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1.1  Background of the Study

The title of this essay – Karl Popper on Myths and Traditions – was chosen to enable me evaluate the place of myths and traditions in the growth of knowledge and society. My interest in this topic stems from my own cultural background where myths and traditions which are seen as the people’s culture cannot be questioned or changed even in the face of contradicting realities of the present order in science and social engineering or as Simon Ottenberg puts it – “…the Afikpo people rely much on tradition, on an orientation to past events as precedent”.1

More specifically, this research topic was chosen to find, if possible, a middle point between myth and tradition as a source of background knowledge which if properly harnessed can lead to the discovery of new knowledge in the sciences as well as engender a better understanding of their places in social engineering. Thus, the topic will enable me argue, in line with Popper, that every tradition has a function and that to understand a tradition, we should have the tradition clearly before us and we have to understand in a general way what may be the function and significance of that tradition. We shall also argue that every tradition and myth should be subject to rational criticism.

Popper does not assume that man could ever free himself entirely from the bonds of tradition. But one can free oneself from the taboos of tradition. This freeing according to him can be done not only by rejecting it but by critically accepting it. This critical acceptance for him forms the crucible upon which science and society will grow, creating new myths and new traditions. I shall align my arguments with Popper’s.

Following from the above, we shall stress the point that every society has its own story to tell about its people, culture, environment or religion. That the stories are in all cases weaved around space and time and told in different genres. And that no matter the category of the story, the intended effects is always geared towards the advancement of the people’s knowledge, assuage their curiosity, ensure order, and improve their living conditions. Levi-Strauss captured this point succinctly when he averred that “…each type of story belongs to a given group, a given family, a given lineage or to a given clan and is trying to explain its fate which can be a successful one or a disastrous one or intended to account for rights and privileges as they exist in the present or be attempting to validate claims for rights which have since disappeared”.2

There are a number of literary or narrative genres used in telling the story of a people or events. They include fable, folk tales, fairy tales, legends, sagas, and epics and etiologic tales. These categories put together are called myths. Cultures according to William R. Shea are defined at least in part by their common creation myths; stories that answer important questions about how things came to be and how meaning is to be found within the existing order.3 For Mircea Eleade, “our best chance of understanding the structure of mythical thought is to study cultures where myth is a living thing.4

Myth lives in all cultures of the world, whether developed or developing. People tell stories to entertain, educate and inform the people of its tradition and world views. These stories give answers to questions of creation and other natural phenomena of which no human being witnessed their beginnings. Such issues include the creation of man, the segmentation of the sky from the earth, life-after-death, the divisions of the seas and waters, relations between humans and animals, relations between God, man and gods, and relations between gods, humans and animals.

Myths are passed on from generation  to generation and according to W.B Kees in the New Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 24, they are specific accounts of gods  or superhuman beings involved in extra ordinary events or circumstances in a time that is unspecified but which is understood as existing apart from ordinary human experiences. For him, every myth presents itself as an authoritative, factual account and no matter how much the narrated event is at variance with natural law or ordinary sense experience, no attempt is made to justify it or render it plausible.5

In contradistinction to Kees position, myths were in facts attempts by the ancients to justify and render their curiosity plausible within their own cosmological matrix in space and time. Nicholas Corte defines myth as a representation of reality which though fantastic, claims to be accurate.6 Corte’s definition assumes that man met reality as a situation on ground and could not explain it scientifically so he (man) resorted to deduce some fantastic reasoning to assuage his curiosity and wonder. For Emeka Ekweru, myths are sacred historical narratives that are essentially bodies of traditional stories that seek to define man’s relationship with his natural environment both at the most elementary level and the sublime and philosophical levels. He describe them as something more than mere historical narratives; they are sacred history.7 William Bascom on the other hand, sees myth as prose narrative which in the society they are told are considered to be truthful account of what happened in the remote past.8 In his works, on oral tradition Isidore Okpewho arrived at the conclusion that myths give account of historical events which are facts but not always since some myths are fictitious stories. He asserts that the narrator based on his creative capability contributes a lot to the aesthetics of the story since it admits creativity.9

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