For centuries, classical mythology functioned as an intermedium that connected the different arts and anchored them in society.footnote1 It forged a link between visual art and literature, with the interpretations of humanist scholars often supplying subjects for poets, painters and sculptors alike. This tradition was founded above all on the supreme literary and artistic value attached to ancient culture; while it was clear that the literal subjects were heathen gods and un-Christian heroes, their exploits were allegorized so that a mythological rape scene could suggest an array of profound meanings and become a suitable subject for literature and art.

By the eighteenth century, however, mythology’s traditional cultural position came under pressure as debate raged on the origin and meaning of myths. De-allegorizing the Greek gods, eighteenth-century philosophes found them no less barbaric than the myths of contemporary ‘savages’: both were instances of a ‘primitive mentality’ in which man expresses himself not through abstract reasoning, but through images. A fundamental difference between such modes of thought and modern, rational culture was proclaimed, laying the basis for contemporary conceptions of myth. As more distant and ‘primitive’ civilizations became better known, Christian apologists and comparative mythologists battled over such questions as whether a universal ‘primitive monotheism’—later distorted by polytheist mythologies (except in Judaism)—had been common to all civilizations; and whether all myths were corruptions of the Bible. Biblical stories—the Flood, for instance—were increasingly recognized as local iterations of more widely diffused myths, and the origins of Christianity as lying in mythology rather than in revelation.

The new accounts of myth and religion robbed Renaissance interpretations of both Christian and Graeco-Roman subjects of their pretended timelessness and universality, and precipitated an ‘iconographic crisis’.footnote2 This disintegration of the Renaissance tradition went hand in hand with the rise of Idealist and Romantic aesthetics, or what Jacques Rancière has termed the ‘aesthetic regime’, which approaches works of art as choses de pensée, objects of thought. In Schelling’s words, art is werktätige Wissenschaft, practical science, rather than a representation of a mythological or historical subject that follows certain established laws. But works of art were not to be assimilated to discursive thought; they bear witness to a different sort of apprehension, ‘a form of thought which is immanent in its other and inhabited by its other’.footnote3 Art became a form of thought that is intimately tied to non-thought, to a mimetic residue resistant to reason. Myth was one name for this dark side of art—its non-identical side, heteronomous and not containable within the neatly defined limits of art. Yet ‘myth’, in naming this side, also identifies it and integrates it into discourse. But this process is never complete, and Romantic and modern art often worked against it, exacerbating rather than reducing the mystery. The conventional use of old mythologies risked making them little more than a bureaucratically managed set of subjects with certain allotted meanings. Increasingly, the use of non-Western, ‘primitive’ myths was to prove alluring, as was the tempting, if elusive prospect of creating new Romantic mythologies.

Schelling succinctly stated what was, in the years around 1800, a shared opinion among Romantics and Idealist thinkers: ‘Mythology is the necessary precondition and the primary subject of all art.’footnote4 Religious in origin, mythology basically existed in order to become poetic, to become artistic. The desire to reintegrate art into an organic community led to different versions of the visionary concept of a ‘new mythology’, but none of these could offer thinkers or artists a ready-made set of mythological motifs with which they could work. By contrast, Goethe and Johann Heinrich Meyer tried to supply visual artists with a new approach to classical mythology, which would as it were preserve the iconographical tradition in a different guise. Both tendencies wanted to establish an art that would be valid in a time when the old iconography and formal conventions had been eroded through the decoding and deterritorialization of the previous economic and social order; both tried to find a way of negotiating modern art’s broken ties with its traditional social, cultural and political moorings. Both did so by according important but very different roles to mythology. Goethe and Meyer effectively tried to ‘tame’ heteronomous myth by making strict rules for which subjects were suitable—a move not dissimilar to the conventionalization of mythology in the Renaissance tradition, though Goethe and Meyer now tried to deduce criteria for proper use from visual art’s specific characteristics. As a result, myth was made a servant of art’s inherent logic, its difference reduced. By contrast, Schelling and others who demanded a new mythology tried to use myth to transcend art’s limitations and to change modern culture and society as a whole.

In various texts from the 1760s to the 1790s, Herder meditated on the dubious use value of ancient mythologies—the products of vastly different societies—to modern (German) writers, and asked under what circumstances old myths might be renewed or a new mythology created.footnote5 His hesitant tone is in marked contrast to that of the so-called ‘Ältestes Systemprogramm des deutschen Idealismus’, a brief and incomplete but ambitious—not to say brash—programme for a post-Kantian Idealist philosophy, and for a rational and harmonious society. It was most likely written in 1797, though published only in 1917 by Franz Rosenzweig. Although it is in Hegel’s handwriting, Rosenzweig asserted that the nature of the text strongly suggests Hegel’s onetime co-student Schelling as the actual author, an idea that has been contested in recent decades.footnote6 In what seems almost like a deliberately ironic echo of the ‘authorless’, collective origin of myth, the origin of the new concept of mythology itself cannot be ascribed to a single author with complete certainty.