Myth in Primitive Psychology

March 4, 2017 | Author: Gilbert Dawson | Category: N/A
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1 13 Myth in Primitive Psychology Bronislaw Malinowski From Bronislaw Malinowski, "Myth in Primitive Psychology,&qu...



Myth in Primitive Psychology Bronislaw Malinowski

From Bronislaw Malinowski, "Myth in Primitive Psychology," in Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1954 [1926]), pp. 100-26, 145. Reprinted by permission of Macmillan Publishers, Inc. Abridged.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) is one of the founders of modern anthropology. In a series of remarkable works written largely in the 1920s, he demonstrated the importance of rich ethnographic observation. Born in Poland, he spent most of his teaching career at the london School of Economics, where he influenced a large cohort of students, many of whom made their own important contributions to the ethnographic corpus on religion (notably Firth 1940, 1967, and Richards 1956, among many others). From this entry readers may glimpse how Malinowski was able to capture the imagination of earlier generations of audiences, both professional and public. Mal­ inowski invites us to share his romantic and pleasurable field odyssey in the Trobriand Islands of Melanesia while making no bones about the superiority of his approach over preceding ones. This essay is famous for developing the argument of myth as "charJ:er" but it can be seen, I think, that Malinowski escapes the narrowly functionalist inter­ pretations that are often placed on his ideas. Among other things, he emphasizes the immediacy and "livi!l9 reality" of myth as well as its discursive and pragmatic (hence dialogical) qualities (that is, the recitation of myths as speech events). While it would be wrong to suggest either that all myths have political functions or that the interest or value of any given myth can be reduced to its instrumental political function, Malinowski was undoubtedly correct to look at the place of myth in legitimating particular forms of social organization andlOa of oweFor Interest and the contesta­ tion IS inevitably brings. omes a an~age 0 ega arg ment. Useful developments and exemplifications of ahnowskl'?approach include leach's discussion of "myth as a justification for faction and social change" in highland Burma (1964: Chapter IX) and Andriolo's essay on genealogy in the Old Testament (1973). leach himself later turned to structuralist,(levi-Straussian) analyses of the Old Testa­ ment (1969). Whereas Malinowski claims th'l! meaning of myth is on the surface, many , 1,"




would disagree. Marx and Freud are both noted for arguing that meaning is ra1ed and needs to be recovered, while structuralists see the issue as one of ling the codes or grammar by which meaning is produced.

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!rn anthropolog , demonstrated e spent most of influenced a I :ontributions to :hards 1956, a ,ble to capture la' and public. ;ey in the Trobria )f his approach o~e )f myth as "char!~· functionalist inte • he emphasizes J d pragmatic (he' 1tS). While it wall or that the int I political fun yth in legitimat if and the conte Jment. lach include Leac" , in highland Bur I Testament (1973 lS of the Old Te n the surface, m·

'Jyth as it exists in a savage community, that is, in its living primitive form, is not erely a story told but a reality lived. It is not of the nature of fiction, such as we ad today in a novel, but it i~ a Hving reality, believed to have once happened in . eval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human des­ 'es. This myth is to the savage what, to a fully believing Christian, is the Biblical Dry of Crea!Lon, of ,the ,full, of the Regemption by Christ's Sacrifice on the Cro~s. sour sacred story lives in our ritual, in our morality, as it governs our faith and ·ontrols our conduct, even so does his myth for the savage. The limitation of the study of myth to the mere examination of texts has been fatal to a proper understanding of its nature. The forms of myth which come to us from classical antiquity and from the ancient sacred books of the East and other similar sources have come down to us without the context of living faith, without the possibility of obtaining comments from true believers, without the concomitant knowledge of their social organization, their practiced morals, and their popular customs - at least without the full information which the modern fieldworker can easily obtain. Moreover, there is no doubt that in their present literary form these tales have suffered a very considerable transformation at the hands of scribes, commentators, learned priests, and theologians. It is necessary to go back to primi­ tive mythology in order to learn the secret of its life in the study of a myth which is still alive - before, mummified in priestly wisdom, it has been enshrined in the . indestructible but lifeless repository of dead religions. Studied alive, l1Jl.!t as we shall see, is not symbolic, but a dir~ct expressio.!l.of its subject matter; it is not an explanation in satisfaction of a scientific interest, but a narrative r~rrection of a primeval reality, told in satisfaction of deep religious wants, moral cravings, social submissions, assertions, even practical requirements. M,l!h fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and £Q.difies belief; it safegu~rds and enforces, morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ri~ and cbntains practicaI rules for the guidance of man. Myth'is thus a vital ingredient of human civilization; it is not an idle tale, but a hard-worked active force; it is not an intellectual explanation or an artistic imagery, but a pragmatic charter of primitive taTth and moral WIsdom. [... ] In the subsequent chapters of this book we will examine a number of myths in detail, but for the moment let us glance at the subjects of some typical myths [from the Trobriand Islands]. Take, for instance, the annual feast of the return of the dead. Elaborate arrangements are made for it, especG'lly an enormous display of food. When this feast approaches, tales are told of how death began to chastise man, and how the power of eternal rejuvenation was lost. It is told why the spirits have to leave the village and do not remain at the fireside, finally why they return once in a year. Again, at certain seasons in preparation for an overseas expedition, canoes are overhauled and new ones built to the accompaniment of 9- special magic. In this





there are mythological allusions in the spells, and even the sacred acts contain elements which are only comprehensible when the story of the flying canoe, its ritual, and its magic are told. In connection with ceremonial trading, the rules, the giC' even the geographical routes are associated with corresponding mythology. There is no important magic, no ceremony, no ritual without belief; and the belief is s un out into accounts of concrete precedent. The u.n~on is ~ery inti~ate, for ~is nQt only looked upon as a commentary of addltlonal mformatiOn, but it is a warrant, a charter, and often even a ractlcaI uide to the activities with which it i connected. On t e ot er an t e rituals, ceremonies, customs, an social organ­ ization contain at times direct references to myth, and they are regarded as the £esults of mythical eve~t. The cultural fac~ is a monument in which the myth is embodled; while the myth is believed to be the real cause which has brought about the moral rule, the social grouping, the rite, or the custom. Thus these stories form an integral part of culture. Their existence and influence not merely transcend the act of telling the narrative, not only do they draw their substance from life and its interests - th~y govern and control many cultural features, they form the dogmatic b~e.Qf primitive civilization. l ' > .This is perhaps the most important point of the thesis which I am urging: maintain that there exists a special class of stories, regarded as sacr~d, embodied in ritual, morals, and social organization, and which form an integral and active part of primitive culture. These stories live not by idle interest, not as fictitious or even as true narratives; but are to the natives a statement of a primeval, greater, and more relevant reality, by which the present life, fates, and activities of mankind are determined, the knowledge of which supplies man with the motive for ritual and moral actions; as well as with indications as to how to perform them. .. , In order to make the point at issue quite clear, let us once more compare our conclusions with the current views of modern anthropology, not in order idly to criticize other opinions, but so that we may link our results to the present state of knowledge, give due acknowledgment for what we have received, and state where we have to differ clearly and precisely. It will be best to quote a condensed and authoritative statement, and I shall choose for this purpose of definition an analysis given in Notes and Queries on Anthropol­ ogy, by the late Miss C. S. Burne and Professor J. L. Myres. Under the heading "Stories, Sayings, and Songs," we are informed that "this section includes many intellectual efforts of peoples" which "represent the earliest attempt to exercise reason, imagination, and memory." With some apprehension we ask where is left the emotion, the interest, and ambition, the social role of all the stories, and the deep connection with cultural values of the more serious ones? After a brief classification of stories in the usual manner we read about the sacred tales: "Myths are stories which, however marvelous and improbable to us, are nevertheless related in all good faith, because they are intended, or believed by the teller, to explain by means of something concrete and intelligible an abstract idea or such vague and difficult conceptions as Creation, Death, distinctions of race or animal species, the different occupations of men and women; the origins of rites and customs, or striking natural objects or prehistoric monuments; the meaning of the names of persons or places. Such stories are sometimes described as etiological, because their purpose is to explain why something exists or happens.':l






red acts can flying canoe ",:: ng, the rules '" lding mytholo';; ; and the belief ~ate,for~

tlOn, but It 'IS ies with which and social orga regarded as hich the myth as brought ab :hese stories fo ely transcend" ~ from life and . lrm the do rna

ich I am urg' sacred, embodi ltegral and acti ot as fictitious primeval, great and activities ; man with t ~owtoperfo

lOre compare 0 t in order idly !Ilen and contextual relations as in the text. It is easier to write down the story than ~o observe the diffuse, complex ways in which it enters, or to study its




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