“Bit by bit I am acquiring really mythical eyes, perhaps they are those of an old man once again approaching childhood.”
Jacob Burckhardt, Letter to von Preen (July 24, 1889)
“It occurred to him that the difference between history and mythology might be itself meaningless outside of the Earth”
C. S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
Myth is folklore, and folklore is the learning of a people. Some myths are the lore of all mankind. This essential meaning is obscured by our fixation on the content of particular myths, such as those of the Greeks and the Norse, or on particular personalities in folklore, such as Paul Bunyan or William Tell. But the Greek word mythos denotes the oral tradition, and literally means the words of a people, the words that a people commonly say. We should therefore think of myth as a generic name for oral tradition, which may or may not include stories about the gods.
Now the words of a people are various, and a great many things are commonly said, but mythos should not be supposed to include all of the incidental and trivial chatter in a people’s common life. Mythos is folklore, lore is learning, and mythology is therefore the wisdom or wise words of a people. It the words that a people especially remembers, that it takes especial care to pass down through the generations. This is why we call myths a tradition. Things are handed down in a tradition, just as things are handed over in a trade.
A literate people writes its wise words down in books, and then read these wise words aloud as legends. The word legend means that which is read, and more especially that which is read aloud, as may be inferred from its resemblance to the word legible. The legends of a people are the stories that all those people ought to read or have read to them. If there are books that you feel you must read aloud to your children, those are your legends. And so are the books you re-read to yourself. Myths and legends are the wisdom, the lore, the learning that a people seeks especially to remember and pass down through the generations.
Modernity hates folklore because modernity is a rival lore. We can see this hatred when men steeped in modern lore use the word myth as a pejorative name for false and fantastic beliefs, and when they use the word legend to impugn a story with dubious authenticity. Men steeped in the modern lore may read old myths and legends for amusement; they may take them up with forceps for critical analysis, but they never take them seriously as wise words. They never cherish them as lore.
* * * * *
Like mythos, the word logos means both word and lore. The difference between mythos and logos is that mythos is the word and lore of a people, and logos is the word and lore of an individual. This meaning may be obscured for Christians who are partly blinded by the stupendous doctrine that Jesus is the “word,” or logos, of God. But the “word” of God in a hundred places means the wisdom, or lore, of God. To take but one example, Jehoshaphat says of the prophet Elisha,
“The word of the Lord is with him.”
This means that Elisha is a prophet who gives voice to the wisdom of God. The stupendous doctrine of John’s gospel is that Jesus was this same wisdom embodied and “spoken” in the person of one man. Jesus was thus himself the new testament in which God revealed to men the contents of his mind.
Among the ancient Greeks, some men sought to improve the contents of their minds by the pursuit of wisdom. Those who sought knowledge by way of reflection and debate were called philosophers; those who sought knowledge by way of inquiry (historia) were known as historians. This is why empirical natural science was for centuries known as natural history.
When these wise men related what they had learned, whether by inquiry, debate or reflection, their testament was called their logos. Just as God had revealed the contents of his mind in the words of Elisha or the person of Christ, so philosophers and historians revealed the contents of their minds in their word. Their logos was their testament to their lore or what they had learned.
As the great classicist Gilbert Murray explained,
“A prose book in the sixth century was . . . the result of the author’s history; it was his logos, the thing he had to say.”*
And when Murray says that logos was the thing a man had to say, he meant the thing he had to say that he believed ought to be remembered and passed down to the next generation. It was that man’s wisdom, his learning, his lore.
* * * *
Jacob Burkhardt was seventy-one when he wrote that he was acquiring “really mythical eyes,” and that this acquisition was likely due to the fact that he was “an old man once again approaching childhood.” Burkhardt is today remembered as the great historian who wrote The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, an inquiry into the birth of modernity. But that history was written thirty years before he wrote this letter to von Preen, and in the twilight of life Burkhardt had begun to see the triviality of such inquires into mere facts. In this letter, he dismisses such inquiries as “quisquilian researches,” which is to say fossicking through rubbish, and he confesses that “myths attract me more and more, and draw me away from history.”
Burkart wrote this letter while vacationing at Baden, in the Swiss canton of Aargau, and the old historian told his friend that he had just purchased a volume of local folklore from the bookseller. From home he had brought nothing but Description of Greece, by the second century geographer Pausanias. Pausanias was, perhaps, the first geographer of myth, and his Description is a guide to the storied sites in the popular lore of the ancient Greek people. Here is a typical passage.
“The fountains of the river Erymanthus are in the mountain Lampea, which is said to be sacred to Pan . . . . It is also said that Hercules, in consequence of the mandate of Eurystheus, slew the boar in Erymanthus which was so remarkable for its magnitude and strength.”
To understand what Burkhardt meant by “mythical eyes,” we must observe two things. First, that he says a man sees the world with mythical eyes at the beginning and end of his life. Second, that he says an old man feels himself drawn back to this way of seeing. Thus we might rephrase Burkhart’s notion this way:
“History attracts a young men more and more, and draws him down out of myth. But when he is old and wise and has learned the truth of things, to myth he reascends.
The lore of every wise man is that he has no original lore. That is a conceit of middle age. Everything that has value in his logos exists in the mythos. He can claim authorship only of its errors.
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My epigram from Lewis appears near the end of the first volume in his space trilogy. The protagonist Ransom is returning from Malacandra to Thulcandra, which is more and other than rocketing through space from Mars to Earth. This is evident in the title of Lewis’s book, although the significance of the title long escaped me. Indeed, I was long in the habit of misremembering the title as Out from the Silent Planet, when it is, in fact, Out of the Silent Planet. But the journey those three men take is not a simple journey through space—a journey from Earth to Mars and back. It is, rather, a spiritual journey out of the fallen state of man on earth. It is a transcendental vision of life outside of the world that lives under the Curse
What the epigram tells us is that Ransom grasps that mythos is logos in the transcendental vision, just as Burkhardt grasped that logos is mythos in his vision as “an old man once again approaching childhood.” It is only the Curse (and middle age) that causes the wretched men and women trapped on the the Silent Planet to mistake myth and history for two entirely different things.
* * * * *
And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate —but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.
T.S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)
*) Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897)