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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912


JORDAAN, Annette Marié. "Myth" reviewed as a concept in the human sciences. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2008, vol.48, n.2, pp. 233-248. ISSN 2224-7912.

Judging from various definitions by human scientists (among them Joseph Campbell, the historians Samuel and Thompson, Karen Armstrong and others) of the term "myth", it would appear that it is a complex concept, defying a single definition. Steenberg (in Cloete 1999:312) notes that the term is mostly defined in accordance with the researcher's focus, for instance historical, philosophical, theological, aesthetic, or sociological orientations. In 2004 two theses were completed at South African universities with "myth" featuring in the title of the studies: one from a literary perspective and one from the perspective of language sociology, or language politics. Although the focus differed and the bibliographies (despite significant resemblances) indicate different fields of study, the interesting fact is that at the end both researchers came to more or less the same conclusion regarding the nature and function of myths. The first of these two researchers (Van Schalkwyk 2004) uses the concept "coherence system" as more or less synonymous to the term "myth" and quotes Linde in this regard: "A coherence system is a discursive practice that represents a system of beliefs and relations between beliefs" (Linde 1993:164). Other important sources for Van Schalkwyk's study include Northrop Frye (1982), Scarborough (1994) and Roland Barthes (195 7/1975). The second researcher (Jordaan 2004), and author of the present article, studies the role of "myth making" in the "story of Afrikaans" from the perspective of language politics. Given this context, myths are primarily seen as "stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance" (Campbell in Flowers 1988:5). "Myth", in this instance, being defined as a narrative reconstruction of the fundamental truths that give meaning to human existence. As such myths are furthermore seen as instrumental in establishing systems of belief as well as value systems and codes of conduct within specific cultural groups (also defined as "imagined communities", cf. Anderson 1991). Jordaan's main sources are Joseph Campbell (1949 & 1988), Samuel and Thompson (1990), Thomas Bulfinch (sine anno), Carl Gustav Jung (1964), P.J. Conradie (1964), Etienne Leroux (1960) and Charles Malan (1978). I argue in this article that the lexicon definitions and widespread use of the term "myth", to refer exclusively either to the heroic deeds of antique heroes and the antics of their gods and goddesses, or to modern day misconceptions and even falsehoods, may be unsatisfactory and even confusing. Definitions by prominent human scientists in the course of more or less forty years defy this superficial view of myths as "falsehoods". The following are a few examples of the view taken on the pertinent role of myths and myth making: [...] a myth expresses rules of conduct of a given social or religious group. It issues accordingly from whatever sacred principle has presided over the formation of this group (De Rougemont 1956:18). The distinctive quality of myth, the aspect of it that gives its peculiar value for literature, is its capacity to express in story form the primary emotional and imaginative workings of the human mind (Kirkwood 1958:22). Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished... It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation (Campbell 1972:3). [. ] myth is a fundamental component of human thought [and] has lost neither its imaginative purchase nor its living power as a historical force today (Samuel & Thompson (eds.)1990:4). As an example of the role of myths in establishing value systems and codes of conduct, I refer in this article to the Afrikaans author and social worker of the twentieth century, Maria Elizabeth Rothmann (M.E.R.), whose writing and life work give ample proof of the central role of myth. The "power of myth" as discussed by Joseph Campbell in televised interviews with Bill Moyers on CBS News is further explicated as additional proof of the fact that a myth may be seen as a fundamental "truth" for which the believer is prepared to die rather than to live without. It is probably with this in mind that the prominent Afrikaans writer, Etienne Leroux, unequivocally stated that a human being would rather die from starvation than go without his life-sustaining myth (Leroux in Kannemeyer 1980:12).} The article furthermore points out the link between myths and literature by referring among other things to the following statement by Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible: "We all are, I suppose. Trying to invent our version of the story. All human odes are essentially one: 'My life: what I stole from history, and how I live with it'" (Kingsolver 1999:492). It is also argued that, in the words of Estes (1992:463), stories ("tales") are "in their oldest sense, a healing art". Stories, like myths, are therefore used to make sense of the human condition, to explain to members of a group (and especially to the young members of the group) where they come from, what sense their life has, and what values are inherent to the group. In the last section of the article examples are provided of prominent and highly respected human scientists who have made use of the term "myth" in scientific discourses in the sense of a misconception or falsehood. It is argued that, according to the lexical definition of the term "myth", the use of the term by these scientists is entirely valid. On the other hand, however, it is stated that, in the light of the preceding discussion of the term as used by prominent human scientists to refer to a narrative (re)construction of man's "search through the ages for truth, meaning and significance", the implication that a myth is a falsehood may undoubtedly create confusion. The pertinent question seems to be: can man's search for "truth, meaning and significance", his or her "quest for the soul" (Armstrong 2005:11), result in nothing more than the creation of falsehoods?

Keywords : Coherence system; codes of conduct; "Imagined communities" [Groups]; language politics; literature; myth; myth making; misconception [falsehood]; stories [tales]; systems of belief; truth; value systems.

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