Friday, June 26, 2015

The Sibyl’s Wish: A Mythical Encounter

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
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


Anonymous said...

"We cannot justly interpret the religion of any people, unless we are prepared to admit that we ourselves, as well as they, are liable to error in matters of faith; and that the convictions of others, however singular, may in several points have been well founded, while our own, however reasonable, may in some particulars be mistaken." from the beginning of "Athena Chalinitis," a lecture of John Ruskin in an old book I have called "Queen of the Air."

"Religions are the myths of the future; myths the religions of the past." Me, immediately after reading this. I like Dom Crossan's descriptor of myth (The Dark Interval) as story that "establishes world."

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Anonymous said...

For many years we passively but Noah replete with an ark and a great rainbow in children's Sunday School classes for a "Biblical" decoration. What is odd now when I look back on it is that we tried to make a story which, if taken literally, means that God became angry at people and killed billions of them along with nearly every animal on earth…. a genocide that would have made Hitler blush. And somehow we put such a horrible story into the minds of our pre-school aged children as being somehow "cute" with animals lining up two by two. Do such stories prepare us to be adults who accept wars, genocides, racism, poverty, etc., etc.? Really, how could they not?

Roger Ray

Unknown said...

As a child, those stories terrified me. The Biblical ones, not the Greek or Roman mythology. I actually loved to read the traditional "mythology," it was always so colorful and entertaining to me, and even the Gods seemed acceptable, they each had so many human foibles. But I was always taught that those were myths, fairy stories, something that I wasn't really supposed to read, according to my parents. I was taught that the Bible stories were true, and eventually archaeology would prove the truth of each tale. And honestly, that terrified me, that there was a God in the heavens who had no flaws, no humanity, and had no issue with destroying the entire population, animals included, just so He could start over. If we were made in His image, then I expected enough humanity in Him to have a little compassion. But it is hard to find in the Old Testament! As I have grown older, it is nice to see that science and archaeology are finding some bits of truth in the stories, but also finding some inherent flaws as well. I myself believe that they are all the same, Bible stories, Greek and Roman and various mythology, all the stories that we flawed humans tell about our past and how we got here, where we are headed. No one of us may have all the answers, but the best of us strive toward peace and understanding.

Anonymous said...

How is it that humanity recognizes truth in about every form imaginable in every area of endeavor except holiness and divinity, where the average person seems limited to literalism of both event and word? I find fault, based in ignorance and fear, from two directions; beware of the religious leadership who lack the courage of rational criticism, and beware of the scholars who can't see beyond the boundaries of rational criticism. Hmmmm, now which group did the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus Seminar warn against? (Lk 20:46, Mk 12:38-39, Mt 23:5-7, Lk 11:43?)

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Gene,
I gather that your complaint is that (some not all) religious leaders are not rationalist enough while (some not all) scholars are overly rationalistic. The picture does not seem that clear cut to me, however. Even Bishop Spong worships in an Episcopalian church while I regularly attend a Baptist Sunday school, and the fundamentalist J. Gresham Machen wrote a critical grammar of the Greek New Testament.
Rationalism is the hallmark of scientific and philosophical thought coming out of the Enlightenment. It passes into biblical studies as "Higher Criticism." Critical thought is virtually unknown in the West until the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.
The verses that you cited must be referring to religious leaders (Pharisees and scribes, etc. were the traditionalists of Judaism).
I think I would qualify as one of your overly rationalistic scholars, since I insist for myself that decisions about matters of faith and religion be based on evidence (what I consider as the essence of "criticism"), and you are quite correct the demand for evidence leaves very little to "holiness and divinity." Faith may not demand that I believe something that I find to be patently irrational. I am afraid that the "cat is out of the bag" and the "horse escaped because the barn door was opened." Critical thought is a bully; it won't let us put the cat back in the bag.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that thoughtful reply, Charlie. My preference would be, in pursuit of religious/spiritual truth, to substitute holism for blind faith ( on the one hand), and a strict rationalism and empiricism (on the other). I don't want to advocate denying the mind's gifts, but neither do I want to limit truth to replicable controlled experiments. Actually, if I think about it, however, holism does rely on the outcome of controlled experiment. To a large degree the sit-in "experiments" of the 60's were successful because they continued to impact the country in a positive way. But they started out more narrowly holistic in the form of the faith experience of individuals interacting with their church who were willing to take risks for which rationalism had no immediate answer.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.