27 August 2014

The Ghostly Dance

Near Fushimi stands an old, abandoned temple.  Known as the Shozenji temple, for many centuries it has been believed that the temple was occupied by hundreds - if not thousands - of spirits.  The story comes from an old vagabond priest who, needing a place to stay, sought shelter in the deserted temple one rainy evening.

The sound of the rain and wind, which usually lulled him to sleep, only kept the priest awake.  Soon, however, another sound drifted from the upper room of the temple, a sound which filled the old priest with a growing dread, for though the temple seemed unoccupied, he clearly heard the sound of shuffling feet.  Grabbing a torch, the priest said a prayer and slowly climbed the steps to the upper room.

When he got to the room, the priest let out a shriek.  There, in the darkness of the temple, were ghostly, glowing shapes of hideous demons and deformed spirits.  The priest, not wishing to encounter one of them, fled from the temple and, that very night, warned everyone in the town of his supernatural visions.

-Japanese Legend

17 August 2014

The Myth of the Obstinate Man

Once a man and his wife lost a child.  The child was only a baby, and the wife went into mourning.  As was the custom then, she was forbidden from doing any work until the period of mourning was over.  Her husband, however, did not observe the period, for he was an obstinate man.  And so, even though it was still the period of mourning, he asked his wife to sew the skin of his kayak, and repair it.

"I cannot," his wife replied.  But he persisted, and so she did as asked.  She brought the kayak to the sea and began to sew it with her needle and thread.  As she sewed, the needle and thread began to make a queer sound, which grew louder and louder until it filled the air.  A great monster came up out of the sea.

"Why do you labor?" it roared.  "Are you not in mourning?"

The woman beheld the dog-like monster, and grew afraid.  "My husband has required me to work," she said.  Upon hearing this, the monster leaped from the sea and tried to kill the obstinate man, but the man overpowered the monster and killed it.

A voice roared from the heavens, "Why have you done this?"  And suddenly the Moon Man, whose dog was killed, stood there.  Without waiting for an answer, he fell upon the man and tried to kill him, but the obstinate man grabbed the Moon Man by the throat and would have killed him had not the Moon Man shouted out, "If you kill me, there will be no more light!"

The obstinate man let go of the Moon Man, for he did not want to dwell in darkness forever.  Upon being freed, the Moon Man brought his sea-dog back to life, and then took the other dogs of his sledge team and threw them into the air.  He climbed aboard his sledge and prepared to ascend back into the heavens, when the obstinate man asked him, "How may I visit you in the heavens?"

The Moon Man told him to lighten his sledge team, and to ascend into the heavens in the very same manner in which he prepared to ascend.  "But you must not go around the bright side of the rock," he said, "or you will lose your heart."  Then he left.

The next morning, the obstinate man took his sledge team and washed them in the ocean.  Then he hitched them to his sledge and ascended into the sky.  As he approached the rock, however, he became obstinate and decided to go around the bright side of the rock.  On that side was an old woman honing her knife, and as the obstinate man passed by, she cut out his heart.  He arrived in the heavens cold and unfeeling, and so the Moon Man had to retrieve the man's heart and put it back in his chest.  

Then the obstinate man left the Moon Man's house, and returned to his home.  After that time, he was no longer obstinate.

- From the Inuit Peoples of Alaska

05 July 2014

The Myth of Fire

Back when man was new, no one knew how to make fire.  At night, they were cold, and during the day, they were hungry, for they had no way to cook food.  But Fuxi felt pity for the people, and so sent a thunderstorm down into the forest.  The trees burned with the lightning, and the people were afraid.  But one of them felt the warmth coming from the fire, and called everyone to him.

The people, rather than cold, could now stay warm.  But there were also animals in the forest, and many of them were killed by the lightning, and their flesh began to cook.  When the people smelled the enticing aroma of the cooking meat, they tried some, and then learned how to cook.  So from then on, day after day, the people would light branches, and keep the fire going.

But one day, the young man in charge of keeping the fire going fell asleep, and the fire went out.  Having grown accustomed to warmth, light, and food, the people were more terrified than before, and were at their wits' end.  Fuxi came to the first young man (the one who discovered the use of fire) in a dream, and told him that he could find fire in the country of Sui Ming.  So the young man awoke and set out to find Sui Ming.

After many struggles and many days, the young man reached Sui Ming, but found it to be a place of total darkness.  There was no fire - there was not even a hint of the sun or moon.  Sui Ming had no light, and the young man, confused and (slightly) scared, sat down under a great tree whose roots stretched for thousands of miles in all directions.  Its branches hung thick and dense overhead, and the young man expected it to be dark under the tree, as well.

But it was not.

As the young man watched, flashes of light would spark around the tree.  Upon closer inspection, he saw that they were birds who pecked at the tree, causing sparks, and that the wood of the tree could cause fire.  So he broke off a branch from the tree, and used it to bore a hole in the tree's trunk.  At long last, smoke drifted from the hole as he drilled, and a fire started.

The young man went home, taking his new skill with him.  Now, the people have a fire that will never go out, because they can always make fire.  They are never cold, nor hungry, nor afraid, and they named the young man "Sui," because he brought them fire.

-Chinese Mythology

27 June 2014

Are All Myths Created Equal?

I'm a regular visitor to the Debunking Christianity forum, a site devoted to "proving" atheism and . . . well, debunking Christianity.  One of the assertions that I hear stated over and over (and over, and over, and over. . . . ) is that Christianity, like all myths, is nothing but a bunch of hooey made up by superstitious (and possibly stupid) people.  For the purposes of this post, I'm less interested in debating the merits of Christianity as I am the idea that all myths are fairy tales, fabricated by people who don't know any better.

Because that's simply not true.  Some myths may fall into that category, but not all.  Take, for example, the story of Indra and Vrtra.  Now, most literary analysts attribute this story to some sort of primitive terror over a thunderstorm.  They see phrases like, "the desert lands were flooded" and take that to mean that the whole episode refers to rain, and that the people responsible for the story were too primitive to understand a thunderstorm.  And it makes sense, but only if you ignore the rest of the text.

Notice that the dragon "lay on the mountain," "encompass[ing] the mountain" and "holding back the rivers."  This is not rain being withheld, or a drought, but mountain rivers being blocked.  And what happens when Indra breaks the dragon's body into pieces?  The rivers "flow over the mighty Vrtra," carving canyons in the mountain and watering the dry desert lands as they make their way to the ocean.

Nothing about this text indicates terror, or confusion, or superstition.  It is, in fact, telling a story about what sounds like an actual event:  the mountain rivers were blocked by something (maybe a dragon-like creature, maybe an ice dam - who knows?), and someone named Indra (or even a bolt of lightning) unblocked the rivers.  It's fairly straight-forward.

And yet many of the analyses we read tell us that these were primitive people who didn't know where lightning came from, thought thunder was a dragon, and attributed rain to the supernatural.  Nice idea, but there are problems:

1) They were not primitive people, as the cultures who wrote this text built elaborate and remarkably-engineered cities complete with sewage systems.

2) True, they did believe that Indra wielded lightning (similar to Zeus), but notice the contrast:  lightning wasn't viewed as an unexplained, supernatural phenomenon, because lightning was separate from Indra.  It was not a god, but was a separate and distinct tool used by a god.  The fact that they couldn't observe how lightning forms doesn't mean they were stupid, it just means the technology hadn't been invented yet.  We must never be so arrogant as to assume that pushing a button, or plugging in a machine makes us more intelligent.

3)  There is no mention of rain in this text.

Superstition, or narrative?  Hard to say, but my money's on the narrative interpretation, as it is with much (though not all) of mythology.  But there are many groups of people out there who immediately dismiss all ancient texts of any religion - whether it's the Mahabharata, the Bible, the Iliad, or any of the other numerous texts out there.  Thor never existed?  Why?  Because thunder isn't formed by a god.  And while that's true, who's to say a warrior skilled in the art of hammer-throwing didn't live centuries (or several millennia) ago?  Maybe he really was the son of Odin, a king who had lost his eye in battle.

Our approach to ancient literature - indeed, all of life - should be neither blind acceptance, nor blind rejection, but one of discernment.  Dr. Bart Ehrman, in his book, Jesus, Interrupted, makes an argument against the resurrection of Jesus by saying that miracles, by their nature, cannot be historically demonstrated.  This gives him free reign to dismiss most, if not all, of the claims of Christianity (for a rebuttal to his claim, see my related blog here).  On the other hand, people lined up and drank a poisoned drink because they blindly accepted the claims of one man

These are but two examples of living (and dying) without discernment.  Whether we're historians, educators, or study mythology as a hobby, we must never, ever, dismiss any culture or people group as primitive and stupid, but neither should we open our arms and accept anything and everything that comes our way.