The axiom is worth recalling here, because mythology was historically the mother of the arts and yet, like so many mythological mothers, the daughter, equally, of her own birth. Mythology is not invented rationally; mythology cannot be rationally understood. Theological interpreters render it ridiculous. Literary criticism reduces it to metaphor. A new and very promising approach is opened, however, when it is viewed in the light of biological psychology as a function of the human nervous system, precisely homologous to the innate and learned sign stimuli that release and direct the energies of nature--of which our brain itself is but the most amazing flower.
One further lesson may be taken from animals There is a phenomenon known to the students of animal behavior as the "supernormal sign stimulus," which has never been considered, as far as I know, in relation either to art and poetry or to myth; yet which, in the end, may be our surest guide to the seat of their force, and to an appreciation of their function in the quickening of the human dream of life.
"The innate releasing mechanism," Tinbergen declares, "usu-
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ally seems to correspond more or less with the properties of the environmental object or situation at which the reaction is aimed. . . . However, close study of IRMs reveals the remarkable fact that it is sometimes possible to offer stimulus situations that are even more effective than the natural situation. In other words, the natural situation is not always optimal."
It was found, for instance, that the male of a certain butterfly known as the grayling (Eumenis semele), which assumes the initiative in mating by pursuing a passing female in flight, generally prefers females of darker hue to those of lighter--and to such a degree that if a model of even darker hue than anything known in nature is presented, the sexually motivated male will pursue it in preference even to the darkest female of the species.
"Here we find," writes Professor Portmann, in comment, "an `inclination' that is not satisfied in nature, but which perhaps, one day, if inheritable darker mutations should appear, would play a role in the selection of mating partners. Who knows whether such anticipations of particular sign stimuli may not play their part in the support and furthering of new variants, inasmuch as they may represent one of the factors in the process of selection that determines the direction of evolution?"
Obviously the human female, with her talent for play, recognized many millenniums ago the power of the supernormal sign stimulus: cosmetics for the heightening of the lines of her eyes have been found among the earliest remains of the Neolithic Age. And from there to an appreciation of the force of ritualization, hieratic art, masks, gladiatorial vestments, kingly robes, and every other humanly conceived and realized improvement of nature, is but a step--or a natural series of steps.
Evidence will appear, in the course of our natural history of the gods, of the gods themselves as supernormal sign stimuli; of the ritual forms deriving from their supernatural inspiration acting as catalysts to convert men into gods; and of civilization--this new environment of man that has grown from his own interior and has pressed back the bounds of nature as far as the moon--as a distillate of ritual, and consequently of the gods: that is to say, as an
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organization of supernormal sign stimuli playing on a set of IRMs never met by nature and yet most properly nature's own, inasmuch as man is her son.
But for the present, it suffices to remark that one cannot assume out of hand that simply because a certain culturally developed sign stimulus appeared late in the course of history, man's response to it must represent a learned reaction. The reaction may be, in fact, spontaneous, though never shown before. For the creative imagination may have released precisely here one of those innate "inclinations" of the human organism that have nowhere been fully matched by nature. Hence, not only the ritual arts and the development from them of the archaic civilizations, but also--and even more richly--the later shattering of those arts by the modern arrows of man's flight beyond his own highest dream, would perhaps best be interpreted psychologically, as a history of the supernormal sign stimuli that have released--to our own fright, joy, and amazement--the deepest secrets of our being. Indeed, the depths of the mystery of our subject--which are the depths not only of man but of the living world--have not been plumbed.
In sum, then: Within the field of the study of animal behavior which is the only area in which controlled experiments have made it possible to arrive at dependable conclusions in the observation of instinct--two orders of innate releasing mechanisms have been identified, namely, the stereotyped, and the open, subject to imprint. In the case of the first, a precise lock-key relationship exists between the inner readiness of the nervous system and the external sign stimulus triggering response; so that, if there exist in the human inheritance many--or even any--IRMs of this order, we may justly speak of "inherited images" in the psyche. The mere fact that no one can yet explain how such lock-key relationships are established does not invalidate the observation of their existence: no one knows how the hawk got into the nervous system of our barnyard fowl, yet numerous tests have shown it to be, de facto, there. However, the human psyche has not yet been, to any great extent, satisfactorily tested for such stereotypes, and so, I am afraid, pending further study, we must simply admit that we do not know how far the principle of the inherited image can
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be carried when interpreting mythological universals. It is no less premature to deny its possibility than to announce it as anything more than a considered opinion.
Nor are we ready, yet, to say whether the obvious, and sometimes very striking, physical differences of the human races represent significant variations of their innate releasing mechanisms. Among the animals such differences do exist--in fact, changes in the IRMs of the major instincts appear to be among the first things affected by mutation.
For example, as Tinbergen observes:
The herring gull (Larus argentatus) and the lesser black-backed gull (L. fuscus) in north-western
Europeare considered to be extremely diverged geographical races of one species, which, having developed by geographical isolation, have come into contact again by expansion of their ranges. The two forms show many differences in behavior; L. fuscus is a definite migrant, traveling to south-western Europein autumn, whereas L. argentatus is of a much more resident habit. L. fuscus is much more a bird of the open sea than L, argentatus. The breeding-seasons are different. One behavior difference is specially interesting. Both forms have two alarm calls, one expressing alarm of relatively low intensity, the other indicative of extreme alarm. L. argentatus gives the high-intensity alarm call much more rarely than L. fuscus. The result is that most disturbances are reacted to differently by the two forms. When a human intruder enters a mixed colony, the herring gulls will almost always utter the low-intensity call, while L. fuscus utters the high-intensity call. This difference, based upon a shift of degree in the threshold of alarm calls, gives the impression of a qualitative difference in the alarm calls of the two forms, such as might well lead to the total disappearance of one call in one species, of the other in the second species, and thus result in a qualitative difference in the motor-equipment. Apart from this difference in threshold, there is a difference in the pitch of each call.
Between the various human races differences have been noted that suggest psychological as well as merely physiological variation; differences, for example, in their rates of maturing, as Géza Róheim has indicated in his vigorous work on Psychoanalysis and Anthropology. However, it is still far from legitimate, on the
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basis of the mere scraps of controlled observation that have been recorded, to make any such broad generalizations about intellectual ability and moral character as are common in discussions of this subject. Furthermore, within the human species there is such broad variation of innate capacity from individual to individual that generalizations on a racial basis lose much of their point.
[Joseph Campbell. (1968). Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, pp.42-46. New York: Penguin.]