Cultural Mythology

Maggie Macary, Ph.D
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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Cultural Mythology - a Methodology

clio, muse of historyWith the completion of my dissertation and with the increasing traffic on my site, I thought I’d take a little time this morning to further explain what I perceive cultural mythology to be and how I approach cultural mythology as a form of critical thinking. The following represents my approach. It also shows how my idea of cultural mythology differs from traditional approaches (i.e. anthropological or religious) to mythology.
Mythos and Logos--with these terms we denote the two poles between which man's mental life oscillates. Mythic imagination and logical thought are opposites. The former is imagistic and involuntary, and creates and forms on the basis of the unconscious, while the latter is conceptual and intentional, and analyses and synthesizes by means of consciousness. (Nestle, qtd by Glenn Most in From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought 27)
In 1940, Wilhelm Nestle formalized an evolutionary concept of myth which long dominated scholarly thoughts regard mythos and logos. In his formalization, mythos and logos became polar opposites in Greece, the one (mythos) inferior to the other (logos). Nestle’ idea further established an opposition between the two modes of thinking, making the migration from mythos to logos in Greece a “unidirectional, necessary sequence” with a temporal component (Most 27). Nestle suggests in his theory that not only are mythos and logos polar opposites, but that logos evolved from and surpassed mythos, thus superseding myth in Greek (and hence Western) thought. What are these two polar opposite ways of thinking? Logos, as William Doty writes, refers to doctrine or theory while mythos is relegated to stories of a fictional, ornamental, or narrative function (Mythography 3).

This idea of an evolutionary mode of thinking, one that moves from a primitive state to a more advanced one suggests a “heroic” journey in which logic and rationality overcame mythical thought, what classicist Richard Buxton refers to as a “from-to” model of evolution, a one-way direction of thinking (From Myth to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought 6). The actual science of mythology in such an evolutionary scenario becomes the study of primitive people’s myths for the purpose of collecting and organizing stories according to a specific doctrine, rationale or logos. In this relational model, mythologists study old stories and establish their structural logics with little concern for how such stories impact culture or whether they are indeed still living.

As a cultural mythologist, this is not my intent. Depth psychology, with its notions of the unconscious, changed this view of mythos and thus of mythology itself. Beginning with Freud and continuing through the works of C.G. Jung and Joseph Campbell, myth and thus mythology served multiple purposes that not only established metaphysical, cosmological, sociological understandings of the world, but also formed the basis of psyche itself. Myths in this view are no longer old dead stories, but, according to mythologist Kerényi, living materials which continue to move and reshape (Essays on a Science of Mythology 2).

This mythopoetic movement of living stories shapes itself to the needs of the psyche, whether individual or cultural. With the movement of myth into a psychological realm, myths become part of our psychological structure; uncovering and reimagining them becomes our therapy. But I find that myth is more than merely part of a psychological structure. H. Broch, in his Introduction to the Iliad, restores the importance of myth and its centrality in the creation of logos:
Myth is the archetype of every phenomenal cognition of which the human mind is capable Archetype of all human cognition, archetype of science, archetype of art – myth is consequently the archetype of philosophy too. (H.Broch, qtd in Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology 155)
If indeed myth is the “archetype of human cognition” then myth becomes the way humans comprehend the structures of life. Mythology itself is no longer merely the logical, structured study of stories. It opens up new possibilities about the study of myth in its cultural context as a critical way of seeing through cultural ideas and prejudices.

I define the study of mythology as the imaginative study of logic, the hidden mythos in the logos. This definition seeks to uncover the hidden stories that create logical structures and philosophical stances. It is these logical structures that create and uphold the unconscious biases that remain hidden in a culture.

To uncover the mythos in the logos requires one to seek out the stories and myths that lie beneath logical structures, scientific theories, hidden assumptions and implicit biases. What lurks beneath an idea, theory, or bias can bring one into an imaginal space in which the logics are the surface of the story but never the entire story itself. In that imaginal space, I move beneath the surface of a predominate idea (i.e. fatness is bad) in order to find the mythos that reveals the hidden ideas and archetypal structures.

In this movement into imaginal space, I return to Classical Athens for this imaginal study for one major reason: the mythological legacy of Greece is material sui generis in Western culture. Greek myth, Greek philosophy and the hierarchical ideas of difference and other formulated by Plato and Aristotle continue to influence current philosophical discourse.

Additionally, I am moved by the great work of Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being: The History of An Idea, in which Lovejoy traces the mythopoetic movement of the idea, in this case the hierarchal chain of being, as it winds through Western culture, influencing the work of scientists, doctors, theologians and philosophers. Lovejoy writes:
The postulate of such a study [of an idea] is that the working of a given conception, of an explicit or tacit presupposition, of a type of mental habit, or of a specific thesis or argument, needs, if its nature and its historic role are to be fully understood, to be traced connectedly through all the phases of men’s reflective life in which those workings manifest themselves, or though as many of them as the historian’s resources permit. (15)
I also employ, whenever possible, the notion of philosophical semantics, studying words and phrases in their historical settings. Lovejoy writes that this form of inquiry has “a view to a clearing up of their ambiguities, a listing of their [words] various shades of meaning” The ambiguity in words influenced the development of doctrines, as Lovejoy contends:
A term, a phrase, a formula, which gains currency or acceptance because one of its meanings, or of the thoughts which it suggests, is congenial to the prevalent beliefs, the standards of value, the tastes of a certain age, may help to alter beliefs, standards of values, and tastes, because other meanings or suggested implications, not clearly distinguished by those who employ it, gradually become the dominant elements of its signification. (14)
The ambiguity of words and their translations from one language and culture to another often hides the underlying context and signification of an idea. Revealing these ambiguities will help to reconstruct the origins of many puzzling biases in Western Culture. It will give us a peak into the hidden stories that guide the force of cultural beliefs.

Read More:
The Mythos in the Logos

Maggie 7:33 AM

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Who is Maggie Macary?

Maggie Macary is a cultural mythologist with a doctorate in mythological studies with an emphasis in depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. After 25+ very successful years in corporate American, Maggie has turned her attention to writing about the hidden stories in contemporary culture. She also teaches courses in myth and dream-work online.

Dissertation Oral Defense

Maggie Macary successfully defended her dissertation, "The Abject Body: Myths of Fatness" on November 9, 2005 at 5:00 pm at Pacifica Graduate Institue and was awarded her PhD. She is looking into publishing alternatives for her dissertation and hopes to have the manuscript published in 2006.