About the Author(s)

Gert Malan Email
Department of New Testament Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa


Malan, G., 2016, ‘Combining Ricoeur and Bultmann on myth and demythologising’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 72(3), a3216. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v72i3.3216

Project Leader: E. van Eck

Project Number: 2400030

Description: Dr Gert Malan is participating in the research project, ‘Socio-Cultural Readings’, directed by Prof. Dr Ernest van Eck, Department of New Testament Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of Pretoria.

Original Research

Combining Ricoeur and Bultmann on myth and demythologising

Gert Malan

Received: 10 Oct. 2015; Accepted: 29 Dec. 2015; Published: 08 July 2016

Copyright: © 2016. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


A previous article investigated Ricoeur’s stance on myth and demythologising. The intersection of Ricoeur and Bultmann’s work in this field was noted and a future comparison was envisaged with a view to a possible merger. This study is a follow-up and proposes a way in which Ricoeur and Bultmann’s views on myth and demythologisation can be merged in order to gain a broader approach to the understanding of myth and the concept of demythologising. As Ricoeur’s understanding of myth was influenced by literary criticism, Bultmann’s definition of myth is viewed through the lens of literary criticism, before turning to a comparison with Ricoeur’s views. A comparison of their ideas on demythologisation follows. Sociology of knowledge forms the last lens through which a possible merger of their approaches is contemplated.

Defining myth

In Bultmann’s first and controversial article on demythologising ([1941] 1967) that launched the intense demythologisation debate (Dunn 1977:295; Ogden 1985:vii), he did not focus strongly on defining myth. His argument begins with the New Testament’s three-storied mythological worldview as frame of reference for understanding the salvation occurrence. This fact represents a hermeneutical challenge as modern people with a scientific view of reality find the mythologically-cloaked kerugma incomprehensible. He then proceeded to explain demythologisation (Bultmann [1941] 1967:15–27). The closest he came to defining myth is his explication of the nature of myth which in itself poses the task of demythologising:

Der Mythos redet von der Macht oder von den Mächten, die der Mensch als Grund und Grenze von seiner Welt und seines eigenen Handelns und Erleidens zu erfahren meint. Er redet von diesen Mächten freilich so, dass er sie vorstellungsmäβig in den Kreis der bekannten Welt, ihrer Dinge und Kräfte, und in den Kreis des menschlichen Lebens, seiner Affekte, Motive und Möglichkeiten, einbezieht. (p. 22)

What is important about Bultmann’s description of ’das Wesen des Mythos‘ is his insight that myths are analogies: they speak of the beyond in terms of this world. This insight is a crucial link between Bultmann and Ricoeur’s understanding of myth and demythologising.

After criticism followed about perceived shortcomings in his views on myth, Bultmann explained in his second ([1952] 1965) article on the subject that he did not regard defining myth as of prime importance, saying that such discussions distracted attention from the true issue of demythologising. He did not have any qualms when someone had a different understanding of myth and admitted that he used the concept of myth in a religionsgeschichtliche fashion. What Bultmann deemed important was that myth was the product of a specific way of thinking, namely mythical thinking (Bultmann [1952] 1965:180; Schmithals 1995:171–178):

Mythos ist der Bericht von einem Geschehen oder Ereignis, in dem übernatürliche Kräfte oder Personen wirksam sind (daher oft einfach als Göttergeschichte definiert). Mythisches Denken ist der Gegenbegriff zum wissenschaftlichen Denken. Das mythische Denken führt bestimmte Phänomene und Ereignisse auf übernaturliche, auf göttliche Mächte zurück […]. Es grenzt so bestimmte Phänomene und Ereignisse, aber auch Bezirke, aus dem bekannt-vertrauten, durchschau- und beherrschbaren Bestande und Geschehen der Welt aus. […] Für das mythische Denken sind die Welt und das Weltgeschehen offen – offen nämlich für jenseitige Mächte […] auch das Personleben des Menschen (Bultmann [1952] 1965:180–181).

Ricoeur (1967) also accepted myth as the history of religions and defined it:

[N]ot a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men of today, and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man understands himself in his world. (p. 5)

Ricoeur’s definition describes myths functioning as narratives forming a symbolic universe which legitimises actions on the social plane (Berger 1973:13–15; Berger & Luckmann 1975:79, 110–146). Like Bultmann, he understood the problem myth presents to modern people. They cannot connect the myth’s time to the time of history as we write it, nor can they connect mythical places with our geographical space. Myth can therefore no longer be an explanation. To exclude the etiological intention of myth can be regarded as the theme of all necessary demythologisation. Only then are myth’s exploratory significance and its contribution to understanding revealed, which he calls its symbolic function. Ricoeur (1967) explains the symbolic function as:

[I]ts power of discovering and revealing the bond between man and what he considers sacred. Paradoxical as it may seem, the symbol, when it is thus demythologised through contact with scientific history and elevated to the dignity of symbol, is a dimension of modern thought. (p. 5)

What is extremely important at this point is Ricoeur’s grasp of myth as revealing aspects of man’s existence (for example his self-understanding), and secondly, that demythologisation frees myth to function as symbol. As with myth functioning as analogy, myth’s power to reveal human existence and the need for demythologisation, provide cardinal links with Bultmann’s views. To these aspects we will soon return.

Ricoeur especially focused his efforts on investigating the functions of myth. When he made a paradigm shift from phenomenology to symbolism, he related myth to symbol and explored how symbols were taken up in myths (Stiver 2012:66). Later, in his work on narrative analysis, he followed Aristotle in defining myth (muthos) or plot and its functions within narrative and poetics.

Accepting the polyvalence of myth according to the various contexts in which myths function or are studied, is one of the strong points of Ricoeur’s approach. In this sense, there is a similarity with Bultmann, who was content to accept a variety of definitions for myth.

The functions of myth

Ricoeur accentuated the functional aspects of myth. Myths generally have a rational function of explaining how a rite or institution began and how it will end. Alongside the etiological function, Ricoeur proposed a second, symbolic function, which imparts existential truth (Ricoeur 1973c: 222–223). Thus, he also spoke of myth’s revelatory function (Ricoeur 1967:162) or a threefold function of embracing humanity in one ideal history, narrating a movement from beginning to end thus imparting orientation, tension and character and thirdly, to unravel the enigma of human existence, particularly the transition from innocence to guilt and defilement (Ricoeur 1967:165). Regarding this transition, Ricoeur introduced the concept of ‘the Fault’ in his book ‘Fallible man’. This transition cannot be studied phenomenologically or empirically, because the existence of evil is irrational. Ricoeur suggested a new approach, which he called ‘a concrete mythics’, because myths are the way people speak of the beginning and end of evil (Ricoeur [1960] 1985:xlii-xli; also Pellauer 2007:25–26).

Bultmann focused on the existential meaning of myth, namely as revealing a certain self-understanding as was evident in his description of the nature of myth when speaking about human limitations set by other-worldly forces (see quote above under ‘Defining myth’). He added that myths intend to explain the inexplicable, not scientifically but with reference to the transcendental (Bultmann [1952] 1965:183). In view of myth’s existential function, they should not be interpreted according to the objective representations they seem to make about the inexplicable, but according to the Existenzverständnis they reveal, as precisely this is the actual truth that myths speak about and which can be believed (Bultmann [1941] 1967:22–23).

Conclusions regarding definitions and functions of myth

Combining Bultmann’s and Ricoeur’s definitions of myth the following defining observations can be made:

  • Defining myth cannot be separated from the functions of myth.
  • Myths are explanatory narratives that clarify how the inexplicable occurrences of life and the world (the enigma of life and people’s evil and salvation) are the influence of other-worldly powers (etiological function).
  • Myth embraces humanity in one ideal history, narrating a movement from beginning to end.
  • Myth reveals the bond between humans and what they regard as the sacred.
  • Myths speak of the other-worldly in worldly terms, thus analogically.
  • Myths are analogies.
  • Myths form part of and reflect a pre-scientific thought structure, namely of reality being open to other-worldly influences.
  • Different cultures’ mythical narratives are woven into their specific mythological worldview, forming an interpretive framework for understanding the enigma of human existence.
  • The combination of mythical narratives and worldview, legitimise human actions on the social level.
  • Myths reveal aspects of human self-understanding and existence (symbolic function).
  • Mythological time and space cannot be connected with historical time and geography and thus lose their explanatory relevance for modern people.
  • Myths are freed to function as symbols by demythologisation and may thus become relevant existential pointers for modern people.

From a literary perspective, which has influenced Ricoeur’s work on myth, some conclusions noted below are drawn from the above observations. The literary perspective is also used to clarify terminology which is blurred by different academic disciplines such as theological and philosophical hermeneutics, literary criticism, sociology of knowledge and sociology, as they use similar terminology with different nuances. Such clarification can help us recognise meaningful contributions by different disciplines and facilitate their flow across the boundaries between disciplines. These conclusions will be compared with Bultmann’s views, to examine whether the literary perspective is a legitimate and noteworthy lens to view his work on myth and broaden our grasp on myth. These conclusions will then be discussed and compared to Ricoeur’s views regarding them.

  • Myths are analogies.
  • Myths are narratives and can be analysed by means of literary criticism.
  • Myths can function as symbols (after demythologising) and can be studied and applied as symbols.
  • Possibly, myths may thus also function as metaphors, opening its interpretation to metaphor theory.
  • Myths have mimetic functions, as they legitimise human actions and form the spoken part of ritual performances.
  • Myths fit into a mythical frame of reference as worldview, together forming its cultural milieu and hermeneutical context.

Let us explore these literary facets in more detail.

Myth as symbol and metaphor

From a semantic viewpoint, image, metaphor, symbol and myth belong to the same semantic field and overlap as they point to the same area of interest, namely imagery.

An ‘image’ may be invoked once as a metaphor, but if it persistently recurs, both as presentation and representation, it becomes a symbol, may even become part of a symbolic (or mythic) system (Wellek & Warren 1977:189)

Muthos was used by Aristotle in his Poetica as plot, narrative structure and fable, with logos as its counterpoint. Myth is narrative (story) as against dialectical discourse and exposition. It is also irrational or intuitive in contrast to the systematic discourse of philosophy. ‘Myth’ is a favourite term in modern criticism and is shared by religion, folklore, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis and fine arts. It points to and hovers over important areas of meaning. In some of its habitual oppositions, it is contra posed to history, science, philosophy, allegory and truth. In a wider sense, myth means any anonymously composed storytelling of origins and destinies, as explanations for reality and behaviour offered by societies to their young. In modern times the authors of a myth may be identified, but the qualitative status of myth is retained if the authors are forgotten or not deemed important to its validation and the community has accepted it. For literary theory the important motifs are the pictures or images, as applied in the social, supernatural, narrative, universal, archetypal and symbolic representations. Contemporary thought can appeal to myth in any of these spheres, but its polyvalence defies fixture. Currently it may even point to an area of meaning, for example the ‘myth’ of the progress of democracy, poets and painters in search of a mythology or the return of myth in world literature (Wellek & Warren 1977:190–193).

Bultmann recognised the analogical way in which myths function. Myths speak of the other-worldly powers in an inadequate way, because they are described as ’den diesseitigen Mächte[n] analog […]’ (Bultmann [1952] 1965:183). Bultmann explains that speaking about God’s actions is ‘analogische Rede’ and not ‘bildliche, symbolische Redeweise’ (Bultmann [1952] 1965:196). In a footnote ([1952] 1965:196 fn. 1), he refers to Erich Frank’s understanding of analogy, which is the basis for his own use of the term. The strong influence of Kant is clear from Frank’s (1945:162) definition of analogy: ‘[O]ne may characterise analogy as similarity of relations in general, as a relation of relations. Thus the relation between two terms can be called an analogy.’ In his Kritik der reinenVernunft ([1781] 1984) Kant argued convincingly from a dialectical epistemology as departure point, that we cannot know reality and the metaphysical as such, only as it presents itself to us (Dreyer 1990:583–584). We use analogical language when we know little about something (die Ding an sich or Noumenon), but can explain it in a meaningful way by comparing it to something else, about which we know more (Erscheinung or Phenomenon) (Van Aarde 1991:55, referring to McFague 1983:15). It is by means of metaphors that one thing is described in terms of another, making it possible to pretend to know more about something that we know little about by comparing it to something we know more about (Van Aarde 1991:5–6). This is in line with Sally McFague’s (1983:15) description of metaphor: ‘[P]retending “this” is “that” because we do not know how to think about “this”, so we use “that” as a way of saying something about it.’ Since Kant, influential theologians such as Bultmann used analogical (or metaphorical) language to speak about the metaphysical (Allen 1985:217).

It is important to acknowledge that myth is a form of analogy and that the language of myth is the language of analogy. Previously I have argued that although Bultmann had a negative stance toward symbolic language, his broad accommodation of various definitions of myth could in fact include symbolic language. His definition of symbolic language differs from other views. The solution I proposed was to agree that the various terms such as myth, analogy, symbol, simile and metaphor belong to the same semantic field of analogical or comparative language and have the same function and need not be contrasted as Bultmann did (Malan 1998:77–79). This conclusion is bolstered by Aristotle’s definition:

Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else, the transference being either from genus to species, or from species to genus, or on grounds of analogy (Aristotle 1457b, 6–9 in Ricoeur 1977:13).

Viewing myth and metaphor as both belonging to the analogical use of language, makes it possible to interpret myths as metaphors and use the rules and mechanisms at work in metaphors to be applied to the study of myths.

In his famous work, The rule of metaphor Ricoeur (1977:37–38) referred to Aristotle’s views on metaphor as an elegant and lively expression with instructive value, as it suddenly combines two elements that have not previously been put together. Metaphor astonishes and instructs rapidly, with surprise in combination with hiddenness playing a decisive role.

The second feature of metaphor Aristotle mentioned is the potential to set the scene before the eyes, by giving concrete colouration with its figurative style, even depicting the abstract in concrete terms, the inanimate by means of the animate and the invisible as visible, thus making relationships opaque. In this regard, Ricoeur (1977:38) joined metaphysics to metaphor. Exactly this function of metaphor shows that myths and mythological language are metaphorical explanations in order to instruct people on preferred behaviour (see discussion below ‘Myth’s mimetic functions’).

Myth’s mimetic functions

Mimesis relates to the reality question in literature: Does it represent a reasonable sense of reality? Mimesis means to mimic, imitate, re-enact or represent. Plato regarded the fine arts negatively and viewed them as a poor representation of reality, which found its original and ideal form in the world of ideas. Accordingly, he viewed craftsmen manufacturing in various forms, reproductions or copies of the original ideas more worthy than painters and poets who merely imitate the ideas in their art. Aristotle borrowed the term ‘mimesis’ from Plato, but added that the imitating process was also a creative one. He hence held the fine arts in higher regard than Plato did. Poets, for instance need not imitate what happened in reality, but what could happen. Aristotle thus viewed people in action as the true object of mimesis. Eventually Plotinus ‘liberated’ the arts from Plato’s negative influence as he regarded the arts as imitating the original ideas rather than superficial reality, thus mirroring an essential, higher reality. These examples show that views on mimesis tend to be subjective (Van Luxemburg, Bal & Westijn 1982:33–39; also Malan 1980:11).

Our conclusion that myths function as metaphors deems the relation between metaphor and mimesis important. Myths regard the other-worldly as explanations of the inexplicable in this world. It follows that puzzling worldly occurrences are viewed as reflections (imitations) of other-worldly events, persons and powers. The correlative relation of myth to ritual reveals the mimetic potential of myth, as ritual is the enactment of myth and myth provides the spoken part of ritual. Examples are the necessary rituals performed recurrently by priests as social representatives in order to avert or procure, for instance at harvests, to assist with human fertility, initiation of the young into their culture and the proper provision for the future of the dead. These pedagogic rituals are linked with the destiny of people and their behaviour serves as a continued reflection of the mythological frame of reference of their society (Wellek & Warren 1977:191).

Bultmann echoed this reality with his understanding of the intention of myths, namely to reveal that ‘[D]er Mensch nicht Herr über die Welt und über sein Leben ist’ (Bultmann [1952] 1965:183–184). Bultmann inadvertently accentuated the mimetic aspect with his view on the function of myths, namely to objectify the other-worldly to this world and thereby to the controllable, using the cult to placate or to win favour.

The narrative form of myth took Ricoeur back to Aristotle’s understanding of muthos along with mimesis, opening mythology to narrative analysis. Although Aristotle mostly referred to muthos with regard to tragic poetry, the way poetic and rhetorical language function are the same, but with prose the metaphors seem to be more subdued (Ricoeur 1977:36). Metaphor has its foot in each domain, thus with either a rhetorical function (finding proofs) or poetic function (the representation of human actions). The structure of metaphor remains the same: the transfer of the meaning of words (Ricoeur 1977:12–13). The same strategy of discourse puts into play the logical force of analogy and comparison, namely ‘the power to set things before the eyes, to speak of the inanimate as if alive, ultimately the capacity to signify active reality’ (Ricoeur 1977:39), resulting in the frontier between prose and poetry to fade as metaphor becomes a poetical process extended to prose.

Understanding the functions of muthos and mimesis sheds new light on how myths as narrative texts function, which is more than explanatory and more than expressing facets of human existence. It mimics and invites preferred behaviour in contrast to unwanted actions by suggesting outcomes for both.

Myths fit into a mythical frame of reference as worldview

Myths are woven into a mythical superstructure, which functions as frame of reference and provides a perception of order and control, as the inexplicable is explained and ritual provides necessary leverage on the other-worldly forces. From a literary perspective, Wellek and Warren (1977: 192–193) enquire after people’s need for myth and conclude that existential impoverishment follows when myths are destroyed and lives are disrupted by change. People then tend to search for new myths to make sense of their lives, but frequently the void is filled with crude, extemporised and fragmentary myths revealing the existential need for a relevant and coherent Weltanschauung.

Valuable insights into the functioning of such a Weltanschauung are provided from the perspective of sociology of knowledge by the work of Berger and Luckmann (1975:79, 110–146). They suggested that every social universe, with people’s different roles, values, types of interactions and history has a symbolic universe forming a protective and legitimising canopy over it (see also Berger 1973:13–15; Petersen 1985: 17–30, 93–122; Van Staden 1988:343). It explains why the social reality functions as it does, and provides explanations for borderline experiences such as death and loss. In time, a symbolic universe forms a rigid structure towering over society, ironically becoming the sculptor of the society who initially erected it. The created thus becomes the creator. Symbolic universes are guarded from influence from competing symbolic universes by appropriate social agents, who take responsibility for universe maintenance as change provides new challenges and dangers confronting a society’s value system. Serious damage to or destruction of the symbolic universe results in loss of meaning and an existential crisis for society (Berger 1973:18–21; Berger & Luckmann 1975:118–134).

Despite Bultmann’s aversion to the term ‘symbolic’ with reference to myth and mythological language (Bultmann [1952] 1965:196), the concept of symbolic universe perfectly fits his description of the three-storied worldview of the New Testament. In this way insights about symbolic universes can be brought to bear on our understanding of how the mythological worldview of the New Testament functioned. Combining this insight with the recognition of the metaphoric use of myth, and realising its mimetic possibilities, provides a wider scope on myth and mythological thought structures from which conclusions about the existential impact of myths can be made. This brings us to the concept of demythologisation. But before departing from the venture of demythologisation, let us pause to compare Ricoeur’s views on myth with Bultmann’s, as seen through the literary lens.

In his motivation for demythologisation, Bultmann argued from the anthropological and existential intention of myths. As a seemingly objective frame of reference and worldview, mythology should not be interpreted objectively as it explains the supernatural influences on people’s decisions and behaviour, which grounds and limits their potential existence. Myths seem to give people a grasp on the supernatural and mythological, thus imparting a false sense of control and security. As such, myths should be investigated as to the self-understanding to which they witness, and should not be interpreted objectively but anthropologically and existentially (Bultmann [1941] 1967:23). This approach is in line with Berger and Luckmann’s views on symbolic universes functioning as frames of references which legitimate and motivate people’s social behaviour and roles (Berger & Luckmann 1975:79, 110–146).

Bultmann reiterated that how one defines myth was not the main issue. Any definition would be acceptable. His focus was on the reality of mythological thinking (Bultmann [1952] 1965:180–181), namely that events of life were influenced by and explained as mythological powers at work. Mythological thinking is a frame of mind, viewing reality as open to the influences of transcendental forces. Asking acceptance for such a frame of mind from modern scientifically oriented people, would be asking a sacrificium intellectus of them. Thus, the premodern view of reality becomes a scandalon to modern people, and in terms of the kerugma, replaces the real scandalon of the cross. Bultmann said that focus on the different definitions of myth took the focus away from the issue that was really at stake, namely mythical thinking. It follows that Bultmann would accept Ricoeur’s broad approach to myths, as long as the real issue was not neglected.


The previous article on Ricoeur’s views on myth and demythologising (Malan 2016) has shown that both Ricoeur and Bultmann view demythologising as a legitimate necessity for biblical hermeneutics (Ricoeur 1973b:465; Bultmann [1941] 1967:48). We will now compare their condensed views on demythologisation.

Translating or eliminating?

The metaphors used by Ricoeur and Bultmann reveal that there may be a noteworthy difference in their definitions and applications of demythologisation.

Ricoeur views the mythological language of the Bible as the mythic clothing of the proclamation, which has to be removed and as mythical wrapping which must be abandoned revealing our cultural distance from the texts, thus empowering kerugmatic interpretation (Ricoeur [1968] 1980:57–58). He also speaks of a purification of the mythical cosmology from its mythological vestments (Ricoeur 1973a:212). These metaphors suggest demythologisation to be the elimination of the mythical concepts from the kerugma, and differ from Bultmann’s views (see ‘Demythologisation as existential interpretation’). On the other hand, he also calls demythologisation a deciphering process (Ricoeur 1973a:212), suggesting it to be a process of translating the mythical into non-mythical language modern people can comprehend. This metaphor is closer to Bultmann’s use of the term. Let us consider their respective methods of demythologising.

Demythologisation as existential interpretation

When motivating demythologisation Bultmann argues from the anthropological and existential intention of myths, namely as explanation that human existence finds its grounds and limits in supernatural forces. Demythologisation is the existential interpretation of myths (Bultmann [1941] 1967:23). Bultmann accentuates that demythologisation is not the elimination of mythological concepts, but their existential interpretation, being a translation into existential terminology supplied by the earlier work of Martin Heidegger as formulated in his work Zein und Zeit (1927) (Hamman 2013:201–216; Johnson 1987:21–28). This begs the question whether translation of myths into existential concepts is not in effect a form of eliminating the myths (Robinson 1964: 34–35). But to be fair, it is not the same as simply removing the mythological or simply rejecting it as irrelevant. Bultmann’s approach recognises the existential value deposited in myths, which should not be discarded, but exploited for their contribution to realise authentic existence.

Demythologisation as deconstruction

Ricoeur arrives at much the same destination, albeit by another route. Demythologisation is viewed as an important part of deconstruction, which aims to expose false consciousness (Ricoeur 1973a:204; Stiver 2012:23, 25, 29). The process starts with demystification, a method which unmasks hidden relations masking domination (Ricoeur 1973a:206).

Demythologisation follows demystification and is a process of cultural critique (destruction), restoration and reinterpretation. Cultural critique refers to the initially strange kerugma eventually becoming enculturated in the mythological conception of the ancient world and now needs to be deculturated in order to be intelligible to modern people (Ricoeur 1973a:211). By restoration is meant the restoration of myth as symbol by rejecting the explanatory function of myth, resulting in a disengagement leading to the second naïveté of accepting the existential truth that myth symbolises (Ricoeur 1967:350, 356; see also Sawicki 1984:325). Restoration is also reached by symbolic signification, namely restoring the function of symbols by shedding literal meaning (Ricoeur 1967:355–356). Destruction is a method of destroying the issue which destroyed the radical question to which myth initially provided an answer. It grapples with our alienation in relation to the existential challenge, the initial question once presented. Alienation is a result of secularisation which expelled the cosmic sacred by rationality and universal objectification, as well as by the autonomy of man thanks to science and technology. Destruction questions secularisation and modern culture, thus seeking to restore the interval of interrogation in which the existential question of ancient times can again have meaning (Ricoeur 1973c:216). The forces at work in humanity as a whole are revealed and explained (Ricoeur 1973c:217–218; see also Ricoeur [1960] 1985:106–125), and language is explored in order to restore and create a language which sufficiently describes human existence in the world, and all of its possibilities (Ricoeur 1973c:218–219). Finally, restoration of meaning can be reached by justification (validation) and arbitration. Justification validates modern people’s use of symbols and accepts the multivocality of symbols. Arbitration is a process of listening for and liberating the symbolic and existential meaning of myths whilst identifying and rejecting the explanatory function of myths (Ricoeur 1973c:222–223).

Concluding remarks

Ricoeur thus arrives at the same destination of existential interpretation, but by a very different route from Bultmann’s Heideggerian existentialism. Nevertheless, arriving at the same end result implies a validation of both approaches. This reiterates the necessity of demythologisation and suggests their approaches to legitimately complement each other. Demythologisation should not be restricted to ancient myths, but should also be applied to modern myths masking domination, for instance in international and local politics and business, as well as marriage and family relations.

Ricoeur’s broad approach to myth and demythologising opens up the analysis of myth from various vantage points and should be considered as a meaningful and necessary addition to Bultmann’s demythologisation program.


Competing interests

The author declares that he has no financial or personal relationships which may have inappropriately influenced him in writing this article.


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HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies  vol: 73  issue: 1  year: 2017  
doi: 10.4102/hts.v73i1.4650