From Language to Cultural Heritage

The common language of the ancient populations for which it is used the denomination Proto-Indo-European, was most certainly the vehicle for religious, social and moral concepts, in one word, what it can be called the Indo-European culture. At the beginning of the 18th Century the contact with the Hindu culture and the discovery of the Sanskrit languages opened up a renewed interest for language and mythology. As it is well known, in his famous address from 1786 Sir William Jones expressed his marvel over the Sanskrit language structure, more perfect and refined than the Greek or the Latin ones, and yet having verbal and grammatical relations with both. Once this path opened linguists struggled to reconstruct a pre-historic common language based on the hypothesis that all derive from it. The relations between various names of deities became obvious, and as a consequence, the mythological structures received a lot of attention. Discussions centered on the names and functions of divinities, and similarities between mythological themes led to the application of comparative method of research, and the development of comparative mythology as an independent field. The ancient documents of the Hindus, the Persians, the Greeks, the Italics, and the Celts became important sources for this new science, proving that the large pool of common beliefs and customs could have survived over times, hidden in the European and Indo-Iranian folkloric traditions. The difficult task of unearthing and reevaluating elements of culture belonging to these populations could lead to uncover new aspects on the history and culture of our ancestors, but could also lead to exaggerations. The comparative method uses the dimension of a certain cultural form, in our case that of Indo-European mythologies already known and individually studied, by a process of comparing and analyzing elements of myth and folklore from these different cultures. This method operates with sets of simple corresponding structures, named here mythical motifs, which can be followed and compared among many cultures.

The inherent need of human intellect to apprehend the origins of everything dominates the mind from conceptualizing creation myths to rationalizing theories about myth formation and function.

Many researchers agree that “myth… is the counterpart of ritual; myth implies ritual, ritual implies myth, they are one and the same.” (E. R. Leach 1954: 13-14), while others may not agree that myth derives from ritual or the other way around, but are essentially connected. G. Kirk recommends cautiousness when associating myth and ritual as their “relations are complex and varied…” but if mythical and folkloric material cooperate the story, rite-myth gets validation. (Kirk 1970:16-17) Earlier, V. Propp (1957) extended the field maintaining that fairy tales are the text that accompanied rituals.

The anthropological studies own much to B. Malinowski who commended Frazer’s work; he was of the opinion that as a principle of order myth’s primary function was of the recording and validating the social institutions. B. Malinovski thinks that: “Myth fulfills in primitive culture an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances and codifies belief, it safeguards and enforces morality; it vouches for the efficiency of ritual and contains practical rules for the guidance of man” (Malinovski 1955: 101). On a similar note, G. Dumezil based his studies on the idea that myths reflect the social structures of a society. As the author of the tripartite theory Dumezil believed that classical myth reflected ideology and social institutions of the Indo-European society based on three social classes.

Myth embodies a complex cultural phenomenon documenting the way archaic societies functioned,even if it was often been simplified as a story dealing with gods, or as the story behind the ritual. Despite the literal meaning of the Greek word ‘mythos’, something that cannot really exist, fable or fiction, scholars reasoned that people in archaic societies believed myths were ‘true’ and ‘sacred’ stories. By recounting the beginning of things, by offering exemplary models of human behavior, these stories gave meaning to life. (Pettazzoni 1954: 11-36) For Mircea Eliade myth is the narration of a sacred story of an event that happened in primordial times, when supernatural beings took part in the creation of the cosmos, the immediate surroundings, and the social institutions. Thus, myth is relating a ‘true story’, in which supernatural beings were involved in primordial actions, in a primordial time, describing the spring of divine force. M. Eliade argues that by knowing the origin of things man believed he could control and influence them, and by recreating the primordial actions through rituals, he believed that such reenactments will immerse him in the powers of the divine. Myths, Eliade states, describe exemplary models of all significant human activities that were revealed by divine beings or by the mythical forefathers during the course of an acting ritual. “Through myth and symbols the world is no longer an opaque mass of objects thrown arbitrarily together, but a live and meaningful cosmos.” (Eliade 1963) Preoccupied with the structure of the religious conscience, M. Eliade analyzes myth from the perspective of ‘homo religious’. Together with Cassirer, he attributes myth a religious dimension. As a philosopher, Emil Cassirer’s brings in a different perspective on myth when he states: “Thus the attempt is made again and again to make soul mythology or nature mythology, sun or moon or thunder mythology the basis of mythology as such. But even if one of these attempts should prove successful, this would not solve the real problem which mythology presents to philosophy [….] For mythical formulation [….] remains the same miracle of the spirit and the same mystery [….]” And he continues: “But if pure philosophy is necessarily restricted to a general, theoretical picture of such an evolution, it may be that philology and comparative mythology can fill in the outline draw with firm, clear strokes what philosophical speculation could only suggestively sketch.” (Cassirer 1979: 11) He compares the mythic discourse with the philosophic and religious one, arguing that we could not establish, within the development of human culture, the moment when myth ceased to exist and religion began, and thus myth could have been, from its initial form, potentially religion. In agreement with these researchers, I consider approaching myth as the spiritual religious evidence of the archaic societies that could help us to better understand themdespite the difficulties created by time and alterations.

To end this very limited display of previous attempts to define myth, it appears that each offers a valid observation, for instance, it may be true that human beings were impressed by the surrounding nature, since they were dependent on it in every aspect of their life; however, the belief that nature is the sole source of mythical thinking, ignores the other aspects of this subject. The same can be said of social structures, which cannot be considered as basis for the creation of myth without the natural phenomena and the psyche. Most certainly, rituals played an important part in their relation to myth, but careful examinationis needed to clarify if myth is the story of a ritual, or ritual is the result of myth. There are many stories that may describe a ritual only to bring together certain motifs for a more complex purpose. Rituals operated with specific sets of controlled visual and verbal expressions of human values.Physical actions associated with rituals were conveyed into verbal forms of expressions. The story telling uses language tropes, symbols, metaphors, allegories and alike, elements of communication capable to amplify the abstract and religious thoughts imbedded within the cultural heritage. The spoken word sits at the core of the pre-historic mindset for whom stories gained sacred value as it was uttered by the mouth of the storyteller, it became alive and powerful, carrying sacred forces, it developed an independent existence, it influenced man’s destiny and gods’ decisions, it became myth.