Thursday, June 30, 2005

When They Severed Earth From Sky

An interesting book on mythology, and why it’s not all just a bunch of crazy stories. The authors show how ancient myths were often really descriptions of important events, passed down through oral transmission amazingly unchanged for sometimes thousands of years, until they were eventually written down.

If you think about it, in the really ancient world there was less ‘news’ to talk about. Technology, Politics and Global Events were mostly non issues. The most newsworthy happenings would all have been natural: Floods, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Eclipses and Comets. So when an event such as these happened, it was important to describe it in such a way that the story could survive through many generations, without being written down, since writing hadn’t been invented yet, and nobody was sure when it would.

Why was it important to the ancients to preserve these events? It could have been for a few reasons: Either to warn their descendents about it, e.g. Not to live in a volcanic area, or just for the historical record, or maybe they attached some religious significance to the event.

The key to their success was in the encoding of the myth. The message was often repeated in various ways, so that even if one part of the message got messed up, the key point would still be there. Also, memorable details were often added to make it more interesting.

Using some examples of fire breathing giant myths from the Native Americans, they show how these myths are actually accounts of volcanic activity in that area.

The book in general has two explanations for why these events are depicted as fantastical tales of fire breathing giants and the like. Either these additional details were invented to try and explain the volcanic phenomenon, since the human mind naturally tries to find explanations for things. Or alternatively the ancients knew there wasn’t really a fire breathing giant inside the volcano, but they added that detail just to make the story more interesting and therefore more likely to survive through the ages.

They also show how other myths, such as dragons, came to be. Basically, grave diggers used to dig up ancient burial mounds and the methane gas inside would catch fire. Early dragon mythology such as Beowulf was really about fire breathing serpents, which again was either an extra detail added, or an explanation of where the fire came from. The dragon myth isn’t about dinosaurs, and are certainly not proof that dinosaurs and humans once existed together.

They briefly mention Har Sinai as a typical volcano myth. However, it seems to me there is one significant difference. In all the other volcano myths, the fire breathing giant never delivered a message of ethical monotheism.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Denial & Delusion Theory

The Rebetzin Hador has a very good policy for dealing with unpleasant truths; she calls it ‘Denial and Delusion’. In other words, just ignore the problems, pretend they don’t exist and they magically disappear. Of course it can always come back to bite you later, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the D&D policy for dealing with worn-out break pads. But, it can come in useful, especially for dealing with unpleasant realities which are never going to change, for example a husband who doesn’t like to do laundry.

This policy is actually a variant of HaRav Dovid Adam’s (zt”l) famous vort 'Somebody Elses Problem' (HHGTTG Chelek Shlishi), so kudos to the Rebbetzin for being mechaven to such gadlus.

I was reminded of this on reading Gil’s latest post on Yetzias Mitzrayim. This post really surprised me, and not just because he linked to me. (Yay ! Gil linked to me.) He brings up quite a serious problem, that of the historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim. In some ways, this issue is worse than the Breishis questions, which can be explained in a variety of ways.

Frumteens, as is typical of fundamentalists, provides a misleading and inaccurate answer. Gil thinks it’s better to be honest and say there is no good answer. I have mixed feelings on this, but it strikes me that here we have another approach to dealing with all those Science and Torah issues: It’s the Denial and Delusion Theory.

Basically, this theory works as follows. Firstly, deny there are any questions. Quote bogus scientists, or simply make things up. Pretend that many scientists do agree with the Torah’s account. Then add a good dose of delusion. Say that Scientists, Archeologists and Historians are always changing their minds anyway, so who knows ? Maybe in the future they will all agree with the Torah’s account.

Its the Denial and Delusion Theory for Life the Universe and Everything !And if that doesn't work, just try changing the topic. A discussion of fish and chairs seems to work quite well.