Middle Eastern Mythology

S. H. Hooke. Penguin Harmondsworth (1976).

Points out the ambiguity and the meaning and use of the term myth. The usual distinction of myth, involves legend, saga, folk story and marchen. “The myth is a product of human imagination arising out of a definite situation and intended to do something.” Hooke poses the question “…not, is it true? But what is it intended to do?”.  This “…uses the notion of function as a criterion.” Uses function to distinguish types of myth. Types of myth are ritual myths, cult myths, prestige myths, and eschatological myths.

The ritual myth have texts mostly from temple archives. They imply the existence of highly developed urban civilisation. They rest on a basis of agriculture with elaborate patterns of activity, rituals, and thus priests.

Rituals are a “…system of actions performed in a fixed way, at regular times, by authorised persons who possessed the specialised knowledge of the correct way in which these actions should be carried out.” The whole elaborate pattern is aimed at securing the well-being of the community – by controlling (placating?) incalculable forces by which man found himself surrounded.

Ritual consisted of actions, spoken words (chants, incantations) were the magical efficacy essential to the ritual. Ritual thus consisted of the part done (Greek dromenon) and spoken part (Greek muthos or myth). “In the ritual the myth told the story of what was being enacted; it described a situation; but the story was not told to amuse an audience; it was a word of power. The repetition of the magic words had power to bring about, or recreate, the situation which they described.”

Thus – see the Enuma Elish – the myth of creation at the Babylonian New Year Festival. Recitation of Enuma Elish by priests – thus did something – which was magical.

It is necessary to understand societies where rituals formed part of an essential community life. Historical truth is irrelevant. The function of the myth was not knowledge but action, thus “…long before the appearance of the earliest forms of historical records, the myth had a vital function in the life of the community: as an essential part of the ritual it helped to secure those conditions upon which the life of the community depended.” [12-13].

Hence – myth/ritual had efficacy as social phenomena. They were unifying and cohesive and reacted back on the external world. Myth is a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, and embodying popular ideas on natural phenomena. Thus – according to Hooke – ritual myths take their name from their function and aid in “…serving the efficacy of the ritual…” [13]. Possibly the earliest type of myth to exist.

The Myth of Origin – is more generally the aetiological myth. [Aetiology is the assignment of a cause, the philosophy of causation, from the Greek aitiologia , thus aita means cause].

Also very early myths. Function thus gives “… an imaginary explanation of the origin of a custom, a name, or even an object.” [13]. For example the Sumerian myth Enlil and the Pickaxe concerns the origin of that agricultural implement [Neolithic?]. The Hebrew myth of Jacob’s conflict with a supernatural being offers an explanation of an ancient food-taboo.

Not just the supernatural creation of implements, but also the creation and justification of social order, of the status quo. Therefore, an ideological role can be seen for cosmogony. [EWE].

The Cult Myth [13-14] can be seen in the in development of religion of Israel when a new use of myth appeared. Three seasonal festivals [see Book of the Covenant] involved celebration at the local shrines of Bethel, Schechem, and Shiloh during the early stages of Israel’s settlement of Canaan.

Therefore the Passover, Pentecost (Feast of Weeks), and the Tabernacles. Each had its own special ritual, preserved, carried out the priests at local shrines. An”…important part of the ritual consisted in the public recitation by the priests of certain central events in the history of Israel; the recitation was accompanied by antiphonal responses from the people.” [14]. Antiphonal means sung alternately, responsive. [Greek – antiphonous means responsive. Antiphon is a verse of psalm, intoned or sung responsively].

Accompanying the ritual is the cult myth describing the event. For example – the deliverance from Egypt. However, the description is not in historical terms but in terms borrowed (in part) from Babylonian and Canaanite myth. The function of the myth was to strengthen the covenant between Yahwah and Israel, thus “In this new use of the myth it was divested of e magical potency which it had possessed in the ritual myth.” [14].

Myth still describes a situation, still functions to secure the continuation of the situation “…no longer by magical, but by moral force. The function of myth has been lifted to a higher plane in the cult myth as we see it employed by the prophets of Israel.” [14]. Thus – Israel was patriarchal and in this instance cosmogony has now become theogony. [EWE].

The Prestige Myth [14-15] is a form of myth distinct from ritual and cult myths. Its function is to “…invest the birth and exploits of a popular hero with an aura of mystery and wonder.” [14]. Here there may be a connection with patriarchal ascendancy plus the process of euhemerism. Note – Irish and Welsh myths and the Bronze Age? [EWE].

Examples are the birth and exposure of Moses – which may rest upon historical tradition. It can be paralleled with similar myths including: Sargon; Cyrus, Romulus, Remus, and the  hero of the tribe of Dan called Samson. Note also – Elijah, Elisha. Prestige myths also refer to cities. If they contain an historical tradition they are obviously later developments than ritual or cultic myths. [EWE].

The Eschatological Myth [15-16] is a characteristic of Jewish and Christian thought. The final situation or apocalypse is the prophetic use of mythic language. “here the function of myth is to express in symbolical terms, by means of images, what cannot be otherwise put into human speech. Here myth has become an expansion of symbolism.”  Or symbolism and extension of myth? [EWE]. Eschatology is the doctrine of death, judgement, and heaven and hell from the Greek for ‘last’.

Diffusion and disintegration of myths [16-17]. The presence of myth in society has two explanations, thus diffusion and independent imagination. Diffusion method is often no longer traceable. Thus – trade movements, migrations, invasions.  Rituals decayed, disappeared. Then “…myths attached to decaying rituals were freed from their ritual associations and became literary forms, passing into the tradition of other peoples. Examples of ideas that survive the basis of their creation – such as dragon myths.


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