Mythology Never Dies

Sandro Botticelli, Primavera, 1477

Mythology is the study of myths, as opposed to their creation, and usually evokes the idea of past civilisations and the fanciful stories associated with ancient religions and rituals. Ethnologists make the distinction between myths themselves and the rationalisations given by the people who believe them, such explanations being made by living people under questioning by the researcher. Beliefs and their rationalisation, rather than scientific facts, are therefore central to the enquiry. Such beliefs may be personal and rather muddled justifications, or consistent, orthodox doctrines strictly maintained by priests within a religious institution, such as the Catholic Church.

The purpose of myth, according to the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, is “to strengthen tradition and endow it with a greater value and prestige by tracing it back to a higher, better, more supernatural reality of ancient events”. (Myth in Primitive Psychology, 1926, pp144,146). The corollary is that a functioning myth serves to bind the past to the present in the consciousness of living individuals. The definition also implies conservatism and continuity of belief, which, in our postmodern age suggests that such a function no longer applies. A related explanation is that myths arose to explain ancient practices whose purpose was no longer understood, apart from reconstructions by ethnologists. Sir James Frazer’s enormous work The Golden Bough was such an exercise in explaining the utterly obscure rites enacted by the priests of Nemi, in Italy. This work proved to be immensely influential on 20th Century scholars, including T S Eliot and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

J M W Turner, Lake Nemi,  1818

A further issue is the less exalted category known as folk-lore, examples of which are still active today in the form of children’s fairy stories and persistent superstitions. One of the most important examples of a modern folk law tradition derives from the days of African slavery, particularly in the United States. The phenomenon of jazz music and its successors, Rock and Roll and pop music generally had their genesis in this tradition. Important events, such as the Great Depression, also gave rise to literature, such as The Grapes of Wrath, which record a social trauma of national importance in fictional form. It is but a step to understand the relation between such an event and the watery myths of Gilgamesh and Noah, which are only speculatively grounded in history.

Andy Warhol, Triple Elvis, 1963

The preservation of myths in present day art and literature is commonplace, although there was a strong reaction against this in the 19th Century by realist movements, which included Courbet, the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, which has persisted to the present day. Gauguin is notable in succumbing to the charms of pacific culture and the creation of a utopian mythology as an antidote to the ravages of French Colonialism. Picasso extended and strengthened the ancient roots of visual art through a deliberate study and imitation of classical figure drawing derived from Greek pottery.

Henri Matisse, The Rape of Europa, 1929

Matisse was unsuccessfull emulating Picasso’s use of Greek mythology as shown by his unfinished painting, The Rape of Europa, 1929. The neo-classical revival and its mythological overtones, spearheaded by Jacques Louis David, was largely rejected by Delacroix and Gericault, who concerned themselves  with depicting more recent events, such as Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1818. J M W Turner’s Slave Ship, 1840 shows a similar concern with political issues of the day. The Napoleonic mythology, linking the Emperor to ancient Rome, was yet another example of sycophantic myth making by David, which merely continued the tradition of flattering monarchs common to painters like, Hans Holbein, Velasquez and Van Dyke. David’s fanciful portrait of Napoleon is an example of this kind of flattery and mythmaking.

Jacques Louis David, Napoleon crossing the Alps, 1748-1825

Art in the service of church and state has always been a form of propaganda, conforming to Malinowski’s definition of the function of mythology. This is clearly evident in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Ceiling, a powerful synthesis of Christian and classical myths. By contrast, the two greatest examples of mythological painting during the Renaissance are Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus, neither of which contains the slightest hint of Christianity or the materialism of the rising mercantile class. These were private rather than public works of art, where soft pornography and mythological scholarship are combined for the pleasure of the ruling class. Perhaps the prime example of creative art trumping orthodox religion is Dante’s Divine Comedy, which succeeded in reconciling Neo-Platonism with Christianity, written under the influence of an enduring passion for the thirteen year old Beatrice. This impressive work can be linked back to the Eleusinian mysteries, which were concerned with the soul’s journey through the underworld, a theme also found in the myth of Jason and the Minotaur.

Pablo Picasso, Minotaur Moving House, 1936

Poetry and literature have long been the refuge of mythology, sheltering from potential persecution by both Roman Catholicism and its Protestant rival. Neither Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream nor Milton’s Comus appear to have been the cause of religious persecution on account of their mythological content. Spencer’s Faery Queen had masked its mythological themes in Books entitled: Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice and Courtesy, which not even the most ardent bishops could find fault with. In any case, the tastes of the aristocracy who patronised such works were not to be trifled with in an age bent on absorbing the classical learning preserved by the Moors of Spain and transmitted by the scholars of the Church itself. The exaggerated fancies of mythology could be safely ignored as entertaining follies, unlike the peculiar work being done by dangerous scholars like Giordano Bruno and Galileo, who insisted that their works were demonstrably true, even if they contradicted Church doctrine.

Edwin Landseer, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream,  1848

Classical learning, including the bulk of Greco-Roman mythology had been a staple  of teaching at Oxford, Cambridge and the continental universities of Paris and Bologna. Herodotus, Aristotle, Plato, Ovid and many more repositories of mythological knowledge were essential to the curriculum of the learned man. Apart from Heloise, the emancipation of women through learning was quickly stifled, in this case by the castration of Abelard. Much earlier, the wrath of the desert fathers had meted out even more radical surgery to Hypatia, the librarian of Alexandria. The survival of the classical myths embodied in Homer, Plato and the Greek dramatists was assured by this orthodox stream of transmission.

With the rise of the French and British Empires in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the passion for Greek and Roman culture reached fever pitch, spilling over to include all things Egyptian after Napoleon’s conquest and the discovery and interpretation of the Rosetta Stone. Byron felt compelled to free Greece from the Ottomans and died of his wounds after attacking the Turkish fort at Lepanto. Delacroix’s painting The Massacre of Chios memorialised the Greco Turkish wars and the enthusiasm of artists and writers for Greek culture. It is notable that Byron bitterly opposed the purloining of the Elgin marbles, although the rationale was to save such artefacts from the ravages of war and their neglect by the Turks. The huge collection of ancient artefacts from wars of conquest in London, Paris and elsewhere stimulated the science of archaeology and associated disciplines, including the study of the myths of these ancient societies so enigmatically preserved in their works of Art.

Eugene Delacroix. Massacre at Chios, 1824

Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias perfectly captures the hubris of an imaginary but forgotten tyrant, whose only remains lie buried in the desert sands. The political message is a universal one and rests on the long history of despotic rule from Hammurabi, the Egyptian Pharaohs through to despots of our own age. Such is the power of myth to remind us that our present political struggles are a constant of human history. The passion for mythology came to a head with such works as Keats’s enormous poem, Endymion, whose opening lines became the epitome of that Romantic poetry, so suitable for frustrated young ladies with too much time on their hands waiting for an acceptable suitor to carry them off from the wastes of Georgian society to the bucolic meads of Ancient Greece. We cannot but admire this tour de force by such a youthful but doomed genius, but I doubt that many would have the patience to get through it today, even with the aid of Thomas Bulfinch’s The Golden Age of Myth and Legend.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:

Its loveliness increases; it will never

Pass into nothingness; but still will keep

A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

John Keats, 1818

Greek Vase,  Dionysos talking with Hermes and a dancing Satyr 550 – 520 BC

T S Eliot declared that Byron and Keats were “not nearly such great poets as they are supposed to be”, which is rather non-committal. But needless to say, the early 20th Century poets, like other artists of their age, were after something different, which we now call modernism. The ubiquity of nymphs and shepherds characteristic of the Victorian age was bound to prove sickening, especially where it became trivialised and divorced from any credible depiction of classical cultures, replete with their tyrants, slaves and the erotic and murderous propensities of their gods and heroes.

In The Wasteland, Eliot flirts briefly with the theme of Philomela, and manages to be witty about her rape (“Jug Jug to dirty ears”) but soon abandons this “withered stump(s) of time” in favour of discussing Lil’s problem with her bad teeth and her husband’s Albert’s likely departure on this account, if she doesn’t get them fixed. In this comic performance, the American Eliot poses as the quintessential uptight English intellectual parodying his own prudery at the expense of the working class, neatly calling “TIME GENTLEMEN PLEASE”, on all the “stony rubbish” of Romantic poetry. Unfortunately, Eliot abandoned his subtle wit in favour of a Christian seriousness which eventually descended into boring the unpretentious reader more deeply than could any work by Keats.

In The Shield of Achilles, W H Auden demonstrates the value of mythology in nine stanzas. The immense power of this anti-war poem, published in 1955, links the pity of war in the pre-Hellenic age with the threat of global destruction by atomic weapons during the Cold War. The last stanza expresses not only the horror of a mother fated to lose her son in war, but the inhuman indifference of the artificer Hephaestus who forges the weapons of war with incomparable technical skill.

The thin-lipped armorer,

Hephaestus, hobbled away,

Thetis of the shining breasts

Cried out in dismay

At what the god had wrought

To please her son, the strong

Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles

Who would not live long.

W H Auden, 1955

In this short piece, Auden carries on the tradition of Homer, and many other war poets, in exposing the true nature of war, depicting both its glory and its tragedy.

Frans Floris, Vulcan Fashions the Shield of Achilles, 1560

Mythology in all its ramifications is a vast subject, but the question can now be posed: is there such a thing as modern mythology? A similar question can be asked about biological evolution and the answer is that it does continue to apply as a mechanism, albeit to a mature but continually changing genetic base. As in the case of biology, the immense layers of myth laid down over millennia are both resistant to change and influence what changes can occur. Furthermore, these layers at the surface are the very stuff of common belief, often deeply embedded in language.

An obvious example of contemporary mythmaking is the raking over and bowdlerisation of American history, centring on what now may be fairly called the foundation myths. While historical documents and scholarship about this relatively recent history abound, the attitudes and beliefs of American citizens in the intervening period have overlaid these myths with legal, academic and popular beliefs. One result has been the gross caricatures of the Tea Party Movement, which have achieved a cultural dynamic of their own. In short, popular myths subvert history and can lead to the kind of revisionism seen in America and other nations, which are on the verge of radical change today. The implication seems to be that such mythmaking is a necessary precursor of historical change, where ideologies compete for dominance until myth and history converge.

This essay will appear in The Immanence of Myth – an Anthology, by James Curcio to be published in June 2011 and complements the essay by James published on 27 January in Escape into Life.

Tony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: philosophy, writing fiction, poetry, and blogging.