What is an Etiological Narrative? And Might Confusion About Its Nature Be the Source for Fundamentalist Religion?

An etiological narrative is a story that purports to explain (in mythic, religious, or literary terms) the origin of something. It is, in other words, an imaginitive story triggered by a question about how (or why) something came to be in the world.

  • Example: Why does a rainbow appear in the sky after it rains?
  • Etiological narrative response: After the Great Flood, God told Noah that he would not inundate the whole earth with water ever again, and the rainbow is the sign of God’s promise (see Genesis 9:12-17).

An etiological narrative offers a mythic explanation for the origin of something (as opposed to a historical or scientific explanation) and thus frees an individual or culture from defining something in strictly historical or scientific terms. In other words, an etiological narrative gives reign to poetry, dream states, imagination, and associative creativity. It is the language of origins liberated from the constraints of history and science:

  • It is Greece explaining itself to itself via Homer’s poetry (and prior to Herodotus’s historical writings).
  • It is the Israelites explaining to themselves the origins of the ruins of ancient Jericho three millenia prior to contemporary archeology.
  • It is the poet William Blake rhapsodizing the first tiger as having been forged, burnished, and hammered into existence by God’s own very rough and powerful hands, and wondering what that must have looked like to behold:

What the hammer? what the chain,

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp.

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears

And water’d heaven with their tears:

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

                              “The Tyger” (1794)

This is not the historical or scientific explanation of the tiger’s existence. This is the imaginative and associative explanation of the tiger. It is an etiological narrative of the tiger. Religious fundamentalism might thus be seen as deriving from a category mistake—in which mythic and poetic language is literalized and made to speak as science, history, or final Truth (with a capital “T”).

This is not to say that etiological narratives are always completely fanciful—with never a link to history or science of any kind whatsoever. It is only to say that etiological narratives, to the degee that they constitute a genre of communication, are first and foremost imaginative. To lay upon them the burden of having to be in accord with the formal disciplines of history and science is, therefore, to misidentify their primarily mytho-poetic purpose.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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8 Responses to What is an Etiological Narrative? And Might Confusion About Its Nature Be the Source for Fundamentalist Religion?

  1. Pingback: Genesis 4 | So long, and thanks for all the fish.

  2. reverendally says:

    Weirdly, I was thinking about etiological stories only this morning. As you do.
    Anyway, I have a question for you (since I couldn’t immediately think of anyone else to whom I might ask it): if the Adam/Eve story is an etiology for original sin (i.e. why humanity is not in perfect union with God and why we all seem to keep sinning all the time) as seems reasonable, then how much of the bit of Genesis before that is also an etiology? In other words, is the idea that God blessed creation and called it ‘very good’ simply an etiology for why, despite everything, the world can be an OK sort of place, full of beauty and wonder? In other words, is the blessing any less mythical than the curse, if you see what I mean. Apologies for not putting this any more coherently – I hope what I’m getting at isn’t too jumbled.

    • Anonymous says:

      To get to a reason-able answer to this question, we’d have to acknowledge that first, language evolved to denote tangible things, then by extension to denote the intangible. We have to recognize that early human cultures most likely personified or abstracted various natural forms and elements – sun, moon, storms, disease – as gods and goddesses. We then recognize that Judaic etiology repurposes elements of Sumerian etiology, albeit with a (r)evolutionary new God-concept, integrating many ‘aspects’ into a single presence/being/ground. And then we realize that Genesis smacks of oral stories that were transmitted by retelling for generations before more portable (than clay tablets) forms of written story were readily available.

      I decode the story of original sin as parable: it is humanity’s insistence on parsing phenomena into dualistic categories of ‘good/evil’ or ‘blessing/curse’ coupled with the human inclination to deny death and seek immortality that causes us to be out of union with God.

  3. Alex. Ihemekwala says:

    I should think etiology is only a vehicle with which how what exists as the Goodness of God and the weakness of man are explained.

  4. dickson says:


  5. Isilver says:

    I have this article helpful and i prefer anyone outside there to read beacause is understandable

  6. Michael CJ says:

    As a beginner in the field I understand Hume, Hegel and Heidegger as reifying, and this is what fundamentalists (of every ideology) are doing also.

    In what I call the “real” real world, all language is figurative, words allude, and when allusions intersect we can convey and receive meaning.

    Reason, opinions, findings, and what are provisionally facts, depend on effort of inference. This makes real knowledge (which contains lots of unresolved tentative paradoxes) firm as well as capable of further development.

    Vocal fundamentalists have dumbed down the meaning of the spiritual (which is about boundaries, dynamics, the value in which to hold each other) and cherry-pick their source materials to “suit”. This is tragic for morale, including – at an intuitive level – of those who haven’t followed the arguments.

    As Newtonian is a special yet true case of Einsteinian physics, so the excluded middle is a special case of the non-excluded middle.

    What you describe is very much part of the situation. Adam and Eve were as far back as could be remembered at a point in time.

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