Background to Metahistory
By definition, metahistory looks beyond history. Its ultimate aim is twofold: to surpass the limits of historical perspective and to introduce new views of human potential, represented in new versions of our story. Although it is a visionary path that goes beyond history, metahistory has an historical basis. It did not just spring up out of nowhere, for it has its origins in a specific time and place. There is a long process of maturation behind it. A set of historical precedents support it, and through twenty five centuries numerous pioneers have laid the groundwork for it. The purpose of this essay is to present a brief overview of the origins and originators of metahistorical inquiry.
The Father of History
There are two initial questions to ask regarding the background of metahistory: When did the writing of history (as we now define it) first occur? How soon after the writing of history was inaugurated did the first signs of metahistorical inquiry emerge? Surprisingly, perhaps, the record shows that these two developments, each of immense importance in its own right, were simultaneous. Most historians agree that the writing of history began with the Greek historians, Herodotus [c. 484 c. 425 BCE] and Thucydides [c. 460 c 400 BCE]. The elder of the two, Herodotus, has traditionally been called "the father of history." He traveled widely in Asia Minor and Egypt, leaving an important account of Egyptian religion and the wonders of the pyramids. Seemingly prone to political intrigues, Herodotus may have ended his life in exile in Italy. His work is regarded as "the first comprehensive attempt at secular narrative history, a classic of world literature as well as the starting point of Western history writing." (Columbia, 889)
His younger contemporary, Thucydides, was primarily a military historian whose scope of interest was more narrow, but he is noted for his impartial and accurate reportage, especially the speeches he records, such as the funeral oration for the hero and statesman, Pericles.
Debate continues over the accuracy of some passages in Herodotus, but that need not concern us here. More significant is the fact that he was critical of some of his sources. Drawing upon many ancient traditions and oral accounts, he was careful in some cases to question the narrative structure of the stories he was recording. Traveling widely and encountering diverse cultures, Herodotus could not help notice the similarity of heroic tales preserved in different parts of the world. He was especially struck by the recurrence of events in stories of heroes who resembled the Greek Herakles (Latinized name, Hercules).
Assuming a viewpoint that was quite radical for his time and place, Herodotus stated that Herakles was not a figure unique to Greek myth. He even berated his countrymen about adopting tales of this hero uncritically from other races: "The Hellenes tell many things without proper examination. Among them is the silly myth they tell about Herakles." (Book 2.45, cited in Finley, 23).
In his travels Herodotus encountered many variations
of a plot formula known to the Greeks as the "labors of Herakles." Cults
dedicated to this mythical figure occurred all over
the Near East under various names such as Melkart in
Samson in Jewish legend, and Ogmios among the Celts,
to name but a few variants.
After Herodotus comes a long transitional period that presents little evidence of metahistorical attitudes in Western history-writing, with one outstanding exception. Historical treatments of the Roman Empire are strongly slanted by a superstitious belief that its duration was predetermined by cosmic factors. The date of the founding of the city of Rome is a solid chronological datum: 747 BCE. This is the date reported by Ciceros contemporary, the antiquarian Varro, and universally accepted by historians today. (Grant, 11) The Latin phrase, ab urbe conditis, "from the founding of the city," indicates the calendric benchmark widely used up to the time when the AD calendar was introduced in the 5th Century. Before calendars were computed from the birth of Jesus Christ, they were dated from the founding of Rome.
There is a remarkable factor in the Roman calendar. Technically, it is called a mytho-historical nexus, an event in which myth and history converge.
It so happens that the historical event of founding the city of Rome, which is the
seminal moment for the founding of the Roman Empire, coincides with a mythological
event, a purely imaginary incident involving two non-historical characters. The
mythical twins, Romulus and Remus, cannot be identified as historical persons,
yet they are said to have founded Rome at that precise historical moment, 747 BCE.
From the seminal moment, there was considerable concern about the longevity of
the empire founded by Romulus. Speculations were rampant. The entire population
went through periodic panic attacks about the predicted term of expiration. The
duration of the twelve vultures was calculated in dozens of ways, resulting in a
range of different end-times. Although there was no universal agreement on the
date the Empire would end, the belief that it was predestined to end was never
shaken. It was widely believed that its demise would be due to estrangement from
the guiding powers who oversee human affairs.
Word Games in the Dark Ages
Through the Dark Ages, metahistorical inquiry was precluded by the totalitarian
view of history enshrined in the Judaeo-Christian agenda of linear time. This
vision of history assumes that everything pivots on a unique moment when God
intervenes in history. This scripting formula is one of the most powerful
instruments ever conceived by the human mind to control how the mind thinks
about its own experience. Wherever this formula prevails, it precludes and
"overwrites" all other versions of history. Historical scripts by
the Church Fathers and other writers who endorsed the Christian ideology of
salvation were cosmically formatted on a pivotal moment, the Incarnation. This
version of history totally cancels out the vision of eternal recurrence
characteristic of pagan philosophy and ethics. Consequently, metahistorical
inquiry had to go underground where it assumed cryptic forms, as suppressed
knowledge tends to do.
The anticipation that the dominant social system will break down is consistent with the perennial theme of world-ending found in the earliest instances of metahistorical inquiry. This view clashes with conservative ideology because conservatism always assumes that the dominant system is the best and most enduring.
The underground writings of Isadore must have been consoling to people of anti-establishment sentiments in the Middle Ages, who had no free and open channel to express their discontent. Typically, those who understand the secret meaning of words (and hence, of scripts and the behavior they determine) will also be privy to the secret course of events. Like the "Hoffman Wire," the Etymologies were subversive.
Metahistory can be subversive as well, but it does not operate from a preformulated agenda of reform or revolution. Metahistory always questions assumptions about social order, and it takes a critical view of the fashionable ideology inherent to any such assumptions, while at the same time it seeks to discover the inherent patterns that might insure sanity and stability for human society over the long term.
The Trinity of Ages
After Isadore of Seville, six centuries pass before a full-blown metahistorical
model emerges. This occurs in the work of Joachim of Floris (pronounced JO-ukim),
a Cistercian monk who lived in Calabria, southern Italy, at the end of the 12th
century. In this case, the model was the result of a visionary experience. In a
vision Joachim saw the end of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the rise
of a new belief-system that would emerge from the lifeless carapace of Christian
doctrine. His visionary view of history reflects cosmic formatting charged with a
new and enriched content.
Although the culminating moment he foresaw was beyond history, Joachim assigned to
it the specific date of 1260, some sixty years after his death. This was the moment
when the Ecclesia Spiritualis, the spiritual brotherhood of humanity, would
emerge, so he believed, and take over the role previously played by the Church.
Heading the future congregation would be John the Evangelist, a spiritual leader
of a higher stature than Peter or Paul. In the "Eternal Evangel,"
Joachim saw the ultimate spiritual authority capable of overthrowing the authority
of the Catholic hierarchy and, in effect, rendering all ecclesiastical institutions
obsolete. Needless to say, this was (and still is) an heretical position.
Nevertheless, elements of Joachims Trinitarian vision of history were
duly appropriated by Dominicans, Franciscans and other monkish orders, and
even by some Jesuits!
Denouncing the atomization of modern society and what he considered to be a delusional notion of individualism, Berdyaev celebrated freedom as the highest human value, but added the qualification that "the free spirit is communal and not individualistically isolated." His visionary scheme was developed on the rebound from the Russian Revolution, but it contains genuine mystical elements reminiscent of Joachim. In fact, in passage after passage of his prolific work, Berdyaev writes as if he were the incarnation of Joachim. (For a resume of Berdyaevs life and work, see http://www.chebucto.ns.ca/Philosophy/Sui-Generis/Berdyaev/essays/
The Leap Beyond History
This signal came out of Egypt, as did the initial metahistorical insights of Herodotus 2300 years earlier. The focus on Egypt became crucial in the introduction of alternative versions of history that depart from the script of Judaeo-Christian religion, dominant since the fall of the Roman Empire. After 1822, it was as if a dam had ruptured Debugging the BibleThroughout the 19th century, metahistorical insight continued to develop by leaps and bounds, always in close association with comparative mythology and philology (the study of languages). As soon as the tools were available and a methodology had been roughed out, scholars began to take on the most challenging material: namely, the Judaeo-Christian version of "sacred history" recorded in the Bible.
Lets recall that Dupuis had dared to suggest that so-called Christian history was merely pagan myth pirated from pre-Christian sources. It did not take long before the heretical and anti-clerical notions such as these were widely expressed by exponents of the new comparative studies. With ruthless scrutiny, historians, ethnologists, mythologists and even theologians delved into the revered texts of the Old and New Testaments. At the midpoint of the 19th Century, in the heady era when Darwin published The Origin of Species, scholars were intently focused on what was to become known as the "higher criticism" of the Bible. The theosophist and Gnostic scholar, G. R. S. Mead, expressed the credo for the new discipline in his book, The Gospel and the Gospels, published in 1902:This collection of books, considered by the whole of Christendom to contain the New Covenant of God with man, is called into question on innumerable points by the test of the analytical reason which is accepted by all other fields of research as the providential means of removing error, and attaining to a just estimation of the nature of fact, knowledge, and truth. (G, 38) This single sentence could as well be taken for the credo of metahistory as it emerged in its own right, distinct from comparative mythology. Mead clearly indicates that calling the Bible into question also calls into question the fundamentals of Christian faith. If the Biblical texts are shown to be full of errors and inconsistencies, and if the stories they contain can be traced back to older, pre-Christian myths, then the "New Covenant of God with man" scripted in the Old and New Testaments cannot be taken any longer at its self-declared value.
As a pioneer of Gnostic studies, Mead must have been acutely aware that opposing
the human faculty of reason to Biblical revelation was an heretical act. This
is precisely what the Gnostics did when they argued against the rituals and
ideology of the early Christians. Mead would surely have known that the word
"error" is a key term in the Gnostic vision of spiritual liberation.
Gnostic teachings were largely destroyed by Christian fanatics, but those few
that survived assert in no uncertain terms that the Judaeo-Christian ideology
of salvation is an error, a deviation from the proper course of evolution for
the human species. Meads summary comment is a crucial one because it
indicates that the Gnostic assertion of reason against
the errors of belief is inherent to metahistorical inquiry. Metahistory is an
historical gnosis, a higher knowing of history. The Gnostic edge of metahistory
has been widely developed by contemporary exponents such as William Irwin
Thompson and Morris Bermann. (See also The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine
Pagels, in Basic Reading.)
The year 1900 was more than a chronological benchmark for the start of the 20th Century. It was a nodal point for a number of developments that would be crucial to defining metahistory in its current form, post-2000 AD. The high-water mark of the era was the appearance in twelve volumes of The Golden Bough. Its author, Sir James Frazer [1845 1941], was a Scottish anthropologist whose fine literary style effectuated the influence of his work beyond the realm of specialists. Frazer made a grand inventory of classical sources of the materia mythica, and he included a mass of contemporary ethnographic evidence drawn from field work with "primitive peoples" in various parts of the world. (For a review of The Golden Bough, see the Seven Classics of Metahistory.) His contribution to metahistory consists in the vast overview he presented, but equally in his detection of certain motifs or script-factors inherent to cross-cultural mythology. "One schema proposed by Frazer was especially attractive: he suggested that after prehistoric cultural specalization generated the role of the technician or magician, it further generated that of the priestly office, and finally that of the ultimate power-wielder, the king." (Doty, 171) This scheme provided a model for later attempts to understand the origins and structure of patriarchy, the form of rule whose seminal figure is the sanctified king, or theocrat. Frazers three-stage progression from magician (or shaman) to priest to king is now regarded as a degenerate trend by many critical historians, especially those aligned to feminist revisions of history. (More on feminism below.)
By identifying recurrent themes in mythology, Frazers work "provoked wider recognition of the transpersonal factors in social behavior." (Doty, 170) In other words, his inventory showed how mythological themes permeate human experience on personal, social and historical levels alike. One scholar has described The Golden Bough as "less a compendium of facts than a gigantic romance of quest couched in the form of objective research." (Ibid, 170) The model for the quest explored by Frazer was the Trojan culture-hero, Aeneas, who ventured into the Underworld to commune with ancestral spirits and thereby realize his calling to found Latium, the Latin culture-matrix where Rome arose. Thus there are two mythological scenarios at the origin of the Roman Empire: the rivalry of Romulus and Remus, and the mission of Aeneas. The latter was crucial to the organization of Frazers materials in 1900, as the former had been to Polybius' scheme of universal history in 150 BC.
Contemporary with Frazer, four other key works were published at the watershed of 1900: Cosmic Consciousness by Richard Bucke, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James and Pagan Christs by J. M. Robertson (reviewed in Basic Reading). The first three contributed respectively to introducing evolutionary, psychological and parapsychological perspectives on history, while the fourth presents the first rigorous comparative study of the script-factors in the life-story of Jesus Christ. Robertsons work was as important for that epoch as Frazers, though far less known. Pagan Christs contains the first comprehensive inventory of cross-cultural materials on savior-gods. Robertson found this evidence so convincing that he concluded it was no longer possible, or necessary, to believe that a unique historical Jesus ever existed.
Frazer, Robertson and others comprise the first generation of metahistory in its current expression. If the materia mythica were compared to the content of the Internet, they would be comparable to the "search engines." The computer format called "Hypertext," which allows searching across categories, may be compared to the methodology developed by these pioneers for sorting through the mass of mythological and ethnographic lore. Their work on thematic organization prepared the ground for the later efforts of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell, master synthesizers of the second generation. A transitional figure in the first generation was Lewis Spence, a Scottish anthropologist who wrote a number of books of esoteric bearing. Despite his association with the fringe zone of Theosophy, Spence was a legitimate scholar who compiled huge masses of comparative data in thirty or so substantial books. An Introduction to Mythology, published in 1921, stands as one of the first attempts at a systematic inventory of the materials. (In The Panorama of Myth, Part One, I have cited the "Spence inventory.")
The Hero Scripts
The work of first generation comparative mythology developed until the 1930s,
when a new element emerged. The shift to the next phase of metahistory was signaled
by The Hero, published in 1936 by a British
aristocrat, Fitzroy Richard Somerset, the 4th Baron Raglan, known as Lord Raglan.
Here is the theme originally treated in a comparative manner by Herodotus, and
revalorized by Dupuis. The Hero takes for its subject matter over a
hundred examples of the heroic quest, drawn from a wide array of cultures and
races. Lord Raglan assumes the strictly anti-historical view typified by
Robertson on Jesus: none of these characters ever existed, or had to exist,
as historical persons. (For my caveat on this viewpoint, see the review of Myths to Live By in Seven Classics of Metahistory.)
By a rigorously systematic analysis of the elements contained in diverse hero-tales,
he concludes that mythic and legendary materials on the hero were never meant to
record historical events. Instead, they were intended as fictional narratives to
accompany ritual dramas celebrating the power and prestige of kings and regents.
Hero scripts were custom-made to flatter the regents who commissioned the royal scribes to write them! Narratives from different cultures resemble each other because scribes in different cultures used the same set of scripting formulas.
argued that the greater part of myth that survives in written form -- such
as the Epic of the Sumerian hero, Gilgamesh, written in cuneiform on clay tablets
dating from around 1600 BCE are leftovers from texts used for performing
ritual dramas. It is hard for us to evaluate these myths correctly, he insisted,
because we do not see them enacted dramatically in their original setting. It is
as if we had the stage-notes and some dialogue for productions of Shakespeare,
but never had the opportunity to see a play staged or to participate in the
social and cultural setting in which such dramas would be mounted.
The feminist assault on history-writing is important for all the new versions of our story that it introduced, and for the critical impact it brought to the interpretation of scripts written with the intent to indemnify and preserve the rule of patriarchy. Feminist critique reveals the political edge of metahistorical inquiry.
The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler was published in 1987, six years after The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light by William Irwin Thompson. (Both books are reviewed in Basic Reading) The former is far more widely known, but Thompsons book is also radical feminism at its best and it makes the perfect companion volume to Eisler. Since I am unable to go further into the feminist revision of history in this essay, I would advise those interested to consult the notes and bibliography in The Chalice and the Blade for a full reading list. (See particularly note 21 to the Introduction, note 9 of chapter One, note 4 of Chapter Six, and note 10 of Chapter Seven on ecofeminism. See also Merlin Stone in the Seven Classics of Metahistory.)Naming Metahistory
The defining moment in the second wave of metahistory occurred in 1973 when the American historian, Hayden White, published Metahistory: The Historical Imagination of Nineteenth-Century Europe. With this work, metahistory was formally introduced as a term in academic discourse. White pursued the analysis of history-writing in terms of style of exposition, which is a far cry from close investigation of scripting formulas or exposure of scripted beliefs. For the most part, his work is dense to the point of inaccessibility. Here is a typical paragraph from Metahistory:
If the Comic conception of history produces the historiography of social accommodation, the Tragic conception is the basis of what might be called the historiography of social mediation. The Ironic perspective has a meditative aspect, when it is written in the spirit of benign Satire, which is the point of view which begins beyond the Comic resolution. But, in general, Ironic historiography begins on the other side of Tragedy, with that second look which the writer takes after the truths of Tragedy have been registered and even their inadequacy has been perceived. Tocqueville sought to resist the fall, out of a condition of Tragic reconciliation with the harsh truths revealed by reflection on the history of the modern age, into that resentment which was on the basis of Gobineaus Ironic historiography and that spirit of accommodation to "things as they are" which inspired Rankes Comic historiography.(223)And so on, more or less, for 434 pages. The capitalized terms, Comic, Tragic, Ironic, refer to the categories or genres of historical style defined by White and used rather like pitons to advance through the steep textuality of European historical writing. His aim is to show how "the deep structure of historical imagination" is revealed in the styles of expression of famous historians. White assumes that a "precritically accepted paradigm" informs these styles: by which he means that assumptions and beliefs about history shape and sometimes distort the historians treatment of materials. His critique does not extend to full-bore detection of those paradigms, or scripted beliefs as they are called in the current version of metahistory. Although he puts metahistory on the map of intellectual discourse, White does not advance or upscale the work of previous generations. Rather, he wallows down in his own terminology. It is extremely difficult to extract any helpful guidelines from Metahistory.
Whites second book, The Content of the Form, published in 1987, is perhaps more helpful though equally challenging to read due to the high saturation of specialist terminology. In this book he examines "the value of narrativity," which is to say, the value imbued in the way things are narrated.
White opens with a fine phrase, "To raise the question of the nature of narrative is to invite reflection on the very nature of culture and, possibly, even on the nature of humanity itself." (1), but his language in the rest of the work is rarely this lucid. Nevertheless, he strikes the signal note for the third wave of metahistory by suggesting that "narrative is a meta-code, a human universal on the basis of which transcultural messages about the nature of shared reality can be transmitted." (1) This high-blown rhetoric reduces to one simple and practical challenge: by learning to read the meta-code of mythological and historical scripts, we can detect the messages that are directing human experience at collective and personal levels. This is the aim of metahistorical inquiry in the present shift, beyond the third wave.
Metahistory in Whites formula belongs to an emergent vein of academic discourse called "historicism." This is a huge, highly technical and hotly controversial issue in some universities around the world, but it is peripheral to the metahistory being developed on this site. (For an introduction see The New Historicism, edited by H. Aram Veeser.) The Fourth Wave The brief period from 1981 to 2002, when Metahistory.org was launched, may be considered as the culmination of the third wave of metahistory, corresponding to the third generation of comparative mythology. Sometime in this twenty-year interval, the two strands tend to become separated and metahistory finally emerges on its own terms.
It may be fair to say that Metahistory.org represents
the fourth and future wave of this overall development.
Prospects November 2002
of myth to actual historical and prehistorical events (discussed
in The Panorama of Myth) and its seemingly
contradictory role (according to Lord Raglan) as a contrived
script, needs to be resolved. The central emphasis on the solar
hero has to be counterbalanced
by reclamation of the Goddess Mysteries, such as we see
in the work of Barbara Walker and Merlin Stone. The role of the
shaman as primary religious figure has
to be re-evaluated, and the status of the hero-healer
who is enigmatically wounded has to be re-interpreted in terms of
what it tells us about the human condition.
Finally, a clear, concise and user-friendly method for
critiquing belief has to be developed, so that all the theoretical
and interpretive aspects of metahistory
can be put into practice. The purpose of Metahistory.org
is to present an open forum and a setting for collaboration around
these exciting challenges.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2016 exclusive to John Lash.