October 28, 2014

Atheist Bible Study: Myths, legends, and folklore and what they mean for Genesis

Did you all think I'd forgotten? NOPE! Today we're going to look at a few key aspects of myths, and the difference between myths and legends, and what that means for Genesis.

It's important to me to discuss the characteristics of myth because, if you'll recall, the reason that I am revisiting the bible now is actually that I am delineating my own differences with the text. I'm looking at it through a different lens, for the very first time as an atheist.

Thus looking at the actual scholarship of mythology is important to me, personally, in understanding what role Genesis plays.

Especially when we get in to looking at the creation, making of humans, and fall of humanity, we'll want to look at the mythical aspects of those narratives.

And all of that, of course, starts here, with our ABS: Mythological Characteristics edition.

Here we go.

What is a myth?

A myth is, simply put, a story. Mary Magoulik offers this definition for us:

Myths are symbolic tales of the distant past (often primordial times) that concern cosmogony and cosmology (the origin and nature of the universe), may be connected to belief systems or rituals, and may serve to direct social action and values.

It's a good working definition, and most certainly fits our purpose.

They are stories, narratives if you will. Often they explain a fact, and usually they contain a supernatural element.

There are many different ways of conceptualizing myth. Again, I borrow from Magoulik, because I found her explanations insightful:

  1. Myths are Cosmogonic Narratives, connected with the Foundation or Origin of the Universe (and key beings within that universe), though often specifically in terms of a particular culture or region. Given the connection to origins, the setting is typically primordial (the beginning of time) and characters are proto-human or deific. Myths also often have cosmogonic overtones even when not fully cosmogonic, for instance dealing with origins of important elements of the culture (food, medicine, ceremonies, etc.).
  2. Myths are Narratives of a Sacred Nature, often connected with some Ritual. Myths are often foundational or key narratives associated with religions. These narratives are believed to be true from within the associated faith system (though sometimes that truth is understood to be metaphorical rather than literal). Within any given culture there may be sacred and secular myths coexisting.
  3. Myths are Narratives Formative or Reflective of Social Order or Values within a Culture (e.g. functionalism).
  4. Myths are Narratives Representative of a Particular Epistemology or  Way of Understanding Nature and Organizing Thought. For example, structuralism recognizes paired bundles of opposites (or dualities -- like light and dark) as central to myths.
  5. Mythic Narratives often Involve Heroic Characters (possibly proto-humans, super humans, or gods) who mediate inherent, troubling dualities, reconcile us to our realities, or establish the patterns for life as we know it.
  6. Myths are Narratives that are "Counter-Factual in featuring actors and actions that confound the conventions of routine experience" (McDowell, 80).

What's the difference between myths and legends?

Both myths and legends will be key to our study of Genesis, but they are actually distinctly different genres. While myths usually answer questions about how the natural world works, and the Big Questions™ like who we are, where we came from, and why we are here, legends are about people and their actions or deeds.

Legends may or may not be grounded in historical events, and they may or may not be verifiable.

The central difference is the characters: Legends deal with people who aren't too out of the ordinary (think Noah, Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Joseph, etc), while myths are dealing more with the supernatural (which would be why Adam and Eve are more myth than legend despite being people).

Both myths and legends fall under the umbrella of folklore, or the traditional beliefs, myths, legends, practices, and such that are often transmitted in an informal manner.

What are myths useful for?

Myths. What are they good for.

Sorry, I couldn't resist. But there are a variety of possible functions for any given myth, such as:

  1. explaining natural phenomenon
  2. controlling natural forces
  3. binding a people together
  4. recording historical events
  5. teaching geography
  6. setting behavioral examples
  7. justifying social structures
  8. controlling people

All of these functions serve obvious purposes within a community, especially if you think of the purpose of myths and religion as communities began to grow beyond small bands of wanderers.

Looking at Genesis as Folklore

My plan currently is to explore Genesis as folklore, the narrative basis for two separate religions. We'll only be looking at Christianity because that is what I am familiar with. We'll be looking at what the myths and legends mean for later doctrines, and how they fit together.

I am going to try, starting in Chapter 1 (probably tomorrow) to look at both biblical criticisms and apologetic responses, back and forth as we go through, so that we can explore those together.

Anyway, I will try to get to Chapter 1 tomorrow. I'm sure we're all eager to see how the world came to be! ;)

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