THE ANATOMY OF MYTH: The Art of Interpretation from the Presocratics to the Church Fathers

Michael Herren

OUP (2017) h/b 231pp £47.99 (ISBN 9780190606695)

Why is it that the myths of the ancient Greeks, unlike those of other peoples, have survived to remain deeply embedded and familiar even in our modern culture? Because, as H. argues in this engaging book, the Greeks themselves learnt how to reinterpret them rather than dismiss them out of hand; underneath the stories could be found truths which helped illustrate their more sophisticated understanding of the world. Crucially, this ability to interpret was picked up by Jewish and, later, Christian scholars and applied to their own sacred texts. This both saved the Church from literalist fundamentalism for centuries and helped prevent the myths themselves and the literature containing them from being obliterated.

The book is devised as a narrative running from Homer and Hesiod down to the 5th C AD (stopping at Proclus in the East and Augustine in the West). H. hypothesises three ‘paradigms’ which correspond roughly to three periods, although they shade into each other with no clear break. The first paradigm is the age of the poets, roughly 800-600 BC: Homer and Hesiod are written down and acquire authority as the first historians (since the Greeks knew nothing about how some of the myths migrated to them from other eastern peoples; the Trojan War was the first event believed as history). Almost as soon as they were written they began to be criticised, in two ways; many of the stories were unbelievable for rational people, and the gods were misrepresented as behaving even worse than humans.

The next paradigm is the paradigm of phusis, roughly 600-350 BC, the period of the sophists and early ‘scientific’ thinkers who developed hypotheses about how nature really worked and how the world could have happened. The mythical gods did not fit, so the poets were liars. On the other hand, most people wished to defend the authority of the poets, and there was general disapproval of atheism; the way out was to redefine the gods so as to remove their objectionable features and try to fit them into the philosopher’s world view (most marginalised in the case of Democritus and the atomists). But this did not satisfy: natural philosophy was criticised for failing to adequately explain causation or account for the divine.

The third paradigm, roughly 350 BC onwards and associated especially with Plato and Aristotle, assumes a theos, a divine origin for the cosmos; this thinking develops in Alexandria, where Greeks come in contact with Jews and, later, Christians, and leads, in different forms, to Neoplatonism and Stoicism. Plato introduces the idea of allegory, or huponoia (looking for what is ‘underneath’ the story): this is developed in later writers (H. instances Plutarch’s Life of Theseus and Apuleius’ Amor and Psyche) and distinguished from symbolism (in which an item in the story is a ‘sign’ for something else). Finally, Church Fathers such as Origen and Augustine used allegory and symbolism widely in their interpretation of scripture and thus saved it from being dismissed on account of disagreeable literal readings.

H. claims to have intended his book for students, including those who have no classical knowledge, and it is indeed blissfully free from academic grandstanding or scholarly jargon. The sweep of the story is wide, and within the summary above there are many enjoyable digressions, such as a chapter on ancient historians discussing such things as the historicity of the Trojan War. A dense subject is made an easy read.

But H. has also a serious purpose. He is concerned about the dangers of religious fundamentalism arising from the literalist interpretation of sacred books. His thesis is that the adoption by the Fathers of Greek methods on interpretation, including allegory, enabled the Church to avoid the fundamentalist trap as far as the Renaissance, and that the activity of interpreting authoritative texts, and the freedom to do so, has helped to create ‘the society that we currently enjoy’. H. says in his final note that he is planning another book covering post-classical myth exegesis from c. 500 AD up to the early twelfth century. I hope he writes it soon.

Colin McDonald


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