When an anthropologist uses the word history he refers to stories about the past that seems to him more or less probable, when he uses the word myth he is talking about what seems to him to be improbable or impossible. Now open a dictionary, it will tell you that a history is (the study of/a record of) past events considered together, especially events of a particular period, country or subject. A myth on the other hand is an ancient story or set of stories, especially explaining in a literary way the early history of a group of people or about natural events and facts.
The use of the word that the dictionary prescribes and how the anthropologists actually uses it is quite different. And myth and history are in important respects different in character than anthropologists use them. To stress this: “a story may be true yet mythical in character, and a story may be false and yet historical in character”1. Some characteristics of myths: “It is not concerned so much with a succession of events as with the moral significance of situations, and is hence often allegorical or symbolical in form.It is not encapsulated, as history is, but is a re-enactment fusing present and past. It tends to be timeless, placed in thought beyond, or above, historical time; and where it is firmly placed in historical time, it is also nevertheless, timeless in that it could have happened at any time.
Ten the very improbabilities, even absurdities, in many myths are not to be taken, as in an historical record, literally and hence as naivety and credulity, but are of the essence of myth which, just because the events lie outside human experience, demand an acts of will and of imagination.Then, myth differs from history in that it is regarded differently by the people to whose culture both belong. They do not regard historical happenings and mythical happenings as happenings of the same order. “2 “Myth, deprives the object of which it speaks of all History”3, according to Barthes.
He actually states that myths would not posses any historic value, and therefore is not worthwhile to research if one is searching for factual information. But is this true?Don’t most of the myths have a core of truth which makes research worthwhile? To look deeper into the difference between history and myth in the anthropologic field and the importance of studying myths to obtain factual information (history) we can focus on a division of opinion on the matter whether anthropology can be regarded as a natural science or as one of the humanities. This because this division is at its sharpest when the relations between anthropology and history are being discussed.I will first explain the above mentioned difference between anthropology as a natural science and anthropology as part of the humanities. After this we will look at the Ilahitan people as described in Social complexity in the making – a case study among the Arapesh of New Guinea by Donald Tuzin.
Value of history to anthropology A functional theory of society is nothing new. Human societies are natural systems in which all the parts are interdependent, each serving in a complex of necessary relations to maintain the whole.The aim of social anthropology is to reduce all social life to laws or general statements about the nature of society which allow prediction. What is new is the statement that a society can be understood satisfactorily without reference to its past. This because a natural system can be described in terms of natural law without recourse of history. In sake of clarity, we must distinguish two different senses of history: 1. “In a literate society, history is a part of the conscious tradition of a people and is operative in their social life.
It is the collective representation of events as distinct from events themselves. This is what social anthropologists calls myth. The functionalist anthropologist regards history (usually a mixture of facts and fancy) in this sense as highly relevant to a study of the culture of which it forms part . “4 2. “On the other hand they have totally rejected the reconstruction from circumstantial evidences of the history of primitive peoples for whose past documents and monuments are totally, or almost totally lacking. ” 5This last contrasts strong with how the eighteenth-century moral philosophers presented their conception of social systems and sociological laws.
They believed that: “by using inductive methods it would be possible to explain the societies studied in terms of general principles or laws in the same way as physical phenomena had been explained by physicists. ” 6 These natural laws could be derived by studying the human nature. Because of the fact that these laws applied over whole mankind, man always advanced along certain lines through set stages of development.