The Myth of Myths: The Development of Human Culture through Mythmaking

“We know the scene.” The strange one begins to tell a story by the fire, mumbling, miming, chanting, swaying, and no one pays attention, but she keeps going and there is something about the quiet insistence of her song as it grows louder that makes the old woman, grinding ocher, look up. The men, scraping hides, one by one let the flint fall and find stones to sit on. Others notice the group and gather.

They were not like this before; the story has brought them together. In the warmth of the fire, they lean toward the storyteller, who is one of them, yet an outsider: she has gone away for a long time, she is crippled, or she is crazy. Perhaps she is a man.16 She tells them of the beginning of the world, the birth of the first people, the coming together of a culture, the origin of language and storytelling – a tale they all know, but only she has “the gift, the right, or the duty to tell” it (43), writes French philosopher and literary critic Jean-Luc Nancy in “Myth Interrupted” (1991).

This scene, which takes place again and again, describes the beginning of human consciousness and speech. It is the story of “humanity being born to itself” (Nancy 45). Alas, this scene by the fire never took place, at least not as we imagine it. The scene itself is a myth. Nancy calls it “the myth of myths.”

Myth, however, does not describe fantastical events. Since myth is a “narrative of origins,” myth is not something created by a community, it is the creation of a community: “Neither the community nor, consequently, the individual (the poet, the priest, or one of their listeners) invents the myth: to the contrary, it is they who are invented or who invent themselves in the myth” (Nancy 59). Myth is always, therefore, the myth of community: “Neither dialogue nor monologue, myth is the unique speech of the many, who come thereby to recognize one another, who communicate and commune in myth” (Nancy 50). As examples, the story of Abraham’s exodus from Babylon established the Jewish people, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey created the Greeks, and the epics of King Arthur gave definition to Britain and English-speaking peoples. Nancy argues, “Myth communicates itself and not something else. Communicating itself, it brings into being what it says, it founds its fiction” (Nancy 56). A myth, then, does not need to be true, it “tends to become truth itself” (Nancy 53). In this sense, myth cannot be considered false fiction, since it is the real artifact upon which a culture is based.  (More about the reality of fiction in the conclusion.)

Rather than hopelessly looking for the true, original version of a myth, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss says in “The Structural Study of Myth” (1955) that a myth consists of all its versions (Lévi-Strauss 78). In other words, every retelling of the hero story combines to form the most complete, authentic version. Following Lévi-Strauss’s lead, if we take all our religion and urban legends, our philosophy and pornography, our comic books and music, we can create a grand, all-encompassing narrative of humanity. Philosopher Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel argued that “a new humanity must arise from / in its new myth, and this myth itself must be . . . nothing less than the totalization of modern literature and philosophy, as well as ancient mythologies of the other peoples of the world” (quoted in Nancy 51).

The truest story, then, is the tale that includes all others, the story of stories, the song of songs, the one verse that says all: the universe. Although this grand narrative is a myth, it is true if it acts upon the world. On this fiction, which really exists, we can found a world community.

(An excerpt from my book Narrative Madness, which is available at narrativemadness.com and on Amazon.)
Works Cited
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. “The Structural Study of Myth.” The Journal of American Folklore 68.270 (1955): 428 – 444. JSTOR. PDF.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Myth Interrupted.” The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 43 – 70. Print.

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