09/24/2013 09/24/2013 Ancient Myth 09/24/2013
Ancient Myth and legend
Hwæt we garde na in geardagum...
From the OED:
Derived from the Latin mȳthus or mȳthos, which are themselves derived from ancient
First starts to be used as an English word rather than a borrowed Latin one in the 19
“A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies
and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early
history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”
It has a further secondary definition: “A widespread but untrue or erroneous story or
belief; a widely held misconception; a misrepresentation of the truth. Also: something
existing only in myth; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.”
Foundations – The Tales
What we might complicatedly describe as “western mythology” finds its roots in a
number of places.
The ancient Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest versions of which can be traced
back to the 18 C. BCE.
The folklore and – eventually – theological narratives (both oral and written) of the
Ancient Near East. These tales come from a variety of traditions: Hittite, Assyrian,
Canaanite, Phoenician, Minoan... and, of course, Hebrew.
The mythic tales of the ancient Greeks and Romans, with which we'll be chiefly
concerning ourselves today.
Further developments occur between then and now, certainly – many of them in
continental Europe. We'll get to that later (I hope).
The ancient myths that continue to so fascinate us have been passed down by both oral
and written means. The primary written sources include:
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, plus the somewhat more dubious Homeric Hymns
The works of Hesiod
The works of Virgil Ancient Myth 09/24/2013
The Library of Apollodorus of Athens
The poetry of the likes of Pindar, Simonedes and Theocritus
The plays of the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripedes
Foundations – The Theory
A vast amount of work has been done by scholars attempting to theorize myth, but for
our purposes today we'll be considering three major figures:
J.G. Frazier (1854-1941)
C.S. Lewis (1899-1963)
Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)
Frazier’s The Golden Bough
"When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough I had no conception of the
magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking; I thought only to explain a single
rule of an ancient Italian priesthood."
Frazier's hugely influential book first appeared in a two-volume edition in 1890, but had
been expanded to twelve volumes by 1915.
In it, he attempts to craft a synthesis – or at least a comprehensive explanation – of all
world religions and mythologies by explaining them in dispassionate, anthropological
terms and with recourse to key recurring themes:
The Dying and Rising God
Controversial implications for Christianity almost at once, to say the least.
Lewis on Mythic Quality: From An Experiment in Criticism (1963)
Compare the following:
“There was a man who sang and played the harp so well that even beasts and trees
crowded to hear him. And when his wife died he went down alive into the land of the
dead and made music before the King of the Dead till even he had compassion and
gave him back his wife, on condition that he lead her up out of that land without once
looking back to see her until they came out into the light. But when they were nearly
out, one moment too soon, the man looked back, and she vanished from him forever.”
“There was a man who was away from home for many years, for Poseidon kept a
hostile eye on him, and all that time the suitors of his wife were wasting his property and
plotting against his son. But he got home with much hardship, made himself known to a
few, saved his own life, and killed his enemies.” (This is Aristotle's synopsis of the
Odyssey in his Poetics) Ancient Myth 09/24/2013
Let us suppose – for I certainly won't write it – a synopsis on the same scale of
Trollope's Barchester Towers, Eliot's Middlemarch, or Thackeray's Vanity Fair; or of
some much shorter work, like Wordsworth's Michael, Constant's Adolphe or James' The
Turn of the Screw.
Mythic Quality Continued
The first, though it is a bare outline, set down in the first words that come to hand,
would, I believe, make a powerful impression on any person of sensibility, if he here met
that story for the first time. The second is not nearly such satisfactory reading. We see
that a good story could be written on this plot, but the abstract is not a good story itself.
As for the third, the abstract I have not written, we see at once that it would be
completely worthless – not only worthless as a representation of the book in question,
but worthless in itself; dull beyond bearing, unreadable.
There is, then, a particular kind of story which has a value in itself – a value
independent of its embodiment in any literary work.
The Six Marks of Myth
Lewis goes on to suggest that Myth has six qualities that set it apart from other modes:
It is, in the sense described in the last slide, extra-literary. Those getting the same story
from Ovid, Virgil, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Kingsley, Robert Graves and whomever
else have a mythical experience in common in spite of the vast stylistic differences.
“The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as
suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first
hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing us to a permanent object of contemplation –
more like a thing than a narration. [...] Sometimes, even from the first, there is hardly
any narrative element. The idea that the gods, and all good men, live under the shadow
of Ragnarok is hardly a story.”
“Human sympathy is at a minimum. We do not project ourselves at all strongly into the
characters. They are like shapes moving in another world.”
Six Marks of Myth Continued
“Myth is always, in one sense of that word, 'fantastic'. It deals with impossibiles and
• “The experience may be sad or joyful but it is always grave. Comic myth (in
my sense of myth) is impossible.”
• “The experience is not only grave but awe-inspiring. We feel it to be
numinous. It is as if something of great moment had been communicated to
• Joseph Campbell – “Monomyth” Ancient Myth 09/24/2013
• This not uncontroversial notion, first set forth by Campbell in The Hero With a
Thousand Faces (1949), maintains that world mythology is governed by a sort
of ur-myth, which runs thus:
• “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of
supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive
victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the
power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
• What do we think of this?
• How many myths or legends can you come up with that might fit this basic
• Campbell also went so far as to say that this “monomyth” could broadly be the
story of humanity itself. Thoughts?
Testing ideas in the wild
The Story of Pygmalion
Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey
Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s
With what we've already discussed in relation to the stories of Pygmalion and
Ulysses in mind, how might we track similar developments of other mythic
In groups of four:
Choose an ancient myth.
Come up with a brief summary for the benefit of those who might not be so
familiar with it.
Think of some ways in which that myth is still with us. Figures of speech?
Literary tropes? Logos? Poetic/musical/artistic engagement? Straight-up
adaptation? Anything you can come up with. 09/24/2013
Day 4….. ?
Guest lecture on Marie De France
Marie De France Readings 09/24/2013 The Lias of Marie de France 09/24/2013
Who was Marie de France?
-12 century writer, likely affiliated with Henry II’s court in England
-themes of Marie’s lays: courtesy, chivalry, and courtly love
-multilingual, aristocratic audience
-her work seems to have become very popular
-born in France and moved to England, where the Lais were composed
"Marie ai num, si sui de France”
Why was a French author like Marie living in England in the twelfth century?
-insular dialect of French developed after 1066
- composed of languages of the new settlers on British Isles
-Anglo-Norman or Anglo-French
Ki Deus ad doné escïence
E de parler bon' eloquence
Ne s'en deit taisir ne celer,
Ainz se deit volunters mustrer.
Quant uns granz biens est mult oïz,
Dunc a primes est il fluriz,
E quant loëz est de plusurs, The Lias of Marie de France 09/24/2013
Dunc ad espandues ses flurs.
What is a Lai?
Plot of Bisclavret?
-from the Old High German and/or Old Middle German leich, which means play, melody,
-genre was popularized by Marie de France
-poems written between 1150-1450
- poems claim that they are written versions of lays sung by ancient Bretons (usually
What is a Lai?
Question speaks to the different approaches to genre.
Jameson distinguishes between two types:
Semantic =defines a genre through its content
Syntactic=defines a genre through its form
For Jameson, genre encompasses both the form and content of its constituent works
genres change over time to reflect needs and desires of society
What is a Lai?
Was the lai a genre for entertainment or for teaching?
Which of these functions did these poems serve?
-often seen as a genre for entertainment
-a “mini Romance”
Romance: The Lias of Marie de France 09/24/2013
-> hero leaves court->transformative experience-> return home
A.C. Baugh’s definition (1935) of a lay:
declares itself as a lay a short romance
some reference to Brittany
or story from Marie de France (so she’s become a defining feature)
-Romanticism, aestheticism of 19 century valued a detached aesthetic impulse
BUT Marie’s lais also have didactic aims
Didactic Literature: literature that is instructive, designed to impart information,
advice, or some doctrine of morality or philosophy
(from The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms)
Can anyone identify some didactic moments in Marie de France’s lais?
The Didactic Function of the Lais
Whoever wants to be safe from vice
Should study and learn (heed this advice)
And undertake some difficult labor;
Then trouble is a distant neighbor--
From great sorrows one can escape
When they wrote their books in the olden day
What they had to say they'd obscurely say.
They knew that some day others would come The Lias of Marie de France 09/24/2013
And need to know what they'd written down;
Those future readers would gloss the letter,
Add their own meaning to make the book better.
Those old philosophers, wise and good,
Among themselves they understood
Mankind, in the future tense,
Would develop a subtler sense
Without trespassing to explore
What's in the words, and no more. (Prologue 1)
2 important influences:
1. rise of the universities in the 12 century
- teaching at Oxford since 1096 but growth of enrolment in 1167 when English
expelled form University of Paris
2. growing interest in clerical and monastic culture
With this in mind, let’s turn to “Bisclavret.”
If Breton lais served a didactic function, what is the “moral” of this tale?
-Bisclavret = personal name/species name
In Breton, "Bisclavret"'s the name;
"Garwolf" in Norman means the same.
Long ago you heard the tale told--
And it used to happen, in days of old-- The Lias of Marie de France 09/24/2013
Quite a few men became garwolves,
And set up housekeeping in the woods.
A garwolf is a savage beast,
Medieval werewolf tradition
-by 1500 people were being persecuted under the suspicion that they were werewolves
Where did the werewolf legend come from?
-early examples in Greek and Roman texts
-one of the earliest examples of the legend in Europe comes from Burchard of Worms
-1008 handbook for priests about confession
“Have you believed what some are accustomed to believe, that those women who are
popularly called Fates either exist or can do what people believe: namely, when a man
is born, they can designate him for whatever they want; and as a result, whenever that
man wishes, he can be transformed into a wolf, called in German a Werewolf, or into
some other form?
If you have believed that this can happen or that the divine image can he turned by
someone into another form or species — except by all-powerful God — you are to do
ten days penance on bread and water.”
(Burchard of Worms)
Why might it be significant that this appears in a religious text?
What are some indications that Bisclavret is actually quite civilized?
What about the hiding place for his clothes?
The King sees this, and feels great fear;
He calls all his companions over.
"My lords," he says, "come, come here!
Behold this marvel, see this wonder.
How this beast bows down to me!
Its sense is human. It begs for mercy. The Lias of Marie de France 09/24/2013
Drive me those dogs away again,
See that no-one strikes a blow!
This beast understands, feels like a man. (5)
What about Bisclavret’s wife?
He'd married a worthy woman, truly;
Always she acted so beautifully.
He loved her, she him: they loved each other. (Bisclavret 1)
What about Bisclavret’s wife?
"My friend, my dear," she said, "be glad!
You've been tormented, driven, sad
Wanting what I'll give you today--
No-one will ever say you nay--
I grant you my love and my body, too:
Take me, make me your lover, you!" (4)
Is it significant that Bisclavret’s wife loses her nose?
Why are all the daughters of Bis’ ex-wife punished similarly? Why specifically the
daughters and not the sons?
Why might it be important for Marie de France to write didactic texts?
-contains Arthurian material
-does anyone know anything about the origins of the King Arthur tradition? The Lias of Marie de France 09/24/2013
How is Arthur treated in this lai?
"In God's name, my lords, we sin
Against Lanval, our companion,
So courtly and generous in everything--
And his father's a wealthy king--
He should be here; we've done him wrong.“ (7)
How is law depicted in this text?
Some medieval “fantasy” works were highly didactic, and had served powerful moral
and political purposes.
How do modern fantasy works serve political or didactic aims?
The adventure of another lay,
Just as it happened, I'll relay:
It tells of a very nice nobleman,
And it's called Lanval in Breton.
Brittany Day 5: Fairy Tales 09/24/2013
Primarily talked about Beast… Marie de France: man that was a werewolf, wife didn’t
know about it. Took his clothes so he stays a werewolf, king takes werewolf.
Interaction of wolves and humans
Form and the content
How its structured vs what it is actually doing
Can get from chapters. Sandman Vol 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Don’t like topic 1
#2! Comparative essay on fairytales
#4 is interesting/ ideas of marvelous and uncanning
Form, Genre, Subject
Fairytales are often difficult to discuss because its gone over changes in the last couple
Hard to achieve coherence
“fairy tale” traced back to folklore in early 17 centaury. Little Story
A problem: called fairy tales but do not include fairies. Why does this name stick?
magic elements Day 5: Fairy Tales 09/24/2013
told us sensational things about the world
realm of the fay
respect them, but hesitancy with them.
Certain amount of caution involved
Idea of other universes
Fairy combines the real world and the idea of other universes happening around us.
No pretense to historistoricty= relation to history
Fairy tales have no real claims of relation to history
Uneasiness of the fairy world.
Associated Genres: Familiar to fairy tales
Beast tales or fables
Stories involving beasts and animals
Animals having weird adventures
Idea of clashes between two different types of people
Narrative level: they don’t always work out well.
Interactions between different human types
How does this differ from a fairytale? – not magical, we see something coherent and
Someone tells a highly exaggerated story of a journey in another land
Someone telling a story of a story Day 5: Fairy Tales 09/24/2013
Often from another land where others cannot travel too
Things being told to us that are unverifiable
Differ from a beast tale because they do not try to teach us a lesson
More towards pure entertainment
Differ from a fairytale?- … above
A possibility of sorts and examines it in full
Science fiction, alternate history, fantasy, horror
Often not clear that it’s a different history till the end.
Differ?- speculative is situation in some sort of the real world.
AAIW/ Peter Pan/Sandman/Book of Lost Things
The tension is, is it the uncanny or is it the marvelous
The journey has a great impact on the person even if it is just a dream
Tension between reality and unreality
Am I crazy?
Differ- its all a dream, doesn’t exist.
The character may change but the reader doesn’t
No clear moral to the story Day 5: Fairy Tales 09/24/2013
The world is uncertain
Different fairytales have different features
Complicated parental relationships
Money and riches
Sometimes called the constitutive other- treatment of people whom are not the “same”
Something that isn’t us/ a different self that is not our self
We react to others in many different ways
The other cannot be easily ignored. Self-definition and realization occur through and
against the other.
We need other selves out there to define what ourselves is.
Represented by a peculiar thing.
They do not tie themselves to a specific time, at least no realistic ones
Small villages in or near forests Day 5: Fairy Tales 09/24/2013
The countryside in general
Castles and cottages
Not urban settings/ all rural
Fairy tales constituted a genre in which morals are an expected and necessary feature.
Some stories carry explicit morals
It’s a lesson about something
It’s a lesson you learn about yourself, something to help you think, how you act. Tells us
how to be
What did you think?
Snow White and Rose Read
Pair of sisters live in woods, vague suggestion of magic, big bear comes seeking shelter
from the cold, dwarf is a jerk, stealing from the bear, dwarf gets killed, they live happily
Sisters, Mom, Bear, Dwarf, Animals
Cottage in the middle of an enchanted forests
Hospitality, appearance are not always what they seem, don’t prejudge, accept your
parents view of things. Day 5: Fairy Tales 09/24/2013
Beauty and The Beast
Rich family looses everything, father hears that there’s some treasure left , asks the
children what they want, beauty wants a rose, father gets lost, goes to beasts castle,
takes the rose, has to give up a daughter to the beast, beast and beauty falls in love.
Beast, Beauty, Father, Sisters, Brothers
Cottage in the woods, castle in the woods
Little Red Riding Hood
Red Riding Hood, Grandma, Mother, Wolf
Directly said moral, do not talk to strangers.
Idea that anything can be redeemed. You can live happily ever after
This has been cut for the moral of the story. The orginal story doesn’t cary any of these
different or alternate endings. Fairy Tales 09/24/2013