Myth in Primitive Psychology, by Bronislaw Malinowski is a survey of the function of myth in primitive culture. In the introduction, we learn that Malinowski is influenced by Sir James Frazer, and following an eloquent dedication to Frazer, Malinowski (1948:94) humbles himself by informing the reader that: “I have therefore decided to keep my peace even while I am addressing you…I shall not try to serve up any theories of my own.” He vows merely to lay before the reader actual results of personal fieldwork. From this statement, which alludes to his desire to revolutionize ethnographical procedure, we know that Malinowski’s research is being done for the pursuit of pure knowledge. Malinowski’s interpretation of myth in the Trobriand Islands aims to prove that it functions as an important part of society and culture; and his methods of collecting data, as well as his opinion on the state of ethnography at the time of publication prove that he was a true innovator of anthropological theory.
Myth in Primitive Psychology begins with Malinowski’s thesis statement as follows: “An intimate connection exists between the word, the mythos, the sacred tales of tribe, on the one hand, and their ritual acts, their moral deeds, their social organization, and even their practical activities, on the other” (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:96). Other schools of thought, such as that of Nature-mythology had previously theorized that the function of myth in primitive society was theoretical and contemplative; a path leading toward the understanding of the phases of the moon and sun. Still others held fast to the idea that myth was factual history. However, Malinowski’s observations gave a different view, one that falls somewhere in between and gives due recognition to the role of myth in society, the flux of life and death, and the prosperity of native man (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:96-98). He further maintains that just as the Christian stories of creation, the Fall, and Christ’s sacrifice “[govern] our faith and [control] our conduct, even so does his myth for the savage” (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:100).
We are given examples of a type of myth called kikwanebu, which are folk tales told during a special time of year, and told by specific people every year who “own” the story. These “fairy tales” are told for entertainment purposes, and are passed carefully down from previous generations, remaining relatively static through these transactions. A second class consists of “legends” that are believed to be true, and are of practical use. They may be stories of sailors driven off course, a man’s experiences, or basically anything having to do with natural phenomena. However, neither of these is the crux of Myth in Primitive Psychology. Still a third and most important class is called liliu. Regarded as sacred, and classified by Malinowski as true “myths,” this class includes ritual, and sets a moral code for the native. These myths function to explain “why something exists or happens” (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:102-108).
Sacred myths are broken up into “myths of origin”, “myths of death and of the recurrent cycle of life”, and “myths of magic”. For the Tribrianders, myths of origin explain the emergence of life from where it began underground to the surface of the earth. The story involves groups of animals, representative of the different clans, coming to the surface through a hole in the ground. Social structure is related to the order in which they emerged, and has an impact on all social affairs within the different groups. Thus, “the result is that there come into existence a special class of mythological stories which justify and account for the anomalous state of affairs” (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:117).
Myths of death and the recurrent cycle of life explain the afterlife as a continuance of life on earth. The deceased are believed to go to a nearby island, where they live much like they did when they were alive. Trobrianders believe that the natural state which one is in (healthy, vigorous, and physically perfect) is only affected by accident or sorcery (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:127-128). Belief in legends and the use of magic as protection against accidents as well as the idealization of the afterlife convey the Trobrianders fear of death; and their disgust with the bodies of the deceased and grief over the loss of a loved one show the uncertainty of the very beliefs they cling to. Malinowski (1948:137-138) states that “what [myth] actually does is to transform an emotionally overwhelming foreboding, behind which, even for a native, there lurks the idea of an inevitable and ruthless fatality” and that “it is perhaps well to realize that in his actual emotional attitude towards death…the native is not completely guided by his belief and his mythological ideas.”
Myths of magic are complex, and their use shows the complexity and sophistication of the native’s attitude toward reality. Myths of magic are common when chance or accidents are perceived to be likely. For example, magic is used in the cultivation of yams and taro, which are staple foods needed for the subsistence of the clan. However, the growth of coconuts, bananas, and mangoes, which are less important are not associated with the use of magic. Thus, “we do not find magic wherever absolute safety eliminates any elements of foreboding…we find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous” (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:140). Augmented by this view of the use of magic is the belief that sexual attraction and seduction-in short, highly variable, irrational, and illogical forces-are governed by the magic of love (Bronislaw Malinowski, 1948:139-142).
Malinowski’s desire to prove that myth is a cultural force has been adequately proven by his great observations of the Trobriand society. Although it does not prove that these are universal truths applicable to all native societies, it is clear that Malinowski was a revolutionary in his methods. In the conclusion of Myth in Primitive Psychology, he states:
As regards anthropological field work, we are obviously demanding a new method of collecting evidence. The anthropologist must relinquish the comfortable position in the long chair on the veranda of the missionary compound, Government station, or planter’s bungalow, where, armed with pencil and notebook and at times with a whisky and soda, he has been accustomed to collect statements from informants, write down stories, and fill out sheets of paper with savage texts. He must go out into the villages, and see the natives at work in gardens, on the beach, in the jungle; he must sail with them to distant sandbanks and to foreign tribes, and observe them in fishing, trading, and ceremonial overseas expeditions. Information must come to him full-flavored from his own observations of native life.
Clearly, his methods were much closer to what is now considered normal ethnographical procedure, and although one cannot validate his (or, for that matter, any other ethnographer’s) claims without doing research independently, it is certain that we can trust in his intentions to produce adequate and factual evidence.
Again, Malinowski’s viewpoints are adequate because he uses evidence gathered from personal observation. He has actually done the research, and has formed rational conclusions based on this research. He criticizes more simple arguments for the use of myth; and understands the intricacies of the culture he is studying. Though Malinowski refers to these races as “savage,” he clearly has confidence in their mental abilities. His whole argument is based on the fact that he believes that the native peoples have a rich cultural history associated with mythology; and that the way myth functions is complex. If he thought that these people were of less intelligence than that of “civilized” society, he too would have passed over the entire study of myth. Malinowski (1948:145) also states that:
Anthropology should be not only the study of savage custom in the light of our mentality and our culture, but also the study of our own mentality in the distant perspective borrowed from Stone Age man. By dwelling mentally for some time among people of a much simpler culture than our own, we may be able to see ourselves from a distance, we may be able to gain a new sense of proportion with regard to our own institutions, beliefs, and customs.
These ideas are basic tenets of anthropological theory today; the anthropologist aims to learn about other cultures in order to understand his own, and judgment is not passed on “savage” peoples. In fact, the use of the term is controversial, as most have come to understand that the development of culture and the development of the mind or brain are not mutually exclusive, and that what is considered “normal” in culture is subjective. Clearly, Bronislaw Malinowski was one of the first to realize this, and had a great impact on how we view the world today.
1948 Magic, Science, and Religion and other essays. New York: Doubleday.