Eternal Returns: Myth of the Mythic

Over the past week I’ve been following Calvin Martin’s journey from academic historian to animist wanderer. While it’s hard to know what he was thinking and feeling as it unfolded, he left lots of published tracks along the way that give some indication. Some of his footprints can be found in The American Indian and the Problem of History (1987), a collection of essays in which Martin invited various scholars to consider whether (and if so, how) western historiography can treat Native American worldviews.

Most of the answers are negative, which is discouraging for those who are sympathetic and sensitive to these issues but aren’t willing or able to jump in the deep end. When this collection was published, Martin had yet to make the jump, which he eventually did by resigning from Rutgers and embarking upon his ongoing odyssey.

Given these personal confessions, it’s not surprising that Martin is much enamored of Mircea Eliade, the academic-mystic who constructed an essentialized “archaic” and fitted it into his peculiar worldview. Though Eliade has a fairly dim reputation among anthropologists and positivists, his ideas are hugely popular and remain influential. Aside from the famous sacred/profane dichotomy (which he derived in part from Durkheim), Eliade’s most influential idea is encapsulated in Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (1959). Here is Martin’s distillation, from the Epilogue (p. 193) of The American Indian and the Problem of History:

Mythic people hold that all of life’s effective and responsible acts exist as “paradigms,” or “exemplary models” that were “revealed…in mythical times,” more specifically, at creation. These “tremendous events that occurred at the beginning of time,” comprising as they do “all the important acts of life…revealed ab origine by gods or heroes,” form the archetypes (models) of human activity and behavior (Eliade 1959:viii, 32). The aim is thus to arrange one’s life so that these sacred acts, these archetypes, can be experienced (conjured up) as frequently as possible. “Every act which has a definite meaning — hunting, fishing, agriculture; games, conflicts, sexuality — in some way participates in the sacred.

Profane activities are those which have no mythical meaning, that is, which lack exemplary models (Eliade 1959:27-28). Hunting, fishing, agriculture, games, etc., when performed after the fashion dictated by the archetypes, whose terms have been handed down faithfully from generation to generation, become by definition rituals (Eliade 1959:28). Ritual, then, involves “the imitation of archetypes and the repetition of paradigmatic gestures” (Eliade 1959:35). By executing a particular act exactly as it was done originally, at Creation, one can actually project oneself into “that same primordial mythical moment” (Eliade 1959:35).

These passages hypostatize a worldview that may or may not exist. One thing is certain: it is a worldview that existed in Eliade’s Christian-Jungian mind and from there it has come to dominate much thinking about the mythical-mythic past and mythical-mythic people. Eliade himself was much affected by history, was embedded in it, and was responding to it. His “archaic” is literally and figuratively a product of the very history which it claims to transcend.

All this causes Martin to claim “it cannot be emphasized enough that the Native American simply does not make sense when measured against our cognitive yardstick” (31). Aside from the fact there is no singular “Native American” worldview along these lines, I disagree. Animist worldviews make a great deal of cognitive sense.


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One thought on “Eternal Returns: Myth of the Mythic

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Fun criticisms. Not only was Eliade popular in my early non-Christian days, but so was Jung — but Jung was another one I could never click with — seemed too contrived. Jung and Eliade were working to hard to make the world more sensible than it actually is, in my opinion.

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