Mythemes I

June 25, 2020 Category: History

Mythemes are timeless motifs in folklore.  They can be found in mythology around the world, throughout history.  They recur in myriad cultural contexts because there is something in them that resonates with all humans qua humans.  The concept was first discussed in James Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”; published in installments between 1890-1915.  They can be understood as narrative templates that resonate with our (universal) human nature. {1} 

Typically, such themes are oriented around archetypes: motifs that seem to crop up in most cultures.  Just as with mythemes, archetypes exist across cultures simply because they resonate with something in everyone–irrespective of social milieu.  As we’ll see, this can be the case with anything from fairies and unicorns…to sky-gods and savior-gods.

While both are reflections of universal proclivities, it is useful to make the distinction between mythemes and archetypes.  The former are general THEMES (of stories), the latter are particular TYPES (of things / personas).  To illustrate the distinction, let’s look at examples of each.

Mytheme:  While “mytheme” typically refers to a particular plot-point, we might also look at the recurrence of an entire narrative structure.  A favorite plot-line is the dashing hero exiled from his homeland or faced with a daunting challenge (that is: given a “call to adventure”)…then embarking on an epic, transformative journey…and eventually to return in triumph.

The general format of this narrative structure dates back to the Bronze Age with the tale of Utnapishtim in Assyrian / Babylonian lore (ref. the “Epic of Gilgamesh”).  It then continued on through tales of …

  • Rama in Hindu lore (ref. the “Rama-yana”; see Appendix)
  • Siddhartha Gautama in Buddhist lore (later popularized by Hermann Hesse)
  • Xuan-zang in Chinese lore (ref. “Journey To The West”)
  • Yamato Takeru in Japanese lore (ref. the “Kojiki” / “Nihon Shoki”)
  • Odysseus (later Romanized to “Ulysses”) in Greek lore
  • Joshua in Hebrew lore (ref. the Mikra)
  • Lucius in Roman lore (ref. “The Golden Ass” by Apuleius of Numidia)
  • …which was then adapted (with Dionysus as the protagonist) in the “Dionysiaca” by Nonnus of Panopolis in Hellenic lore
  • Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon / Norman lore
  • Parzifal’s quest for the fabled “holy grail” in German lore (later rendered “Galahad” in Frankish lore)

This “hero’s journey” emerged in English lore with Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen” in the late 16th century (where different journeys by different characters were recounted).  The quintessential modern example is Bilbo–then Frodo–in Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings”.

Sometimes the quest is for something abstract–as with Enlightenment or some kind of transcendence.  Sometimes it is for a sacred artifact–as with the philosopher’s stone.  But whether it’s Lancelot searching for the goblet used by Jesus during the Last Supper or Jason searching for the Golden Fleece, there is a mission.  During the quest, the stakes are high, the ordeals offer a growing opportunity, and there is a valuable lesson is to be learned.  The protagonist must undergo an existential evolution, overcoming obstacles and enduring tribulation, if he is to succeed–a reality with which we must all come to terms in our own lives.

Joseph Campbell dubbed this the “hero’s journey”, and explicated the formula in terms of a series of key plot-points.  Campbell showed that we needn’t resort to mystical mumbo-jumbo to elucidate the universality of this narrative structure.  Rather, he posited the global resonance the “monomyth”, the existence of which revealed a universal human nature (ref. “Hero With A Thousand Faces”).

Archetype:  A leitmotif that seems to crop up in different mythologies is the bridge to heaven.  This was first found in Persian mythology as the “Chinvato Peretum” (a.k.a. the C[h]invat Bridge): the bridge to “Takamagahara” (where souls are judged by “Rashnu”).  In Islamic lore, this bridge is re-named, “Al-Sirat” (alternately, the “Sirat al-Mustaqim”)…as if referring to it in Arabic lent it a sheen of authenticity.  This was obviously a repurposing of the Zoroastrian meme.  The leitmotif of a magical structure leading to the hereafter can also be found in ancient Norse mythology–with “Bifröst”: the rainbow bridge leading from Midgard to Asgard (alternately translated as “shimmering path”).  Such a bridge makes sense, as it provides the way from this world to the next (“dunya” to “akirah” in CA terms).  Some are inclined to depict the trestle as a stairway.  Others as a gateway.

Whether a mytheme or an archetype, we find that certain kinds of things hit all the right buttons; and do so regardless of how fantastical they might be.  (Sometimes, the MORE fantastical, the more likely they are embraced; see the work of Scott Atran.)  Resonance is often a personal thing; but every so often, there is something that has UNIVERSAL resonance.  This means that it “strikes a nerve”, as it were, with just about anybody–irrespective of cultural milieu, across virtually all geographies and historical periods.  The only explanation for this is that there is something in our universal (human) nature to which such things appeal. {14}

Such memetic trends are not limited to ancient folklore.  The same psychical mechanisms are exploited when it comes to the architecture of narratives in contemporary culture–as with formulaic books and movies and television shows that are–predictably–big hits.  It is no coincidence that certain thematic gimmicks–and even certain plot-points–crop up over and over again.  (This is especially the case with romances–be it maudlin Harlequin romance novels or cheesy romantic comedies.  But we also find it in detective stories and crime dramas.)  Note, for example, the notion of the quintessential seducer: From Don Giovanni (Italian) to Don Juan (Spanish) to Cyrano de Bergerac (French).

The fact that the same narrative patterns crop up again and again, around the world, across epochs, is due to what Dan Sperber dubbed “cognitive attractors”: themes and motifs toward which all humans naturally gravitate–irrespective of cultural milieu–due to the shared neurological structure of all homo sapiens.  An account of themes / motifs common to virtually all cultures was given by Pascal Boyer in his “Religion Explained”.  Another list was compiled by Michael Shermer in an appendix to his, “The Science of Good & Evil”.

In order to fully appreciate the prevalence of mythemes, one does not need to appeal to the Jungian treatment of archetypes (that is: as Platonic forms dwelling in some collective unconscious-ness).  One needn’t resort to quasi-mystical conceptions like Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious” to recognize a human nature–nor the existence of common threads running through the world’s widely variegated myths.  (There are, of course, treatments of archetypes other than the Jungian variety.  Jung’s insight was that there is a psychological explanation for these universal patterns.  Little did he know that evolutionary psychology would provide all the explanation we need; no mysticism required.)

An example of a popular theme is the tale of two brothers who find themselves in a fraught relationship, each on his own path.  It addresses certain timeless / universal themes, yet is not ubiquitous.  This is more than just a sibling rivalry.  The brothers represent two different approach to life–an exigency that sometimes involves conflict, but not always; and sometimes involves reconciliation, but not always. {17}

This motif goes back to the 12th century B.C. in Egypt–with the tale of the two brothers: Bata and Anpu.  The Biblical tale of Cain and Abel (composed by Judaic scribes in Babylon during the Exilic Period) is a recycling of the antecedent Egyptian legend.  This should come as no surprise, as folkloric appropriation invariably occurred throughout the region in ancient times.  Archaic tales of the two ORIGINAL brothers even occurred in the Far East. {18}

Oftentimes, the tale-of-two-brothers involves jealousy / betrayal.  In the Torah alone, we repeatedly encounter the theme of brother betraying brother: first with Cain vis a vis Abel…then with Jacob vis a vis Esau…and then with the betrayal of Joseph by ALL of his brothers (including the Judaic patriarch, Judah).  Typically, the rejection of eldest son was involved: Abel over Cain, Seth over Ham, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over Reuben, Ephraim over Manasseh, etc.  It was a catchy theme, so WHY NOT keep recycling it?  The authors of the Bible even threw in a scandalous SISTER rivalry for good measure (replete with resentment, deception, and betrayal) with the account of Rachel and Leah vying for Jacob’s hand.

The tale of two brothers is timeless because it addresses important issues.  It is no surprise, then, that arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century, Steinbeck’s “East of Eden”, adapted the classic tale for modern times.

Starting with the Egyptian tale of Bata and Anpu, we find that the notion of an ignoble brother seeking vindication over a noble brother is commonplace throughout world mythology–as with:

  • Set[h] (vis a vis Osiris) in Egyptian myth
  • Ahriman (vis a vis Ahura Mazda) in Persian myth
  • Acrisius (vis a vis Proetus) in Greek myth
  • Romulus (vis a vis Remus) in Roman myth
  • Loki (vis a vis Thor) in Norse myth

We encounter a similar dynamic with the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospels.

Other themes crop up again and again throughout the world’s religions–as with people displeasing a cantankerous, vindictive deity…then being smote for their insolence.  The deity in the Torah is arguably the most temperamental character in sanctified myth (and arguably the most petty).  Behold what he did to the insolent people Sodom and Gomorrah (in the Torah) and of A’ad and of Salih [Thamud] (in the Koran)…and then to, well, all non-Christians in the Book of Revelation.

Upon even a cursory survey of the world’s religions over the past five millennia, certain mythemes are hard not to notice.  Christianity may well be the best-known example of a newfangled Faith co-opting extant leitmotifs–yielding a make-shift pastiche of dogmas.  That derivative memetic agglomeration is then fancied as sui generis.  The resulting memeplex is presented as a fully-intact, original version of the myth.  (Call it “contrived authenticity”.)  This routine of clandestine appropriation is typical of virtually ALL theologies–as exemplified Islam’s extensive cooptation of antecedent Syriac lore (see my essay: “Syriac Source-material For Islam’s Holy Book”).

In fashioning itself as THE explanation for everything, virtually every religion considers itself pristinely authentic (i.e. not derivative in any way).  Its supplicants are thereby reticent to concede that any of its ostensibly groundbreaking ideas may not be quite as resplendently original as they make them out to be.  (One sullies the exaltation of X when one concedes that X is derivative in nature.)

As we shall see here, in any given case, a culture adopts its own incarnation of the theme-of-choice; and then proceeds “full steam ahead” with appropriation.  The trick is to get a lot of new milage out of nifty motifs that have worked for ages upon ages, and in many places under many circumstances.  One might call this “mytheme-milking”.  In excavating–then “milking”–an enticing (and useful) motif, adopters are behooved to pass it off as their own.  (Nobody likes to think of their own instantiation of a mytheme as derivative.) {15}

Here, we will look at a few mythemes that have been “milked” to an especially high degree.  We should bear in mind that the appropriation of leitmotifs is USUALLY done unwittingly.  (It is not so much a calculated project of meme-poaching as it is an unwitting process meme-adaptation.)  Rarely do people conscientiously conduct a meme-mining operation.  Themes are not consumer products for which one goes shopping.

The incorporation of mythemes into one’s own cultural repertoire is more often the result of happenstance than it is some premeditated (programatic) scheme of co-optation. {5}  Indeed, the architecture of any given memeplex is the result of a (mostly) blind selection process analogous to biological evolution.  (For more on this, see Richard Dawkins’ “The Extended Phenotype”.)

And so it goes: People wind up with any given mytheme in their folklore simply because it happens to resonate with them (for psychical reasons) and serves a purpose (for practical reasons)…and eventually ends up “catching on”.  Certain themes resonate more than others; and certain themes are more useful than others.

There is NOTHING perspicacious about this.  It all occurs according to gut instinct–and a general affinity (read: due to some vague sense).  Thus people tend to seize onto the resulting ethos rather than the details of that which underlies it.  In other words: People fixate more on cultural phenotypes rather than on (the memetic equivalent of) cultural genotypes.  Men don’t try to mate with attractive women the former is enticed by the particular ways in which the DNA informs protein-folding in the cells of the latter.

Let’s start with a familiar example of this cultural process.  The story of forbidden love is timeless–starting with the liaison between the Paris and Helena.  This provocative mytheme has occurred around the world since time immemorial.  The most famous version is, of course, Shakespeare’s “Romeo And Juliet”–itself an adaptation of antecedent versions of the tale, which can be traced back to Ovid’s tale of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Forbidden love can be based on race (“Broken Arrow”; see footnote 2), class (Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”, Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”), or religion (Khouri’s “Forbidden Love”, Rabinyan’s “Gader Haya” [“Borderlife”]; see footnote 3).  In each case, the ill-fated lovers come from different tribes.  Here are a dozen more occurrences of this mytheme from from different cultures around the world:

  • Greek: The tale of Paris and Hellena.
  • Roman: The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe.
  • Persian: The tale of Khosrow and Shirin.
  • Jewish: The tale of the Hebrew, Samson and the Philistine maiden, Delilah is another instance–though that liaison was more a matter of deception and betrayal.
  • Arab: The tale of Qays ibn Al-Mulawah and Layla (a.k.a. Layla and Majnu[n]; literally meaning “night and bewitched lover”).
  • Punjabi: The tale of Salim and Anarkali.
  • Mughal: The tale of Bhagmati and Quli.
  • Chinese: The tale of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, “Butterfly Lovers”.
  • Japanese: The tale of Gennosuke and Oboro, “Koga Ninpocho” (a.k.a. “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls”).
  • Siamese: The tale of Kobori and Angsumalin, “Khu Kum” [“Partners Of Sin”] (rendered “Sunset At Chaophraya” in film).
  • Norse:  The tale of Hjalmar and Ingeborg.
  • English / Welsh / Irish: The tale of Tristan and Isolde.

Around the world, we find that ill-fated lovers is a common theme.  Also notable is the romantic tale of Persian prince, Homay and Chinese princess, Homayun (by Khwaja of Kerman; a.k.a. “Khwaju”).   In modern times, the classic tale was recast in American culture (with Tony and Maria) in “West Side Story” (set between Italians and Puerto Ricans in 1960’s Harlem).  Star-cross lovers from different cultures doesn’t always end in tragedy, of course.  The Frankish tale of Flores (Moorish) and Blancheflour (French), though a forbidden love, has a happy ending.

Contentious romance clearly has universal appeal; which explains why it crops up in so many different places.  The Elizabethan version served as the basis for our modern perception of the tale; but this should not lead us to believe that the plot was sui generis.  At the end of the day, we all want to believe that love transcends tribal divisions.

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