Origin of mythology
There are two widespread views within the context of the creation vs. evolution controversy regarding the origin of mythology.
- Evolutionists typically believe that mythology originated as fictional stories attempting to explain the world. Mythology is essentially reduced to merely fictional narratives with no historical grounding at all.
- Creationists typically believe that mythology originated through a blend of personification origins and the sometimes corruption and sometimes only exaggeration of the memory of historical events which actually occurred.
Types of Origins
According to J.F. Bierlein, within his book in comparative mythology called Parallel Myths there is an underlying universality of mythical experiences and the stories written about them even though they originated from within geographically isolated, and culturally diverse places on Earth. The views of J.F. Bierlein are common among historians of religion, anthropologists, ancient literature scholars, and social scientists. He points out six major features that all myths from around the world seem to share, which are;
- Myth is shared heritage. Bierlein goes so far as to suggest that myth is the, "structure of our unconscious mind, possibly encoded in our genes."
- Myth is the history of prehistory
- Mythology is made up of unique language which is used to describe things beyond our sensory system
- Myth is the basis of identity for societies and communities
- Myth allows the recognition of rules of living
- Myth is finally also, "a pattern of beliefs that give meaning to life."
There are four main views within 21st century studies of mythology regarding their origins. Some theories tend to overlap with the modern pop-cultural definition of mythology as merely fiction or lies. The four views are generally considered; euhemerism or historical interpretation of mythologies, allegorical, personification, and the myth-ritual theory for the origin of myths.
Mythology within the view of euhemerism is cultural stories about actual, or literal historical events that actually happened. Euhemerism is also referred to sometimes as an historical interpretation of mythology as opposed to a fictional or allegorical interpretation.
History and mythology bear distinct characteristics. This is true when studying sources from within either a historical or mythological perspective when interpreting literature. Homer and even Plutarch, both of which are quintessential ancient writers for their time, are readily considered by some scholarly circles to have dabbled in writing in fictional terms like symbolism or allegory. The non-historical accounts stretch to certain exaggerated events but rarely entire biographies about individuals that apparently never existed. The Life of Theseus and the Life of Romulus by Plutarch are considered legendary to semi-legendary.
The Gospel traditions which were written down within "living memory" of the eyewitnesses are not considered mythical and legendary, what is essentially oral tradition. They are representative of collected eyewitness testimony by actual individuals, who were not only involved but intimately so with the events that took place. Oral history, not oral tradition, is the ultimate material which the Gospel writers drew upon to construct ancient biographies, not the mythology, of Jesus Christ. There are certain literary elements that feature the restraint and ultimately oral history that the writers of the Gospels were trying to convey. Ancient mythographers were known for a grandiose writing style filled with complex and overly zealous rhetoric, clearly going above and beyond a disciplined scholastic approach to getting across just what happened. For instance the biographers of Christ that wrote the four Gospels do not contain as an authoritative element elaborate focus on "exotic lands" and do not "report on internal workings of divine courts." Likewise there are not long reports on, "monsters and other fabulous creatures" like fire-breathing, flying dragons which is another common theme used by mythographers of classical antiquity. Some have even highlighted the "matter-of-fact restraint rather than amplification in most miracle stores in the canonical Gospels."
The question we are left with is, "How can we distinguish between mythology and history?" Obviously, there is no clear answer, because we cannot observe the events ourselves. We are stuck with some ambiguity. We can, however, look to a literary analysis of history and mythology to determine what genre a particular account of an event belongs to. These genres are; ancient biography or allegory and various others that bring forth the intent of the author that wrote the text in question. We can also consider whether certain beliefs have been falsified by science (For instance, the ancient Hindu belief that the Earth rested on the back of a Turtle). Finally, we can study the myths themselves, in an effort to slowly improve and clarify our picture of the events they were all trying to remember.
A summary of the main differences between history and myth include:
|Recounting of individuals and events in factual, linear and therefore at times chronological manner||Exaggeration, hyperbole, and emotional appeals|
|Provides specific time-frames for events||Absence of time-frames|
|Provides details such as genealogies, and geographical details like people, places and things||Absence of such details, more concentration on the divine and cosmic scale|
|Describes people in objective fashion; no hero-worship||Creates "heroes" and "villains" and generally exaggerates the actions|
|Earliest known form oral history||Earliest known form oral tradition|
The allegorical view of myths sees, for example, Greco-Roman gods and goddesses as not divine beings in their own right, nor as any concrete physical things at all, but rather they function only as symbols. One god may only have been created and can only function as a symbol of fire while another may only function as a symbol for water. Allegory refers to the deeper more hidden meanings than what is presented on the surface of a mythical text.
Personification theories of myth is also called a mythopoetic mode of thought. It is considered a mode of primitive human thought that, instead of operating under scientific enlightenment and impersonal laws of nature, nature was turned into acts of will of a personal being. Because of the mythopoetic mode of thought for the ancients it enabled fertile ground for myths to be created.
Under this theory the existence of myths is connected to rituals performed by primitive humanity.
To understand the creationist view, let's consider an instance of modern mythmaking. After World War II, many Pacific Islanders were seen making walkie-talkies, airports, and landingstrips out of coconuts, and straw. They were seen talking into the "radios," asking for things like food, rain, or cures to illnesses.
The reason for this odd origin of mythology was this: During World War II, many natives of Pacific islands came into contact with modern technology for the first time, when Americans and Japanese set up bases on islands to support their war efforts. During that time, they saw Americans and Japanese calling for supplies over walkie-talkies, and then saw planes land with those supplies at airports. Because they were not able to understand what the radio was or how it worked, after the Americans left, they tried to imitate what they had seen by making a likeness (or idol) of the radio, airport and landing-strip, and imitating what they had seen the Americans do.
This is a creationist view of mythology. Mythology is viewed not as a symbolic fiction arising spontaneously or as explanations from a pre-scientific culture with no basis in experience, but is rather generally seen as a distortion and perversion of the memory of actual events. The creationist does not see the member of the cargo cult and wonder, "Wow! What a remarkable creative imagination these islanders have for fiction!" He sees him and says, "These people must have seen supplies brought by radio, airstrip, and airport in order to believe that these straw radios could do them any good."
Application of the model
Given the observed fact that men behave this way, we can ask further speculative questions:
- Why did every ancient society on Earth have a story of a Global flood in which one person saved himself, his family, and animal life in a boat? Is this a widespread fiction, or a memory of historical events that has been corrupted through the years?
- Why did every ancient pagan society on Earth create images of particular gods, believing those gods to have power? Is this simply a widespread fiction of ignorance, or a widespread and distorted memory of powerful beings (perhaps the Benei Ha'Elohim) that had once been able to grant their wishes?
- Why did every ancient pagan society on Earth believe that these gods demanded sacrifices in order to grant their wishes? Is is simply a widespread fiction of ignorance, or a widespread and distorted memory of powerful beings (perhaps the Benei Ha'Elohim) that demanded sacrifices?
- Why did every ancient society on Earth describe the gods (or Benei Ha'Elohim) as corporeal, having bodies, and being able to marry and have children with humans?
- Why did every ancient society believe that humanity had been created from above, rather than evolving from below? Is this a widespread fiction of ignorance, or a widespread memory of a historical creation event?
The evolutionist is left to answer these questions:
- Are there any observed examples of people inventing purely fictional myths that were then taken as history? Can you provide a single instance of something that can be proven to be fiction being taken as fact? How does this compare with the numerous examples of myths developing from a distortion of history?
- Why are there so many common themes among myths, where societies as far apart as the Inca and Babylonians all believed in corporeal gods who demanded sacrifices, and a global flood? Are these mere coincidences? Did these ancient societies invent the exact same idea independently? Or are they all simply remembering events they all experienced?
- J.F. Bierlein, Parallel Myths (Ballantine Books; 1 edition 1994), pg. 5-6
- The Gospels: Oral History, Not Oral Tradition
- Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony By Richard Bauckham
- Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic 2011), pg. 69
- Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony Craig Blomberg, Ph.D. January 2007
- The Significance of Mircea Eliade for Christian Theology by Joseph G. Muthuraj
- Classical Mythology, Ninth Edition Online Resources by Oxford University Press as a companion to the book
- Got Questions? Thousands of questions answered about the Bible, God, and the Christian faith