Mythologism / Neo-mythologism

A new entry for the slow work of my glossary of myth-theoretical terms. Here’s a curious one: ‘neo-mythologism’ is a rather unlovely term that crops up more often in Russian studies than elsewhere. In seeking its etymology I have taken some unexpected turns.

mythologism and neo-mythologism

The earliest use of ‘mythologism’ I have found is in the work of French linguist Pierre Fontanier (1765-1844). Mythologisme is indeed a finer word in French than ‘mythologism’ in English. For Fontanier, ‘mythologisme’ strictly refers to the use of mythology as a shared, recognized symbolic system, or a stock of cultural images, to make a proposition – to explain a case or present an argument – rather than acting as simple metaphor. In the system of mythologisme, the personification of a god, for example, works in its emotional, identificational affect, rather than through allegorical explanation. Consequently, some critics have used mythologisme to argue for the ideological uses of myth, i.e. that myth is used emotively to uphold the status quo.

As for ‘neo-mythologism’, the earliest usage I can find is from 1962. The previous year, the Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi released Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (1961; in the UK titled Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in the USA re-edited as Hercules and the Captive Womenwatch here). Considered a highlight in the ‘peplum’, or ‘swords and sandals’ genre, Cottafavi is also credited with describing it as ‘neo-mythologism’, but I have found no authoritative source for this, nor an Italian equivalent for the term. The earliest reference is in a 1962 article in Fiction, a French science fiction magazine: Jacques Goimard, ‘Néomythologisme et Paléo-science-fiction’. I haven’t tracked down the article in a library (although the entire magazine is available on EBay for a few Euro… I may succumb). I’m inclined to presume that Goimard, rather than Cottafavi coined the expression, perhaps by mutual agreement. Both néomythologisme and paléo-science-fiction describe the mix of familiar myth and the allegorisation of contemporary concerns as found in Cottafavi’s film. See this synopsis by Derek Elley: ‘The plot is tailored for the Nuclear Age: Antinea (Fay Spain), Queen of Atlantis, possesses a drop of Uranus’s blood buried deep in a dark shaft which gives her a terrible power over mankind; Hercules [Reg Park], through superhuman feats, exposes this to the sunlight and causes the destruction of Atlantis.’ Here, then, neo-mythologism refers to the use of ancient myth in modernity when combined with contemporary allegory.

A differing view, however, is offered in an alternative commentary on Cottafavi: Martin Winkler avers, ‘Today, even complex myths can be told or retold entirely in images. Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi, who made several films about ancient history and myth, aptly described this phenomenon as “neo-mythologism.”’ Once again, though, the ultimate source of the quotation is elusive: Winkler cites the English translation of a French book, by Pierre Leprohon, on Italian cinema. Leprohon dates the arrival of neo-mythologism in Italian cinema to 1960 (233), but it is not clear what the Italian term is: the usage seems to be a product of translation from Italian to French (where mythologisme is more idiomatic) to English (where it isn’t). I would guess that the Italian may be as simple as ‘nuova mitologia’, and Leprohon was following Goimard (although Goimard does not appear to be credited).

As an aside, in Gianni Rondolino’s book (in Italian) on Cottafavi, the films are described as featuring characters ‘della storia e della mitologia — o meglio della storia mitologizzata e della mitologia storicizzata’: ‘from history and mythology – or rather of mythologized history and historicized mythology’. This seems to be a reasonable description of Goimard’s usage of néomythologisme in the apparent absence of an equivalent term in Italian. The characters reflect historical tensions in a metaphysical dimension.

Neo-mythologism then returns in Russian. Victoria Adamenko, in Neo-Mythologism in Music, attributes the coinage to Eleazar Meletinsky. Meletinsky’s major work on myth is Поэтика мифа (1976: translated as The Poetics of Myth, 1998). Only once, as far as I can tell, does he use the term неомифологизм (98) which is transliterated neo-mythologism (73). More frequently, on the twentieth century resurgence of myth, he speaks of ремифологизация (27, for which the translators supply a gloss: ‘re-mythification (“re-mythologization”—the re-emergence of myth)’ 16). A few times, he mentions мифологизм (8, ‘mythicizing’, xx). Meletinsky’s sole usage of ‘neo-mythologism’ here does not seem sufficient to justify its seeming popularity in Russian studies, but that will have to be a story for another day.

Adamenko’s book is the most prominent usage of ‘neo-mythologism’ in English of which I am aware. Following Meletinsky’s discussion of the mythical method of writers of the Modernist period (in particular, Thomas Mann), Adamenko uses ‘neo-mythologism’ to separate modern myth-making from archaic myth-making. In this way, ‘neo-mythologism’ can be a usefully distinct term for describing the use of myth in modern, secular, or demythicised cultures. Adamenko’s interpretation is, then, not too far away from Goimard’s.

A final note. When Meletinsky uses ‘neo-mythologism’, it is alongside a reference to Charles Autran (1879-1952) and his work on epics. I have yet to find (néo-)mythologisme in these large volumes, but Autran’s work emphasises the importance of culturally significant ritual language. In this way, Autran’s theory is suggestive of an older theory in French thought, namely mythologisme.

How to untangle this and arrive at a synthetic definition? First, I shall refuse to transliterate it into English where the word is horrible. Instead, I propose the following:

  • mythologisme (French): a system of mythologizing which draws on a stock of cultural images and symbols with an emotional affect and results in the presentation of an argument.
  • néomythologisme (French) or неомифологизм (Russian): the use of myth in modern, secular, or demythicised cultures in order to allegorise contemporary conditions.


Pierre Fontanier, ed., Les tropes de Dumarsais avec un commentaire raisonné par M. Fontanier, I, Paris: Belin-Leprieur, 1818 (a commentary on César Chesneau Dumarsais [1676-1756], Traité des Tropes, 1730). See also Fontanier, Les Figures du discours, Paris: Flammarion, 1968, which compiles Manuel classique pour l’étude des tropes, ou Élémens de la science du sens des mots (Paris: Belin-Leprieur, 1821) and Des Figures du discours autres que les tropes (Paris: Maire-Nyon, 1827).

Jacques Goimard, ‘Néomythologisme et Paléo-science-fiction’, Fiction, 101, 1962, 139-144.

Derek Elley, The Epic Film: Myth and History [1984], Abingdon: Routledge, 2014.

Martin M. Winkler, ‘Greek Myth on the Screen’, in Roger D. Woodard, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 453-479: 454.

Pierre Leprohon, The Italian Cinema [Le cinéma italien, 1966] trans. R. Greaves and O. Stallybrass, New York: Praeger, 1972, 174-79.

Gianni Rondolino, Vittorio Cottafavi: cinema e televisione, Cappelli, 1980, 74.

Victoria Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2007.

Eleazar M. Meletinsky, The Poetics of Myth [Поэтика мифа, 1976], trans. Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky, New York: Routledge, 2000.

Charles Autran, Homère et les origines sacerdotales de l’épopée grecque, 3 vols, Paris: Denoël, 1938-1943 and L’épopée indoue: étude de l’arrière-fonds ethnographique et religieux, Paris: Denoël, 1946

Jung within Freud

In July I made my first visit to the Freud Museum in London. The occasion was a conference entitled ‘Ecstatic Ancient / Archaic Thought and Analytical Psychology: An Inquiry’, and behind the title lay the intention to discover the ways in which archaic and ancient cultures understood what we today think of as the unconscious. Furthermore, the conference sought to recover the place of Carl Jung in such discussions, who is felt to be under-represented, compared to Freud, Lacan, and so on.

If there was any irony in the fact that we convened in Freud’s house to concentrate on the legacy of his great apostate, it did not reveal itself in sub-disciplinary antagonism. Any rancour was reserved to the final moments of the conference, and concerned a more modern academic schism.

Inevitably, many of the papers (including my own) concerned aspects of Greek thought. Euripides’ Dionysian tragedy, the Bacchae fitted the theme particularly well. Scott Farrington’s reading of the Bacchae considered dramatic performance as ritual: in effect, there is no spectator. To observe a ritual is to participate in it, and all present are connected in an invisible web. Mark Saban’s paper returned to Dionysus in the second day of the conference. He addressed the root of ‘ecstatic’ in the Greek ek-stasis, standing outside one’s self, and returned to the idea of the theatre audience standing outside the self and extending sympathetically to the other. A gnomic thought I jotted down has become one of those notes that made perfect sense at the time, but has since taken on an air of enigmatic mystery, namely that to encounter Dionysus is to see the unconscious seeing ourselves…

Further distinguished papers came from Catriona Miller, whose discussion of the Sumerian underworld probed the changing signification of Abzu/Apzu; Terence Dawson, who highlighted the beautiful affirmation of cyclical history in the opening of the classical Chinese Novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms: ‘Here begins our tale. The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.’ Alan Cardew performed a characteristically erudite and witty collision of German classicism and late antiquity; Richard Seaford horrified us with an extension of his theory that an abstract system of money was central to the development of philosophy and ideas of the self; and Emmanuela Bakola put forward a winning argument for a staging of Aeschylus’s Oresteia in which the Furies are revealed in shocking, brief flashes prior to their main entrance.

The final presentation of the conference was by Paul Bishop who, among other things, noted that interest in the ekstatic and the archaic is counter to dominant thinking in the humanities. This has indeed been my experience: materialism (or historical materialism and dialectical materialism) is the foundation of a compelling critique of contemporary social relations but it often seems to inculcate a suspicion of other ways of viewing the world. So there is work to be done on advocating the potential for mythical structures of thought to be perceived, not as the inevitable root of totalitarian ideology, but as opening a way for transcending the degraded social relations of (if you will) late capitalism.

This great conference, organised by Leslie Gardner, ended with an open discussion session which erupted into an impassioned argument about the benefits or otherwise of neuroscience (also known as biopsychology or, waggishly, neurobollocks). I have no informed opinion about this, and watched in bemusement as some interlocutors simply refused to acknowledge a divergent view. I ended up with the rough supposition that, from a humanities perspective, neuroscience may be useful historically, in describing processes, it is useless analytically. But I am willing to be corrected.

This took us a long way from where I felt the conference belonged. So I’ll conclude with a comment Richard Seaford made in response to Paul Bishop’s paper. You know the Wisdom of Silenus: it is best not to be born; but the second best is to die quickly. It is the cornerstone of pessimistic philosophy. Prof. Seaford reminded us of the context: Silenus tells it to Midas – the king doomed to turn all he touches into gold. To Midas the words are entirely appropriate. The Triteness of Silenus! Yet surely Silenus is thought to be addressing the tragedy of humanity in general, and not just the destructive avariciousness represented by Midas? That’s one to ponder was we stroll downstairs to Freud’s couch for a nice lie down.