MEANING OF MYTH Book Review—Framing Human Fantasy

The Education of Achilles by Gagneraux

Herakles strikes the only civilized centaur, Chiron, with his hydra-poisoned arrows in the midst of a Dionysian rumpus. Although it was a group of unrelated centaurs, whose intoxication erupted the frenzy, Chiron equally suffers an eternal wound. To the reader of Neel Burton, a psychiatrist and philosopher, such a phantasmagoric event extends far beyond the realm of pure fantasy. What’s more is that Herakles, in the analysis of our erudite author, acts unlike the triumphant club-bearer he appears as elsewhere. Burton melds the myth with Freudian parlance to prescribe its psychological reality; Herakles, an unwittingly tyrannical superego, crushes and so fails to sublime his equine id, symbolized by Chiron and the horse-legged lot. Burton’s prescription elucidates the need to withhold neurotic reactions to the psyche’s baser personalities.

For those unfamiliar with Greco-Roman, and other mythologies, Neel Burton’s book fortunately refrains from assuming knowledge where summary suffices. Though, in this writer's opinion, his scope, range of corroboration, and perspicacious pen are certain to intimidate.

The myth of Pygmalion is another subject of Burton’s philosophical dissection. The mythical figure bedecks a sculpture of his own creation “in rich robes and fine jewelry,” treating it like a living spouse, until, upon a request to the goddess Aphrodite, there blooms “a warmth and redness rising into her lips.” Fantastical though it may sound, Burton argues that artists and lovers more generally animate their marble ideals much like Pygmalion does. The romantic tendency has much to do with personal projections “of our needs, desires, and expectations—which is why it helps on dating sites and apps to fit a particular stereotype or fantasy.” Burton stretches more in this and several other sections. He cites Plato’s Republic, Homer’s Odyssey, and a modern theory called the Pygmalion Effect to unpack the myth. Indeed, he passes not a single myth without referring to a long line of intellectual theorists and poets, stretching from Socrates, Empedocles, and Rumi to Freud, Jung, and Campbell.

Burton’s oracular gaze into the meanings of myth (as well as the occasional ritual, fairy tale, and legend) is not excluded to the psychological. He posits the historical origins of certain mythic characters; were the Greek Prometheus and Georgian Amiran descended from Matarisvan of the Vedas? Lucifer too, he surmises, was inspired by the same light-bringing stock.

Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian

THE MEANING OF MYTH Frames the History of Human Wonder

As suggested above, Burton hardly stops with the myths of Greece, nor those of India or Mesopotamia. He also peruses paradigm shifts between Catholic mysticism, legalistic Protestantism, and, finally, science. The last of these underlies the sobered state of many contemporary cultures across the globe—one of demythologization.

You too may pine while reading of our world’s decolorizing in such rapid summary as though it were the fade of a pellucid rainbow. So vibrant are the old mythic paradigms! Consider Zeus pouring over Danae as golden rain or the Medusa’s head tacked onto Athena’s shield, a symbolic integration of the inner brute, in Burton’s view.

The Rape of Proserpine by Rubens

But, in this writer’s opinion, the hypothetical (if not genuine) escape from myth in modern times comes as a surprise, given Burton’s excavation of more minute psychological functions that direct the mythic mind. He explains a process called reification—the abstract concretization of a concept—which appears nanosized in poetic devices like metaphor. But even Burton thinks of the escape as a tentative one. He cites the reemergence of magical interests in the West (think astrology or New Age thought) and states, “to live without myth is to live in an untenable state of cold and objective detachment, a perpetual present devoid of feeling and belonging.” His analysis of a single Shakespeare passage with a deft listing of poetic devices shows just how intricate the human use of reification can be.

To Burton it seems impossible to avoid our very human art of imaginative compression. His first-hand encounter with a pre-Christian Sardinian ritual dance in Mamoiada well complements the point. A group of “twelve masked figures” called the Mamuthones, are “clad in sheepskin and laden with bells” while parading the streets. Can myth seem more essential than by being so embodied? His perception that, in this instance, it is not the myth that has been preserved, as in the case of, say, the Iliad, but the ritual, begs another of the book’s large inquiries; what, in a culture, arises first, the myth or the ritual?

The Meaning Of Myth is great for anyone just dipping their toes into the hoity-toity resort pool of Greco-Roman myth. Even for the learned scholar, the book helpfully frames the broad strokes of mythology as well as other narrative forms and their interpretation up until today.


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Price: $13.99 (paperback), $4.99 (Kindle)

For more information and to purchase this title, please visit Neel Burton’s Website

Images courtesy of THE MEANING OF MYTH


Anthony Neri

About the Author: Anthony Neri

An avid philosophizer and Dostoevsky fanboy, Anthony spends his time ruminating on very deep moral questions. Is he a genuine old soul or does he feign as much for the mystique?--perhaps a bit of both. When he isn't tormenting himself existentially, he reads fiction and translates ancient Greek and Latin texts, all the while developing his own literary flourishes with the hope of producing his very own dazzling prose. Cliche? Maybe. But he figures everyone starts out as a cliche.

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