- Writing Down the Myths ed. by Joseph Falaky Nagy
Originally presented as a symposium of the same title held at UCLA in 2009, Writing Down the Myths addresses the collection and literarization of myth—mythography, as opposed to mythology. Of the fifteen essays, all but one deal with Indo-European traditions, and the majority focus on the mythographies of Western Europe: Greek and Roman, Celtic/British, and Germanic. Interestingly, the essays on Hittite and Hindu mythologies find that mythography per se is [End Page 352] a dead end in these fields; H. Craig Melchert, in “Motivations for Hittite Mythological Texts,” concludes that the context for writing down Hittite myths is so irretrievably lost that the question is moot, whereas Stephanie W. Jamieson, in “India and the Graphy O’ Myth,” argues that the important and ongoing oral tradition of Hinduism makes the distinction between mythology and mythography a false one. In other words, the former is so antique as to be inaccessible, while the latter is so alive as to be uncapturable.
The decidedly meta nature of mythography means that these essays of necessity assume advanced knowledge of the corpus. As a result, the individual essays will be of great interest to classicists, or Celticists, or Germanists, but a specialist in Irish, say, may find herself over her head in a discussion of the relationship between Saxo and Snorri’s takes on the gods of the Norse. Likewise, William M. Bodiford’s discussion, in “Myth and Counter-Myth in Early Modern Japan,” of not just the writing down of Japanese mythology but the influence of the very typography and page design of the Kojiki on the Nipponization of originally Chinese text hints at important considerations for the textualization of mythology in general, but the finer points of his argument are lost on a reader who is illiterate in Japanese and Chinese.
Joseph Falaky Nagy’s “Are Myths Inside the Text or Outside the Box?” opens the volume by discussing the ways that mythography posits and attempts to transcend the discontinuity between the past of the myth and the present of its telling. This temporal ambiguity is seen in the extratextual context of the apocalyptic vision that concludes Cath Magh Tuired: here we sit, reading an ancient prophecy of something that has yet to occur. In the Acallam’s frame, “contemporary” St. Patrick tours Ireland in the company of the resurrected Fenian hero Cailte, whose narration of “pagan” lore under the auspices of Ireland’s patron saint endows it with a shiny Catholic seal of approval. In the Mabinogi, stories become “weaponized” (15), as when Teyrnon’s true story of how he found the kidnapped baby Pryderi overwrites, as it were, the false story told by Rhiannon’s maidens to account for the baby’s disappearance. This releases Rhiannon from a punishment that required her to replicate in her human form the horsiness that is believed to underlie her mythic prototype.
Consideration of classical mythography begins with William Hansen’s “Packaging Greek Mythology,” which compares the treatment of the Pandora myth in Hesiod’s ca. 700 BCE retellings Theogony and Works as Days with the modern compendia of Bulfinch’s Mythology (1855), Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (1942), Robert Graves’s Greek Myths (1955), and H. J. Rose’s A Handbook of Greek Mythology (1929). While Hansen’s mapping of the variants shows how inconsistency is endemic to mythography, he oddly ignores the cultural impetus for the modern mythographers to see Pandora as an analog to Eve, and thus to prioritize the Works and Days version of the myth.
In “The ‘Myth Before the Myth Began,’” Richard Martin focuses on the very wordmyth, carrying on from his study of The Language of Heroes (1989) to consider the way that muthos as a speech act turns into myth as a story. The authoritative nature of the speech-act still underpins the narrative—“Myth-stories do something for you and against your opponent” (48). Yet if myth, like [End Page 353] politics, is local, its inherent variation is exacerbated rather than clarified...