Art cannot imitate life directly – it does it by representation as in a microcosm.
We can look at this statement through the words of Lord Raglan, a philosopher and independent thinker, when he makes the case for the diffusion of culture: Just as stone hand axes were invented in one place and spread throughout the world through the movement of peoples who traded them and perhaps copied them, so did ideas spread. A parallel would be as if today’s soldier had invented his own gun. It is not true that each human mind thinks alike and automatically proceeds towards civilization by inventing the same things or imagining the same stories.
Raglan considers myth to be the litany of a magic ritual, the story that accompanied the action. At a time when ritual went out of use, the story carried on.
There is no evidence to support the belief that myths are historical (most of the Bible is myth). The term ‘folk-memory’ cannot be applied to history; before writing was invented, history was impossible. Amongst illiterate people, facts are not remembered beyond three generations. Examples of this are the neighbouring towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum which were buried by ash from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, then forgotten. Herculaneum was not re-discovered until 1719 and has not been much excavated because a whole mediaeval town, Resina, was built on top of it.
Why were the myths passed on? Raglan doesn’t say. But I suppose it’s because they are great stories, the only stories which existed before books (fairy tales are derivatives of myths), and because they are of a length that can be told. Sorry folks, the battle of Troy never happened.
There are hundreds of myths throughout the world which contain the same elements. By examining these elements in one great group of myths, Raglan tries to work out what possibly took place in the original magic ritual. What is great about him is that he takes into account all the facts – and doesn’t select them to fit his theories.
Raglan proposed: The chosen site had a tree in the middle and a circular trench was dug around the site to separate it from the real world. A young brother and sister were carried to the site in a boat – perhaps they were supposed to have travelled there via the trench. They hid in the tree. A man who had been chosen as king was killed and a new world was made from his body. Clay was mixed with his blood and moulded round two rib bones into a male and a female figure, and brought to life by the appearance of the brother and sister from the tree. They had sex as part of the ritual and then ate the heart of the dead king (which is why we have a wedding cake). The couple became the new king and queen. They were the children of the king because they were made from his body and because the new king had inhaled the last breath of the old king. With this theory, Raglan proposed an explanation as to why the king and queen of Egypt had to be brother and sister (Jocasta’s Crime, 1933).
This is an example of the creation of a microcosm so that the king who represented the old world could be killed and a new world created in the person of the new king who would, in turn, be killed at the end of the year. Raglan says that he has little clue as to the events which led up to this practice and as to why a man should be supposed to epitomize the world. Versions of this myth tell that the king killed himself and made the world from his own body. Don’t forget that the ritual is symbolic and the words which become the myth tell the story of what is actually supposed to happen. I would speculate that the concept of a sky god came from the myth, a being so omnipotent, greater and vaster than the world he created.
Because he sets out possible conclusions Raglan is not fashionable in academic institutions. I’d be interested to know if today’s readers find him exciting.