Edmund Leach—president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, fellow of the British Academy, receipient of many scholarly awards, former provost of King’s College, Cambridge—has long been the doyen of British anthropology. For more than twenty years, he has been developing his own method of analyzing myths, which he is careful to distinguish from the methods of such “world mythologists” as James Frazer and Mircea Eliade. Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890–1915) imposed on the myths of the world a uniform pattern in which divine kings were killed so as to give energy to the biological cycle of birth and death. Frazer implied that Jesus Christ was only one among a long series of mythological divinities slain to renew the world.
Mircea Eliade, in books such as The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949), reworked much the same corpus of myths into a message more acceptable to religious believers. He found everywhere a narrative of arduous journeys, in which a hero equipped with magic ladders, clothes, and weapons transcends the divisions of sky, land, sea, and finally transcends the boundary between life and death. This is attractive to those who tend to believe that humankind started out in some pre-civilized, romantic dawn in which emotions, will, and intellect were one. In their view, our own tragedy is to have lost that original unity.
Both Frazer and Eliade forced the myths of the world into a shape that their readers could respond to. In a sense, they were themselves great mythmakers. But if we are no longer content to have our desires, crudely mythologized, we will easily find holes in the methods of Frazer, Eliade, and other scholars who offer a single scheme for interpreting all mythology. For none of them can escape the charge of imposing his own categories on the myths, arbitrarily selecting elements, and losing in the overall scheme the myths’ peculiar differences.
Rejecting these traditions, Leach follows Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist method instead, but he follows it with a difference. Lévi-Strauss’s method is adapted from linguistics. Each myth is minutely examined for the contrasts, or “oppositions,” around which it is constructed. The story unfolds in multiple dimensions, which the trained analyst notes. The main dimensions are often spatial: up and down, east and west, north and south. The analyst may also be attentive to regular patterns of sound or smell, or of other elements in the myth he examines. To take a simple nursery tale, Jack and the Beanstalk unfolds on a vertical dimension, and reveals a culinary pattern of people who eat beans and ogres who eat people. At the climax, the ogre is foiled by a hen who tells Jack how to escape. In Lévi-Strauss’s analyses of North American myths, the denouement is often provided by a miraculous creature like the talking hen, a “mediating being” who can bridge the major contrasts of the myth. From one cultural region to another it is not possible to know in advance what the crucial contrasts or main elements of a myth are going to be.
Lévi-Strauss believes that his method reveals a structure underlying all myths, one that is based on the universal conditions for human understanding. A myth, for him, is composed of contrasts that every human being experiences: life and death, sky and earth, human and animal, hunger and repletion, raw and cooked, and so on. The myth expresses to its hearers the major contrasts and contradictions of their particular culture and permits them to contemplate the frustrations of the human condition.
Insofar as Lévi-Strauss teaches that myths have this common structure, he might seem to belong with Frazer and Eliade among the world mythologists. But unlike them he has a sophisticated method, which teaches us to be sensitive to the particular conditions, problems, and solutions of a specific culture. Unlike Frazer and Eliade, he does not have a message for his generation; he is not a mythmaker. The structures that he finds in all myths are highly abstract, and independent of any specific context. He is aware of the temptation of imposing his own categories on myths.
To resist this temptation, Lévi-Strauss refuses to use his method on what he calls “hot cultures.” He describes as “cold” the cultures whose themes are used again and again in different myths, with much variation within a restricted system. Cold cultures are isolated and small in scale, with simple technology; they are the cultures usually studied only by anthropologists. “Hot” cultures are conscious of their own history; they include most of the great civilizations, and especially the Israelites. Thus Lévi-Strauss claims that his myth analysis does not apply to the Bible, or to the mythology of other cultures that, like Judaism, see their history as moving toward a particular destiny. His method, if applied to the Bible, would leave out everything that believers think of as most important—their unfolding story over time. This limitation is a major constraint for Lévi-Strauss, though he grants that even in the most complex and modern of industrial societies there can be cold corners where his myth analysis would work. He does not claim to be writing about world mythology, but only about a small segment of the world.
Leach’s innovation is to discard the distinction between hot and cold cultures. He maintains that the technique of myth analysis works with any sacred text, whether or not the culture it is embedded in recognizes its own movement through history. Indeed, Leach argues repeatedly that the claims of a sacred text to be historical—the Pentateuch is an obvious example—can be wholly ignored. He is also aware of the danger of arbitrarily selecting the significant elements of a myth and imposing ready-made categories on them. For this reason he prefers to work with sacred texts. The sacred text has its own safeguards against being manipulated by the interpreter. The corpus is sacred because the faithful accept these stories, and only these, as the foundation of their religion. A long process of sifting, selecting, and editing has conferred canonical status on the text; this process guarantees its compositional unity and justifies the analyst’s confidence that no element in the text is irrelevant. Moreover, that the text is sacred affords an important clue about how to interpret it, for the analyst starts with the advantage of knowing what religion is.
Few would object to Leach’s definition of religion. Religion, as he views it, deals with the relation between this mundane world and another transcendent reality. Religious stories explain how and why these orders of reality are distinct and how we may avert the bad consequences of their separation. Sacred texts emphasize the differences; they also portray anomalous beings who belong to both realms, and can mediate across the boundaries of real and transcendental.
Applying Lévi-Straussian structural analysis to the “hot” myth material of the Bible, Leach offers several new interpretations of Biblical myths. Most of the essays in the book under review deal with questions of interpretation. “The basic argument that lies at the back of…this collection,” Leach remarks, “is that sacred texts contain a religious message which is other than that which can be immediately inferred from the manifest sense of the narrative. Religious texts contain a mystery; the mystery is somehow encoded in the text; it is decodable.” The main example of how Leach’s form of structuralist analysis applies to Bible mythology is a fascinating discussion of Moses and his sister, Miriam, entitled “Why did Moses have a sister?”
Leach begins by asserting that the Pentateuch is dominated by Egyptian models of the relations between gods and men. This is reasonable although the central idea in Israelite religious history is its radical difference from surrounding peoples and especially from Egypt. We can be persuaded to see Abraham as a minor Pharaoh figure, when we remember that he offers his wife, Sarah, to Pharaoh, saying that Sarah is his sister. We recall that the Pharaoh’s principal wife was reputed to be his sister or half-sister, and was associated with the goddess Isis. According to Egyptian myth, the double godhead of Osiris and Horus is incarnate in the Pharaoh and his heir. In Genesis, Joseph becomes the adopted son of Pharaoh and, eventually, his coruler; so, in Leach’s interpretation, he becomes Horus to Pharaoh’s Osiris. Later in the story the miraculous childhood rescue of Moses from the bulrushes echoes the myths of the infant god, Horus, who was taken from the reeds.
In tracing how these myths are entwined through Egyptian sources, the Old Testament, and the New Testament, Leach emphasizes the influence of the Egyptian “model.” Herod’s massacre of the innocents at the birth of Jesus resembles closely the account of the Pharaoh who, in Moses’ time, orders the death of the male Hebrew children. So for Leach the infant Jesus corresponds to the infant Moses and the infant Horus. The female counterpart to the Osiris-Horus figure is Isis. If the three figures of Jesus, Moses, and Horus are equivalent according to the Egyptian model, a question arises about Miriam, Moses’ sister. Why does Miriam, if she is to be equated with the powerful goddess Isis, cut such a shadowy and inconsistent figure? The answer, according to Leach, is that the religion of the Hebrews developed in a region “in which the sacrifice of firstborn children was very widespread.” Child sacrifice was part of the cult of Moloch, the male god, and Ashtaroth, the female goddess. The Jewish religious reformers, seeking to reject this cult, eliminated the female aspect of divinity, and replaced child sacrifice by other rituals, for example, consecrating their firstborn to God’s service. (At this point, Leach has tacitly replaced the Egyptian religious model with a Phoenician one—Molech and Astarte—to which he claims the Bible characters correspond. The shift does not, however, satisfactorily explain why Moses’ sister should be sent backstage, since she is, according to Leach, associated with Isis, not with Ashtaroth.)
Leach argues that in due course Christianity picked up the theme of female goddesses by balancing Mary, the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven (an Isis figure), with Mary Magdalen (an Ashtaroth figure). To answer the initial question: Moses had a sister because Moses was a Pharaoh figure. Jesus, as another Pharaoh figure, split the sister/wife role between his virgin mother and a repentant prostitute.
This ingenious argument is extremely interesting and, to readers who are unfamiliar with Old Testament scholarship, quite plausible. In effect, Leach’s analysis of the Old Testament narrative uncovers a set of fixed, iconic figures, recognizable over a vast cultural region. But is Leach’s method the clear guide he claims it to be, or does he rely instead on brilliant leaps of his own imagination? One test would be whether he would also find the Pharaonic model in India or Mexico or anywhere else in the world. His method ought to tell him when he has come to the end of a cultural pattern. We start to suspect that his method is imposing the Egyptian model when he goes merrily on to equate Ashtaroth and Mary Magdalen with the Indian goddesses, Parvati and Kali, and he elides the name of the Phoenician goddess, Astarte, with the Mesopotamian goddess, Ishtar. When he does so, has he not reverted to the world mythology of Frazer and Eliade?
If Leach is really doing something more scholarly and rigorous than Frazer and Eliade, his own special kind of structuralism must provide a way of avoiding the pitfalls that they fall into. He should show that he is not imposing his own categories on the myths, and that he has a reliable method for finding the structure that is already there. He will then be revealing something, not inventing it. For that revelation, however, Leach cannot rely on his own intimate knowledge of the culture and society he chooses to examine. For he does not read Hebrew and does not pretend to be a Hebrew scholar, still less an Egyptologist. Indeed, his bold etymologies have made many an Ancient Near Eastern scholar shudder. Evidently Leach places all his faith in his own method of finding patterns.
This method concentrates on anomaly in sacred texts. By their nature, sacred texts deal with separate realms that are bridged by anomalous beings, mixed man–gods who appear in what Leach calls “betwixt and between” places. Thus prophecy, in the Bible, “nearly always takes place in the wilderness or on a river bank away from human habitation—the point being that, in a cosmic sense, such places stand at the boundary between This World and The Other and are therefore appropriate places for a meeting between the natural and the supernatural.” Leach’s method of seeking patterns identifies the mediators who appear in such places and traces their actions. It is axiomatic for Leach that the experience of anomalous persons and places evokes a special uneasiness and that the usual response to this takes the form either of taboo or of respect for sacredness.
Leach does not admit that some anomalies are simply funny. Recognizing an anomaly is like recognizing a joke: the foreigner is likely to get it wrong. What is anomalous is only so by virtue of not fitting into a given system of classification; and Leach’s method would thus have to provide means for identifying the significant contrasts and mediating elements of a particular group of myths. Leach apparently sees no difficulty in recognizing anomaly. But he can hardly maintain that there is something inherently “betwixt and between” about deserts except for dwellers in oases. Similarly, there seems no way of identifying which anomalous persons will be used as sacred mediators in a religious myth.
It is true that god–kings are by definition sacred mixtures of godhead and humanity and are generally treated with the awe becoming their rank; but it is also true that Christian doctrine treats all human beings as anomalous mixtures, vile clay endowed with a spark of divinity. Sacredness and taboo on this showing ought to be everywhere. We would need a method to discover which are the locally important anomalies. The confusion increases when we find that Leach treats anomaly, contradiction, ambiguity, and intermediate states as equivalents. In the absence of more explanation, Leach’s method seems to give him as much license to pick and choose the significant elements of myth structures as Eliade has for identifying myths of eternal return or Frazer for finding divine kings in the mythology of the world.
This flaw becomes all the more evident when we turn to two short essays by an anthropologist, Alan Aycock, which are included in the book under review. One is on Lot’s wife, the other on the mark of Cain. Leach recommends that we go straight to these essays for a simpler introduction to his methods. We learn from Aycock that Lot’s wife is a double and triple anomaly. Recall that she disobediently looked back on burning Sodom, when she and her husband and daughters were being led to safety, and was turned into a pillar of salt. Aycock claims that she is anomalous first as a wife and mother in a city of homosexuals; second, she is anomalous as an outsider to Lot’s lineage. (The evidence for this—that she is neither named nor genealogically connected with any of the patriarchs—is weak.) Aycock adds that she has intermediate status, between Lot and the Sodomites, since she flees with the one, but turns toward the other. If she had not been turned into a pillar of salt at that point, Aycock concludes, she would have been redundant, not to say a nuisance, in the next phase of the story when Lot is persuaded to beget children with his daughters.
But Aycock indulges in overkill. He finds that Lot’s wife is so anomalous that the story’s own logic requires her to be immobilized “since she would be in a contradictory situation were she to go forward or back.” Aycock expects his analysis will help to interpret the proliferation of immobilized or suspended heroes in the Bible: Noah in his ark, Isaac on the altar, Jesus on the cross. We could add Jonah in the whale, Joseph in the well, Moses on Mount Sinai, Absalom suspended in the trees.
The trouble is that anyone who is killed by any means is “betwixt and between” one thing and another. What Leach and Aycock fail to recognize is that immobilization of villains or heroes is a standard convention in any narrative. The unfolding of a story requires some action and some inaction; someone has to be bound and gagged, immured in a dungeon, stranded on a desert island, buried alive, or hidden in a closet. In the space and time in which a tale is set, something goes slow while something else goes fast, something starts up again while something else stops. Leach suggests that contrast, mediation, and resolution of opposites are characteristic of sacred texts. But this process, which he calls the encoding of religious mysteries, is essential in secular stories too. Composition of any kind starts with distinctive elements; it develops confusions and ambiguities, travesties and misperceptions, and goes on to sort out and recombine the initial possibilities. Leach’s method would lose very little of its content and gain greatly in clarity if he abandoned his belief that myth has a peculiar structure of its own that is not common to all narrative forms; but then he would have to admit there are no universal myth structures to be found. The more cleverly contrived the method the more heavily will it impose its inventor’s categories.
These criticisms apply to the method advanced in the book under review. In practice, anthropologists (including Leach) have contributed much to the study of mythology and of the Bible. For example, Julian Pitt-Rivers, in The Fate of Shechem, has reflected thoughtfully on how the editors of the Bible incorporated their own view of historical evolution in the biblical narrative. In earlier studies Edmund Leach also attempted to examine the borderline between myth and history. Here he denies its interest. The main problem is how to deal with history. Sometimes Leach distinguishes myth from history and the history recounted in myths from the real history in the history books; often he protests that he does not believe that any characters in the Bible ever existed. He pours scorn on other scholars’ historiographic ideas. If only he would come out and declare that everything is mythological, he would enjoy the strengths of a consistent position. Teetering on the edge, Leach believes in history but guards for himself the secret of knowing where it starts or stops.
In an earlier publication, Leach wittily subjected some of the accepted facts of English history to the kind of analysis that he applies to myth. He began by saying that “for ordinary men, as distinct from professional scholars, the significance of history lies in what is believed to have happened, not in what actually happened. And belief, by a process of selection, can fashion even the most incongruent stories into patterned (and therefore memorable) structures. “For the contemporary English schoolboy,” according to Leach,
the memorable facts about English sixteenth-century history are details such as the following:
a) Henry VIII was a very successful masculine King who married many wives and murdered several of them.
b) Edward VI was a very feeble masculine King who remained a virgin until his death.
c) Mary Queen of Scots was a very unsuccessful female King who married many husbands and murdered several of them.
d) Queen Elizabeth was a very successful female King who remained a virgin until her death.
e) Henry VIII enhanced his prestige by divorcing the King of Spain’s daughter on the grounds that she had previously been married to his elder brother who had died a virgin.
f) Queen Elizabeth enhanced her prestige by going to war with Spain having previously declined to marry the King of Spain’s son who had previously been married to her elder sister (Queen Mary of England). *
This pattern was obviously in Leach’s mind for a long time. If we read this old passage again after reading the new book, Henry VIII jumps to the eye as a Pharaoh figure: he conspicuously replaced the pope as intermediary between God and his people; and, in doing so, he drew attention to his incestuous marriage. The virgin Queen Elizabeth would be equivalent to Isis and Miriam, and the murderous queens, Mary of Scotland and Bloody Mary, would be equivalents of Ashtaroth. Then Edward would stand for Horus, and so also for Joseph and Moses, and Jesus too. A massacre of innocent princes in the tower made way for the Tudor dynasty. Every element of the Egyptian model seems to be present, with many immobilizations and betwixt-and-betweens. The problem with Leach’s method of myth analysis is that a preconceived structure may be found practically anywhere.
December 20, 1984