Defining Myth

Defining myth as “the oral imprinting press of pre-literate peoples” has its problems. For scholars, the first thing to be argued is how does this definition differentiate itself from Folklore? Indeed, folklore is often defined as “any information” that is passed down orally from one generation to another. For some folklorists, who often blend myth and folklore together, they would consider my definition inadequate. Meanwhile, for the Campbell crowd, myth is wed to the autonomous productions of the psyche and the unconscious, and therefore is constant and eternal. My definition does not satisfy them either. Finally, my definition uses a literate metaphor for an oral category, and that is also problematic.

I will take my stand. Myth was specifically a product of an oral people. Furthermore, and here is the grand difference between myth and folklore, myth was always wed to the ancient cult systems of oral peoples. We have forgotten how oral peoples transmitted information from one generation to another. Their most prized information was always embedded and interred within the cultic festivals, dances, and esoteric philosophy and cosmology of the culture. Folklore, on the other hand, can be any information passed down orally. Myth was the information that was specifically tied to ritual, cult, and oral cosmology.

Perhaps my definition can be refined. A printing press has four major components: The press, the paper, the ink, and the finished product (a book or newsprint). While admitting the inadequacy of a literate metaphor, but acquiescing that we are all literate people arguing over these ideas and therefore a literate metaphor may be the best place to start, I will refine my definition using these essential components of the press.

The press is the machine which allows for the whole system to work. Our parallel would equate this image with the ancient cult. The oral cults of antiquity were comprised of the priests or priestesses endowed with the special knowledge of the group. They regulated this knowledge through their seasonal festivals, rites, temples, sacrifices, dances, songs, oracles, spells, and other things they were in charge of. The cult involved knowing the right information, but also performing this information in the right place (the temenos) and at the right time (celestially significant days throughout the year).

The paper of the press is the medium upon which all the information is imprinted. The paper “holds” the ink, and allows for its organization in a useful and transmittable manner. Using my metaphor, one might think that the paper would be the cult rituals. In a profoundly literate analogy this would be correct. But I think an oral people hold their information together by their fundamental ideas of the cosmos; how the grand natural cycle of the world around them imprints and reveals itself upon themselves and their culture. In an oral society, the paper is the cosmology of the culture that is the basis for the press and the receptor for the ink. The ink therefore wold be the rituals of the cult.

The finished product, the “book” of the oral press, would be the the final product of the cult, its cosmic understanding, and how it repeats this understanding in its cyclical rites. So where does myth come in? Myth is not so much the finished product created from the oral imprinting press as much as it is the “Introduction” to the book, the metaphor that describes the whole. Myths were narratives the transcribed the whole process of the culture. But without understanding their cultic life, their ritual systems, and their cosmological understanding, ancient myth becomes completely decontextualized and decosmologized. Like a dead language, myth is a scattered cypher of an oral language.

So to repeat:

  1. The press is the cult.
  2. The paper is the cosmology.
  3. The ink is the ritual.
  4. The book is the annual recitation of a culture’s rites and festivals, the fulfillment of its cult.
  5. Myth is the metaphor that describes the whole.

Folklore is different than myth because it is not explicitly tied to this cultic and cosmological system of thought. As for the psychological theory of myth, it is highly useful to describe aspects of the psyche, but is wholly metaphorical when dealing with the realm of ancient myth.

So a more refined definition of myth might be: “Myth is the metaphor encapsulating the most prized information transmitted by the sacred imprinting press of pre-literate peoples.”


This entry was posted in Myth.

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