Max Mueller (Part 2 of 2)

Gregory {Greg} Downing downingg at
Thu May 22 01:29:31 UTC 1997

Cont'd from Part 1 of 2 ("Fortsetzung und Schluss" as they say in 19C
philology journals). Greg Downing/NYU

At 09:11 PM 5/21/97 BST, you (thompson at (George Thompson)) wrote:
>The process of divinization of natural phenomena that [MM] sees in the RV is
>the result of an over-literal interpretation of the hymns, as if Vedic
>poets were *incapable* of metaphor. It is also the result of an abuse of
>etymology [Dyaus = Zeus, etc. -- so what? we learn precious little about
>either god from this equation]. I think it is fair to say that no Vedicist
>in her / his right mind would resort to MM, except for the sake of
>historical curiosity.

The first two sentences above are for me as a non-indologist is the densest
passage in your post. I'm familar with MM's theories of different kinds of
metaphor, and how one kind of metaphor causes language to be used to create
divinities by turning abstract concepts into agencies. MM seems to be saying
that people who create myth engage in the "wrong" kind of metaphor from the
angle of scientific accuracy, if a fecund angle for the creation of
religious characters and stories. He seems to believe that if people really
take agni = fire as a literal divinity named Agni then they are making a
metaphor into a false literalism (assuming that myth is an unscientific
construct). He is right that people are creating myth by a "disease of
language" if people think fire is a god and there is in fact (for the sake
of the argument) no actual fire-god as a personal agency. But that does not
exclude the possibility that people also see abstract and natural phenomena
for what they are, and are simply trying to express that poetically or
allegorically when looking at things through the lens of myth. 

The real issue is: Do ancient people see their gods as literal or
metaphorical? MM thinks they see them as literal and thus views myth as
metaphor gone wrong in certain ways, if full of possibilities in other ways.
Anyway, he discusses this at some length in (among other loci) the last
three-fifths of Lecture VIII in the Second Series of _Lecs on the Sci of
Lang_ (Lec VIII in Vol II of a unified edit of LSL): but since it would
require several paras. of discussion I won't mention it unless Geo. Thompson
or someone else wants to go into it in a subsequent post or private email

On the Dyaus/Zeus/et al. kinds of "identifications of divinities" MM loves
so dearly, his most basic point (whether he's accurate either generally or
in details is another issue entirely...) seems to be that there are general
overlaps in IE mythologies, which he boils down to things like
sun/dawn/brightness/prosperity and storms/thunder/etc. You can see a
convenient taxonomy of Vedic and other IE divinities and religious concepts
through his very particular filter in _Biographies of Words_ (1887, reprtd.
1912), pp. 188-198 (section XV of his taxonomy of putatively PIE concepts in
various IE cultures). I think he is dying to demonstrate not only the
linguistic but also the cultural affinities of IE cultures. So he basically
maginalizes, or ignores, or fails to see at all, the *details* of various
divinities that are *specific* to one culture or another, and focuses pretty
exclusively on (what he believes to be, if reductively) the overlaps
indicative to his mind of common IE origin, and some kind of Ur-culture.

I see MM as maybe something like a Joseph Campbell type of figure -- very
popular with nonspecialists, but rather distortive and reductive from a
specialist angle. Campbell started as an acolyte of Jung, co-wrote with H C
Robinson the first book ever published on Joyce's _Finnegans Wake_ in 1945,
and produced _The Hero with a Thousand Faces_ in the 50s (assimilating all
myth and literature and dream to a "monomyth" pattern of
separation/initiation/return -- "monomyth" is a term borrowed out-of-context
from _FW_). This Campbell followed with a whole series of "comparative
mythology" books as large in extent as MM's (dead...) corpus. Campbell as
popularizing crosscultural religious and literary speculator finally ended
up doing a TV series with an "intellectual" interviewer on US Public TV
(which is mostly cultural programming), where they discussed the supposed
underlying themes of "all" world myth/religion and all dream-symbolism. JC
was a prof. at Sarah Lawrence, a small liberal arts college in New York
City, and died a few years ago.

>With that said, I have always thought, nevertheless, that his notion
>"disease of language" and his etymologizing deserved some kind of
>re-evaluation. Though the Vedic RSis were not, by a long shot, the naive
>nature worshippers that he assumed they were, they *were* preoccupied in
>significant ways with language.  And even MM in the early days of Vedic
>studies could tell that something was going on in the language of these

See my comments just above on my understanding, such as it is, of MM's
theory of the emergence of myth from certain kinds of metaphorical use of

And what you point out here as possibly valid in some very general way in
MM's idea of the language/metaphor/myth axis is in fact quite close to the
heart of my tentative sense of the Joyce/MM axis on the issue of language
and myth (which I have not talked about, thank God...).

Let me emphasize that I am not trying to sell anything, nor is my sense of
what MM is doing anything close to being carved in stone. I'm raising these
issues with specialists in an effort to avoid saying something about MM and
the possible MM/Joyce axis that will look ridiculous from the angle of a
professional Indologist (given the unavoidable problem of how superannuated
MM's ideas are in many ways).

>Sorry, this is hasty and over-general.  But maybe it will trigger some more
>careful observations from others.  I hope to be able to follow up later.

It was certainly very useful to me, and I'd receive gratefully any further
comment from you and/or anyone else.

Greg Downing/NYU
greg.downing at
downingg at

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