January 22, 2016

A latter-day Pentheus

I am not fond of myth, because its concerns are bound up with those of theology. To investigate the beliefs and myths of the past is a necessity for religious studies, due to the ancients' habit of airing their cognitive impulses in the form of riddles and putting myth before science. To unravel all their riddles, and to do it accurately, is no easy thing, but if a statistically significant corpus of mythic productions were to be assembled, including not just those that agree with each other but those that are in disagreement, then one might arrive more readily at a picture of the truth.

For example, in mythic narration the wilderness retreats and ecstasies of religious devotees are combined with wilderness tales of the gods themselves. This probably happens for the same reason that the skies are thought to be inhabited by gods with altruistic foresight that they manifest through signs. Now there are life-sustaining enterprises, like mining and hunting, that obviously have things in common with wilderness retreats, but ecstatic worship and mantic prognostication are more of a matter for mountebanks and charlatans, as are all the clever arts - above all, the arts of Dionysian rite and Orphic song.

Strabo, Geography X.3.23