Instruction by Fable
Theories through History about Myth and Fable 3
Just a few years before the the Encyclopédie published its texts on fable and mythology, the Scottish scholar Thomas Blackwell treated mythology thoroughly, having his own distinct idea about how it should be understood.
Thomas Blackwell (1701-1757) was a Scottish classical scholar who wrote influential works on Homer as well as on Greek mythology. Like his contemporaries as well as his predecessors, he discussed almost exclusively the Greek myths and did so referring to them as mythology.
But his understanding of those myths was atypical:
The Gods of the Ancients, you see, appear in a duble Light; as the Parts and Powers of Nature to the Philosophers, as real Persons to the Vulgar; the former understood and admired them with a decent veneration; the latter dreaded and adored them with a blind Devotion. [Thomas Blackwell, Letters Concerning Mythology, London 1748, 62f. Of the 19 letters in the book, the first six were by an unknown author and all the following ones by Blackwell.]
He would not hear of any disprespect for the minds of old, neither the ancient writers of the myths nor the philosophers reading them the way he regarded to be the correct one. As for the "vulgar" ones adoring the myths blindly, he asks in the very next sentence if something similar could be found in his own time: "Has not the same thing happened in modern religious Matters?" To Blackwell, wisdom as well as folly are constant companions to mankind.
Blackwell saw mythology as "Instruction conveyed in a Tale." [Blackwell 1748, 70.] It could take the form of metaphor, of Esopic Tales by which he meant fables like those of Aesop and La Fontaine, of material representation or symbols containing moral or other higher meaning, and of rituals where mythological concepts were acted out: "These, my friend, are some of the mimic shapes which this grand Instructress formerly took to form the Minds and model the Manners of the human Race, in order to fit them for Society." [Blackwell 1748, 79.]
Then he goes on to mention another category, which he regards as the superior one: "the History of the Creation, or Rise of the Universe, what we call natural Philosophy, and the Ancients called Theogony."
He quotes from Hesiod's Theogony, explaining elaborately how gods as well as events in the creation story are symbols for natural forces and their interaction in the formation of the world as well as the plants and creatures on it. Blackwell also quotes Strabo and Hippocrates in order to find support for his view:
They will shew you that I am neither singular nor fanciful in supposing, 'That the old Sages imposed no particular Person or Character upon their primary Gods, nor interwove those Characters in a Tale, without a MEANING.' [Blackwell 1748, 93.]
Antoine Banier: Mythology as Idolatry.
© Stefan Stenudd 2015
Mythology Meanings Menu
- Mythology and Fable in the First Encyclopedia: Louis de Jaucourt
- Thomas Blackwell: Instruction by Fable
- Antoine Banier: Mythology as Idolatry
- Eusebius: Myths as Heathen Remnants
- Plutarch: Battle of Daemons
- Euhemerus: Myth as Actual History
- A Scientific Revolution of Mythology
- Andrew Lang: Rational versus Irrational
- Max Müller: Disease of Language
- Edward B. Tylor: Animism Turned Personification
- James G. Frazer: Myth as Ritual
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Theories through history about myth and fable.
The mythological symbols and what they stand for.
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The ancient Babylonian creation myth.
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