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

A myth glossary

Glossaries and dictionaries of mythological figures and themes are abundant, but I haven’t come across a comprehensive glossary of myth theory (if you know one, please pass on the details). While we wait, I’ve been slowly assembling one for my own use. I shall, from time to time, post the more complete entries here, collected under the category ‘Myth glossary’.  For the first entry, I have started at the beginning; but as it’s a glossary of theories, not myths, when I say ‘beginning’, I don’t mean the beginning of myth, but the beginning of the use of the word ‘myth’.


muthos [mythos / μῦθος]

The Greek word muthos is the root of our word ‘myth’, but its meaning is not the same. It appears around 300 times in Homer where it does not have the special modern significance of a legendary, or sacred utterance. ‘Myth’ in that sense was not a distinct category in Homer’s time. Jan Bremmer, foremost scholar of Greek religion, often cites a definition of the Homeric muthos from R. P. Martin’s, The Language of Heroes: it was, ‘a speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public, with a full attention to every detail’. By the fifth century BC, Greek writers used muthos to denote a fiction, in contrast to the historic truth of logos [λόγος]. Pindar records ‘Yes, there are many marvels, and yet I suppose the speech of mortals beyond the true account [τὸν ἀλαθῆ λόγον] can be deceptive, stories [μῦθοι] adorned with embroidered lies’. Herodotus reports a ‘silly’ muthos about Heracles. Thucydides made absolutely clear the separation between truth and myth, claiming the veracity of his historical accounts, and assuring his reader ‘will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers [the prose-writing λογογράφοι] that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of the fabulous [τὸ μυθῶδες].’ In the famous discussion in Plato’s Republic about types of literature [logos] which are either true [alēthēs] or false [pseudos], muthos is the name given to stories told to children which are untrue (although they contain elements of truth). Similarly, muthos was the word given by Aristotle to describe the fables of Aesop, and the plots of tragedy and comedy. Therefore, we recognize a shift from the archaic muthos of authoritative speech to the classical muthos of a story which is fabulous and untrue.

Several Greek compound words also have echoes in the modern derivative forms: mythology and mythological, mythography and mythographer, and mythopoeia and mythopoesis. The Homeric verb muthologeuō [μυθολογεύω], to relate verbatim, has a more familiar counterpart in the later form muthologeō [μυθολογέω], to tell tales such as those of Homer, first attested around the fourth century BC by Isocrates. Two related nouns, muthologia [ἡ μυθολογία], a fiction, and muthologos [ὁ μυθολόγος], a teller of legends, are not found before Plato. The Republic also apparently coins muthopoios [ὁ μυθοποιός], the composer of fiction, and subsequently we see the verb muthopoieō [μυθοποιέω], to relate or invent a fable, and two connected nouns for the making of such stories: muthopoiēsis [ἡ μυθοποίησις] and muthopoiia [ἡ μυθοποιία]. Thus the lovely muthopoiēma [τό μυθοποίημα] found in Plutarch and Aelian. Finally, the muthographos [ὁ μυθογράφος], writer of legends, is mentioned by Polybius. From -logos, to -poios and -graphos, there is a movement from the teller, or relater of muthos, to the composer or inventor of them, and to the one who writes them down. The living speech of Homer moves into – and competes with – historical record.


References (dates are approximate)

Martin quoted by Bremmer in Greek Religion, 56
Pindar (522-443 BC), First Olympian Ode, 28-29, trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien
Herodotus (484-425 BC), Histories 2.45
Thucydides (455-400 BC), History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.21, trans. E. P. Dutton (amended)
Plato (427-347 BC), Republic 376e-377a (muthos), 394b (muthologia), 392d (muthologos), 377b (muthopoios)
Aristotle (384-322 BC), Meteorology 356b (Aesop), Poetics, passim (drama)
Homer, Odyssey 12.450-53 (muthologeuō)
Isocrates (436-338 BC), 6.24
Diodorus Siculus (C1 BC) 1.92 (muthopoieō), 1.96 (muthopoiia)
Strabo (C1 BC-C1 AD), 1.1.19 (muthopoiia)
Plutarch (AD 46-120) Moralia 2.17a
Aelian (AD 175-235) On the Nature of Animals, 7.29.
Polybius (C2 BC), 4.40.2

Helpful web resources for this entry are the Perseus Digital Library and Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.