Tag Archives: mythology

The historical Jesus

13 BCE- 98 CE

The historical Jesus will be to our time a stranger and an enigma. The study of the Life of Jesus has had a curious history. It set out in quest of the historical Jesus, believing that when it had found Him it could bring him straight into our time as a Teacher and Savior. It loosed the bands by which He had been riveted for centuries to the stony rocks of ecclesiastical doctrine, and rejoiced to see life and movement coming into the figure once more, and the historical Jesus advancing, as it seemed to meet it. But He does not stay: He passes by our time and returns to His own … by the same historical inevitability by which the liberated pendulum returns to its original position. (Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus)

Taking stories of the past seriously is not the same as taking them literally, as we’ve already seen in the cases of Crater Lake and the Exodus. By the time Albert Schweitzer wrote the words above, scholars of the New Testament, working for more than a century, especially in Germany, had pieced together an account of Jesus and his message very much at variance with millennia-old Christian doctrine. It’s a testament to Schweitzer’s intellectual integrity that he – a believing Christian – followed the evidence where it took him. His general conclusions (although not all the details) are now very much the scholarly mainstream. Bart Ehrman summarizes in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium:

Jesus is best understood as a first-century Jewish apocalypticist. This is a shorthand way of saying that Jesus fully expected that the history of the world as we know it (well, as he knew it) was going to come to a screeching halt, that God was soon going to intervene in the affairs of this world, overthrow the forces of evil in a cosmic act of judgment, destroy huge masses of humanity, and abolish existing human political and religious institutions. All this would be a prelude to the arrival of a new order on earth, the Kingdom of God. Moreover, Jesus expected that this cataclysmic end of history would come in his own generation, at least during the lifetime of his disciples. It’s pretty shocking stuff, really. And the evidence that Jesus believed and taught it is fairly impressive.

The study of the past – by biologists, geologists, physicists, and philologists – had a disturbing effect on the intellectual equilibrium of a Christian society. No doubt it will go on disturbing us, Christian or not.

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The fall of Troy

1360-1176 BCE

Those who had dreamed that force, thanks to progress, belonged only to the past, have been able to see in the Iliad a historical document; those who know how to see force, today as yesterday, at the center of all human history, can find there the most beautiful, the purest of mirrors.

Simone Weil, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” 1940-1941

Some things we know (probably) about Late Bronze Age Trojans and Greeks.

  • Troy is represented by the archeological site of Hisarlik, in Turkey near the Dardanelles. It covered over fifty acres and probably had a population in the high thousands. The kingdom of Troy was a client state of the Hittites, known to them as Wilusa (Greek Ilion).
  • Troy was devastated around 1300 BCE, probably by an earthquake, and again, just after 1200 BCE, by fire. There are earlier episodes of destruction as well.
  • The Hittites knew a kingdom to their west called Ahhiyawa. The Ahhiyawans were the people known to Homer as the “Achaians,” i.e. the Greeks. The Egyptians knew a kingdom to their north, beyond Kefta (= Crete = Biblical Kaphthor), called Danaja, whose chief cities match those of Mycenaean Greece. The Danajans probably correspond to the “Danaans,” an alternative Homeric name for the Achaians. Ahhiyawa/Danaja may have been a single state, with vassals under the rule of a “King of Kings,” capitol Mycenae.
  • Homer probably composed the Iliad in the eighth century BCE (762 BCE, give or take 50 years, according to recent research applying evolutionary models to the text). But he relied on sources – presumably earlier oral poems – that went back centuries earlier. The names he gives for the Greeks were not current in his own time. Many lines of his epics only scan if he was drawing on poetic formulas from a Bronze Age dialect of Greek. The cities he lists among those who contributed to the war effort match the Bronze Age better than his own time. And he is familiar with Bronze Age helmets and shields that had long since gone out of use.

So the story of the Trojan war dates back to the Bronze Age, and incorporates real geography and material culture. Just how true the story itself is less certain. It has had an enormous influence of course. Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that England’s first king was a descendant of refugees from fallen Troy. Sultan Mehmet II claimed to be avenging the Trojans when he conquered Constantinople in 1453.

There a many books on the Trojan War (apart from the ones by Homer). Here are some good ones.

And a remark on war in the lives of ants and men.

Exodus

1628 BCE, and later.

There are two great stories in the Western tradition that stand somewhere between legend and history: The Flight from Egypt and the Trojan War. Both have been scholarly battlegrounds, dismissed as pure invention by some, accepted as at least partly historical by others. In the case of the exodus story, a great many archeologists nowadays are strong skeptics. Here I’ll summarize what I think is the best argument for the other side.

Barbara Sivertsen, in her book The Parting of the Sea, argues that the exodus story combines oral traditions arising from two different flights from Egypt. First, she suggests that some of the story reflects events around the time of a huge volcanic explosion, the largest in the last five thousand years, which destroyed most of the island of Thera (= Santorini) in 1628 BCE. Most of the Biblical plagues fit what would have been expected in northern Egypt at the time (and in the right time sequence). A tsunami reaching the Nile delta would have contaminated water, and caused fish to die off. Frogs would have been driven from the water. Caustic ash would have stung human skin (in later recountings, “stinging like gnats” was remembered as “stinging gnats”). Insects affected by ash would have sought shelter in people’s houses. Livestock outdoors would have died from breathing ash, and humans and livestock would have developed blisters. Eventually dust in the atmosphere would have precipitated hailstorms. The arrival of the heaviest part of the dust cloud would have shrouded the land in darkness. (Locusts, however, don’t fit the volcano story, and may be an embellishment or a coincidental plague.) All these developments would have precipitated a panicked flight from Egypt on the part of Israelites, led by Moses. (Lower Egypt at the time was ruled by charioteer Hyksos invaders.) According to the archeological evidence, the Wadi Tumilat, an oasis/caravanserai east of the Nile commonly identified as the Biblical Land of Goshen, is abandoned at this time and left uninhabited for centuries.

Other authors have suggested that the Thera eruption had some role in the exodus, but Sivertsen thinks there was also a later flight. In the mid-1400s, Egypt had a significant population of prisoners of war employed as slaves at Tell el-Da’ba, a naval base on the Mediterranean. In Sivertsen’s account, a wave of deaths of Egyptian children led Pharaoh Tuthmose III, frightened of the Israelite god, to expel a group of Israelite slaves. The pharaoh changed his mind, however, and sent an army in pursuit of the slaves along the northern shore of the Sinai. We know that in the mid-1400s, another volcanic eruption, on the Aegean island of Yalli, sent a tsunami around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This tsumani caught up with the Egyptian army, but missed Israelites camped further inland. The event was spectacular enough to be melded with the earlier exodus story.

A major reason for skepticism about the exodus story is that it has been very hard to find evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, which is when many accounts place the exodus. But if we follow Sivertsen in putting the first exodus much earlier, and allow that the “forty years” in the wilderness was really eighty years, then there is plenty of evidence for massive invasion and destruction of cities in Canaan in the mid 1500s, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Israelites could have been among the invaders of Canaan. Around 1550 BCE, the city of Jericho suffered an earthquake that knocked down some of the city walls. The city then burned to the ground, and was largely abandoned subsequently.

We saw earlier on Logarithmic History that oral history can preserve detailed memories of natural catastrophes for long periods of time. At the same time information about numbers and absolute dates mostly gets lost. It will be interesting to see how Sivertsen’s work holds up in the face of further discoveries.

In the beginning…

… specifically 4004 BCE, God created the heavens and the earth. At least that’s the conclusion of James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, in 1650. Ussher’s method – counting backward from the genealogies of Biblical characters – was quite precise. Others using the same method got very similar dates. Newton, for example, calculated 4000 BCE for Genesis 1:1. Kepler came up with 3992 BCE. And according to the current Jewish calendar, Anno Mundi (AM) 1 falls on 3761 BCE, 6 October, at sunset. However precision is not the same as accuracy. Ussher’s figure missed the correct date for the Big Bang by a factor of 2.4 million.

Traditional Indian thinkers got closer. According to the Law of Manu, different orders of beings have different natural time scales. For humans, the natural scale is given by the alternation between day and night. For the ancestors, one ancestral day-and-night equals one human month. For the gods, one divine day-and-night equals one human year. For Brahma, one Brahmanical day-and-night is a pair of kalpas, where a kalpa equals 1000 Great Ages (mahayugas) of the gods. A Great Age of the gods equals 12,000 divine years, which also equals four human Ages (of different lengths). A divine year equals 360 human years. So a kalpa comes to 4.32 billion (human) years,* very close to the true age of the Earth. A pair of kalpas misses the date for the Big Bang by a factor of just 1.6.

Further calculations show that a Great Age lasts 4.32 million years. We’re now most of the way through the present Great Age. At the beginning of a Great Age, Righteousness and Truth walk on four legs, but they have progressively fewer legs to stand on as the Great Age rolls along and everything goes to pot. So maybe the message is that the whole bipedalism thing hasn’t been such a great idea; we’ve got another 426,884 years (by one reckoning) of things going downhill until the next Great Age begins, and we return to quadrupedal righteousness.

Nonetheless, in honor of Ussher, from here on dates will be given as BCE / CE, rather than “years ago.”

* Or 30.24 billion dog years.

History became legend, legend became myth, 2 (Noah’s flood)

7.5-7.0 thousand years ago

We’ve already seen that the whole Mediterranean basin once dried out for hundreds of thousands of years, only to be flooded in the course of just a few years once its connection with the Atlantic was restored. This happened 5.3 million years ago. Strikingly, recent findings suggest that there may have been human ancestors in the area to watch it happen. There’s been a lot of interest (and some skepticism) about a report of biped footprints from Crete from this time interval. This would fit with some recent claims that very early human ancestors (just after the chimp/human split) might have lived in Europe. But all this is still very much up in the air, and in any case, if any human ancestors were around in the neighborhood, and survived the flood, they hadn’t reached the stage of passing on the story to the kids.

But a similar story, on a smaller scale, may have happened within the possible limits of human remembrance. At the end of the last Ice Age the Black Sea was a freshwater lake, cut off from the Mediterranean. The water level was lower in Black Sea than in Mediterranean, so this was a potentially unstable situation. According to some evidence, around 7,500 years ago the Mediterranean breached the Bosporus, and water poured in, raising sea levels at the rate of up to six inches a day, until the area of the Black Sea expanded by more than 50%. (However some researchers think the flooding was less dramatic.)

Of course just about any reader knows the famous story of Noah and the Flood. Many readers will also know that Noah’s story seems to be connected with an earlier Babylonian flood story. This is recounted, for example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh travels north from his hometown of Uruk seeking Utnapishtim, who survived the flood that drowned most of his neighbors. (Utnapishtim also tells Gilgamesh about a plant that will grant immortality. Gilgamesh secures the plant. Then a snake eats it. D’oh!)

It’s natural to speculate that the Black Sea flood inspired the Gilgamesh story. But flood stories are found through much of the world, so the story may be an amalgam. Another ingredient may be the story of Ziusudra, maybe a real early Sumerian king from about 2900 BCE who is recorded as surviving a major flood and getting washed into the Persian Gulf.

History became legend, legend became myth

7.8-7.5 thousand years ago

Here’s a Klamath Indian story, recorded in 1865 (much abbreviated here).

One time when the Chief of the Below World was on the earth he saw Loha, the daughter of the tribal chief. Loha was a beautiful maiden, tall and straight as the arrowwood. The Chief of the Below World saw her and fell in love with her. He told her of his love and asked her to return with him to his lodge inside the mountain. But Loha refused to go with him. The Chief of the Below World was very angry. He swore he would have revenge on the people of Loha, that he would destroy them with the Curse of Fire. Raging and thundering on the top of his mountain, he saw the face of the Chief of the Above World on the top of Mount Shasta. From their mountaintops the two spirit chiefs began a furious battle. Mountains shook and crumbled. Red-hot rocks as large as the hills hurtled through the skies. Burning ashes fell like rain. The Chief of the Below World spewed fire from his mouth. Like an ocean of flame it devoured the forests on the mountains and the valleys. The Curse of Fire reached the homes of the people. Fleeing in terror before it, they found refuge in Klamath Lake. [Eventually the Chief Below the World] was driven into his home [by the Chief above the World], and the mountain fell upon him. When the morning sun rose, the high mountain was gone. The mountain which the Chief Below the World had called his own no longer towered near Mount Shasta. For many years the rain fell in torrents and filled the great hole that was made when the mountain fell upon the Chief of the Below World. Now you understand why my people do not visit the lake. From father to son has come the warning “Do not look upon this place.”

Almost 7,700 years ago, a volcanic eruption destroyed most of what had been the towering Mount Mazama, leaving behind a 4,000 foot deep crater that became Oregon’s Crater Lake. The Klamath Indian story about the origin of the lake preserves a clear memory of this event, from long before the invention of writing.

craterlake

The story, and its connection with real geological events, is presented in When They Severed Earth From Sky. The book demonstrates in this and many other cases how myths and legends can preserve detailed information about the past. If you’re interested in how earlier generations remembered history and conceived of the past – a big topic on Logarithmic History – the book is strongly recommended. It’s intellectually worthy, setting forth general principles that govern the formation of legends, myths, and other oral history. And it’s also a fun read, casting new light on familiar figures like Prometheus (related to current Caucasian myths, and tied to volcanic Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus) and the Golden Calf.

And here’s an article on Aboriginal Australian memories of volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.

Mythopoeia

17.2-16.3 thousand years ago

Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.