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Myth And Ritual

Myth is commonly taken to be words, often in the form of a story. A myth is read or heard. It says something. Yet there is an approach to myth that finds this view of myth artificial. According to the myth and ritual, or myth-ritualist, theory, myth does not stand by itself but is tied to ritual. Myth is not just a statement but also an action.

The myth-ritualist theory was pioneered by the Scottish biblicist and Arabist William Robertson Smith (1846–1894). Smith argues that belief is central to modern religion but not to ancient religion, where instead ritual was central. He grants that ancients doubtless performed rituals only for some reason. But the reason was secondary and could even fluctuate. The reason was a story, or a myth, which simply described the origin of the ritual. In claiming that myth is an explanation of ritual, Smith was denying Tylor's conception of myth as an explanation of the world.

Yet Smith is like Tylor in one key respect. For both, myth is wholly ancient. Modern religion is without myth—and without ritual as well. Myth and ritual are not merely ancient but "primitive." In fact, for both Tylor and Smith, ancient religion is but a case of primitive religion, which is the fundamental foil to modern religion.

J. G. Frazer developed the myth-ritualist theory far beyond Smith. Frazer, rarely consistent, actually presents two distinct versions of myth-ritualism. In the first version myth describes the life of the god of vegetation, and ritual enacts the myth describing his death and rebirth. The ritual operates on the basis of the voodoo-like Law of Similarity, according to which the imitation of an action causes it to happen. The ritual directly manipulates the god of vegetation, but as the god goes, so automatically goes vegetation. The ritual is performed when one wants winter to end, presumably when stored-up provisions are running low. A human being, often the king, plays the role of the god and acts out what he magically induces the god to do.

In Frazer's second version of myth-ritualism, the king is central. Here the king does not merely act the part of the god but is himself divine, by which Frazer means that the god resides in him. Just as the health of vegetation depends on the health of its god, so now the health of the god depends on the health of the king: as the king goes, so goes the god of vegetation, and so in turn goes vegetation itself. To ensure a steady supply of food, the community kills its king while he is still in his prime and thereby safely transfers the soul of the god to his successor. As in the first version, the aim is to end winter, which now is attributed to the weakening of the king.

While this second version of myth-ritualism has proved the more influential by far, it actually provides only a tenuous link between myth and ritual. Instead of enacting the myth of the god of vegetation, the ritual simply changes the residence of the god. The king dies not in imitation of the death of the god but as a sacrifice to preserve the health of the god. What part myth plays here, it is not easy to see. Instead of reviving the god by magical imitation, the ritual revives the god by a transplant.

Outside of religion, the most notable application of the myth-ritualist theory has been to literature. The English classicist Jane Harrison (1850–1928) daringly derived all art, not just literature, from ritual. Using Frazer's first version of mythritualism, she speculates that gradually people ceased believing that the imitation of an action caused that action to occur. Yet rather than abandoning ritual, they now practiced it as an end in itself. Ritual for its own sake became art, her clearest example of which is drama. More modestly than she, fellow classicists Gilbert Murray (1866–1957) and Francis Macdonald Cornford (1874–1943) rooted specifically Greek epic, tragedy, and comedy in myth-ritualism. Murray then extended the theory to the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

Other standard-bearers of the theory have included Jessie Weston on the Grail legend, E. M. Butler on the Faust legend, C. L. Barber on Shakespearean comedy, Herbert Weisinger on Shakespearean tragedy and on tragedy per se, Francis Fergusson on tragedy, Lord Raglan on hero myths and on literature as a whole, and Northrop Frye and Stanley Edgar Hyman on literature generally. As literary critics, these myth-ritualists have understandably been concerned less with myth itself than with the mythic origin of literature. Works of literature are interpreted as the outgrowth of myths once tied to rituals. For those literary critics indebted to Frazer, as the majority are, literature harks back to Frazer's second myth-ritualist scenario. "The king must die" becomes the familiar summary line.

For literary myth-ritualists, myth becomes literature when myth is severed from ritual. Myth tied to ritual is religious literature; myth cut off from ritual is secular literature, or plain literature. Bereft of ritual, myth can no longer change the world and is demoted to mere commentary.

Perhaps the first to temper the dogma that myths and rituals are inseparable was the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn (1905–1960). The German classicist Walter Burkert (b. 1931) has gone well beyond Kluckhohn in not merely permitting but assuming the original independence of myth and ritual. He maintains that when the two do come together, they do not just serve a common function, as Kluckhohn assumes, but reinforce each other. Myth bolsters ritual by giving mere human behavior a real, not to mention divine, origin: do this because the gods did or do it. Conversely, ritual bolsters myth by turning a mere story into prescribed behavior of the most dutiful kind: do this on pain of anxiety, if not punishment. Where for Smith myth serves ritual, for Burkert ritual equally serves myth.

Ritual for Burkert is "as if" behavior. The "ritual" is not the customs and formalities involved in actual hunting but dramatized hunting. The function is no longer that of securing food, as for Frazer, for the ritual proper arises only after farming has supplanted hunting as the prime source of food. The communal nature of actual hunting, and of ritualized hunting thereafter, functioned to assuage anxiety over one's own aggression and one's own mortality, and at the same time functioned to cement a bond among participants. This shift of focus from the physical world to the human world typifies the shift of focus from nineteenth-century theories of myth to twentieth-century ones.

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