The myths of many ancient cultures may seem like stories of vivid imagination. Indeed they contain fantastic elements far from reality not unlike fairy tales. But if we attempt to understand their origins, we will learn that the bizarre characters and events within the stories have a more significant meaning, one that had relevance at the time they were written and which in many cases continues to have importance even today.
It is believed that there are several reasons behind the creation of myths, and one significant driving force was the explanation of reality from the perspective of the ancients. In particular this meant explaining the forces of nature. For our ancestors, the pantheon of deities represented personifications of the power of nature, and so it was believed that everything in creation was under the control or influence of some particular god or goddess. As far as the Greeks were concerned, they had three principle deities governing the major spheres of earth. Jupiter (Zeus) was the king of heaven while his brother Neptune (Poseidon) ruled the oceans. Their brother Pluto (Dis) was lord of the underworld. Jupiter had sired many divine offspring including Apollo the sun god and Diana (Artemis) the moon goddess. Just about every aspect of the physical world was under the power of some deity. Every river and mountain, and every forest and field had some nature spirit or god behind it in some way.
Mythological stories often cast the deities in some way to explain some physical phenomenon, and this was apparently the case in the story of Proserpine and Ceres. Ceres (Demeter) the goddess of agriculture was the mother of Proserpine (Persephone) who was the victim of a little mischief on the part of Cupid (Eros) the god of love. Cupid had shot an arrow into the bosom of Pluto inflaming him with love for Proserpine whom he carried away to the underworld with him against her wishes. Ceres was greatly dismayed at her disappearance and searched all over the world for her daughter to no avail. When she finally learned of the whereabouts of her daughter in the underworld, she immediately appealed to Jupiter, the king of the gods for assistance. He agreed to have the girl returned to her mother provided she had not yet taken any food while in the underworld. When an investigation was made, it was revealed that the girl had merely sucked the pulp from a few seeds of the pomegranate. It was decided that this hardly constituted the substantial intake of food that would qualify Proserpine to be free of Pluto entirely. So a compromise was reached and it was agreed for the girl to spend half the year with her mother and the other half with Pluto in Hades.
With Ceres the goddess of agriculture as a main character in this myth, it is generally understood that the story is a representation of the cycle of planting and harvesting. Proserpine signifies the seed-corn which lies concealed in the earth (carried away to Pluto underground) during the long winter only to sprout again (returned to her mother) in the spring. It is similar to the story of Inanna and Tammuz from the Near East which also symbolizes the cycle of the seasons with its relevance to fertility and agriculture.
There is another story which offers a symbolic rendition of the forces of nature at work in the fight between the famous strongman Hercules and the river-god Achelous. The two were vying for the same woman and decided to settle it through a physical contest. Having difficulty competing with Hercules in human form, Achelous assumed the form of a serpent. But this also didn’t help him much, for Hercules grabbed him by the neck to choke him. So finally Achelous take the shape of a bull and was yet thrown down to the ground by the great hero. Defeating his foe, Hercules broke off his horn which subsequently was adopted by the goddess Plenty who called it Cornucopia.
The Greeks explain that this tale describes in reality how the river Achelous in times of heavy rain overflowed its banks and became a formidable torrent. It was said to be a snake because of its winding path and also a bull because of its wild brawling flow. When the river was high, it cut another channel through the countryside which was symbolized by the horn of the bull. Hercules in this story seems to represent the ingenuity of the people who built embankments and canals to prevent the overflow of the river and so the “horn” of the river-god was cut off. Consequently with the river tamed, the land became very fertile which is meant by the horn of plenty or cornucopia.
Any number of ancient fables were written with the intent of interpreting physical phenomena, but the old writers had another motive in crafting such outlandish tales. Often it was the case that the myths were spun around historical or semi-historical figures which over time became embellished into larger than life characters. The story of Cadmus is one such tale that fits this type. The character had been on a journey to find his sister, and just after recovering her, he and his men came upon a terrible serpent which killed several of his men. Cadmus however was able to run the beast through with his spear and killed it. No sooner did he slay this creature then he heard an ethereal voice instruct him to bury the serpent’s teeth in the ground. Not long after planting them in the earth, there sprung up from the soil and army of warriors fully equipped for battle, and they began to kill each other until all that were left were a small handful which helped Cadmus build the city of Thebes.
Apparently Cadmus was a Phoenician emigrant who upon his arrival in Greece introduced the alphabet of his country to the natives. (Of course the Phoenicians were the first to create an alphabet.) These letters that he taught the Greeks were depicted in the story as the dragon’s teeth which might seem peculiar, but the imagery used by the writers was very deliberate. They believed that the introduction of writing was ultimately the downfall of man, for civilization that dawned through the formal alphabet signaled the legendary end of the Golden Age of simplicity and innocence that characterized early man. Consequently, the letters were evil and rightly symbolized by the serpent’s teeth which produced a crop of warriors who all but killed themselves.
The figure Theseus whose legendary adventures are covered in the Greek myths was another real figure of the ancient world. Depicted as a hero, Theseus is presented in his youth as slaying a number of petty tyrants and malefactors in the countryside. In the greatest episode written about him, we see him as the liberator of Athens where his father was king. The story suggests that Athens was under a heavy tribute from Minos king of Crete that required that the city send seven young men and seven young women each year to Crete to be devoured by his Minotaur, a half-bull and half-human monster. Ignoring the pleas of his father to the contrary, Theseus boarded one of the ships for Crete as one of the intended victims. But upon arrival on the island, the daughter of Minos fell in love with him and gave him a sword to use against the Minotaur. He was successful in slaying the beast and sailed back to his country having freed it from the tyranny of the Cretans. Though greatly embellished in fanciful lore, Theseus was nonetheless a real figure of ancient Greece. It is recorded that he united several tribes into the state of Attica of which Athens was the capital city where he apparently reigned as king.
Finally there also is seemingly some grain of historical truth in the story of Jason and the Argonauts. In preparation for becoming king, Jason was commissioned by his uncle to travel to Colchis and recover the legendary Golden Fleece (a ram with a golden hide.) At the time the Greeks only had small boats or canoes which obviously couldn’t make large voyages. So he commissioned Argus who had a hundred eyes and was appropriately the god of the stars to build him a vessel for fifty men. Jason recruited to himself many of the other mythical heroes including Hercules and Theseus whom we just mentioned to join him on the journey in the boat he named Argo after Argus. The band of men were known as the Argonauts, and after having an adventurous journey to Colchis, upon arrival they were promised the Golden Fleece if Jason could perform a couple of miraculous feats. These included plowing a field with two fire breathing bulls and sowing the teeth of Cadmus’ dragon once again to produce warriors who would fight against him. These deeds he accomplished through the charms of Medea, the daughter of the king of Colchis who was also a sorceress. And so Jason returned to his country with the prized trophy along with Medea as his wife.
We have reason to believe that the incredible story has some underlying basis of credibility, for it probably represents the first real maritime expedition of the Greeks having graduated from simple skiffs. In all likelihood it was somewhat of a piratical journey in which the crew recovered some rich spoils which might have been represented by the Golden Fleece.
In addition to the myths that seek to represent the forces of nature and the myths that originated as embellishments of historical figures, there is a class of myths that we could call allegorical. Such fables are symbolic stories intended to teach some religious, moral, or philosophical truth. Some of the previous stories we have sketched out are also unquestionably allegories, but now we focus on those tales that are meant to impart a particularly moral lesson.
One such tale is the story of Prometheus who was a Titan, the original class of Greek gods before Jupiter and his associates took power. Prometheus was the creator and friend of mankind and sought many ways to help the mortal race. He taught them civilization and the arts and gave them fire which provoked Jupiter because he thought that Prometheus was bestowing too many divine gifts on mankind. As a punishment, Jupiter had him chained to a rock where every day a vulture would come and eat his liver after which it would quickly regenerate itself. This state of affairs continued for 30 years when Hercules freed him from the cruel torture.
But the lesson of the story is not the benevolence of Prometheus to mankind but something far greater. Prometheus held a secret to the stability of Jupiter’s throne and should he have revealed it, he would have been immediately taken into favor. But he scorned such a notion and so becomes for us the emblem of unselfish fortitude to endure unmerited suffering and a symbol of strength to resist long term oppression. We could think of Prometheus embodying the idea of suffering for a noble cause when a way of escape is available for less than admirable reasons.
Some of the Greek allegories intended to convey the merits of virtue in this way, but a number of them also sought to teach man to refrain from vice and foolishness, and so we consider a few of those myths beginning with the story of Icarus. He was the son of Daedalus who was an artisan for Minos king of Crete, and the two of them were imprisoned in a tower after his father fell out of favor with the king. Daedalus was intent on escaping from the island but could only do so by sea and that was well guarded. So he decided that flying off the island was his only solution. With wax and feathers he crafted wings for himself and his son, and on the appointed day of their escape bid his son to fly close to him and be careful neither to fly to low to the ocean where the dampness would weigh down the wings nor too high to the sun where the heat would melt the wax. Daedalus bid his son to stick near him where he would be safe, and the boy did so initially but then reveling in the exhilaration of flight began to soar up towards the heavens. The wax melted, the wings broke apart, and the boy fell to his death below.
There may be a few principles communicated in this tragic story, and we may identify the idea of obedience to parents as one important message. With years more experience than their offspring, they know what is best, and their children should acknowledge this lest they get themselves into trouble by going another way. In this case, Daedalus advised his son to take the middle way, avoiding the extremes of high and low which is certainly a recipe for life. It is advice against manic/depressive tendencies and an injunction to stay in moderation, for pursuing the path of exhilaration and instant gratification (soaring to the sun) can be just as dangerous as lethargy and wallowing in inactivity (taking on water.) The myth attempts to teach the reader to know one’s own limitations and stick within the bounds lest one should fall.
A somewhat similar message is related in the story of Bellerophon who was asked to combat the legendary creature the Chimaera, a ghastly composite of lion, goat, and dragon. When he consulted a soothsayer before taking on this task, it was recommended that he obtain the special winged horse Pegasus to ride on in the battle, and with the aid of Minerva (Athene), goddess of wisdom he procured the animal. After being victorious over the Chimaera, Bellerophon became full of pride and presumption and attempted to fly up into heaven, but Jupiter sent a gadfly which stung Pegasus so that he threw his rider. Consequently Bellerophon became blind and lame thereafter.
Without having to read into the fable too much, it is clearly a lesson on knowing one’s place. As mortals, it is not our place to usurp the position of God but to humbly stick the rung of the ladder we have been put on. If we fail to abide by this principle, we will take a fall like Bellerophon that we should learn this lesson.
Espousing the virtue of humility was apparently important to the Greeks for they told several stories illustrating the same idea. One other myth involves the mortal Arachne who was an expert weaver and embroiderer who enchanted everyone who saw her beautiful work. Unfortunately it went to her head and she imagined herself better at her art than even the gods. Brazenly she blurted out, “Let Minerva try her skill with mine” as if inviting the goddess to a competition. Minerva rose to the occasion and appearing on earth engaged in the contest. Minerva wove a tapestry with a scene depicting the power of the gods as a warning for her opponent to give up before it was too late. But in defiance and utter impiety, Arachne wove a tapestry depicting the errors and failures of the gods as if to mock those who abide in the heavens. In the end Minerva punished Arachne by turning her into a spider where she could continue to weave but no longer in human form.
Moving on to the tragedy of Oedipus, we have a similar lesson to that of the story of Icarus. Laius the king of Thebes had been warned in an oracle that there would be danger to his throne and to his life if his new born son should grow up. Hearkening to the message, the king entrusted the child to a herdsman with instructions to destroy the infant, but pitying the boy Oedipus, he could not do it and so a peasant woman adopted the child.
Years later Oedipus unknowingly met his father Laius on a narrow road and in a skirmish killed the king of Thebes. The son continued on his journey toward Thebes where a monster known as a Sphinx (a creature that was half lion and half woman) was killing the people of the city. After Oedipus defeated the beast in a battle of wits, the people of Thebes were overjoyed and made him king unaware of his parentage or the fact that he had killed Laius. They gave him Jocasta, the widow of Laius as his wife with whom he had children. After some time a famine and plague came upon Thebes and when the oracle was consulted it revealed the double crime of Oedipus. Jocasta unable to handle this news killed herself, and Oedipus in shame gouged out his eyes and wandered away from the city.
With such dire consequences for not following Laius’ initial orders, the moral of the story is of course that we should obey the instructions of our superiors whether parent, government official, or God himself. Sometimes we will be asked to do something that we don’t like or that seems objectionable to us, but as long as it is morally licit it is not for us to do what we feel is best. Ultimately there will be repercussions for our disobedience which the story seeks to drive home in an exaggerated way.
Finally with one last allegorical myth to touch on, we consider the myth of Narcissus. A beautiful youth to behold, he was admired by many a nymph who wished to have his love, but he cruelly shunned them all. Finally one nymph prayed to the goddess that he should know what it feels like to show love and have no affection returned to him, and it was granted. Narcissus one day found a crystal clear pool of water and looking at the surface unwittingly beheld his own image thinking it to be some beautiful water spirit living in the fountain. When he stooped to kiss or touch the image and disappeared immediately as rippled water would ordinarily do. Frustrated yet transfixed by his reflection in the pool, he thought of neither rest nor food but pined away in that spot unable to detach himself from the pool until he died.
The message of the story of Narcissus is of course to beware the consequences of self-love or self-absorption. When we are overly enamored by ourselves, we forget everything else that is happening in the world around us, especially the needs of others which we should be focusing on. Ultimately our undivided attention on self will lead to our own destruction
Many of the principles in these allegories are timeless messages that can be found almost universally in a number of cultures and religions. Of course, we can see such parallels in the bible which espouses temperance, humility, and concern for others rather than self. But it isn’t just in the pursuit of virtue that the myths and the scriptures have common ground; the parallels between the Judeo-Christian tradition and those of other civilizations share quite a bit of analogous material covering history, theology, and moral rectitude which we have surveyed thus far.
We begin now to trace out those similar elements starting with the beginning of all things, the Creation. For the Norse which we now introduce into the discussion, there was a belief that before anything came into being there was an empty void or bottomless deep. From this nothingness sprang two realms, one of light and heat and the other of dark and cold. The interaction of these two opposing regions according to the story ultimately gave birth to all of creation.
For the Greeks, in the beginning there was only Chaos. That is, all that would come to be was jumbled up into one confused and shapeless mass. Within this mass were the seeds of all things, yet everything inside of this body was undifferentiated. Earth, sea, and heaven were all mixed together in a garbled mess that required separation and order. Somehow nature guided by an impersonal force (God if you will) partitioned the mass into distinguishable parts and from that the ball of Creation was set in motion to bring about everything recognizable to our eyes – rivers, mountains, valleys, woods, fountains, fields, and plains.
We will recognize within both of these stories of origin something similar to the opening verses of Genesis: “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The ideas of chaos, formlessness, and an abyss of nothingness are implied in all three stories. And in modern scientific terms we would suggest that in a sense all of them were accurate in a very simplistic way. The Big Bang Theory theorizes that all of Creation, the seeds of everything that now is was compressed within a singular point of mass which exploded and set into effect a chain reaction of ongoing shaping and reshaping of the cosmos. Before this event there was indeed nothing as the primordial accounts suggest, and from nothing came everything that now is.
While the Biblical narrative understands Deity as the driving force of Creation, the other myths see the gods and goddesses of their lore as the first product of Creation, perhaps because of an inability of the ancients to conceive of an intelligent being without a beginning. Nonetheless the stories of the Greek and Norse pantheons bear a strong resemblance to each other and have their mirror image in biblical theology as we shall see.
In the Norse account of the origin of deities, it was believed that the realm of cold and the realm of heat came into contact with each other to give birth to a race of divinities known as the Giants. The first giant Ymir was formed when the melting ice sublimated into vapor and became clouds from which the giant took shape. A cow named Audhumbla was also formed from these clouds which provided nourishment for the giant. The cow in turn got its nourishment from licking the frost and salt from the ice. Ymir and his progeny inhabited one of the nine Norse realms known as Jotunheim. For the Scandinavians, this class of deities was hideous to behold, for they were depicted with claws, fangs, and deformed features.
But they weren’t the only order of deities in the Norse universe. The fables tell of the same cow which nourished Ymir as playing a role in the formation of another younger class of immortal beings. It is written that Audhumbla the cow on one occasion licked the salt and there appeared the hair of a man. On the next day, a head appeared, and then on the third day there was the whole body. This being was known as a god and with the daughter of one of the giants sired a race of gods including the three brothers Odin (Jupiter’s equivalent,) Vili, and Ve. Together they slew Ymir and from his body formed the earth, from his blood the seas, and from his bones the mountains, from his hair the trees, from his skull the heavens, and of his brain the clouds. From his eyebrows they made middle-earth (Midgard) the abode of man. Within the mythology of the Scandinavians the older and younger class of gods were at enmity with each other and conflicts are mentioned a number of times in their sagas
Interestingly, the origin of Greek deities illustrates a similar dualism to that of the Norse. It was believed that out of the original Chaos sprung the heaven and the earth, each personified as a primordial deity. The earth (Gaia) and heaven (Uranus) gave birth to a class of gods known as the Titans and their brothers the Giants, some of which were very grotesque beings. Uranus hated some of these Giants and imprisoned them within Gaia’s womb for which she was outraged. Plotting against him, Gaia attempted to convince her children the Titans to attack him with a flint sickle she had made. One of the Titans named Saturn (Cronos) castrated his father and freed the Giants from their imprisonment. But this act was not to go unpunished, and Uranus prophesied that Saturn would be overthrown by one of his own children as a retribution.
Saturn became the ruler of the Titans and the other children of Gaia, whom we regard as the first order of gods in the Greek pantheon. He married his sister Rhea who conceived a number of children. However, remembering the prophesy, he swallowed each of his offspring when it was born to avoid the fulfillment of the words spoken against him. However Rhea was indignant at this, and she successfully hid their son Jupiter from Saturn’s malice. When Jupiter grew up, he devised a way to free his siblings from the stomach of Saturn. With the help of an advisor, he concocted a special drink to stealthily serve Saturn so that he would vomit up the other children. And so it was that Jupiter and five siblings, the members of the new class of Greek deities known simply as gods planned to defeat their father and the other Titans. Setting an ambush for them, the Titans were overcome when they were pelted with boulders. Jupiter imprisoned all but a few in the underworld dungeon of Tartarus were they could be prevented from any further trouble.
That both the Greeks and Scandinavians as well as other peoples like the Hindus envisioned two classes of deities betrays an ancient knowledge of hidden realities. Though we wouldn’t refer to these gods and anti-gods the same way in the Judeo-Christian tradition, we nonetheless acknowledge the dualism that the myths portrayed in our own scriptures. It is clearly the struggle between the angels of light and the angels of darkness, the battle between good and evil that is waged constantly in the heavenly realms.
Like in the old myths, in the Bible giants are a symbol of any hostile or perceived threat, and we see them on a few occasions including the advent of the Great Flood. Known as the Nephilim or “fallen ones”, the earth was ripe for destruction in no small part because of them. Later at the time of the Exodus, the Nephilim appear as the inhabitants of the Promised Land who by their great size intimidated the Israelites from making an invasion of the land.
In the fables we have sketched out, the giants are clearly the anti-gods or the forces of evil which is evidenced by their deformed features and their enormous and threatening size. In contrast the more human appearing and seemingly benevolent deities known as the gods are what we would identify as the forces of light.
In the Bible, the struggle between the two is alluded to on a number of occasions. In the Book of Revelation, the apostle John writes, “There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” Similarly the apostle Paul reminds us that those we are to be most concerned about are not on the earth but in heaven above, for he says, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Even in the Old Testament, the struggle of the heavenly spheres is depicted in the Song of Deborah who sang, “Kings came, they fought; the kings of Canaan fought at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo, but they carried off no silver, no plunder. From the heavens the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.” Of course in this poem of the ancient Israelites, the “stars” in the sky above represent the angelic hosts which are comprised of two factions who continually make war on each other.
Touching now on the broad subject of good and evil which finds a prominent place in all religion and mythology, we consider now the motif of the tree which is common to all the civilizations we are examining. The Scandinavians were known to hold their special ceremonies in sacred groves because the tree was an important element in their religion. Central to the whole system of Norse mythology was a special tree known as Ygdrasill which supported the entire universe and linked together the nine realms of their cosmology. This mighty ash tree was believed to have sprung from the body of Ymir after Odin and his brothers slew the giant. The immense tree had three roots which extended into the land of cold and darkness (Niflheim,) the land of the giants (Jotunheim,) and the land of the gods (Asgard.) Each root was fed by a well, and they are known as the Well of Fate, the Bubbling Boiling Spring, and the Well of Wisdom. It is said that a snake named Nidhoggr lived at the base of the tree and gnawed at the roots of it continually. There was also a sea-serpent, the offspring of one of the evil giants named Jormangandr which coiled itself completely around the land of Midgard, the abode of man.
It should be obvious by this brief sketch from Norse mythology that there is a strong resemblance to the details we find in the story of the Garden of Eden. Each account features a tree, a snake, and repository of knowledge or wisdom. Though the key features of the narratives are not arranged in precisely the same way in each rendition, they nonetheless carry the same essential meaning and suggest a common ancient origin for both.
What is important to understand in these primordial stories is that the serpent was not simply the symbol of evil that we almost exclusively regard it as today, but more comprehensively it was the representation of wisdom. We should recall that Jesus told his disciples to “be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” which was a reflection of the sentiments of many of the ancient cultures at the time. For our ancestors, the snake was a creature more to be revered than hated. And this was primarily because the serpent was associated with poison and by association cures and antidotes for a variety of health problems. The wisdom of the serpent was in that it had the secret to what was harmful and what was helpful to primitive man, and for this it was revered for its knowledge
It seems that the Greeks embraced this concept for they have given us the myth of Melampus who was said to be the first mortal to be endowed with prophetic powers. The short tale seems to contain all the same elements we have identified, for we are told that in front of this man’s house was an oak tree which contained a nest of snakes which he fed and took care of. One day while Melampus was sleeping the serpents licked his ears and upon awakening he was suddenly able to understand the language of birds and other creatures. And this knowledge enabled him to became a predictor of the future and become a soothsayer.
That wisdom was linked with the snake in the distant past is embedded in language itself for in Hebrew the word for snake nachash means “to hiss, whisper, and enchant” and very importantly its connotation is to “learn by experience.” The serpent which is prominently featured in the Norse tale, Biblical allegory, and Greek myth is understood to be the teacher of wisdom which it seeks to impart to the pupil through experience. Specifically, its goal is to enchant or lure its student into new situations whereby it can learn the lessons of life through the sting of negative feedback. That the serpent entices toward evil is that man may learn the difference between what is right and what is wrong, for in the Biblical scenario, the tree that the first couple partakes of is the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent accurately relates to the pair that they will be like God if they eat its fruit. Indeed it is through tasting of this infamous tree that man acquires divine knowledge and it is this that is the purpose of his existence.
It is through the bitter experiences of life whether through the harsh consequences of our mistakes or through the general pain of life that we learn the most and become wise. That this negative feedback is universal is portrayed particularly in the Scandinavian tale, for one of the prominent serpents is seen to completely surround the abode of man to saturate him in constant temptation. That the other snake continually gnaws at the tree also emphasizes the ever-present enticement to evil that is part of the life of man. Yet it is the Well of Wisdom at the base of the Norse tree that is the prize for the one who learns what the serpent has to teach him.
In the Biblical story it is the high angelic being Satan who in other traditions would be regarded as one of the chief anti-gods who functions as the serpent for the spiritual education of humanity. And for the Norse it is the giant Loki who carries out the same role. He was known as the slanderer of the gods and the author of all sorts of deception and mischief. Though a giant and by definition an enemy of the gods, he forced his way into their company seeking pleasure in creating for them all sorts of difficulties and hardships through his cunning and wit. He was the father of three monsters including the Midgard serpent which coiled itself about the abode of man.
Through the craftiness of Loki, the gods almost had stolen from them the sun and the moon by one of their timeless enemies the Frost Giants who was working for them incognito. But before being plunged into darkness they put a stop to his scheme and expelled the giant to Niflheim the land of darkness and cold. In another episode of his cunning, Loki arranged the death of Baldur the favorite of the gods by exposing his one vulnerability. Similar to the Greek god Achilles, this god was invincible to any attack, disease, or mishap except for the branch of the mistletoe. Loki arranged that someone throw it at Baldur and piercing him through he fell down and died to the grief of the whole Norse pantheon. It was agreed by the keeper of the underworld that if everyone wept for Baldur he could be resurrected, but all but Loki cried for him and so he was forced to remain among the dead. And so it was that Loki never ceased to work evil among gods and men just like his counterpart in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Keeping with our symbol of the tree along with its associated props, we should not fail to mention how the tree also figures prominently in the creation of mankind in the Scandinavian sagas. After the chief god Odin and his brothers created the world with sun and moon and all sorts of vegetation in the land of Midgard, they decided it was still incomplete, so they remedied the situation by creating human beings much like in the scriptures man was formed last of all the works of God. It is said that Odin and his brothers took and ash tree and made a man out of it and then took an alder tree and made a woman from it. The god Odin gave them life and soul. His brother Vili endowed them with reason and motion, and the other divine sibling Ve bestowed upon them the senses, expressive features, and speech. We see in this rendition of human origins the importance of the tree as a perennial symbol of the experiences of man who partakes of its fruit, something that was apparently well known to the ancients. That the important elements of the tree, the serpent, and the source of wisdom are all included in these vignettes from Norse mythology ties them in with biblical imagery. Though the role of each symbol is jumbled in comparison to the Genesis story, it only indicates that a more ancient source was behind both.
That this was the case is supported by considering the Babylonian tale of human origins and accompanying stories which as we shall see identify all three important concepts. In the epic of Gilgamesh is the tale of the creation of a primitive wild man who lived in the wilderness along with the wild animals who were his companions. Fashioned out of a piece of clay by the goddess, he was clothed with nothing more than the hair on his body. He ate vegetation in the fields with gazelles and drank from watering holes with the other animals.
One day he was discovered by a hunter who was utterly frustrated by the wild man’s attempts to protect his friends, the animals from his grasp. Conspiring with others, the hunter arranged to seduce the man with a prostitute to break his link with the animals. When she approached him and laid herself bare before him, he slept with her for six days and seven nights. The effects of his physical contact with the harlot were pronounced. The wild man lost his hairy appearance and his physical strength so that he could no longer keep pace with the animals. The beasts of the field ran away from him in horror seeing that he was changed.
But for this loss there was something more important to be gained. The text says that he had acquired judgment and had become wiser. The harlot then told him, “You have become wise; you have become like a god.” Then the woman invited him to leave the pristine wilderness behind and come with her to civilization. We are told that the harlot’s suggestion “penetrated his heart.” She gave him a garment to cover his nakedness, took his hand and led him forth out his former habitation never to return again. Finally she gave him the food of civilization, bread and beer which he consumed and he became a normal man as any other.
This particular story does not tell of trees or snakes, but it does center upon the important element of wisdom. Very similar to the Biblical account, the tale reinforces the idea that the purpose of life is to gain knowledge and to become like God. What separates man from the lower animals is that he has acquired this wisdom of good and evil through the human experience. In this ancient myth, we see how a primitive human being, basically an animal is transformed into a civilized man through contact with a prostitute. That is to say, it is through direct temptation to sin and real exposure to evil represented by the harlot that man learns the difference between good and evil and becomes like God. That the primitive man lay with the prostitute for seven nights is to emphasize the completeness of the process of gaining divine knowledge through experience.
Like the Garden of Eden account, we read that the man was given a garment to cover his nakedness. And this is to say that once man has begun to progress from the animal state, having started to learn the difference between good and evil, what was formerly a brute beast loses its innocence. We are told that at that point, the woman took him by the hand and led him out of his former habitation never to return again, and by this we understand that once we begin to acquire wisdom, there is no turning back. We can no longer return to the blamelessness that characterizes the animals who do not know the difference between right and wrong. And so it was that Adam and Eve were likewise expelled from the garden as the road back to the oblivious and serene place they had come from was now blocked. Finally in the Gilgamesh Epic we learn that the harlot gave the man the food of civilization which in the Babylonian story was simple bread and beer, staples of life. Again, while this particular story does not use the devices of trees or serpents, we understand that the bread and beer are analogous to the fruit of the tree which Eve gave to Adam. The food symbolizes the general idea of tasting of life, the medium through which man gains experience toward wisdom.
And so we must ask what is the end for which man acquires the Knowledge of Good and Evil that is celebrated in these primordial stories. Clearly as the accounts tell us it is to ultimately become like God who himself has knowledge of these things. But it is more than this, for we are to become like God in order that we may dwell with God where he is in his lofty abode. The quest for this wisdom is so that man can migrate from a mortal being like the animals to an immortal soul like the angels of heaven. Indeed it is the destiny of mankind to shed the pain and sadness of earthly existence and put on immortality, but this he may only do when he has gained all of the knowledge of physical existence and has demonstrated that he has learned the lessons the serpent has tried to teach him.
It is then that he may eat the “food of the gods,” the fruit of the Tree of Life. In Greek Mythology, Juno the wife of Jupiter was given a wedding present by Gaia that consisted of special fruited branches. Juno planted them in an orchard in the West in what is known as the Garden of the Hesperides where either a single tree or a grove of immortality-giving golden apples grew. The Hesperides were a group of three sea-nymphs whose job it was to care for the garden, but as Juno didn’t completely trust them, she placed in the orchard a never-sleeping, hundred-headed dragon to guard the precious fruit from all who would dare try to steal any of the golden apples.
We at once see a parallel to the Garden of Eden story, for the Greek fable not only illustrates a tree with life giving fruit as we are acquainted with in the bible, but this highly-prized fruit is also heavily guarded. In Genesis, there is a cherubim with a flaming sword that flashes back and forth that constantly guards the Tree of Life. And it seems that the Greeks used the imagery of the all important serpent to accomplish the same task in their tale. The fruit of the Tree of Life whether we think of it as a golden apple or some other succulent fruit must of necessity be under constant surveillance, for no one who is unworthy to eat of it must be allowed to reach forth his hand and take its fruit. Rather only those who have eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and have fully ingested all of the bitterness that comes with that tree may do so. That is, only those who through temptation and trial have finally come to master evil may eat of the Tree of Life. And this means that that they can transition from mortality to immortality and take their place among the Blessed. Relevant to this idea is the detail that the Garden of Hesperides was in the West. For the Greeks, the land of sunset at the edge of the world was the happy land, the home of the Blessed Dead who lived there in continuous bliss. And so it was for the ancient Northern Europeans, for Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings makes mention of the West, the land beyond the ocean as the undying lands and home to the blessed souls. So it is that those who eat of the Tree of Life have merited the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life.
But it wasn’t just Moses, the biblical author and the Greeks who fancied a Tree of Life in their writings, we would be remiss to fail to mention the Norse and Babylonians who also present the same kind of concept. Of course, that all traditions do so is a strong suggestion that they all stem from some common ancient wisdom that was in the world several thousand years ago, what we may call the ideas of some Proto-Indo-European religion.
Considering the Scandinavians, it was the fair maiden and goddess Iduna who was the keeper of the Norse golden apples. This fruit which she kept in a box was the food of the gods, and whenever one of them felt old age approaching, all he had to do was eat one of them and instantly he became young again. Essentially these special apples were what preserved the gods’ immorality and they couldn’t go too long without ingesting one of them to rejuvenate themselves. In one of the Norse sagas, sweet innocent Idunn was lured through the gates of Asgard (the home of the gods) to investigate another apple tree recommended by the trickster Loki. When she had left the confines of the city, suddenly one of the giants, the gods’ bitter enemies in the form of an eagle swooped down and carried her off in her talons to Jotunheim. Of course this created a problem for the rest of the gods who began aging with wrinkles and gray hair. They subsequently forced Loki to go and rescue her, and after successfully bringing her back to Asgard, she fed them her golden apples to restore their youth once again.
Turning to the Babylonian story, we again focus on part of the great Epic of Gilgamesh. The narrative begins with a mention of Utnapishtim who was the hero of the famous Flood story that we will discuss, but he is incidental to the message. The vignette reads, “Then Utnapishtim’s wife asks her husband if there is anything he can give Gilgamesh to take back to his land. Gilgamesh poles the little boat back to shore. Utnapishtim says he will tell Gilgamesh one of the gods’ secrets. He tells Gilgamesh about the thorny plant that grows beneath the waves called How-the-Old-Man-Once-Again-Becomes-a-Young-Man. Gilgamesh ties stone weights to his feet and dives into the sea. When he finds the plant he cuts the stones from his feet, and the waters cast him onto shore. He tells the boatman that he will share this plant with the elders of Uruk and then take some himself and be young again too. But one night, when they stop to camp, Gilgamesh takes a swim in a pool of cool water. A snake smells the plant and steals it. As it slithers away, it sheds its skin. Now the serpent is young again, but Gilgamesh will never be. Heartbroken, Gilgamesh sits beside the pool and weeps.”
In the Babylonian tale, we again encounter the tree motif but it is a little bit modified and is generically called a plant. But it is a special plant with rejuvenating power to make an old man young again. We can appropriately think of it as analogous to the Tree of Life, and Gilgamesh is eager to obtain it for himself and the elders of his city. Undoubtedly Gilgamesh thinks he has secured the “fountain of youth” and he is not prepared for the possibility that it might slip out of his hands. We are told that while he was swimming in a pool of cold water, that old familiar snake came and stole it from him. Here the serpent appears as in the Greek myth to function as guardian of the Tree of Life to prevent those from partaking of it who are yet unfit. We must also wonder about the pool of cold water that Gilgamesh was swimming in while the theft occurred. It could be compared with the Well of Wisdom beneath the Norse tree Ygdrasill. And so we could suggest that the text is inferring that while one is still actively partaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he is yet unready for immortality. Therefore the Tree of Life will be off-limits until he has completely fed of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (or in this case swum in its waters of wisdom.)
We segue at this point to a related topic that was broached a little earlier when we sketched the Babylonian story of the Creation of Man. In that fable, we encountered what the reader might accurately have identified as gender bias. The protagonist in the myth was the primitive man who became “educated” by a woman to the ways of the world. As a harlot, the female might rightly be thought of as the antagonist who in some way corrupted the uncivilized man from his innocence. Through her influence the savage man gained wisdom which we equated to eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And while this analogy is accurate, we should ask the question why it is that the characters were cast as they were. Why was it that an innocent uncivilized woman was not made wise by a worldly and unsavory man?
Before answering that question, we will proceed to tell the related story of Pandora’s Box from Greek mythology:
“Zeus king of the gods lived on Mount Olympus and men roamed freely there on the Mount and elsewhere amongst the gods. Living at that time was a man called Epimetheus and he was the wisest amongst the men for he knew the secrets of life. Epimetheus took the beautiful Pandora as his wife.
(Now Pandora had been fashioned from water and clay by the gods and sent down among mortal man to punish them for Prometheus's act of stealing fire and giving it to men.)
Pandora moved into the home of her new husband, and took up her wifely duties. ‘Now,’ said her husband ‘you have all my worldly goods. You can take care of the house and all the animals that I have. You can go anywhere on my property and clean and sweep every corner, but I beg of you, never go to the north room. Keep it locked at all times.’
Now, Pandora set about her duties and was soon finished. As there was nothing else left to do she became restless and bored and so she began wandering around the house and eventually coming to the north room, she tried the door but it was locked. She went away, but thoughts of the room kept going around inside her head. ‘Maybe I can just take a little look’ she thought to herself, ‘just take a quick peek; surely there would be no harm in that.’ After a little while she decided she would get the keys and open the door. She returned to the room and unlocked the door and the door opened noiselessly. Pandora peered into the room, but it was totally empty with the exception of a box in the middle of it. Pandora's curiosity knew no bounds, she felt compelled to open the box, and so she did, and out came hundreds of creatures looking like insects. The insect like creatures bit and stung Pandora all over her body. Then they flew out of the window attacking her husband and the unassuming people in the countryside. Quickly, Pandora shut the lid and sat on it. While sitting there on the box she heard knocking coming from inside it. Now she was reluctant to open the box again thinking that she had already done enough harm. ‘Let me out,’ said a tiny voice, ‘and maybe I can help you.’ Pandora thought about it and decided to take one more chance. She opened the box and out came a tiny fairy.
‘I am Hope,’ said the fairy, ‘Pandora due to your curiosity you have let out all possible troubles for mankind. There will be no peace of mind for humans from this day forth. There will be greed and jealousy, insanity and lust, there will be plague and hatred, men will fight each other, wives will be set against husbands, sons against fathers, brother against brother, there will be famine, pestilence, vice and destruction. The world will know great sorrow.’
Hearing this Pandora started to cry and sob terribly, for the great harm she had brought upon herself and her fellow humans. ‘Do not cry so much Pandora,’ said the fairy, ‘yes it is true that you have unleashed all manner of afflictions upon the world, but you have also let me out. I will always be there to bring hope to humans, whenever they are in trouble. I will always be there as the promise of Hope!’
And lightly fluttering back and forth on her snowy wings, Hope touched the wounded places on Pandora's and Epimetheus' creamy skin, and relieved their suffering, then quickly flew out of the open window, to perform the same gentle healing for the other victims, and to cheer their downcast spirits.”
In the story of Pandora, we again have the female character portrayed as the antagonist while the male is cast as the protagonist. And of course, this tale should immediately remind us once again of the Garden of Eden account which carries with it striking parallels. In both stories, the woman is the one who causes trouble while the man is sort of an innocent bystander victimized by the female. But before we sneer at these narratives as mere patriarchal misogyny, we need to remember that both anecdotes are really allegories full of symbolism meant to convey a similar message.
Common to both is the idea that the female is innately curious and that inquisitiveness ultimately gets her into trouble. For Eve it was the need to know the secret that the “forbidden” Tree had to offer. For Pandora it was an overwhelming impulse to know what was in the restricted North Room of the house. But once both women gave in to their desire to know, trouble and sorrow immediately came upon them and their husbands and the whole world for that matter.
Naturally we don’t interpret the actions of either woman to be in fact a mistake, for it is necessary that one partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to learn the lessons of life. It is the serpent who plays on one’s curiosity to tempt him into eating its fruit, and of course then comes woe and misery. But unless she experiences this, she will not learn the difference between right and wrong and will consequently not become “like God.”
But again, why is it the female species that is the villain in these stories? It is not that a woman is generally more susceptible to temptation than a man nor in any wise more prone to sin. Both sexes are equally vulnerable to the enchanting words of the serpent. However it was the intention of the ancients to vilify one gender in all of these stories according to an important line of symbolism. Perhaps for many thousands of years the essential differences between the sexes have been recognized and factored into the myths and fables of antiquity. As we do today, our ancestors acknowledged that men tend to be more governed by intellect and objective thinking in contrast to women who are generally more emotional and given to subjective thinking.
With this perception in mind, the ancients linked the male gender with the spirit of a person while the female sex was associated with the soul. The distinction between the two is often not clear especially in modern thinking, but they are indeed distinct entities, for the Apostle Paul speaks of “separating soul and spirit.” The soul and spirit, both parts of our invisible being are in fact joined together, but the uniqueness of the soul is that it is the part of us that makes contact with the material body and by extension the entire material world. It is the part of our hidden being that can experience the physical life and the senses. The spirit without a link to anything earthly has no such access to feel as does the soul. For this reason, because of a woman’s inclination toward feeling and emotion which are associated with material existence, she is rightly seen as the symbol of the soul while the more intellectual and analytical male is interpreted as the symbol of the unbiased and neutral spirit.
So it is that each person is made up of both a male and female constituent part, but it is only the female aspect that is subject to temptation. For this reason, the stories we have considered illustrate the woman as responding to curiosity and not the man. However, though the soul learns through firsthand experience when its inquisitiveness is indulged, this knowledge is immediately conveyed to the spirit which is its invisible partner. This is what is meant by Eve giving the fruit to Adam to partake of as well. Similarly, in the Babylonian Creation of Man story, it is ultimately the worldly and wise woman who is intimate with the barbaric male and consequently makes him wise through the impartation of her own experiences.
We can explore more of the concept of soul in the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche which has been interpreted as an allegory using the same kind of gender symbolism. There was once a beautiful daughter of a king and queen that captured the admiration of not only her own nation but those of countries all around, and they came in droves just to behold her and gaze on her stunning beauty. Unfortunately this displeased Venus, the goddess of love whose worshippers were distracted from her in favor of this gorgeous mortal who was named Psyche.
Fearing that the undue praise their daughter was receiving was angering Venus, her parents inquired of the oracle, and they were told, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.” Accepting her fate, Psyche climbed the mountain believing it was her duty to receive the just punishment of Venus in this decree. When she got to the top of the mountain, a breeze carried her away to a delightful palace, the home of her new husband. While there all of her needs were attended to with the greatest care by invisible hosts. And her new husband was just as obscure to her for he came only in the night and departed before the dawn. Though she felt she was greatly loved by him, he would not consent for her to see him.
But this arrangement was uneasy for Psyche and she was curious to know the true identity of her spouse. Following her sisters’ advice, she secretly lit a lamp while her mysterious husband slept to unveil the monster that the oracle decreed. She also had a knife in her hand to cut of her husband’s head in the event that he were a hideous creature. But to her amazement, after he was fast asleep, her lamp revealed that he was none other than Cupid, Venus’s son and a beautiful god to behold. Cupid had fallen in love with her and contrary to his mother’s wishes had taken the lovely Psyche as his wife. But now, startled by a drop of oil from the lamp that fell on his face, Cupid awoke and fled. While departing he sent her home chiding, “Love cannot dwell with suspicion.”
At this Psyche was heartbroken and wandered day and night in search of her husband, but he was nowhere to be found. Finally she reasoned that she should try to curry favor with Venus who hated her on account of the undue praise the other mortals were heaping on her. And so Venus put her to the test to redeem herself. She gave her three impossible tasks to carry out which if it weren’t for the help of other benevolent gods she could never have accomplished. After the first two chores were accomplished much to Venus’ chagrin, she instructed Psyche for one last errand which she was sure she would fail at. She gave her a box and asked her go to Proserpine the goddess of the Underworld to fill the box with a portion of her beauty. Receiving some divine assistance, she reached the Underworld but was warned, “When Proserpine has given you the box filled with her beauty, of all things this is chiefly to be observed by you, that you never once open or look into the box nor allow your curiosity to pry into the treasure of the beauty of the goddesses.”
We shouldn’t be surprised to learn though, that on the way back from the Underworld, Psyche let her desire to know what was in the box get the best of her. When she opened the box, a death-like sleep overcame her and paralyzed her where she was on the road. But Cupid looking down from above came to her rescue and extracting the sleep from her body put it back in the box and she revived. Then he reprimanded her to say that the same kind of curiosity that expelled her from the palace was now almost the cause of her own death. However, having scolded her, he instructed her to finish the task his mother had given her, and having done so, Psyche was escorted up into heaven. There she was given ambrosia, the nectar of the gods to drink and became immortal. And there Psyche and Cupid were at last united forever, never more to part.
Unquestionably this is one myth with a “happily ever after” resolution which is not by any means the norm as many of them end tragically. We recount it here, because it naturally supports the association of the female gender with the soul and the characteristic of curiosity which the fable mentions several times. On two occasions Psyche’s inquisitiveness backfired on her, for she lost her loving husband initially in her pursuit to uncover his true identity, and then later looking into the box of Proserpine’s beauty, she was overcome by its contents and nearly died. These are certainly symbolic of the negative consequences in yielding to temptation as the other stories have shown.
But the tale has additional meaning besides this point which we are reiterating. Those who are familiar with the Greek language will recognize that the name Psyche means “soul” as well as “butterfly.” In this respect, the story is clearly an allegory of the journey of the human soul in which it begins its existence like a caterpillar held to the ground by the bonds of the material world. But over time the caterpillar undergoes a metamorphosis and becoming a butterfly can ascend high up into the heavens. Figuratively, it is to say that the soul eventually breaks free of earthly existence and moves beyond mortality to the immortality that is the characteristic of the “gods.”
But like the caterpillar, the soul must struggle to break free of the cocoon it is in if it is to achieve this heavenly freedom. Through sufferings and misfortune it is purified from its gross earthly self and made fit to enter into eternal life. It is severely tested by the serpent that it might be found worthy to graduate from physical existence, and in this narrative the trials that Venus put upon Psyche represent the work that the soul must do to merit divine favor and become immortal. As we have mentioned, one of the chief duties of the soul is to overcome evil through the knowledge it acquires in human experience, but this is only part of the picture.
The soul must not only turn away completely from evil, but it must also embrace wholeheartedly the opposing virtues. Namely it must pursue divine love. In this allegory, Cupid the god of love represents the unconditional and doting love of God for the soul. Initially however it is not appreciated by the one who has not journeyed very far along the spiritual path. Like Psyche in the beginning of the story, such love is met with suspicion and fear, and so the soul must endure hardships until it comes to desire this love with its whole heart. It is when Psyche began to look everywhere for her beloved spouse that she was on the sure road to immortality, for when the soul becomes devoted to the pursuit of divine love, then it is not long before it should achieve that goal of eternal life.
Having had a look at a number of spiritual allegories with common symbolism from the people of Europe and the Near East, we now consider a myth that has some basis in history. After the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, sea level began to rise and with it many significant episodes of local flooding became a part of the tradition of the Mediterranean peoples and those of people much further eastward. Many civilizations tell a story of a Great Flood which we consequently regard as semi-historical literature. One very popular tale comes to us out of Mesopotamia and belongs to the Epic of Gilgamesh, a small segment of which we have already cited.
From what archaeologists have deduced, the Babylonian Flood story is based on a major flood that occurred in the city states of Sumer in southern Babylonia around 3900 B.C. The Epic of Gilgamesh reports on this disaster incorporating theological overtones to offer an explanation for why the catastrophe happened. Naturally, the story is polytheistic deriving from a time when that was the norm throughout the world. The account speaks of how the gods were annoyed with mankind because with their increasing numbers on the earth and the noise they were producing, the gods could hardly get any sleep. And perhaps to a 3rd century B.C. mindset this was a valid reason especially with how deities were greatly anthropomorphized in ancient times. So conspiring together, the gods and goddesses planned to wipeout men through a flood. However one of the gods dissenting from the others secretly informed a favorite mortal about the grisly plan and instructed him to build a ship to escape the calamity.
In this ark he was to take in the seed of all living things to escape being purged out of the land. So the man began construction making the boat with multiple decks to house the many occupants that would be journeying in it. He caulked it inside and out to make it seaworthy. Then when it was time to board the ark, he entered in with all of his kin, the craftsmen who built the boat, and all the wild creatures of the field. Giving the word at the final hour, he had the hatches of the ship sealed for the storm ahead.
For six days and six nights the storm raged and we are told that the surge covered the tops of the mountains. When it was over, the man opened up a hatch and the light fell down upon his face. He observed that the waters were beginning to subside and the tops of 14 so-called “region-mountains” became visible. The ark came to rest on the top of one of them, and by the seventh day it was holding fast. To test the degree of water recession, the man sent forth a dove but it returned to him, because it found no rest for its foot. Then he let forth a swallow which likewise returned. But finally when he sent out a raven, it did not return to the boat because it found food and presumably dry ground. The man proceeded to open up all the hatches and offered up a sacrifice of some of the animals to the gods, and we are told that the deities smelled the sweet savor of the oblation.
Anyone who is familiar with the story of the Flood in Genesis will immediately recognize many parallels between the two accounts, and of course it is because the version Moses wrote was an adapted form of the original Babylonian tale. They clearly tell the same tale with some degree of variation. But the flood stories of other civilizations while potentially deriving or borrowing from the Mesopotamian source are not as closely related. The Greeks have their own myth that tells of Jupiter being angry with the human race. Because of war, hatred within families, and even human sacrifice the king of the gods decided to put an end to mankind by drowning it, because it was too risky to burn it lest the heavens catch on fire. He arranged for the rivers to flood the land and the ocean to surge in upon countryside so that everyone was washed away save a few people on various mountaintops. Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were two such survivors having been warned by his father, the Titan Prometheus of the coming disaster. When the waters came, they mounted a chest upon which they sailed to the top of Mount Parnassos. Jupiter remembering that this couple was very pious and faithful worshippers of the gods took pity on Deucalion and Pyrrha and caused the flood to subside.
Once the crisis was over, the pair was concerned that they were too old to repopulate the race, so they entered into a local temple that they stumbled across and approaching the altar inquired of the goddess what they should do. They were told, “Depart from the temple with head veiled and garments unbound and cast behind you the bones of your mother.” Appalled at this seemingly disrespectful instruction, they thought about it for awhile and decided that the oracle was referring to stones which are figuratively the bones of mother earth. So finding some muddy rocks nearby, the man cast several behind him and the woman cast a few behind her. The mud became flesh and the stone became bones and formed a new race of men and women.
The flood story of the Hindus also shares parallels with the other three accounts yet it has its own particular details that set it apart. According to the myth, a king named Manu once went down to the river to bathe where he caught a small fish in his hands. The fish asked the king that he would offer him protection, and so Manu put him in a bowl. But the fish grew rapidly and so the king was forced to put him in a larger tank, and when that couldn’t contain him he eventually had to be relocated to the river and finally to the ocean. In exchange for Manu’s kindness, the fish which was really a god in disguise warned the king of an impending flood. So Manu built a boat and when the waters rose, he called upon this god known as Matsya to help him. When the fish came to his aid, Manu tied ropes around its horn and so was successfully guided through the floodwaters to land atop the Himalayas.
When the waters had receded Manu descended the mountain and realizing that he was the only survivor was concerned about repopulating the human race. He proceeded to offer the gods sacrifices of butter, milk, and curds which he poured out as oblations into the waters. After a year’s time a beautiful woman named Ida emerged from the waters and came to him announcing herself as the “daughter of Manu.” His prayers answered, the two went on to procreate and sire the race of Manu which are commonly regarded as the Aryans. In these final details we see an interesting parallel to the Adam and Eve story, for we note that as Eve was formed from the rib of Adam and was in some respect his offspring, so too was Ida brought forth from Manu that she identified herself as his daughter. Of course in both stories the women begotten of the men become their wives and proliferate the human race. We infer from this line of thinking that the source of both accounts is rooted somewhere in the Proto-Indo-European religion that was centered once upon a time in the Near East.
While the Flood myths seem certainly to be based on some historical event such as the one that inundated Babylonia 6000 years ago, other myths seem to be based on historical or semi-historical figures. Every civilization seems to have its mighty hero, a strong man that is celebrated by the nation. Of course in the Jewish tradition it was the great Samson whose incredible feats were recorded in the Book of Judges. Killing a lion with his bare hands, slaughtering a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone, and breaking the ropes that bound him were just a few of his many fantastic deeds. Similar to the Samson of the Hebrews, there was Thor of the Scandinavians, the strongest of gods and of men whose adventures are also chronicled in the Norse sagas. He was renowned for slaughtering the giants, the archenemies of the gods with his famous hammer which split the skull of many a foe and hurled him back to Jotunheim.
Many would recognize immediately the great hero and strongman of the Greeks as the legendary Hercules. Along with other famous men, he allegedly was part of the great Argonautic expedition that sought to retrieve the Golden Fleece and which we have suggested may have been semi-historical as one of the first major maritime expeditions of the Greeks. According to the myths, Hercules was the son of Jupiter and of Alcmena, a mortal. The Hellenistic fables always present Jupiter as a bit of philander chasing other goddesses and even mortal women to sire numerous offspring. Of course this angered his wife Juno who often sought to punish his lovers and their children.
This half divine, half mortal man was consequently hated by Juno who declared war on him from his birth. She imposed upon him a life of harrowing adventures which are collectively known as the “Twelve Labors of Hercules.” Like with Samson, one of these involved killing a lion which he strangled with his bare hands. A few exploits had to do with killing terrorizing monsters like the nine-headed Hydra or the giants Antaeus and Cacus. Other deeds demanded Hercules’ harnessing of the forces of nature as when he was forced to clean the stalls of three thousand oxen and diverted two rivers into the stables to wash them out in one fell swoop.
On one occasion, the hero was asked to descend to the Underworld and apprehend Cerberus, the legendary three-headed dog which guarded the gates of Hades. With his brute strength he brought the beast up into the light of day and then returned him back down to hell. At another time, the strongman was given his most difficult task of all. He was charged with journeying to the West and getting the Golden Apples of the Hesperides which of course were well guarded as we remember. So he came to Mount Atlas in northwestern Africa, but not knowing where to find the coveted fruits, he petitioned Atlas the great Titan to help him. After the unsuccessful war with the gods, the giant Atlas was forced to hold up the heavens forever and so was in that posture when Hercules found him. Atlas agreed to go find the apples under the condition that Hercules stood in his place and held up the heavens until he should return. The hero took this burden on his shoulders and successfully stood under the tremendous wait until Atlas returned with the fruit at which point Hercules returned home again.
We are told that at one point in his life, Hercules married a woman named Dejanira. They lived happily together for three years until on one day in their travels they came to a river that they had to ford. There was a Centaur (half man, half horse) there who was giving passage for a fee across the river, so Hercules put his wife on the back of the Centaur to cross over. Unfortunately, the centaur must have been enamored by Dejanira, for attempted to gallop off with her. Hercules immediately coming to her rescue shot an arrow into his heart. While the centaur lay dying, he told Dejanira to take some of his blood to keep as a good luck charm to preserve the love of her husband which she decided to oblige.
Sometime later, Hercules became fond of a fair maiden that he had captured in war, and Dejanira was afraid that he would forget his love for her in favor of this prisoner of war. So when Hercules was planning to offer sacrifices to the gods in thanksgiving for his victory, he asked his wife to fetch his white robe which he wore on those special occasions. Taking advantage of the situation, Dejanira soaked the garment in the centaur’s blood to impart its magical powers on the fabric. But when Hercules put the robe on, instead of enamoring him toward his wife, it seeped poison into all of his limbs such that he was in intense agony. He tried to pull it off but it stuck to his body, and so Hercules began to tear away his own flesh in an effort to free himself. Resigned to the excruciating pain, he ascended Mount Oeta where he built a funeral pyre for himself with the trees on the mountain top. Then he laid himself down upon it. With an unexpectedly serene countenance, he asked his friend to light the fire which quickly engulfed the great hero in flame.
Like Samson, it seems that Hercules’ love for women was his undoing or at least the immediate cause of his demise. Like his Hebrew counterpart who by a final act of strength brought down the great temple of Dagon upon himself and 3000 Philistines, Hercules could only resolve to offer himself up as a sacrifice to escape his bitter hardship. But it didn’t go unnoticed by his father Jupiter who recognizing that his son was in part divine received him on the heavenly shores. The king of the gods enveloped Hercules in a cloud and took him up in a four-horse chariot to dwell among the stars.
As with a number of myths we have reviewed, allegory can be found in the story of Hercules in several facets of the fable. As mentioned earlier, it was not uncommon for the gods to take mortal lovers and procreate what we might call half-breeds, those who were both of divine and human origin. Such children though special in Greek mythology in reality depict the story of all humanity, for created in the image of God, we all bear the seed of the divine within us, that immortal part which cannot be destroyed and is destined to return one day to union with God.
The legend of Hercules then portrays the journey of man who must ultimately shed the mortal part of his being for the immortal, and this he does by the purification that comes through hardship and suffering. The Twelve labors of Hercules represent those challenges or tests that we are given in life and in which we need to succeed to be found worthy of heaven. For Hercules none of the tasks he was enjoined to perform were trivial. They all required a heroic effort as they do for all of us, for tests are imposed upon us to stretch us and try the mettle of our souls.
Of all the labors that Hercules was required to perform, the tale emphasizes that it was his quest for the Golden Apples that was the hardest of them all. Of course we can identify with this statement, for the search for that coveted fruit was tantamount to the pursuit of immortality itself as we have discussed. Yet when the soul has dedicated itself toward achieving the goal of everlasting life, it will stop at nothing to acquire it, even what are described as nearly impossible tasks.
Like Samson whose greatest struggle was with women and the trouble they brought for him, so it was with Hercules that after he married the ball was set in motion to bring about the climax of the story. We may think of this as imagery depicting the final conflict of a person with his own soul, for as we have seen it is the female gender that represents that part of our being. In the end, one must fully conquer his own soul which is to say that that part of us which has time and time again been swayed and governed by temptation must finally become inured against the suggestions of the serpent.
It is then that one is at last prepared to fully offer himself up as a sacrifice to God, a living sacrifice completely dedicated to fulfilling God’s will for it. Both Samson and Hercules at the end of their lives offered themselves in this sacrificial way. The one brought down the Philistine temple upon himself, and the other made of himself a burnt offering which was favorably received by Jupiter (God.) As a reward for his heroic life, Hercules was made immortal and given a place to dwell among the gods.
Keeping with mythical characters that parallel the historical or semi-historical figures of the Bible, we note that just as the Greeks had their version of the Old Testament Samson, so too did they have their own rendition of the prophet Jonah. According to one fable, there was once a great musician from the City of Corinth named Arion who heard about a musical contest in Sicily that he eagerly wished to attend. So he travelled to that island and through the merits of his skill won that competition along with its ample monetary prize. Boarding a boat back for Corinth, Arion set sail along with his new found wealth for his home country. But not unlike Jonah, his voyage was not to be a tranquil one though it wasn’t because of stormy seas. Instead the crewmen of the ship became avaricious of his wealth and were plotting to kill him. They offered him a choice of either being slaughtered on the boat or jumping into the sea to perish in the water.
Arion elected to take his chances in the water but requested that before he should die that he should be able to perform one last time singing a song to his harp. Having known of his fame, the greedy sailors indulged the artist for this seemingly harmless petition. But little did anyone know that the beautiful music Arion produced was attracting the inhabitants of the sea to come around the boat and listen. When Arion jumped in the water to receive his fate, he was pleasantly surprised to find a dolphin which offered him his back to ferry him safely to shore. Like the huge fish that received Jonah, the dolphin carried Arion to land in one piece.
Once back in Corinth, Arion’s friends learned of how he won the musical contest and of the robbery and attempted murder. When the boat that Arion was ejected from finally came to harbor, the sailors pretended as if the singer was still back reveling in his success back in Sicily. But when Arion came forth and stood among them, they realized they were found out and thinking that the musician had become some sort of god fell down prostrate at his feet. Though in an age where capital punishment was certainly the norm, we surprisingly learn that it was not Arion’s desire for those who sought to hurt him. His friend addressed the sailors, “Arion wishes not your blood. Ye slaves of avarice be gone! Seek some barbarous land, and never may aught beautiful delight your souls.” In this closing detail there seems to be some parallel to the story of Jonah, for we remember that his mission was to warn the people of Nineveh to repent. It was a message of mercy that came from the prophet’s lips which the people wisely heeded. And so Arion likewise showed mercy to the sailors who could have otherwise received much worse for their misdeeds.
With the story of Arion, we wrap up our look at historically based myths and turn our attention once again to those fables that support a theology similar to the bible. In particular we will consider a thread of various ideas that find their counterpart in the scriptures. In the story of Jupiter and Semele we find one such concept. As we have mentioned, Jupiter was quite a philanderer and sired the god Bacchus through a mortal named Semele. Of course Juno was jealous and wished to punish the woman for captivating the attention of her husband. With malice she appeared to Semele as an aged woman to plant doubts in her that it was really Jupiter who had slept with her. She coaxed her to ask Jupiter to prove who he really was by appearing to her in his full splendor as he appears in heaven. Buying into the suggestion, Semele asked Jupiter to swear an oath that he would give her a favor and without considering what she might ask he did so. When she told him her request he was horrified but could not go back on his pledge to her. So he clothed himself in his full splendor and entered into her chamber, but poor Semele could not endure the brightness of his immortal radiance and she was reduced to a heap of ashes.
Those who are familiar with the Book of Exodus will recall a similar story albeit with a more benign ending in the life of Moses. In that account, the prophet said to God, “Now show me your glory.” To this the Lord replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you … but you cannot see my face, for no one may see my face and live.” And so God placed Moses in a cleft of a rock and put his hand over it so that Moses would not see his full glory. Only after he had passed by was Moses able to see his “back” that he should not be destroyed. The message is of course that God who dwells in the highest heaven is arrayed in a brightness far greater than the sun that it would destroy a mortal frame to behold it in its fullness. That is why all manifestations of God in the physical world are always “cloaked” to shield mortals from the deadly rays of his majesty.
Another interesting point of theology comes to us from the tradition of the Romans and was the belief that every man and woman was accompanied throughout his whole life by a spirit who watched over and guarded him. Such a spirit was also instrumental in giving them being at their entrance into life. For men, the spirit was known as a Genius, and for women it was a Juno. Every year, each man and woman would make offerings to this protector in acknowledgement of the role that he played in his life. Naturally, the idea of guardian angels is very biblical, for Jesus spoke of them in the gospels. Warning his disciples never to look down on children he said, “I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” That the Romans had a conviction that guardian angels had something to do with our formation in the womb of our mother was also remarkable, for Judeo-Christian tradition and the scriptures support this notion as well. When Peter miraculously escaped from prison, he knocked on the door of the home in which fellow believers were praying for his release. When a woman answered it, in her excitement she ran back to those assembled and told them that Peter was at the door. Unfortunately at first they thought she was crazy, and though the woman insisted it was in fact Peter in the flesh, they replied, “It must be his angel.” This response reflects an ancient understanding, namely that each of us resembles his guardian angel, because it is such an angel who is involved in forming us in our mother’s womb. Normally this heavenly craftsman does so after his own image so that we do indeed look like him.
Contemplating one more tidbit, we recall the legendary creature Medusa in Greek mythology. Once a beautiful maiden whose chief glory was her hair, Medusa dared to vie in beauty with Minerva. We have already seen from earlier examples that this goddess did not take very well to those mortals who defied her, and so it was with Medusa whom she transformed into a hideous being known as a Gorgon. With huge teeth, brazen claws, and snaky hair she was an imposing enemy to all who beheld her, for none could look upon her without turning immediately to stone.
It is hard not to see in this vignette a similarity to the story of Lot’s wife in Genesis. As many would quickly recall, when Lot and his family were fleeing from Sodom they were warned not to look back on the burning city. Lot and his daughters complied with this instruction but his wife failed to do so and pivoting around to have a last look was turned into a pillar of salt. Theologically, the idea is that to look upon evil indicates a residual desire in us for what is sinful, and ultimately yielding to such longings will be to our own destruction.
We move on to another important mythological parallel that we see in both Greek and Norse fables. In both traditions we have an analogous group of three women known to the Hellenistic tales as the Fates and to the Scandinavian sagas as the Norns. According to the Greeks these three women were known by the names of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Their job was to spin the thread of human destiny, but they were also equipped with shears to cut it off whenever they pleased. Appropriately, they were the daughers of the goddess Themis (Law) who was the counselor to Jupiter. The Norns on the other hand were named Urd (past,) Verdani (present,) and Skuld (future.) They were the Norse equivalent of the fates who lived underneath one of the roots of Ygdrasill and spun the threads of life for every creature. The fate of every human, animal, and god was in their hands, and whenever a child was born, these three women spun its fate in their threads.
It seems that every culture has conceived of forces that govern the courses of our lives believing that the events that happen to us are not random but follow some divine law. This is of course the biblical understanding that the law of God is so precise in the outworking of a mortal life that it flows more or less like clockwork according to a divine plan. It is the idea of destiny or predestination which was often spoken of by the Apostle Paul. The idea of determinism is not as popular today as it might have been for the ancients perhaps because as a modern and technologically advanced people we like to think of ourselves as autonomous and marching to the beat of our own drum. But this, the truth be told is an illusion of our own imagination for there are invisible forces governing the path of our lives that are beyond our comprehension. Our ancestors understood this and sought to illustrate it the pages of their myths.
The work of the Fates is seen in the story of man named Meleager. When he was born his mother Althea saw these masters of destiny spinning the threads of fate for her son, and they informed her that his life would last no longer than a brand then burning on the hearth. At hearing this Althea immediately collected this brand, quenched it, and kept it safe for years to safeguard her son’s life.
As it happened, the goddess Diana in ill favor toward a mortal sent an enormous wild boar into the countryside that proceeded to lay waste the region. Many gathered together to hunt the beast down and kill it including Meleager. Working with the heroes of old, those Argonauts we have mentioned earlier, Meleager would deal a deathblow to the boar with his spear. His triumph over the beast was met with a roar of praise from his comrades. In celebrating his success, he chose to give the head of the boar and its hide to a woman named Atalanta who was his love interest and also on the hunt with the others. But at this gesture, Meleager’s uncles were envious and snatched these trophies away from Atalanta. The audacity of these relatives incensed Meleager and despite family bonds he ran his sword through their hearts in his rage.
Then after not too long, Althea heard the news and was torn between grief for her brothers and the thought of vengeance for her son. She took out the firebrand that she had so carefully guarded for many years and held it over the fire while an emotional wrestling match was taking place within her between these opposing feelings. She went back and forth between her allegiance as a sister and her devotion as a mother. Finally after attempting four times to throw the brand back into the fire, she decided to take the side of vengeance. Casting the brand back into the flames from which she rescued it so many years earlier, she turned her son over to death in accordance with what the Fates had predicted at Meleager’s birth. The message of the story is that try as we must, we will simply be unable to circumvent destiny and thwart the divine plan. It might occur to us to devise a way to temporarily stop something unpleasant or undesirable from happening. However ultimately something which we had not calculated will ensure that the determined events which we have attempted to frustrate will in the end come to pass.
A similar illustration of this principle can be found in the continuing story of Atalanta whose beloved Meleager was snuffed out of life so prematurely. The girl had been told, “Do not marry; marriage will be your ruin.” And initially at least, Atalanta did her best to avoid men, though she nonetheless had many suitors. As a deterrent to those who would have her, she imposed a condition that she would marry any one who could beat her in a foot race, but if the suitor should lose he must die. As she was very fast, this turned many would-be husbands away except for one Hippomenes who became infatuated with her. Knowing he could not win the race unaided, he called upon Venus to assist him. She gave him three apples to use in the race against his opponent, and they worked like a charm, for each time Atalanta threatened to pull away from him into the lead he would throw one down and distracted, she would stop to pick it up. In this way he won the race and won his wife. The lovers were very happy but in their joy forgot the kindness that Venus had shown them. Feeling slighted she managed to incur the displeasure of Cybele (Jupiter’s mother) against them, and she turned them into a lion and lioness respectively and yoked them to her cart. And so we have another vivid warning against attempting to buck destiny.
That there are laws of divine justice that cannot be breached is depicted in another interesting story concerning a young man named Admetus. He was a suitor for a girl named Alcestis whom her father promised in marriage to the one who could come for her in a chariot drawn by lions and boars. Of course without supernatural assistance such a feat would be impossible, and so Admetus called upon Apollo for help. When the god obliged, Admetus received Alcestis as his wife, but sadly he became ill shortly thereafter. Seeing that Admetus was near death, Apollo petitioned the Fates to spare him on the condition that someone else would agree to die in his stead. Confident that one of his servants would help him, Admetus was surprised that no one was willing to make the sacrifice. Neither brave warriors nor the old who had few years left and not even his own parents could consent to helping in this way. At last his beloved wife with a generous and selfless spirit offered herself as a substitute for her husband, and though she was the last person in the world that he would have lay down her life, there was no one else to help.
So Admetus began to revive while Alcestis sickened. But much to everyone’s surprise, an unexpected twist of fate intervened as Alcestis rapidly approached death. Just at the time when she was about to expire, Hercules arrived at Admetus’ palace, and seeing the dying woman he attempted to rescue her. When Death (the representative of the Underworld) arrived to take his victim, Hercules seized him and forced him to give up his prey. And so Alcestis recovered and was restored again to her husband.
The myth illustrates the idea that divine justice is exacting and requires strict compliance. However, there are ways to temper the hard law of justice as the story depicts. Even greater than the law of justice is the law of mercy which was epitomized by Alcestis’ willing sacrifice of herself. As far as the Fates were concerned, as long as someone would die young, justice would be satisfied. We could see in this fable a parallel to the Christian belief in the sacrifice of Christ who offered himself to the executioners that humanity could be relieved of its debt of sins. What is interesting is that the Greek story closely portrays the principles that Jesus taught in the Beatitudes, for one of the eight statements he made was that “those who show mercy will receive mercy.” Because Alcestis showed mercy to her husband at great cost to herself, she ultimately received mercy through the last minute assistance of Hercules. Likewise, Christ himself who showed humanity the greatest act of mercy was not left in the grave but brought back to life again as a reward for the sacrifice he had made.
Finally, we end this examination of mythology by considering briefly the theology of the future (eschatology) and the End of the Age which is similar in many religions to our own. In particular we mention the Norse rendition which centers on the great battle of Ragnarok. As we have discussed, the enemies of the gods and men were the giants along with Loki and his offspring Fenris the wolf, the Midgard serpent, and Hela. For many long years the gods were able to keep their enemies at bay and normally confined to Jotunheim through their combined efforts and the strength of Thor. But it was foretold in the sagas that eventually a period of cruel winters and moral chaos will come to pass when the giants and other monsters should rise up and attack the world of gods and men from various directions. Odin will fight Fenris the wolf and lose his life, while Thor will face the Midgard Serpent and they will kill each other. The sun will turn black, the stars will vanish, and fire will play against the firmament. The earth will sink into the sea but the “world tree” (Ygdrasill) will not be destroyed and the earth will rise again, purified and renewed so that unsown fields will bear wheat. Accompanied by his innocent slayer Hod, Baldur will return to rule over worthy mortals who will then live forever in a shining hall thatched with gold in the dwellings of the Gods while two new human beings, Lif and Lifthrasir (“Life” and “Vitality”) will emerge from the world tree to repopulate the earth itself. Naturally, we can see in this sketch a model of the Christian belief in the final conflict between good and evil before the Return of Christ (symbolized by the god of love and light Baldur.) Thereafter a golden age ensues characterized by a new heaven and new earth in which wickedness and misery will be no more and as the Scandinavians envision it, gods and men will live happily ever after.