Myth as History — On Religious Texts

Among scholars and historians of religion, there has long been an unfortunate tendency to treat myth as mere text — disembodied, free-floating, timeless, and ahistorical.  In such non-contexts, myth is considered to be something universal or essential, that which captures and expresses archetypes, or even worse, an archaic and tentative approach to monotheism.

In the fifth essay of Imagining Religion, Jonathan Z. Smith takes a close look at one such myth — the famous Maori creation story centered on the high god Io — and unravels the history of its making.  As is true of all native or indigenous myths that have been collected over the centuries, the Io story did not write itself.  It is an historical product, told and inscribed by particular persons in a particular time and place.  Such peoples, times, and places are never situated in ethereal or untouched circumstance — they are always thickly embedded in history.

After examining the particulars of the Io myth and detailing its all too human construction, Smith concludes:

I would draw only set of conclusions for the historian of religion from these preinterpretive investigations.  The 1907 Io cosmogony might be labeled a fraud.  It most certainly is not “neolithic,” it is not “the Polynesian creation myth,” and it cannot be used as evidence for Urmonotheismus or for the nature of archaic ritual, as has been done in previous scholarship.

This native work has been obscured by taking the text to be static, to be archaic, to be a myth.  By placing it back within its context, the historian of religion may begin to perceive its labors, its strains, its achievements.  Such a study may allow us to begin to interpret properly and appreciate Homo religiosus as being, preeminently, Homo faber.

It would be wise for us to remember that all religious texts are situated, constructed by interested humans who are not free to make their own history.

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