Sunday, September 30, 2012

TFBT: The Death of Structural Analysis, Solar Mythology and …

I was disturbed when I read, my hero, Gregory Nagy announce the demise of structural analysis.1 Specifically, he wrote, “structuralism has become an unstable and even unwieldy concept, which cannot any longer convey the essence of the methodology.”   This is quite the disappointment because I still haven’t gotten a handle on structural analysis.  Many authors in the past seemed to value this tool and offered examples of the insights it offered.  What little I know about this way to study myth came from an article by Claude Levi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology”.  I had the pleasure to read this article is a small dusty rose-colored book I found at a second hand store, “Myth: a Symposium2

The end of structuralism felt just like the “Eclipse of Solar Mythology” which I’d read in the exact same volume. Richard M. Dorson did a fine job of explaining Solar Mythology before lampooning it to death with some deft illustrations and a few quick jabs.   In truth, this   was more than I’d ever known about   Max Muller’s work.  (I’ve always wondered if the English translations of his work were burnt by an angry mob of intellectuals with torches and pitchforks.)

 As child I’d learned about Solar Mythology from Gayley in “The Classic Myths”. (First Ed. 1893)  I loved that book, with the square glossy pages, clear quality etching for illustration and enigmatic endnotes.  It was in the reference section at the library and I could never check it out. Everything I knew about Muller came from the back of Gayley.  Although I agree that not everyone can be a solar-hero, Muller’s theories were great for helping me with my studies of Norse Mythology (i.e. The death of Balder, Ull and Odin, and the nine mothers of Heimdall.)  I would think Solar Mythology would also be helpful in the study of sun-gods.

In Gayley too, I learned about George W. Cox.  Even as a child his idyllic theory of shepherds on their backs watching the clouds pass, wasn’t too convincing, but when I hear modern scholars speak of Zeus the cloud-gatherer and refer to him as a storm-god, I feel confident that we learned something from Cox.

Before the internet, Robert Graves’ ”The Greek Myths” provided a wide range of mythological information.  About the time I bought my second copy of the two volume set, someone told me that Graves was not held in wide regard by scholars.  Which struck me as odd, since his theory on the triple goddess worked pretty well when discussing triple goddesses.  And the story of Oedipus makes a lot more sense if you know something about sacrificial kings.

When I purchased Themis by Jane Harrison I read that her writings on ritual-myth were not well-received.  However, all her biographers finish by saying how influential her writings were. 

Here’s my theory; a researcher in some quiet moment receives inspiration; a bolt of lightning out of the blue or the small still voice of the muse. The sudden insight works well on the material at hand and a few associated topics.  A paper is published too much acclaim.  A book follows with much additional material, sometimes far from the original source or intent.  It attracts followers who declare it a universal tonic.  It is re-interpreted, mis-interpreted, “detached from its moorings” and run aground.  Everyone declares it a failure and throws the baby out with the bath water. If I may, new each form of analysis or interpretation is elevated by universal acclaim to Olympic heights and then tossed like Hephaestus.

I would suggest that we retain all the forms of interpretation and analysis that have come to us put them in a toolbox and pull them out to use appropriately.

One other thing disturbs be about Professor Nagy’s eulogy to structuralism. In the next paragraph he discusses the work of Parry and Lord.  Their work in oral composition was earth-shaking and now the foundation of virtually every Homeric discussion.  Let’s hope the classics community treats Parry and Lord better than most.


2  Editor Thomas A Sebeok, Indiana University Press, 1972

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