THE CREATION OF MYTH
3. On the Community production
& preservation of Myth
3. On the Community production & preservation of Myth
Traditionally speaking, the cultural memories of the group were commonly attributed to one or more legendary founding figures, often regarded as knowledgeable eyewitnesses or notable survivors of a great cataclysm or upheaval in the prehistorical past. Authoritative exemplars such as these would have both the interest to remember the events which had deeply frightened, motivated or otherwise impressed them, — as well as the impetus to impress their memories of those experiences deeply into the minds of their fellow men and women.
To ensure that these memories would always been remembered and not die with them, their recollections were transmuted into enduring public traditions over the next several generations — myth-ritual traditions that communicated a sense of a shared image or vision of the world — each cast in the specific ‘symbolic forms’ of each community’s unique situational context in space and time.
It is in this sense that we may speak of a peoples’ shared “social memory” or collective “cultural memory.”
Nevertheless, being much older than the historical context of the written records or inscriptions we have been fortunate to recover, these shared cultural memories we find in myth ultimately remain of unknown or obscure origin.
Despite their being attributed to legendary founding figures, it is not merely for lack of historical data that we are unable to trace the “authors” of most myths, fables and sagas — but rather because the communal reproduction of a commonly-held oral tradition evinces no individual authorship. — Often characterized by being largely impersonal and anonymous, the original oral authorship of the mythos may be more fortuitously seen as the property of the entire group population as a collective whole.
— The concrete reality of the matter is that the exact historical origins of every culture’s foundational myths are buried so irretrievably deep in the past that we find them already present, and more or less full-fledged, at the very outset of their home culture’s material foundation.
In fact, the original form of anyone’s mythos (provided this means anything at all) will most likely forever remain elusive to us. However far we reach back across the generations, the oral traditions of any given cultural group was already known only as something that had been often heard by ear, and just as often repeated by word of mouth by everyone in the community. — The motive of cultural song and saga was, at such an early stage of history, evidentially not individual, but rather collective and communal (or, as some might call it today, "tribal" or "national”).
It is in this regard, that the creation of myth seems to have been an interactive social phenomenon from the start. The long-term storage and survival of their founding ancestors’ memories understandably relied upon them being directly communicated to others from the very beginning.
The mythos in its eventual handed-down form could have only developed originally through ongoing, interactive dialog between the authoritative heroes of culture and the common people. Instituting the perennial practice of regularly dispensing the mythos would’ve likewise been entirely dependent upon interactions and transactions made within the entire community. The specific contents of any community’s local mythos and the uses the people eventually made of them would also have been completely determined by these very same interpersonal group communications.
— All things considered, the act of transmitting viable communication and therefore perpetuating the preservation of these memories — through the media of public pronouncements, communal ritual recitations and dramatic re-enactments — must have therefore originally been not spontaneous and unconscious, but deliberate, well organized, and above all, deeply intentional.
Moreover: these myths were imbued with a deeper underlying purpose beyond that of simple story-telling. ... What any group of people knew or believed about the past channeled present-day expectations which affected the decisions on which everyone’s honor, fortune and very lives all depended.
— Because these mythic histories were very concrete realities for them, sects, religions, tribes, and nation-states, from ancient Chaldea and Pharaonic Egypt to modern times, based their social cohesion upon the shared customs and practices by which their overall social milieu was formally oriented to begin with, and which were perennially renewed by the peoples’ regular practices and behaviors thereafter. — These were regarded so seriously, in fact, that we catch glimpses of them at the very foundations of everything we have subsequently characterized as being “human.”
Myth-making traditions shaped a large part of our ancestors’ daily lives. Creation myths and Cosmogonic visions in particular set the pattern for everything else in the community, and generally formed the “pragmatic social charter” for the conduct of all other aspects of community life. In these tales, certain cultural institutions, initiation ceremonies or ritual acts were themselves held to have been founded in prehistory, in the beginning, in the very same mythical times as the heavens and the earth and the people themselves were created.
Myths such as these were commonly regarded as being of paramount central importance for the orientation of myth-making communities with respect to the world at large, — in that nearly all the traits known as ‘culture’ — aside from the basic necessities of food and shelter — more or less began as habitual ritual extensions of the mythos at the community’s shared central hub.
The ordering of the world described in cosmogonic myth commonly served as the primordial root structure of human culture out of which various and differing forms and styles of cultural life eventually emerged. The myths of hunter-gatherer societies, for example, told of the origin of game animals and hunting customs; while those of agricultural societies tended to give weight to agricultural practices in their myths; pastoral cultures to pastoral practices; and so on.
Above all, the commonly accepted authority of a culture’s mythos resided in its capacity to bind the members of a community together. — More than just a collection of claims about the historical past, the mythos of their common past gave meaning to their present cultural endeavors. Their shared cultural memory was the root of their common social identity in the here and now.
— And this was especially true regarding myths specific to the collective society’s relationship to the cosmos, and those that in any way served to justify the group’s specific social organization and general way of life — by relating present aspects of cultural life to the very foundations of the community in primordial times. These fantastic fables, tall tales and sensational stories — directly connected with the very people within that culture — made up the collective cultural memory of these peoples — ... ... out of which the linguistic and semiotic network of the human world as we know it has come to be.