Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship


In Theorizing Myth, Bruce Lincoln traces the way scholars and others have used the category of "myth" to fetishize or deride certain kinds of stories, usually those told by others.

He begins by showing that mythos yielded to logos not as part of a (mythic) "Greek miracle," but as part of struggles over political, linguistic, and epistemological authority occasioned by expanded use of writing and the practice of Athenian democracy. Lincoln then turns his attention to the period ...

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In Theorizing Myth, Bruce Lincoln traces the way scholars and others have used the category of "myth" to fetishize or deride certain kinds of stories, usually those told by others.

He begins by showing that mythos yielded to logos not as part of a (mythic) "Greek miracle," but as part of struggles over political, linguistic, and epistemological authority occasioned by expanded use of writing and the practice of Athenian democracy. Lincoln then turns his attention to the period when myth was recuperated as a privileged type of narrative, a process he locates in the political and cultural ferment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here, he connects renewed enthusiasm for myth to the nexus of Romanticism, nationalism, and Aryan triumphalism, particularly the quest for a language and set of stories on which nation-states could be founded.

In the final section of this wide-ranging book, Lincoln advocates a fresh approach to the study of myth, providing varied case studies to support his view of myth—and scholarship on myth—as ideology in narrative form.

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Editorial Reviews

Lincoln (history of religions, University of Chicago) explores how scholars have used the category "myth" to fetishize or deride certain kinds of stories, usually those told by others. Of special concern are the political implications of this use of the concept. Examining the recuperation of myth as a privileged type of narrative during the 18th and 19th centuries, he connects this renewed enthusiasm to the nexus of Romanticism, nationalism, and Aryan triumphalism, particularly the quest for a language and set of stories on which nation-states could be founded. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226482026
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/3/2000
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 313
  • Sales rank: 1,361,994
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Bruce Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, where he is also affiliated with the Departments of Anthropology, Classics, Medieval Studies, and Middle Eastern Studies.
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Read an Excerpt


Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship
By Bruce Lincoln

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1999 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-48202-6

Chapter One

The Prehistory of Mythos and Logos

Heroic accounts of progress and the march of civilization, when narrating the beloved Greek Miracle, regularly grant prominent place to the transformation in speech and thought that led from the mythos of Homer and Hesiod to the logos of Heraclitus and Plato, a transformation associated with the move from symbolic to rational discourse, anthropomorphism to abstraction, and religion to philosophy. Something along these lines happened—and something dramatic, to be sure—but the story is hardly so simple as it is often made out to be. Close reading of the earliest texts raises some serious questions and contains more than a few surprises.


Let us begin with an errant detail: a manuscript variation in a well-known line from Hesiod's Theogony, at the point where the Muses address the poet directly. Most editors agree the text ought to read:

We know how to recount many falsehoods like real things, and We know how to proclaim truths when we wish.

Here, a contrast is drawn between two sorts of content and the modes of speaking appropriate to each, both of which are equally available to the Muses and to those they inspire (table 1.1).

To describe the act of relating plausible falsehoods, the text uses the verb legein and deploys a formulaic line that elsewhere marks one of Odysseus's most skillful (and morally problematic) pieces of deception. For telling truths, it settles on a verb that in the Works and Days denotes the act of speech with which Justice herself (the goddess Dike) denounces perjurers and the "bribe-eating" kings who render crooked judgments.

While modern editors confidently read gerusasthai in line 28, a great many manuscripts put in its place the more common verb mythesasthai ("to speak, to tell"). This usage, in turn, resonates with another passage from the Works and Days: the culminating line of its proem, where Hesiod, having called on Zeus to ensure truth and justice in legal proceedings, pledges to speak similarly to his wayward brother, Perses.

Zeus of the lofty thunder, you who dwell in the highest palace, Hear me, you who see and perceive: Straighten out the judgments, according to justice! And I will tell [mythesaimen] real things to Perses.

It is not my intention to argue that the reading of Theogony 28 with mythesasthai is preferable or that it represents the "original" text. Rather, I would simply observe that the existence of this well-attested variant suggests many Greeks found the juxtaposition of mytheomai to legein the most comprehensible and most effective way to draw a multivalent contrast between true speech and deception (or at least ambiguity); the straight and the crooked; also between that which is superficial and ornamented on the one hand and that which is blunt, but accurate, on the other; and, yet again, between the play of poetry and the seriousness of legal struggle. So far, so good. But to a modern eye, the terms in this equation seem reversed, for contrary to our expectations, it is mytheomai (the speech of mythos) that is here associated with truth (alethea), while legein (the speech of logos) is associated with lies, masquerade, and dissimulation (pseudea ... etymoisin homoia)!

Nowhere else in the Hesiodic corpus does either of these verbs appear, save the passages we have considered (Theogony 27–28, Works and Days 10). If we turn our attention to the corresponding nominal forms, however, the picture becomes more complex—and also more intriguing.


Let us begin with logos, which occurs five times, but only once in the singular. This comes when Hesiod introduces his account of the world ages. His narrative, addressed to Perses with didactic intent, stretches from first things to last and describes the descent of humanity from the original perfection of the Golden Race—unaging, pious, and free from all labor—to the vicious and degraded beings who characterize the present Race of Iron. Yet, precisely where a modern reader expects this fabulous discourse to be labeled mythos, Hesiod frames it differently, using the term logos instead.

Elsewhere, logos always appears in the plural. On three occasions it is modified by the adjective haimulios ("seductive"), and thrice it appears alongside pseudea ("falsehoods"). Consider, for instance, this piece of the creation account.

Now loathsome Strife [Eris] gave birth to painful Toil, Forgetfulness and Hunger, and Pains bearing tears, Combats and Battles and Murders and Manslaughters, Quarrels and Falsehoods and Logoi and Disputes.

Beyond the generally ominous nature of this list, one perceives subtler points. Thus, Logoi are joined, not only with "Falsehoods" (Pseudea te Logous) but also with "Disputes" (Amphi-logia, "Opposed logoi") and "Quarrels" to form a set: the verbal forms of conflict, in which women excel. These, in turn, are contrasted with the more manly physical forms detailed in the preceding line: "Combats and Battles and Murders and Manslaughters" (see fig. 1.1).

Having inscribed these codes at the level of the divine, Hesiod extends them to the human in his account of Pandora, the first and prototypical woman, into whose breast Hermes placed "falsehoods, seductive logoi, and a wily character." Here, as elsewhere, the adjective haimulios marks the erotic power of beguilement and attraction exercised by the words (and speaker) in question. Although the etymology remains unclear, its sense is evident in the following passage.

Do not let a woman with swaying hips deceive your mind. Seductive [haimula] and cajoling, she's seeking your granary: He who puts his trust in a woman, puts his trust in thieves.

Although a distrustful and condescending patriarchy attaches its sense of "femininity" to the discourses it labels "falsehoods and seductive logoi," it does not regard them as a female monopoly. Certain men may also use these kinds of speech, but as a consequence they tend to be understood as somehow less than fully male, or somehow more. Consider a complex passage from that section of the Works and Days where Hesiod treats calendric lore.

The sixteenth of the month is very unfavorable for plants, And good for the birth of a boy. It is not favorable for a girl, Neither to be born in the first place, nor to celebrate a marriage. Nor is the 6th fitting for the birth of a girl, But it is a well-disposed day to castrate goats and sheep, And to put a pen around the flock. That day is also good for the birth of a boy, who will love to utter jokes, Falsehoods, seductive logoi, and secret conversations.

Embedded within these lines is a formal analysis of the ways in which the two days in question interact with three categories, each of which is treated as a binary opposition. These are: (a) fortune (auspicious or inauspicious), (b) human beings (male and female), and (c) other living beings (animals and plants) (table 1.2).

Although the two portions of this passage are closely related, they do differ in some respects. Thus, most obviously, the first portion (lines 782-84) speaks about men, women, and plants, but not animals; the second (lines 785-89), about men, women, and animals, but not plants. Attempting to fill in the gaps, one is thus led to infer the following analogies.

Men : Women :: Animals : Plants Men : Animals :: Women : Plants

The gaps also focus our attention on what is actually said about plants and animals in the two sections of the text, and here we encounter another difference. The remarks on plants are vague and global: "Very unfavorable for plants." Not so those for beasts: "It is a well-disposed day to castrate goats and sheep," a recommendation with considerable precision and import, but for animals of one gender only. And here one notes a logical nicety: the recommended activity effectively destroys the characteristic for which these beasts were selected, or—to put it in Lévi-Straussian terms—after positing an initial contrast of male and female, the text seeks a mediation of these opposed categories, which it finds in neutered animals and the process of castration.

The import of these points becomes apparent when we find that this same day "is also good for the birth of a boy, who will love to utter jokes, falsehoods, seductive logoi, and secret conversations." Such a person occupies the same ambiguous position in the human realm that geldings do in the animal. Though male, he prefers persuasion (peitho) to force (bie or kratos) and delights in words rather than deeds (erga). Moreover, the kinds of speech he favors have "feminine" associations; which is to say, they are playful and winsome, even flirtatious, but unscrupulous and manipulative nonetheless. Effective for the speaker, such words are correspondingly dangerous to the hearer, for with and through them, those who are weaker —women in particular, but others as well—repeatedly overcome those more gifted in physical strength.

The kind of cunning that lets the weak overcome the strong—or, to put it more properly, that lets those whose power rests in their wiles and words overcome those with power of arms and armies—was known as metis among the Greeks and has been discussed in magisterial fashion by Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Within the Theogony, this intelligence of wiles and ruses is personified as the goddess Metis, whom Zeus marries immediately after he has made himself king in heaven, hoping to domesticate her and bring her powers under his control.

Far from solving Zeus's problem, however, the marriage shifts the issue to a different level. Thus, when Metis becomes pregnant, her lord becomes worried, and his disquiet is the narrative coding of an abstract point: a more fully accomplished synthesis of force and cunning (such as that anticipated in the product of this marital union) will prevail over an earlier, less perfect form of the same synthesis (such as that manifest in the union itself). So, when oracles predict that Metis will bear a daughter, then a son, and the son will overthrow his father, Zeus responds by swallowing Metis. That is, he brings her under his control in definitive fashion by fully encompassing her powers. From her home deep in his body (specifically, in his nedus, a term that means "womb," as well as "belly"), his newly internalized female voice of (female) cunning thereafter warns him of all dangers and suggests strategies through which he can overcome them. With this, at last, his sovereignty is secure.

One problem remains for the text to work out: it must explain to us why Metis did not foresee Zeus's attack, she who was "most knowing among deities and mortal men." The answer is as simple as it is elegant: to overcome Metis, the most powerful of males did that which was least expected. He relied not on his force, but on such "feminine" cunning as he already possessed, thereby turning Metis's own weapons against her.

Having deceived her by the guile in his breast And by seductive logoi, Zeus put her down into his belly.


In the Homeric poems (hymns as well as epics), the term logos covers much the same semantic range that it does in Hesiod, although with a few different nuances and shades of meaning. Most striking, Homer's logoi are always set in opposition to some situation or threat of violent struggle. In all instances, the term denotes acts of speech—often soothing, sometimes deceitful—that persuade men either to abandon the battlefield and renounce physical force or to find comfort and solace in moments of peace. The voices of official and conventional morality, however, tend to depict those who use and those who are influenced by such speech as irresponsible, womanly, or childish in nature. Thus, for instance, these lines from the first book of the Odyssey reflect not only on Calypso but also on Odysseus, who—insofar as he is captivated by her logoi—abandons his heroic destiny.

Calypso, Atlas's daughter, restrained him from misery and lamentation; Ever with soft and seductive logoi She beguiled him in such a way that he became forgetful of Ithaca.

Again, there is a scene in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes where Apollo confronts the newborn Hermes and charges his baby brother ("not unjustly") with stealing his cattle. Here, as elsewhere, the text contrasts Apollo to Hermes along multiple lines: elder versus younger, stronger (krateros) versus weaker, truthful versus duplicitous, responsible versus inventive, moral versus wily. From the moment of his birth, Hermes is "seductive in his cunning" (haimulo-metis) and a master of guiles. When challenged by Apollo, he knows how to respond:

With his crafts and seductive logoi, He wanted to trick the god of the silver bow.

Similar themes of wily speech and escape from violent conflict figure in an Iliad vignette in which all the Greek troops fall out to attack, save the Cephallenians—who somehow missed the call to battle. The text depicts this as a minor slip in the mire of war, but misreading the situation, the ever obtuse Agamemnon harshly rebukes Menestheus, the Cephallenian leader.

You who are surpassing in evil guiles, wily of spirit, Why do you stand by, cowering in fear? Why do you wait for others?

Agamemnon regards Menestheus not just as a coward but also as a deceiver, to judge from the insults he chooses, both drawn from the vocabulary of metis: "wily of spirit" (kerdaleophron) and "you who are surpassing in evil guiles" (kakoisi doloisi kekasmene). Most interesting, however, is a textual variant of the latter phrase found in a papyrus that reads "you who are surpassing in evil logoi" (kakoisi logoisi kekasmene). Here, logoi replace doloi, wits and words being functionally interchangeable as the instruments through which shrewd actors can save their skins from the risks of war.

The last occurrence of logoi in Homer comes in a particularly poignant scene of the Iliad, one on which the whole epic turns. The stage is set when the Ormenian hero Eurypylus falls wounded and Achilles sends Patroclus to make inquiries, a move the authorial voice calls "the beginning of evil" (kakou ... arkhe, 11.604). After consulting with Nestor, however, Patroclus pauses to treat Eurypylus's wound (11.809–48), and book 11 ends as he cuts the arrow from the Ormenian's thigh and stanches his blood with healing herbs. The epic then drops this narrative thread to dwell on the fury of Hector's assault. Only toward the middle of book 15 does it return to Patroclus and Eurypylus.

As long as the Achaeans and Trojans Battled around the wall, beyond the shelter of the swift ships, Patroclus sat in the hut of kindly Eurypylus. He entertained him with logoi and on his baleful wound He sprinkled drugs to cure the dark pains. But when he perceived the Trojans rushing upon the wall, As shouts and panic rose among the Danaans, He cried out in distress and smote his thighs With the flat of his hands, and wailing, he uttered this speech: "Eurypylus, I can no longer stay here with you, Notwithstanding your need, for a great struggle has arisen."

Initially, we behold an enchanted space of tranquillity and companionship, where Patroclus's logoi soothe the spirit, much as his drugs (pharmaka) ease bodily pain. But when Trojan troops breach the Greeks' defensive wall, threatening annihilation, this island of calm cannot be maintained and the text shifts abruptly. With the hand that a moment before spread balm on Eurypylus's stricken thigh, Patroclus now bitterly smites his own. And the voice that entertained breaks into a harsher, but also a more realistic, speech, which the text denotes as epos: "Eurypylus, I can no longer stay here, notwithstanding your need. A great struggle has arisen." From here, the story goes hurtling to its end. Patroclus hastens from Eurypylus to Achilles and thence into battle. The healer becomes the warrior, who will kill, be killed, and draw others after him in a brutal story we know too well.


It should now be clear that the most ancient texts consistently use the term logos to mark a speech of women, the weak, the young, and the shrewd, a speech that tends to be soft, delightful, charming, and alluring, but one that can also deceive and mislead. While it may be heard in many places and contexts, it is absent from the battlefield and the assembly place, for it is the nature—indeed, the genius—of this discourse to outflank and offset the physical, political, and material advantages of those who are accustomed to prevail on just such terrains (table 1.3).


Excerpted from THEORIZING MYTH by Bruce Lincoln Copyright © 1999 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. The Prehistory of Mythos and Logos....................3
2. From Homer through Plato....................19
3. The History of Myth from the Renaissance to the Second World War....................47
4. Mr. Jones's Myth of Origins....................76
5. Nietzsche's "Blond Beast"....................101
6. Dumézil's German War God....................121
7. From the Second World War to the Present (and Possibly a Little Beyond)....................141
8. Plutarch's Sibyl....................160
9. Gautrek's Saga and the Gift Fox....................171
10. Once Again, the Bovine's Lament....................183
11. The Pandits and Mr. Jones....................192
Epilogue: Scholarship as Myth....................207
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