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.