All is not what it seems: on mythos and logos

I recently had the opportunity to read Bruce Lincoln’s Theorizing Myth (2000). The most fascinating part of the book is the reinterpretation of  the infamous ‘Greek Miracle’ in which logos is supposed to have risen from the depths, clung onto a piece of dry earth and eventually ousted mythos from its throne. The catch here is that we assume we know what these terms mean: mythos is the fabled and fabling speech of poets and story-tellers, speaking of the gods and earth and men, of theogony, cosmogony and anthropogony, in particular in those texts of Hesiod and Homer from the ‘heroic’ age of Greek history; logos, by contrast is rational speech, the word of the philosophers such as Plato against the poets and dreamers. Not so, it seems, for mythos itself has always been a contested term, and logos has not always held the ground of straight, rational speech.

As Lincoln argues, contrary to what might be expected, mythos in the work of Hesiod and Homer is not the realm of fiction and fantasy, nor does it designate stories of the capricious gods, and it is far from the sense of a symbolic or sacred story, one with a deeper meaning than everyday language. Mythos is actually strong speech, muscular, forthright and brave. It is uttered by heroes and warriors, leaders among the ruling, propertied elite. Powerful males, arrogant and brutal, speak mythoi in the heat of battle or in struggles over opinion in the assembly. By contrast, logos is often laden with some telling adjectives and companions: seductive (haimulios), evil (kakos), falsehoods (pseudea) and disputes (amphilogia). Logos turns out to be the weapon of the weak. Wily, deceitful, seductive and quarrelsome, it is the mode preferred by those without power, such as women, slaves, peasants, children and outcasts. Unable to match the brute force of powerful men, those who deploy logoi do so in order to win by other means. Needless to say, in the works of Hesiod and Homer logos does not have a good press, for in logoi the strong do not speak.

How then did Plato (and indeed Heraclitus) manage to sweep the field and bring about a complete revaluing of these terms? Lincoln traces in detail how the two terms were discursively contested over the centuries from Homer to Plato, how the supreme position of poetry in an oral culture held its place long in Greek history, and how mythos maintained its place as the weapon of the strong until quite late. But eventually, with the shift from an oral to a written culture, from an archaic economy to a slave-based one, from isolated city-states to modest empires, the mythoi of the poets came to be seen as deceitful, their words weaving spells rather than speaking the truth, and logos took its familiar place (at least to us): the straight speech of truth, the voice of reason and thought, the preferred mode of speech of that new breed who called themselves philosophers. The first signs appear with Pre-Socratics such as Heraclitus and Democritus, who favour logos and simply neglect mythos, but it is Plato who enables to significant if contested victory of logos. However, the fact that Plato had to banish poets and playwrights from his Republic, that Socrates (even if he was a construct of Plato’s writing) was condemned for corrupting young wealthy men with his logoi indicates that the terrain remained deeply contested.

Going beyond Lincoln, three points emerge. As for the first point, let me put it this way. Inevitably in discussions over myth, one interlocutor will knowingly speak up and say that ‘we’ know that myth doesn’t mean a fictional fairy tale, unlike the common folk. Instead, myth really designates a way of speaking about a deeper truth – usually these knowledgeable types are theologians. But that very objection actually narrates a historical progression in the understanding of myth, passing from the ‘common’ understanding of myth as fictional tale to one that has a deeper meaning, which is precisely the way myth was recovered in the eighteenth century. Not only is such an argument truncated, but it also misses a crucial ambivalence in myth, for it is not a case of either fiction or deeper truth, but very much both/and.

Second, mythos and logos are deeply political terms, not only in their usage in the texts, but in the struggles over the dominance of one over the other in the context of changing political and economic circumstances. Third, I would suggest that what happened with the transition between the time of Homer and Hesiod and that of Plato we have not only a contested shift in the fortunes of mythos and logos, where they seem to exchange places and then mutate again, but also a mutual absorption of their contrasting senses within one another. So myth comes through as ambivalent, if not multi-valent: language of both the strong and the deceitful, of both the brutal and the spinners of tales, of the forthright and the deceptive. In short, both myth and logos can be truthful speech and wily tale, club of the strong and hidden weapon of the weak.

One last point: myth was finally recovered and Plato’s championing of logos contested only towards the end of the eighteenth century in the wake of the Renaissance. In the intervening period, myths (Latin fabulae) were treated as amusing, if somewhat childish stories, folktales of a dim and distant past, contrasted with both philosophy and the authoritative story of Christ. But the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman texts produced some unexpected outcomes, one of which was the reshaping of the sense of myth as a valuable story of one’s own past, none more so than that of Northern Europe. Now it becomes a symbolic and sacred story, one with deep import, expressing a truth as no other can. As economic and political power gradually shifted northward and as the shackles of the Mediterranean were thrown off, myth became tied up with the issue of the Volk, asserting an ancient superiority and power that eventually became the Aryan and then Indo-European hypothesis. Civilisation, argued the new narrative, began neither in the Mediterranean, nor in the ancient Near East, but further north or perhaps further east, anywhere from India to the Caucasus to the Arctic Circle (favoured by the Nazis).


3 thoughts on “All is not what it seems: on mythos and logos

  1. Lincoln provides a definition of myth (not THE definition, but the way he wants to use the term) in Discourse and the Construction of Society (one of my all-time favorite books). He basically uses the term this way: a myth is an authoritative story that can be used to advance a social agenda. I find that to be a pretty useful way to use the term.

  2. Thank you for this provocative review. I agree that the most diverting part of Lincoln’s take is his historical re-tracing of the career of ‘logos’ & ‘mythos.’ Recounting the more recent adventures of the myth-idea among scholars since the renaissance (or since the 19th c. as Lincoln tells it) makes an interesting archeology of today’s positions, but the un-simplifying of the ancient story is long overdue. there have been some good contributions in this corner before (the best one I know is Veyne’s “Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths?”), but Lincoln’s is as far as I know the best comparison of mythos & logos. Plato’s word for the quarrel between poetry and philosophy is “ancient.” This isn’t a reversal that happened in a generation or two.

    I am intrigued by your contention that the argument [that myth expresses a ‘deeper truth’ instead of being a simple fairy-tale] is “not only… truncated, but it also misses a crucial ambivalence in myth, for it is not a case of either fiction or deeper truth, but very much both/and.” I think I know what you’re getting at here (at least, Veyne makes what I take to be a similar point), but can you say more? I’m moved to reflect by your second point as well, but I’ll leave it be for now.

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