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Serguey Ehrlich. Memory, Identity, and Imagination. The Structure of Behaviour from the Perspective of Memory Studies. Part I

Remembering the past to imagine the future

 (Schacter et al, 2007)

Abstract: Author suggests the new approach to memory studies, where memory is a component of the guidance and control subsystem of behaviour, that is mental structure initiating practical activities: 1) It is possible to represent that subsystem as a ‘molecule,’ which consists of three ‘atoms’: memory (past/experience), identity (present/ritual), and imagination (future/program); 2) ‘Atoms’ have common triple-layered narrative ‘nucleus’: specific narrative, schematic narrative template, and base mythic narrative; 3) The core of ‘nucleus’ consists of three base mythic narratives: the fairy tale (myth of booty), the heroic myth (myth of others-sacrifice), and the myth of self-sacrifice; 4) ‘Fundamental particles’ of base mythic narratives are self-sacrifice (altruism), others-sacrifice, and booty, which represent the condensed experience of human evolution. We can call them ‘primal phenomena.’ Booty is the source of cannibalistic primal trauma, which is still not worked through and is fraught with unmotivated violence and conspicuous consumption, others-sacrifice is the origin of primal religion, and self-sacrifice is the primal phenomenon of sustainable society.

The focus of analysis is the ‘nucleus’ of narrativity. Narratives are ‘carriers’ of memory, identity, and imagination. We can reduce the number of specific narratives to three base mythic narratives: the fairy tale is adequate for kin (family), the heroic myth is adequate for folk (nation), and the myth of self-sacrifice (Prometheus and Christ) is adequate for the global humanity. Comparing those narratives we can point out three main effects. Firstly, memory becomes deeper and encompasses a longer timeline, consequently expanding from ‘progenitors’ (the fairy tale) through ‘state founders’ and ‘Paleolithic ancestors’ (the heroic myth) to the ‘Big Bang’ (the myth of self-sacrifice). Secondly, identity, which presumes solidarity and altruism, becomes broader by including much more people in the number of ‘our own’: ‘kin’ (family), ‘folk’ (nation), and ‘humankind.’ Ethics, which are closely connected to solidarity and altruism, are gradually shifting from selfish values of survival to altruistic post-materialist values of self-expression. Thirdly, imagination creates more and more ambitious goals of behaviour.

We can distinguish historical epochs based on the domination of one of those three co-existing base mythic narratives: 1) In the pre-state hunter-gathering society it was the fairy tale; 2) In the state agrarian and industrial societies it is the heroic myth; 3) In the post-state information society it will be the myth of self-sacrifice, which is a singular reliable tool to create memory, identity, and imagination, which are adequate for our nascent Global Age.

The author is aware that he suggests a dream, but he also believes that history is the embodiment of competing dreams. Therefore this essay is an invitation to discussion: ‘Hit me but listen to me.’

Keywords: the guidance and control subsystem of behaviour, memory, identity, imagination, specific narrative, schematic narrative template, base mythic narrative, the fairy tale (myth of booty), the heroic myth (myth of others-sacrifice), the myth of self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, others-sacrifice, booty, cannibalistic primal trauma, unmotivated violence, conspicuous consumption, primal religion, children sacrifice, primal phenomenon of sustainable society, altruism, egoism, ritual and program.

Bio: Serguey Ehrlich, 1961, PhD, the chief editor of The Historical Expertise (Moldova). E-mail:

Declaration of Conflicting Interest: The Author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Stefan Berger, Astrid Erll, Natalija Majsova, Boris Mironov, Dmitry Panchenko, Milica Popovic, Ann Rigney, Victor Shnirelman, James Wertsch, and Tyler Wertsch for their very insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper, but of course the usual disclaimers apply. I would like to acknowledge the important contribution made by Oleg and Sharon Pekar towards translation of my essay.


Memory as a Component of a Subsystem of Behaviour

How Does the ‘Space of Experience’ Destroy our ‘Horizon of Expectation’?

Why Memory?

Is History a Part of Memory?

The Structure of Behaviour

Booty as Primal Trauma

Others-Sacrifice as Primal Religion

Self-Sacrifice as ‘the Prime Phenomenon of All Past and Future World-History’

Structural Concordances between Three Base Mythic Narratives and the Concepts of Marshall

Mcluhan, Jan Assmann, Abraham Maslow, Georges Dumézil, and Fernand Braudel

The Rat Ethics of the Fairy Tales

The Deception of Heroic Myth

The Dead End of Modernity

The Transformation from Quantity to Quality

‘I Felt Sorry for Humans’ or ‘For their Sakes I Sanctify Myself’

‘That Holiest-of-Holies Holocaust of the Jews’

Shakespeare is Ours!

Witch-Hunts of Today?

Narodniks of the Global Scale


Memory as a Component of a Subsystem of Behaviour

Astrid Erll (2008: 2) regrets that ‘despite two decades of intensive research, the design of a conceptual toolbox for cultural memory studies is still at a fledgling stage.’ The main reason of that desperate situation is that current memory studies are ‘more practiced than theorized’ (Confino, 2008: 78). The problem is exacerbated, believes Erll (2008: 2, italics added), by the fact that research is practiced ‘within an array of different disciplines and national academic cultures, with their own vocabularies, methods, and traditions.’ I completely agree that the dominant ‘atheoretical’ trend is an impediment to the progress of our discipline. At the same time I believe that the multidisciplinary nature of memory studies triggering permanent conceptual divergence is an advantage, which permits easily appropriate ‘an array’ of insights from different disciplines and shape on their grounds unexpected theoretical frameworks allowing to observe memory from various angles.

In my opinion the seminal Reinhart Koselleck’s dichotomy ‘space of experience’ and ‘horizon of expectation’ is an exemplary case showing how the concept of an adjacent discipline could be adjusted to the requirements of memory studies and provide a promising starting point for a new theoretical approach grasping collective/cultural memory from an unusual perspective.

Koselleck (2004: 256–259) argues that it is impossible to master the process of history analyzing only the ‘space of experience.’ For ‘deciphering history in its generality’ we should also take into account the ‘horizon of expectation’: ‘[T]hese two categories … indicate an anthropological condition without which history is neither possible nor conceivable.’ That means history has a double framework: experience-past and expectation-future.

Kosellek writes further that it is possible to reduce ‘the conceptual couple “experience” and “expectation”’ constructing ‘history from the modalities of memory and hope’ (Koselleck, 2004: 256–259). In my opinion choosing hope, that is a dream of better future, as a counterconcept of memory Kosellek shows the right direction for our search but not the final point, because hope has a sluggish nature, we can call it a dream in the ‘passive voice,’ therefore it could not be a trigger of purposeful behaviour. For the successful pursuit of happiness we should transform our dream in ‘active voice’ and create a detailed image of better future as an objective of our behaviour. Therefore the reliable counterconcept of memory is not hope, but imagination.

The first objection against using imagination as a counterconcept of memory assumes that meaning of the word ‘imagination’ is broader than future. Yes, it is possible to imagine something that already exists or existed, but we either never saw or have forgotten its image. Nonetheless the principal semantic area of the word ‘imagination’ relates to something that eventually could be real in the future.

The main reason to prefer ‘imagination’ to Koselleks’ ‘hope’ is the practice of cognitive neuroscience revealing ‘striking similarities between remembering the past and imagining or simulating the future, including the finding that a common brain network underlies both memory and imagination’ (Schacter et al, 2012: 677). More and more scholars treat memory and imagination as ‘the conceptual couple,’ where both terms mutually affect each other: ‘Memory acts on the imagination and imagination works with the material provided by memory,’ write the authors of the term ‘mnemonic imagination’ (Keightley and Pickering, 2017: 2; Keightley and Pickering 2012). The interplay of both phenomena is not only a metaphor, it is confirmed by neuroscience research (Persinger and De Sano, 1986; Schacter et al, 2007). Therefore Martin Conway and his colleagues (2016: 256–257, italics added) rightly believes that ‘in terms of understanding the brain basis of remembering and imagining it seems that both memories and episodic simulations of the future are mediated in large part by the same neural networks,’ hence ‘we should be using the term remembering-imagining system (RIS) rather than simply memory system.’[1]

In frameworks of memory studies the ‘conceptual couple’ memory-past and imagination-future has a mediation—identity-present, because ‘identity’ subsumes not only common descent in the past, but also common fate in the future. Memory, identity, and imagination are three elements of the guidance and control subsystem of behavior forming the general scheme of mental prerequisites of practical activities, where individuals and groups:

1) Constitute themselves as subjects of behaviour through common identity (rituals);

2) Imagine objectives (programs) of their behaviour;

3) Try to achieve imagined objectives using patterns of behaviour (experience) from the stores of memory.

The guidance and control subsystem of behaviour (further abbreviated as ‘behaviour’) is not a linear sequence where memory creates identity and identity creates imagination, it is a triangle where three elements affect each other simultaneously. Metaphorically speaking behaviour is a molecule containing three atoms (memory, identity, and imagination) in the process of their permanent interaction.

My analysis is inspired by Kosellek’s insights regarding double framework of the process of history. So there is a valid question, why I replaced all three his concepts: ‘history’ to ‘behaviour’, ‘space of experience’ to ‘memory’ and ‘horizon of expectation’ to ‘imagination’ and added the third framework of ‘identity’? That is done simply because the German historian elaborated terminology for the needs of ‘conceptual history.’ It is impossible to apply directly his historical terminology to the field of memory studies, which is related not to ‘objective’ process of history (a look from outside, where society’s temporal changes is driven by ‘fateful’ forces alienated from people: nature, economy, politics and so on), but to ‘subjective’ process of behaviour (a look from inside, where the driving forces of society’s temporal changes are intentions and efforts of society’s members). From that perspective the core of behaviour is subjectivelyexperienced past, present, and future, that is memory, identity, and imagination.

That triple framework opens a new promising perspective for our research because it allows studying memory as a component of the guidance and control subsystem (memory-identity-imagination) of behaviour.

How Does the ‘Space of Experience’ Destroy our ‘Horizon of Expectation’? 

Let us grasp the current global situation using above mentioned behavioural framework of memory studies.

The transition from the industrial society of nation-states to the information society of global humanity, is hampered by inertia of Durkheimian ‘collective representations.’ Both ‘elites’ and ‘masses’ still believe that if identity of the nation-state is not the crown of social creation, it is a necessary evil. The consensus of grim ‘realists’ is generated by disappointment with the idea of progress which inspired Jules Verne’s contemporaries. The existence under the nuclear sword of Damocles compels the ‘risk society’ (Ulrich Beck) people to stop imagining the future and live for today (Hartog, 2015). The obsolete but still dominating memory (‘space of experience’) of Modernity destroys the imagination (‘horizon of expectation’) of Global Age. 

This resulted in a paradoxical situation. Industrial Modernity, an identity ‘container’ of which is the nation-state, has led to the emergence of nuclear threat, growing environmental degradation, social inequality, and other global challenges, which cannot be solved within the national framework. At the same time, fearing of the future, which is based on those threats, does not allow us to do away with ‘short-term thinking’ (Guldi and Armitage, 2014) and imagine the global community capable of solving global threats effectively.

One of the ‘side-effects’ of that fearing of the future is the common practice of reflecting our present inside the obsolete frameworks of Modernity. More than forty years ago Alvin Toffler (1980: 18) described in The Third Wave ‘the old civilization in which many of us grew up,’ and presented ‘a careful, comprehensive picture of the new civilization bursting into being in our midst. So profoundly revolutionary is this new civilization that it challenges all our old assumptions. Old ways of thinking, old formulas, dogmas, and ideologies, no matter how cherished or how useful in the past, no longer fit the facts.’ From the context it is clear that ‘the old civilization’ is industrial society or Modernity and ‘the new civilization’ is information society. I am sure that it is impossible to overcome the ‘old ways of thinking’ until we are applying the concept of Modernity to our time. It is not neutral, but it is the biased container of theories, which correspond to passing away industrial era and do not fit to requirements of nascent information civilization.

Despite that, most of social thinkers still are trying to ‘pour new wine into old furs’ adjusting new adjectives to already outworn Modernity: ‘high modernity’ (Anthony Giddens), ‘second modernity’ (Ulrich Beck), ‘late and liquid modernity’ (Zygmunt Bauman), and so on. In my opinion even the concept ‘postmodernity’ (Jean-François Lyotard) does not allow to get rid of ‘old ways of thinking’ completely. The stubborn devotion of intellectuals to the outdated terminology could be partly explained by the etymology of the word ‘modernity,’ which is a derivation from the Latin adverb modo ‘presently, just now.’ For sure that name plays the deceptive role, because first of all we reflect the world existing ‘just now’ around us. That terminological pitfall is an important reason why we have not realized clearly how deep is the rupture between industrial and information stages. Therefore we are not able to elaborate effectively the new forms of memory, identity, and imagination suitable to our global mode of existence.

To solve the problem we should use the term ‘Modernity,’ overloading with ‘industrial’ meanings, only as a signifier of the epoch between, roughly speaking, the beginning of seventeenth and the end of twentieth centuries and, how it was coined by Toffler (1980: 183), call our ‘just now’ the ‘information society,’ or ‘information era/stage/civilization’, and so on, which correctly render the essence of our time. Correct terminology will help ‘to diminish the control that the [national] past exercises upon the [global] future’ (Kuipers, 2011: 2).

Benedict Anderson (2006) argues that identity of nation-state was imagined by scholars, writers and artists of the nineteenth century who ahead of time shaped memory in accordance with their representations of the future. Julien Benda (2011: 79, italics added) in The Treason of the Intellectuals writes that ‘highbrows’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ‘have praised the efforts of men to feel conscious of themselves in their nation and race… and have made them ashamed of every aspiration to feel conscious of themselves as men in the general sense.’ That is intellectuals instilling people with the national framework of imagination have betrayed the universal values of international Respublica Literaria of Early Modernity. We can interpret their volunteer degradation from mankind vision as a sacrifice for the sake of their nations: limiting themselves they widened identity, solidarity, and altruism of common people from local framework to national one. Unfortunately in the twentieth century the national memory, identity, and imagination brought poisoned fruit: the two world wars, many armed conflicts, mass terrors, and a wide array of genocides.

To overcome the powerful momentum of nation-state memory, identity, and imagination we should remember that ‘constructors’ of nation-state were able to solve much more complex problems than we need to solve. ‘National idea’ of Modernity was ingrained in the public consciousness by intellectuals before the industrial basis of nation-state was developed significantly. Now the technologies of information civilization are far ahead of our ability to imagine an adequate identity for this type of society. The intellectuals of the twenty-first century should acknowledge the global needs, remind the universal vision of their spiritual ancestors of Renaissance and Enlightenment, stop playing by the rules of two previous centuries, activate their imagination because ‘[i]t is no extravagance to formulate the problem of the future ... in terms of imagination’ (Ricoeur, 1996: 3), and systematically work on reshaping obsolete national identity into global one: ‘I am a human being,’ must be the prevailing identification of everyone.

Why Memory? 

What role does memory play in the process of the global identity creation?

It should not be questioned: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Memory, identity, and imagination fulfill equally important and interconnected functions in the process of behaviour. Memory has the paramount importance in my research because I look from the perspective of memory studies. That approach reveals that in the framework of behaviour memory communicates with its ‘counterparts’:

1) as a base of group identity;

2) and as a trigger of imagination, when memory often provides samples how to do it the other way.

‘Making the past into our past’ (Wertsch, 2021: 92, italics in the original) memory is functioning as a base of group identity. Why ‘concretion of identity’ (Assmann, 1995: 125) is much more based on memory then on images of the future? It is because identity is a synonym of transtemporal stability (‘sameness’/‘self-same’)[2] and it is memory that ‘creates the assumption of stability that demarcates identity’ (Giesen, 2004: 109). The important reason why identity ‘gravitates’ to memory could be reconstructed in accordance with insights of Paul Connerton (1989) and Jan Assmann (2011) that identity is shaped by commemorative rituals, when unfamiliar people share common emotions. ‘Invariance’ intrinsic to ritual ‘implies certainty’ (Rappaport, 1979: 209) and ‘certainty’ in its turn assumes a stable social order. The aim of ritual is persistent overcoming of current chaos (instability) and reestablishing of primordial cosmos[3] that is not simply stable but unchangeable sacral order of illud tempus, to which the myth of the ‘eternal return’ (Mircea Eliade) leads. Hence the stable mythologized past becomes the source of identity through mediation of allegedly unchangeable commemorative rituals. If images of the stable past does not know the word ‘if’, unstable ‘Proteus’ images of the future consists predominantly of manifold ‘if.’ Therefore the allegedly logical idea of building identity exclusively based on imagined common goals, which always are not completely rooted in our common past, does not work in practice because it denies the stable ‘historical continuity.’

Thus, in the Soviet Union of 1920s there was an attempt to create identity by using the international values of future world revolution and denying the ‘damned past of Russian autocracy.’ Bolshevik leaders believed that the history narratives, which are permeated by ‘bourgeois-nationalist feelings,’ would be an obstacle in achieving the goal of the Third (Communist) International. Subsequently history in high schools was excluded and replaced by sociology. But in 1930s Stalin realized that ‘patriotic education’ is an indispensable instrument for the strengthening of military spirit. History, in other words the nationalist value of Russian collective memory, was reinstated in the high school curriculum instead of sociology, which was prohibited as a ‘bourgeois pseudoscience’ (Titarenko and Zdravomyslova, 2017: 33–41).

The national memory of Modernity is a mainstay of the nation-state: ‘No memory, no identity; no identity, no nation’ (Smith, 1996: 383). Not only nation but every group exists as long as there is consent to a common identity, which presumes solidarity and altruism.[4] 

Imagination is an important instrument of radical social changes. In that relation memory is also indispensable because of existence of a ‘short-circuit between memory and imagination’ (Ricoeur, 2006: 5), which provides ‘the very apparatus that enables change’ (Erll, 2011a: 174). Memory-imagination interplay means that studying collective representations of the past, which Durkheim’s disciple Maurice Halbwachs calls ‘collective memory,’ could provide fruitful insights for the ‘future thinking’ (Schacter et al, 2012: 688), regarding an ‘imagined community’ of the global information civilization. George Santayana’s maxim that ‘those who do not remember the past is destined to repeat it’ assumes that when we have ‘the more knowledge and understanding’ of the past, ‘the better we can shape the future’ (Bickford and Sodaro, 2010: 77).[5]

McLuhan’s ‘global village’ designers are facing a double task. At first, it is necessary to deconstruct the skeleton of national memory and to show that identity based on that memory shapes patterns of behaviour that are unable to respond adequately to the challenges of the global information civilization. Subsequently, we should imagine the memory and identity of a future society, where the collective future needs are ‘the directive function’ for ‘shaping the collective past in the context of collective identity’ (Szpunar and Szpunar, 2016: 383). That means we should remind the patterns of human experience, which contain ‘viable sprouts’ of the informational global community.

Is History a Part of Memory? 

Double meaning of the word ‘history’ (the process of temporal changes and an academic discipline studying past) creates a lot of confusions. From the perspective of temporal changes memory has its own history, which is an indispensable part of history of behaviour. In the same time it is impossible to discuss memory outside its relations with history as an academic discipline.[6] 

These words not only are frequently synonyms in common language, but some scholars argue that ‘boundary between history and memory is by nature porous’ (Fogu and Kansteiner, 2006: 302) and hence historiography is ‘by nature’ not an instrument of studying memory, but a subject of memory studies. There is a lot of evidence that supports this approach. Stefan Berger persuasively argues that professional historiography is a product of nineteenth-century nation-states and professionalization of historians was strongly motivated by striving to gain symbolic and other capital from their corporate position ‘as the only one that can speak authoritatively about the past’ (Berger, 2019). Historians, as the main experts in the field of society’s relations with its past, played and still play a leading role in the shaping of national collective memory, identity and imagination (Berger with Conrad, 2015).[7]

In my opinion, that evidence proves only one thing: that many of historians are members of a ‘dishonest legion’ of scholars from different disciplines both in the humanities and natural science, who betray truth guided by ‘such non-rational factors as rhetoric, propaganda, and personal prejudice’ (Broad and Wade, 1983: 9). It is true that all scholars as members of their mnemonic communities are affected by powerful narratives, which are based on national, class, religious, and other interests. Therefore a historian must permanently make a choice between the universal narratives of science and the group memory narratives.[8] When, for example, he/she is seriously engaging with his/her nation-state memory narratives he/she turns out to be an agent of national memory regardless to his/her investment in historical studies. Some alchemists made a contribution to the early stages of chemistry development, but that does not allow them to be called ‘chemists.’ From the perspective of academic standards it does not matter if a scholar either wittingly or unwittingly chooses between Hayden Whites’ emplotment, argument, and ideology ‘modes,’ because reflexivity and self-reflexivity are parts and parcels of our profession.[9] There is a need to specify that the thesis of ‘unconscious’ choice of the nation-state ‘grand narrative’ (Jean-François Lyotard) is very dubious, simply because in most cases that choice is still a profitable business. Therefore, we should not ‘reify’ the desperate reality when historians promote nationalist propaganda under the name of science, but we must sustain standards of the historical discipline in accordance with the requirements of the Weberian ideal type of academic profession, in which the central principle ‘consists in the search for truth’ (Popper, 1992: 4).[10]

Claudio Fogu, Wulf Kansteiner, Stefan Berger, and others suggest not separate rigidly history and memory looking from the subjective perspective of agents of institutionalized remembering, many of whom are biased by their national background. Astrid Erll (2008: 7) puts forward ‘dissolving the useless opposition of history vs. memory in favor of a notion of different modes of remembering in culture’ relying on the objective argument that both ‘modes of remembering’ have a common feature: ‘[T]he past is not given, but must instead continually be re-constructed and re-presented.’ This argument assumes that some modes of knowledge directly operates with ‘objective reality given to us in sensation’ (Vladimir Lenin) and others like history and memory has access to ‘objective reality’ only through reconstructions. I believe that not only history and memory, but every form of representation of reality including the so called ‘exact science’ represent not given things but namely reconstructions of past, existing, and future objects of reality. Hence the argument to reconstruction is not relevant, because it is not a specific attribute of ‘remembering in culture.’ I am not sure that we would receive new insights ‘dissolving the useless opposition’ between history and existing forms of memory, but blurring the borders between them we create a real risky to lose specific of two ‘different modes of remembering.’ Uniting memory and history simply because their common field is the past we imitate people who would unify astrology and astronomy on the grounds that both have as their subject ‘the starry sky above.’

In answering the question, ‘Why is history not a part of premodern and modern forms of memory?’ the first point to note is that history is seeking the truth about the past, which is universal for humankind, and memory is responsible for the shaping of particular groups’ identities through examples of ‘usable past’ (Van Wyck Brooks, 1918) or ‘contemporized past’ (Assmann 1995: 129) and ‘practical past’ (White, 1914). For the agents of memory it does not matter whether their ‘heroic examples’ are facts or fakes.[11] In its turn the honest historians are indifferent to how their research might affect any group identity: ‘History is willing to change a narrative in order to be loyal to facts, whereas collective remembering is willing to change information (even facts) in order to be loyal to a narrative’ (Wertsch and Roediger, 2008: 324).

Therefore Pierre Nora (1998: 8) argues that ‘memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition.’[12] The boundary between unbiased history and biased memory is not ‘porous,’ there is ‘the growing gap between collective memory and the body of facts established by historical research’ (Shapira 1996: 22). History-truth is in principal conflict with memory-identity, because the universal truth of history is not compatible with ‘private’ identities of numerous mnemonic communities. The ardent French patriot Ernest Renan (1990: 11) openly warned his co-citizens of ‘progress in historical studies’, which ‘often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality,’ and from his nationalist perspective he was absolutely right.[13] Every group falls apart if it loses its identity-solidarity. That is why the nation-state is suspicious of people looking for the universal historical truth and pays a lot of attention to the shaping of the national memory.

My opponents could ask: ‘Why do you persuade that the nation-state memory narratives are not compatible with the standards of historical profession and, at the same time, you argue that reshaping of collective memory in accordance with the needs of global information civilization is a part of our professional duties? Are there no contradictions in your statements?

Humanities become ‘scientific’ when we look at the world from the entire humankind perspective. I believe the universal and objective perspective of the historical discipline is extrinsic to the multitude of ‘partial’ and biased nation-state memories, but universal ideals of academic historiography are fully appropriate for the global collective memory of information civilization. From the global perspective memory-identity becomes equivalent to history-truth, therefore ‘history can be represented as the universal memory of the human species’ (Halbwachs, 1980: 84). Yes, history is memory of the future! In that sense the historian is a prophet, who, contrary to Friedrich Schlegel, looking not only back but also forward. By searching for truth, he/she fearlessly destroys the nation-state memory, identity, and imagination and creates instead the global ones. Therefore, he/she brings the triumph of the global information civilization closer.


The Structure of Behaviour

Memory, identity, and imagination are ‘atoms’ in the ‘molecule’ of behaviour. Atoms consist of nucleus and electrons. What entity can we call ‘nucleus’ of memory, identity, and imagination?

Answering that question from the perspective of memory studies we should first of all find a phenomenon, which allows designating individual and collective mnemonic forms as two types of one memory concept. That phenomenon we are looking for is the ‘nucleus’.

Reflecting that problem we assume that memory has individual and also collective or at least collected nature (Olick, 1999),[14] but this assumption is still under discussion. Susan Sontag (2003: 85) insists: ‘All memory is individual.’ Not only irresponsible public intellectuals, but some rigorous scholars are skeptical towards the Halbwachsian concept of ‘collective memory’ (Bell, 2003; Gedi and Elam, 1996; Klein, 2000; Novick, 2007).[15] Their criticism is partly justified, because the reference to ‘the perspective of the group’ as a carrier of collective memory (Halbwachs, 1992: 40) is pretty vague and it does not explain how individual and collective forms affect each other. We urgently need much more reliable carrier that is mediation tool between individual and collective memories.

The decisive step in that direction is done by James Wertsch (2002; 2021). The heritage of Ernst Cassirer and Lev Vygotsky regarding the mediation role of natural and artificial languages, allows him to argue that narrative is a carrier or a mediation tool of collective and individual memory. Wertsch’s narrative approach shifts the focus of analysis from the Nora’s lieux de mémoire, that is external ‘spatial expressions of memory’ (Kansteiner 2002: 191, italics added), to the essential temporal interplay of its collective and individual forms:

1) Individuals string ‘the meat’ of personal experiences on the ‘skewer’ of collective narrative;[16] 

2) At the same time, publicly shared personal experience, which is structured by the collective narrative, changes that narrative itself.[17] 

Astrid Erll (2011a: 108) represents that process as a permanent exchange between collective ‘cultural schemata’ and their ‘individual actualization.’[18] That prolonged Bakhtinian dialogism between collective narratives and personal experiences creates the subject of ‘mnemohistory’ (Assmann, 1997: 9) or ‘the history of the memory’ (Olick, 2007: 87).[19] It is crucial to specify that dialogic interaction of collective and individual memories is possible only through mediation of narrative.

Erll (2011: 4) splits the history of memory studies in two phases: the first one was inaugurated in 1920s – 1930s by Maurice Halbwachs and others, who established the subject of collective memory; the second one was proclaimed in 1980s by Pierre Nora and other researchers delving ‘national remembrance and traumatic events’ (Erll, 2011a: 172). Erll (2011: 4–5, 15) also puts a question regarding the main trends of the future third phase of memory studies and ushers that it will be the dominance of ‘transcultural memory’: ‘Such an approach means moving away from site-bound, nation-bound, and in a naïve sense, cultures-bound research and displaying an interest in the mnemonic dynamics unfolding across and beyond boundaries.’ Yes, overcoming of ‘nation-bound’ is an important feature of the third phase, but, in my opinion, its essence is not limited by the transcultural agenda. Narrative nature of memory is another principal trend of current memory studies, which has been started in 2002, when the Wertsch’s book Voices of Collective Remembering was published. It is remarkable that Erll (2011a: 147) is a zealous proponent of the narrative approach claiming that ‘the world of cultural memory is a world of narrative,’ but a long-term ‘unnarrative’ momentum of our discipline does not let her announce the ‘narrative turn,’ because in the field of memory studies it still plays a marginal role.

In my opinion the main reason of that is the heritage of Halbwachs (1925), who never mentioned the word ‘narrative’ in his fundamental book « Les Cadres sociaux de la mémoire ». It is surprising, because psychologists use narrative as the main tool providing access to individual memory at least from the end of nineteenth century (Straub, 2006: 215). So it would be logical to implement that instrument to the field of collective memory.

And it did was implemented by Frederic Bartlett (1932) in the classical book Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology dedicated to the role of narrative schemata in the shaping of collective memory, but his ideas were interpreted without paying enough attention to the fact that schemata has a narrative nature. Halbwachs won Bartlett because Pierre Nora, the main founder of the ‘memory turn’ in current cultural studies, continues the Halbwachsian ‘unnarrative’ tradition through seductive but in reality obfuscating metaphor of sites (realms) of memory with obvious references to the mnemonic method of loci of Antiquity. There is an intermediation between « Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire » and « Les lieux de mémoire ». I mean « La topographie légendaire des Évangiles en Terre sainte » (Halbwachs, 1941), an attempt of the author to apply his own theoretical concept to the specific memory case. Ignoring the narrative nature of memory he does not have a better way to capture it than pinning the evidence of Gospels to the map of Holy Land. It seems plausible that the Halbwachsian topographic principle inspired lieux de mémoire of Nora.

The ‘spatial’ sites of memory could be interpreted through temporal lenses of narratology as ‘discourses materialized’ (Schein, 1997: 663), because every commemorative site has its name subsuming a specific narrative with its own ritual. With that perspective the Nora concept allows ‘cataloguing’ the places where narratives are periodically transformed into performances. It is an important but limited function of lieux de mémoire.

Nora over-expends heuristic capabilities of his approach inventing the class of so-called ‘immaterial’ sites of memory like Jeanne d’Arc’s legend and La Marseillaise. In my opinion to call them ‘sites’ means to multiply entities without necessity, because they have obvious narratives nature. There is no lieu de mémoire without its own narrative unfolded in time. Time is primary in relation to space. In this sense, the concept of sites of memory is a kind of ‘derivative’ of narrative and therefore it is an auxiliary tool for the study of rituals of commemoration. The concept of ‘immaterial sites of memory’ rather looks like a disciplinary expansion of Pierre Nora’s ‘school’ without the necessary theoretical prerequisites and mimics the geocentric Ptolemaic model, where the planets’ orbits have been calculated through cumbersome system of ‘epicycles and deferents.’ The Earth of lieux de mémoire circulates around the Sun of narratio, but not vice versa. Therefore the narrative approach should play the leading role in memory studies.

Anyway it is not coincidental that narrative turn in memory studies was heralded by the psychologist Wertsch. It is better late than never. I hope the subjects of narrative nucleus of memory and mediating function of narrative tools will become the focusof cultural memory research soon enough.

Memory narratives are not just information, but primarily performances, that is, instructions to what we should and should not do: ‘[T]he ideal narratio is said to be the narratio that is the most reliable guide for our actions’ (Ankersmit, 1983: 33) It is a kind of ‘authoritative discourse’, which ‘demands our unconditional allegiance’ (Bakhtin, 1981: 343). Memory narratives as ‘equipment for living’ (Burke 1998; Wertsch 2021: 25–29) perform an important socializing function, providing ethical patterns, namely ‘beliefs, value systems and conventions of behaviour’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 2013: 9), therefore mnemonic community is always a moral community.[20] Every commemoration ritual not only transmits a ‘moral message,’ but also proves the ‘moral consensus’ among members of mnemonic community (Winter, 2008: 62).

Memory has been given a sacral status in order to increase its performative power (Klein, 2000: 129). Erroneously named ‘history’ it provides ‘sanctification of social beginnings’ (Schwartz 1982: 376) and becomes the core of ‘civil religion’ (Bella, 1967). That function of memory narratives is paramount because ‘a society can live only if its institutions rest on potent collective beliefs’ (Halbwachs, 1992, 187, italics added). A believer’s duty is to follow without any doubts the instructions of the sacral narrative, which effects through affects rather than rational knowledge, generating ‘strong emotional attachment’ to his own group (Wertsch, 2008: 49).

Bronislaw Malinowski (1948: 79) argues that myth ‘contains practical rules for the guidance of man.’[21] Mircea Eliade (1987: 97–98) defines myth as a sacred pattern, ‘the paradigmatic model for all human activities.’ Maurice Halbwachs (1992, 59) prescribes a similar function to memory, it provides ‘models, examples, and elements of teaching,’ which shapes ‘the general attitude of the group.’ Jan Asmmann (1995: 132) points out that one of the functions of ‘cultural memory’ is ‘providing rules of conduct.’ The cognate approach of those authors allows us to identify both phenomena: ‘Memory is a collective myth shared by a group,’ which is ‘inherited through storytelling’ (Rønning, 2009: 149).[22] That storytelling has three main objectives:

1) Memory. Mythic narratives answer the question ‘What should we remember as patterns of our behaviour?’;

2) Identity. Mythic narratives indicate whom we should consider being ‘our own’ and who are the ‘strangers’ and prescribe how to treat both ‘close’ and ‘distant’ ones;

3) Imagination. Mythic narratives designate goals we should achieve.

Therefore narrative is a nucleus of all three ‘atoms’ of behaviour: memory-past, identity-present, and imagination-future. Memory is experience that is narrative in the past tense. Identity is ritual that is narrative in the present tense.[23] And imagination is program that is narrative in the future tense. Narratives are programs of our practical behaviour. In its turn human deeds inspired by those programs are preserved in new narratives and through their mediation impact next iterations of practice. The permanent interchange between narratives and practices: ‘Speech is the mirror of action’ (Solon), creates the ‘perpetual motion machine’ of our life. There exists the structural concordance between them as mental and practical sides of the process of behaviour: ‘[T]he narrative mode is very close in form to the structure of action itself’ (Carr, 2008: 20).

The world of narratives has its own structure. Wertsch (2021: 76), fruitfully unfolding ideas of Bartlett (1932), argues that in accordance with ‘numerous findings in psychology and cognitive science showing that human memory is weak on details but good at retaining general outlines of past events’ it is possible to reduce the multitude of specific narratives to the limited number of schematic narrative templates.[24] How many narrative templates are there? There is a multitude of answers: according to Uther (2004) there are 2399 basic plots, according to Poldi (1921)—36, according to Tobias (2012)—20, according to Booker (2006)—7, and so on. Josef Campbell (2004: 28), following van Gennep,[25] reduces all myths and fairy tales to a singular narrative structure of the ‘monomyth’:[26] ‘separation—initiation—return.’

Despite his hyper-reductionist approach Campbell (2004: 28) points out, that fairy tales and myths differ by their imagined end purposes, namely to whom (to his own kin, to his own folk or to all humankind) the hero brings ‘boons’ sacrificing his own life. That subdivision of the ‘monomyth’ is very productive because ‘only the end can finally determine meaning’ of entire narrative (Brooks, 1984: 22). Therefore, from the perspective of the boons’ recipients target group (kin, folk or humankind) the limited number of schematic narrative templates can also be reduced to three base mythic narratives, the traditional names of which are replaced in accordance with their imagined final goals, inspiring people with common identity to achieve them through the process of behaviour: the fairy tale (myth of booty),[27] the heroic myth (myth of others-sacrifice), and the myth of self-sacrifice.

There is a common confusion in identification of sacrifice and self-sacrifice: ‘A chivalric ideal of male sacrifice based on the Passion of Jesus Christ’ (Frantzen 2004: From the inside flap). It is a perverted adaptation of Christ atoning for our sins, which is a symbol of the fearless non-violent behaviour facing death and it is not relevant to the heroic military deeds. In the context of my essay I split the generalizing term sacrifice into two opposites:

1) the artificial term others-sacrifice (human sacrifice, immolation, offering) means the ritually motivated act of killing other humans;

2) for a sacrificing of oneself I use the existing term self-sacrifice.

In my essay the terms ‘self-sacrifice’ and ‘altruism’ are synonyms in accordance with the definition of Pitirim Sorokin (1960: 62, italics added): ‘Real altruism begins … when an individual freely sacrifices his rightful interests in favour of the well-being of another.’

Each subsequent base mythic narrative expands in its time, space, and purpose frames: memory becomes deeper, identity, which assumes solidarity and altruism, broadens the circle of ‘our own’ people and finally it results in changing the ethical norms,[28] and imagination creates more and more ambitious common goals:

1) ‘The kin (family)’ base mythic narrative is the fairy tale (myth of booty), which consists of three main elements: self-sacrifice, where the hero has a physical or mental[29] fight[30] to the death with a monster;[31] others-sacrifice, where the hero defeats the monster; and returning home with booty. Self-sacrifice and others-sacrifice are means, where booty is a goal;

2) ‘The folk (nation)’ base mythic narrative is the heroic myth (myth of others-sacrifice), which consists of self-sacrifice and others-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is a means, where others-sacrifice is a goal;

3) ‘The humankind’ base mythic narrative is the myth of self-sacrifice, which consists of a singular element, where self-sacrifice is a goal without any means.

Now we are able to represent the full structure of behaviour:

1) The ‘molecule’ of the guidance and control subsystem of behaviour consists of three ‘atoms’: memory, identity, and imagination;

2) ‘Atoms’ have common triple-layered narrative ‘nucleus’: specific narrative, narrative template, and base mythic narrative;

3) The core of ‘nucleus’ consists of three base mythic narratives, where names are defined by their goals: the fairy tale (myth of booty), the heroic myth (myth of others-sacrifice), and the myth of self-sacrifice;

4) ‘Quarks’ or ‘fundamental particles’ of base mythic narratives are self-sacrifice, others-sacrifice, and booty.

Three ‘fundamental particles’ represent condensed experience of millions years of humankind evolution and they still powerfully govern our behaviour even in the situations when we are not able to realize that, because ‘the mental residue of those primaeval times has become a heritage which, with each new generation, needs only to be awakened, not to be re-acquired’ (Freud, 1939: 208, italics added). Analyzing the ways self-sacrifice, others-sacrifice, and booty exert on our behaviour we should change the metaphorical pattern. Metaphors of molecular physics render well the spatial structure of behaviour, but to represent it as a process of temporal changes we need organic metaphors, which allow translate the ‘fundamental particle’ as the ‘prime phenomenon.’ Oswald Spengler (1927: 105, italics added) applies that term, which is ‘the deep, and scarcely appreciated, idea of Goethe’ to ‘all the formations of man’s history, whether fully matured, cut off in the prime, half opened or stifled in the seed.’[32] What ‘societal plants’ grow from the ‘seeds’ of self-sacrifice, others-sacrifice, and booty?

Booty as Primal Trauma

The wars, revolutions, and other extremal situations, when police control is not ubiquitous, are always accompanied with violence. The significant part of war crimes has no rational background and looks like a sadistic embodiment of refined ‘arts for arts’ sake.

There was an obvious criminal motivation of East European peasants, who robbed their Jewish neighbors during the Second World War. The perpetrators also had the reasons to murder robbed people achieving a goal to get rid of the witnesses. But why did they torture their victims, most of whom were children, women, and elderly people? There could be a common explanation that peasants were so brutal because they got only elementary education, therefore atrocities were strongly affected by the medieval prejudices against the Jews.

That explanation does not work in the case of heinous Nazis crimes. Germans were very well educated. Before 1933 German universities, science, literature, and arts had leading positions in the world.[33] Why then did Germans not only rob and murder, but also torture Jewish, Roma, Polish, Soviet, and other civilians and prisoners of war? In that case we also have the simple answer: Germans were indoctrinated by the Nazis anti-human racial ideology. Using the ideological pattern can we say that Soviet soldiers committed robberies, rapes, and torture of German and other civilians because they were brainwashed by the cruel ideology of class fighting against the bourgeoisie and Russian soldiers—the hears of Soviet victors of Nazis made the analogical crimes during the recent invasion of Ukraine because in result of a long-term media campaign they have been infected by resentment regarding lost grandeur of the collapsed Soviet Empire?

It is possible adding to ‘spiritual’ reasons (prejudices, ideologies, and resentment) the ‘materialistic’ motives: before and during the Second World War majority of Germans and East Europeans were totally frustrated by the Great Depression, the Soviet people were ruined by the brutal ‘collectivization’ and most of Putin’s regime soldiers, who committed atrocities in Ukraine, were recruited from severely depressed regions of Russia.

Those reasons are not applicable to people from the country with the world’s largest economy, which assigns itself the role of an international watchdog of liberty and human rights. Why American soldiers were involved in mass torture in Vietnam (Rejali, 2007) and Iraq (Hersh, 2004)? Susan Sontag (2004) points out that an attempt of the American government to present the Abu Ghraib atrocities as the case of an isolated group of mentally unbalanced military servicemen is an obvious lie. She argues that Abu Ghraib is a lens exposing the longing for violence, which permeated the American society, where the ‘primeval’ initiations are omnipresent: ‘From the harsh torments inflicted on incoming students in many American suburban high schools ... to the hazing rituals of physical brutality and sexual humiliation in college fraternities and on sports teams.’

This relates not only to poor and middle classes, but to wealthy people as well. Sontag only mentions the scandalous Skull and Bones initiation ceremony. Ron Rosenbaum (2001) reports that it ‘has bonded diplomats, media moguls, bankers and spies into a lifelong, multi-generational fellowship far more influential than any fraternity.’ Among members of that secret society are a few generations of Bush family. The ceremony is accompanied by the slogans: ‘The hangman equals death. The devil equals death. Death equals death’ and looks like the Satanic mass from the Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

That independent of wealth and ideology sadistic obsession is a worldwide phenomenon. I believe Sontag is totally right putting torture-humiliation-dehumanization complex into the context of pre-modern and more precisely primeval rituals of initiation, which means that the omnipresent atrocities of Modernity are the consequences of a trauma of early humankind which we still have not worked through. That argument explains why the intensive and continuous efforts of German elites to cure their society from venomous Nazis heritage has only provided limited results (Olick, 2016), which is now under a threat from the growing popularity of far-right.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1948: 121) suggests that ‘anthropology should be … the study of our own mentality in the distant perspective borrowed from Stone Age man … [T]o see ourselves from a distance, we may be able to gain a new sense of proportion with regard to our own institutions, beliefs, and customs.’ If we are really concerned about ‘Never again’ we should follow that insight of one of the fathers of social anthropology searching for historical roots of Slavery, Gulag, Holocaust, and other awful collective traumas of our distant and recent past. This is a duty of specialists in memory studies.

Sigmund Freud (1939: 159) asserts that ‘the archaic heritage of mankind includes … also … memory-traces of the experiences of former generations.’ A reliable carrier of ‘the archaic heritage’ is the fairy tale. The central episode of it is fighting till death with a monster for booty. The monster signifies not only wild carnivores, which presented the big danger for primeval hunter-gatherers; it is also an ‘avatar’ of ‘strangers’ who were competitors of ‘our’ community in control of territories for hunting, fishing, and gathering. In the situation of the Later Stone Age permanent starvation (Harris, 1978: 29–40) it was the fight with two-legged ‘monsters’ whether to acquire booty for food or to become the food of adversaries because captured enemies have been eaten by winners.[34] ‘Under conditions where portable wealth does not exist; where food is too perishable and too clumsy to be accumulated and transported; where slavery is of no value because every individual consumes exactly as much as he produces’ (Malinowski, 1948: 296) a singular trophy of winners were bodies of defeated enemies. Those cannibalistic acts were reimagined as sacrificial rituals.[35] 

To motivate ‘our people’ for such a ‘mortal combat’ our enemies must be presented as non-human monsters to whom the human treatment is unacceptable and who instead deserve torture and humiliation. For instance Native Americans believed regarding captured enemies that ‘their death might be the slower, their pain the more exquisite’ (Knowles, 1940: 158). The gloating torture of captured people was inverted fear of hunter-gatherers, who just happily escaped the fate of been eaten by their enemies. Dehumanization and ‘objectification’ of victims is an eternal rule of perpetrators.[36] Therefore it is not strange that the endo-ethnonyms (the way to call themselves) of many primeval ethnicities mean ‘person,’ ‘people,’ ‘human,’ or ‘humankind’ (Proschan, 1997), exemplifying what it means to be human. That is ‘strangers’ are excluded from the humankind and as a subclass of ‘two-legged carnivorous’ could be aligned with their four-legged fellows and both should be symbolized as nonhuman ‘monsters’.

Cannibalism is strictly prohibited worldwide in nowadays except some exotic hunter-gatherers tribes (Raffaele, 2006). From the perspective of Christianity it is the biggest sin, because ‘the cannibal is a diabolical figure in the most profound sense, an anti-Divinity’ (Avramescu, 2011: 135). The taboo imposed by religion, moral, and criminal law is so strong that we do not dare to reflect on abhorrent patterns of our primeval ancestors’ behaviour. Our repulsion repressed that abominable heritage from our consciousness, in other words eliminates it from the public and academic discussions. Therefore the cannibalistic complex of our Paleolithic ancestors is the primal trauma of humankind, which is still not realized and hence is not worked through.[37] Even legendary anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1948: 296) argues that ‘[h]uman man-hunting in search of anatomic trophies, the various types of armed bodysnatching for cannibalism, actual or mystical, as food for men and food for gods’ must be ‘kept apart from constructive or organized systems of warfare.’ His classification proves that the famous anthropologist appreciated ‘human man-hunting’ as an exotic deviation of the main trends of social evolution. That means the Stone Age cannibalistic violence ‘stifled in the seed’ of modern war crimes still represents a blind spot for the competent analysis.

But that is repressed does not mean that does not exist.[38] On the contrary, living into the hellish underground of subconscious space secures survival of that insufferable collective experience of cannibalism during thousands of years. Unfortunately it breaks through subconscious terrain not only as nightmares, chilling folktales, myths, and arts. Any weakening of the state control wages the mass atrocities towards ‘strangers,’ who usually are defenseless children, women, elderly people, and captured prisoners, dehumanized by their perpetrators in efforts to justify the violence committed against them.[39] 

I should point out that usual explanation of perpetrators motivation by unbridled ‘animalistic instincts’ is totally wrong because carnivores are cruel but they do not have sadistic intentions. Torture is an exclusive traumatic product of our culture. My colleague Mark Tkaciuk aptly names such a destructive behaviour the social gravity. In accordance with his interpretation, in the critical situations of wars, revolutions, starvations, epidemics, and other social disasters people immediately retrieve the cultural patterns of the Stone Age as it is shockingly described by William Golding in Lord of the Flies. ‘Gravity’ means that it is difficult to cope with that challenge. Because it is ‘social’ we have a chance to overcome the sadistic longing for atrocities of many of our contemporaries.

Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ in The Theory of the Leisure Class, shows that the obsession of consumption, which in our era of welfare society is urgently threatening to destroy all non-renewable natural resources sustaining our existence, is another consequence of collective primal trauma. He writes that ruling strata of traditional society are inherited a ‘predatory habit of life (war or the hunting of large game or both)’ of primeval people (Veblen, 2009: 11). Barbaric warriors and medieval nobility were people of ‘exploit,’ whose main businesses were hunting and war. They shaped the main patterns of conspicuous consumption, which are inherited by the modern class of bourgeoisie. Veblen argues that when arrogant fat cats of our days prefigure themselves as aristocrats they in reality imitate the behaviour of our ‘savage’ ancestors for whom hunting was the war against four-legged ‘monsters’ and war was the hunting for two-legged ‘ones.’ Primeval fear to be eaten by monsters triggers not only sadistic complex of torture but conspicuous consumption as well, which has similar nature with the stress-overeating. Demonstrating through excessive consumption their prosperity people unconsciously defend themselves of not working through primeval fears.

The title of Nancy Fraser’s book Cannibal Capitalism exposes the savage ‘birthmark’ of that civilized ‘mode of production,’ which uses conspicuous consumption caused by the primal trauma as a lure for satisfaction its insatiable passion to the permanent expansion: ‘[C]apital’s expansionist drive is a brute and blind compulsion, and it is hardwired into the system’ (Fraser, 2021). Now the level of capitalist expansion achieved the scale, which threatens to destroy the natural environment, that is cannibalize our lives.

I believe that the one of important duties of Academia should be working through the ‘metaphysical guilt’ (Karl Jaspers) of the Stone Age, the collective primal trauma inherited of cannibalistic practice of hunter-gatherers, which unfortunately still not discussed in current memory studies. Proliferating ‘trauma industry’ of last decades does not pay any attention to the key point of all perpetrations of the world history, namely the primal trauma of cannibalism and permanent fear that it had once created. The ‘side-effect’ of that not worked through fear is ruinous conspicuous consumption. Aby Warburg insists that ‘science can predict and thus master fear’ (as cited in Gombrich, 1970: 302). Memory studies could help mastering that fear through public discussion about origins and long lasting effects of the collective primal trauma. Its remembering should become a part of globally mediated prospective memory (Tenenboim-Weinblatt, 2013) or premediation (Grusin, 2010) preventing the ‘negative anthropology’ (Ulrich Sonnemann) of the future genocides and mass torture which potentially could be triggered by repressed memory of the collective cannibalistic primal trauma.

Others-Sacrifice as Primal Religion

The instrumental approach, which is directly related to the ‘primal phenomenon’ of others-sacrifice, is suggested by Max Weber (2001). His famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he argues that religion affects many spheres of social life is considered as ‘one of the most fruitful examinations of the relations between religion and social theory’ (Tawney, 1960: 261). But it is impossible to define the branching tree of religious ideas and practices as the prime phenomenon ‘stifled in the seed.’

Trying to find the phenomenon shaping the nucleus of religion or, using authentic biblical term ‘faith,’ we would face an inevitable choice: what is the ‘prime,’ that is more substantial, a word of prayer or an act of sacrifice? Intellectuals are cherished by the first verse of The Gospel of John: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (John 1:1). That prophetic spiritual dictum is common to the myths of origin of different primeval people, where objects of material world are created through their naming (Rappaport, 1979: 201). The profound insight of our distant ancestors was far ahead of their cruel time, it becomes partly corresponding to reality only in information civilization. The primeval people, who mainly struggled for survival, for that reason were much more materialistic than we are. For them actions spoke ‘louder than words’: ‘[P]rimitive man has to a very limited extent the purely artistic or scientific interest in nature; there is but little room for symbolism in his ideas and tales; and myth, in fact, is not an idle rhapsody. … [T]he savage … is, above all, actively engaged in a number of practical pursuits, and has to struggle with various difficulties; all his interests are tuned up to this general pragmatic outlook’ (Malinowski, 1948: 75, 76).

Therefore in searching for an authentic prime phenomenon we should refer to another biblical wisdom: ‘Faith without works is dead.’ The author clarifies what he means under work of faith: ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?’ (James 2: 20–21). Abraham’s offering of the own child is a paradigmatic sacrifice, the religious phenomenon which ‘is well attested in the ancient world, especially in times of crisis’ (Hays, 2011: 181) by oral, written, and archaeological sources from Mediterranean region (Boehm, 2004; Brown, 1991; Burkert, 1983; Holway 2012; Tucker, 1999), different Slavic nations (Dragomanov and Wardrop, 1892), India (Manring, 2018; Snodgrass, 2004), China (Lu, 2009), Northern, Central, and South America (James, 2002; Tung and Knudson, 2010), and so on. Unfortunately we cannot say that it is the yesterday of humanity, because it is still in practice in different places on our planet (McDougal, 2006; Moodley, 2015).

Sigmud Freud (1939: 94) argues ‘that religious phenomena are to be understood … as a return of long forgotten important happenings in the primaeval history of the human family.’ What kind of ‘long forgotten’ social practice is hidden behind a repulsive ritual of child sacrifice? A hint is contained in another paradigmatic child sacrifice: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son’ (John 3:16). Irreligious modern people receive the words of sacrificing Son of God during the Last Supper: ‘Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life’ (John 6:54), only in the metaphorical way, but according to the decision of Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) the Catholic Church insists on literal understanding of Eucharist (Holy Communion) as a transubstantiation of bread and wine into flesh and blood of Our Savior. That interpretation involves theologians of Catholicism in permanent defense against the accusations of their Protestant opponents representing ‘the Catholics as cannibals who threatened to swallow up both Christ and the true religion. In numerous Protestant tracts, the Catholic mass was turned into a bloodthirsty rite, in which the priests ate God over and over again’ (Kilgour, 1990: 83). 

Devoted children of the Catholic Church also found similarities between Eucharist ritual and cannibalistic practice. Among them are the members of the Uruguayan rugby team ‘Old Christians,’ who survived in Andes during 72 days eating their mates, who died after the plane crash on 13 October 1972. They justified themselves ‘that drawing life from the bodies of their dead friends was like drawing spiritual strength from the body of Christ when they took Communion’ (Parrado and Rause, 2007). That example of self-justification let us assume that worldwide known religious ritual of child sacrifice is a product of justifying rethinking of the so called filial cannibalism (Lu, 2009) carried out by primeval people.

Not only believers noticed the link between cannibalism and sacrificing rituals. Sigmund Freud (2004:164, 165) has the same approach. In accordance with his classical work Totem and Taboo transition from the ‘primal horde’ to a ‘social organization’ started when brothers ‘killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde’: ‘The totem meal,[40] which is perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things—of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion.’

In my opinion Freud’s intuition regarding cannibalistic-sacrificing complex is a powerful insight. But why does he believe that ‘primæval deed’ of our culture was an act of patricide (geronticide) instead of infanticide, which plays so prominent role (Kronos eating his children and sacrifices of Isaac and Jesus are only a few among many examples) in the oldest layers of religious consciousness? Why did not he take into consideration another version of the origin of paternalistic cult of totem as a kind of ‘Stockholm syndrome’ of people, who in their childhood witnessed abominable scenes of devouring of their siblings by their own parents and who inverted their fears to be eaten into unlimited gratitude to their omnipotent ogre fathers? Or why is it impossible to represent ‘the totem meal’ as a celebration of the glorious deed, when children sacrifice was abolished and replaced by an animal, which was treated as a clan protector of the cannibalistic sin and therefore it was given traits of an almighty father? Those assumptions are not less plausible than sophisticated interpretations of Freud and they could be supported by large amount of evidence.

In that context it is not surprising that creating his legendary concept of Oedipus complex ‘the Viennese charlatan’ (Vladimir Nabokov) ignores the beginning of the mythical story, when Laius attempted the murder of his own son. Defending his biased theory Freud also chose not to mention the paradigmatic sacrifice of Abraham[41] and to distort the meaning of Christ self-sacrifice: ‘There can be no doubt that in the Christian myth the original sin was one against God the Father. If, however, Christ redeemed mankind from the burden of original sin by sacrificing of his own life, we are driven to conclude that the sin was a murder’ (Freud, 2004:178). Formulating without a doubt that ‘original sin’ of Adam was not a disobedience to the prohibition of eating the forbidden fruit, but a cannibalistic murdering of God the Father, the father of psychoanalysis should repress the traces of his ‘meager Jewish religious education’ (McGrath, 1991).

Writing his last book Moses and Monotheism Freud had a nice opportunity to improve his own knowledge of biblical wisdom, but the scandalous conclusion of his ‘treatise’ that the ‘father’ of Jewish nation was killed by his ‘spiritual children,’ who rejected the refined religion of Egyptian sun god Aton and adopted the Midianite cult of volcanic ‘narrow-minded, … violent and blood-thirsty’ god Yahweh, shows that the author of Moses was not able to overcome the biased patricide concept. He insists that the main idea of Moses is linked up ‘with conclusions laid down twenty-five years ago in Totem and Taboo’ (Freud, 1939: 80, 85).

Surprisingly, Freud points out in his biblical ‘treatise’ that myths and legends of different ancient folks contain the common schematic narrative template A Ruler Orders to Get Rid of a Baby (in most cases his own child): ‘The best known names in the series beginning with Sargon of Agade are Moses, Cyrus and Romulus. But besides these … [there are] Oedipus, Kama, Paris, Telephos, Perseus, Heracles, Gilgamesh, Amphion, Zethos and others.’ On another page he mentions ‘the early history of Jesus, where King Herod assumes the role of Pharaoh’. Providing that impressive sample Freud does not pay any attention to the fact that the murderous ‘challenge’ was initiated by fathers. In obsession with his theory of the patricide origin of culture Freud forgets that Christ is not God the Father, but Son of God and equates the ‘Christian Communion where the believer symbolically incorporates the blood and flesh of his God’ with devouring of the ‘primal horde’ father (Freud, 1939: 17, 22, 135).

That is why he was not able to duly appreciate numerous evidence of children sacrifice (Isaac and Jesus are only two among many), which contain the texts of Old and New Testaments. His biased perspective diverts Freud of ‘naïve reading’ of Torah and the Gospels.[42] Instead he suggests too much sophisticated interpretations of original sin and Moses death, drawing on an ‘arbitrary way’ to treat the sources: ‘I use Biblical tradition here in such an autocratic and arbitrary way, draw on it for confirmation whenever it is convenient and dismiss its evidence without scruple when it contradicts my conclusions’ (Freud 1939: 45).

Aviezer Tucker (1999: 43) argues that ignoring obvious facts the beloved Jewish son Sigmund imitates the biblical Isaac, who also was not able to ascribe to his worshipped father the murdering intentions. Therefore Freud, who ‘shared the paternalistic cultural values of his historical milieu,’ may have been ready ‘to accept the discovery of immoral, guilty wishes on his own part, but not the guilt of the accusing father.’

Yes, the Freudian theory of culture has the factual base and the myth of Oedipus appeared not as pure fantasy. Even among modern hunter-gatherers the practice to get rid of the old members of a community, who are appreciated as extra mouths to feed, still exists (Harris, 1978: 25; Willerslev, 2013: 148). But that practice could not shake the ground of the ‘down-to-earth’ primeval people surviving in the situation of permanent starvation and instill in their ‘numb’ souls the religious ‘fear and trembling,’ as Søren Kierkegaard argues regarding the Abraham’s sacrifice of his own child. Not only during the Stone Age, but also in early state-societies in times of a great danger existed the tradition of the ‘powerful sacrifice,’ when victims were children. The obvious example is a Phoenician city Carthage, where people believed that gods would be pleased by offerings if victims are not alien adults but ‘their own youngest children’ (Brown, 1991: 169). I am not sure if there exists any ritual to sacrifice elderly people in critical situations.

Therefore it is not occasional that in religious sources geronticide plays less significant role in comparison to ubiquitous infanticide. Because that Freud has to construct his theory on the base of the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex, where there are no cannibalistic meanings, which are paramount for Totem and Taboo, since he was not able to find another reliable mythical story related to his sophisticated idea of child’s desire for the opposite-sex parent and jealousy toward the same-sex parent. Furthermore proving his biased patricide concept of culture the author had to distort the plot of Oedipus’s story. Researchers point out ‘Freud’s selective reading of the Oedipus legend, from which he suppressed the origins of the tragedy in the sins of Oedipus’s father, Laius—notably Laius’s attempt to murder his son—in order to focus on the purely intrapsychic drama, Oedipus’s love of his mother and hatred of his father’ (Robinson, 1993: 147). In my opinion it is not plausible that geronticide could have more significant impact on religious representations of primeval people than sacrificing of their own off-springs. It means that, despite Freud’s claim, ‘the beginning ... of religion’ was infanticide.

The ideology of decolonization creates another obstacle to the approach, which establishes the link between the origin of religion and filial cannibalism. Academic proponents of the politically correct decolonizing concept argue that evidence of ritual cannibalism was a kind of ‘blood libel.’ Since the Age of Discovery Europeans used it for dehumanization of the native population of conquered overseas lands. That strategy provided to colonizers the moral right to enslave and exterminate ‘abhorrent monsters’ of the human race (Arens, 1979). Opponents of ‘ultra-decolonizing’ approach agree that colonizers did exaggerate the number of cannibalistic cases in their reports, but do not accept total denial of the phenomenon of ritual cannibalism among native people and provide convincing evidence that such rituals did exist (Sahlins, 2003). Denying the ritual cannibalism the zealous critics of colonialism from Academia reiterate behaviour of the left Western intellectuals, who in 1930s denied the existence of Gulag, because from their point of view it would discredit the ‘progressive’ idea of socialism (Partington, 2008).


Even ‘deniers’ of human sacrifices recognize cases of starvation cannibalism proved by the huge number of evidence. It is directly related to our primeval ancestors. About 50 to 30 thousand years ago they mastered the technologies, which allowed hunting mammoths and other big game successfully and getting results of food abundance (Harris, 1978: 17). It is not fully clear why the extinctions of most of great mammals occurred after that ‘Golden Age.’ Was it an effect of climate changes or herbivores giants were simply ‘overkilled’ by humans (Martin, 2005: 48–57)? Anyway before the transition to agriculture around 15 to 10 thousand years ago ancient hunter-gatherers survived during a long period of permanent starvation. Earth population decreased number of times and paleoanthropological data show that people, who lived during the so called Later Stone Age crisis, were affected by poor nutrition (Harris, 1978: 29–40).

Primeval people lived then under a permanent threat of death by famine. Infanticide was their common practice of reducing number of eaters (Chapman, 1980; Harris, 1978: 24–25). In the situations of cruel starvation, when hunter-gatherers devoured their own children as a last food resource, they chose a single remedy for protection of their despaired minds and reimagined their ‘daddy sin’ as a sacrifice for the sake of transcendental numina that are spirits and deities presiding over things and spaces. Rudolf Otto (1958: 14), who coined the famous term ‘numinous’ from that Latin word, believes that primeval people experienced mysterium tremendum or ‘ur-emotion’ in that bloodthirsty ‘starting-point for the entire religious development in history.’

Of course, he is right, but Rane Willerslev (2013: 151), who calls sacrificing act the ‘sacrificial trickery,’ is right as well. Piously deceiving numina our Later Stone Age ancestors eating their own children made the same that ‘civilized’ people did when they ate animals sacrificed for the sake of gods. The ancient Romans called that habit pars pro toto:

1) Ancient Greeks ascribed to Prometheus their own trickery when they burned on altars only bones and fat of sacrificed animals;

2) The Bible Leviticus and Numbers books contain precise prescriptions how to share sacrificed animals and other food between Yahweh, priests and sacrificers (Harris, 1978: 131);

3) An integral feature of the Vedic sacrificial system is “[t]he presentation of the smaller, the less adequate, and the abbreviated as the “equal” of the larger’ (Smith and Doniger, 1989: 206).

In epochs, when sacrificing rituals were recorded in Holy books of different ancient civilizations, the abominable habit of children devouring became inappropriate, and therefore they were symbolically replaced by animals (Snodgrass, 2004: 82).[43] If we take that into consideration it would not be difficult to reconstruct how cannibalistic practices of Later Stone Age’s primeval people were transformed into the ritual of child sacrifice. Abhorrent devouring acts of our Paleolithic ancestors instilled horror religiosus (Kierkegaard, 2005: 44) into the souls of believers of all time and nations.

Booty and others-sacrifice both are cannibalistic traumas of Humankind. But there are three principal differences between them:

1) Booty is ‘external’ cannibalism—devouring of prisoners, others-sacrifice is ‘internal’cannibalism—devouring of own children;

2) Torturing of prisoners is a by-product of the full fairy-tale plot: the self-sacrifice—the others-sacrifice—the booty. Sacrificing of children is a shortened fairy tale, where the self-sacrifice is eliminated;

3) Cannibalistic trauma of booty is not yet worked through and is fraught with atrocities and conspicuous consumption. The heinous trauma of others-sacrifice in the form of devouring own children has found productive or at least therapeutic output through different religious practices helping to treat that ‘neurosis of mankind’ (Freud, 1936: 91).

Self-Sacrifice as ‘the Prime Phenomenon of All Past and Future World-History’[44]

The ‘work’ of child cannibalistic sacrifice is an important type of others-sacrifice. It is the prime phenomenon of religion, but contrary to Freud’s claim it is not the prime phenomenon of social organization, because the plot of child sacrifice—the others-sacrifice and the booty—is a misleading and not viable concept, which diverts people from realistic solutions of their problems. Cannibalistic acts of children sacrifice, which were committed by primeval people in desperate situations of mortal famine, inverted the usual behaviour of hunter-gatherers, when adults searching for food for their children sacrificed their own lives struggling with wild animals and bloodthirsty neighbors. The filial cannibalism ‘flipping faith into trickery’ (Willerslev, 2013: 151) could not be the prime phenomenon of social organization, because sustainable life requires valid premises. Therefore others-sacrifice has as opposition self-sacrifice:

1) When hunter-gatherers drew on their own strength they sacrificed themselves for the sake of children and other members of their community. This is why Son of Man announced that the goal of His self-sacrifice was not for the sake of God, but for the sake of people: ‘And for their sakes I sanctify myself’ (John 17:19);

2) When primeval people were frustrated and lost faith in themselves, they sacrificed their off-springs for the sake of gods in full correspondence with the aphorism coined by Marx: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ Therefore religion, according to Marxist terminology, is one of the forms of ideology that is ‘false consciousness,’ which represents reality through its distortions.

The phenomena of others-sacrifice and self-sacrifice sanctify opposite types of behaviour:

1) Others-sacrifice, where the fate of the victim depends exclusively on the will of the sacrificer, provides the patterns of despotic treatment in different forms of communities from family to state. Self-sacrifice is the pattern of freedom: ‘And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’ (John 8:32);

2) Others-sacrifice assumes the formula do ut des (I give that you might give). This trading with gods sanctifies so called equivalent exchange (alienation and appropriation) between people. Self-sacrifice, that is, self-giving proclaims the abolition of alienation or, metaphorically speaking, the expulsion of merchants from the temple of sociality;

3) Others-sacrifice creates the antisocial patterns for egoistic (selfish) behaviour. Self-sacrifice creates the prosocial patterns for altruistic behaviour, which, using the expression coined by Auguste Comte, means ‘to live for others.’

In Latin ‘religio’ means ‘bond.’ Through self-sacrifice we establish bond with people and through others-sacrifice we establish bond with gods.[45] Which one is primal to maintain the society? There is a Russian proverb: ‘Trust in God, but do not stumble yourself’ (God helps those, who help themselves). From that not poisoned by transcendent opiates perspective others-sacrifice is not simply inverted, but perverted self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is, not by chance, the starting point of all three basic myth narratives: the fairy tale, the heroic myth, and the myth of self-sacrifice. That is without self-sacrifice, which is ‘the basis of all human institutions’ (Benda, 2011: 127), is impossible to bring others-sacrifice and catch booty. It is the prime phenomenon, which holds entire construction of every human community of past, present, and future. Without self-sacrifice humankind is doomed to extinction.

Among all religions there is an important exclusion. Christianity is a singular religion, which exhibits self-sacrifice. Yes, from the perspective of others-sacrifice it is possible to say that God the Father committed the sacrifice of his Son, because He did not stop the hangmen the same way as He held back the hand of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. But there is a principal difference between two paradigmatic sacrifices. Not only Isaac himself never expressed that he is ready to lay his life down, but no one was interested to know his opinion regarding his own fate. This is an obvious case of the familial despotism. The victim of others-sacrifice is always an object of violation.[46] Jesus really was an initiator and agent of sacrifice, because He laid down His life willingly: ‘No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father’ (John 10:18). ‘Commandment’ in that context means not the ‘order,’ but the ‘license’ to solve His fate in accordance with His own will. Therefore the sacrifice of Christ is a paradigm of self-sacrifice.

It is not surprising that Western civilization based on Christian values achieved the leading position in the World. Despite Christianity, as a religion, also distorts reality its self-sacrificing ‘engine’ ensures more effective everyday behaviour in comparison to unchristian societies. Self-sacrifice ‘by definition’ shapes realistic mental and practical patterns, that is, experimental relations with nature and theoretical reflection of those relations. It is not surprising that the first bursts of science, which is the driving force of industrial and information societies, appeared in the cradles of Eastern civilizations much earlier than in Europe, but only Europeans were able to establish that form of knowledge as a developed institution transforming it in a kind of terrestrial religion of entire Humankind. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argues that ‘magic is a pseudo-science.’ Rephrasing his dictum we can call science a true-magic. This ‘magic’ allowed Europeans to be the first who started disenchanting and mastering nature and society.

Nowadays the Western Civilization is in a deep crisis. Muslim, Indian, and Far East competitors are attacking from different directions. But they are able to do that only by using Western technologies and gradually transforming themselves in accordance to Western standards. Meanwhile the main reason of current Decline of the West is not the ‘westernization’ of competitors, but the process of ‘dewesternization’ of the West itself. I should point out that not the ‘abolition’ of religion is a trigger of the current degradation. The main reason of that desperate process is the total renouncement of self-sacrificing (altruistic) behaviour, which ‘in our type of culture … is understood to be deviant behavior’ (Weinstein, 2004: 55). Our longing for comfort, the egoistic state of spirit, which Jean-Luc Nancy (1991) defines as ‘unsacrificeable,’ erodes the mainstay of our civilization. To overcome that dangerous trend we firstly should reflect the current situation aiming to restore not the dead letter of religion, but the vital spirit of altruistic self-sacrifice.

Structural Concordances between Three Base Mythic Narratives and the Concepts of Marshall Mcluhan, Jan Assmann, Abraham Maslow, Georges Dumézil, and Fernand Braudel

The heuristic potential of academic concepts is often revealed through their conformity to the concepts of adjacent disciplines. The core of the guidance and control subsystem of behaviour consists of three base mythic narratives, which are careers, that is mediation tools, of memory, identity, and imagination. Let us search from the perspective of memory studies similarities between triple mythic narrative structure (the fairy tale, the heroic myth, and the myth of self-sacrifice) and the theory of media studies.

Siegfried J. Schmidt (2008: 197–198) differs ‘communication instruments (such as language and pictures)’ and ‘technological devices’ (such as oral, written, print, and electric media). Unfortunately, linguistic communication instruments including narratives are still not fully appreciated by researchers. Even the prophet of ‘electric Age of Information’ Marshall McLuhan (1994: 36) predominantly reduces media of information to their ‘technological devices’ or ‘conduits.’[47] Expounding his legendary concept: ‘The medium is the message,’ he structures those tools imitating Matryoshka (the Russian nesting doll): the content of electronic media is print, the content of print media is writing, the content of writing media is speech, and the content of speech is ‘an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal’ (McLuhan, 1994: 7–8).[48] In my opinion, McLuhan’s Matryoshka contains a confusion, because it homogenizes two kinds of media, which perform principally different functions: communication instruments (‘speech’ and ‘thought’) and technological devices (‘writing,’ ‘print,’ and ‘electricity’).

It is possible to define the main function of communication instruments (narrative is one of them) as ‘packaging of information’ and, respectively, of technological devices as preservation and transportation of ‘packs with information.’ The difference between these kinds of information media could be clarified through the analogy with means of transport. We can travel using different means: by foot, horses, motorcars, railways, planes, and so on. Of course, our choice of transport would affect time and expenses, but anyhow we can reach a destination. We can make a similar choice for delivering our messages packaged by communication instruments; in that case the choice of technological devices would also affect time and expenses for their delivering.[49] Therefore, as an example, the communication instrument ‘speech,’ which the Canadian media-guru negligently jointed to the sample of technological devices,[50] could be delivered in the forms of oral speech, written speech, printed speech, and speech aired by radio, television, and other electronic media.[51] In accordance with that the main motto coined by McLuhan should be rephrased: communication instruments are the messages of technological devices.

Discussing McLuhan’s concept we did not divert from the issue of memory narratives because one of the main functions of technological devices is preservation of messages of communication instruments or ‘linguistic codifications of experience’ (McLuhan, 1994: 140). They act as ‘a store of perception and as a transmitter of the perceptions and experience of one person or of one generation to another’ (McLuhan, 1994: 139, italics added).[52] Every technological medium of information has its own memory ‘store’: oral—folklore, written—archive, print—library, electronic—audio and video collections. The internet is not simply the main ‘conduit’ of electronic media, it becomes a ‘single medium’ (Kittler 1997: 31) of the global information civilization, embracing all existed depositories of information. Totality of media stores constitutes the cultural heritage. Therefore different kinds of memory narratives serve as media between people and their heritage. In this sense, ‘the medium is the memory’ (Erll, 2011a: 115).

McLuhan points out that every type of technological devices creates the framework of communication for different historical epochs: oral media for limited archaic communities, writing media for elites of Antiquity and Medieval Age, print media for all citizens of Modern nation-states[53] and electronic media for the cosmopolitan residents of the ‘global village.’ That proves the existence of interdependence between those types of technological devices of information media and three base mythic narratives of memory, identity, and imagination: the message of oral media is the fairy tale, the message of writing and print media is the heroic myth, and the message of electronic media is the myth of self-sacrifice. Looking at narrative[54] as a mediation tool transforms it into an important subject of media studies. That approach creates common ground for interdisciplinary memory-media research.[55] 

Concept of three base mythic narratives as media tools also correlates with concepts of memory studies (Jan Assmann), psychology (Abraham Maslow), sociology (Georges Dumezil), and history (Fernand Braudel).

In the function of media three base mythic narratives are related to Jan Assmann’s (2010b: 122) communicative (social), political, and cultural forms of collective memory. From that perspective the fairy tale is a ‘carrier’ of the communicative (social) memory and subsequently the heroic myth and the myth of self-sacrifice are ‘carriers’ of the political and cultural memories.

Three base mythic narratives are also congruent with some levels of the so-called Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of personal needs (Rouse, 2004) and the elements of the Georges Dumezil’s (1958) social ‘Indo-European triad’:

1) Maslow’s material (physiological) needs/ the fairy tale/ Dumézil’s ‘laborers’;

2) Maslow’s security need/ the heroic myth/ Dumézil’s ‘warriors’;

3) Maslow’s need for self-actualization/[56] the myth of self-sacrifice/ Dumézil’s ‘priests.’

We can notice the conformity of the three triads. In all those cases, the base mythic narratives are mediation tools between personal needs and social functions. Just as personal needs coexist within the structure of individual consciousness and social functions coexist in the structure of society, the coexistence of narratives of the fairy tale, the heroic myth, and the myth of self-sacrifice involves interactions of family, nation, and humankind frameworks[57] of memory, identity, and imagination in our souls as well as in the social space.

McLuhan’s Matryoshka-like model of interdependence of information media technological devices is fully applicable to narrative structure: the content of specific narrative is the schematic narrative template and the content of schematic narrative template is the base mythic narrative.

The concept of base mythic narrative allows to embrace the universe of ‘narrativity’ in its full plenitude, starting from the volatile surface of specific narratives through schematic narrative templates to inert deep structure of base mythic narratives. That three-leveled typology corresponds to triadic temporal model of Fernand Braudel:

1) Specific narrative/ event;

2) Schematic narrative template/ cyclical phase (conjuncture);

3) Base mythic narrative/ the longue durée (structure).

From the perspective of the longue durée we can distinguish historical epochs based on the domination of one of those three co-existing base mythic narratives[58]:

1) In the pre-state hunter-gathering society it was the fairy tale;

2) In the state agrarian and industrial societies it is the heroic myth;

3) In the post-state information society it will be the myth of self-sacrifice.


[1] Karl K. Szpunar and Kathleen B. McDermott (2007) discuss a few cases of neurological research regarding amnesic patients’ ability to ‘form mental images of novel experiences that might take place in the future in a familiar setting, such as a possible event in their lives over the next weekend. These patients were markedly impaired in their ability to do this—their mental images were vague and highly fragmented when compared to those reported by a control group of people of the same average age and level of education but without amnesia.’

[2]Cf. ‘When it considers its own past, the group feels strongly that it has remained the same and becomes conscious of its identity through time’ (Halbwachs, 1980: 85, italics added).

[3] Cf. Ritual ‘mend[s] ever again worlds forever breaking apart under the blows of usage,’ and ritual ‘does more than remind individuals of an underlying order. It establishes that order’ (Rappoport, 1979: 197, 206).

[4] Cf. ‘To share an identity with other people is to feel in solidarity with them’ (Hollinger 2006: 23).

[5] Cf. ‘The ever-improvingknowledge of the past should throw light upon and open up the chancesfor future development’ (Straub, 2008: 217); ‘[T]he rationality of our actions gives some indication of the adequacy of our insight into the past (Ankersmit, 1983: 35).

[6] See a detailed review of different academic approaches to that problem (Erll, 2011a: 38–45).

[7] Julien Benda (2011: 72) writes about the ‘clerks’, he means ‘the poets, the novelists, the dramatists, the artists,’ who invested themselves ‘at the service of political passions’ and contributed a lot in waging the First World War. He points out: ‘But there are other “clerks” in whom this derogation from the disinterested activity of the mind is far more shocking, “clerks” whose influence on the laymen is much more profound by reason of the prestige attached to their functions. I mean the historians.’ Paul Connerton (1989: 16) writes about ‘the great German scholars’ of nineteenth and the first half of twentieth centuries Niebuhr and Savigny, Ranke and Mommsen, Troeltsch and Meinecke, whose historical activities are ‘part of the history of nationalism’: ‘They rejected any form of political universalism … Constructing a canon of historical research, they are at the same time participating in the formation of a political identity and giving shape to the memory of a particular culture.’

[8] Cf. ‘Scholars should be able to demonstrate how to break out of the cage of collective identity’ (Erll, 2020: 555).

[9] Cf. ‘The historian certainly means to be objective and impartial’ (Halbwachs, 1980: 83).

[10] Cf. ‘Historians do not always live up to their own standards and retain biases, but these standards nonetheless remain at the core of historians’ aspirations’ (Wertsch, 2021: 93).

[11] Cf. ‘Collective memory, is essentially a reconstruction of the past that adapts the image of historical facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present, where the knowledge of [historical facts] originally was secondary’ (Halbwachs, 1941: 9); ‘Collective memories always are biased in presenting the group’s past in a more positive light and dismissing those memories that do not serve the present goals of the group’ (Isurin, 2022: 94).

[12] Cf. ‘Where history is concerned, memory increasingly functions as antonym rather than synonym; contrary rather than complement and replacement rather than supplement’ (Klein, 2000: 128f.).

[13] Cf. an opposite opinion: [W]e cannot allow any … reflection to induce us to put the truth aside in favour of what are supposed to be national interests’ (Freud, 1939: 11)

[14] Cf. regarding another mental substance tightly connected to memory: ‘[T]he content of the unconscious is collective anyhow, a general possession of mankind’ (Freud, 1939: 212).

[15] Cf. ‘What miraculous procedure is responsible for the transformation, which takes place by the mere transition from a single individual to a group of individuals?’ (Gedi and Elam 1996: 38).

[16]Cf. ‘Major plotlines … help us “string” past events in our minds, thereby providing them with historical meaning’ (Zerubavel, 2003: 13); ‘Voices of individual experience are “co-authored” by the narrative tools provided by a community’ (Wertsch, 2021: 198).

[17]Cf. ‘Over time, individual distinct memories can become shared collective memories (Isurin, 2022: 34). Orlando Figes (2007: 636) points out that Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago not only became the collective narrative for other survivors, but it was so strongly internalized by them that even erased their real experience: ‘The victims of repression frequently lacked a clear conceptual grasp of their own experience, having no structural framework or understanding of the political context in which to make sense of their memories. This gap reinforced their inclination to substitute … coherent and clear memories [of Solzhenitsyn and other writers] for their own confused and fragmentary recollections.’

[18] Cf. ‘The memories “liberated” in narrative psychotherapy (or other social contexts) are embedded into an autobiographical narrative, which follows a broadly standardized scheme. This example makes it obvious to whatextent even the most intimate recollections and personal memories are constituted and encoded culturally’ (Straub, 2008: 225).

[19] Cf. ‘One may say that the individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but one may also affirm that the memory of the group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories’ (Halbwachs, 1992: 40); ‘In combination, these two reinforce one another: each individual story helps to shape a larger history by providing it with detail, depth, and nuance, and, in turn, each story is enhanced and given broader meaning through its contextualization within a larger historical matrix’ (Hirsch and Spitzer, 2015, 18).

[20] Cf. ‘Where, in any account of reality, narrativity is present, we can be sure that morality or a moralizing impulse is present too’ (White, 1987: 24).

[21] Cf. ‘Myth was their [Ancient Greeks] great teacher in all matters of the spirit. There they learned morality and conduct’ (Finley, 1965: 284); ‘[M]yths present a model or charter for human behaviour and that the world of myth provides guidance for crucial elements in human existence — war and peace, life and death, truth and falsehood, good and evil’ (Bolle, Buxton, and Smith, 2020).

[22]Cf. ‘Collective memory’ is ‘a misleading new name for the old familiar “myth” which can be identified, in its turn, with “collective” or “social” stereotypes’ (Gedi and Elam, 1996: 47).

[23] Discussing mythic core of memory we should not forget that ritual is inextricably tied to myth. Paul Connerton (1989: 78) calls ritual ceremonies ‘mnemonics of the body,’ therefore we can call mythic narratives ‘mnemonics of the mind.’ That means there are two kinds of memory: narrated ‘mythic’ memory and performed ‘ritualistic’ ones (Rappaport, 1979: 175). Connerton (1989) and Jan Assmann (2011) argue that function of ritual is shaping of collective identity, without which community is broken. Hence identity, which is an idea/value/belief of group belongingness ‘permeated by emotions’ (Davies 2018: 55), is based on ritual memory. Of course myth and ritual are not ‘one and the same’ (Leach, 1970: 13), but they are corporeal (non-discursive numinous experience) and mental (discursive meaning of sacred) sides (Rappaport, 1979: 217) of the same process of consolidation of mnemonic community. At least in the field of commemoration both phenomena are ‘counterparts’: ‘myth implies ritual, ritual implies myth’ (Leach, 1970: 13). That means identity-ritual is performed myth of memory and conversely memory-myth is narrated ritual of identity.

[24] Cf. ‘[P]rimary framework allows its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms’ (Goffman, 1980: 21).

[25] Cf. ‘A complete scheme of rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation)’ (van Gennep, 1960: 11).

[26] Campbell highlights that the author of the term is James Joyce (1939: 581).

[27] Vladimir Propp (1968: 90, 100) points out, that fairy tales are myths, which lost their sacral nature. Therefore, the ancient myths, which at a later stage degenerated to the fairy tales, allow us to view them as the myths of booty.

[28]Prince Kropotkin (2021: 178) tightly connects ethics with solidarity (‘mutual-aid’) and altruism: ‘The ethical progress of our race, viewed in its broad lines, appears as a gradual extension of the mutual-aid principles from the tribe to always larger and larger agglomerations, so as to finally embrace one day the whole of mankind, without respect to its diverse creeds, languages, and races.’

[29]For instance, the Sphinx strangled and devoured anyone who could not answer her riddle. After having heard Oedipus’ right answer the Sphinx killed herself by throwing herself from her high rock into the sea.

[30]In that point the basic plot is bifurcated between ‘forza (force), plots of the body, and forda (fraud), plots of the mind’ (Tobias, 2012: 34). Arnold van Gennep (1960: 17–18, italics added) notices that between neighboring tribes and ancient states there were so called ‘marches’/’marques’, unpopulated sacral zones ‘deserts, marshes, and most frequently virgin forests’, which ‘were used for market places or battlefields.’ Hence they were topoi of fraud or force that is culminating points of fairy tale’s plot.

[31] The Aby Warburg’s vague insights: ‘The struggle with the monster as the germ of logical construction’; ‘The dialectic of the monster as the foundation of a sociological theory of energy’; ‘From the monstrous complex to the ordering symbol’ (as cited in Gombrich, 1970: 261–262), should be thoroughly reflected, because in my opinion they point out the crucial role that narratives of fairy tale and heroic myth play in our minds.

[32] What does the author of Decline of the West assume under, using his organicist terminology, a ‘seed’ of every ‘matured society’? On different pages of his opus magnum it means different phenomena: ‘culture,’ ‘style,’ and ‘arts’ (Spengler, 1927: 105, 205, 281), but each of them is too complex to be considered as a ‘seed’ of the ‘societal plant.’

[33] Cf. ‘The utmost barbarism had happened in the nation that had previously grounded its identity on Kultur. … The triumphant notion of a German Kulturnation was replaced by the traumatizing disclosure of the Holocaust; the nation that gave birth to a prodigious Weltliteratur had procreated also the unspeakable and inconceivable horror of the extermination camps’ (Giesen, 2004: 120, italics as in original).

[34] Cf. ‘In some cultures parts of the bodies of defeated enemies have been eaten simply to degrade them and demonstrate the completeness of the victory’ (Ellwood, 2007: 73); ‘In some regions an intrusion on the part of a stranger, against the rules of intertribal law, and breaking through the normal dividing line, was dangerous to the intruder. He was liable to be killed or enslaved; at times he served as the piece de resistance in a cannibalrepast. In other words, the execution of such a trespasser was determined by tribal law, by the value of his corpse for the tribal kitchen, or of his head to the collection of a head-hunting specialist’ (Malinowski, 1948: 286).

[35] Cf. ‘Sometimes the victima were also victi, defeated enemies who … were now turned into slaves and doomed to be sacrificed to the Gods’ (Giesen, 2004: 59); ‘Where the positive form of human sacrifice exists there is, generally, an actual or symbolic eating of the sacrificial victim’ (Obeyesekere, 2005: 261).

[36] Cf. ‘The perpetrator, who dehumanizes other subjects, extending his control over the world into a realm that should be exempted from such treatment—the subjectivity of others’ (Giesen, 2004: 7).

[37] In accordance with a ‘formal definition’ of Neil Smelser (2004: 44, italics added) cultural trauma is ‘a memory accepted and publicly given credence by a relevant membership group and evoking an event or situation which is a) laden with negative affect, b) represented as indelible, and c) regarded as threatening a society’s existence or violating one or more of its fundamental cultural presuppositions.’ The case of primal trauma of booty, which still has not been accepted publicly, proves that a ‘formal definition’ of cultural trauma should be extended.

[38] Cf. ‘The forgotten material is not extinguished, only “repressed”; its traces are extant in the memory in their original freshness’ (Freud, 1939: 152).

[39] Cf. ‘Whenever recent events produce impressions or experiences which are so much like the repressed material that they have the power to awaken it. Thus the recent material gets strengthened by the latent energy of the repressed, and the repressed material produces its effect behind the recent material and with its help’ (Freud, 1939: 153).

[40] ‘The totem meal ceremony rites,’ as Kurt Caswell (2008: 175) explains, is ‘an ancient sacrificial ritual in which the members of a clan affirm their identification with their god.’

[41] Cf. the memoirs of Serge Moscovici, who got traditional Jewish education and unlike Freud was deeply upset by Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac: ‘It is difficult for me to express my fear and indignation when I thought about the little boy facing death. Did God have the right to order this sacrifice? I discussed this with my friend: it was a denial of justice, an abuse of a child by adults. So they can do with us what they want?’ (Moscovici, 1997: 50–51).

[42] Jan Assman (2018: 154) notices that Freud was not the ‘careful reader of the Bible.’

[43] The Brahmana, one of the Vedic books explains that an animal sacrifice is a substitute to human sacrifice: ‘The man is the sacrifice because it is the man who offers it. And each time he offers it, the sacrifice takes the shape of the man. Therefore the sacrifice is the man’ (SB;, as cited in Smith and Doniger, 1989: 198).

[44] Spengler, 1927: 105.

[45] Cf. ‘In the violent act of sacrifice … the trauma of killing a member of the community merges with the triumphant construction of a bond between community and deity’ (Giesen, 2004: 23, italics added).

[46] The priests of all religions try to convince that sacrifice is not a ritual killing because allegedly the victim ‘willingly sacrificed itself’ (Smith and Doniger, 1989: 210).

[47]Cf. ‘Type 1 regards media as conduits, or methods of transmitting information; and type 2 regards them as languages. … Media of type 1 include TV, radio, the Internet, the gramophone, the telephone—all distinct types of technologies—as well as cultural channels, such as books and newspapers. Media of type 2 would be language, sound, image’ (Ryan, 2006: 17, italics in the original).

[48] The statement regarding the ‘nonverbal’ nature of the ‘process of thought’ is an exaggeration, because in psychology exists the term ‘inner speech,’ which is defined as ‘verbal thinking’ (Alderson-Day and Fernyhough, 2015: 91).

[49] Erving Goffman (1980: 24) provides an example of the checkers practice, when players are able to render the same message, using different technological devices: ‘a move can equally well be made by voice, gesture, or the mails, or by physically shifting a checker by the fist, any combination of fingers, or the right elbow.

[50] It is remarkable that sometimes the author of Understanding Media feels that a communication instrument ‘speech’ is heterogeneous to technological devices and replaces it by more suitable expressions: ‘sound,’ ‘oral culture,’ ‘ear culture,’ ‘audile-tactile perception,’ and so on (McLuhan, 1994: 16, 27, 32, 45).

[51] Cf. ‘[Story] is independent of the techniques that bear it along. It may be transposed from one to another medium without losing its essential properties’ (Bremond, 1973: 12, as cited in Ryan, 2006: 3–4).

[52] Cf. ‘Media technologies allow for the dissemination, from a spatial point of view, and the storage, from a temporal point of view, of the contents of cultural memory’ (Erll, 2011a: 122).

[53] Cf. ‘The sacred scriptures of legalist scholarship were originally handwritten and accessible only to a devoted professional elite. Civil society’s public sphere, in contrast, presupposed printed texts that could be reproducedand spread at relatively low cost’ (Giesen, 2004: 102).

[54] Mary-Laure Ryan (2006: 15–16) points out that narrative tools are applicable not only to verbal messages but also to non-verbal (music, painting, architecture and so on).

[55] Cf. ‘Media construct and create, shape, and distort memories’ (Erll 2018: 309).

[56]That triadic perspective allows to present ‘love and belonging and esteem needs’ of Maslow’s needs hierarchy as a part of the self-actualization area. Cf. the other triadic reducing approach to Maslow’s needs hierarchy (Alderfer, 1972).

[57] Chiara De Cesare and Ann Rigney (2014: 20) call that interplay ‘multi-scalarity.’

[58] Cf. ‘Historical periods are defined not only by the events that occurred in them, but also by the dominant narratives that frame them’ (Pisanty, 2021: 190).

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