Journal of Arts & Ideas, no. 12-13 (Jan-June 1987) p. 97.


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Historical Poetics of Epos and Romance : East and West

Eleazar Meletinsky

THE EPIC kind of folklore is genetically linked closely with the primitive syncretic ritual-mythological complex. However, unlike the lyric and drama, rudimentary forms of epos also developed outside rites, as a commentary to it and as mythical wisdom which was handed down from generation to generation. In myths certain ideas about the outside world (the model of the world) were conveyed at the very outset in the form of stories about the origin of the elements of the world, and the main characters in that narrative were the early ancestors—culture heroes-demiurges (obtaining the main elements of culture—fire and cereals—and establishing social institutions), mythical characters who were to some extent sacrificial (sanctified, religiously marked). The characters did not delineate famous real ancestors, chiefs, shamans, etc.; they were symbolic figures which modelled the community as a whole. At the periphery of the myth there appeared primitive legends which interpreted real or 'apparent cases in the form of stories about contacts between people and ghosts which jnodelled the natural forces. Of course, myths and legends were based on the real experience of the life of the tribe and on vague historical 'recollections' about man's first victories over nature, such as invention of fire and implements, the rise of tribal social organization, and so on.

Cycles of mythological stories about the early ancestors—culture heroes-demiurges—included not only ancient myths about creative cosmic actions on the set-up of the world and life on earth. They were supplemented, firstly, by certain biographical proto-legendary motives; secondly, by proto-heroic stories about the struggle against monsters interfering with the peaceful life of people, and, thirdly, by incredible stories about unsuccessful creative acts and roguish swindles (mainly to obtain food) of tricksters-swindlers who were thought to be either brothers of the culture hero or his second, comical-demonic Tace\ These cycles represented, as it were, the most ancient form of epos. Subsequent quasi-Journal of Arts & Ideas 97


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