“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.” Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces
Mythology is indeed reality, even though mythology may not be real. Certainly, it is at least based on reality. Gilgamesh and Quetzalcoatl (though not Zeus and Bumba) actually lived and perhaps performed heroic deeds or left historical marks that eventually morphed into tall tales.
This implies that mythology is just another type of literature, to be read as fiction and dissected as such. We may explore the psychology of Gilgamesh the way we would Jay Gatsby, to extract ideas from characters, whether they be 2oth century moguls or ancient kings who are two-thirds divine.
But what if we have this backwards?
Instead of assuming that mythological tales are crafted documents in which literary writers embedded (consciously or not) signs and symbols in order to occupy liberal arts students who don’t excel at math, what if we imagine that the myths were written by the signs and symbols?
After all, authorship is an entirely different deal in mythology. We know F. Scott Fitzgerald (and a bottle) wrote The Great Gatsby. But who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh? This is the wrong question.
I could give you my usual spiel on oral tradition, which I seem to spend a third of the semester on whenever I teach Mythology. This is because, along with the notion of “Myth-as-Fugue” I discuss below, it is absolutely vital in understanding the crucial differences between mythology and what we normally call “literature,” i.e. stuff written by one person in book form. I will restrain myself, however, and mention just four keys points concerning oral tradition:
1) Before the slow spread of literacy and writing began (perhaps 5000 years ago and continuing to this day) and before the West’s version of the printing press (more specifically Gutenberg’s adaptation of movable type, 550 years ago) accelerated access to books, the primary way in which “texts” were encountered was through oral transmission, i.e. hearing someone perform a memorized and partially improvised story.
2) Oral transmission (which involves learning, reciting, and passing along stories, myths, and poems without a written text) results in multiple primary “texts,” vague or impossible-to-define origins and dates, and no discernible authors. Additionally, these “texts” change over time to reflect regional differences, political agendas, translations from one language to another, and the creative whims of poets, performers, and community members.
3) The written versions of oral tales (recorded on stone tablets, animal skin scrolls, and papyrus) are usually created hundreds of years after their initial creation. Often, as is the case with Mayan and Aztec myths, they are subject to distortion by colonizing forces. In reading a mythology textbook, you are always reading a version of a version of a version, and so on.
4) Myths from the oral tradition can only be understood properly as performance pieces, as the scripts for elaborate cultural or religious rituals, civic rites, or entertainment events featuring large audiences, music, and sometimes human and animal sacrifices. To complicate matters, some myths are derived from the initiation rituals of mystery cults, resulting in texts that are intentionally esoteric and hostile to outside interpretation.
In other words, grab your mythology textbook and some drums and get together with your friends for three days of wine and chanting. Maybe you’ll get a sense of how mythological texts are supposed to exist.
Now that we have that out of the way, how does the reality of oral tradition affect how we read or interpret mythology?
Certainly, it is impossible to ask, “What is the author trying to say about X?” which is a common formula I encourage in introductory literature classes.
First, there is the obvious problem of not having an author, or of reading a text cobbled together with words and ideas from multiple poets, translators, editors, authority figures, priests, and local performers.
Second, the author (whoever that is) might not be trying to say anything. That is, perhaps the myth is an occasion for some pre-existing and mysterious ideas to manifest in the world through poetry. (More on this in Part 3, when I will discuss archetypes and mythopoetic language.)
Third, if you thought “The Wasteland” was complicated, get ready for mythology. A poet like T.S. Eliot might use multiple languages, allusions, and styles of discourse to create a dense, inscrutable collage poem, but that poem still has a one-dimensional function: it functions as poem to be read out-loud or silently by one person so that we may engage it in some literary setting: classroom, library, bookstore, under a tree, or, god forbid, a poetry reading.
Not so with myths, which aren’t just literary documents (though we treat them as such in the college setting). Instead, since myths were created before the specialization of knowledge and (as the previously beaten dead horse reminds us) before widespread literacy leads to obsessive data collection, myths had to hold everything. Myths were the storage unit for a civilization’s history, poetry, religion, politics, entertainment, and so on. Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson refers to this as “Myth-as-Fugue.”
I’ll finish Part 2 by posting a video lecture I recently made on this concept and how it applies to The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known epic tale: