CS 1000 – Week 11
Lecture 1 November 18, 2013
Theoretical Approaches to the Problem of Definition of Myth – Continued from Week 10
Last Week: Theory 1 – all myths are about nature; Theory 2 – all myths are explanatory
3. Myths as Charters
• This theory sees myths as charters and takes myth from the work of nature into
• All myths serve as founding documents for customs, institutions, and beliefs
o There is an explanatory element but it is more practical and focuses on
social institutions instead of nature.
• In a traditional society, every custom or institution tends to be validated or
confirmed by a myth.
o Explains why we do what we do (ex. Why does a king always have to
belong to a particular clan; why does that class possess the richest land?).
o Myths help to explain and validate something within the society.
Divine participation in the founding of a particular institution.
• This is somewhat a sub-species of Theory 2.
• Are all myths of this kind? Probably not.
• This is a different than the first 3. It is not so much a reductionist explanation of
myth but a theoretical model for the interpretation of myth.
• It was popular for a fairly long time.
• This theory is associated with Claude Levi-Strauss and this movement began in
the 60s into the 70s and 80s. Now it is passé but its influence is still detectable.
o Levi-Strauss was not a Classicist but he was an anthropologist and he
focused on certain populations in SouthAmerica.
• Levi-Strauss argued that there was a primitive mind – this existed at the time
before civilization. The primitive mind worked like certain types of computers in
terms of binary opposites that seek mediation or reconciliation between the
opposites (ex. Up and down then somewhere in the middle is the mediation).
o All myths, then, are interested in working on these binary patterns in some
o Levi-Strauss complicated this theory but early Greeks liked to think in
terms of opposites (when something is referred to in Greek, its opposite
usually is mentioned as well, usually to define things in relation to others). 2
• How does this work with myth?: The myth ofApollo’s marriage to Cyrene and
the birth ofAristaeus
o This is a story of a mythic ‘marriage’and Pindar tells this story.Apollo
‘marries’Cyrene who is the daughter of a king in northern Greece. Cyrene
is unusual because she rejects the loom and traditional womens’pursuits
(women in Greek myth are defined in their proximity to the loom). Cyrene
likes to wrestle lions.Apollo sees her doing this and he is impressed and
immediately he conceives a passion for her. He calls out a centaur named
Chiron who convinces her to marryApollo and he carries to her North
Africa (note: Cyrene is also a place and is the representation of the Greek
colony in Africa called Cyrene). Cyrene andApollo have a child named
Aristaeus, who becomes a pastoral god in NorthAfrica.
o What does a structuralist do to this? – This story shows binary opposites
inApollo (god of high culture and civilization) and Cyrene (wild). This
shows culture vs. nature, civilized vs. wild, etc.
Strauss says that the binary mind must generate a mid-point. In this
myth,Aristaeus is the mediation, he is a pastoral deity. His pastoral
nature shows this mediation since it is somewhat civilized but still
focuses on the wild.
• Shows the structure of the myth, but often not the meaning of the myth.
o The myth ofApollo and Cyrene, when looked through the structuralist
view, doesn’t really say anything about its meaning.
• This approach obliges us to efface some of the significant detail in certain aspects
of myth. Structural analysis reduces figures to symbols and it makes these stories
5. Psychological Theories
• Traditional myths are also of interest to psychologists. In talking about Classical
myths, Freud has been very influential.
• There are two sets of Freudian takes on myth:
o (1) Discussion of Oedipus – ushered in a revolution and is read by many
• Freud discussed the myth of Oedipus in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900):
Oedipus murdered his father and married his mother.
o Oedipus complex: stems from the repression in early childhood from
sexual feelings for the parent of the opposite and the desire to suppress the
parent of the same sex.
o This story tells us of a phenomenon of mind. For Freud, this was a phase
of the typical individual and was a normal thing. In this myth, Freud
argued that folktales, myths, sagas, even jokes can be related to dreams in
terms of form and content. 3
• Freud came back to this myth later. Later in Totem and Taboo (1912-1913) he
understood myths on a cultural level and “distorted wish dreams of entire nations,
the dreams of early mankind”.
• He said that the myth of Oedipus preserves the memory of real ‘Oedipal’events
in the primitive horde, in which the sons of an oppressive father rose up against
their oppressor and wanted to possess their women.
• This approach is problematic. Something that happened in this pre-historic period
is almost fossilized in this myth period. In the oral tradition, however, the telling
and re-telling of myth is important for its survival. The ongoing shape and
development of myth shows the relative importance of the myth (the
psychological approach doesn’t take this into account).
• Like Structuralism, this theory takes away the significance of the myth. The most
conspicuous feature of the telling of the Oedipus myth is his ignorance of who
these people were (something which is essential).
o Tragedy shows individuals who commit crimes that would be unthinkable
if the tragic character had been aware of it.
o Crucial to Freud’s take is the knowing relationship and anxieties of the
individual feeling Oedipal things.
• Freud’s pupil, Carl Jung, proposed an influential theory. Jung argued that myth
preserves basic patterns that are universal to the human mind. He thought that
there are basic patterns and ideas that are universal to us (like deep programming
to the human mind).
o These ‘archetypes’recur throughout the world.
o He thought that myths preserve these ‘archetypes’.
• There is some truth to this (that there is something that binds us together as
human beings) but the problem is that it requires us to scrape away the
individuated detail surface to get at generalized patterns below the surface.
o Myth, however, reflects its world and the context in which it was
o The individual circumstances of a people are reflected in the native
traditions of myth. There are features of Greek myths that are present in
other cultures’myths but there is a large component that is peculiar to
Greek myth (ex. Heroes who, as a class, don’t occur in other comparable
mythologies other than in Greece).
o Despite our Greek programming, then, our history differs us in many ways
(cultural, intellectual, etc.).
6. Ritual Theory of Myth
• Connecting religion with myth is currently in fashion (closely associated with
Walter Burkert who has written a series of important books that puts this theories
on the map).
• This theory sees an important connection between myth and ritual.
o When looking at myth, we see that the gods are present. 4
• This theory says that there is often some link between the narrative structure of
the myth and the pattern of action in the ritual.
o When we think of a story, it is a sequence of actions. Ritual in Greek
society is also a series of performed actions (‘ritual’in Greek = ta
dromena ‘the things being done’)
• The idea here is that there is some link between the stories and their actions and
the patterns of ritual.
• In the late 19 century, a ritual theory of myth was popular. At this point, it was
believed that all myths were actually about the vegetative cycle in nature (i.e.
growth and cultivation of food). All myths, then, should be read in light of this
pattern. People then said that all myths were about the life cycle of a divine figure
called the ‘year god’(eniautos daimon) and the specific myth reflects his pattern
of death and rebirth.
o This really doesn’t make sense but some people followed this.
• Burkert brought this theory back and offered a better theory and he recognized
that myth was a way of thinking about things for the Greeks and was a way about
thinking of the implications of ritual.
o To him, seeing how the Greeks used and told myths was of great
All of these theories have some aspects that are true for certain myths but not one of
these theories is acceptable for all myths. Myth cannot be reduced to one function, idea,
• 399 BCE: TheAthenians executed Socrates. What follows is the rise of analytic
philosophy.After his death, when the Greeks wanted to think about something
seriously they used analytic philosophy (something that we use everyday).
o Philosophy gives the Greeks a new set of tools (the old being myths).
When the Greeks before 399 BCE wanted to think of something serious,
he or she would turn to myth and tell a version of it.After 399 BCE, these
stories are still told but they are less important. What we get instead is a
treatise and discourse that uses philosophy and analysis.
o In literature, there is less and less thought done in the form of myth but it
is more for entertainment.
• Myths are good tools to talk about profound things.
Theseus and the Minotaur
• This is an example that will help to explain these theories.
• Theseus comes to the Minotaur (product of a union between the wife of Minos
and a bull). The Minotaur lives beneath Minos’palace in a labyrinth. 5
The Heroic Cycle
• This cycle incorporates the traditional kinds of myth and is also given its own
form by the circumstances of its telling
o Theseus was adopted byAthens as a culture hero and a founding figure
Athens didn’t have deep cultural roots that took it back to the BronzeAge
(it came to prominence in theArchaic Period because it accommodated
people from elsewhere).
o Heroes could be used for political ends telling stories such as this
promote a political agenda
• Theseus was from Troezen around the Saronic Gulf. There is a whole cycle of
stories that situate him in his context (ex. Procrustes from last week).
• He fought many monstrous villians in and aroundAthens
• The Minotaur of Crete was his most famous adversary and it connects Theseus to
Athens and Athenian history.
• The Minotaur was fed with a regular offering of youths and maidens fromAthens
(there are different versions of why this happened). Every year,Athens had to
ship a group of young men and women to Crete. TheAthenians resented this
tribute. At one point, acknowledged as the son of the king, Theseus sailed to
Crete as a part of this tribute.
• In Crete, the daughter of Minos,Ariadne, falls in love with him (a standard heroic
motif). She gives Theseus the tools he needs to kill the Minotaur and survive (a
thread of gold to find his way back out of the labyrinth and a luminous garland so
he can see.
• He successfully kills the Minotaur and finds his way back. He leaves Crete with
Ariadne but left her in Naxos. He returned to become the king ofAthens (Ariadne
ended up marrying Dionysus).
Lecture 2 November 20, 2013
Theseus and the Minotaur Myth Continued
• Slide: Roman sarcophagus- cupid figures with a trio of scenes in the middle. The
first is Theseus about to enter the labyrinth, Theseus killing the Minotaur, and
Theseus forgettingAriadne on the beach.
o Why would get buried in something with this theme on it (bury a person in
a box which had love all over it but it is showing forgetful love).
The Ancient Greek World 6
• Slide: Map- Crete is where Minos and the Minotaur lived.
• There is a clear connection between the story of Theseus and the Minoan world
traditional tales of the kind that make up myth can be told and retold but this
traditional elements means that these stories are often marked by the
circumstances of their telling and they take on a coloring of certain periods and
o Myth seems to have been marked by the Bronze Age. This doesn’t meant
that these are historical stories or ‘true’in any literal sense.
o The basic shape of the story is consistent, it can be told any where and any
time.As it is told in a particular moment, the teller colors it and