The Rehabilitation of Myth: Enlightenment and Romanticism in Johann Gottfried Herder’s Vom Geist der Ebräischen Poesie


  • Liisa Steinby University of Turku



Johann Gottfried Herder, Hebrew poetry, mythology, religion, the Old Testament, Enlightenment, Romanticism


In literary, cultural and historical study of mythology, Johann Gottfried Herder is often portrayed as the bridge between the Enlightenment and the Romantic age. Myths for Herder were not only material for poetry, but the essential content of religion. Herder’s new understanding of myth and religion did not, however, signify a rejection of the Enlightenment principle of rationality. On the contrary, this understanding expanded and transformed his understanding of rationality. Herder regarded man’s mythopoetic activity as a genuine and natural form of man’s cognitive appropriation of the world. The personification of natural forces in the cultural creation of gods did not denote a return to irrationalism, but an extended form of rationality. According to Herder, the Bible had to be read as a human mythopoetic creation. The Old Testament, which depicts the special relation of God to His people, was in Herder’s Vom Geist der ebräischen Poesie (1782–1783) the result of a poetic worldview characteristic of nomadic societies. Herder did question the validity of the Old Testament as a true source of religion and its usefulness even for modern man. Mythology did not have to be rejected as untrue imagination. Old Testament monotheism could be related to Spinoza’s pantheism and the Law of Moses could be seen as a precursor of the modern constitutional tradition.