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Leach, E. (1988). Late Medieval Representations of Saint Mary Magdalene. Psychoanal. Rev., 75(1):95-109.

(1988). Psychoanalytic Review, 75(1):95-109

Late Medieval Representations of Saint Mary Magdalene

Edmund Leach

Many different types of scholar write about myth; they include psychoanalysts, students of comparative religion, anthropologists, but they seldom agree about the meaning of the term. Indeed, even in my own anthropological neck of the academic woods, I and my most celebrated colleague, Claude Lévi-Strauss, to whom I am very greatly indebted, use the word in entirely different senses. So I must start by explaining what I am talking about.

For me, a myth is any story about the past that is used in a religious, moral, or political context to justify an irrational belief about the present. A typical example is when a poster on a church notice board proclaims: “Jesus Lives.” The various texts of the Christian Bible are all parts of a mythology that purports to justify belief in that assertion.

In vernacular discourse, the adjective “mythical” is the equivalent of “untrue” but in my argument the opposite is the case. For the believer, a myth is not just true but dogmatically true. In the present case, I shall concern myself only with religious contexts, mostly Christian.

As we have learned from Lévi-Strauss, individual myths cannot usefully be considered in isolation. They must be viewed as elements in a corpus that adds up to a cosmological system. This is a very crucial point. Myths are usually told one by one as if they were records of historical fact. Two stories, with characters of different names, that appear to be “patterned” in the same way (or perhaps in systematically opposite ways) are, from this “historical” point of view, different stories. But when viewed as part of a corpus, they may be considered as transformations of one and the same story.

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