UNDERSTANDING PRE- BIBLICAL MYTHICAL STRUCTURE
The biblical Abraham, originally known as Abram was a native of Mesopotamia. This is a country located in a fertile crescent of alluvial plain between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Abram is identified with the Hebrew word áºbiram meaning "father (god) is exalted." Initially, the family of Terah, Abraham's father, lived at Ur, a city of Mesopotamia. The family migrated from Ur to Haran, situated on the Turkish-Syrian frontier.
Haran is historically important to Abraham for two reasons. He was given a divine call and received a divine promise. The call demanded of him to leave Haran and got to Canaan. Canaan became the land of promise to be possessed by his descendants, whose triple names are Jews, Hebrews and Israelites.
The descendants of Abraham constitute one nation among many primordial polytheistic nations divinely chosen to propagate monotheism. The propagation starts with the three chapters of Genesis which are set in pre-historic phase of human development. In reading the first three chapters of Genesis, one needs a background of the Ancient near East mythological structure. Being pre-historic means imagination played an important role in the composition. Albert Einstein wrote,"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all, we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there will ever be to know and understand.
In the introduction of propagating monotheism, the inspired biblical authors explored and borrowed ideas from the existing mythological structure in Mesopotamia and the Ugarit Tablets of Canaan. Imagination and myth are therefore like the inseparable Siamese twins. They coexist in compatibility. This article serves as an attempt to understand the meaning of myth.
Myth (Greek mythos) is defined in the Oxford. Dictionary as "a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena."
Mackenzie 1 makes the following pertinent remarks, "Myth in some form appear in almost every culture known to history and anthropology."
Professor Mbiti 2 writes, "Religious ideas are embodied in stories, myths and
Legends." In this threefold structure, "Traditional wisdom, experiences and history were passed through the word of mouthâ€¦â€¦..many religious ideas are found in these oral ways of communication and every African people have plenty of such stories and myths".
The Ancient Near East is the cradle of imagination, mythologizing, civilization and the origin of the two world religions, Judaism and Christianity.
Man's task of asking questions and searching for answers is an earnest endeavor to give meaning to his existence in the world. Man's existence never came by chance but is willed, planned and executed by a supernatural being, a mythical deity. Luijpen,3 calls this endeavor an attempt "to clear obstacles to insight."
The process of questioning and answering presupposes man's personal presence to a present reality, "This presence is called experience" 4 Merlean-Ponty uses the metaphor, "speaking word" 5 as a personal expression that gives meaning to reality. The following example is a good illustration of the point at issue.
Death is both a reality and an experience. The departure of mortals from this world is the greatest evil experienced by man .Since time immemorial, man has desired immortality. But death has remained man's lot. The following primeval mythology narrates man's profound aspiration for immortality in space and time.
The story concerning the Epic of Gilgamesh 6 revolves around inter- personal relationship between two intimate friends, Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The two men with semi-divine nature dare to attack and slaughter the "Bull of Heaven" that had been sent by goddess Ishtar and her father Anu to cause devastation in Uruk. The infuriated gods decisively agree that Enkidu must die. In a dream, Enkidu is taken captive to the Netherworld by a terrifying Angel of Death. In his dream, Enkidu dies.
Bereaved Gilgamesh mourns the demise of his companion, Enkidu. "He commissions a funerary statue and provides valuable grave gifts from his treasury to ensure a favorable reception in the realm of the dead. A great banquet is held where the treasures are ceremonially offered to the gods of the Netherworld." 7
In fear of death, Gilgamesh becomes a distressed itinerant and wanders through many threatening perils, of either life or death in search of the legendary utnapishtim ("the far away") in order to learn the secret of eternal life. Utnapishtim and his wife is a couple among the few survivors of the Great Flood. "Utnapishtim and his wife are the only humans to have been granted immortality by the gods." 8 The menacing journey landed him in the garden of paradise full of jewel-laden trees. Safely, Gilgamesh arrives at his destination and heaves a sigh of relief to meet Utnapishtim and his wife, the hero and heroine of the Great Flood. Contrary to his intent expectations, Utnapishtim denies Gilgamesh immortality and tells him to return back to Uruk. Notwithstanding, his precarious journey and efforts, Gilgamesh lost all the possibility of possessing immortality and eternal life.
In the primordial phase of history man finds himself a conscious subject in an inexplicable world. He ponders on the many wonders of the universe. Questions haunt his mind and in time he explores for answers in his faculty of imagination. Mackenzie lists 9 a number of such questions. Here are the perplexities of the primordial man. "The cosmic and human origins. The origin of human institutions. Man's quest for happiness and his success of failure to find it. The end of the world.Its particular interest lies in the relationship of nature with gods and with man."
Luijpen 10 offers a modern philosophical insight into the meaning of myth. He says with some borrowed ideas from Augustine Conte, "The stories of myths belong to the imaginary state, The first stage of development of the human mind. In this first stage, man connects the phenomena of nature with God, gods or spirits making use only of his imagination."
The faculty of imagination is the ability to form images, sensations and concepts that weave a story narrative. Fairy tales and folklores are good examples. Story narrative embodies a myth or legend that helps to provide explanation and give meaning to human experiences. The totality of man's experiences is focused on "how the universe and man came to exist." The existence of the universe and man is explained only by "creating" a supernatural reality. This reality consists of deities and demons that are responsible for the creation of the universe, man and equally answerable for the many evils that beset mortals respectively.
Myth portrays a hypothetical actual reality that is perceived only vaguely and darkly in the mind. Mackenzie 11 supports this argument in saying, "The mythic form is always symbolic of the reality which it apprehends obscurely and only through intuition. This reality is perceived and represented in the events and not in abstraction, and the event is portrayed in form of a story."
The story narrative actualizes that which is perceived in the imagination. Characters are created; speech is assigned to each character to convey the aspirations of man. Mackenzie 12 has this to say, "The reality which myth presents in symbolic form is the unknown transcendent reality which lies beyond observationâ€¦ but which is recognized as existing and operative; myth may represent it as personal beings, divine or demonic."
Augustine Comte was very critical of myths. He treated myths with contempt, and needless to say, he saw no meaning in them. Luijpen 13 quotes Augustine Comte saying, "Myths are unscientific old wives' tales which are told for lack of scientific explanation. Those tales belong to the phase of mankind's unscientific backwardness."
In his critique of Augustine Comte, Luijpen argues that myths were relevant in primitive societies and in particular to the people in the Ancient Near East. He asserts, 14 "Myths are no longer being interpreted solely as fictitious, fables, fabrications of the mind and illusions. Today we try to accept myths as they were understood in primitive societies and gradually we have begun to see that a standpoint is possible and necessary from which myths are true".
In assuming the standpoint of the primitive man, Luijpen asserts that myths are true. Mackenzie 15 agrees with Luijpen and quotes Miller Burrows to show that myths are true. He says, "Myth is a symbolic, approximate expression of truth which the human mind cannot perceive sharply and completely but only glimpse vaguelyâ€¦ Myth implies not falsehood, but truth; not primitive, naÃ¯ve, misunderstanding but an insight more profound than scientific explanations and logical analysis can ever achieve."Rudolf Bultmann, a German, biblical scholar offers insights into mythology which Luijpen 16 borrows to support his critique of Augustine Comte. He says that Bultmann rejection of myths, "starts from the standpoint that myths can be interpreted falsely, i.e., as true in the historical sense or the scientific sense."
Bultmann rejects the false interpretation of myths but asserts the proper intention or the truth of the myths. Luijpen quotes him saying, 17 "Myths do not at all intend to convey an historical or scientific truth. Myths intend to speak about the essence of man as existence: myths demand an existential interpretation." Luijpen adds his own terminology to the effect that myths "must be existentially interpreted."
On a further reflection, Bultmann holds that man can be an ingredient or element of history, nature or science. However in myths, man is neither an ingredient nor an element. For this reason therefore, Luijpen 18 quotes Bultmann saying, "The myths taken according to their own intention, are true. Myths intend to speak of man's authentic reality, to express his understanding of his existence, to give expression to the idea that it belongs to man's essence to recognize that the available world in which he lives does not have its ground and purpose in itself and that man is not his own master. Myths objectify the Transcendent as the world here. Contrary to their real intention, they represent the Transcendent as the spatially distant, with His own power rising above and exceeding human power."
The Ancient Near Eastern myths need to be understood with no prejudice in mind. Myths serve only one purpose, the understanding of human existence. God, gods, demons and angels are used "precisely to express the most profound dimension of man's existence." 19 The "name of the theme or the hero of which the myth speaks must be written with capital" 20 letter.
1. John L. Mackenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, University of Chicago, 1965 p 598.
2. Professor John Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, London, 1975-1981, P 26.
3. William A. Luijpen, Existential Phenomenology, Duquesne University, 1960-1969, p 20.
4. Luijpen , op.cit. p.21
5. Luijpen, op.cit. p. 21
6. Wikipedia a free encyclopedia, Epic of Gilgamesh, dated 12th July 2010, p.1-4
7. Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 7,p.1of 4
8. Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet p. 1 of 4
9. Mackenzie, op.cit. p.598
10. Luijpen, op.cit. p.360
11. Mackenzie , op.cit. p.598
12. Mackenzie , op.cit. p.598
13. Luijpen, op.cit.P.360-361
14. Luijpen .op.cit. p361
15. Mackenzie op.cit, p.599
16. Luijpen, op.cit. p.362-363
17. Luijpen ,op.cit.p. 363
18. Luijpen ,op.cit. p. 363
19. Luijpen, op.cit. p.363
20. Luijpen, op.cit. p.364