30/06/2018

Greek Myth, Matriarchy, Jung & Social Constructivism

Thoughts On: Robert Graves' The Greek Myth's (1955)

A question of how we may approach Greek mythology.


Recently, I was thrown into a tailspin of thought having picked up Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. I picked up this specific book to come to terms with more Greek myths having read some reviews that suggested that, though Graves' commentary is highly negligible, this is the best place to start. With that and little more in mind I started to read the book.

What I quickly discovered when reading the introduction was that Graves' fundamental purpose for writing this book lies in his goal to reveal the supposed fact that:

Though the Jungians hold that 'myths are original revelations of the pre-conscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings', Greek mythology was no more mysterious in content than are modern election cartoons, and for the most part formulated in territories which maintained close political relations with Minoan Crete - a country sophisticated enough to have written archives, four-storey buildings with hygienic plumbing, doors with modern-looking locks, registered trademarks, chess, a central system of weights and measures, and a calendar based on patient astronomic observation.

The first element that jumps out of this elongated sentence is the idea that 'Greek mythology was no more mysterious... than... modern election cartoons'. This, from my position, is a deeply radical position to take, one that implies that ancient tradition and story simply re-represented the political climate - and that everyone who lived in those times knew this. In fact, this seems so radical that I'd be rather comfortable believing this to be utter nonsense.

Without completely dismissing this idea, however, let us look at what is probably the element of this sentence that seems irrelevant:

Greek mythology was... for the most part formulated in territories which maintained close political relations with Minoan Crete - a country sophisticated enough to have written archives, four-storey buildings with hygienic plumbing, doors with modern-looking locks, registered trademarks, chess, a central system of weights and measures, and a calendar based on patient astronomic observation.

In Graves suggesting that Greek mythology was recognised as equal to political cartoons, he is referring to the politics of what we conceptualise now as Ancient Greek culture - the culture that produced Zeus, Theseus, Plato, Aristotle, etc. - replacing what previously existed, one example being Minoan culture. This culture is named after King Minos, who features in many Greek myths - most famously, that depicting the Minotaur - and is believed to have reigned Crete at some point in this era. Graves goes to such lengths to describe the advancement of this culture, firstly, because this is considered historical fact, but, secondly, because he further believes that it is also historical fact that Minoan society was matriarchal.

Graves goes into greater depth across his introduction to his book, and attempts to provide evidence for his claim in his notes on the myths, on, not just Minoan society being matriarchal, but most primordial European societies being matriarchal. His assertion that Greek myth plays as political cartoon then reveals that Graves believes that Greek myths were used to show the transition from a matriarchal society to a patriarchal one, from Minoan and earlier cultures, through to Mycenaean, Hellenic and other Classical Greek cultures.

It is at this point that I returned to the critique many apply to Graves' work. Though it is imaginative and comprehensive, it is generally said to have no scholarly validity. The primary reason for this resides in the fact that, not only is Minoan culture not confirmed to have been matriarchal, but the concept that all primordial societies across the world were matriarchal has been by-and-large debunked in the modern day.

This was a popular idea for quite some time since the 19th century, and gained significant ground outside of academia after the feminist second-wave. However, the assumption is largely evidenced with ruins that depict divine female figures - and such is the case for the Minoans. There are no texts, nor any artefacts that confirm that, because many variations of a Mother Earth were prayed to in cultures preceding the Classical Greeks', societies were matriarchal. Instead, these ruins are interpreted as suggesting this, but, ever since this assumption has been investigated it has proved itself insubstantial.

A much-cited book written on this subject is Cynthia Eller's The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (you can read the first chapter here). This book provides an argument against this primordial matriarchy myth, detailing the lack of evidence for it, whilst arguing that 'an invented past will not give women a future'. The crux of this book is then lies in the dispelling of the concept that the so-called matriarchies of the past were better than all patriarchies; fair, egalitarian, progressive, peaceful and generally utopian. This is so important to Eller because this 'myth of a matriarchal prehistory' ironically only impedes future development in favour of a feminist agenda.

Alas, this subject becomes a little more complicated than a busted myth when one actually starts to question what a 'matriarchal society' is. Matriarchy is often defined as a system of government run by women. This is why a modern culture such as the Chinese Mosuo people are questioned as a matriarchy; to simplify, everything is female-centric, but political power is considered to reside in the hands of men. However, one will notice that, whilst, under the definition of matriarchy as 'women-lead government', there is considered to be no matriarchies that do exist, or ever have, there are female-centric cultures, past and present. Cultures that are female-centric in some way may see female bloodlines as primary, the mother as the centre of a household and may worship femininity and Goddesses. There are different names given to these different classes of matriarchy, and often it is the definition of matriarchy itself that is questioned. But, the point to be taken from this is that, whilst the myth of the matriarchy may be false, this does not indicate that the dynamics between men and women have always been universally uniform and simple.

With that said, I'd like to return to our initial Robert Graves quote and look into the last element that we have not mentioned:

Though the Jungians hold that 'myths are original revelations of the pre-conscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings'... [they are wrong].

My addition of 'they are wrong' to this quote is, I hope, acceptably reflective of Graves position. After all, it seems very clear that, with his later reference to archaeology, science and politics as superior to psychoanalytical study, Graves is opposed to Jung. Further to this, Graves seems to fall into a category of thought that is what one may fairly name social constructivist. This perspective adheres to the philosophy of culture and all that resides within being able to be explained by the actions and conscious thoughts of people and people alone. Jung was opposed to this. It is hard, however, to label the Jungian perspective; maybe it is a philosophy of social inherency or intrinsicness, but let us not try to coin anything.

The Jungian perspective that Graves refers to is, as is said, linked to the unconscious mind, but I think - especially with Jung's reference to Taoist thought - it goes deeper than this. To Jung, who we are and what we do, which includes our manifestation and structuring of culture and society, is motivated by original revelations of truth by humans who were moving into consciousness and out of unconsciousness. The implication here, which Jung would often refrain from following for the focus he had on scientific practice, is then that unconscious humans had universal truth in them. As we became conscious, we began to act this out, and as we became more conscious, we decided to represent this with story, and in the modern period when we are at our most consciously developed, we are beginning to not just act out or represent those inherent truths, but attempt to manage them. Jung was very sceptical of consciousness, however. Like Freud and other psychoanalysts, Jung believed in the unconscious mind first and foremost; and he believed in this to the degree (or maybe just didn't believe in the conscious mind to the degree) that he didn't think that inherent, intrinsic, natural truth could ever be consciously known and handled. Thus, he developed a therapy and philosophy around interacting with the unconscious, never wanting to completely divorce personal and collective truth from its mystifying waters for fear of misinterpretation - for fear of pulling out a fish and calling it a whale, for fear of capturing a whale and calling it the God of all waters.

Nonetheless, what one finds in the ambiguities of Jung is a belief in universal mimesis; in humans acting out, not just their nature, but acting out the nature given to them by God. And though Jung was religious, he does not describe our 'God given nature' in a manner that was encapsulated by his Christian belief system. Rather, one could substitute for 'God' any other god of any other faith, or, likewise, 'universe', 'nature', 'Tao', 'ultimate meaning', 'the singularity of reasoning', etc.

It is having given my understanding of the antithesis of social constructivism through Jung that we can briefly compare the two. In following the philosophy that all that human outputs are the result of us alone, of individual and joint thoughts accepted as true, social constructivism's core philosophy is that humans create truth. In opposition to this, a Jungian perspective holds that truth is given, resides within and is realised. Further differences between the two perspectives primarily concern relativism; the social constructivist belief is that truth is relative whilst Jungian philosophy leads to the assumption of universal truths.

As you may tell, being a frequent reader of the blog or not, I see most sense in the Jungian perspective. And I bring this up to induce a debate or some thought in you. Given the profoundly fundamental position of the Jungian vs social constructivist debate in one's approach to all art, one can easily understand how differently a Jungian and constructivist will read myth. In regards to Greek myth, gender and matriarchy, I'd then like to ask how one responds to Robert Graves given all that we've discussed today. What role do gender and politics play in Greek mythology? What role does symbolic interpretation and social construction? What role does science and archaeology? How, if at all, are these elements related within the stories of Ancient Greek culture? I end with this quote as an open question:

Though the Jungians hold that 'myths are original revelations of the pre-conscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings', Greek mythology was no more mysterious in content than are modern election cartoons, and for the most part formulated in territories which maintained close political relations with Minoan Crete - a country sophisticated enough to have written archives, four-storey buildings with hygienic plumbing, doors with modern-looking locks, registered trademarks, chess, a central system of weights and measures, and a calendar based on patient astronomic observation.


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