Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.03

Gregory Schrempp, William Hansen, Myth. A New Symposium.   Bloomington, IN:  Indiana University Press, 2002.  Pp. 262.  ISBN 0-253-34158-2.  $49.95.  

Contributors: Gordon Brotherston, R. D. Fulk, Henry Glassie, William Hansen, Jonathan D. Hill, Robert L. Ivie, Eleanor Winsor Leach, John Lindow, John H. McDowell, Gregory Nagy, Joseph Falaky Nagy, Lúcia Sá, Gregory Schrempp, Candace Slater, Barre Toelken

Reviewed by Gary Beckman, University of Michigan (
Word count: 1141 words

In 1955 the influential collection of essays, Myth. A Symposium, edited by Thomas A. Sebeok, appeared in the Bibliographical and Special Series of the American Folklore Society. This volume was republished by Indiana University Press in 1956 and reprinted in paperback in 1965. It was in this latter form that generations of American undergraduates were introduced to the study of myth and to the ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Richard M. Dorson, Philip Wheelwright, and Stith Thompson, who stand out among its contributors.

The book under review presents the papers delivered at "A Symposium on Myth," convened at Indiana University in May 1999, in commemoration of the earlier publication. In keeping with the intellectual traditions of the host institution, A New Symposium retains the folkloristic emphasis that characterizes its predecessor.

Nearly a half-century separates the two Symposia, an eternity in the development of the modern humanities and social sciences. In his excellent introduction, editor Gregory Schrempp considers the differences in approach between the post-war (1955) and postmodern (1999) collections. The most salient contrast he adduces is the reluctance of contemporary writers to invoke totalizing theories to "explain" either the origins or the function of myth, whereas the original Symposium contains both the classic statement of Lévi-Strauss' "Structural Study of Myth,"1 and a rear-guard defense of "Myth and Ritual" by Lord Raglan.2 Second, many participants in A New Symposium reveal the influence of Michel Foucault through their doubts about the possible existence of "disinterested" knowledge, and through the view that mythic thought may be just as sophisticated as western logic -- if not more so.3

One important thing has not changed: It is still not quite possible to define "myth" to everyone's satisfaction. Must it be a narrative?4 And even if so, how does myth differ from other genres of traditional stories -- Märchen, legends, etc.?5 Schrempp provides a useful working definition of myth as "foundational, primordial, sacred, theomorphic" (p. 2), but this view does not correspond in its entirety to the conceptions of all contributors here.

Another area of contention is the degree to which pre-modern peoples hold their myths to present a straightforward representation of actual events. Earlier anthropologists and philosophers, such as David Bidney in Symposium ("Myth, Symbolism, and Truth") tended to claim a strict belief in myth, for, as Schrempp points out, "it is much easier to point to the superiority of the scientific description of the world over the mythic if one is allowed to assume in advance that what myths are trying to provide is a literal description" (p. 5). But as Barre Toelken ("Native American Reassessment and Interpretation of Myths") demonstrates, members of tribes in the western United States, for example, have a long oral tradition of exegesis of their myths, and often consciously adapt the tales to reflect current situations. Such modification would not be possible if the received version of a myth were "the gospel truth." In his own contribution to this volume ("David Bidney and the People of Truth"), however, Gregory Schrempp shows how the philosopher disdained not only the myths of traditional societies, but also the dogmas of contemporary social science and what he called "the sociopolitical myths of our time." That is, he was a positivist ready to find fault as much with the thought of his fellow Westerners as with that of native peoples.

Given the disparities of viewpoint mentioned above, it is not surprising that the fifteen essays in A New Symposium differ greatly in subject matter as well as in approach. Some are likely to be of but tangential interest to subscribers to BMCR. For instance, Robert I. Ivie ("Distempered Demos: Myth, Metaphor, and U.S. Political Culture") compares the conceptions of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson of the role of the "people" in government against the backdrop of a rather idealized view of Athenian democracy. Lúcia Sá ("Germans and Indians in South America: Ethnography and the Idea of Text") discusses the surprising role of pioneer German anthropologists in the development of Brazilian literature. Jonathan D. Hill ("'Made from Bone': Trickster Myths, Musicality, and the Social Construction of History in the Venezuelan Amazon") considers the function of the trickster figure in narrative as -- among other things -- a device for oblique social criticism through irony. Candace Slater ("Myths of the Rain Forest/The Rain Forest as Myth") contrasts the rhetorical use of Amazonia in contemporary American advertising with the picture that the region's native inhabitants paint of their home in myth. Sadly, this picture is largely colored by worry about environmental degradation.

Three contributors deal primarily with northern European traditions, making similar observations on the manipulation of traditional stories. John Lindow ("Myth Read as History: Odin in Snorri Sturluson's Ynglinga saga") discusses the euhemerization of a pagan deity by a Christian writer, demonstrating that, although the existence of the old gods must be denied, Scandinavians were nonetheless reluctant to give up entirely familiar stories of their exploits. R. D. Fulk ("Myth in Historical Perspective: The Case of Pagan Deities in the Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies") explains the presence of Nordic gods among the ancestors of kings by "the need not to falsify tradition" (p. 235). Joseph Falaky Nagy ("Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland") shows how early Irish hagiographers fashioned their narratives by combining elements of traditional pre-Christian tales, biblical stories, and scraps of historical information. He aptly refers to this process as "the hagiographer's version of bricolage" (p. 128).

The sole contribution treating a topic properly belonging to Classical Studies is that of Eleanor W. Leach ("Imitation or Reconstruction: How Did Roman Viewers Experience Mythological Painting?"). She evaluates descriptions of pictorial representations of mythological scenes found in Latin texts, illustrating her argument with photographs of Pompeian wall paintings. Her discussion deals rather more with ancient and modern theories of aesthetics and perception than with mythology.

Classicists will also be interested in the insightful concluding chapter by Gregory Nagy ("Can Myth Be Saved?"). Observing that in the Homeric poems, muthos denotes "a notional totality embracing all ritual speech-acts" (p. 244), he sees the variety of meanings later attached to the word as arising from "the breakdown of the symbiosis of myth and ritual in the archaic and classical periods of ancient Greece" (p. 246).

Of course, while this may help us understand the history of the lexeme "myth," it does little to resolve other outstanding problems (defining characteristics, origin, function) surrounding the variety of phenomena to which we attach this label. As a whole, A New Symposium presents a useful survey of the current state of the question of myth, which as we have seen differs in a number of significant points from views current in 1955. Should there be a further follow-up volume in another 50 years (A Newer Symposium), one suspects that generally accepted solutions to the question(s) of myth will still not have been found.


1.  Schrempp amusingly describes this method as "zaniness" (p. 7) while elsewhere John H. McDowell points out that the work of Lévi-Strauss is characterized by "its masking of subjectivity in a program dressed to look like objective science" (p. 34).
2.  Note the nineteenth-century confidence with which he asserts: "Myths are similar because they arise in connection with similar rites. Ritual has been, at most times and for most people, the most important thing in the world," Raglan, Symposium (1965), pp. 133f.
3.  Gordon Brotherston ("The West and the People with Myth") hectors the reader as to the superiority of "[Native] American cosmogony" (p. 146).
4.  John H. McDowell ("From Expressive Language to Mythemes: Meaning in Mythic Narratives") postulates the "myth can or must be a story" (p. 29), while Henry Glassie ("Mud and Mythic Vision: Hindu Sculpture in Modern Bangladesh") demonstrates elegantly that "[l]ike a myth, the murti [divine image] is an artful configuration of cosmological knowledge, designed to have positive consequences in human life" (p. 212).
5.   William Hansen ("Meanings and Boundaries: Reflections on [Stith] Thompson's 'Myth and Folktales'") judges that "scholars overrate the uniqueness of myth" (p. 22), especially since it is often possible to recognize the same story in the mythology of one culture and in the legends or folktales of another.

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