Mythology: The Tangled Web of History

History is not steady. New discoveries are constantly being made that challenge and disprove older discoveries, and so we are forced to admit that what we know as the truth might be different a few years from now. Ancient history is even harder to prove, since the cultures in ancient times were always trading with and conquering their neighbors, and a new culture evolved from these changes. One culture influences another, and over time it becomes difficult to discern which ideas are from which culture. Judaism and Christianity are not immune to these influences. Many of the stories that are considered Biblical stories do not have their roots in even the Hebrew faith, but in faiths more ancient or close to the Hebrews. These influences included Persian, Greek, Babylonian, Sumerian, and Egyptian philosophies, ideals, and stories. When one looks at each culture as a part of the whole culture of the world it becomes even clearer that no culture evolved independently in the Mesopotamian/ Mediterranean region, and because of this the cultures are very similar in their mythologies. Small details like what bird was sent out after the great flood, to King Saul and the hero Ajax both committing suicide by impaling themselves on their own sword show that many of the stories probably took place, and each culture has its own way of telling that story using its own heroes and villains.

Almost all, if not all, religions have some sort of a flood story. The Bible tells of a man named Noah who, with his family, took two of every animal and boarded an ark in order to survive 40 days and 40 nights of rain. When the rains stopped the ark came to rest on a mountain, and Noah sent out a dove, that brought back an olive branch to signify that the flood waters had lowered. The Greeks have a very similar story: The god Prometheus warned his son, Deucalion, that Zeus was planning to flood the world because of the evils of mankind (which we will talk about later). Deucalion built an ark, and he and his wife, Pyrrha, stayed in this ark while the world was flooded for 9 days and 9 nights, leaving only the mountain tops unflooded. Eventually their ark too came to rest on top of a mountain, and when the waters lowered they were able to go out and repopulate the world. Many other ancient cultures also have similar flood stories, including the Sumerians and Native Americans.

Another theme common to most world cultures is the root of evil, or original sin. The Greeks believed their gods decided that, although mankind was good and kind, it was living too long, so the gods created a woman named Pandora. Pandora was the most perfect woman who ever lived, but she had one flaw: her incredible curiosity. Before she left the realm of the gods she was given a box and told not to open it, or else bad things would happen. She obeyed for a while, but soon she became so curious that she just had to take a quick peek inside. As soon as she opened the lid of the box out swarmed all of mankind's plagues: lies, envy, deceit, scolding, despair, gossip, accusation, sickness, and old age, just to name a few. Since men were made of clay, they had little resistance to the plagues, and became evil. Zeus, the king of the gods, sent down a flood to kill off the humans and start over with humans made of stone (they were more resistant to the plagues). The Christian version is the garden of Eden, in which the serpent represents the plagues. At first there was only Adam and Eve, and they lived happily in a garden paradise. God told them not to eat the fruit from only one tree in the garden, but one day a serpent came and convinced them to eat the fruit from this tree. This angered God, and he banished them from the garden, and made their lives harder, since they now had to toil, get old, and have children. Every culture has its own version sin, and why men sin. Even though the stories are different they all say that men are flawed, and need to appeal to the God(s) in order to get that sin removed/overlooked.

Christianity teaches that God is omnipotent, and that men shouldn't aspire to be like God. In the land of Shinar the people decided that they would like to build a tower to Heaven so that they could be more like God. They gathered many people together, all working together to build the tower. God became angry at this, but instead of killing the people he made them speak in different languages so that they could not communicate with each other and finish the tower. This tower is now refered to as the tower of Babel.

During the battle between the Titans and the Gods a man named Nimrod built a tower of mountains so that the Titans could be higher than the Gods on Mount Olympus. For a while the tower worked, but the Gods soon were able to over power the Titans. They banished the Titans and Nimrod to Tartarus (the Greek version of Hell), and broke down Nimrod's mountain so that no one could be higher than the Gods on Olympus again. Aspiring to be like God(s) is a task that is impossible to reach. The God(s) will always find a way to stop you so that he (they) will always be the highest power in the known universe.

Even the mighty must fall. Achilles was one of the great Greek heroes of the Trojan war. When he was little his mother discovered that he would die in battle. She dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable. The only part of him that could be injured was his heel, where she had held him to dip him into the river. Years went by, and soon the vulnerable part of him was forgotten. During the Trojan war he was a fierce warrior, but he was killed when an arrow struck his vulnerable heel. To this day the term "Achilles Heel" refers to the vulnerable part of a person. The Goliath of the Hebrew religion too had his weakness. During the war with the Philistines a Hebrew boy by the name of David was chosen to face the Philistines' champion, Goliath. Even though Goliath appeared to be invincible David defeated him nonetheless. He took a slingshot and shot Goliath in the middle of his forehead, killing him with the blow. Achilles had his heel, and Goliath his forehead. They both had weaknesses that caused their downfall. Even the mighty can fall. Especially when they believe themselves to be invulnerable.

Many stories involve putting someone in a basket or box and setting the container in a river or a body of water, or simply exposing an unwanted infant to the elements. These outcasts lived, and became important to the people who had cast them out. These themes are very common in Greek mythology: Danae and Perseus were placed into a box and cast into the ocean. Perseus became a great hero, and slayed Medusa. Oedipus and Daphnus were exposed on mountain sides. Both became famous kings. The Bible says that the baby Moses was cast into the Nile to escape the death threat from the Pharaoh that all Hebrew baby boys suffered under at that time. He was found by the Pharaoh's daughter, and became a great leader to his people. The simple beginnings of these people did not matter, as they became important to the history of their people.

Sacrifice, although not a recognizable part of Christian practices today, was very common in early religions, including Judaism. It is a sign of faith in the deity(ies) of your culture, and the realization that they are better than you, so you should do as they ask. The Hebrew Abraham had only one son, and to test his faith God asked him to sacrifice his son. Abraham didn't want to, but since God had asked it he went out to do it. Just as he was about to kill his son an angel came down and stopped him, saying that he had proven his faith in God by being willing to sacrifice what he cared for most for God. The boy was replaced by a goat, which Abraham sacrificed instead. The Greek story is very similar: In order for the Greeks to make it to the Trojan War by sea Agamemnon needed to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon had angered the goddess Artemis by killing her favorite stag, and she would not forgive him until he had proven that he was sorry. He too was just about to kill his child when Artemis replaced the girl with a stag. Agamemnon had proven his loyalty to the gods, and they rewarded the Greeks with favorable winds, and they made it to Troy. Even though they didn't sacrifice their children, Agamemnon and Abraham proved their loyalty to their God(s) by their willingness to obey them. Two stories that ended with human sacrifice were the story of Jephthah's daughter and Idomenus' son. Both promised their God(s) that if they returned successfully from battle then they would send a burned offering of the first thing to come to their home to greet them when they returned. In both cases it was their oldest child. They did not want to go against their word, and the children were sacrificed to fulfill their promises. Jephthah and Idomenus proved their loyalties to their God(s) by actually sacrificing their children. Sacrifice was the ultimate proof of loyalty in the ancient world.

The Divine causing the birth of a mortal child by a mortal is not unknown to most cultures. The Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus the Christ. She was a Virgin, so it is acknowledged that it was God who infused her with the Holy Spirit to have her give birth to a Holy Child. Greek mythology also had its share of Divine children: Perseus, when his mother was visited by Zeus in the form of a golden shower that landed in her lap, Helen and Polyduces, whose mother, Leda, was visited by Zeus as a swan, and Heracles, to name just a few. They were all children with a Holy or Divine parent, and became great because of the special privileges that this parentage gave them.

According to most early religions, man was created by a deity, and was slightly more important than the animals. Prometheus made man out of clay, and breathed life into them. Prometheus, whose name means "foresight", saw the need for intelligence in man, for without it, the creatures that he had just created would be destroyed by the creatures that his brother Epimetheus (hindsight) had made. Epimetheus' creatures had sharp teeth and warm fur. Mankind, having none of these things, used the wisdom that Prometheus had given them to make equivalents, and in time became dominant over the animals. Christians too believe that man was created by a divine being. God made man in his own image to rule over the animals. Again, man is dominant over the beasts of the world. They were wise, but not as wise as God, for that would lead to trouble. This did not matter, however, as the world was a paradise, and until man was tempted by an evil force it stayed happy and carefree. As soon as man disobeyed God humans had to do things for themselves using the tools that God had granted them. In this way man was dependent on God, and needed to thank him for all of the gifts that were given. Although the Greeks did not really worship Prometheus, they did still worship their gods for being intelligent enough to give them what they would need to survive. Men need to be submissive to their God(s) so that he (they) don't get angry and destroy mankind. Men have the wisdom to do this, but it is up to each person to see this small wisdom for him or herself.

Very rarely does a culture evolve independently. It gets influenced and changed by the cultures around it, and in turn changes those other cultures. Because of this there are very few stories that are common to only one culture, and it is very rare to be able to tell exactly where a particular story came from. Christianity is one such culture that has borrowed from the cultures that evolved before it and at the same time. It, like most other cultures, is a hodgepodge of ideas and philosophies, and is just an evolved form of the cultures that came before it. This is important to note, since it makes us realize that we cannot be religiocentric. Christianity may have shaped the course of Western civilization, but it was shaped by other cultures, many of which were not Western. "No man is an island", and neither is any culture.

Bibliography
Books:

  • D'aulaire, Edgar Parin. and D'aulaire, Ingri. Book of Greek Myths. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962.
  • The Children's Bible. New York: Western Publishing Company, 1965.
  • Rose, H. J.. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1959
  • Zimmerman, J. E.. Dictionary of Classical Mythology. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964.

    Web Page:

  • Bob Fisher and Thomas Bulfinch, Bulfinch's Mythology. 1998. http://www.webcom.com/shownet/medea/bulfinch/welcome.html (18 October, 1998)


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