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Myth

Myth And Society

Where for Tylor and Frazer myth deals exclusively, or nearly exclusively, with physical phenomena—flooding, disease, death—for Malinowski myth deals even more with social phenomena—classes, taxes, rituals. Myth still serves to reconcile humans to the unpleasantries of life, but now to unpleasantries that, far from unalterable, can be cast off. Here, too, myths spur resigned acceptance by tracing these unpleasantries, or at least impositions, back to a hoary past, thereby conferring on them the clout of tradition. Myth persuades denizens to defer to, say, ranks in society by pronouncing those ranks long-standing and in that sense deserved. Here the beneficiary of myth is society, not the individual. The modern counterpart to myths of social phenomena—if for Malinowski moderns lack myths—would be ideology.

As the Frazerian counterpart to Rank and Campbell, Lord Raglan extends Frazer's second myth-ritualist scenario by turning the king who dies for the community into a hero. The function of myth is now as much social as agricultural: inspiring present kings to sacrifice themselves so that their communities will not starve. The French-born, American-resident literary critic René Girard (b. 1923) offers an ironic twist to Raglan. Where Raglan's hero is willing to die for the community, Girard's hero is killed or exiled by the community for having caused the present woes of the community. Indeed, the "hero" is initially considered a criminal who deserves to die. Only subsequently is the villain turned into a hero, who, as for Raglan, dies selflessly for the community. Both Raglan and Girard cite Oedipus as their fullest example, though both scorn Freud. For Girard, the transformation of Oedipus from reviled exile in Sophocles' Oedipus the King to revered benefactor in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus typifies the transformation from criminal to hero.

Yet this change is for Girard only the second half of the process. The first half is the change from innocent victim to criminal. Originally, the community selects an innocent member to blame for the violence that has erupted. This scapegoat, who can be of any rank, is usually killed, though, as with Oedipus, sometimes exiled. The killing is the ritualistic sacrifice. Rather than directing the ritual, as for Frazer, myth for Girard is created after the killing to hide it. Myth comes from ritual, as for Smith, but it comes to mask rather than, as for Smith, to explain the ritual. Myth turns the scapegoat into a criminal who deserved to die and then turns the criminal into a hero, who has died voluntarily for the good of the community.

Like Burkert, Girard roots myth in sacrifice and roots sacrifice in aggression. Yet like Burkert, myth functions to secure peace and not, as for Frazer, food. Myth deals with the human world; science, with the physical world. This shift of focus again typifies the shift from nineteenth-century of theories of myth to twentieth-century ones.

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Robert A. Segal

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