History, myth, and legend

March 6, 2015

Andrew Wheatcroft, in The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe:

Myths like [Prince Eugene of Savoy]’s are founded on reality, but memories of that reality erode and decay over time. The myths described here — the ‘Age of Heroes’, the battle for Europe and the fear of the Turk — all began with real triumphs and real fears. But over time that history has dwindled to nothing while the myths and legends have survived and flourished.

Robert Jordan, in each and every book in the Wheel of Time series:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.

(The Wheel of Time includes an ‘Age of Legends’, rather than an ‘Age of Heroes’; but there are tales of the legendary “Horn of Valere that will summon the heroes of the Ages back from the grave to battle for the Light”.)

I’m positive that this conception of myth as accounts of historical events, where the accounts change over time is not original to either of the authors above. But it’s still interesting to see it expressed in such similar language in a work of history and a work of “epic” fantasy.

* * *

So some quick searching has revealed that, sure enough, as I assumed, plenty of others have written on the same topic. So here is something of a point/counterpoint.

Point: Thomas Bulfinch, in Bulfinch’s Mythology:

[A]n inquiry suggests itself. “Whence came these stories? Have they a foundation in truth, or are they simply dreams of the imagination?” Philosophers have suggested various theories of the subject. . .

1. The Scriptural theory; according to which all mythological legends are derived from the narratives of Scriptures, though the real facts have been disguised and altered. . . .

2. The Historical theory; according to which all the persons mentioned in mythology were once real human beings, and the legends and fabulous traditions relating to them are merely the additions and embellishments of later times. . . .

3. The Allegorical theory supposes that all the myths of the ancients were allegorical and symbolical, and contained some moral, religious, or philosophical truth or historical fact, under the form of an allegory, but came in process of time to be understood literally. . . .

4. The Physical theory; according to which the elements of air, fire, and water were originally the objects of religious adoration, and the principal deities were personifications of the powers of nature. . . .

All the theories which have been mentioned are true to a certain extent. It would therefore be more correct to say that the mythology of a nation has sprung from all these sources combined than from any one in particular.

Counterpoint: Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

In the later stages of many mythologies, the key images hide like needles in great haystacks of secondary anecdote and rationalization; for when a civilization has passed from a mythological to a secular point of view, the older images are no longer felt or quite approved. . . .

Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.

I must say I mostly side with Bulfinch here, at least based on these vanishingly short excerpts. You can note that there are historical elements present in something without killing the poetry of it.

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