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University of Chicago Press
Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography

Mythistory: The Making of a Modern Historiography

by Joseph Mali


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Ever since Herodotus declared in Histories that to preserve the memories of the great achievements of the Greeks and other nations he would count on their own stories, historians have debated whether and how they should deal with myth. Most have sided with Thucydides, who denounced myth as "unscientific" and banished it from historiography.

In Mythistory, Joseph Mali revives this oldest controversy in historiography. Contesting the conventional opposition between myth and history, Mali advocates instead for a historiography that reconciles the two and recognizes the crucial role that myth plays in the construction of personal and communal identities. The task of historiography, he argues, is to illuminate, not eliminate, these fictions by showing how they have passed into and shaped historical reality. Drawing on the works of modern theorists and artists of myth such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, Joyce and Eliot, Mali redefines modern historiography and relates it to the older notion and tradition of "mythistory."

Tracing the origins and transformations of this historiographical tradition from the ancient world to the modern, Mali shows how Livy and Machiavelli sought to recover true history from uncertain myth-and how Vico and Michelet then reversed this pattern of inquiry, seeking instead to recover a deeper and truer myth from uncertain history. In the heart of Mythistory, Mali turns his attention to four thinkers who rediscovered myth in and for modern cultural history: Jacob Burckhardt, Aby Warburg, Ernst Kantorowicz, and Walter Benjamin. His elaboration of the different biographical and historiographical routes by which all four sought to account for the persistence and significance of myth in Western civilization opens up new perspectives for an alternative intellectual history of modernity-one that may better explain the proliferation of mythic imageries of redemption in our secular, all too secular, times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226502625
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/28/2003
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 362
Sales rank: 997,034
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Joseph Mali teaches history at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Rehabilitation of Myth: Vico's New Science.

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The Making of a Modern Historiography

Copyright © 2003 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-50262-5

Chapter One
Where Terms Begin: Myth, History, and Mythistory

Ever since Herodotus declared that the aim of his History was to preserve the memory of "the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians," the debate on the use and abuse of myths in historiography has never been safely laid to rest. For what Herodotus implied in this assertion was that the task of the historian is not to eliminate but to illuminate historical myths: "For myself, my duty is to report all that is said; but I am not obliged to believe it all alike-a remark which may be understood to apply to my whole History." Herodotus was well aware that such fanciful tales about gods and heroes as he had recorded from the Babylonians and the Egyptians might render his History more mythological than historical, but he trusted that his audience would know what the stories were all about and deal with them accordingly. Those who realized, as he did, that they were the historical myths of these nations would not ask whether they were true or false, but rather what they meant: "Such as think the tales told by the Egyptians credible are free to accept them for history. For my own part, I propose to myself throughout my whole work faithfully to record the traditions of several nations ... If this be true, I know not; I write what is said." Herodotus seems to have realized that even though these memories and tales were not proper histories of the nations, they must be preserved for, and in, their histories for further inquiries into their origins and destinies. As Arnaldo Momigliano has noted, we must bear in mind that "when Herodotus took the recording of tradition as his primary duty, he was in fact doing something more than simply saving facts from oblivion. He was guiding historical research towards the exploration of the unknown and the forgotten."

Alas, the problem with Herodotus's mythological historiography was that it could not be critical about its sources. Thucydides saw this when he remarked against his predecessor that because "men accept from one another hearsay reports of former events, neglecting to test them just the same," they were leaving historical truth, and themselves, exposed to all kinds of distortion and manipulation. For Thucydides and his fellow rationalists, the "mythic" signified any story that could not be tested or inquired about, either because it had occurred in too distant times or because it contained too many fantasies. He knew, however, that the charms of the Homeric myths, like those of the Sirens, were too great to resist; he therefore chose, much like the hero of the Odyssey himself, to tie his fellow travelers, his "readers," to stricter disciplines, to make sure that they would not submit to the mythological temptation. Thus, whereas Herodotus began his History with a long recitation of the Homeric myths about the origins of war (relating them to marital quarrels of gods and heroes) and only then, gradually and hypothetically, developed his own theory about their mere human causes, Thucydides defied this entire oral tradition by deliberately using distinct literal measures: "Of the events of the war ... I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others of whom I made the most careful and particular inquiry ... And very likely the strictly historical character of my narrative may be disappointing to the ear" of the listener, because it was written for the one who "desires to have before his eyes a true picture of the events which have happened, and of the like events which may be expected to happen hereafter in the order of human things." Along with his fellow citizen Plato, who forbade the recitation of Homeric myths in the Republic, Thucydides sought to overcome the harmful forces of myth by means of a new policy of literacy.

And yet, as later Greek historians like Polybius, Diodorus, or Pausanias realized, the ancient mythical tradition continued to thrive in the poetical creations, rhetorical orations, and political institutions of the nation and hence had to be reworked into its history. Thus, Polybius, who echoes Thucydides in his commitment to "a history of actual events" devoid of any effects, and moreover based on seeing rather than hearing, goes on to characterize the ideal historian by citing the words with which Homer introduces Odysseus: "Tell me, oh Muse, the man of many shifts, who wandered far and wide ... And towns of many he saw, and learnt their mind, and suffered much in heart by land and sea ... Passing through wars of men and grievous waves." This evocation of Odysseus, the man of action but also of narration, the protagonist of the myths he relates, is more pertinent to an adventurer and storyteller like Herodotus than to the analytical and critical arbiter Thucydides.

This original controversy between the patriarchs of Western historiography has since been reiterated in various controversies: Tacitus versus Livy, William of Newburgh versus Geoffrey of Monmouth, Valla versus Lactantius, Guicciardini versus Flavio Biondo, Montesquieu versus Machiavelli, Gibbon versus Bossuet and Tillemont, Ranke versus Scott, Mommsen versus Niebuhr and Bachofen, Wilamowitz-Moellendorff versus Burckhardt, Mathiez versus Michelet, Brackmann versus Kantorowicz, the annalistes versus all the narrativists. And it continues, implicitly at least, in many modern controversies over the essentiality of myth in and for historiography. On the whole, professional historians have followed Thucydides rather than Herodotus. Longinus's passing description of Herodotus as "the most Homeric" of historians and Plutarch's vicious attack on his credibility echo in Juan Luis Vives's charge that Herodotus was the father not of history but of lies, and such criticism may still be detected among modern classicists doing their Quellenforschung. There have been some brief periods when Herodotus seemed to prevail-as, for example, in the age of discoveries in the sixteenth century, when European historians harked back to his anthropological curiosity and virtuosity in the description of alien civilizations-but the establishment of so-called scientific historiography in the early nineteenth century, predicated on exact measures of verification and evaluation of historical sources, signaled Thucydides' triumph. Significantly, Leopold Ranke, the founder of that school, wrote his doctoral dissertation on Thucydides.

During the past two or three decades, however, there has been a remarkable change in the evaluation of both historians. The emergence of "new cultural history" out of the new social sciences of anthropology, psychology, and narratology has shifted the attention of scholars of historiography from scientific to hermeneutic questions. For example, what do historians actually do when they tell a story? How do they thereby participate in the creation of collective memories and identities? Recent studies of Herodotus have been deeply affected by these theories and have done much to recharge them by showing how Herodotus's work may be pertinent to modern discussions on "heterology," "social memory," or "narrative construction of reality." As John Gould remarks, "Thucydidean narrative, in the very rhythms and texture of its language, claims and enacts authority. Herodotean narrative, by the same criteria, is a very different thing: it retains the rhythms and forms of oral tradition, familiar to us in folk-tales and märchen, but at the same time incorporates into the text, as folk narrative never does, its own authorial commentary on the sources and truth-value of the narrative." Above all, however, Herodotus has become "modern" in his employment of historical myths in his History. What he intimated has in our day become a major claim in the historical profession: that in order to know who the Egyptians and all other "barbarians" really were, the historian must know who they thought they were, where they came from, and where they went. And the best-perhaps the only-way to get this knowledge is to take their historical myths seriously.

For historical myths are now commonly perceived as "foundational narratives," as stories that purport to explain the present in terms of some momentous event that occurred in the past. Stories like these are in many ways historical-though rarely, if ever, do they refer to an actual past. Rather, they refer to a virtual past, to the fact that historical communities, like religions or nations, consist in the beliefs that their members have about them-more concretely, in the stories they tell about them. As Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty has put it, "a myth is a story that is sacred to and shared by a group of people who find their most important meanings in it; it is a story believed to have been composed in the past about an event in the past, or, more rarely, in the future, an event that continues to have meaning in the present because it is remembered." These stories tend to be about events that occurred in what Mircea Eliade calls illud tempus, the primordial mythical time that precedes historical time, and therefore they are likely to remain forever beyond historical verification or refutation. Yet, as Eliade points out, stories like that usually relate "a creation," in which "something new, strong, and significant was manifested," something that is still very actual even if it is not quite factual. Myths are not strictly historical, then, but since they serve to "reveal that the world, man, and life have a supernatural origin and history, and that this history is significant, precious, and exemplary," they impart meaning to history. However legendary a myth may be, it does not signify fabrication or pure fiction, because it usually contains or refers to certain crucial issues in the history of the community, such as those that concern the common ancestry or territory of the community. These issues require and inspire historical myths because they pertain not only to such metaphysical mysteries as the ultimate origins and destinies of the community, but primarily to those practical verities in which the members of the community all believe and live, even though (or precisely because) they are mythical rather than logical or historical deductions. Irad Malkin has shown that this was the main function of Homer's Odyssey in the archaic Mediterranean civilization: the myths of return (nostoi) involving heroes who fought at Troy were commonly used by the Greek colonists, as well as by the indigenous peoples among whom they settled, to conceptualize and legitimate their ethnic heredity and identity. According to Malkin, "the entire ethnography of the Mediterranean could be explained as originating from the Big Bang of the Trojan War and the consequent Nostos diffusion." The nostoi myths proved so effective among all the Mediterranean nations because they were universally admired, not only for their poetical superiority, but also, and primarily, for their historical authority: for many centuries they served as the standard measure of communication and mediation in "international" affairs. They would probably not have lasted if they did not contain at least some truths that could not be otherwise known.

This informal definition of historical myths as "foundational," that is to say as stories that retain their original narrative force and essential meaning from generation to generation, is now widely accepted by classicists and social anthropologists. The anthropologist Percy Cohen has pointed out that it is not accidental that the greatest myths of our or any other civilization are concerned with beginnings, with "a moment in time in which a series of events is anchored"; rather, this is the rule of myth: "To locate things in time, even if the exact time is unspecified, creates a far more effective device for legitimization, for example, than simply creating a set of abstract ideas which are timeless." The impersonal style of the mythical narration, aptly characterized by Claude Lévi-Strauss as "anonymous, collective, and objective," serves this purpose by making the messages impervious to any logical or historical refutation: "The original form (provided this notion means anything) is and remains forever elusive. However far we may go, a myth is known only as something that has been heard and repeated." According to Clifford Geertz, myths serve as "symbolic models of emotion"; that is to say they lay out for us basic precedents, rules, and prescriptions for "cultural" reaction against our own "natural" reactions. "In order to make up our minds we must know how we feel about things; and to know how we feel about things we need the public images of sentiment that only ritual, myth, and art can provide."

From a more historical perspective, the anthropologist Victor Turner has rightly pointed out that as stories that purport to impose meaning on social life in contingent critical (i.e., historical) situations, myths are not dogmatic but dramatic stories of tradition. They become significant precisely in moments when common traditional meanings of life and history have become indeterminate, as in wars or revolutions, and their social utility is to sustain the structural tradition of society by some dramatic reactivation of its original motivations. "Where historical life itself fails to make cultural sense in terms that formerly held good, narrative and cultural drama may have the task of poesis, that is of remaking cultural sense." Or, to rephrase this notion in Malinowski's well-known terms, historical myths function as "social charters"-the narration of ultimate origins and ends of the most fundamental laws and institutions of the community secures their authority against any rational or historical attack on their validity. Through their commemoration in the religious and national traditions of the historical community, these stories set up its moral norms and social forms of life. And to the extent that the members of that community share and carry out these traditional meanings in their social actions, their historical reality is meaningful only within the narratives that make up their tradition. Historical myths might thus be simply redefined as those stories that are not merely told but actually lived.

Ernest Renan realized as much when he claimed long ago that as historical narrations of successive generations, myths not only are needed to form a national identity, but they also pass into that identity itself, so that in order to understand what it means to be French, for example, the historian has to accept certain common stories that might be "wrong" (e.g., Joan of Arc) as "true," that is, as effective insofar as they are affective. Modern social theorists and historians of nationalism have generally come to accept this assumption. As Anthony Smith has observed, although "civic" elements

are obviously required to maintain a nation in the modern world with its particular complex of economic and political conditions, ethnic profiles and identities are increasingly sought, if only to stem the tide of rationalisation and disenchantment. It is to their ethnic symbols, values, myths and memories that so many populations turn for inspiration and guidance, not in the everyday, practical business of running a state, but for that sense of fraternity and heroism which will enable them to conduct their affairs successfully.

On these premises Smith seeks to reassess the contribution of past and modern historians to that process. Although he duly recognizes that historians since the nineteenth century have commonly sought to determine national identities by forging a sense of unity and continuity with the past and have thereby served national ideologies, Smith nevertheless points out that historians have also been, and should always remain, those who could best discern, explain, and criticize these social operations for what they are. Smith rightly concludes that whether historians work for or against national myths, they must work on myths; that is to say they must recognize the role of myth in the constitution of national identities.


Excerpted from Mythistory by JOSEPH MALI Copyright © 2003 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Where Terms Begin: Myth, History and Mythistory

The Vico Road: From Livy to Michelet

Jacob Burckhardt: Mythistorian

Aby Warburg: History as Ancient Mythology

Ernst Kantorowicz: History as New Mythology

Walter Benjamin: History as Modern Mythology

Ideareal History: A Lesson from Joyce



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