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.

12 April 2014

Flood Legends: Global Clues of a Common Event

Flood Legends is currently #98 in Amazon's "Historical Studies" category for Kindle.  With the new movie, Noah, out, people are confused as to what the Bible says about Noah and his ark.  What better way to help them sort it out than by purchasing a copy for them!  Let's get this book to #1 in "Historical Studies"!

17 March 2014

The Myth of St. Patrick

St. Patrick of Ireland is one of the world's most popular saints.  Today, he is celebrated as the Apostle of Ireland.  He was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland, in the year 387 A.D., to Roman parents.

Around the age of fourteen, Patrick was taken by a raiding party of Celts ("barbarians" to the Romans), who returned to Ireland with him, forcing him into slavery as a shepherd.  Ireland at this time was populated by Druids and pagans, and while Patrick quickly learned the language and practices of the people who held him, he never forsook his faith.  In fact, he once wrote, during his captivity:

"The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was rosed, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same. . . . I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain."

Patrick remained in Ireland for six years when, after receiving a dream from God, he made his way to the southern coast.  There, a group of sailors agreed to take him back to Britain, and, after reuniting with his family, he made preparations to enter into the priesthood.  It was during this time that he felt the call of God on his life, telling him to take the Gospel to Ireland.  After being ordained a bishop, he returned to Ireland (433 A.D.). 

There are many legends surrounding Patrick, but what we do know is that in the thirty years in which he traveled through Ireland, he preached the Gospel, started churches, and converted thousands.  His favorite object lesson was the shamrock, which he used to explain the Trinity (three separate and distinct leaves, but only one plant).  His life of poverty and suffering eventually caught up with him, and he died on March 17, 461.

For more information on St. Patrick of Ireland, see www.catholic.org.