Logos and Mythos

“These two ancient festivals illustrate a simple social truth: Ritual heals. Ritual is one way the oppressed-men as well as women — can respond to the slights and contempt they otherwise suffer in society, and rituals more generally can make the pains of living and dying bearable. Ritual constitutes the social form in which human beings seek ro deal with denial as active agents, rather than as passive victims.

Western civilization has had, however, an ambivalent relation to these powers of ritual. Reason and science have seemed to promise victory over human suffering, victory rather than simply ritual’s active engagement with it. And reason, of the kind which shaped our culture, has suspected the foundations of ritual, its metonymies and metaphors in space, its bodily practices, which refuse logical justification or explanation.

That ambivalent Western relation of reason and ritual took form in the ancient world. It appeared in the distinction the Greeks drew between logos and mythos. The historian of religion Walter Burkett has summarized this contrast as follows:

Mythos as contrasted with logos: logos from legein, “to put together,” is assembling single bits of evidence. of verifiable facts: logon didonai, to render account in front of a critical and suspicious audience; mythos is telling a tale while disclaiming responsibility: ouk emos ho mythos, this is not my tale, but I have heard it elsewhere.

… The distinction between logos and mythos teaches a harsh lesson. The words for which people claim responsibility create mutual distrust and suspicions that need to be deflected and manipulated. This harsh truth shed a terrifying light on Kleisthenes’ belief that people should be free to speak and responsible for what they say. Democracy deals in the politics of mutual mistrust. The words for which the speakers seem not responsible create a bond of trust; trust is forged by people only under the sway of myth, under the sway of language external to the speakers themselves, as in the paeans in homage to Demeter spoken in the huts on the Pnyx and to Adonis on the roofs of the Athenian house. The cloak of darkness thrown over both places reinforced the impersonal, trustworthy character of these words, since the individual speaker could not easily be seen-the words came out of the dark. The spaces of rituals created magic zones of mutual affirmation. And all these powers of mythos affected the celebrating body, endowing it with new value. In ritual, words are consummated by bodily gestures: dancing, crouching, or drinking together become signs of mutual trust, deeply bonding acts. Ritual threw a cloak of darkness over the suspicions individuals might have harbored of one another in the ancient city, quite unlike the mixture of admiration and suspicion elicited by naked display.

Athenian culture thus formed parallel contrasts: hot versus clothed bodies; naked men versus clothed women; light, “out-of-door” spaces versus the darkened spaces of the pit and the roof at night; the challenging exposures of the logos didonai and the healing cloak of the mythos; the body of power often losing self-control by the very force of its words versus the oppressed bodies united in ritual, even if that bond could not be articulated, justified, or explained.”

– Richard Sennett, Flesh and Stone

pp. 80-82; WW Norton, New York, 2006