Roland Barthes’ definition of myth
If, as many scholars have pointed out, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are derived from an earlier mythology, it’s probably best to begin with the question: what exactly is a myth? In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the first meaning given to a myth is
. . . a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena etc. . . .
What Celtic scholars are usually referring to when they talk of the mythological roots of the Four Branches is the earlier pantheon of Celtic gods and goddesses that many of the characters are derived from. But we can expand on this meaning by also adding that a myth is a way of communicating that implies a particular ideology or ethos. In that sense the term myth can be used to describe much more than just traditional tales about gods or human origins. We find myths in modern books like The Lord of the Rings, in films like Star Wars and Batman; we find them in modern art, television advertisements and magazines. In fact anything within a culture – story, film, object or person, can become the vehicle of myth.
As the famous French philosopher Roland Barthes said myth is, in its most basic form, a special type of speech.* What he meant was that a myth isn’t just a genre of stories, it’s a way of saying something. According to Barthes, the special trick of myth is to present an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective. A myth doesn’t describe the natural state of the world, but expresses the intentions of its teller, be that a storyteller, priest, artist, journalist, filmmaker, designer or politician.
In this course we’re focussing on the myths we find in traditional narratives, medieval stories that are derived from an earlier body of oral material, what could be considered quite traditional examples of myth. But we shouldn’t forget that like any word in a language, the definition of myth evolves. Whereas we often relegate myth to the same category as children’s stories, Barthes argued that myth, or the mythological way of communicating, permeates much of what we could consider to be culture, mass media, advertising and entertainment. What this modern definition has in common with the old definition is that both place belief at the heart of what myth is. But whereas the old definition of myth generally referred to gods or tales of human origins as the focus of belief, the new definition includes any cultural activity that implies an ethos or ideology as the focus of belief, be that secular or religious. If a myth is to be effective it must be believed in by its audience.
This also means that the same myth can be expressed through many different mediums. For example Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a narrative that dominated European culture for a long time. Implied in that narrative is the myth of the saviour and those he saves as well as the idea of good and evil that’s tied up in that relationship. For Christians this myth is believed to be the natural condition of the world, something they take for granted in their everyday lives. Over the millennia, this myth has been expressed through many different mediums: rituals, ceremonies, paintings, poems, drama, oral texts such as prayers and music such as hymns, symphonies and folk songs. The basic myth of the saviour is expressed in all of these many derived practices and works of art. It has become the centre around which all of these unique expressions are positioned.
A related example is how early Christian leaders explored another aspect of the myth of sin and redemption through a different narrative, that of Adam and Eve. For early Cristians such as St Augustine the story of Adam and Eve explained how humanity became sinful and why it needed a redeemer such as Jesus. Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden were seen as the origin of sin, and because Eve was the symbolic mother of all humanity, all of her descendants therefore inherited that first original sin. For many Christians the doctrine of original sin is a natural condition of the world humans are part of, an ethos that’s presented mythologically in many related works of art such as medieval paintings of Adam and Eve.
As we can see, a myth can sit at the heart of a culture for very long periods of time, becoming a reference point for morality, philosophy, spirituality and art. Another example of this is the Taliesin myth that almost certainly began as a legend about the historic Taliesin who lived in the 6th century. For over 1500 years now Welsh bards and poets have considered him one of the most famous founders of the Welsh tradition. As part of their public performances and rituals, medieval Welsh bards would adopt the dramatic persona of the perfected bard, an echo of the mythical Taliesin. Perhaps as early as the 12th century his tale was being transmitted and adapted through many lineages of the oral tradition, with variations of it migrating throughout Wales. In the legendary poems from the 14th century Book of Taliesin, in this bold and unashamedly self-aggrandising poetry we see his legendary persona as the celebrated Welsh wiseman, the archetypal bard.
His fame and popularity gradually grew until by the 16th century Taliesin had evolved into a central symbol of Welsh mythology. In that century the earliest surviving copy of his tale was written down revealing Taliesin to be a symbolic figure that embodied not only the formal bardic ideology, but also beliefs about inspiration, the transmigration of the enlightened soul and the mystic knowledge derived from such an experience. Perhaps because of this native pagan mystique, at various times the figure of Taliesin was also appropriated by the orthodox Christian tradition and given a devoutly religious veneer, expressing sentiments very different to those of his earlier incarnations. In this new context Taliesin became a symbol of Christian virtue, with various prayers and religious poems composed in his name where he humbly acknowledged his sins and need for repentance. This Christian ethos was overlaid upon his more heroic ideology and pagan mystique probably in an attempt to obscure it.
Different tellers of a myth, be they renowned bards, literate monks, advertising agencies, modern druids or academics, will use popular figures such as Taliesin to further their own particular ideology or ethos. The same myth can be told or evoked in many different ways, but almost always for the same reason, to promote the myth-maker’s own position. A religious recital always affirms a particular priests power; the Taliesin persona enhances the mystique and authority of a particular bard; the academic thesis will frame the object of study so that it validates the author’s own ideology. All these are ways of indirectly implying a set of values that are to be taken for granted and are therefore mythological ways of communicating.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
*Roland Barthes, trans. Howard / Lavers, Mythologies (Hill and Wang 2013), 217