Re: myth & ideology

Richard G. Calo (rgcalo@EDEN.RUTGERS.EDU)
Sun, 7 Apr 1996 13:38:18 EDT

>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."

True, and Malinowski also adds that myth, "as it exists in a savage
community, that is, in its living primitive form, is not merely a
story told, but a reality lived" (Magic, Science & Religion,
p.100). He qualifies this in his conclusion by stating that he has
"tried to show that folklore, these stories handed on in a native
community, live in the cultural context of tribal life and not merely
in narrative. By this I mean that the ideas, emotions, and desires
associated with a given story are experienced not only when the story
is told, but also when in certain customs, moral rules, or ritual
proceedings, the counterpart of the story is enacted" (146).

>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.

Correct me if I'm wrong at this point, but following the preceding, myth
belongs to inherited culture, and in and of itself it is not anything
(is neither right nor wrong, true nor false) until it is manipulated
for contemporary political purposes. As it is taken up and
manipulated, it becomes endowed with a value-- right, wrong, true,
false--, and this value is operationally defined in terms of the use
to which the myth is put; that is, in terms of the kind of social
actions it legitimizes.

If this is the case, at what point would I be justified in
claiming that the myth is a lived reality as Malinowski designates it?
would it be this reality before I begin to use it as ammunition in my
attempt to legitimize a social action? or would it acquire this
reality through my use of it?

On the other hand, Levi-Strauss starts by citing Boas: 'it would
seem that mythological worlds have been built up, only to be shattered
again, and that new worlds were built from the fragments.' And he
continues 'Penetrating as this comment is, it nevertheless fails to
take into account that in the continual reconstruction from the same
materials, it is always earlier ends which are called upon to play
the part of means" (Savage Mind, p.21).

This would certainly comply with the use of the Hopi and
anthropological origin myths, for in both instances the initial story
(always an earlier end), is used for contemporary purposes-- political
or otherwise-- where it is endowed with an operational value. This
would also advance a claim for the nature of the mind conducting this
operation (whether it is given expression by the Hopi or the
anthropologist), an operation that Levi-Strauss calls in the
preceeding citation "the continual reconstruction from the same

Richard G. Calo