favored both a historical and a mystical interpretation. The very “imitation of Christ” and the fact that it is a religion gives it the mythic element of following an exemplary model. However, this is done in linear time rather than the circular time of archaic cultures. This is due to the attachment of Christian history to that of earlier Jewish history. Jewish symbols and some early pagan were adopted into the tradition and re-interpreted in Christian terms. Later in medieval Europe the forms of “cosmic Christianity” developed in order to convert those from Central and Western Europe. Here the myths of St. George and the Dragon and many transformations of pagan gods into saints occurred, thus partially preserving some of the popular pre-Christian religions of Europe, particularly among rural people. Thus in many places a “cosmic Christianity” developed, keeping many aspects of previous nature religions. In Eastern Europe, which was last to be Christianized, it was more a Christianization of Paganism than a Paganization of Christianity. Jesus and Mary became part of the presence of nature. Millenialism of 1000 C.E. and the crusades (as a way to free the holy land) can also been seen as mythological ventures – eschatologies. Prophecies such as the Second Coming of Christ the Messiah and the Last Judgement can hardly be scene other than mythologically. These are end of the world/beginning of the renewed utopian world scenarios that replace endless varieties of earlier pagan and tribal versions.
In modern times many peoples still search for and proclaim their “noble origins,” a means to venerate and make sacred their tribe or people. This can cause problems as it did among those who venerated Aryan origins. Eliade even compares Marx’s notion of the proletariat, the just man, as a version of the myth of the Golden Age, where a glorious and problem-free classless society reigns.
Elaide then delves into mythic patterns in mass media of the time (1940s and 50s) when comic strips and detective novels were popular. We are now quite well aware of the mythic character of pop fiction heroes and characters. Public figures can and are also venerated in such a mythic manner, becoming exemplary models – the cult of personality as they say. The suburban cult of the automobile and other cults of affluenza may be further examples. Myths of the elite may arise around those engaged in certain professions. The artist, the sports hero, the rock star, etc., all seem to have their archetypes. He notes that one can escape time through reading, particularly novels, so such activity can be considered mythic. He would have had much to say about the timeless trance brought about by movies as well I would think. To be free of historical time is to be free of the consequences of linear time, ie. death.
Appendix I is an analysis of Jan de Vries’ works about Myths and Fairy Tales. He first notes the attempts of Scandinavian scholars in studying the many variants of mythical tales to arrive at a primordial form (Urform) of the tale. Those attempts ended in failure, maybe due to the original dividing into variants very early in the tale’s existence. There is no doubt that ancient initiatory and totemic forms survive in fairy tales, folk music, and popular customs. Some folk tales are clearly initiatory in structure. The saga may differ somewhat from the folk tale, being aristocratic poetry rather than popular (usually rural) tale and custom. De Vries considered the comparison of the folk tale forms to Jungian archetype but also noted that there are differences: literary tale forms may be similar to but are not the same as dream forms and as such they are only partly sourced in the unconscious and may not be at all in some cases. De Vries noted that the heroic epic does not belong to popular tradition but to aristocratic poetic tradition, whether from a historical basis (certainly very likely in some cases) or from secularized myth. Sagas often end in tragedies but folk tales seem to favor happy endings. The characters in saga are governed by the gods and fate while those in folk tales are more detached from these. They are similar but their directions verged at some point. They have common structure. Myths and folk tales are often blended so finding origins is notoriously difficult. In more modern times the folk tale is a means of diversion or escape for the entertainment of children and adults yet still holds meaning, often due to the mythic structure. The initiatory ordeals remain – descent to Hades, ascent to heaven, solving riddles, battling monsters, marrying the princess, etc. Eliade sees folk tales as “exemplary initiation scenarios.” Perhaps the tales allow us to go through these imaginary initiations vicariously, on some level. There are such tales among societies that still practice such initiation so there the tales can be lived to some extent.
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