myth & ideology

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Sat, 6 Apr 1996 09:45:11 EST

this opportunity to try to get a thread going.

I spent yesterday morning in conversation with Justine, a student
in the English department here at Rutgers. We were talking about the
nature of myth, mythology, and what is mythic. I was taking the
position that whatever mythology might be, it most certainly is not
confined to non-Western cultures, or to an earlier period in Western
culture, but forms an integral part of our contemporary world as
well. Justine agreed. She said that there were any number of ideologies
operating in our society and that these could certainly be studied as
contemporary myths. It seemed she equated the mythological with the

I told her that this was not what I meant, and to demonstrate my
point, I asked her if she had any religious affiliation. As it turned
out, she was a practicing Catholic who took her religion very
seriously. I next asked her if she thought her Catholicism was a
matter of ideology, and she replied that it most certainly was
not. For her, while the mythological and ideological were the same,
the religious and ideological were not. When I asked her to clarify the
distinction between the religious and the ideological, she replied
(not in these words) that the religious referred to a body of truths,
while the ideological referred to a body of delusions or illusions, or
at best mistaken or misguided beliefs. When I asked her to clarify
what she meant by mythology, her reply resembled the one she'd given
for ideology: a body of beliefs which were delusional or misguided, or
perhaps primitive in relation to our advanced religions. A little
further questioning revealed that mythology was also primarily a thing
of the past, whether it concerned our Western world, or indigenous
peoples in a post-contact situation.

My point however, was not that the mythological was the same as
the ideological, but that the mythological was the same as the
religious, and that the ideological, if it was anything, was
incidental to the argument. I insisted that our relation to the body
of truths we hold with religious conviction, is analogous to others'
relation to the body of truths they hold with religious
conviction. Moreover, it seems that religious belief systems (and
perhaps all belief systems) have built into them the following
characteristic: while I consider my religion to be true (and therefore
a religion), I consider that of others to be misguided (and therefore
a mythology). In no case do I consider it on a par with my own (for if
I did, I probably would be practicing it). And the further I move away
from the familiar environment in which my religious system unfolds,
the more 'mythological' do the belief systems of others become. Thus,
if I were a Catholic, I would almost certainly consider all forms of
Protestantism closer to me and more 'true' than Judaism and Islam,
while I would consider the latter two closer to me and more 'true'
than Australian Aboriginal religions. But if I were a native of the
Australian Central Desert, with Witchetty grub or Bandicoot as my
Dreaming, the Dreamings of the Arnhemland groups would almost
certainly be closer and more 'true' to me than the existence of
Christ, while the issue of whether or not Christ was the Messiah
could never be more than one of academic concern for me.

I have no doubt the preceding will be soon enough picked apart by
the contributors to this list (and I will certainly welcome the
discussion). However, my concern for the moment, is with the role of
ideology in the above, and in Justine's thinking. I believe that she
is calling ideological, and in the same way, what was once called
mythological-- I have in mind among others, Andrew Lang's relegation
to the mythological of all that which he found offensive in
'primitive' religions, or even Durkheim's use of Spencer & Gillen's
ethnographic material on the assumption that the latter had documented
the most conceptually primitive race of humans.

In Justine's case, then, the notion of ideology plays a role
parallel to the notion of mythology. On her own admission, however,
not only are ideology and mythology the same thing, but ideology
perhaps belongs more appropriately to our present world than does a
mythology on the order of the Greeks, Norse, or contemporary
indigenous peoples. To me, this seems to argue for a historical
change: we have replaced the use of mythology by ideology, at least
where it concerns our immediate world and environment. Levi-Strauss
had written about this somewhere (I can't recall the reference right
now), stating that in our contemporary world, 'mythic thought' had not
only receded into the background, but had been replaced largely by
political thought.

I am of course wondering if this is in fact the case. We have been
in the habit of assigning to the realm of mythology those religious
truths which were not our own. Perhaps we are still doing exactly the
same thing, only now, we assign these truths to the ideological. This,
it seems, may be a function of our 'secularized' environment.The
mental operations (whatever they are) that govern this function,
however, have not changed.

Richard G. Calo