In the course of seminars we always at some point came to the question: What is “Mythos” and why do have intellectuals and thinkers have dealt with that topic?
Martin Scharfe is a very learned man and as a kind of sum he published 2002 his book “Menschenwerk. Erkundungen über Kultur” (roughly: “Man’s deed: Reconnaissance of Culture”, an English edition is desirable) where he dedicates a chapter to the question “Was ist Mythos?” (What is Myth?). He leans on the work of Hans Blumenberg, whom I already mentioned on this site, “Arbeit am Mythos”, a fine, useful and learned book.
After all “Mythos” is a story that never gets old and never ends – the “Moderne” and the modern science did not make the myth obsolete. Mythos is the effort to explain the origin – obviously other kind of explanations do not work, are insufficient. The Mythos stands at the beginning of all. Scharfe, following Blumenberg, gives four points, describes four functions of Mythos.
(1) It helps man to stand against the impact of hostile forces as forces of nature and unpredictability of man himself. As Blumenberg puts it, Mythos is un-frightening man (“entängstigen”), bans angst, reduces the absolutism of reality, helps man to win distance; Mythos enables man to leave back the old terror as monstrosity – in one sentence: The world looses monsters. (“Die Welt verliert an Ungeheuern.”)
(2) Mythos does this by giving names (“benennen”). The terror is nameless, the highest grade of fright has no name and no face. The Mythos is a story and there are beings or entities with names: The Mythos transforms the nameless numinous (“numinos”) vagueness into nominal definiteness, he makes the “Unheimliche” approachable, speakable.
(3) It is not the case that Mythos and ratio (“Vernunft”, reason) are opposite and excluding each other. Blumenberg calls that a “late and bad invention”. They are not only no contradictions – Mythos has and is a kind of ratio of his own: It is ratio. So it does NOT vanish when the modern science “takes over” – the question is whether the latter really does. Science is not total, Mythos is.
(4) If one sees Mythos not only and always as a regression in barbarity the idea and the dialectics of enlightenment can be seen in a new light. Blumenberg speaks of the “tortous connection of myth and enlightenment”, and his word of “myth as enlightenment and enlightenment as myth” is not just a joke or play with words.
Adam and Eva eat the apple. They do against the divine command, follow their own idea. The beginning is marked not with a crime, but a sacrilege, a “Frevel”. As Kant and Schiller pointed out, they leave the old order of the instinct, in which the animals remain.
Eva’s first son is Kain, a man of the field, a farmer and founder of the first settlement (Gen 4,17); her second son is Abel, a shepherd. No human knows why Abel’s offering of an animal was pleasant to God and Kain’s grain not. They were on a field and Kain beat Abel to death. The text reveals nowhere what GOd meant about the sacrifices. Kain thought his sacrifice to be lessened – he was offended, he was jealous, he could not control his impulse. He is no criminal, he is man in full when he does his deed. The mark protects him from being killed, but he has to wander. The mark of Kain is the mark of man: He has the possibility to decide, he knows right from wrong, he has moral. He fails.
For the cultural theory it is important to note the power of the impulse and the knowledge of man about good and bad, that stand at the beginning.
Prometheus is a Titan, a mortal. He not only doubts the total knowledge of the Gods – he laughs about them. In the end he creates humans of his own and steals the fire. He gets punished.
His sacrilege – as the others – is culture-causing. He is – among other things – the founder of medicine. Aischylos lets the chorus say in his drama “Prometheus bound”: “I made men cease from contemplating death. Dass Sterbliche auf ihren Tod hinstarren, schaffte ich ab. (That the mortals stare upon their death – I abandoned that.”
On the beginning is the sacrilege, die Untat, der Frevel, outrage. Man gets the highest and best what mankind can get – itself, the way of life, technology – by committing a monstrosity, bound to and by the results, the consequences of the ruthless deeds, the flood of pain and “Kümmernis” the offended celestial beings let descend on humanity – have to let descend.