Re: myth & ideology

thomas w kavanagh (tkavanag@INDIANA.EDU)
Sat, 6 Apr 1996 17:43:04 -0500

Richard Calo and Justine got into a discussion of "myth" and "mythic"
with various permutations on mythology, ideology, and religion.

One must first of all remember that in lay-English, those three words are
value laden: My truth is your religion is their mythology ...

But remember also that we have perfectly good definitions in Anthro
--although one must be specific about them. I personally like Malinowski's
basic definition of mythology: "charters for behavior". They are the
legitimizing basis of social action, in Rappaport's terms, "Ultimate
Sacred Propositions."

When I teach intro anthro, I start out with two origin myths. One is the
Hopi emergence myth (Third Mesa "Traditionalist" version), which tells of
how the People came to this earth surface, how they met with the Guardian
(Massau'u), how the Bear Clan was the first to arrive at Oraibi and thus
became the village chiefs, how events in the 20th century are related back
to that Origin story to legitimize actions.

The other myth is the anthropological origin myth, beginning with the
overthrow of the authocthonous Creators, Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward B.
Tylor by the Hero, Franz Boas, and how he and his offspring, Kroeber,
Lowie, Mead, Benedict, and their descendants, continue to fight to
save the world.

There are truths in both myths, and there is a good deal of manipulation
of inherited culture for contemporary political purposes. THAT is what
myth is, the ammunition used in legitimizing social actions. In and of
itself, myth is neither right nor wrong, true nor false. Although a
historian might be able to demonstrate that the Alamo was a totally
unnecessary fight, that Travis ignored orders to leave, etc., that does
not change the mythic nature of the Alamo for True-Believing (read
"cultural") Texans.

(Thus, part of the Mead-Freeman debate is indeed mythic, with all of the
emotions generated by attacks on basic beliefs: its not just about
whether some girls lied to Mead, its that Mead is a mythic figure,
metonymically (?) standing for a set of beliefs--behavior is cultural,
adolescence is a time of crisis in American because adolescents are
liminal, neither children nor adults, etc.--fighting against primordial
enemies--behavior is biological, etc.)

mythically yours,