T. S. Elliott begins his famous poem "The Wasteland" (1922) with an epigraph from the Satiricon of Petronius (first century CE):
I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar and when the boys said to her, "Sibyl, what do you want?" She replied, "I want to die." (The Satiricon 48:8)
For the rest of the story we must look to the Roman poet Ovid in his poem Metamorphoses (first century CE), collections of tales from classical and near eastern myth and legend. He tells a story about the famous Sibyl of Cumae (Greek colony on the eastern coast of Italy). The Sibyl, a prophetess who channeled the oracles of the God, was offered eternal, endless life by the Greek God Apollo if she would consent to sacrifice her virgin "modesty" and make love with Apollo. She pointed to a mound of sand and asked for "as many years of life as there were sand-grains in the pile." But she forgot to ask that for those years she would be perpetually young. Through 700 years of life she continued to shrink and fade away until the time would come some 300 years in the future that she, a tiny thing, consumed by age, would shrink to a feather's weight—and at the end she would only be known by her voice (Metamorphoses xiv. 130-153).
Of course it is only a mythical account; the God Phoebus Apollo and the Sibyl did not actually have such a conversation or liaison, and the Sibyl did not live for 1000 years. Such mythical stories do not inform us about ancient history, although they may serve a didactic purpose. In this case the "moral" of the account is perhaps something like: be careful what you wish; for your wish may be granted. So we may benefit from mythical narratives as long as we do not insist on their historicity—that is, as long as we recognize them for what they are: made up stories. If we insist that a mythical account is really history, we confuse two very distinct types of narrative, and what is worse we mislead people about past history.
Much of the biblical narrative is mired in myth (stories about Gods in a time and place not recognizable as our own). For example, Mark's account of the baptism of Jesus by John (1:9-11) is mythical (viz. the heavens open up, Spirit descends on Jesus, and a voice from heaven: "my beloved son"). And so is the story about the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) of Jesus (his garments became glistening intensely white as no fuller on earth could bleach them; Jesus was joined on the mountain by the dead heroes of Jewish faith, Elijah and Moses; a voice comes out of a cloud overshadowing them: "my beloved son").
There are other definitions of myth, and no one definition satisfies all. Here are a few others:
Myth is "a story that interprets natural events in terms of the supernatural." "Myth is a means by which a people legitimizes a secular ideology by projecting social patterns onto the supernatural realm." "Myth is a narrative expression of an idea foundational to human existence which can be known, experienced, and appropriated repeatedly by means of recitation and ritual." Myth is "a traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the worldview of a people."
The early Greeks used the term in a neutral way as simply stories about the Gods; later, however, the stories about the Gods were recognized as fictional. Plato, for example, describes some stories from the past as true, but others are fictitious (ψεῦδος), and those in Homer and Hesiod in particular "taken as a whole are false (ψεῦδος), but there is truth in them also" (Republic, 377A). Hence Plato refers to myth (μύθος) as something not wholly lacking in truth, but for the most part [it is] fictional (J. A. Cuddon, Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 525). And for that reason in The Republic (Plato's description of the ideal state) Plato (5th/4th century BCE) virtually banned telling children the stories of Greek poets, like those in Homer and Hesiod and others who told "false" stories about the Gods. The reason is that such stories misrepresent the Gods (Republic 377A-383E), in spite of the little truth in them.
Is there harm, do you suppose, in telling children mythical Bible stories and letting them think they are historical narrative? I have in mind such stories as narratives portraying God ordering the complete annihilation of a people (the Amalikites: 1 Samuel 15:1-35), or a story that portrays God attempting to kill Moses, after sending him to tell Pharaoh to release the Israelites (Exodus 4:24-26), or a narrative about Baalam's talking ass (Numbers 22:15-35), or the sun standing still at Joshua's command while the Israelites took vengeance on their enemies (Joshua 10:12-14), or Jesus' bodily ascent into the clouds of heaven (Luke 24:36-42; Acts 1:6-11).
How do you suppose an average adult in the United States reads the stories in the Bible—as history or fiction?
[My thanks to Charles W. Hedrick, Jr. who put me into this blog]
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University