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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Myth, History, Human Nature, And Great Storytelling–Exodus And Other Tales

The Book of Exodus is a rip-roaring story.  A hard-hearted Pharaoh, a violent, angry, and implacably determined God, the visitation of ten horrific plagues, and the final liberation of the Israelites and their miraculous parting of the Red Sea, is a tale worthy of the greatest religious myths in history.  

The Ramayana, written between 800 BC and 600 BC tells of the battle between the Hindu god Rama and his arch-enemy Ravena, an epic struggle between good and evil.  It like the Bible provides the mythical foundation for Hinduism; and within its classic tale of military might and heroic struggle, and within the overall context of the triumph of the righteous, it contains important moral lessons.  Rama is given help by the supreme god, Brahma and the god Indra to defeat Ravena and his forces of darkness.
Still the dubious battle lasted, until Rama in his ire
Wielded BRAHMA'S deathful weapon flaming with celestial fire!
Weapon which the Saint Agastya had unto the hero given,
Winged as lightning dart of INDRA, fatal as the bolt of heaven,
Wrapped in smoke and flaming flashes, speeding from the circled bow,
Pierced the iron heart of Ravan, lain the lifeless hero low,
And a cry of pain and terror from the Raksha ranks arose,
And a shout from joying Vanars as they smote their fleeing foes!
Heavenly flowers in rain descended on the red and gory plain,
And from unseen harps and timbrels rose a soft celestial strain,
And the ocean heaved in gladness, brighter shone the sunlit sky,
Soft and cool the gentle zephyrs through the forest murmured by,
Sweetest scent and fragrant odours wafted from celestial trees,
Fell upon the earth and ocean, rode upon the laden breeze!
Voice of blessing from the bright sky fell on Raghu's valiant son,--
"Champion of the true and righteous! now thy noble task is done!" (Book X, Chapter 11)
Image result for images ramayana

The Epic of Gilgamesh written in 2000 BC and considered the first great epic poem, is also a tale of man and the gods, struggles between good and evil, heroic episodes and raw exhibitions of power, and like the Ramayana and the Bible, complete with moral lessons. The epic of Gilgamesh and the Hebrew Bible has strikingly similar themes and narration throughout their respective storyline. Perhaps the best-known example is flood story:
With the first light of dawn a black cloud came from the horizon; it thundered within where Adad, lord of the storm was riding. In front over hill and plain Shullat and Hanish, heralds of the storm, led on. Then the gods of the abyss rose up; Nergal pulled out the dams of the nether waters, Ninurta the war-lord threw down the dykes, and the seven judges of hell, the Annunaki, raised their torches, lighting the land with their livid flame.
A stupor of despair went up to heaven when the god of the storm turned daylight to darkness, when he smashed the land like a cup. One whole day the tempest raged, gathering fury as .it went, it poured over the people like the tides of battle; a imam could not see his brother nor the people be seen from heaven. Even the gods were terrified at the flood, they fled to the highest heaven, the firmament of Ann; they crouched against the walls, cowering like curs.
Then Ishtar the sweet-voiced Queen of Heaven cried out like a woman in travail: "Alas the days -of old are turned to dust because I commanded evil; why did I command thus evil in the council of all the gods? I commanded wars to destroy the people, but are they not my people, for I brought them forth? Now like the spawn of fish they float in the ocean." The great gods of heaven and of hell wept, they covered their mouths.
Image result for images gilgamesh epic

Similarities between Mesopotamian myths (The Epic of Enuma Elish) and the Hebrew Bible are striking.
Genesis 1:5-7: And God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water’.  And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was.
Enuma Elish: He (Marduk) sliced her (Tiamat) in half like a fish for drying: Half of her he put up to a roof the sky, drew a bolt across and made a guard hold it.  Her waters he arranged so they could not escape.
The Akkadian myth of Sargon II parallels the birth story of Moses:
I am Sargon, the powerful king, the king of Akkad. My mother was an Enitu priestees, I did not know any father . . . . My mother conceived me and bore me in secret. She put me in a little box made of reeds, sealing its lid with pitch. She put me in the river. . . . The river carried me away and brought me to Akki the drawer of water. Akki the drawer of water adopted me and brought me up as his son. . .
Image result for Sargon of Akkad Mesopotamia

he creation and writing of these stories reflected the confluence of history, myth, and human nature.  The story of Exodus, for example, is not recorded history, although some archeologists and linguists have found evidence which suggests to them that at least the essential story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt may be based on fact.
These specific place names recorded in the Biblical text demonstrate that the memory of the Biblical authors for these traditions predates Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period. This supports a 13th-century Exodus during the Ramesside Period because it is only during the Ramesside Period that the place names Pi-Ramesse, Pi-Atum and (Pa-)Tjuf (Red Sea or Reed Sea) are all in use.
During their excavations, the University of Chicago uncovered a house and part of another house belonging to the workers who were given the task of demolishing the {Egyptian) temple. The plan of the complete house is the same as that of the four-room house characteristic of Israelite dwellings during the Iron Age. However, unlike the Israelite models that were usually constructed of stone, the Theban house was made of wattle and daub. It is significant that this house was built in Egypt at the same time that Israelites were constructing four-room houses in Canaan. The similarities between the two have caused some to speculate that the builders of the Theban house were either proto-Israelites or a group closely related to the Israelites.
A third piece of evidence for the Exodus is the Onomasticon Amenope. The Onomasticon Amenope is a list of categorized words from Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period. Written in hieratic, the papyrus includes the Semitic place name b-r-k.t, which refers to the Lakes of Pithom. Even in Egyptian sources, the Semitic name for the Lakes of Pithom was used instead of the original Egyptian name. It is likely that a Semitic-speaking population lived in the region long enough that their name eventually supplanted the original (Biblical Archeological Society (3.28.18).
Ancient Hebrews and writers of the Old Testament never doubted a historical Jewish presence in Egypt and an eventual residence in Canaan; and created an elaborate myth to fill in the blanks - to describe both life in Egypt under the Pharaohs, the exodus, and the military march to Canaan.  While many Jews and Christians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible – that everything recorded in it is fact and received wisdom – most others understand the story of Exodus at most as extended metaphor and at least a myth.  If the Bible is derived from a well-known mythological tradition, then it must itself be myth.

The best compromise between the two positions is that of ‘derivative overlay’.  That is, while the story may be similar to older or consonant myths and in fact may be derived from them, its particularity is what counts.  The Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible is not Brahma, Gilgamesh, Zeus, or Apollo; but a unique god with a particular consistent cosmology and vision.

A more fundamental question is why are Creation myths and myths of religious evolution so strikingly similar?  The essence of Hindu cosmology is the endless cycle of creation and destruction; and the Hebrew Bible is no different.  Yahweh created the world, was unhappy with its outcome, and repeatedly destroyed it, yet giving humanity the possibility of reform.  Siva’s dance symbolizes the cosmic cycle of creation and destruction.

The Hindu Creation Myth is very similar to Genesis:
There was neither non-existence or existence.  There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond. There was neither death nor immortality.  There was no distinguishing sign of day or night.  That One breathed by its own impulse. Other than hat, there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning.  With no disti8nguishing signs, and this was water.  The life force was covered with emptiness.  That One arose with the power of heat.
The answer to this remarkable similarity of myth was perhaps explained best by Carl Jung’s theory of ‘mythical archetypes’.  Archetypes, he suggested, were inborn tendencies that play a role in influencing human behavior. Archetypes are inborn tendencies that play a role in influencing human behavior. The collective unconscious, Jung believed, was where these archetypes exist. He believed that these models are innate, universal, and hereditary. Archetypes are unlearned and function to organize how we experience the world.

Image result for images carl jung

Stated another way, these collective archetypes – myths – help us make sense of the world.  Because the world has always been perplexing, seemingly irrational, and purposeless, a consistent mythological structure is the necessary template to keep us from emotional and intellectual chaos and despair.  It was not surprising to Jung, therefore, that the same myths keep recurring, changing according to time and place but essentially the same algorithmic paradigms that have always existed.

Even more fundamental to the story of religious myth-making is human nature itself.  There is something compelling about a good story, hyperbole, and exaggeration filled with heroes and villains, good and evil, powers and superpowers.  Aside from the nature of the the myth itself, the stories are remarkably similar.  It is one thing for archetypal myths to frame a cosmology and offer answers to unanswerable questions; another thing for all the stories written to illustrate and narrate the myth to be so similar.

Yet human beings have told each other wild, heroic, unbelievable stories since the beginnings of language.  Stories that enliven, suspend the reality of Hobbes’ short, brutish, and lonely lives.  Stories that give humanity, regardless of the size or importance of community, some greatness.  Whether ancient mythology or modern superheroes, the story is the same.

The writers of Exodus, the Ramayana, and the epics of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish all had the same very human purpose – to inspire, to excite, and to elevate.

Exodus, then, is the result of the confluence of history, myth, psychology, and human nature.  The New Testament holds up to the same scrutiny.  Although written from a very different mythological perspective – no great battles, herculean fights between good and evil, it still retains most of the elements of powerful, inspirational myth, history, and great storytelling.

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