Myth-Ritual School

Myth-Ritual School


a school that developed in Western literary scholarship and culturology in the 1930’s. The myth-ritual school synthesized the myth-ritual theory formulated in the early 20th century by W. R. Smith, J. Frazer, and the Cambridge Group of Frazer’s followers (J. E. Harrison, A. B. Cook, F. M. Cornford) and the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung, particularly the theory of archetypes.

Although the myth-ritual theory adopted many of the ideas of the mythological school, it maintained that ritual preceded myth and defended the unique importance of ritual in the genesis of literature, art, and philosophy. The Cambridge Group studied the theater, epic, and philosophy of classical antiquity and the sacred literature of the ancient Orient. The heroic epic was studied by E. Mireaux and Ch. Autran of France and by G. R. Levy and F. Raglan of England, and the novel and folktale were investigated by P. Saintyves of France. The myth-ritual theory assumed extreme forms in works by Raglan and the American S. E. Hyman, who implied that myth-ritual models must be regarded as the structure, not the source, of poetic imagination. Because Jung’s theory of archetypes greatly aided these scholars in achieving their goals, it was utilized by representatives of the myth-ritual school, including M. Bodkin of England, N. Frye of Canada, and R. Chase and H. Watts of the USA.

Jungian theory has enabled the school to extend the ritual approach to the entire history of art, including contemporary art. The school has also been influenced by “mythologizing” in 20th-century literature, as seen in the works of J. Joyce, T. Mann, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats. In their study of literary works, members of the myth-ritual school look not only for mythological motifs, symbols, and metaphors—both conscious and unconscious—but also, and even more important, for the re-creation of certain ritual patterns, particularly rituals of initiation; the school regards initiation rites as equivalent to the psychological archetype of death and rebirth. Frye asserts the absolute unity of ritual, myth, and archetype and traces literary images and genres to this unity, developing a distinctive “literary anthropology.” For example, the four phases of the natural cycle, which were observed in ancient rituals, are correlated by Frye with myths, archetypes, rituals, and genres by virtue of metaphorical identity or association by analogy. Links are seen between dawn, the spring, myths of a hero’s birth, resurrection, and dithyrambic and rhapsodic poetry.

Important results were achieved by cultural studies of ritual and by the myth-ritual school in the investigation of literary genres genetically associated with ritual, mythological, and folkloric traditions. Significant results were also obtained in analyzing the reinterpretation of ancient poetic forms and symbols in chivalrous tales and classical and Renaissance drama and in analyzing classical and biblical symbolism in poetry and the works of Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake.

Some analogies in the myth-ritual approach to the study of tradition may be found in the works of the Soviet scholars V. Ia. Propp, O. M. Freidenberg, and M. M. Bakhtin. The Western myth-ritual school, however, almost completely reduces the structure of a literary work to tradition and seeks a myth-ritual basis in every instance. Literature and art thus become myth, myth becomes ritual—which arouses protests among the ethnographers themselves, such as W. Bascom, C. Kluckhohn, and G. Fontenrose of the USA—and literary scholarship becomes ethnography and psychoanalysis.


Bodkin, M. Archetypal Patterns in Poetry, 3rd ed. New York, 1963.
Chase, R. Quest for Myth. Baton Rouge, La., 1949.
Frye, N. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton, N. J. 1957.
Myth and Mythmaking. Edited by H. A. Murray. New York, 1960.
Myth and Symbol. Lincoln, Neb. (1963).
Myth and Literature. Edited by J. Vickery. Lincoln, Neb., 1966.
Fontenrose, G. The Ritual Theory of Myth. Berkeley, Calif.–Los Angeles, 1966.


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This is the old pan-Babylonianism of the myth-ritual school which was taken over by Frank Cross, but with a greater emphasis on Ugaritic myths.