Myth and Misunderstandings Part I:
The Nature of Myth in
Cosmological Civilizations

I especially want to draw your attention to the problem that the gods are intracosmic. There is no such thing as a world-transcendent God in any cosmological civilization; and for a very long time even in revelation and philosophy there is no world-transcendent God. That's a very peculiar problem, how that problem arises at all. But in the cosmological civilizations, the gods are intracosmic, part of the cosmos.

With that in mind, let me say a word about the expressive forms, the symbolizations, in which such an idea, such an experience, is expressed. It is usually called the myth.

And here practical science is still in a considerable methodological quandary. The comparative religionists and mythologists and archeologists usually subscribe to the older conceptions of myth, which are rooted in the general phenomenology of religion. That is to say that they are fundamentalists: One takes the phenomenon of a symbol and does not go back to the experience that produced it. Therefore, if you take the myth as the phenomenon of a symbol, you arrive at such a definition of the myth as you find in Eliade's Myth and Reality. Let me read that to you, because then you will most easily see what the new problem is. Eliade defines myth:

Myth narrates a sacred history; it relates an event that took place in primordial Time, the fabled time of the "beginnings." In other words, myth tells how, through the deeds of Supernatural Beings, a reality came into existence, be it the whole of reality, the Cosmos, or only a fragment of reality—an island, a species of plant, a particular kind of human behavior, an institution. Myth, then, is always an account of a "creation"; it relates how something was produced, began to be. [Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality (London: Alien & Unwin, 1964), 5-6.]

Against this very much accepted definition of myth, I would like to make the following exceptions: In the first place, when you go strictly empirically to the materials, the Babylonian literary documents of a cosmological civilization, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Assyrian, or even the Hindu, only a very small percentage of all the materials are stories of anything.

When you have to deal, for instance, with the tension between a Ruler and the Gods, or a Ruler and the People, or with the invasion, say, of the Hyksos, that complex example in Egypt, no stories of the gods will tell you anything. They are quite different forms of expression than stories. So the formulation "Myth is always an account of a creation" is wrong in the face of the empirical facts. There are quite a number of other types of myth.

The second point is that the gods are designated as "supernatural Beings." That, of course, is impermissible. The term supernatural, as opposed to natural, is Scholastic terminology very commonly used by Thomas Aquinas. From Scholasticism, as part of dogma, it entered into the dogmatism of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Eliade is rather an Enlightenment ideologue in this respect to the Scholastics.

In that connection we speak of supernatural as opposed to natural. As I have indicated, no man living in a cosmological civilization ever knew that the gods were a super nature against a nature; there were heaven and earth, the gods and men and the king, and all was part of this partnership. Nothing in it was more natural than anything else. So the terms natural and supernatural just make no sense when used anachronistically with regard to cosmological civilization. That makes sense in the thirteenth century of Scholasticism, that makes sense in the Enlightenment under the influence of the natural sciences, but it makes no sense when you deal with an ancient civilization.

For that reason one cannot accept these nominalist definitions. You have to take a realistic definition, which is very much simpler. You can simply say: Myth is that body of symbols that had in fact been found adequate by the members of such civilizations for expressing their experiences of the cosmos in which they lived. Nobody can object to that—you simply go back to empirical facts.

CW VOL 33,
The Drama of Humanity
and Other Miscellaneous Papers, 1939-1985
The Drama of Humanity,
pp 188-189.