Daily Archives: November 6, 2009

Religious Knowledge, Lectures 4 and 5


Lectures 4 and 5.  October 21 and 28, 1947

In dealing with mental truth we must detach “truth” from the Bible as it is known in history and science.  The first fact we are aware of is that we live on a flat surface and the sun rises and sets.  Then, by explanation, we know it is an illusion.  But the fact of experience is still real.  The truth as it appears in the Bible is like the truth of that fact of experience.  The accuracy of history in the Bible is in inverse proportion to its spiritual value.

In the Old Testament we see a chasm opening between two types of minds.  One type sees experience in historical terms, and the other, the prophetic mind, transforms human reminiscence into drama.  The shape and form of that story becomes a parable.  A cleavage emerges between the literal and the spiritual comprehension.  The literal acceptance survives in Judaism and represents a type of attitude that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees.  The Gospels bring the spiritual approach.


Ritual is the act, the thing done.  Myth is the Word, the revelation, the scripture, the story of how this came to be; that is, what is said in the Bible.  Ritual comes earlier because the act must precede its explanation.  Myth is the explanation of the ritual. The Bible is a gigantic myth, a mythic account of human life. It is definitive myth which gets everything in and consolidates all mythic tales of any significance.

What ritual is the myth explaining?  The ritual of human sacrifice.  This must be dug out of the Bible because it is clear only in myth.  Much editing has covered up this human sacrifice ritual and it survives only in odd and lurid passages in Judges, etc.

All myths do not explain a ritual.  The explanation of customs of various tribes have mythical explanations.  The anthropologist is looking for different explanations because a different conception of myth is necessary to him.  Myths deal with gods.

God is the God of Christians; god is a supernatural being.

All products of human civilization are products of myths; they are attempts to reflect on life.  Man doesn’t evolve; he resists evolution.  The development of consciousness is an evolution of mental form.  Evolution takes place in time, while consciousness looks back at time.  Myth is word, idea.

Natural              Human

Ritual                Myth

Act                    Word

Will                   Idea

Monoloty is the stage of religious statement in which the Hebrews say “Jehovah is our God.”  It is not polytheistic nor monotheism, but a kind of halfway house.  Other people have gods and each god chosen is a war-god––“my god can lick your god,” which means no tolerance of someone else’s god.

Monotheism is when our god becomes the only true god, the only possible God.  This represents the advance of civilization.

Polytheism: Man never assumes he is the greatest thing in the world.  He is a natural being among nature.  God here is seen as unknown, which means we separate him from the known, that is, from nature.  To make god knowable, he must combine subject and object, human nature and the forces of nature. There becomes a god for each natural phenomenon; the god humanizes the natural force of the storm, for example.

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The Collected Poems of Northrop Frye


1.  In letter to Helen Kemp, 15 July 1932.

A man with a bad case of phthisis

Kept asking his family for phkhisses

Until his wife said,

“You can’t see your head

So you don’t know how rotten your phphiz is.”


2.  In letter to Helen Frye, 5 January 1939.

I could fly as straight as an arrow,

To visit my wife over there,

If I could excrete my marrow,

And fill my bones with air.


3.  Sonnet written on Frye’s 23rd birthday (14 July 1935).  In a letter to Roy Daniells.  Frye refers to it as “horrible doggerel, like all of my alleged poetry.”

Milton considered his declining spring

And realized the possibility

That while he mused on Horton scenery

Genius might join his youth in taking wing;

Yet thought this not too serious a thing

Because of God’s well-known propensity

To take and re-absorb inscrutably

The lives of men, whatever gifts they bring.

Of course I have a different heritage;

I’ve worked hard not to be young at all,

With fair results; at least my blood is cooled,

And I am safe in saying, at Milton’s age,

That if Time pays me an informal call

And tries to steal my youth, Time will get fooled.


4.  Among the annotations Frye made in his copy of The Wisdom of Laotse (1948, trans. Lin Yutang) is this holograph verse at the end of chapter 4.

Laotse’s Commentary of Genesis

In the beginning God created heaven and earth.

That was where the trouble started.

Before, there was chaos,

Which is what the wise man still seeks.

He divided light from darkness, dry land from sea,

But we got sea and darkness anyway.

Silly blundering old bugger,

Why couldn’t he have left well enough alone.


5.  Among the annotations to Frye’s copy of Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, this couplet scribbled in the margin of page 153.

When night lets fall her sable hood

How may one know which dame one scrood?

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