A Thought Adventure

Monday, December 14, 2015

28. The Mythological Event Par Excellence. I

I now turn to what Campbell calls the “mythological event par excellence.” It’s a theme revolving around a sacrificial killing for the good of humanity that shows up in myths all over the world and in the most diverse cultures.
In the dreamlike age at the beginning of time, when neither death nor the two sexes existed, a murder is committed. The body is cut up and from the ground where the parts are buried food plants come up. On all who eat of the fruits of these plants sexual organs grow out. This event puts an end to the earlier paradise-like era, because now life and death, which so far have been one, become two and so do the sexes,  which have also been one.
The story is narrated in a slightly different way in different cultures. What varies among other things is the kind of food plant that arises; in an American Indian myth it’s the maize plant, in a Polynesian the cocoa nut palm and in a Hawaiian the breadfruit tree, etc. But they all amount to the same thing: food plants are sacred and eating them is a way of communing with, and partaking of, divine life.
We recognize parts of this myth from the Bible where, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve realize both that they are mortal and of different sexes. In Plato’s Symposion male and female exist as one being, which--until Zeus splits it into two--has four arms and four legs, one head but two faces. Similar myths can be found in China, India and elsewhere. Throughout the world terrible rites of cannibal communion enact the original event connected to this mythological theme. They all include a sexual act, a murder scene and a festival meal and they all represent creatures coming into being, living on the death of others and then dying and becoming food for others.

Cannibal Society Kwakiutl Vancouver Island

But what is a myth? 
Campbell thinks mythologies are built on shocks that occurred in the past of peoples. Just as, according to Freud, the dream symbol refers to some shock in the dreamer’s infancy, so do mythologies refer to traumatic experiences in the early life of humankind. Anthropologist E. B. Tylor talks of myths of observation; they contain statements that could only have come into the minds of the original narrators through actual experience--although the conclusions drawn may not be true according to historical or scientific canons of truth.

One example is the Chinese legend of the ancient sage who taught his people to make fire by the friction of wood. Many cultures ascribe fire-making to mythic heroes, so that story (though not real history) is no doubt a recollection of a time when this was the ordinary way of producing fire. As Jane Ellen Harrison puts it, “Mythology invents a reason for a fact, it does not base a fact on a fancy.” According to Jung, “Every myth (is) an important psychological truth.”
I believe the mythological event par excellence is a myth of observation, for unless there once was a real, concrete murder followed by a burial, how could it have come up in the minds of people all over the world? And because it’s essentially identical with the key event in the fertility rites practiced in the earliest agricultural communities, I propose that it actually refers to the first male sacrifice at the first spring festival in the first farming village. Which also makes it a traumatic experience in humankind’s early history, akin to a startling dream symbol in an individual’s life. 
Anthropologists distinguish between ‘parallel developments’ (phenomena appear in many different places thanks to spontaneous operations in the psyche) and ‘diffusions’ (phenomena spread from region to region through migrations and commerce). This would make ritual regicide a parallel development and a ‘first’ in the sense that it begins in farming communities everywhere, independent of each other (if not at exactly the same time). 
So what’s the mythological event trying to tell us? See next post.

myth (according to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary) = a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.

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