Mythical narratives are among the oldest cultural productions of mankind. Nearly every human community has a narrative that tells its genesis and development. Those narratives describe either certain natural events or, and most of all, certain more or less heroic figures, whose actions led to the birth of a civilization. There are common features in the majority of myths found in geographically dispersed cultures, which makes it less plausible to accept that those common features appeared by imitation or by direct contact between different peoples. Otherwise, one must consider the existence of real underlying mechanisms in a large number of myths. The existence of these mechanisms undermines the idea that myths are exactly what the word came to designate, i.e. «myths», in the sense of a narrative more or less fanciful and unreal. A theory of mythology must simultaneously give an account of what myths describe and the reasons why the word acquired its modern sense.
Let us consider some myths, beginning with one of the most complete mythological structures, that which is offered by the archaic Greek civilization.
According to Hesiod (circa 700 BC), in the beginning of the world there was chaos, an original undifferentiated state from which all other distinctions and differences followed. From chaos, were born the Earth and the Sky, and then came the difference between Day and Night. This seemingly natural process quickly acquires a human content when the earth and the heavens are identified with Gaia and Uranus, from whose marriage were born the Titans, one of whom, Kronos, killed Uranus. This primal original death seems to acquire a real meaning because it was from his husband’s blood drops that Gaia created a whole series of other beings. The vivifying power of blood and death is a common feature in Hesiod’s narrative. One of Krono’s sons, Zeus, escaped the fury of the avenging father and eventually occupied the throne, becoming king, when a recurring event in multiple mythical narratives takes place. Zeus confronted and killed Tifeu, the monster with a hundred snake heads that “emitted cries of all kinds, roarings, as if it were a lion or a bull”. Zeus’ victory over the monster Tifeu and his rise to king meant the establishment of social order. It’s interesting to note that Zeus himself was something of a monster and a victim, having being vomited as a child, in the shape of a stone, by the monster Kronos.
There are other aspects in Greek mythology that suggest that Zeus, before being reborn as a king, had also been a victim. This indication is provided by the famous myth of Dionysus, precisely a son of Zeus. If Zeus killed the hundred-headed monster Tifeu, now, in one of the versions of the myth, the Titan twins attacked the young Dionysus. He escaped the attack and took on several animal forms until, in the form of a bull, he is finally torn into pieces by the knives of the Titans. In some versions of the myth, the pieces of Dionysus’ body are a source of life, like that found in vegetative processes. Monstrosity and victim are gathered in the character of Dionysus and the rituals that accompanied the myth.
Similar mythical structures existed in Babylon. In this case, it’s possible that there was an oral transmission to Greece. In the Babylonian myths of creation, the world originated in the remains of a monster, Tiamat. In the most common version of the myth, Tiamat is killed by the founding hero destined to become king, Marduk.
Other versions state the existence of an initial victory of Tiamat over Marduk, what indicates that, like in the case of Zeus, Marduk was also initially a victim. From this position of victim, Marduk rises to the status of hero when he removed the head from Tiamat’s dead body and with it created the mountains, the eyes to create the source of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, and the limbs to create the mountain ranges. After that, Marduk created the human species from the sacrifice of Kingu, who was actually a monster substitute of Tiamat. As the myth refers, to «pacify the gods, one of your brothers must be delivered. He shall die and man shall be created.» This was precisely the dead god Kingu, whose arteries were cut off and whose blood created the human species. This myth has an important precision in comparison to Greek mythology, because it is explicitly stated that the first human institution is the institution of sacrifice. Consequently, the death of a god was annually ritualized in ancient Babylon.
If we turn now to another geographical area, we will find familiar themes. One of the main Vedic myths regarding creation is the myth of Purusha. Purusha was a giant with a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and a thousand feet, and such a monster was sacrificed by the mob. Then, from the dismemberment of his body, arose the main castes in India: from the head came the priests, from the arms came the warriors, and from the legs came the artisans. Another Vedic myth, the myth of the Prajapati god, tells an even more detailed story. Prajapati transgressed the cultural order when he, overtaken by fiery lust, consummated incest with his daughter Usaas. A version of this myth tells that, after his act, Prajapati offered himself as sacrifice and dismembered himself. This idea of self-sacrifice can seem quite implausible. In fact, in another version of the myth, possibly older, Prajapati was actually killed by all the other gods after having committed the cultural transgression. In both versions, the dead god Prajapati resurrected and from the various parts of his body, all there is in the universe was formed, even the smallest leaf.
Finally, in another completely different geographical area, we find the myth of creation of the Ngadju Dayak, from Borneo. According to this myth, in the beginning everything was indistinctly mixed inside the Water-Serpent’s throat. From this undifferentiated unity, two distinct mountains were formed, Mahatala and his wife Putir. Then, the world inhabited by man was created from two birds identical to the supreme divinities. Mahatala then made the Tree of Life appear and the birds came near it and started struggling with each other. The Tree of Life is destroyed and the birds killed one another and from the fragments of the Tree of Life were born two human beings, the ancestors of the Dayak. In this myth, the sacrifice originated in the struggle between two identical birds. It’s true that the sacrificed object doesn’t seem to be a person but rather a tree. This substitution is not unexplainable. The events narrated in the myth were annually ritualized by the Dayak, in a period where the laws were transgressed and social order returned to the state of indistinctness previous to the original destruction of the Tree of Life.
If there is a remarkable similarity in the themes of so many myths, is it possible to provide a single explanation for all? An important historian of religions, Mircea Eliade (1906-1986), even without presenting a general theory of mythology, claimed that myths are, above all, cosmogonic descriptions of what happened in the origins, in a primordial time (in illo tempore) different from the profane time of daily existence. Therefore, according to Eliade, the mythical narrative is logic and previous in time to the rites that recreate it. The myth is previous to the practice of the rite of sacrifice. The myth describes the passage from chaos to order, while the rite of sacrifice reverses the process, that is, it represents a return to the undifferentiated and chaotic order. Eliade had a nearly mystical vision of the sacred time of the origins. With a similar line of thought, although perhaps more precise, several other authors have claimed that the cosmogonies drawn by the first Greek philosophers such as Thales or Anaximander, were inspired by the myths of creation. According to this point of view, myths are, directly or indirectly, a way to explain the origins and formation of the physical universe. In the absence of modern science, they were used by the primitive thought to explain the causes of the universe.
A more ambitious attempt to construct a general theory of mythology was developed by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. He also highlighted the indisputable fact that myths, in general, spoke about a process of differentiation that follows an original state of indistinctness. Inspired by Linguistics and Algebra, Lévi-Strauss defined the myth as a «system of differences», differences generally organized in a system of binary oppositions (war/peace; male/female; brother/sister; hunting/cooking; raw/cooked, etc.) Systems of binary oppositions of this kind are supposed to characterize the totality of the human symbolical systems (such as language does), what led Lévi-Strauss to propose a truly original hypothesis about the function of the myths. Myths are all similar to each other because they reflect the very laws of human thought. Thus, if a myth describes a process of differentiation, that is due to the fact that it reflects the process of symbolization of human mind, which consists precisely in the transition from the undifferentiated to the differentiated. It’s an extremely intellectualizing approach which denies any real referent in the events narrated by myths. A consequence of this position is the devaluation by Lévi-Strauss of the ritual practices associated with sacrifice.
One of the theories of myth and religion that is in complete opposition with that of Lévi-Strauss was proposed by René Girard. It is a theory completely contrary to the modern trend which, due to reasons we will mention further below, considers the myth as something completely unreal, in the sense that myths only show a more or less aesthetic curiosity, produced by a free imagination. On the contrary, Girard’s crucial idea is that myths refer; they have a referent anchored in real events which they actually narrate. What does the myth refer, denote? As the above mentioned examples show, they generally refer to violence. Not a totally indiscriminate violence, but the kind of violence that René Girard claims to be at the origin of all human culture: the violence where a mob, sometimes personified by a founding hero, lynches an individual considered as the responsible for some sort of disorder, whether in the natural order or a transgression of the cultural order. The murdered individual is frequently seen as a kind of monster, through which the very identity of the violent mob is hallucinated. It is from the death of that individual that the social order (re)emerges. He is the god – and almost simultaneously he is also the monster of the thousand identical heads – be it Tifeu, Tiamat or Purushia, from whose corpse all natural and social order emanates.
The theme of the passage from the undifferentiated to the differentiated receives now a rather simple explanation: the original difference, from which all other differences originate, is the difference between the original victim and the lynching group. And, as we saw in the cases of Tiamat and Kingu, it is his death that will, by substitution, originate the institution of sacrifice.
In this explanatory framework, what to think about the Dayak’s myth, where the tree of life is the object destroyed? We must firstly remember that in that myth there are also two identical or twin birds that kill each other and, secondly, we might also consider the Dayak’s myth as a late myth in the sense that there has been a process of censorship. In effect, myths are narratives with a certain ambiguity, because they progressively tend to hide the founding death. Such censorship may have assumed multiple forms of hiding, more or less explicitly, the original violence, and one of them might have been the substitution, in the Dayak’s myth, of a fully human death by an innocent Tree of Life. In fact, the presence of censorship is even more explicit in the Vedic myth of Prajapati. In the probably latest version of the myth, Prajapati commits self-sacrifice. In the oldest version, the collective murder is explicitly the cause of the god’s death.
We have thus reached the core of the creation of «mythical thought», that is, the transformation of real narratives into «myths», unreal stories. If the Greeks were one of the main creators of gods, it’s equally true they were the first to debunk ancient stories, claiming they were «nothing but myths», that is, denying the founding violence narrated in the original myths. A clear example is given by Xenophanes (VI BC):
«Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all that among men is shameful and reprehensible, theft, adultery and lies between them.»
And, in another fragment:
«But the mortals think that the gods were created and have clothes and speech and bodies like theirs.»
Men imagine gods to which they anthropomorphically attribute certain less honourable traits. The process of «debunking» had an important moment with Plato who, explicitly defending the censorship of archaic myths, sought to deny them any real function. That dissimulation of the founding violence was an essential condition for the full emergence of Logos, of Reason.
Thus, according to Girard, myths tend to dissimulate the original violence that inspired them, to the point where they are no more than aesthetic curiosities. However, we can claim that the real underlying mechanism can be perfectly referenced, even in relatively recent times. To prove it, according to Girard, myths, in their most stylized form, have the following structure:
1. There is an initial disorder or undifferentiation, which may have had some natural cause (the plague, for example). Such disorder is social undifferentiation.
2. A community believes that a certain individual committed a certain wrong doing and is responsible for the disorder.
3. That individual has signs of a preferential victim.
4. That individual ends up being lynched by an enraged mob.
5. Order is restored and the individual is divinized.
Some myths (for example, the Oedipus myth in ancient Greece), clearly show all these elements, other myths make some of them clearer and omit others. Have we not found, in a social context definitely apart from archaic and primitive societies, this sequential structure of events? Let us considerer the next example:
During the reign of Portuguese King Manuel I in 1506, the plague (to which was added a severe drought) was raging in Lisbon, taking with it more than a hundred victims a day.
On April 15th of that year (when the King and the court had already fled the city), someone said you could see a light at the cross of St. Dominic's Church (Igreja de São Domingos). It would be a sign of a miracle. Among the gathered crowd, a Jew (New Christian), inadvertently, had the audacity to reject the collective belief in the miracle. He was immediately burned alive. Then, a growing crowd in hysteria began to massacre all the Jews they could find. The number of victims amounted to two thousand during the three days that lasted the carnage, and the main leaders of the massacre were punished by D. Manuel, when the killer wave had already subsided.
Surely no one today would dare to say that this report is a «myth». On the contrary, there isn’t the slightest doubt regarding the facts and, quite rightly, in a world that recognizes the innocence of the victims, ceremonies in memory of those who were victims of the horrible massacre are organized. And yet, the reports describe perfectly the mechanism that leads to a real sacrificial crisis. In the sixteenth century, such events could no longer create gods, and, despite having abandoned the city, the legitimate authority of D. Manuel I remained untouched. But what could happen in archaic societies in which the law barely existed? There, the birth of the gods was the only way to ensure social order, and the really 'primitive' myths simply narrate that sequence of events.
Today, we do not believe for a moment that the Jews were really responsible for the spread of the plague. There is no guarantee that in archaic societies, certain individuals with distinctive indicators of a certain monstrosity, weren’t actually held responsible for the existing disorders, and that their elimination did not bring a sense of calm to the community. Because of the long, and rooted, historical process of disguising the violence, that distant past is increasingly difficult to be interpreted realistically: it is only a mythological representation, product of thought.
Although there are no new gods of the old kind, in the sixteenth century it was still believed that certain individuals directly caused the plague. That century brought us the dawn of the scientific revolution. If there is a recurring theme discussed, it’s that of the opposition of myth to science. In ancient Greece, embryonic forms of scientific knowledge had already appeared, when the emergence of reason, the Greek Logos, allowed thinking about objects out of their religious context. In modern age, science has emerged as an opponent to mythical and magical thought. Science had finally expelled the myth to its domains, the domains of the irrational and the fictional. Nothing could be more uncertain as such a linear and apotheotic progress of reason.
Instead of having ceased to believe in myths because of the new scientific knowledge, instead of denying the myth any real function, we might think it’s because we have stopped believing in the ability of certain individuals, Jews and disabled of all kinds, to voluntarily cause plagues and other disorders, which science itself, based on a universal conception of space, made possible.
Girard, René - La violence et le sacré. Paris : Grasset, 1972.
Girard, René - Le bouc émissaire. Paris: Grasset, 1982.
Martins, Jorge - Portugal e os Judeus, Vol. I. Lisboa: Vega, 2006, pp.138-140.