Interpreting Myths in the 18th Century

Vintage illustration from an 18th Century book, History of Joseph and his Brethren.

The period from 1680 to 1860 is critical for understanding twenty-first-century interpretations of myth. For the first time in history, myths were recorded, and official versions were printed in Europe. During the Enlightenment Era, the word myth was used to distinguish science from fantasy and became equated with “false.” Enlightenment philosophers regarded myths as Pagan falsehoods or degenerate versions of Biblical truth. Pagan and Christian beliefs were perceived as a corruption of a primal, monotheistic religion and remnants of an irrational past. Rationalists saw myth as a preliminary step in the triumph of reason, where myths were maintained in society because they alleviated fears of the unknown.

Thomas Blackwell (1701-1757), in An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer and Robert Lowth (1710-1787) in Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, argued that myth was a valid record of earlier societies, containing some truth. Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) was the first to argue that myths were created at different stages in cultural evolution. Vico maintained that myths were “poetic truths” and “metaphysical truths.” Bernhard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757) compared mythologies and concluded that humans were universally predisposed toward creating a mythology. He attributed the supernatural characteristics of myths to the “primitive” societies that created them. Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (1857-1939) argued that primitive people were dominated by the mystical and unable to employ rational modes of thought.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud explained myths as anxiety stemming from biological memories of evolution. He argued that certain child-rearing activities lead to certain anxieties that are universal and projected onto mythical figures. He emphasized a link between neurotic behavior and supernatural beliefs. After Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, scholars lost interest in the mythical and religious context of dreaming. Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, which initially met with hostility, profoundly influenced twentieth-century thought and the interpretation of myths.

Sir James Frazer and Sir Edward Tylor

Nineteenth-century theories of myth were concerned with the origins of humankind. Sir James Frazer (1851-1941) and Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) argued that mythology was a corrupted history and a necessary social institution. Tylor argued that myths were distorted history invented by “primitive” people. Tylor has been criticized for claiming that not all people have equal intellectual capacity and potential. To counter Tylor’s argument, structural anthropologists provide the explanation that “primitive” thought is logically consistent, but the terms of its logic are not consistent with Western thought.

Tylor, in Primitive Culture, believed that human societies pass through stages of development, beginning with savagery, barbarism, and, eventually, civilization. In societies considered “savage” or “barbaric,” where artistic endeavors were not specialized, mythical themes allowed a form of self-expression. Ancient people in the “savage” and “barbaric” stages of civilization practiced a form of animism, which is regarded as a necessary stage in the progression of human development. The last stage is considered the most advanced stage, where monotheism is the dominant belief system. Tylor argued that life events like sleep, death, and illness led people to conceptualize a second, separate self, which ultimately led to a belief in a soul.

Similar to Tylor, Frazer, in his book The Golden Bough (1940) argued that all myths were originally connected with the idea of fertility, birth, death, and resurrection. Frazer maintained that myths were intended to explain rituals though there is no evidence rituals originated before the myth. Furthermore, if the myth was created only to explain the ritual, the original meaning of the ritual remains unknown. Frazer also argued that human society developed in stages, from magical to religious, to the final stage of rational science. There is a need for myth in society; otherwise, science would completely supplant myth as a rational explanation for phenomena.

Further Reading

Frazer (1940) The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.

Tylor (1958) Primitive Culture.

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