Mythemes II

June 28, 2020 Category: History

As we saw in the previous essays, certain narratives resonate with people across cultures.  Different folklore can even stem from the same historical interlude.  It might be noted that the Legend of King Arthur and the Legend of Beowulf likely refer to the same place and time (England, c. 500), and possibly even the same figures.  (The iconic character may have been based on the Briton king, Riothamus.)

Behold a coordinate in space-time in which “Eomer” was king.  Eomer was the father of Icel, and thus the grandfather of Creoda, the first king of Mercia.  (He was the son of Angeltheow and thus the grandson of Offa of Angel.)  BOTH legends seem to be based on one of these kings–and may even conflate them.  How is it that these two distinct stories–the legacies of which have almost nothing to do with each other–were oriented around (roughly) the same historical figure?  Once we see how legends metastasize, and ramify, this uncanny coincidence turns out to be not so uncanny after all.

Interesting narrative parallels exist–notably, regarding the nemesis.  Grendel’s mother–a creepy sorceress named Aglæc-wif / Aglæca–was from a mysterious place in a lake.  Meanwhile, Mordred’s mother–a creepy sorceress named Morgan[na]–was from a mysterious place in a lake (the Isle of Apples, in Avalon).  Such similarities should come as no more surprise to us than the similarities between the various Gospel accounts of Jesus of Nazareth: a Palestinian Jew from the early 1st century that became a deified figure for a newfangled Abrahamic religion.

Both the legend of King Arthur (made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his “Historia Regum Britanniae” in the 1130’s, but based on much earlier oral traditions) and of Beowulf (c. 1000), were a synthesis of myth and history.  In both cases, it is difficult to know where one begins and the other ends.  Moreover, each was compiled centuries after the alleged events are said to have taken place–and was based or a long, meandering chain of oral transmission, the genesis of which has been lost in a dense, swirling fog of historical uncertainty.

(Interesting tidbit: A piece of Celtic mythology that was contemporaneous with Mohammed of Mecca was “Y Gododdin” from the “Book of Aneirin”, which dates back to the 7th century.  The story–originally composed in Old Welsh–even contained references to King Arthur.)

Mythemes (narrative templates) typically revolve around archetypes (distinct concepts).  The universal proclivity for idolatry is well-attested; and idolatry tends to gravitate toward archetypes that most resonate with our human nature. {1}  Not coincidentally, those archetypes serve as the optimal vehicles for the promulgation of this or that ideology.  This accounts for the allure of certain motifs in mythology.  A prime example is the (authoritarian) Father-god in Abrahamic theology. {7}  After all, masculinity is associated with strength and discipline.  Another example of a near-universal theme is the mother goddess.  (I do a survey of these in part three of my series on “The Empowerment Of Women”.)

Generally, a deity is posited to explain Creation (the existence of mankind, and of the universe itself).  Outside of the singular, unrivaled male godhead (a monarch taken to cosmic proportions) and some kind of “Mother Earth”, there is a preponderance of two kinds of deification (read: archetypes): weather and sun.  These seem to be the most prolific forms that godheads take.

It stands to reason that controlling the weather and/or the circadian cycle would be seen as the most fundamental of cosmic powers.  (Why does it rain?  Why does it NOT rain?  Why is there day and night?)  Associating the godhead with the ultimate source of light (the sun) makes perfect sense–as light is symbolic of both power and wisdom (thus: omnipotence and omniscience).  Control over day and night, and of the elements, seems to be the most basic form of sovereignty.

It is worth surveying the various manifestations of each of these archetypes; as it illustrates how deities are conceived IN GENERAL.  So let’s address each in turn.

Gods of Thunder [alt. storm-gods] are ubiquitous, as this seems to be the most overt manifestation of power over the natural world.  It makes sense that, due to our predisposition to anthropomorphize, we would be inclined to attribute intelligent control over an otherwise inexplicable universe.

Here, I focus on deities associated with thunder / lightning rather than just rain-gods, as thunder / lighting marries two key things: life-giving precipitation and a (loud, flashy) command over the elements.  Ergo an all-encompassing nurturance in conjunction with an exhibition of prodigious power.  Here are forty notable examples:

  1. Indra (Vedic; then Hindu)
  2. Set[h] (Egyptian)
  3. Ishkur (Sumerian)
  4. Enlil (Akkadian / Assyrian)
  5. [h]Adad (Amorite / Aramaean)
  6. Baal-Hadad / Baal-Zephon / Baal-Shamin (Canaanite)
  7. Qos (Edomite)
  8. Amm [alternately a moon-god] (South Arabian)
  9. Athtar (South Arabian) {2}
  10. Quzah [namely at Muzdalifah] (Arabian)
  11. Tarhunna (Hittite)
  12. Teshub (Hurrian)
  13. Tarhunz[a] / Tarhuwant (Luwian)
  14. Theispas (Urartian / proto-Armenian)
  15. Gebeleizis (Dacian)
  16. Zibelthiurdos (Thracian)
  17. Zeus (Greek)
  18. Aplu (Etruscan)
  19. Jupiter (Roman)
  20. Thor (Norse)
  21. [t]Hora-galles; Tiermes / Turms; A[i]jeke (Saami)
  22. Ukko / Aija [derived from the Estonian “Uku”] (Finnish)
  23. Taara[pita] / Tooru (Estonian)
  24. Perkunas (Baltic)
  25. Perun (Slavic)
  26. Gebeleizis (Gothic)
  27. Taranis (Celtic)
  28. Perendi (Albanian)
  29. Huracan [basis for the Carib / Kalina and K’iche moniker]; K’awiil; Yopaat; Tlaloc; Chaahk (Mayan)
  30. Apocatequil (Incan)
  31. Xolotl (Aztec)
  32. Guabancex (meso-American)
  33. Amadiohia (Igbo)
  34. Oya (Yaruba)
  35. Wele (Bantu)
  36. Mamaragan (Australian Aboriginal)
  37. Kane; Haikili (Polynesian; Hawaiian)
  38. Lei Shen (Taoist Chinese)
  39. Lei-Gog and Tian-mu [god of thunder and goddess of lightning] (Chinese)
  40. Susa-no-O[-no-Mikoto] (Shinto Japanese)

More than just the weather (a terrestrial matter), celestial phenomena are features of the natural world begging for explanation.  Unsurprisingly, then, sometimes the sun-god and storm-god are one in the same–as with the K’iche deity, “To’xil”.

The quintessential case-study of mythemic recycling is the Great Flood story.  The punitive deluge narrative’s earliest incarnation was found in Sumerian tales about the god-head “Enki” and the hero, “Zi-ud-sudra” of Shuruppak (Hellenized to “Xisuthros”; Anglicized to “Ziusudra”) c. 2900 B.C.  The tale was then modified in the epic poems about King “Bilgamesh” of Uruk (where the hero was named “Ut[a]-napishti[m]”) in the late 3rd millennium B.C.  We now refer to the consolidation of these poems as the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, the earliest manuscript of which (designated by the incipit, “Shutur eli Sharri”) is from the 18th century B.C.  This involved a revelation (from the god, Enki) in which the hero was to construct a massive boat (the “Preservers of Life”), which would save him (and his closest kin, plus a sampling of the beasts of the field, grains and seeds) from the impending deluge.  A white dove was sent out to find land at the end of the tribulation, finally returning when the Flood began to subside.  The great boat found harbor on Mount [“Kur”] Nisir (in Kurdistan).  Ring any bells?

Unsurprisingly, by the 18th century B.C., the story had been modified again–this time in the (Akkadian) hagiographies about King Atra-Hasis of Shuruppak, as recounted in the “Enuma Elish”.

Atra-Hasis was far from the end of this chain of appropriation.  Later, Indians adopted their own version of the tale.  The “Deluge of Manu” is from the Vedic “Shatapatha Brahmana” of the 8th century B.C. (later found in the “Matsya Purana”); though the legend purportedly dates back to c. 1500 B.C.  Vishnu instructs the Dravidian king, Manu (likely corresponding with King Shraddha-deva; a.k.a. “Satyavrata”) to build a giant boat to save himself and his kin (the sapta-rishi; alt. all mankind) from a global alluvion. {19}  In Buddhist lore, the tale of Manu and the flood was then adapted for the Maha-bharat[a].  Also note that the legend includes a Creation myth about the world being created from the darkness (alt. the primordial waters: “Narah”) by the godhead: the divine self-existent referred to as “Svayambhu”.

Starting in the 6th century B.C., the Hebrews (exiled in Babylon) would recycle the tale YET AGAIN in the first of the five Books of Moses: “Genesis”, in which the hero was re-named “Noah”.  (The authors of the Koran would then rename him “Nuh”.)  The key in this version was to ensure that all non-humans were preserved; thus accommodating everything from storks and hippopotamuses (as well as Noah’s immediate kin) on the fabled vessel.  For the Creator of the Universe sought to wipe out not only (almost) all homo sapiens, but (almost) every lemur, leopard, elk, and elephant as well. {20}

The Ancient Greeks also got in on the action with the tale of the Ogygian Flood (where the hero was named “Ogyges”).  Most notably, in the early 4th century B.C., Plato composed his own version of the tale (featured in both the “Timaeus” and “Critias”) wherein Prometheus’ son, Deucalion, was given the lead role.  Predictably, Plato based his version on antecedent legends about King Ogyges of Boeotia / Attica / Lycia.  Other Greeks made Dardanus (son of Zeus) the protagonist.  (Why?  Well, hey, why not?)  Later adaptations include Lucian of Samosata’s 2nd-century work, “De Dea Syria”…in which the hero is re-named “Sisythus”.

The tale was a big hit in ancient Rome as well.  In his Metamorphosis (c. 8 A.D.), Ovid adopted Plato’s moniker for the story’s hero (“Deucalion”).  After having created humans, things went awry, as mankind falls into moral depravity.  Ovid explains that the godhead looks down on this infelicitous development in despair, and says: “I must destroy the race of men”; and then proceeds to flood the world, leaving only a single man and his wife to survive.

Meanwhile, a later Jewish sect adopted YET ANOTHER version of the story in their tale of “Enoch’s Watchers”.

We also encounter the theme in the Far East.  The legend in Chinese folklore was probably unrelated to the legend that propagated in the West.  (It didn’t involve the complete eradication of mankind; and it didn’t envelop the entire planet.)  In the late 2nd century B.C., Sima Qian recounted the tale of “Gun-Yu” (the “Great Flood”), which purportedly occurred during the late 24th / early 23rd century B.C.  The tale had already been mentioned in Wang Jia’s “Shi Yi Ji” (c. 400 B.C.) and in the “Shan-Hai Ching” (“Classic of the Mountains & Seas”; 4th century B.C.)…though it probably came from oral history from far before that.  The theme was also used in lore about Xia King Yu. 

Meanwhile, in ancient Korea, the legend of a Great Flood featured the hero, Namu Doryeong (interestingly similar to the Vedic “Manu”).  And the ancient (Temuan) Malay told of “Mamak” and “Inak Bungsuk”, who escaped an alluvion sent by the godhead as punishment for their ancestors’ misdeeds.  Myriad flood myths would later emerge in other parts of the world–such as the Norse myth of “Bergelmir”, the Irish myth of “Dwyvan” and “Dwyvach”, the Incan myth about “Viracocha”, the Aztec myth about “Teocipactli”, and the Filipino myth of “Hinilawod”. {21}

Wonder if all of these were simply cribbed from one another?  Think again.  Similar flood stories can be found in Mayan and aboriginal Australian lore.  Indeed, the Mayan “K’iche” sacred history (the “Popol Vuh”) has a flood myth.  The theme is so ubiquitous that it qualifies as a mytheme.  We can only conclude that there is a universal penchant for this allegorical leitmotif.

Finally, the authors of the Koran would recycle the Judaic flood story.  Keeping with the Abrahamic tradition, they named the protagonist “Nuh”: an Arabized version of the Syriac version (“Nukh”) of the Ancient Hebrew name (“Noah”). {22}

It is safe to assume that no mention of “Ziusudra”, “Utnapishtim”, or “Atra-Hasis” is forthcoming in Islamic lore (though sometimes the last in referred to as “Hasis-atra” in Arabic).  For mytheme-propagation rarely involves proper attribution, as each story-teller likes to fashion the version he espouses as the ORIGINAL version (how the story has ALWAYS been told).  This phenomenon is commonplace.  As Jonathan Swift once noted, “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” (For the phenomenon of mytheme-milking, see Appendix 2.)

The incidence of this monumental story across so many cultures, across so much time and space, indicates that there is a strong appeal to the notion of an existential re-set.  Everywhere, a global flood is a matter of WASHING AWAY, and starting anew…taken to its extreme.

The narrative template (that is: of a global cleansing) has been recycled over and over; and we can see why.  As with other mythemes, this tale has universal appeal: a purging of iniquity, executed by the impresario of the natural world.  To what end?  Well, ostensibly, to make the world a better place.  (Of course, contained within the tale is a threat: “See what happens when you displease the god[s]?  Let that serve as a warning!”)

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