Creationism and the Ancient Mythic Mind

Creationism and the Ancient Mythic Mind

I thought it might be interesting to comment briefly on what it means to be a creationist in our day vs. what it meant to be a creationist in antiquity.  This deals with the difference between the modern ‘rational’ mind and the ancient mythic mind; the key is in understanding what the two best represent and, more importantly, what the two mean when undergoing any critical investigation of Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the account of origins found in ancient literature (in this case, Genesis).

What is creationism?  Before we answer that question I should stress what this short discussion is about.  When it comes down to creationism, what we are really talking about, whether modern or ancient, is myth.  What does it mean when we talk about myth and the mythic mind? Words like myth, and cognates mythic and mythical, do not imply that the subject is false, as a dichotomy of ‘truth’. Categories like ‘true’ and ‘false’ are terms which are too objective and too modern for our short study of myth.  Rather, myth must be understood as something that is neither bound by genre, culture, naturalism, or science.  I know the implications of what I’m saying; but this should not be understood as a statement of faith.  Myth is often not constructed with the intent to replace reality, but to coexist with it as an entity of its own.   This is often true of ancient myth more than it is of modern myth; our news media spins myth daily as a replacement for reality, but most ancient authors did not have that intention while creating or discussing myth.

For the ancient audience, myth was not looked at rationally—at least not in every instance (some naturalists, like Epicurus and Lucretius, did, in effect, consider myth to be in direct opposition to reality). That is to say, in our modern world, if we want to know about a possible “history” behind a myth, we can draw it out by rationalizing myth.  This is something the ancients rarely concerned themselves with.  We, however, focus on the parts of these “histories” that seem “less made up;” when we read the Iliad and the Odyssey we recognize that wars happen regularly, so it isn’t so hard for us to believe that some type of war, in some fashion, did occur between the ancient Mycenaeans and the Trojans. It isn’t a stretch for this part of the narrative of the Trojan War to become the historical kernel of truth that we want to grasp hold of. Cities do exist in 1200 BCE, some historians have suggested, so we might as well assume the conclusion that the city of Troy existed; Hector might be a completely fictional character, but Troy must have existed. All of this seems to make a lot of historical sense when you think abstractly enough about it. The myth of the Trojan War becomes a factual reality for us.   The shame of it is we often rationalize without even thinking about it.

Consider, for example, a maximalist perspective on the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites on their return from Egypt.  The fall of Jericho, according to the Biblical account, was the result of priests blowing their ram horns at the walls and the encircling of the city several times by the children of Israel.  The extraBiblical rationalizing that some maximalists partake in is that the walls came down due to sound waves from the ram horns and vibrations from the marching army of Israel—the truth is quite to the contrary, evidence suggests that natural disaster destroyed Jericho and nothing else, sometime during the 16th century BCE.  The city was eventually rebuilt and has been continuously inhabited since ancient times.  So why then do we rationalize this myth?  If it was an earthquake which affected the whole region, not simply one city, why do some scholars rationalize the Biblical telling of the story?  Clearly the Biblical authors did not think sound waves tumbled the walls of Jericho—for them, it was the power and will of God.  Moreso, the event itself had never occurred historically, but the authors of Joshua clearly felt it necessary to include it; for them the battle Jericho, as it is expressed in the Bible, was a miracle and a part of their traditional history, even if the story had never occurred as a unique segment of real history.   What does that tell us about the authors?  What can that tell us about how we examine history?

But then we must ask the question which I believe is often neglected: did the Jews, or for that matter the Greeks and Romans, think the way we do? This question must be investigated within its relationship to the ancient mythic mind. The problem, however, is that what literature we have from the past is hardly about historical, rational events. Returning to the example of the Iliad and the Odyssey, we aren’t looking at a rational telling of a war between two opposing economic powers in the ancient world. What one reads is a tale about an entire Greek army sailing across the Aegean to fight another army because the prince of that kingdom stole the wife of the brother of the king. To put this into perspective, it would be as if President Obama decided to invade the UK because the presidents’ brother’s wife ran off with the Queen’s son. As bizarre as that may sound, this is precisely the reason why the composers of the Homeric epics portray the start of the war.  The Iliad does not even mention, even in passing, any other factor for it—unlike the movie Troy, where control over the Aegean and more wealth is the primary motive for Agamemnon (another example of our modern desire to rationalize myth). Alexandros stole Helen from Menelaus and that was all the reason the Greeks needed to fight a ten-year war with Troy. This is hardly historical, regardless of how we rationalize it. Therefore, the story, quite plainly, is about something else other than history. Perhaps it’s about the differences between passion and reason, the steadfastness of honor and heroics, the bonds of kinship, and about the power of the Gods. Homer was no historian. But that is precisely the point, isn’t it? In our world, we quantify reality, we make it tangible and, if we wish to accept myth, we try to bottle it up into our modern, rational, historical mindset by creating a new rational context for it.

The difference between our modern historical mindset and the mythic mind of the ancient Greeks and Jews is that they seem to have cared little, if at all, about historically rationalizing their past.  “There is nothing new under the sun;” the phrase from Ecclesiastes is well known, if not famous, and suggests for us a very peculiar aspect of ancient mythic thought.  Thomas L. Thompson writes:

This ahistorical axiom of ancient Hellenistic thought gives voice to the structures of traditions about the past which were created in the ancient world.  It puts these traditions at odds with the goals of modern historical methods which are rather centered in defining events of the past as unique. (Thompson, 2000)

For the author(s) of this passage, the world was as it should be and the future, along with its past, would be as well.  History, in a Hegelian manner, was predetermined and set long before anyone scribbled down a verse.  For the Greeks, the Trojan War was not only an account of their past, it was datable–even though the story was essentially invented by Homer, from beginning to end. They were not concerned with whether or not Achilles had really been the son of a God; they simply accepted it as a part of a world that existed in the past known to us as the Heroic Age. They lived in a mindset where history and myth were bed fellows.  It might be argued that they just simply did not know that Homer had invented the tradition, but this is a hardpressed argument to make.  At least the educated would have had some large understanding of creating tradition.  Origen, a well educated Christian, knew of the mythical traditions when he wrote his treatise against Celsus in the second century CE:

We are embarrassed by the fictitious stories which for some unknown reasons are bound up with the opinion, which everyone believes, that there really was a war in Troy between the Greeks and the Trojans. (Origen, Contra Celsum 1.42)

All cultures of the ancient past engaged in free tradition adaptation and invention.  The truth is that myth was an acceptable part of history; even if Origen felt embarrassed by it the larger population, even educated individuals, did not.  Tradition was far more important, it seems, than historical truth.  This is perhaps best exposed in a figurative dialogue in Sophocles’ Antigone, where the tragic heroine Antigone and the hereditary new king Creon debate concerning the status of tradition vs. patriotism and citizenship; it didn’t matter that Antigone’s kin had betrayed the city and, along with seven other kingdoms, attempted to burn it to the ground—what mattered was that she wanted the rights to give him a proper burial, as this was traditional.

I tend to like Ambrose Bierce’s definition of myth. He writes that myth is ‘The body of a primitive people’s beliefs concerning its origin, early history, heroes, deities and so forth, as distinguished from the true accounts which it invents later’. This summary definition by Bierce is what this treatment hopes to argue, although with some modifications.

The creation account in Genesis is a great example of how the ancient mythic mind and the modern rational mind conflict and make Bierce’s point a maxim.  For the purpose of this discussion, I will leave out the obvious Intertextual trends between Genesis and other ancient Near Eastern creation myths and “histories” like the Epic of Gilgamesh and for the moment pretend as if the author(s) and later editors of Genesis had not been aware of these narratives.  In the story of creation from Genesis, the author uses clear language; God created (or, perhaps, separated) the heavens and (or, from) the earth.  God then created light and separated it from darkness.  On the second day God created a firmament to keep them separate, and added flood gates to this firmament to allow for the water that existed above to fall to the earth below.  On the third day he gathered the waters under the heavens into one pool of water (one place) and the dry land (earth) appeared. God then called forth vegetation from the ground, which grew (despite the lack of a sun and photosynthesis).  Then the fourth day; God created two lights (the moon isn’t a light, it acts as a mirror, but anyway…), the Sun and the Moon along with the stars (which are also suns—so really God created billions and billions of lights).  With that, the day passed and along came day number five.  On the fifth day, God filled the waters and skies with sea life and birds, and populated the land with animals of all kinds.  Finally, on day six, God creates man.  Then, some time later, he creates woman.  This is precisely how the creation story is laid out in Genesis 1 (and we don’t want to go into the contradictions between Genesis 1 and 2).  It doesn’t matter that the account is completely incomprehensibly flawed according to modern science, objective observation, and common sense; to the ancient mind, this was completely acceptable.  For modern man, this account is a huge problem—they may not always admit it, but there is no way to reconcile this with reason.  So, Creationism and Intelligent Design were fabricated as a means to do away with certain aspects of reason (like the use of real science) while utilizing less stringent methods to frame the story in a postmodern way.

Christian positions of Intelligent Design and Creationism interpret Genesis and recreate it; these positions purport to take the account of Genesis literally, but in fact they distort the account by moving the narrative away from its mythic background while attempting to place it into a rational (and here I use this term tentatively) framework; they attempt to justify the blatantly clear mythic tone by stapling it to pseudoscience and hyperbole.  In a very strong sense, Intelligent Design and Creationism recreate Genesis—they are interpreting it against itself and the modern world rather than understanding it within its mythic mindset.  By recreating the Genesis account, Intelligent Design followers invent a new account of the past.  Like the “rational faith” tactics of theological seminaries and “universities” like Liberty, they spend a great deal of time marketing these positions as fact- or science-based initiatives with their own journals and seminars; they do this while maintaining, almost universally, that the Bible has the answers.

While some might argue that this is, in itself, a unique form of a mythic mind, the difference is that Creationists and Intelligent Design enthusiasts work hard to replace modern scientific investigations with the Bible; they seek to bend natural law and forego factual data and evidence by superimposing the Bible as the authority rather than simply accepting the two as existing mutually inclusively towards one another.  This brand of thought is really nothing short of a contradiction, for something cannot replace science while attempting to claim it uses science.  This flat dichotomy is what, perhaps, most escapes discussion in the debate.  But while this is perhaps the most obvious and possibly least discussed aspect of Creationism and Intelligent Design by both proponents and dissidents, and since the focus on challenging these two nonscientific positions remain ever-presently entangled on the nuances of the contradiction (i.e. on specific flaws in Creationism logic and “science” practices, or on engaging flat out lies in Creationist/Intelligent Design arguments), the discussion misses perhaps the most striking embarrassment to Creationism and Intelligent Design; the complete loss of mythic mind and the role it once served for the ancients who understood Genesis in a way that modern Christianity, in particular, has itself lost sight.

For Tertullian, for Irenaeus, even for Philo of Alexandria who allegorically explained creation according to the Bible, the words of Genesis were not representations of a rational sting of events but, rather, were the words of God, divinely inspired, to explain why things were as they were.  Modern Creationists use the Bible as a template to explain things in a manner becoming a paranormal investigation.  Other cultures, like certain Native American tribes for example, still maintain a mythic mindset—they are not bound to renaissance-period western idealism and, in many ways, post-modern philosophical western idealism.  If you seek out certain Native American shaman, for example, the stories of creation for them are wound up around the same sort of mythology we find in the Genesis account; there is little or no hint whatsoever of neoclassical rationality in the Iroquois tradition of Hah-nu-nah, the turtle, carrying the earth (oeh-da) on its back; there is no pseudoscientific explanation for the two birds flying up to the great tree to bring down Ata-en-sic, the mother of good and evil (the twins Do-ya-da-no, the light and the darkness, sun and moon), to oeh-da.  For traditional shamans, events like these happened according to their own traditions.  They do not create rationalizations for them in order to replace modern scientific understanding; there are no movements to teach Iroquois creationism in school in place of or along side of evolution.  Comparatively, it is the Native American who maintains his own mythic mind while the Christian Creationist is content with doing away with it.

I must reiterate that I am in no way supporting Creationism, Intelligent Design, or even Iroquois mythology; my intention here is only to stress the difference for a modern audience who may not understand or appreciate the irony or the history.  It is easy for the modern critic to say that Genesis is myth, but have no real gain on what implications that statement has.  For the ancient audience, myth was a part of their Genesis because myth coexisted with history and for the modern supporter of Creationism, myth is absent from their Genesis.  The book of Genesis, while relatively unchanged since Late Antiquity, is not the problem and never has been.  The issue for today’s critics of Creationism is not the mythology but the mindset of the Creationist.  It is here that one must pick there battles.

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10 Responses

  1. Once again you have brought clarity to the issue at hand. It is too often suffices in Christian studies, myself included, to label something and then move on as if mere description were the point; or as if the label/description I use doesn’t itself raise further questions. ( I cite the many times I casually proclaimed “this is gnostic” or “that is hellenistic” before fully accounting for the implications of it)
    As you’ve written elsewhere, it’s not enough to say the gospels contain contraditions ( and then move on as if that were the point). We must broaden our questions to ask why contradictions are present: are they due to editorial practices? authorial intent? etc
    So to say Genesis is a mythic work is not enough, whether in critique or in defense of it. As you’ve pointed out here, it’s the “mythic mind” that must be taken into account. Becoming accustomed to “myth coexisting with history” is essential if we are to understand these texts and not fall into that strange intellectual choreography of attempting to have myth look as close to science as possible.

    Thanks again for your work!!

  2. Hypothesis:-Scientific Answers in Genesis and Revelations.

    Earth very ancient planet sort of a living ‘machine’
    Many humanities created by different races disappeared
    6 ‘days’ of Genesis = 12000 years
    Followed by Creation of man towards end of 6th ‘day’
    circa 11375 BC.
    1945 coincidentally 666th Generation at approximately 20 years per generation.
    Here we are dealing with the evidence of progressive evolution of design by advanced science rather then by nature as presumed by the theory of Evolution.When our scientists start creating life artificially they will in the course of time through progressive evolution of design create more and more complex creatures. Eventually they will perhaps create man in their own image and the buckle will be closed, and they would become like those mistaken for gods so long ago. If we reach this stage the question one might ask is why should there not be more advanced science elsewhere? This hypothesis also allows for a logical and sensible reason why we have as yet, have no hard evidence officially, of advanced science elsewhere. Once one understands the big picture presented by this framework of this incredible idea, then potentially a lot of issues come together and make sense of a world at present divided between those who have faith and those who can only accept hard evidence for a theory. Hopefully scientists will have a more philosophical mindset and at least consider in an open minded way , without feeling that their pursuit of science is threatened. If this hypothesis were correct then in effect the evidence thus far gathered for the theory of evolution, would have to be reconsidered in this new light. You might think this is science fiction this is but in the context of this hypothesis, the dangers of nuclear war and over-population are not.
    If this hypothesis were true, there is going to have to be an evolution of thinking and re-connecting the ‘dots’ of our present undertandings. In the words of Sir Fred Hoyle, ‘ It is not logical to reject something simply because it is incredible’

  3. To Ben:

    I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say here, but your hypothesis, as you say yourself is in fact science fiction. With the stress on FICTION. Scientific hypotheses, have to be falsifiable and testable. So I will give you that we can test the genesis story in regards to the age of the earth and the creation story has indeed been falsified…. many times over. We know for a fact that the earth is well beyond 12000 years old and we know that human evolution may have started as early as 5 million years ago. Radio-metric dating, cosmology, chemistry, physics and even biology give evidence to this fact.

    There is no evidence for design of any kind. I don’t think that scientists are trying to re-create humans through design, based on the simple fact that if they wanted, they could just clone humans off of other human cells. So I don’t exactly follow the premise of your “hypothesis” here.

    I also don’t follow how this hypothesis gives an explanation to the fact that there isn’t more advanced science…define advanced…and who would deveolop such science? other life forms? It seems as if you are saying that god used “advanced science” here in order to create the universe. Why would god need to use “advanced science” in order to create? According to the bible, god spoke or willed the world into existence, no need for science.

    The issues at hand have to do with biblical creation vs. natural evolution. I also don’t follow your hypothesis that “many humanities created by different races disappeared” on what basis do you make this assumption? In order to formulate hypotheses you have got to start with some evidence that leads to the hypothesis.

    I don’t think this hypothesis comes anywhere near the truth and we don’t need to reconsider the theory of evolution. And I’m not sure how you went from creation to nuclear war and over-population.

    All in all I’m just confused on what point you are trying to make here.

  4. Dear Larry, as I said at the beginning of my comment the planet is indeed very old and a sort of living machine.
    Given that our science today is rapidly developing, is it not reasonable to ask the question could there be more advanced scientists in other solar systems.
    In this line of argument one regards the whole of humanity as a growing organism and as such it’s future is scientifically predictable.When the level of science reaches the level of nuclear technology in weapons of war, then from that point forwards if a humanity is not wise in its use of science, then it ultimately self-destructs, BEFORE it reaches a level of interstellar technology.We as a humanity are on test to our-selves.As to the dangers of nuclear war, through either religious irrationality or economic instability, you only have to look at our world TODAY.
    Re the dangers of nuclear war one only has to look at the Bulletin of Atomic scientists to confirm this danger.Until we get rid of those ghastly weapons, we remain in a state of potential self-destruct
    Which do you think is the most logical re our origins
    1.We were created by a gentleman in the sky who through ‘magic’ created all life on this planet?
    2.Our humanity is the product of natural selection over hundreds of millions of years of natural selection and unimaginable chance?
    3.We were genetically engineered by advanced science
    from another solar system.?
    As Einstein said ‘Imagination is more ‘important than memory’. I have strong belief in the capabilities of science now and in the future.

    Where is the evidence? It is all around us. You can find traces of evidence in history and in all the worlds religious texts.Also in the state of the world today with a population of some 6.79 Billion.This is some 4.5 billion increase in 65 years!Not surprisingly science is moving at a breathtaking pace,in all areas, particularly genetics, with more people working on solving problems with ever increasing technology.In some 10 years time we will have reached what today is almost unimaginable, the singularity.
    Of all the world’s religions Buddhism without the mysticism is nearest the truth.That said the Bible holds the scientific framework for this hypothesis.Essentially this is about the demystifying of the old understandings and the spiritualisation of science.

  5. To Ben/michael296:

    I’ve been sitting here trying to make a sensible reply to your remarks. And to be honest, I’ve written about 3 so far that I’ve deleted.
    I can appreciate some of your concerns, our “technological adolescence” as Carl Sagan has called it for example, but I’m generally confused as to your thought process.

    Maybe it’s just me but, and pardon the prosaic way in which I put this, there are 3-4 issues within every 1 thing you assert that has yet to be established. Perhaps if you could focus on one thing ata time we could discuss. Again, maybe I’m just dense…that has been the case at times ;-)

    If the choice is between a spiritual Diety or an advanced scientific civilization or the natural process of a bubbling seething life evolving through the expanse of time; if these are the basic choices we have for the phenomenon of existence then I would have to settle on the latter-it’s the only one for which we have evidence.

    And by science I mean the process not the quasi-personified, somewhat anthropomorphized, magical figure “behind” everything we see and experience here and now and in the future that’s possible if we just played nice.

  6. Sorry Ernesto for any confusion I may have caused you.However I am at a loss to how to reply to you.
    To make my position more clear,I used to think the theory of evolution was the best thing since sliced bread.However in the course of time I came across a book called Intelligent Design, Message from the Designers. One famous person said of that book, if this is science fiction it ranks alongside the most breath-taking of it’s kind, but if it is true it is earth shaking’. So bearing in mind this book was introduced to me by a Doctor of Neurobiology, who as a result of four years of research,thought it was probably true I examined it in a what if it is true, and came to the same conclusion myself.Further I extracted this hypothesis from there.What I can say is one should try to read it with an open mind, and you always have evolution to fall back on.For myself the author is not the issue, but the hypothesis is.
    The force of the argument really lies in the present condition of our humanity,with this ever-present potential for destruction through nuclear war for any number of reasons including, economic instability, accident or religious irrationality . Re the latter this hypothesis allows us to respect the ‘good measure intention of all the religions which were simply the same message designed for the level of society AT THAT TIME. Purpose to precipitate the capacity for our humanity to survive this scientifically predictable point in our future. We are today in that predictable phase of our humanity’s development.So this planet is very old and there have been many human races created by different races.It is a cyclical thing and they have disappeared for the self-evident reasons we can well understand today, such as over-population and environmental degradation and or nuclear war. The interesting thing about this hypothesis is that it allows all parties concerned with our origins, to be partly correct. So it is a compromise.First we have progressive evolution of design.This took 12000 years from the start in this particular creation.Then followed by the creation of the first man,in this particular creation epic about 13200 years of history up till today. Sounds incredibel but to repeat above saying, ‘It is not logical to reject something just because it is incredible’. Here we have relevant argument that allows both sides of debate to ‘sit at the same table. If this hypothesis is correct it would be a classic example of science over-looking something simply because it does not come from a scientifically credible source.

  7. To Ben:

    The idea that we have been engineered by a different species, or a higher intelligence is not new… however, there just isn’t any evidence for it. Although, more believable than a magic sky daddy, this hypothesis leaves much to be desired. We have workable hypotheses regarding abiogenesis that I would rather trust.

    Now I agree with you regarding nuclear war, it seems that religious extremism can lead us to that point.

    Regarding your three options: number 2 is the one with most scientific evidence backing it. There is zero evidence for number 1 and number 3. But I will have to disagree with you that we need to “spiritualize” science. we haven’t’ had to spiritualize science ever and we’ve made wonderful discoveries with it…such as the one you are using to type these comments on the internet.

    I will leave you with this however, this is a quote I read the other day: “Science allows us to fly airplanes across the ocean. Religion allows us to fly them into buildings.”

  8. Tom ~ I so enjoyed reading this ~ I must tell you that the part that ‘brought it home’ for me was how you used the Native American traditions as an example for mythic mindset. I get the feeling that creationists, in their pursuit to make genesis fit into our modern science, will in effect be responsible for many Christians losing the tradition that is at the base of their belief…it is a bit funny.

  9. [...] We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic [...]

  10. [...] We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic [...]

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