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Myth and Literary History: Two Germanic Examples

From: Oral Tradition
Volume 19, Number 1, March 2004
pp. 3-19 | 10.1353/ort.2004.0090

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Oral Tradition 19.1 (2004) 3-19

Two Germanic Examples

Joseph Harris

Harvard University

The Albert Lord and Milman Parry Lecture for 2003

Under the care of its founder, John Miles Foley, the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, together with its journal Oral Tradition, has become the preeminent institution in its field in America; and as the field itself widens, the Center's importance in the study of the humanities can only grow. The annual Lord and Parry Lecture Series is one aspect of that widening outreach, and I feel very honored to be able to follow distinguished and provocative humanists in the series and to follow, though more distantly, Lord and Parry themselves. The topic agreed on for my contribution was the slippery subject of myth, my current preoccupation, not only because of some detailed research projects in hand, but more urgently as a new undergraduate seminar on the general topic looms on my immediate horizon. There's nothing like that kind of undergraduate teaching to force one to return to basic ideas. Bless them, undergraduates won't let a body hide behind philology! I realize that myth fits only problematically into the format of the Lord and Parry lectures and into the mandate of the journal Oral Tradition; in fact as far as my skimming eye could discover, no article in Oral Tradition's eighteen luminous years has confessed in its title to a principle concern with myth—admittedly this impression was not the product of meticulous research.

In any case, the Center and the journal usually deal concretely (even if also theoretically) with the form, content, and performance of oral literature or else with its cultural matrix, especially in oralities and literacies. These topics been among my main interests too ever since my understanding of literature was destabilized and refashioned by my teacher Albert Lord about 1963. Less famously, however, Lord had a keen interest in myth as well. In 1968-69, the year I worked for him as head teaching fellow in the General Education course known as Hum 9, we tried, between sit-ins or microphone take-overs by the SDS and tear-gas attacks by the authorities, to teach some formalist approaches to myth, such as that of Lord Raglan's famous hero pattern. That's when it became clear to me that Mr. Lord (to use the form of address current at Harvard at that time) was a crypto-ritualist like Vladimir Propp, whom we also endeavored to interpret that year to restless student hordes who quite unreasonably could not understand why American lives should be sacrificed in an imperial adventure. (Thank goodness there's nothing like that going on today: the times, they have a-changed.)

The myth-ritual approach perhaps appealed to Mr. Lord, as it still does to me, because it ties myth, which constantly threatens to grade off into formlessness, to a ritual that can be apprehended and described in formalist and performative terms. Insofar as a myth can be the words spoken at a ritual, Jane Harrison's "things said over things done," the concept is doubly opened to structural or formal approaches, first by being a definite, particular utterance and second by being grounded in actions that presumably find echoes in the utterance. The myth-ritual school, which we still find full of vigor in the exciting scholarship of Walter Burkert (e.g., 1966, 1983, 1987, and 1996)and, somewhatattenuated, in some of my own recent work (1999, forthcoming a), brings the study of myth into the same perceptual orbit we move in as students of oral literature. Meanwhile, the concept of myth itself as generally and more widely understood simply will not be pinioned either to a certain utterance or to certain actions, with the result that students of particular myths have to jettison a huge semantic penumbra around the word "myth" in order to arrive at their formal clarities. In my own field of competence, early Germanic mythology, the ritual connection is more often than not purely hypothetical and often impossible even to imagine. More generally the myth-ritual approach could be criticized in a metaphor: the concrete form offered by ritual is a...

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