Why Does Life Become Mythological?
How Violence Generates Myth


According to Malinowski, myths and mythology play into the areas of life that are dangerous since they are closely associated with the marginal and uncomfortable. This means that myth flourishes in life situations associated with war, illness, loss of loved ones, aging and epidemics, transforming dangerous situations into something bearable. In addition, weather, although not primarily dangerous, can open for mythmaking when the conditions are extreme. Love also entails great danger, as emotions such as lust, envy and jealousy often motivate violence and black magic. One might claim that myth and the magical grow out of the dangerous and violent areas of life.

This process of mythologizing one’s existence is largely unconscious and originates in efforts to survive. Thus, the desire to understand, find meaning, and give the marginal a rationale which stems from the survival instinct. This rationale extends the bare facts of life – especially in dangerous situations. It is as if the more dangerous the situation is, the more elaborate and complex the story tends to become.

In this way, one could also call different scientific theories mythology, as the logos of science usually can quickly become new versions of mythos.

In the face of acute danger and acute discomfort, narrating history becomes an outlet. History, usually depicted as a wonderful past, helps to explain why things developed the way they did. The past, usually the extreme past, is drawn upon to explain, or at least shed light upon the threatening phenomena, and thereby lessen the pain.

Violence and the threat of violence is what motivates mythmaking. Man cannot tolerate violence, and tries to find a rationale for it, although violence may become self-perpetuating as in the notion that violence can eliminate violence. The more violent a culture becomes, the more it needs mythology. In encounters with danger, men become transformed into gods and demons; and nature, in the eyes of those threatened, becomes bewitched.

For example, Malinowski considers shark fishing to be an activity that the Trobrian islanders associate with magic. The danger associated with shark fishing is so much greater than with catching other fish, that it is surrounded by a wealth of magic rituals. Similarly, another early anthropologist, Radcliffe-Brown, who points out that people´s names are not mentioned in periods of vulnerability, such as during a birth, death, or rite de passage. In addition, certain foods must be avoided in these liminal phases, thereby highlighting the taboos associated with the vulnerable periods in life.

Sir James Frazer was one of the first to identify the essential connection between myth and taboo. According to Frazer, primitive man thinks that he can control nature by magic. With magic, one owns the tool to manipulate. In contrast, religion, which comes at a later stage in human development, is based on a belief in change through a godhead. Frazer’s understanding of the fear of contagion seems especially relevant in order to understand the development of mythology. In an early phase, man is the magician, and the individual seeks a system by which to control nature. Magic, according to Frazer, is built on the illusion that those things that resemble one another are the same. This causes a fear of sameness, that gives rise to an urge to differentiate. Myth grows from a fear of contagion, and since contagion is associated with violence, fear of contagion so easily developes into violence.

In order to find relief from the threat of violence a man can imitate an animal in order to attain its supernatural powers, but there are other instances, more closely associated with violence, when certain animals are taboo and it is strictly forbidden to eat them. In chapter XXI of The Golden Bough, Frazer mentions a wealth of taboos, and they are all associated with the liminal phases in life in which individuals are especially vulnerable.

Thus in primitive society the rules of ceremonial purity observed by divine kings, chiefs, and priests agree in many respects with the rules observed by homicides, mourners, women in childbed, girls at puberty, hunters and fishermen, and so on. To us these various classes of persons appear to differ totally in character and condition; some of them we should call holy, others we might pronounce unclean and polluted. But the savage makes no such moral distinction between them; the conceptions of holiness and pollution are not yet differentiated in his mind. To him the common feature of all these persons is that they are dangerous and in danger, and the danger in which they stand and to which they expose others is what we should call spiritual or ghostly, and therefore imaginary. The danger, however, is not less real because it is imaginary; imagination acts upon a man as really as does gravitation, and may kill him as certainly as a dose of prussic acid. (J.G. Frazer. The Golden Bough, 294-295.)

It is from the dangers of life that notions such as ethics, providence and immortality arise. However, this does not mean that these notions are superstition. On the contrary, the refinement of knowledge is enhanced by myth. Before developing myth and ritual, man lived more as an animal. Virtual reality gives rise to myth in new and ever more complex versions.

The fear of violence seems to distort reality. In order to make sense of the dangers in life, people turn to narratives and rites. However, this process of mythologizing is easier to see from the outside. One’s own mythology is difficult to grasp as it is in tune with a contemporary worldview. Our own juxtaposition of reality and myth, usually undiscovered, can keep us ignorant of modern mythmaking, and create an unnecessarily negative attitude to cultures of the past. For example, Fraser seems incapable of relating his findings to anything mythological in his own scientific environment. If one had informed him of the scapegoating processes at work in 19th century Britain, he would probably have been amazed.

It seems to me that modern, secular culture has arisen from a decrease in violence and danger. Man has “tamed” nature and decoded the process of violent retribution. A comfortable, economically secure and peaceful life has clearly disenchanted the world. Thus, rationality and logic may be the result of an easier existence, which is in turn associated with religions, ethics and attitudes propagating non-violence and neighbourly love.

Mythology and the Building of Cultures

Since fear, violence and danger change people´s outlook on life, these conditions are ingredients on how to create culture. Culture is born out of a shock caused by threatening and uncomfortable encounters. Threats and acute danger cause people to group together. Societies who are threatened are strictly exclusive, therefore, in order to protect the social group. Since rituals have the power to bind humans together, it is possible, over time, to build civilizations of great refinement. Without the myths and rituals produced by religions, advanced culture would not be possible. In this respect, Darwinism and the theory of evolution should be seen closer together with religion in our understanding of human evolution, in order to explain why human culture has evolved into a society based on virtual reality. The evolution of culture cannot be considered in isolation from the growth of the brain, and cannot therefore be seen as an extension of biological evolution only. Thus, virtual reality serves as a means of escape from the dangers associated with crude nature. In this respect, civilization is rooted in an urge to escape both human violence and violent nature. Thus, Radcliffe-Brown is correct in his claim that taboos create societies of great complexity.

This view of culture as arising from a fear motivated by life´s dangers can also be seen in Peter Berger’s sociological understanding of religion as world building. In The Sacred Canopy, Berger represents man as a world-builder and a social being, and religion is the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established. Berger argues that it is in our nature to construct social worlds, and that it is the very nature of the self to “externalize”. The sum of these “externalizations” produces society, which becomes a concrete reality that in turn acts on the individual.

However, Berger views religion as simply protection from meaninglessness more than violence, and the loss of meaning is, if not a luxury associated with more recent times, clearly less drastic than the imminent fear of being savagely killed. Neolithic man, for example, was primarily preoccupied with survival. Thus, Berger’s theory on creating a sacred canopy would seem to be in need of a more historical understanding of the human situation in order to see the urgency for protection. Man had to overcome the threats surrounding him and limiting his existence before “advanced” ideas such as meaninglessness had any validity.

The Sacred as Protection against Chaos

Berger’s theory, however, becomes acutely relevant in his discussion of man’s lack of protection. Humans, according to Berger, are the most unfinished species, and their project of world building is never-ending. Humans´ world building is both a consequence of their biological constitution,[10]

In Berger’s work, there is a great deal of focus on the sacred as protection against chaos. An essential element is the notion that the sacred gives people the feeling that their life has meaning, and protects them against the unavoidable threat of death. For Berger religion is the establishment, the incorporation of a holy order or holy cosmos through human activity, an order that can maintain order despite the continual threat of chaos. Berger views death as an issue that every society is compelled to address, and more precisely, as the problem from which religion develops. Thus, the process of world building can appear very similar to mythmaking.

However, it is essential to understand that building civilizations is not motivated by violence, but by the fear of violence. Man’s externalization, its power to transform itself and its environment as suggested by René Girard, is evident in the act of scapegoating, where the violence becomes rationalised and peace is restored in a community by killing a victim, and thereby creating a scapegoat that binds the community together. Because humans cannot tolerate the violence they have committed, they create religious institutions that regulate such sacrifices.

Eliade’s Non-Violent Understanding of Myth

Eliade’s phenomenological theory of the sacred is based on the purely religious and is very distinct from the profane. The reason for this is the fact that he does not view religion from a primarily anthropological point of view. From this perspective, violence is not a key concept in understanding religious phenomena. Rather than fear and violence, religious man experiences life as sacred, something qualitative and essential. He also experiences space as sacred, divided into centre and periphery. This concept of space means that there is sacred space, which is more essential and of greater value than secular space. Sacred space operates on the assumption that there is some sort of focal point, such as a mountain, a tree or a city (for example, Mount Sinai, the Bodhi-tree, Jerusalem). However, Eliade does not seem to consider the fact that most holy sites are related to death and killings. Holy places are generally a commemoration of some kind of violent act.

Eliade views secularization as profanation, as a kind of decadence. He considers this decadence to be manifested in the shift from mythical to historical time; myth is the real, while history is something false, meaningless and sinful.[13] Myths and rites save humans from the terror of history.

It seems that Eliade opts for the life of the imagination instead of crude facts. However, historical time does not necessarily involve terror, and sacrificial rites do not necessarily save humans from terror, although both myths and rituals can limit the terror – especially in the mind of the individual. Rather than despising historical time, one can view it as a break-through of desacralized reality.Eliade is right when he claims that myths and rites change peoples' ontological status.[14]

In general, both myths and what one generally call superstitions arise from fear of violence. So can also psychological problems. The unbearable burden of life produces myths needed in a society. This does not necessarily mean that the more unbearable life is the more myths are produced. Nevertheless, it does indicate that the need for mythology is greater in an unbearable situation than in a happy and peaceful situation.

About my argument regarding need and vulnerability, Malinowski has a point, perhaps, that myth in contemporary societies can only be understood in its context. It must be studied where one is able to examine the overarching religion, customs and worldviews in general. This seems reasonable when analysing each myth in detail. However, to understand the force of myth in general, comparison is needed. Both myths and fairy tales refer to scenes that are so globally uniform that it is difficult not to reflect on the factors that could create such similarities. The experience of liminality, for example, cannot be explained in terms of having different worldviews; they must stem from a source unrelated to man’s imagination and free will.

Violence and Taboo

In order to overcome violence, there needs to be a strong taboo against it – as is the case nowadays, especially in the West. For example, to smack a misbehaving child was acceptable a couple of decades ago, but is more and more frequently covered by a taboo against violence. Today, a teacher who physically punishes a pupil will certainly risk losing his job. The heightened taboo against violence in today’s Western societies, therefore, tends to transform real violence into a violent virtual reality, in which the urge towards violence is diverted into acceptable forms. (Sport is a great outlet, as is music.) This projection and suppression help to explain why, after around 10 pm, there are virtually only crime and action films on television. Moreover, the taboo of violence, with related curiosity - and our urges and suppression strategies - are a source of cultural production, especially in the film industry, which is so massive and so technically advanced that it has become our main mythmaking machine.

Viewing myth as a projection of reality, therefore, leads to a certain Freudian understanding of myth. Myths, according to Freud, reflect fears and desires that are taboo, and cannot be expressed elsewhere in society. According to Freud, an unbearable guilt produces culture. He maintained that the killing of the father figure was the initial act that helped produce culture, with all its neurotic consequences. While the killing of the father may initially seem similar to my explanatory hypothesis that mythology stems from violence, it must be borne in mind that, in Freudian thought, it is not primarily life-threatening situations that produce myths, but rather the suppression of erotic impulses. Thus, he considers art, fairy-tales, myths, buffoonery and jokes in general to be the result of the suppression of the erotic. For example, from Leonardo da Vinci’s urge to suppress his homosexuality sprang the most wonderful masterpieces. In Freud’s theory, the danger and the violence, which are always a part of man’s sexuality, seem to be moderated, or redirected, by a more fundamental and autonomous sexual instinct.

Now, as psychoanalytical theory has passed from logos to mythos, in certain respects at least, one can see that the erotic is only one example of mythmaking. While taboos related to the erotic have rapidly vanished in the West (while new ones have arisen) by the development of a sexualized culture. While pornography is everywhere schoolchildren are now so sexually conscious that, they do not shower together. This taboo towards nudity can, at one stage be seen as a reaction to an oversexualised culture , but can also, more fundamentally be seen as ways to avoid psychological violence. (Bad remarks, laughing, comparison of one’s genitals etc.) Thus, the main problem does not lie in repressed sexuality but in unrepressed violence.

Myths of Innocence

Today, it has become more and more evident that personality disorders are not primarily an effect of sexual suppression, but rather derive from experiences of violence. Modern psychiatry confirms my thesis that violence mythologises a person’s experiences. Childhood experiences of violence often create violent narratives and a distorted reality. Thus, violence is easily repeated. This cycle of violence grows out of the need to respond to the violence that has been inflicted on oneself.

If one considers conflict in general, individuals usually consider themselves innocent. The stronger the conflict, the more blame is placed upon the other. The process whereby individuals rationalise their own negative thoughts seldom leads to confessions of their wrongdoings; rather it motivates narratives about their innocence. The more the individual lulls himself into self-victimization, the more myths grow out of these distorted ideas of innocence. Modern deceit is all about creating illusions about oneself. Although moral laws, which are generally derived from religion, may condemn us, we stand freer than ever today to ignore these social sanctions. Thus, the world is now experiencing an epidemic of innocence, rooted in the rivalry between self and other. The main source to today´s myths is the narrative of the self as innocent

How Violence Mythologises the World

Violence is the great mythologizer. Based on the foregoing discussion, it may be argued that, without violence; myth would not be myth, but a straightforward true story – or an innocent fairy tale. The rivalry created in the effort to outdo the other leads to violence. One could see the development towards violence as stages: identification, fascination, disgust, competition, rivalry, and violence. In this process, a mythological image of the other is created. However, myths usually do not encourage violence. On the contrary, modern myths often reveal violence, in contrast to ancient myths that sought to hide real violence. Instead of studying the homogeneity of myth in common textual structures, as Lévi-Strauss did, one can study the homogeneity of myth from the perspective of violence - from which it stems. Myths tend to cover up the murder that has been committed, often by divinizing the violence and transcribing the events in such a way that the violence in society is not revealed as such. Thus, myths, both today and in the past, function in a society both as legitimation and preservation.

Ancient myths do not intentionally reveal violence; rather they indicate violence. Myths are violent when they try to hide the persecutor’s violence. Violence, therefore, starts in the act of writing from the persecutor’s point of view.Myth comes about in an effort to hide a society’s guilt, after killing a victim. It is this urge to hide the murder, which makes myths dubious, and therefore mythical in a negative sense.

My view that myth always refers to some kind of brutal event clearly differs from that of Lévi-Strauss and other structuralists, who deny that myth has any common reference point.They do not accept that sacrifice or murder is the event from which myths are compiled. However, mythology often turns sacrifice into fantastic events, which reveals a certain inability to cope with violence.

Violence engenders myth, transforming the raw and naked event into something that is often considered divine. As in a war, the actual events are heavily censored. Violence distorts reality, and mythmaking is one way of erasing or transforming the actual events. At the same time, myths from the distant past are often the only available source revealing the events narrated, and it is through a certain disrespect towards the myth as such one can decipher a deeper reality behind the myths.

The act of purging myth of its raw origin is simultaneously an act of turning myths into representations of life and concealing the violence itself. This, in turn, supports my view that representations of events, because they often hide the real reason for the murder, is a too weak a tool to reveal why these events are mythologized. Representations of events are often counterproductive as they rewrite the reasons for the violence done. Furthermore, by replacing the original violence with something else, the factor generating myth may disappear from view and instead turn myth into something innocent and fertile for one’s imagination.

[1] Ivan Strenski (Ed.) Malinowski and the Work of Myth, NJ: Princeton UP., 1992, 107.

[2] Ibid., 109-110.

[3] Ibid.

[4] A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Structure and Function in Primitive Societies, Cohen & West: London, 1971, 146-148.

[5] J.G. Frazer. The Golden Bough, London: MacMillan Press, 1983, Chapter IV. Magic and Religion.

[6] A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Structure and Function in Primitive Societies, 152.

[7] Peter L. Berger. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of ReligionGarden City:

Doubleday, 1967; New York: Anchor Press, 1990, 7.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Ibid., 14-15.

[10] Ibid., 5.

[11] Ibid., 23-24, 43-44.

[12] Wuthnow. ’Religion as Sacred Canopy’ in Ainley/Hunter (Ed.). Making Sense of Modern Times, London and New York: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1986 127.

[13] John A. Saliba. The Concept of ‘Homo Religiosus’ in the works of Mircea Eliade: an anthropological evaluation for religious studies, (PhD), Washington: The Catholic University of America, 1971, 95-98.

[14] On the religious aim of changing ontological status in Eliade’s work: See John A. Saliba. The Concept of ‘Homo Religiosus’ in the works of Mircea Eliade: an anthropological evaluation for religious studies, 87.

[15] , XXIII.

[16] Sigmund Freud. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis 1, London: Pelican Books, 1987, 192.

[17] Claude Lévi-Strauss. Myth and Meaning, New York: Schocken Books, 1995. See chapter four ‘When Myth Becomes History’. See also ‘The Structural study of myth’ in T.A. Sebeka. Myth – A Symposium, Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1958, 83-84.

[18] See René Girard. The Scapegoat, Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University U.P., 1986, 23-99.

[19] Mariasusai Dhavamony. Phenomenology of Religion, Rome: Gregorian U.P., 1973, 140.