The Theological Interpretation of Myth

Pomegranate 7 (1):27-41 (2005)
This article seeks in the Platonic philosophers of late antiquity insights applicable to a new discipline, the philosophy of Pagan religion. An impor¬tant element of any such discipline would be a method of mythological hermeneutics that could be applied cross-culturally. The article draws par¬ticular elements of this method from Sallust and Olympiodorus. Sallust’s five modes of the interpretation of myth (theological, physical, psychical, material and mixed) are discussed, with one of them, the theological, singled out for its applicability to all myths and because it interprets myth in reference exclusively to the nature of the Gods and their relationship to a model of the cosmos in its totality. The other modes of interpretation, while useful in particular contexts, are not uniformly applicable to all myths, interpret the myths as concerning things other than the Gods themselves, and interpret the myths with reference to particular sectors of the cosmos. Accordingly, it is from Sallust’s theological mode of interpre¬tation that the new method draws its inspiration. From Olympiodorus the method derives strategies for interpreting basic narrative attributes that myths share with all stories. Thus temporal sequence is interpreted as an ascent, from our perspective, from less perfect to more perfect manifestations of the powers of the Gods. Passivity, conflict, and transitive relations in general between the Gods are interpreted as expressing attributes of the cosmos to the constitution of which the Gods dedicate their energies, rather than as placing constraint upon the Gods themselves. The article concludes with a series of broad principles meant to guide the new method.
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