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The Mythopoeic World View of Ancient Man

The ancients, like the modern savages, saw man always as part of society, and society as imbedded in nature and dependent upon cosmic forces. For them nature and man did not stand in opposition and did not, therefore, have to be apprehended by different modes of cognition. We shall see . . . that natural phenomena were regularly conceived in terms of humane experience and that human experience was conceived in terms of cosmic events. We touch here upon the distinction between the ancients and us which is of the utmost significance for our inquiry.

The fundamental difference between the attitudes of modern and ancient man as regards the surrounding world is this: for modern, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an "It"; for ancient -- and also for primitive -- man it is a "Thou". . . .

The world appears to primitive man neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life, and life has individuality, in man and beast and plant, and in every phenomenon which confronts man -- the thunderclap, the sudden shadow, the eerie and unknown clearing in the wood, the stone which suddenly hurts him when he stumbles while on a hunting trip. Any phenomenon may at any time face him, not as "It," but as "Thou." In this confrontation, "Thou" reveals its individuality, its qualities, its will. "Thou" is not contemplated with intellectual detachment; it is experienced as life confronting life, involving every faculty of man in a reciprocal relationship. Thoughts, no less than acts and feelings, are subordinated to this experience. . . . 

The whole man confronts a living "Thou" in nature; and the whole man -- emotional and imaginative as well as intellectual -- gives expression to the experience. All experience of "Thou" is highly individual; and early man does, in fact, view happenings as individual events. An account of such events and also their explanation can be conceived only as action and necessarily take the form of a story. n other words, the ancients told myths instead of presenting an analysis or conclusions. We would explain, for instance, that certain atmospheric changes broke a drought and brought about rain. The Babylonians and Mesopotamians observed the same facts but interpreted them as the intervention of a giant bird which came to their rescue. It covered the sky with the black storm clouds of its wings and devoured the Bull of Heaven, whose hot breath had scorched the crops.

[Source: Henri Frankfort and H. A. Frankfort, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), pp. 4-6.]

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copyright 2001 Steven Kreis
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