Myth, Mind and Religion

The Apocalyptic Narrative

by Abraham Rotstein (Author)
©2018 Monographs XVIII, 184 Pages


The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss scoured the Amazon forest for the myths of its primitive peoples. He found that a certain logic governed the construction of these myths—his mythologique; he regarded this logic as innate in the human mind and thus universal. Despite this claim of universality, Lévi-Strauss deliberately sidestepped the myths of the biblical religions as well as the myths of modern societies. This proved to be a missed opportunity since these myths lend themselves very well to his mode of analysis.
The apocalyptic narrative is the ongoing myth of Western society. It makes its first appearance in the Bible in the story of the Exodus and in the Passion of Christ. Its characteristic feature is its opening scenario of one or another form of unendurable oppression— whether the Pharaoh in Egypt for the Jews or the bondage of the body for Christians. “Lord and servant” is the binary pair that prevails and through a process of inversion leads to the Kingdom of Heaven (celestial or terrestrial). The work of Augustine and Luther follow suit as surprisingly enough, do the Lutheran Hegel and the Hegelian Marx. In every case, the initial oppression is inverted and a sublime destination ensues.
A demonic version of the same apocalyptic narrative appears in the 1930s. The Nazis point to their own tale of “oppression” of the German people and in the same fashion proclaim the Dritte Tausendjährige Reich. It is a terrible irony but perhaps Lévi-Strauss’s mythologique may help us to see through the “glass” a little less darkly.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1: The Hunt for “Alienation”
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2: Lévi-Strauss: “The Architecture of the Mind”
  • The Ricoeur Seminar
  • Edmund Leach
  • Clifford Geertz
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3: The Hebrew Bible
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4: The Christian Bible
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5: The Replica
  • The Second Adam
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A—The Righteous Servant
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6: Augustine
  • Notes
  • Chapter 7: Luther
  • The Theology of Perpetual Paradox
  • “On The Freedom of a Christian”
  • The Two Kingdoms
  • The Theology of Negative Transcendence
  • The Replica Effect
  • Theology of the Cross
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Semantics: Luther to Hegel
  • Entäussern
  • Aufheben
  • Moment
  • Umkehrung
  • Unglückliches Bewusstsein
  • Other Words
  • Notes
  • Chapter 8: Hegel
  • Alienation and Freedom
  • Lordship and Bondage
  • The Theory of the State
  • Notes
  • Chapter 9: Marx
  • Marx and Hegel
  • Lordship and Bondage
  • The Communist State
  • Marx and Luther
  • Notes
  • Chapter 10: Nazism
  • Why the Jews?
  • The Nazi Paradise
  • Notes
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Index
  • About the Author

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This book owes its existence to a chance encounter with the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The time was August of 1974 and I was travelling with my family on a ferryboat northwards along the coast of British Columbia. The boat threaded its way through the coastal islands past the home of the Bella Coola, Tsimshian, and Tlingit Indians. The tops of totem poles peered out at us through the mist.

On the deck of the ferry, I noticed a cluster of university students hovering around an older man wearing a beret. He struck me as vaguely familiar but I could not place him immediately. I had been reading the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on myth and somewhere I had seen his photo. The man on the boat looked familiar, but could this possibly be Lévi-Strauss himself on our ferryboat? Not very likely but this area was a possible venue for an anthropologist. I mustered up my courage and approached him.

“Are you by chance Professor Claude Lévi-Strauss?” I asked in my hesitant French.

Mais oui,” came the reply.

I was struck dumb momentarily and wondered what to say next. I had been reading his essays on the formation of myth in primitive society and so I ventured: ← ix | x →

“Do you foresee any possibility of the return of myth to the modern world similar to the primitive societies that you have studied?”

“Not at all,” he replied. “Too much has changed. Myth has been destroyed by the world of modern science.”

The answer was perfectly clear and after a short conversation we parted company.

Twenty minutes later, I lined up at the coffee counter and the person just in front of me in the line was again by chance Lévi-Strauss. I was vaguely troubled by his earlier reply so I repeated the question with more emphasis:

“Are there any conceivable circumstances that you could foresee that would bring the return of myth to modern society?” Lévi-Strauss paused, reflected a bit, and said: “Perhaps in the event that a nuclear war occurred and destroyed a quarter of the population of the globe; then we might see such a return of myth.”

It was a jolting reply but the import was crystal clear once again. No myth! Soon we said good-bye for the last time. His answer, however, continued to rattle around at the back of my mind.

As I write this Preface on Christmas morning of 2012 these many decades later, I am reminded once again of that conversation. Looking out at the Canadian countryside on this particular day, I feel the transcendent hush that has descended on the world. The radio retells the story of the three wise men from the East who followed the star of Bethlehem as it guided them to the newborn child in the manger. A performance of Handel’s Messiah follows and soon the airwaves are filled with the great chorale of “Lift thine eyes O lift thine eyes.” The chorale blends in with the glint of the winter sunshine on the snow and with that millennial tale from Bethlehem.

Though I am an outsider at Christmas time, I am overawed. Have the reports of the death of myth been, as they say, “greatly exaggerated”? It is a question that I have been pursuing over many years. Moreover, in addition to these festive moments of ritual and tradition, are there other genres of myth that have perhaps gone unnoticed?

For Lévi-Strauss, his decades-long sifting of thousands of tribal myths led him to conclude that myths followed certain laws. These in turn he took to indicate the existence of universal structures of the human mind. The binary pair such as “the hare and the tortoise,” for example, seemed to be the cornerstone of many of these tribal myths. The tension between the two elements of such a binary gave the impetus to the unfolding of the narrative. ← x | xi →

It is true that the ambience of modern life has long bypassed the animal totems, the reification of Mother Nature, the gods and demons that animate our storms and inhabit our fields and rivers. But have there been other genres of myth that have taken their place alongside our weakened religious affiliations? And have these new genres become certain high points of modern life? Such is the contention of this book.

Binary pairs are not limited to the rubric of tribal society; they are prominent in our religious and political life today. “Lord and servant,” for example, is the binary that animates many of our religious texts and, as we shall see, has its secular equivalents as well—capitalist and worker being one example. We shall attempt to show that these structures to which Lévi-Strauss pointed in primitive society have been both annulled and preserved in modern life, transcending the innocent tales of tribal society. Hegelians among us might claim that these primitive myths have been aufgehoben, a concept drawn from Hegel’s majestic Phenomenology of Mind. Within that volume, the opaque and mysterious chapter on “Lordship and Bondage” offers Hegel’s own account of how such a binary structure unfolds between a generic lord and a slave (cf. Chapter 8 of this book).

In the chapters that follow, I point to the longest enduring myth in Western society that may be called “the apocalyptic narrative.” Despite immense changes in political and cultural environments over the centuries amid the rise and fall of charismatic leaders, the format or structure of this narrative remained broadly consistent. Present are some of the same elements of tribal myth that Lévi-Strauss had postulated but with important changes that occur in the climax of these narratives.

The apocalyptic narrative makes its first appearance in the biblical story of the Exodus. Its main ingredients include a binary pair in strong tension (i.e., Pharaoh and the Jews as his slaves). The narrative unfolds through a double process of inversion (as the Jews become first exalted slaves to Yahweh and then “chosen”). The climax is the promise of a perfect kingdom, a “kingdom of priests and an holy nation” in the Promised Land.1 (This is elaborated further in Chapter 3 on the Hebrew Bible.)

The same narrative structure with a different cast and in very different circumstances is repeated through the centuries. In the Christian Bible the “stand-in” for Pharaoh is man’s mortality (“the bondage of the body”), reiterated in more elaborate form in Augustine and in Luther. The same inversions are repeated in all these instances with a celestial kingdom as the outcome. ← xi | xii →

The narrative is refurbished in philosophical language in the Lutheran Hegel and later in the Hegelian Marx. Further versions spring up, as we shall see, in the twentieth century.

Such is the agenda of this book. Lévi-Strauss’s basic insights into myth (his mythologique) underlie what follows. Moreover, the hypothesis that the structure of myth is essentially a refraction of the architecture of the human mind is his and that of his French colleagues. This hypothesis may in part account for the longevity of the apocalyptic narrative over three millennia. Through this narrative, the “unconscious activities of the mind” in Lévi-Strauss’s phrase, become less enigmatic and are shown, at least in these several instances, to follow a consistent order. This order is guided by what we may call a “template” or “code” under which the mind operates in such cases. Terms such as “template” and “code” emerge as part of the makeshift lexicon that besets such a probe of the covert mind.

With our emphasis on binaries here, we do not depart far from the usual theological semantics. Martin Luther is a prime example. Luther sees man as caught in a crossfire of binaries: he is spiritualis et carnalis, iustus et peccator, bonus et malus. Man is both spiritual and carnal, righteous and sinful, good and evil. God himself appears in binary forms. He is both the Deus absconditus as well as the Deus revelatus, the hidden God as well as the revealed God (cf. Chapter 7).

When it came to the question of myth in modern society and its religions, Lévi-Strauss showed a peculiar reticence; he did not believe that his work could apply here. The result, in my view, is a massive blind spot and a missed opportunity. (This is discussed further in Chapter 2.)

This book is about the three areas of myth, mind, and religion but I do not draw the boundaries between them too tightly; it is the overlap of all three as well as their cross currents that matter here.

As I was nearing the end of my work, I came across the impressive study Heaven on Earth by Richard Landes.2 I found a good deal of overlap in the central theme of both studies. Landes’s focus on “the millennial experience” is broadly interchangeable with my topic, “the apocalyptic narrative.”3 Both terms refer to the search for a “perfect and just society,”4 on earth for Landes’s and in my own case for both celestial and terrestrial venues. In order to demonstrate how widespread these movements are, Landes sidesteps those of a Judeo-Christian origin and examines movements on three continents over a period of three thousand years. These include Akhenaten’s reign in Ancient Egypt (1360–1347 BCE), the tribal society of the Xhosa ← xii | xiii → in South Africa (1856–1857), and the present-day Global Jihad in the Middle East.

My own study ranges over a similar period from the Exodus from Egypt in the second millennium to the Radical Decade (mid-1960s to mid-1970s). But it limits itself entirely to the Western experience, emerging, as I argue here, out of Judeo-Christian sources.

We do differ on the sources of these movements. Landes is essentially agnostic. He states: “I have no discussion in this book on why any given movement ‘takes’ other than describing the conditions of combustion.”5 My own hypothesis is that these movements are shaped by what Claude Lévi-Strauss terms “the architecture of the mind.” (I prefer the phrase “the choreography of the mind” as a more lively metaphor. This is spelled out initially in Chapter 3 on the Hebrew Bible.)

I have borrowed freely from Landes in my Chapter 10 on Nazism but have added that Nazi ideology was shaped by the same structure first seen in the legend of the Exodus. This is in fact the central theme of this book, as I have attempted to demonstrate for all the apocalyptic narratives including Augustine, Luther, Hegel, and Marx. Both books stake their own claim to “universality” albeit hesitantly. Landes’s claim is based on his widely ranging set of historical studies; all of his millennial movements, as he points out, are on a “doomed trajectory” and run aground. My own work draws on some of the major belief systems of Western societies and these share a common rhetorical structure. Here, the major religions are still flourishing even if in diminished circumstances. But I would like to think that these volumes do complement each other and together add some glimmers of light to what still lies behind the glass darkly.

The mind operates with a concealed code of inversions—“hidden in plain sight,” as they say. To borrow Luther’s phrase, the human mind is both mens abscondita and the mens revelata, the hidden or covert mind and the open and rational mind. But as Lévi-Strauss has pointed out, the mind has camouflaged itself with “single-minded” ingenuity.

* * *

My apologia comes in two parts. Despite my disclaimers, I fear that this work will become the target of considerable misunderstanding. It is certainly not my intention to suggest that our great religious and moral visions can be reduced to a set of mental calisthenics or to some “sleight of mind.” At bottom, this is a ← xiii | xiv → book about the messenger, not the message. The human mind, we argue, is the dramaturge that has marshalled these epic dramas on their special occasions both sacred and secular. We speak of the forms only, not their content. The religious insights that have been bequeathed to the world are not compromised by this parsing of texts, nor this examination of syntax nor by lifting the cover a little on the covert mind.

But I fear even more the towering misunderstanding that may arise from my claim (Chapter 10) that the structural underpinnings of the Nazi myth culminating in das Dritte Tausendjähriges Reich (the Third Thousand-Year Reich) shares a strong resemblance to the configuration of the Exodus legend in the Hebrew Bible. The Nazi myth is the demonic version of the same apocalyptic narrative; it is a terrible irony but one that I cannot avoid. On a personal note, I may point out that after the war, my father calculated the loss of some one hundred members of our extended family and close friends to the Nazi Holocaust. I shudder at the prospect of now being accused of a gruesome exercise of “blame the victim.” Comprendre tout is certainly not pardonner tout.

Whatever misunderstandings may follow the publication of this book, I hope nevertheless that the objective of Lévi-Strauss and his colleagues may have been advanced somewhat—that of bringing into clearer view the elusive choreography of the mind.

* * *


XVIII, 184
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XVIII, 184 pp.

Biographical notes

Abraham Rotstein (Author)

Abraham Rotstein was Emeritus Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished Senior Fellow of Massey College. He was a renowned Canadian intellectual who engaged with the great issues of his era; a brilliant educator who inspired generations of students at the University of Toronto and received their highest ratings; a kind, elegant and witty person who refused to despair when the time had not as yet come for the causes he espoused. His message may take on new meaning and importance in this, his final work, Myth, Mind and Religion.


Title: Myth, Mind and Religion