Tuesday, July 3, 2007


Spectacular woodcut by Picart. Sisyphus makes me question the purpose of mythology. Was it related to religious ritual, ancient interpretation of science, pure literature, symbolism? What did it mean to the ancients, what does it mean to us?

I think I like Camus and Nietzsche on Sisphysus. In a godless world, is overcoming the self the only reasonable answer? Is absurdity the only rational response?


Rodrigo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Why can't myth be the same as our stories of today, I mean in terms of purpose. That begs the question, of course, but still why not?

Books r Us said...

These myths have survived over the centuries in one form or another. There must be a deeper truth, a deeper purpose than just entertainment.

Many of them seem to address man's longing for purpose and for something greater than self.

johnr said...

A deeper truth

Simpler and basic are also appropriate adjectives. Our need to wade and weed thru dictionaries of tens of thousands of choices produces the notion of deep, whereas the truth is evident among a thousand.

Dicere and the spirits

Britannica: Babylon:

"The creative principle residing in water is called mummu, 'word, creative form,' and the deities of this water cult are identified with the creative word or logos....The original meaning of mummu is undoubtedly 'spoken things' of thie water god, and the creation of all things depends on the activity of this 'word'."

I would also posit an affiliation between water and the notion of substance at that time.

You will remember from Mann that the emissaries of the Creator
"were made of similar substance, but not identical".
That notion as generated by the Levantine myth of the Sons of light was not the same as that envisioned in the classical culture.

The essential Levantine traits, around for milennia before Christ and represented in separate traditions were the informers of later Christian theology: A dualism of Light and dark, a future savior, the Word as substance and Creator, a community of believers, a transcendant God and a cycling, evil world. Each man's soul was a "substantial" piece of the Light and a consensus among believers had to produce Truth.
Each group had their Redeemer: a Sayoshant, Son of Man, Messiah or whomever; each had a secret mark, baptism, circumcision, to identify those in the consensus, and each had a book.

The necessary Book had "substantial" words physically partaking in the spirit of God.

Here's John Wilkins, Mercury, 1641 describing the powers of the written word over primitive man.

>". . . an Indian Slave; who being sent by his Master with a Basket of Figs and a Letter, did by the Way eat up a great Part of his Carriage, conveying the Remainder unto the Person to whom he was directed; who when he had read the Letter, and not finding the Quantity of Figs answerable to what was spoken of, he accuses the Slave of eating them, telling him what the Letter said against him . . . after this, being sent again with the like Carriage, and a Letter . . . he did again, according to his former Practice, devour a great Part of them by the Way; but before he meddled with any, (to prevent all the following Accusations) he first took the Letter, and hid that under a great Stone... but being now more strongly accused than before,he confesses the Fault, admiring the Divinity of the Paper, and for the future does promise his best Fidelity in every employment"

With the progress of Christianity, Mark and Luke was appropriated by the waning "classical" culture, Matthew was written for the Jewish tradition of Peter and later John for those of the Eastern Persian later to become Nestorians. With John went the Magian notion of substance.

When Paul brought Christ to Greece-Rome, primal mythical ideas simply became words to a culture with a completely different world picture and mythology, past its prime, law filled, nit picky and citified. The gut wrenching quasi divinity of illiterate men joined in Truth as substantial parts of the Light doomed to daily battle against the dark side, took on the attributes of dying Rome--the attributes of intellect and theology--one, holy, Catholic apostolic.

The terms remaining, anachronized by authors even as early as Ovid make translations as irretrievable as the world pictures of those who spoke-- as when we in the west want to show our God under different aspects, as Shiva might be shown, we use the civilized term transsubstantiation.

It's safer when we see dicere, just think Yul Brynner: So I say so it is.

Books r Us said...

Nice to see you again, Johnr.

I think you are more steeped in the mythological traditions than I am, so a thousand words works for you. I’m still trying on and tossing aside theories…still in the ten thousand word range. It’s hard to get it at the gut level while wrestling with history and context. I can see Graves’ point that it all begins and stretches back to the goddess, but only when I think about it.

Ovid and Paul’s Romans and Greeks, with their “past its prime, law filled, nit picky and citified” culture would have been very open to these ideas if you agree with Levy-Bruhl in “How Natives Think:”

As long as the period of mystic symbiosis lasts---myths are meagre in number and of poor quality.

In other words, the farther a people or society are from communion with the sacred, the more likely they are to rely on myths. (Although I’m not sure I buy this, if our own society’s skepticism is any indication.)

Do you know, I struggled with a good translation of “dicere” earlier today, but “So I say so it is” gets right to the heart of the matter…why struggle with ten thousand words…..?

Anonymous said...


Well said. I like the idea of wading and weeding one's way through the deep to arrive (ascend? emerge?) in a more (elegantly) simple place.

Sounds a bit like Blake, to me.

The creative principle lives in water, resides there, in that force of change which is itself ever changing.

Mummu means word and it means creative form.

Ovid starts the Metamorphoses by speaking about bodies changed into new forms. The Goold translation provides the following Latin (which Hoffman has been kind enough to work a bit and which you may have seen discussed over at Elba):

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora ...

I have no Latin and must rely on the various online tools available. Ovid speaks to forms and shapes and changes and his message comes to me in much the same way, changed into forms and shapes that require translation, interpretation, deciphering, metamorphing.

I see beauty in that, somehow.

'Animus' can mean consciousness or spirit or memory or will or even character.

'Formas' can be a shape, but it can also refer to appearance or even model.

A 'corupus' is a body (or a corpse), and corpora means fleshly.

Where that first reading of great writing might be likened to an experiential plunge -- one in which analysis and re-reading and study can only detract -- subsequent readings seemed for so long to me to be the exploration of tributaries.

But water pares. It erodes mountains. It carves canyons. It splits continents, (though perhaps with the help of another force or two). Faulkner has some nice passages about the power of water (Delta Autumn, others).

And so with the reading now of Graves and others, I am starting to see reading as a carving force too, and not just one that opens.

I would add one word to the analysis the two of you have started here. While 'deep' and 'simple' and 'basic' do the job, I would humbly also offer 'essential' to that list.

johnr said...

"Animus' can mean consciousness or spirit or memory or will or even character."

That's the dictionary approach we need an encyclopedia:

"When a text is put in the bottle -- and this happens not only with poetry or narrative but also with the Critique of the Pure Reason -- that is, when a text is produced not for a single addressee but for a community of readers, the author knows that he/she will be interpreted not according to his/her intentions but according to a complex strategy of interactions which also involves the readers, along with their competence of language as a social treasury. I mean by social treasury not only a given language as a set of grammatical rules, but also the whole encyclopedia that the performances of that language have implemented, namely, the cultural conventions that that language has produced and the very history of the previous interpretations of many texts, comprehending the text that the reader is in the course of reading.
Thus every act of reading is a difficult transaction between the competence of the reader (the reader's world knowledge) and the kind of competence that a given texts postulates in order to be read in an economic way."

Eco, "Author..." at the Modern Word.

Search "Chinese encyclopedia" in Radford, "Beware of the Fallout" same place,

Anonymous said...

I looked for the references but am unsure as to what is meant by Radford. I checked the university library, but the search yielded no matches. What is Radford?

Anonymous said...


Rather than "Why can't myth be the same as our stories of today ..." perhaps the following is better: "Why can't the stories of today be myth ..."

I agree most aren't, but some are. Not the stories of Hollywood or practically anything published, but the stories of lives unfolding.

I saw myth as I grew up. Children seemed in tune with it, not the scholarly knowledge, but the feel of it. That intuition dissipated as they became more immersed in the world, by age thirteen or so.

Anonymous said...

This is the wrong place to post this, but I can't think really of a better one.

My GRE test results were good. I am researching Ph.D. and Masters programs in literature and/or classics.

Any recommendations, suggestions, etc. would be much appreciated.

My ultimate goal is not to teach. I am seeking instead just a way to continue to learn about literature. There is no time table. I have a vocation already. Most Ph.D. programs require mastery of a language or two, so suggestions there would be welcome as well.

Latin will be one of the languages, I suppose, but is there an ancient dialect of Greek that would be better than others?

Anonymous said...

Specifically, I would like to read Homer and Sophocles in the languages they used to write their stories.

Books r Us said...

In our society, we can and do read mythology as stories. Myth separated from ritual is literature, and a case could be made that all modern day literature and art sprung from mythology (not to mention the idea of psychoanalysis). But from the beginning, as the myths were evolving, they meant much more. They were related to science, in that some of them explain recurring phenomenon (the sun, the seasons)and to religion.

The most important myth seems to have been the Tammuz/Adonis myth. This myth is interesting to explore both from a scientific and a religious perspective. The big question: Which came first, the murder of the king (perhaps due to a famine) or the myth surrounding it?

Ovid's Adonis myth is lacking in this sense because he has Adonis being killed by a boar because of his recklessness. (This seems more of a hero myth than a god myth.) But in earlier Adonis myths, both Persephone and Aphrodite are in love with him and in order to avoid a battle, Adonis is ordered by Zeus to spend one third of the year in the underworld with Persephone, one-third on earth with Aphrodite, and one-third where ever he chooses. The part of the year Adonis spends in the underworld is the time when the crops die, so the Adonis myth becomes tied up with the idea of cycles of growth, but also, in an agricultural society, the importance of crops takes on a religious significance. The king is viewed as having god-like stature and is sacrificed at the height of his virility in order to make the crops grow.

Books r Us said...

Reader....I can't comment on learning to read Greek, although I plan on learning that at some point in the future. But an excellent starting point for learning Latin is "Wheelock's Latin" and the best Latin dictionary you can afford. (In Whellock, you use a textbook, workbook and reader.) If you are familiar with the Bible, the Latin Vulgate is also helpful.

Books r Us said...

One of the more interesting paths of the Adonis/Tammuz myth leads us on into the Grail Legend...covered at length in Campbell.

Johnr...did you mean Raglan?

Books r Us said...

I found it....Radford Encyclopedia of Superstitions...

johnr said...

Sorry, I had a hard time finding it myself.


johnr said...

I have no knowledge of languages beyond early college.

Language is only one discipline of many necessary to get an understanding of the past (or the distant) and I think a little of each may be more valuable than a lot of one.

Seeing someone disappear for a certain period in myth would of course bring to mind vegetation but also stars. First or last is not to me as important as the encvyclopedia around the event.

Books r Us said...

I'm trying to put together a comparison of Adonis and Siegfried, from the point of the development of the hero. I came across a reference that I can't back up at all. I wonder if you are familiar with the Greek hisorian Vidal-Naquet. He posits that in Greek society, young men between the ages of 16 and 18 were sent alone into the wilderness to hunt by trickery. These young men were called the ephebia. After two years, they were allowed to come back into Greece, at which point they learned to hunt with other men, using men's weapons. (Adonis would have been ephebe at his death.) He cites the Constitution of Athens by Aristotle as his source for this. But the Constitution says nothing of this. Aristotle writes that young men between the ages of 18 and 20 are sent to live with other men and learn the arts of war and hunting. Any ideas or knowledge of Vidal-Naquet's other sources? Or of Vidal-Naquet in general?

johnr said...

Sorry, I dont know the French guy. I'm sure you know the vision quest is found throughout the world whether in Henderson the Rain King or Hiawatha. Campbell makes a connection somewhere (I cant find it so I suppose its in vol 1 of the Historical Atlas which I dont own)
of the Koretes dancing to provide cover for the baby Zeus, to the white clay, antelope horns and bull roarers of Africans
in a coming of age ceremony. The crane dance is in there somewhere too.

Jane Harrison says:

"With the Staphylodromoi of the Karneia in our minds the main gist of the Oschophoria is clear. It is like the race of Olympia, a race of youths, epheboi, kouri, with boughs. It has two elements, the actual agon the contest, in this case a race, and then, second in time but first in importance, the procession and the komos. The somewhat complicated details of the race seem to have been as follows. Two epheboi chosen form each of the ten tribes raced against one another. The ten victors, after being feasted, formed into procession, one of them leading the way as kerys, two following, dressed as women and carrying branches, the remaining seven forming, as at Delphi, the choros."



Red is the color of Set, Ishmael, Esau etc.--birthright losers, expelled twins etc. I have not read PB (and only scanned the comments) but Nathan might be one of these.

Books r Us said...

That's an interesting idea on Red because red can be both positive and negative. Red is associated with Esau et al as you said, but it is also associated with virility...as in red-blooded.

I'm going to have to start taking note when colors pop up in reading.

Reader, how far have you gotten into the Metamorphosis?

Anonymous said...

Read it once, last summer. Started again but put it off to focus on Poisonwood Bible. Will begin again this Saturday at approximately 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time.