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Indo-European Mythology 1, Requirement 2

Name and describe three different schools of interpretation of myths (e.g. 'nature symbolism', allegory, fragmented history, social engineering, psychological symbolism,) and one major writer associated with each. Discuss which one you tend to favor and compare its strengths and weaknesses to the others (minimum 1000 words)

The variety of ways that myth can be interpreted is mind-blowing, and can generally be summed up most simply as, "every person will interpret myth in their own way." There are, of course, major areas that mythic interpretation will fall into, including the idea of myth as allegory, myth as social power, and myth as irreducible. In general, I tend to follow each of these ideas as non-mutually exclusive (or, if you prefer, mutually inclusive).

Myth as an allegory is presented by a variety of scholars, and it was the first form of interpretive mythological study that I ever encountered. The primary proponent of this particular method of interpretation was Max Muller. To Muller, all myths were somehow related to nature, not only in part, but primarily. His hard-lined approach to myth as natural allegory quickly becomes indefensible, but the central idea that myth is strongly connected to nature, whether as an explanation of the phenomenon or as an explanation of a representation of the phenomenon. In allegorical interpretations, the myth seems to be a representation of universal truths in someway, but it can lead to sanitizing the myth from both actual meaning and enjoyment as you seek to find something that the myth can allegorize. It is this sanitation that causes the most issues with this approach: often, the idea that a myth is simply an allegory indicates that the myth is not "true", that it is merely a placeholder for scientific knowledge. This can lead to the idea of evolutionary mythology.

Myth as social power is best seen in Karl Marx's comment, "Religion is the opium of the people." Though Marx himself had little to say about religion, the approaches he took to economics have been extrapolated and applied to religion by many who followed in his footsteps (including Bruce Lincoln). Often, we can find justifications for the prevailing social order within mythology, especially in the lessons taught that keep women in the home, or describe certain obligations of the citizen in a city. Often, there is a lesson or "moral" to the myth, and that lesson supports the status quo in the society that spawned the myth. Myths can lead to a sense of entitlement among those who have power and a sense of place to those who do not. Myths can also justify terrible crimes, such as the Aryan Myth that perpetuated the Holocaust. It is wise, these Marxist scholars would argue, for us to look harshly at these myths, and to ensure that our intentions are indeed pure.

After World War II, there was a backlash against the idea of reducing myth to something other than myth. This school, led by Mircae Eliade, declared that myth was irreducible, and that to ascribe its motives to something other than myth is to reduce it to something meaningless. The key here is that Eliade was advancing the idea that myth was, in itself, not only useful, but valuable. It held an inherent usefulness that could not be denied. This has the amazing advantage of allowing indigenous and so-called "primitive" cultures to be recognized not for their differences between "them" and "us", but for the similarities between "us". The primary criticism of this, of course, is that it ignores the possibility that myth could be anything else. It also denies the idea that myth can be created by someone for a secular reason, and often fails to account for the idea that perhaps we are more different than we seem.

It has been suggested that any person should fall into one or the other of these views of myth and religion. They will either approach these myths from a position of suspicion or retrieval, and will tend to follow a subset of that school. This is not necessarily the case. I prefer to work from a position where neither the hermeneutical position of suspicion (i.e. Marxist, allegorical, or sociological views) nor the hermeneutical position of retrieval (i.e. that favoured by Eliade and Wach) will be favoured. In this position, each religion is looked at closely through the various lenses of many potential interpretations. The same myth can be seen as a political statement or a religious statement. It could be an expression of sociological pressures or merely an attempt to explain things away. By approaching the study of mythology from a variety of directions, we can see most clearly which of these possibilities is the most likely origin of the myth.

If we merely take each school at face value, we can come up with some compelling arguments for the reasons behind the myths. When we do this, though, we often find ourselves going a step beyond the point we should stop at, delving in too deeply in a single interpretation. If we begin to look at myths as being primarily political in nature, then we will start to see all myths as political. If we believe them to be irreducible to anything smaller than "myth", then we might miss nuances within the myth that indicate that, indeed, the central reason for this myth is something allegorical or historical.

To avoid this, it is often helpful to develop a line of questioning that will help us determine which of these schools is best suited to examine the myth with. Quite often, we can find that the myth can be seen through a variety of filters, lenses, and cracks, and these theories provide the windows that we need to see certain things. Often, by exploiting several ideas at once, we can come to a new understanding of the myth.

Of course, there are also drawbacks to this method. First, it takes a very long time to come to your final conclusions. Spending your time examining and re-examining a particular myth can also set you very quickly into a mode where you look too hard to find things that may or may not actually be there. Often, the merest suggestion of political motivation, psychological fear, or sociological use will prompt you to delve deeply into this possibility without even having a solid reason for doing so.


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