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.