I’ve been reading Levi Strauss’ “Myth and Meaning”. Its subtitle is “Cracking the Code of Culture” which speaks to my condition, as it were, because I see education as primarily the transmission of culture, in the middle ages as in the 21st century. And it’s apparently concise and accessible. The main tenet is that, since all societies, even those we are tempted to describe as ‘primitive’, seek to find an understanding of the world around them, myth can be seen as a precursor of science as a way of accounting for the phenomena of nature. So far, so good. I was brought up to believe that thunder was just the angels having coal delivered. [God knows how you reassure chilcren now that the rumble of the coal into the coal shed is a thing of the past.] Only much later did I progress to meteorology.
But closer inspection leads to questions.
I’m interested in what he thinks myths are. ‘Myth is narrative made coherent’ he says. This apparent tautology he justifies by reference to collections of myths which have been given coherence by anthropologists who tidy up the bits of narrative they gather from their informants, regardless of whether or not the ‘original’ myth was in itself coherent. But where is the line between ‘myth’ and ‘memory’ and ‘folk tales’? Does not myth have to have some kind of formal status, perhaps something like social memory? Which would exclude my angelic coalmen. If you collate a lot of folk tales, are they myths in themselves or only when they become part of an established oral tradition? But is Levi Strauss simply warning his listeners against the seductive power of a good story, whether true or not?
Interesting also is the link between myth and science. Most historiographical discussions of ‘myth’ seem to contrast it with ‘history’, a good example being the foundation myths of many monastic communities. But if we reflect on this, much medieval thought switches easily from history to science. Genesis is both. The concept of God’s plan, ‘working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’ is not just a history myth, but also very much a description of all natural phenomena.