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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Imagination plays a large part in all thought as myth
does in all civilization. Although abstract thought
developed much later than myth, it never completely
excludes mythical thought.

Every civilization, even of a very elementary kind,
has its myths, which the members of the group share
in common; these myths enter into their lives, feeding
their emotional reactions and their intelligence (Lévy-
Bruhl, Lévi-Strauss, Cazeneuve).

Myths have flourished throughout the ancient world,
from India to Egypt, passing on to Chaldea and Crete.
The Hebrews had a very remarkable way of refining
mythical thought. However, it was Greece that offered
one of the most characteristic types of an elaborately
structured and organized mythology (Ramnoux). Al-
though Plato speaks about myth with a certain amount
of irony, nevertheless mythology along with Greek
religion nourished the arts, literature, and many philo
sophical expository texts; among the most outstanding
were those written by the Master of the Academy.

We are in a better position today to understand how
classical mythology grew so rich through the juxtapo-
sition and fusion of diverse elements and traditions
stemming from prehistorical migrations.

First to be discerned is a distinctively Greek element
of an agnatic type associated with certain essentially
masculine aspects of deities: Zeus (cf. Cook), Poseidon,
and Hades; of complex figures like Hermes (cf. Vernant).
In the second place, Cretan and Asiatic influences
introduced various representatives of the Great
Goddess of Fertility (cf. Przyluski), accompanied by
a male creature, a young God who is born and dies.
We recognize here not only Hyacinthus but also certain
traits of Zeus born on Mount Ida. Diverse repre-
sentations of the Great Goddess with slightly different
characteristics appear juxtaposed, such as Artemis the
Huntress, Guardian of wild beasts, and Hecate the
Terrible, Ilithyia the Goddess of Childbirth; also
Aphrodite, undoubtedly Helen, and Demeter embody-
ing so many different features. Athena is the Guardian
of Athens as Hera is Lady of Argos, and many other
examples can be cited.

Finally, a third element should be added, namely,
the great deities of Oriental origin, who came a little
later; these include Apollo and especially Dionysus in
certain respects.

Herodotus tells us (Historiae II, 53) that Homer and
Hesiod created the genealogy and organization of these
deities. Indeed Olympus is a world similar to the one
in which the epic poets sing to their lords. These
Olympians are young, as Aeschylus' Prometheus re-
minds us. Younger still is the cult of Dionysus, who
is hardly mentioned by Homer but whose exploits are
so well depicted in the Bacchantes of Euripides. The
mystical growth of this cult revived and enhanced some
very old tendencies and certain features crop up again
in the mysteries of Eleusis.

In recent years the role played by social factors,
ritual, and often simply gestures is recognizable in the
beginnings of such representations. The spinning act
of Clotho, for example, has been shown to give birth
to the legend of Ariadne and Theseus who was guided
by a thread through the labyrinth of Daedalus (in order
to escape after killing the Minotaur), and then in the
myth of Anankē (Necessity) which appears even in
Plato's Republic. This mythic theme calls for further
research and promises some new and interesting results.
Although an act, including the ritual act, often illus-
trates and makes concrete the meaning of a myth, it
is also true that a myth is sometimes grafted on an
act or a gesture which is no longer understood; the
myth serves as a commentary or explanation which


may present a rather novel interpretation of it (Schuhl,
Fabulation platonicienne [1968], pp. 70f.; L'imagina-
... [1969], pp. 151f., 155f.).

Mythology provides a simple explanation of many
psychological phenomena, for example, of aspirations
attributed to divine suggestion; it also furnishes expla-
nations of physical or meteorological phenomena and
of cosmology in general. Thunder is explained as
caused by Zeus shaking his aegis in anger.

For this type of interpretation the philosophers of
Miletus substituted a different one, also simple but of
an exclusively physical order: thunder is due to the
wind escaping from the clouds, and elementary mech-
anisms explain the cosmic system. In order to explain
the movement of heavenly bodies, the Milesian philos-
ophers resort to analogical models of a mechanical sort.
Anaximenes evokes the motion of a cap that a man
causes to turn around his head; Anaximander imagines
the earth surrounded by moving wheels, hollow and
full of fire. This sort of thinking is, of course, still
imaginative and analogical, but it is quite different
from that of the poets.

The pre-Socratic philosophers were not the only
ones to produce a new type of explanation (although
an Empedocles often appears to come very close to
myth making). There were also those who criticized
very sharply classical types of mythical representation.
The case of Xenophanes is most striking; himself an
epic poet, he criticized violently the immorality of the
Homeric gods who indulge in adultery, deception,
theft, and so many other iniquitous acts. Against these
imaginary creatures he envisages a quite different type
of deity, extremely abstract and pure, entirely free
from anthropomorphism (Schuhl, Essai... [1934], p.
275). Pythagoras, for his part, would have the souls
of Homer and of Hesiod chastized in Hell as a punish-
ment for what they had said about the gods (Pépin,
pp. 93-94).

Plato takes up his share of this criticism, accentuates
and sharpens it with unusual vigor, especially in the
Republic. For an author of so many famous myths
Plato's criticism is paradoxical, but the paradoxical
appearance may be explained. There is no doubt in
Plato's philosophy that ideal realities are intelligible
and invisible whereas the sensory world is visible and
unintelligible (Republic 507b). Though myth possesses
an incantational force which undoubtedly makes it
dangerous, it is also useful and effective when em-
ployed for the good (Boyancé). When thus employed
myth can help one grasp certain abstract relations even
though it cannot cause one to understand the highest
truths, for such understanding is impossible so long as
one is in the domain of the senses (Statesman 285e).

Thus it is possible to show the role played by a
scheme of proportions in some myths of the type
a:b::c:x, which directs one towards the unknown
fourth term (Schuhl, 1968). Above all, myth opens the
door to suggestive representations which though not
true offer analogies with the truth, at least when pre-
sumed. A particular illustration of this point is seen
in all the myths relating to the soul and its survival
after death, notably in Plato's Gorgias, Phaedo, Laws
(X, 904a) Republic (Book X), and Phaedrus (246a).
Plato remarks that it is very difficult to explain the
nature of the soul but that it is possible to give an
image of it in the myth of the winged horses and their
charioteer, symbolizing the soul and its parts. More
generally, everything concerning the physical is, for
Plato, of a mythical order, as is shown by the Timaeus.

As for Aristotle, we find him remarking at the begin-
ning of his Metaphysics (A2, 982b 18) that the lover
of myths is a philosopher of a sort (Schuhl [1969], p.
7; Pépin, p. 21). In fact, myth through its wondrous
nature thrives on the sense of wonder which is the
beginning of all philosophy. Myths have been too
prolific undoubtedly but they may serve to convey
certain valuable suggestions which need to be inter-
preted and scanned critically in some manner. One
instance is the pre-Socratic belief in the divine nature
of primary substances, a belief which was later sub-
merged by developments which gave the gods a human
or animal form (Aristotle, Metaphysics Λ, 8, 1074b 1;
Pépin, pp. 121-22). In a similar fashion Aristotle offers
a symbolic interpretation of the myth of Uranus and
Gaia (Generation of Animals 1, 2, 716a 13) as well
as of the myth of the Golden Chain. He recognizes
in the first myth an image of Heaven fertilized by
Earth. As for the Golden Chain, in the eighth book
of the Iliad Zeus reveals his strength by pulling the
chain up towards himself even though all the other
gods are suspended from the chain; and Aristotle sees
in this myth a symbol of the prime mover, the unmoved
cause of all motion (On the Motion of Animals, IV,
699b 32; Pépin, pp. 121, 123).

Returning to other disciples of Socrates, we find
Antisthenes the Cynic had taken to interpreting, for
the sake of illustrating his own moral ideas, myths like
that of Heracles and the centaur Chiron, as well as
that of Ulysses in his resistance to the charms of the
sorceresses Circe and Calypso. Antisthenes in poetic
language discriminated meanings in accord with opin-
ion in favor of hidden meanings in accord with truth.
He was followed by his disciple Diogenes who in his
turn interpreted the legend of Circe trying in vain to
seduce Ulysses; the companions of Ulysses were trans-
formed into beasts, thus symbolizing the soul enslaved
by pleasure and unable to liberate itself. Diogenes also
interpreted the myth of Medea in whom he saw a


magical benefactor skilled in the art of rejuvenating
her patients (Pépin, pp. 107-11); Diogenes' acceptable
interpretation is derived mainly from Dio Chrysostom,
Discourses (8, 21); Xenophon's Memorabilia (I, 3, 7)
attributes such interpretations to Socrates.

We find analogous ideas about myth among the
Stoics. Zeno adopts anew the distinction between ex-
pressions of meaning conforming to truth and those
conforming to opinion. He tries, for example, to furnish
an interpretation of the names of the Titans. Cleanthes
and Chrysippus in turn and in their own respective
ways, interpret the name of Apollo; Chrysippus goes
on to interpret the names of the Fates (Moerae) and
of Destiny. In the second book of Cicero's De natura
Balbus in expounding the Stoic view, explains
that products like wheat and wine have been deified
(Ceres and Liber); but so also have been benefactors
like Hercules and Aesculapius as well as the more or
less moral qualities or virtues, physical realities, and
natural forces (Pépin, pp. 125, 127f.). The study of ety-
mology (often quite capricious, especially in the above
interpretations of Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus)
enables us to recognize in these interpretations symbols
of the forces of nature, of psychological and moral
attitudes, and also to see in the elements of nature
some of the greater realities.

In the small Manual of Theology of Cornutus, the
teacher of the poet Persius (first century of the Chris-
tian era), we find many examples of these physical and
moral interpretations: Kronos (κρόνος) is time (χρόνος),
etc. (Pépin, pp. 156f., 159f. deals with the physical and
psychological interpretations through the allegorical
road of the myths of Homer, even the most scabrous.)

Epicurus distrusted myths in general, especially
those about life after death, which frighten and upset
the soul. The Epicurean Colotes reproached Plato and
the philosophers employing fictions which amounted
to lies (Macrobius, Commentarium in somnium Scipi-
I, II, 1-3 in Pépin, pp. 131f., 134f.). Proclus also
mentions this criticism and tries to refute it (Kroll, II,
96-109; Pépin, 138).

In Book I of De natura deorum Cicero has Velleius
summarize the Epicurean criticism of myth, which
scolds the Stoics for transforming mythology into
physics (Pépin, pp. 125-27). And, in the excavations
of Herculaneum were found chapters of the treatise
on piety by Philodemus (first century B.C.) reproaching
the Stoics for abandoning anthropocentrism and
polytheism (De pietate 17-18; Pépin, pp. 133-34).
Epicurus contrasts the Gods of popular theology with
the sage's own refined and purified view of them (Let-
ter to Meneclus, Diogenes Laërtius 123-24; cf.
Festugière, 1946).

The New Academy, on the other hand, criticizes the
Stoics for seeking to save an untenable religion. And
so, in the third book of Cicero's De natura deorum,
Cotta (the spokesman for Carneades) attacks the argu-
ments of Balbus in Book II, and opposes the prolifera-
tion of so many deities, so many deifications of men
and foods, of values and desires; he underscores the
artificial nature of Balbus' arguments. About the end
of the second century A.D. the skeptic Sextus Empiricus
continued this criticism (Pépin, 141-43).

Finally, Plotinus often uses myths as a medium for
the expression of his thought. He was well aware of
what Plato had said in the Timaeus, namely, that myth
exhibits in a temporal order factors coexistent in reality
(Enneads III 5, 9, 24-29; Pépin, p. 191). He also insists
that the highest reality is ineffable (Enneads V 5, 6,
11-13, VI 9, 4; Pépin, p. 190). Among the myths uti-
lized by Plotinus we find that the birth of Eros, in
Plato's Symposium, figures prominently; but also the
myth of Lethe and the Fates, in Plato's Republic,
without counting various myths like that of Narcissus
(the soul attracted to its reflection in matter) and those
of Cybele, Prometheus, Pandora, and Heracles. The
horrible story of Uranus, Kronos, and Zeus plays the
role of symbolizing the three hypostases of Plotinus!

The foregoing is a brief sketch of the manner in
which Greek myths provided philosophers with ample
material. The creative period of mythology is being
only gradually understood, thanks to the researches of
various specialists and scholars in comparative studies,
archeologists, historians, and sociologists whose findings
converge gradually on the truth. Among the continuing
investigations of the 1960's the works of J. P. Vernant
are outstanding; he has been able to utilize social
psychology and the history of thought, illuminating
archeology and philology.

We have not reached the creative period of new
myths; we have before us myths that have already been
elaborated. The further evolution of myth will have
its affiliation with the evolution of the arts and of
literature (Schuhl, L'imagination..., pp. 35ff.). To the
great classical sculptors even the infant is beautiful.
To Praxiteles the Apollo Sauroctonos is a graceful
Ephebus and the monster is only a lizard. And so in
Homer the libidousness of the gods presents a scene
similar in kind to the life of the libertines of the seven-
teenth century. And for the philosophers myth serves
as a means for suggesting ideas. The greatest artists
and thinkers have learned how to create masterpieces
by means of myths, thus proving that the imagination
can be useful in assisting the intellect.


Pierre Boyancé, Le culte des muses chez les philosophes
(Paris, 1937). Victor Brochard, Les mythes dans la


philosophie de Platon, Études de philosophie ancienne et
moderne (Paris, 1912). Jean Cazeneuve, Les rites et la con-
dition humaine
(Paris, 1957); idem, La mentalité archaïque
(Paris, 1961). A. B. Cook, Zeus, A Study in Ancient Religion,
3 vols. (Cambridge, I, 1914; II, 1925; III, 1940). Jean
Festugière, Épicure et ses dieux (Paris, 1946). Perceval
Frutiger, Les mythes de Platon (Paris, 1930). Claude Lévi-
Strauss, Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (Paris,
1949); idem, Tristes tropiques (Paris, 1955); idem, Anthro-
pologie structurale
(Paris, 1958); idem, La pensée sauvage
(Paris, 1962); idem, Mythologiques, I, Le cru et le cuit (Paris,
1964); II, Du miel aux cendres (Paris, 1967); III, L'origine
des manières de table
(Paris, 1968). Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Les
fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures
(Paris, 1910);
idem, La mentalité primitive (Paris, 1922); idem, L'âme
(Paris, 1927); idem, Le surnaturel et la nature dans
la mentalité primitive
(Paris, 1931); idem, La mythologie
(Paris, 1935). Jean Pépin, Mythe et allégorie (Paris,
1958). Clémence Ramnoux, Mythologie, la famille olym-
(Paris, 1962); idem, La nuit et les enfants de la nuit
dans la tradition grecque
(Paris, 1958); idem, Études
(Paris, 1970). Pierre-Maxime Schuhl, Essai sur
la formation de la pensée grecque
(Paris, 1934; 2nd ed. 1949);
idem, La fabulation platonicienne, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1968);
idem, L'imagination et le merveilleux (Paris, 1969). J.-P
Vernant, Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs, études de psycholo-
(Paris, 1965); idem, Les origines de la pensée grecque
(Paris, 1962).


[See also Analogy; Chain of Being; Cosmic Images; Myth;