Theorizing Myths

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Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarhsip by Bruce Lincoln (University of Chicago Press: 1999), reviewed by Aaron Rester

Bruce Lincoln began his career as an heir apparent to Georges Dumézil in the field of Indo-European studies. Having studied with Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, and armed with the knowledge of an astounding number of ancient languages, he undertook the project of reconstructing, from existing fragments of later cultures, the (hypothetical) religion and mythology of the (hypothetical) proto-Indo-European people. Eventually, recognizing grave problems in both the methodology and the political implications of such a project, he moved from being one of Indo-European comparatism’s most brilliant students to being one of its most outspoken critics.

Theorizing Myth is in many ways a result of this shift in Lincoln’s thought. In the preface, he writes:

…I continue my struggle to extricate myself from a discipline, a paradigm, and a discourse that I adopted early in my academic career with insufficient critical reflection. To a certain extent, writing this book has been an attempt to undo my earlier lack of awareness and make amends for it. (p. xii)

He does so by tracing the meaning of the word ‘myth’ from Hesiod until the present, focusing first on the shift in its meaning perpetrated by Plato (who effectively reversed the meanings of mythos and logos). Lincoln then moves on to consider three of the major figures in the modern recuperation of myth (William Jones, Nietzsche, and Dumézil), and to propose some new directions in how we might think about myth.

A materialist through and through, Lincoln has little patience for mystics (asked to give a talk to the U of C’s theology club, he hesitated to do so, because, he said, “We don’t really have anything to say to each other.”). Those looking for insights into the ‘sacred’ or ‘divine’ would be advised to look elsewhere — Lincoln is concerned with the gritty politics of earthly power which are embedded in myth. Drawing on the work of such theorists as Antonio Gramsci and Roland Barthes, he argues that myth is ideology in narrative form. As such it creates, reinforces, and disguises the taxonomies and hierarchies which allow political actors to construct and reconstitute the social sphere. In the final chapter of the book he considers the question of whether scholarship itself should be thought of in this context as myth.

Theorizing Myth is an engaging intellectual history, written with wit, clarity, critical rigor, and great humanity, and should be relatively accessible even to those just entering the study of myth.

Aaron Rester is the editor of Lamhfada, and a graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.