In the 1930s, Lord Raglan published a study of the hero-pattern in mythology, outlining the biography and journey of the hero that would appear a decade later (with additions drawn from Jung’s archetypes) in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Raglan belonged to the “myth and ritual” school of thought, believing that the origin of this myth pattern derived from an ancient ritual practice that was degraded into wonder stories in an attempt to explain the long-forgotten meaning of the ritual. Although this school was popular in the early twentieth century (especially in the work of James Frazer and Jane Harrison), it is much less popular today.
Although Raglan was probably wrong about the ultimate origins of the Indo-European hero story, the preface to his 1936 book The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama contains some important observations applicable to the study of alternative authors and their beliefs.
Consider Atlantis theorists who wish to believe Plato’s allegory real, but selectively deny the historicity of Euhemerus’ Panchaea, Lucian’s voyage to the moon, and other elements of ancient literature that are not conducive to their fantasies. Or, consider ancient astronaut theorists who demand that the Book of Enoch be read as an alien invasion that actually happened and that the ancient myths must be true, yet ignore the ancient authors (including the euhemerists) who denied the reality and the truth of these selfsame myths.
Raglan went on to provide some interesting examples of the limits of memory and history. Raglan immediately notes that: “Interest in historical fact, which is notoriously rare among moderns, is gratuitously assumed to have been universal among the ancients.” Raglan provides some case studies that suggest this could not have been the case. He notes that in the backwoods of Europe, not fifty years after Napoleon’s death, the details of his life were forgotten, and in one folk ballad he was believed to be a contemporary of St. George! In a still earlier example, he describes how the medieval peoples of England who were demonstrably the descendants of the Danes and the Norse (who had settled eastern England) had entirely forgotten this within a few generations, considered themselves English, and thought of the Danes and Norse as foreign enemies. The point is that even the histories a people tell of themselves are more myth and fiction than fact. How then could we possibly believe that a people who claimed descent from the gods generations upon generations ago were really genetically engineered hybrids?
Lord Raglan, however, was a man of his times. He refused to classify Jesus as following the hero-pattern he identified, despite its evident identity with it—from the virgin birth to the divine parentage to the sacrificial death. Like James Frazer before him (and Erich von Däniken after him), he understood the Jesus story to fit into his broader theory but feared offending delicate sensibilities.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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