BMCR 2000.07.29

Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship

, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. xvi + 298. $24.00 (pb).

Comparative mythology is a tricky business, as Bruce Lincoln (L.) reminds us in this important work. Tricky in two senses: first, because the job is difficult to do well owing to the depth and breadth of knowledge required; second, because the material lends the unscrupulous scholar ample opportunity to mislead his audience if he so chooses. Theorizing Myth is most vividly about comparative mythology in the second sense. L. scrutinizes those who have gone before him, examining methods and assumptions, in the process exposing bias and prejudice. But the book is also about doing L.’s chosen subject well. He is not daunted by the bias and prejudice he exposes: he fearlessly offers his own scholarship, and asks, in effect, that we do unto him as he has done unto others.

L., who received his degree and teaches in the history of religions in that august field’s most august home, the University of Chicago, uses the preface to make his postmodern confession: Jewish, a Marxist, he is predisposed to take on and debunk arguments that have led to Naziism and other forms of discrimination, elitism, or injustice. He makes it clear that he viscerally opposes the assertion of an original Indo-European people living in a specific homeland, partly because such a people and place are impossible to determine from the evidence but also because of the theory’s historical usage as a tool of racist ideology.

The book begins in ancient Greece and ends in the present day: its three sections include ” Mythos among the Greeks” (chs. 1-2), “A Modern History of Myth” (3-6), and “New Directions” (7-11, Epilogue). Most of these chapters have already had life as papers or articles, but L. works hard to line them up behind his governing argument: to demonstrate the “sharper critical edge” which results when one defines myth as “not just taxonomy but ideology in narrative form” (147, L.’s italics). In other words, L. wants to show that myth is about establishing hierarchies with a view to naturalizing and legitimating them — and not only once, for all, but in an ongoing, diachronic give-and-take (150).

Despite his political leanings, L. is not at all egalitarian about his thesis. Though he nods to interpretive eclecticism (“… [I] would hardly insist that this formulation accounts for all myths, let alone all aspects of myth …” [147]), his enthusiasm for myth as ideology (here, at least) precludes his granting anything approaching equal status to other possible interpretations. Structuralism, for example, figures heavily in every chapter, but only as a tool for L.’s argument of the moment.

L. mentions the idea of myth as ideology in the preface, but the formal thesis statement and beginning of its defense does not come until chapter 7. Chapters 1-6, however, leave abundant evidence of L.’s intentions. In Section I, L.’s stated goal is to examine the evidence for “… the Greek miracle … the transformation of thought that led from the mythos of Homer and Hesiod to the logos of Heraclitus and Plato.” But L. is equally concerned with who in ancient Greece had power to determine ideology — that is, what set of narratives, told by whom, was considered true and authoritative within that society. L.’s argument, that the word mythos (and the poets who used it) retained its ideological power all the way to the fourth century, is promising but does not maintain its force throughout.

For Hesiod and Homer, the argument is efficient and elegant. In Hesiod, mythos designates not only something desirable, but something desirable over and above logos ( mythos = true, manly speech; logos = (feminine) falsehood). L. argues convincingly that in the oral society of Archaic Greece, the poet, the master of mythos, possesses enormous power. To his explication of Odysseus as poet in Books 8-12 of the Odyssey he fashions this emphatic exclamation point: “… however fabulous the events of Odysseus’ narrative may seem and however suspect he may be as narrator, still we are justified in regarding his story as not just true, but edifying, exemplary, authoritative”(23).

L.’s fifth- and fourth-century examples of the usage of mythos and logos come mainly from pre-Socratic philosophers, sophists, and Plato. Here it becomes murkier whether mythos retained power through time, especially in comparison to the crystal-clear distinctions made in the previous pages, but also next to Marcel Detienne’s The Creation of Mythology (Chicago 1986). Detienne’s version of the story exposes a structural weakness in L.’s narrow philological concentration on two specific words: one may still disparage mythos without using the word mythos. Detienne also highlights Herodotus and Thucydides, whose mythos/logos usage harms L.’s thesis; L. leaves them out.1 The reader will readily agree when L. confesses that “I have tried to renarrate a story that has often been told” (42).

The second section may be termed comparative mythology’s sickroom, where L. airs out the scholarly space of the history of comparative mythology. With calm detachment he describes the careers and writings of men past and present who have used myth to further a racist and/or nationalist agenda. Among others, Johannes Herder (eighteenth century pastor, scholar, and “hero of early romanticism” [52]), Richard Wagner (the famous composer), Sir William Jones (eighteenth century father of Indo-European mythology), Friedrich Nietzsche, and Georges Dumézil come in for detailed examination. This is page-turning reading, in the mold of Richard Noll’s The Jung Cult (Princeton 1994), but hitting much closer to the bone for anyone familiar with Indo-European mythology. The chapter on Dumézil is chilling. L. uses a merciless scholarly tour de force to prove that the French Dumézil, though attracted to fascism, was alarmed — along with his countrymen — by “Hitler’s rearmament of the Rhineland” (133), and manipulated evidence in his scholarship to direct a racist attack — not towards Jews, but towards Nazi Germany.

Chapter 7 begins a new section, but reads more as a transition between sections. It continues the airing of the sickroom, with new figures, including Mircea Eliade, who was reported to have been a Nazi sympathizer in his native Romania (although L. is quick to add that they were friends and colleagues), and Claude Levi-Strauss, whose too-abstract theories came under attack by action-oriented revolutionaries in the sixties (they asserted, e.g., that “‘structures don’t go out in the streets'” [146]). The chapter then segues to testing the theory of myth as ideology, with page 147, discussed above, as bridge. L. begins with maléfemale hierarchies in the Irish story of “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, then lays out his preferred methodology for doing comparative myth as ideology, and finally, explicates stories of reincarnation from Pindar to Empedocles and to Plato to show how poets as a category (over against philosophers, kings, et al.) lose influence and stature as the stories are handed down.

Chapters 8-11 all come from previous publications and provide further evidence that myth is ideology in narrative form. Ranging from Norway to Rome to Greece to India, the stories abundantly prove L.’s breadth of erudition, as well as his commitment to his thesis. First, L. treats hierarchies in the myth of the death of the Sibyll in Plutarch and Phlegon (“Plutarch’s Sibyll”), then the structuralist demarcation of land and sea in Scandinavian myth (” Gautrek’s Saga and the Gift Fox”). He goes on to find similarities between Greek and Indic attitudes towards the status of cattle (“Once Again, the Bovine’s Lament”), and finishes with a chapter called “The Pandits and Mr. Jones”, where he lays out the fascinating argument that colonized Indian pandits (legal consultants) used myth to insult the British and play an inside joke on the aforementioned Sir William Jones. These are all characteristically well reasoned, though “The Bovine’s Lament”, in its attempt to advance animal rights, stretches the Cattle of the Sun episode of Odyssey 12 far past this reviewer’s tensile tolerance.

And here is the tricky part. L. argues deftly that the scholarship of those who have gone before him is contingent, that it is biased, and that it contributes to the suffering of other human beings. He then goes on to weigh down the book with his own interpretations, which owe much to the scholars he has evaluated and found wanting, especially Levi-Strauss. He cannot escape his continuing desire to say something himself, despite the fact that what he says is (we must conclude from his narrative) contaminated with his own biases and therefore, potentially harmful or at least hypocritical.

L. recognizes this potential for scholarly hypocrisy — recognizes it, indeed, throughout the book — but in the Epilogue he meets it head on, couching it as a question asked by a hypothetical undergraduate in the back of the room after one of his lectures. “‘Isn’t scholarship just another instance of ideology in narrative form?'” the imaginary student asks. “‘Don’t scholars tell stories to recalibrate a pecking order, putting themselves, their favorite theories, and their favorite people on top?'”(207).

Lincoln admits that scholarship is, like myth, ideology in narrative form — but with a difference: scholarship has footnotes. He goes on to explain (208-209) that footnotes, which show, in effect, whether a scholar has done his homework, control the author’s “discourse of free invention” and signal that scholarship is a “dialectic encounter between an interested inquirer, a body of evidence, and a community of other competent and interested researchers, past, present, and future.” Such encounters act as a “check on ideological manipulation”, though “critics also have their ideological interests and themselves must be subject to scrutiny and critique.” For this system to work, scholars must enter their field “in good faith”, “pledge that their labor is honest”, and “accept [critics] as peers and superiors”. All this with the full knowledge that footnotes can provide “opportunities for misrepresentation, mystification, sycophancy, character assassination, skillful bluff, and downright fraud.”

This is scholarship, now, as theology, the taxonomic narratives of a kind of catholic church: that is, of a whole body of believers who come to their ideological conclusions by dialogue and mutual submission — a flawed institution to be sure, in which BMCR and this present inadequate evaluation must be included, but one, we presume, of compelling worth.

The question remains, nevertheless, to what god (or good) does this theology refer? L.’s final conclusion about comparative mythology, that “The story I would tell … is one that recalibrates categories and redistributes privilege, encouraging a move away from projects of ‘reconstruction’ and toward those of criticism” (216) is on the surface curiously cautious, even misleading, given his defense of scholarship above, and his stated ideals.

I suggest that L. is hedging here, making sure that the last thing he leaves with the reader trains the spotlight on the process of scholarship rather than on his personal beliefs. It was the prudent thing to do in the close atmosphere of the present scholarly community. In fact, the rest of Theorizing Myth shows abundantly that L. is indeed using comparative mythology to work towards reconstruction: but of a humane, ethical world, rather than an Indo-European homeland. Though I do not agree with all of L.’s scholarly conclusions, I deeply respect him for his wisdom, hard work, courage, and honesty. In a world where it has become dubious to some (including me) whether we should do scholarship at all, I welcome the words of one who is trying not just to recalibrate but to edify the various fluid and entrenched scholarly hierarchies of these our traditional, tradition-bound humanities.2


1. Readers of Theorizing Myth should consider Detienne more as a companion to Section I than as “background reading” (223, n. 1). The two books have the same subject and go over much of the same material, though Detienne’s allusive, elusive style, whether in French or English, makes him hard going at times.

2. Wendy Doniger, the acclaimed comparative mythologist, provides another compelling example of this kind of scholarship in The Invisible Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York 1998); by no coincidence she also teaches at the University of Chicago, has taught with L., and figures in his acknowledgments. Like L., Doniger is aware of the pitfalls of writing comparative mythology, yet writes eloquently and movingly of the discipline’s possibilities.