Sunday, October 01, 2006

The structure of myths (from Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality)

For the past fifty years at least, Western scholars have approached
the study of myth from a viewpoint markedly different from, let us
say, that of the nineteenth century. Unlike their predecessors, who
treated myth in the usual meaning of the word, that is,
as "fable," "invention," "fiction," they have accepted it as it was
understood in archaic societies, where, on the contrary, "myth" means
a "true story" and, beyond that, a story that is a most precious
possession because it is sacred, exemplary, significant. This new
semantic value given the term "myth" makes its use in contemporary
parlance somewhat equivocal. Today, that is, the word is employed
both in the sense of "fiction" or "illusion" and in that familiar
especially to ethnologists, sociologists, and historians of
religions, the sense of "sacred tradition, primordial revelation,
exemplary model."

The history of the different meanings given to the word "myth" in the
antique and Christian worlds will be treated later . . .. Everyone
knows that from the time of Xenophanes (ca. 565-470) who was the
first to criticize and reject the "mythological" expressions of the
divinity employed by Homer and Hesiod the Greeks steadily continued
to empty mythos of all religious and metaphysical value. Contrasted
both with logos and, later, with historia, mythos came in the end to
denote "what cannot really exist." On its side, Judaeo-Christianity
put the stamp of "falsehood" and "illusion" on whatever was not
justified or validated by the two Testaments.

It is not in this sense the most usual one in contemporary parlance
that we understand "myth." More precisely, it is not the intellectual
stage or the historical moment when myth became a "fiction" that
interests us. Our study will deal primarily with those societies in
which myth is or was until very recently "living," in the sense that
it supplies models for human behavior and, by that very fact, gives
meaning and value to life. To understand the structure and function
of myths in these traditional societies not only serves to clarify a
stage in the history of human thought but also helps us to understand
a category of our contemporaries.

To give only one example that of the "cargo cults" of Oceania it
would be difficult to interpret this whole series of isolated
activities without reference to their justification by myths. These
prophetic and millennialist cults announce the imminence of a
fabulous age of plenty and happiness. The natives will again be the
masters in their islands, and they will no longer work, for the dead
will return in magnificent ships laden with goods like the giant
cargoes that the whites receive in their ports. It is for this reason
that most of the "cargo cults" demand that, while all domestic
animals and tools are to be destroyed, huge warehouses are to be
built in which to store the goods brought by the dead. One movement
prophesies Christ's arrival on a loaded freighter; another looks for
the coming of "America." A new paradisal era will begin and members
of the cult will become immortal. Some cults also involve orgiastic
acts, for the taboos and customs sanctioned by tradition will lose
their reason for existence and give place to absolute freedom. Now,
all these actions and beliefs are explained by the myth of the
destruction of the World, followed by a new Creation and the
establishment of the Golden Age. (We shall return to this myth later.)

Similar phenomena occurred in the Congo when the country became
independent in 1960. In some villages the inhabitants tore the roofs
off their huts to give passage to the gold coins that their ancestors
were to rain down. Elsewhere everything was allowed to go to rack and
ruin except the roads to the cemetery, by which the ancestors would
make their way to the village. Even the orgiastic excesses had a
meaning, for, according to the myth, from the dawn of the New Age all
women would belong to all men.

In all probability phenomena of this kind will become more and more
uncommon. We may suppose that "mythical behavior" will disappear as a
result of the former colonies' acquiring political independence. But
what is to happen in a more or less distant future will not help us
to understand what has just happened. What we most need is to grasp
the meaning of these strange forms of behavior, to understand the
cause and the justification for these excesses. For to understand
them is to see them as human phenomena, phenomena of culture,
creations of the human spirit, not as a pathological outbreak of
instinctual behavior, bestiality, or sheer childishness. There is no
other alternative. Either we do our utmost to deny, minimize, or
forget these excesses, taking them as isolated examples of "savagery"
that will vanish completely as soon as the tribes have
been "civilized," or we make the necessary effort to understand the
mythical antecedents that explain and justify such excesses and give
them a religious value. This latter approach is, we feel, the only
one that even deserves consideration. It is only from a historico-
religious viewpoint that these and similar forms of behavior can be
seen as what they are--cultural phenomena--and lose their character
of aberrant childishness of instinct run wild.

Value of "primitive mythologies"

All of the great Mediterranean and Asiatic religions have
mythologies. But it is better not to begin the study of myth from the
starting point of, say, Greek or Egyptian or Indian mythology. Most
of the Greek myths were recounted, and hence modified, adjusted,
systematized, by Hesiod and Homer, by the rhapsodes and the
mythographers. The mythological traditions of the Near East and of
India have been sedulously reinterpreted and elaborated by their
theologians and ritualists. This is not to say, of course, that (1)
these Great Mythologies have lost their "mythical substance" and are
only "literature or that (2) the mythological traditions of archaic
societies were not rehandled by priests and bards. Just like the
Great Mythologies that were finally transmitted as written texts,
the "primitive" mythologies, discovered by the earliest travelers,
missionaries, and ethnographers in the "oral" stage, have
a "history." In other words, they have been transformed and enriched
in the course of the ages under the influence of higher culrtures or
through the creative genius of exceptionally gifted individuals.

Nevertheless, it is better to begin by studying myth in traditional
and archaic societies, reserving for later consideration the
mythologies of people who have played an important role in history.
The reason is that, despite modifications in the course of time,
the 'myths of "primitives" still reflect a primordial condition.
Then, too, in "primitive" societies myths are still living, still
establish and justify all human conduct and activity. The role and
function of these myths can still (or could until very recently) be
minutely observed and described by ethnologists. In the case of each
myth, as of each ritual, it has been possible to question the natives
and to learn, at least partially, the significance that they accord
to it. Obviously, these "living documents," recorded in the course of
investigations conducted on the spot, do not solve all our
difficulties. But they have the not inconsiderable advantage of
helping us to pose the problem in the right way, that is, to set myth
in its original socioreligious context.

Attempt at a definition of myth

It would be hard to find a definition of myth that would be
acceptable to all scholars and at the same time intelligible to
nonspecialists. Then, too, is it even possible to find one definition
that will cover all the types and functions of myths in all
traditional and archaic societies? Myth is an extremely complex
cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from
various and complementary viewpoints.

Speaking for myself, the definition that seems least inadequate
because most embracing is this: 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. Myth tells only of
that which really happened, which manifested itself completely. The
actors in myths are Supernatural Beings. They are known primarily by
what they did in the transcendent times of the "beginnings." hence
myths disclose their creative activity and reveal the sacredness (or
simply the "supernaturalness") of their works. In short, myths
describe the various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the
sacred (or the "supernatural") into the World. It is this sudden
breakthrough of the sacred that really establishes the World and
makes it what it is today. Furthermore, it is as a result of the
intervention of Supernatural Beings that man himself is what he is
today, a mortal, sexed, and cultural being.

We shall later have occasion to enlarge upon and refine these few
preliminary indications, but at this point it is necessary to
emphasize a fact that we consider essential: the myth is regarded as
a sacred story, and hence a "true history," because it always deals
with realities. The cosmogonic myth is "true" because the existence
of the World is there to prove it; the myth of the origin of death is
equally true because man's mortality proves it, and so on.

Because myth relates the gesta of supernatural Beings and the
manifestation of their sacred powers, it becomes the exemplary model
for all significant human activities. When the missionary and
ethnologist C. Strehlow asked the Australian Arunta why they
performed certain ceremonies, the answer was always: "Because the
ancestors so commanded it." (C. Strehlow. Die Aranda-und-Loritja-
Stδmme in Zentral-Australien, vol. III, pi; Lucien Lιvy-Bruhl, La
mythologie primitive (Paris, 1935), p. 123. See also T.G.H. Strehlow,
Aranda Traditions (Melbourne University Press, 1947), p. 6.) The Kai
of New Guinea refused to change their way of living and working, and
they explained: "It was thus that the Nemu (the Mythical Ancestors)
did, and we do likewise." (C. Keysser, quoted by Richard Thurnwald,
Die Eingeborenen Australiens und der Sόdseeinseln
(=Religionsgeschichtliches Lesebuch, 8, Tόbingen, 1927: p. 28.) Asked
the reason for a particular detail in a ceremony, a Navaho chanter
answered: "Because the Holy People did it that way in the first
place." (Clyde Kluckhohn, "Myths and Rituals: A General Theory,"
Harvard Theological Review, vol. 35 (1942), p. 66. Cf. Ibid. for
other examples.) We find exactly the same justification in the prayer
that accompanies a primitive Tibetan ritual: "As it has been handed
down from the beginning of earth's creation, so must we
sacrifice. . . . As our ancestors in ancient times did so do we now."
(Matthias Hermanns, The Indo-Tibetans (Bombay, 1954), pp. 66ff.) The
same justification is alleged by the Hindu theologians and
ritualists. "We must do what the gods did in the beginning"
(Satapatha Brahmana, VII, 2, 1, 4). "Thus the gods did; thus men do"
(Taittiriya Brahmana, I, 5, 9, 4) (See M. Eliade, The Myth of the
Eternal Return. New York, 1954: pp. 21 ff.)

As we have shown elsewhere (Ibid.,pp 27f.), even the profane behavior
and activities of man have their models in the deed of the
Supernatural Beings. Among the Navahos "women are required to sit
with their legs under them and to one side, men with their legs
crossed in front of them, because it is said that in the beginning
Changing Woman and the Monster Slayer sat in these positions. (Clyde
Kluckholn, op. cit., quoting W.W. Hill, The Agricultural and Hunting
Methods of the Navaho Indians . New Haven, 1938: p. 179.) According
to the mythical traditions of an Australian tribe, the Karadjeri, all
their customs and indeed all their behavior, were established
in "dream Time" by two supernatural Beings, the Bagadjimbiri (for
example, the way to cook a certain cereal or to hunt an animal with a
stick, the particular position to be taken when urinating, and so
on). (Cf. M. Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. New York, 1960: pp.
191 ff.)

There is no need to add further examples. As we showed in The Myth of
the Eternal Return, and as will become still clearer later; the
foremost function of myth is to reveal the exemplary models for all
human rites and all significant human activities diet or marriage,
work or education, art or wisdom. This idea is of no little
importance for understanding the man of archaic and traditional
societies; and we shall return to it later.

"True stories" and "false stories"

We may add that in societies where myth is still alive the natives
carefully distinguish myths "true stories" from fables or tales,
which they call "false stories." The Pawnee "differentiate `true
stories' from `false stories,' and include among the `true' stories
in the first place all those which deal with the beginnings of the
world; in these the actors are divine beings, supernatural, heavenly,
or astral. Next come those tales which relate the marvellous
adventures of the national hero, a youth of humble birth who became
the saviour of his people, freeing them from monsters, delivering
them from famine and other disasters, and performing other noble and
beneficent deeds. Last come the stories which have to do with the
world of the medicine-men and explain how such-and-such a sorcerer
got his superhuman powers, how such-and-such an association of
shamans originated, and so on. The `false' stories are those which
tell of the far from edifying adventures and exploits of Coyote, the
prairie-wolf. Thus in the `true' stories we have to deal with the
holy and the supernatural, while the `false' ones on the other hand
are of profane content, for Coyote is extremely popular in this and
other North American mythologies in the character of a trickster,
deceiver, sleight-of-hand expert and accomplished rogue. (R.
Petrazzoni, Essays on the History of Religions. Leiden, 1954, pp. 11-
12. Cf. Also Werner Mόller, Die Religionen der Waldlandindianer
Noramerikasi . Berlin, 1956: p. 42.)

Similarly, the Cherokee distinguish between sacred myths (cosmogony,
creation of the stars, origin of death) and profane stories, which
explain, for example, certain anatomical or physiological
peculiarities of animals. The same distinction is found in Africa.
The Herero consider the stories that relate the beginnings of the
different groups of the tribe "true" because they report facts that
really took place, while the more or less humorous tales have no
foundation. As for the natives of Togo, they look on their origin
myths as "absolutely real." (R. Petrazzoni, op. cit.: p.13.)

This is why myths cannot be related without regard to circumstances.
Among many tribes they are not recited before women or children, that
is, before the uninitiated. Usually the old teachers communicate the
myths to the neophytes during their period of isolation in the bush,
and this forms part of their initiation. R. Piddington says of the
Karadjeri: "the sacred myths that women may not know are concerned
principally with the cosmogony and especially with the institution of
the initiation ceremonies. (R. Piddington, quoted by Lιvy-Bruhl, p.
115. On initiation ceremonies, cf. Eliade, Birth and Rebirth. New
York, 1958.)

Whereas "false stories" can be told anywhere and at any time, myths
must not be recited except during a period of sacred time (usually in
autumn or winter, and only at night). (See examples in R.
Pettrazzoni, op. cit., p. 14, n. 15.) This custom has survived even
among peoples who have passed beyond the archaic stage of culture.
Among the Turco-Mongols and the Tibetans the epic songs of the Gesar
cycle can be recited only at night and in winter. "The recitation is
assimilated to a powerful charm. It helps to obtain all sorts of
advantages, particularly success in hunting and war. . . . Before the
recitation begins, a space is prepared by being powdered with roasted
barley flour. The audience sit around it. The bard recites the epic
for several days. They say that in former times the hoofprints of
Gesar's horse appeared in the prepared space. Hence the recitation
brought the real presence of the hero. (R.A. Stein, Recherches sur
l'ιpopιe et le barde au Tibet. Paris, 1959: pp. 318-319.)

What myths reveal

This distinction made by natives between "true stories" and "false
stories" is significant. Both categories of narratives
present "histories," that is, relate a series of events that took
place in a distant and fabulous past. Although the actors in myths
are usually Gods and Supernatural Beings, while those in tales are
heroes or miraculous animals, all the actors share the common trait
that they do not belong to the everyday world. Nevertheless, the
natives have felt that the two kinds of "stories" are basically
different. For everything that the myths relate concerns them
directly, while the tales and fables refer to events that, even when
they have caused changes in the World (cf. The anatomical or
physiological peculiarities of certain animals), have not altered the
human condition as such. (Of course, what is considered a "true
story" in one tribe can become a "false story" in a neighboring
tribe. "Demythicization" is a process that is already documented in
the archaic stags of culture. What is important is the fact
that "primitives" are always aware of the difference between myths
("true stories") and tales or legends ("false stories").
Cf. . . . "Myths and Fairy Tales.")

Myths, that is, narrate not only the origin of the World, of animals,
of plants, and of man, but also all the primordial events in
consequence of which man became what he is today mortal, sexed,
organized in a society, obliged to work in order to live, and working
in accordance with certain rules. If the World exists, it is because
supernatural Beings exercised creative powers in the "beginning." But
after the cosmogony and the creation of man other events occurred,
and man as he is today is the direct result of those mythical events,
he is constituted by those events. He is mortal because something
happened in illo tempore. If that thing had not happened, man would
not be mortal he would have gone on existing indefinitely, like
rocks; or he might have changed his skin periodically like snakes,
and hence would have been able to renew his life, that is, begin it
over again indefinitely. But the myth of the origin of death narrates
what happened in illo tempore, and, in telling the incident, explains
why man is mortal.

Similarly, a certain tribe live by fishing because in mystical times
a Supernatural Being taught their ancestors to catch and cook fish.
The myth tells the story of the first fishery, and, in so doing, at
once reveals a superhuman act, teaches men how to perform it, and,
finally, explains why this particular tribe must procure their food
in this way.

It would be easy to multiply examples. But those already given show
why, for archaic man, myth is a matter of primary importance, while
tales and fables are not. Myth teaches him the primordial "stories"
that have constituted him existentially; and everything connected
with his existence and his legitimate mode of existence in the Cosmos
concerns him directly.

We shall presently see what consequences this peculiar conception had
for the behavior of archaic man. We may note that, just as modern man
considers himself to be constituted by History, the man of the
archaic societies declares that he is the result of a certain number
of mythical events. Neither regards himself as "given," "made" once
and for all, as, for example, a tool is made once and for all. A
modern man might reason as follows: I am what I am today because a
certain number of things have happened to me, but those things were
possible only because agriculture was discovered some eight to nine
thousand years ago and because urban civilizations developed in the
ancient Near East, because Alexander the Great conquered Asia and
Augustus founded the Roman empire, because Galileo and Newton
revolutionized the conception of the universe, thus opening the way
to scientific discoveries and laying the groundwork for the rise of
industrial civilization, because the French revolution occurred and
the ideas of freedom, democracy, and social justice shook the Western
world to its foundations after the Napoleonic wars and so on.

Similarly, a "primitive" could say: I am what I am today because a
series of events occurred before I existed. But he would at once have
to add: events that took place in mythical times and therefore make
up a sacred history because the actors in the drama are not men but
Supernatural Beings. In addition, while a modern man, though
regarding himself as the result of the course of Universal History,
does not feel obliged to know the whole of it, the man of the archaic
societies is not only obliged to remember mythical history but also
to re-enact a large part of it periodically. It is here that we find
the greatest difference between the man of the archaic societies and
modern man: the irreversibility of events, which is the
characteristic trait of History for the latter, is not a fact to the

Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453 and the Bastille
fell on July 14, 1789. Those events are irreversible. To be sure,
July 14th having become the national holiday of the French Republic,
the taking of the Bastille is commemorated annually, but the
historical event itself is not reenacted. (Cf. Myths, Dreams and
Mysteries, pp. 30 ff.) For the man of the archaic societies, on the
contrary, what happened Ab origine can be repeated by the power of
rites. For him, then, the essential thing is to know the myths. It is
essential not only because the myths provide him with an explanation
of the World and his own mode of being in the World, but above all
because, by recollecting the myths, by re-enacting them, he is able
to repeat what the gods, the Heroes, or the Ancestors did ab origine.
To know the myths is to learn the secret of the origin of things. In
other words, one learns not only how things came into existence but
also where to find them and how to make them reappear when they

What "knowing the myths" means

Australian totemic myths usually consist in a rather monotonous
narrative of peregrinations by mythical ancestors or totemic animals.
They tell how, in the "Dream Time" (alcheringa) that is, in mythical
time these Supernatural Beings made their appearance on earth and set
out on long journeys, stopping now and again to change the landscape
or to produce certain animals and plants, and finally vanished
underground. but knowledge of these myths is essential for the life
of the Australians. The myths teach them how to repeat the creative
acts of the Supernatural Beings, and hence how to ensure the
multiplication of such-and-such an animal or plant.

These myths are told to the neophytes during their initiation. Or
rather, they are "performed," that is, re-enacted. "When the youths
go through the various initiation ceremonies [their instructors]
perform a series of ceremonies before them; these, though carried out
exactly like those of the cult proper except for certain
characteristic particulars do not aim at the multiplication and
growth of the totem in question but are simply intended to show those
who are to be raised, or have just been raised, to the rank of men
the way to perform these cult rituals." (C. Strehlow, op. Cit., vol.
III, pp. 1-2; L. Lιvy-Bruhl, op. Cit. P. 123. On puberty initiations
in Australia, cf. Birth and Rebirth, pp. 4 ff.)

We see, then, that the "story" narrated by the myth constitutes
a "knowledge" which is esoteric, not only because it is secret and is
handed on during the course of an initiation but also because
the "knowledge" is accompanied by a magico-religious power. For
knowing the origin of an object, an animal, a plant, and so on is
equivalent to acquiring a magical power over them by which they can
be controlled, multiplied, or reproduced at will. Erland Nordenskiφld
has reported some particularly suggestive examples from the Cuna
Indians. According to their beliefs, the lucky hunter is the one who
knows the origin of the game. And if certain animals can be tamed, it
is because the magicians know the secret of their creation.
Similarly, you can hold red-hot iron or grasp a poisonous snake if
you know the origin of fire and snakes. Nordenskiφld writes that "in
one Cuna village, Tientiki, there is a fourteen-year-old boy who can
step into fire unharmed simply because he knows the charm of the
creation of fire. Perez often saw people grasp red-hot iron and
others tame snakes." (E. Nordenskiφld, "Faiserus de miracles et
voyante chez les Indiens Cuna," Revista del Instituto de Etnologia
(Tucumαn), vol. II (1932); p. 464; Lιvy-Bruhl, op. cit., p. 119.)

This is a quite widespread belief, not connected with any particular
type of culture. In Timor, for example, when a rice field sprouts,
someone who knows the mythical traditions concerning rice goes to the
spot. "He spends the night there is the plantation hut, reciting the
legends that explain how man came to possess rice [origin
myth]. . . . Those who do this are not priests. (A.C. Kruyt, quoted
by Lιvy-Bruhl , op. cit., p. 119.) Reciting its origin myth compels
the rice to come up as fine and vigorous and thick as it was when it
appeared for the first time. The officiant does not remind it of how
it was created in order to "instruct" it, to teach it how it should
behave. He magically compels it to go back to the beginning, that is,
to repeat its exemplary creation.

The Kalevala relates that the old Vδinδmφinen cut himself badly while
building a boat. Then "he began to weave charms in the manner of all
magic healers. He chanted the birth of the cause of his wound, but he
could not remember the words that told of the beginning of iron,
those very words which might heal the gap ripped open by the blue
steel blade." Finally, after seeking the help of other magicians,
Vδinδmφinen cried: "I now remember the origin of iron! And he began
the tale as follows: Air is the first of mothers. Water is the eldest
of brothers, fire the second and iron the youngest of the three.
Ukko, the great Creator, separated earth from water and drew soil
into marine lands, but iron was yet unborn. Then he rubbed his palms
together upon his left knee. Thus were born three nature maidens to
be the mothers of iron." (Aili Kolehmainen Johnson, Kalevala. A Prose
translation from the Finnish. Hancock, Mich., 1950: pp. 53 ff.) It
should be noted that, in this example, the myth of the origin of iron
forms part of the cosmogonic myth and, in a sense, continues it. This
is an extremely important and specific characteristic of origin
myths, and we shall study it in the next chapter.

The idea that a remedy does not act unless its origin is known is
extremely widespread. To quote Erland Nordenskiφld again: "Every
magical chant must be preceded by an incantation telling the origin
of the remedy used, otherwise it does not act. . . . For the remedy
or the healing chant to have its effect, it is necessary to know the
origin of the plant, the manner in which the first woman gave birth
to it." (E. Nordenskiφld, "La conception de l'βme chez les Indiens
Cuna de l'Ishtme de Panama," Journal des Amιricanistes, N.S., vol. 24
(1932), pp. 5-30, 14.) In the Na-khi ritual chants published by J.F.
Rock it is expressly stated: "If one does not relate . . . the origin
of the medicine, to slander it is not proper." (Ibid, vol. II, p.

We shall see in the following chapter that, as in the Vδinδmφinen
myth given above, the origin of remedies is closely connected with
the history of the origin of the World. It should be noted, however,
that this is only part of a general conception, which may be
formulated as follows: A rite cannot be performed unless its "origin"
is known, that is, the myth that tells how it was performed for the
first time. During the funeral service the Na-khi shaman chants.

Now we will escort the deceased and again experience bitterness;
We will again dance and suppress the demons.
If it is not told whence the dance originated
One must not speak about it.
Unless one know the origin of the dance.
One cannot dare.

(J.F. Rock, Zhi-mδ funeral ceremony of the Na-Khi. Vienna Mφdling,
1955:, p. 87.)

This is curiously reminiscent of what the Uitoto told Preuss: "Those
are the words (myths) of our father, his very words. Thanks to those
words we dance, and there would be no dance if he had not given them
to us." (K.T. Preuss, Religion und Mythologie der Uitoto, vols. I-II.
Gφttingen, 1921-23: p. 625.)

In most cases it is not enough to know the origin myth, one must
recite it; this, in a sense, is a proclamation of one's knowledge,
displays it. But this is not all. He who recites or performs the
origin myth is thereby steeped in the sacred atmosphere in which
these miraculous events took place. The mythical time of origins is
a "strong" time because it was transfigured by the active, creative
presence of the Supernatural Beings. By reciting the myths one
reconstitutes that fabulous time and hence in some sort
becomes "contemporary" with the events described, one is in the
presence of the gods or Heroes. As a summary formula we might say
that by "living" the myths one emerges from profane, chronological
time and enters a time that is of a different quality, a "sacred"
Time at once primordial and indefinitely recoverable. This function
of myth, which we have emphasized in our Myth of the Eternal Return
(especially pp. 35 ff.), will appear more clearly in the course of
the following analyses.

Structure and function of myths

These few preliminary remarks are enough to indicate certain
characteristic qualities of myth. In general it can be said that
myth, as experienced by archaic societies, (1) constitutes the
History of the acts of the Supernaturals; (2) that this History is
considered to be absolutely true (because it is concerned with
realities) and sacred (because it is the work of the Supernaturals);
(3) that myth is always related to a "creation," it tells how
something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an
institution, a manner of working were established; this is why myths
constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts; (4) that by
knowing the myth one knows the "origin" of things and hence can
control and manipulate them at will; this is not
an "external," "abstract" knowledge but a knowledge that
one "experiences" ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the
myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification;
(5) that in one way or another one "lives" the myth, in the sense
that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events
recollected or re-enacted.

"Living" a myth, then, implies a genuinely "religious" experience,
since it differs from the ordinary experience of everyday life.
The "religiousness" of this experience is due to the fact that one re-
enacts fabulous, exalting, significant events, one again witnesses
the creative deeds of the Supernaturals; one ceases to exist in the
everyday world and enters a transfigured, auroral world impregnated
with the Supernaturals' presence. What is involved is not a
commemoration of mythical events but a reiteration of them. The
protagonists of the myth are made present; one becomes their
contemporary. This also implies that one is no longer living in
chronological time, but in the primordial Time, the Time when the
event first took place. This is why we can use the term the "strong
time" of myth; it is the prodigious, "sacred" time when something
new, strong, and significant was manifested. To re-experience that
time, to re-enact it as often as possible, to witness again the
spectacle of the divine works, to meet with the Supernaturals and
relearn their creative lesson is the desire that runs like a pattern
through all the ritual reiterations of myths. In short, myths reveal
that the World, man, and life have a supernatural origin and history,
and that this history is significant, precious, and exemplary.

I cannot conclude this chapter better than by quoting the classic
passages in which Bronislav Malinowski undertook to show the nature
and function of myth in primitive societies. "Studied alive,
myth . . . is not an explanation in satisfaction of a scientific
interest, but a narrative resurrection of a primeval reality, told in
satisfaction of deep religious wants, moral cravings, social
submissions, assertions, even practical requirements. Myth fulfills
in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses,
enhances and codifies belief; it safeguards and enforces morality; it
vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for
the guidance of man. Myth is thus a vital ingredient of human
civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force;
it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a
pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom. . . . These
stories . . . are to the natives a statement of a primeval, greater,
and more relevant reality, by which the present life, facts and
activities of mankind are determined, the knowledge of which supplies
man with the motive for ritual and moral actions, as well as with
indications as to how to perform them. (B. Malinowski. Myth in
Primitive Psychology. 1926)


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