Sometimes people take offense at the phrase “Christian mythology” as though it reduces Christianity to silly stories. It may make sense that people feel that way, since most people don’t understand mythology in the first place. It isn’t about dismissing Christianity or putting it down, but rather seeing it in context with other religious beliefs of other cultures. It isn’t about “lowering” Christianity by putting it on the same level as other ancient mythologies but on raising the other mythologies and seeing the interactions between them.
Mythology is a weird word anyway. We study the mythology of ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Norse mythology fairly easily, with little fear of trespassing on religious grounds. We make token comments about how it was the religion of the ancients but we assume that it was a childish thing humans have sensibly outgrown. But as we attempt to expand outwards and explore other mythologies we hit a stumbling block. The other mythologies are other people’s religions. Do we dare talk about them? Explore them? JK Rowling discovered the danger in this when she attempted to set a school for Witches and Wizards in North America only to be accused of cultural appropriation and misusing Native American beliefs.
At one point my European ancestors would have had no fear in denouncing all non-Christian beliefs as foolish superstitions and mythology. They would have assumed their own beliefs were the inevitable result of progress which others should be encouraged to arrive at too. Now as we recognize the colonialism, the white-supremacy in that, we’re left trying to walk a tightrope, not wanting to ignore the myths of other cultures but not wanting to trespass on their territories either.
So, it is in this context that I feel it incredibly important to recognize that mythological setting of the religious tradition I grew up in. The early Hebrew people were not building their religious beliefs in isolation. In descriptions of those who tried to talk to the dead, they mentioned the dead twitter and chirp like birds, an idea from Mesopotamia. The language of the neighboring communities is being used to help understand the language and idioms of the ancient Hebrews.
My attention was drawn recently to Deuteronomy 2:10 – 11 which says: “The Emite used to live there, a people great and many, as tall as the Anakites. Like the Anakites, they were also regarded as Rephaim, though the Moabites called them Emites.” On one hand it is just a mundane little verse talking about an area the people were not going to move into, but on the other hand it is a fascinating little line because it is talking about who used to be there before. With the ending “ite” to the words Emite, Anakites and Moabites we think that they are all tribes or people, but the text itself is “Anaqim,” “Rephaim,” “Moabim,” and “Emim.” The Maobim/Moabites were a people, but the other words are not tribes exactly. Emim refers to terrors. Anakim is translated into giants in some versions. There’s scholarly debate on what the Rephaim exactly but they seem to be shades of dead warriors. A footnote in Robert Alter’s Bible says that there is speculation that the presence of ancient megaliths led people to believe a race of giants had lived there previously. So, in these texts, ancient to us, there are traces of even more ancient beliefs and people.
The images of Mesopotamian Lamashtu were integrated into stories of Lilith. Baal and Dagon are treated as powerless beings, nothings, but does it follow that they were seen as not-existing? As being just stories? Or just as powerless gods, useless to worship? Later Biblical writers said the Mesopotamian gods were said to be just statues made of wood and metal that teeter on their platforms and cannot speak. That argument would not have been convincing to an ancient Babylonian who would have known that the statues were opened up and endowed with life in a special ceremony. (How can Christians look back and criticize the statues as being reborn with life if they consider it possible that bread and wine are transformed?)
I’ve read recently about amulets from sixteen or seventeen hundred years ago meant to protect the wearer from various evils including Artemis. Think about that: Artemis, the Greek goddess, was a potential evil. The Jewish maker of that amulet was not suggest Artemis did not exist, but only that she was a scary force of evil, not to be worshipped.
It is easy to look back and imagine that the Christianization of the Roman Empire brought a belief that the gods and goddesses of mythology did not exist. We can look back and imagine people with modern sensibilities coming to believe that mythological gods are unreasonable, unbelievable. But what if they were seen instead as simply not so powerful? Did the early Christians try to say “your gods didn’t exist?” or did they say “your Gods are not as powerful….?” Some early criticism of Christianity objected not to Jesus being born of a virgin but of a god impregnating a poor non-Roman woman, rather than someone of higher social class. And there were those who argued that Zeus and Yahweh were one, though their opinions were rejected by others.
In Icelandic mythology the ancient magical beings were re-envisioned by the Christians as the first children of Adam and Eve. In one story, Eve was embarrassed about how dirty her children were when God came to visit, so she tried to hide them. God responded by saying that what man hides from God, God hides from man, and those children became a hidden race. In Russia, the mythical creatures of the forest and lakes were re-interpreted as angels which, being cast out of heaven with Lucifer, hit the Earth instead of falling into hell.
We know of other times when different mythologies would incorporate other mythological systems into them. What if we picture the Christian God not as a full break but as a part of ongoing struggles with this? There were early Christian writers who described Hades as barring the gates to the afterlife against Jesus, as Jesus went down to free people from the underworld.
People might be thinking “but no, the Jewish and Christian writers saw him as something entirely different….”. Some probably did, but some might not have. Look at Acts 17:16 – 34, where the writer describes Paul as claiming that the alter to an unknown God is an alter to his God, that he will now make known to the people. In many ways the book of Acts reflects on the struggles that early Christianity faced, including accusations that it was foolish superstition spread through women and superstitious country folk. Paul and his friend are mistaken for Hermes and Zeus. Some early Christians saw the similarities between their own faith and the ‘pagan’ faiths. Justin Martyr argued these similarities were the results of demons inspiring the poets so that people would not believe the true story when Jesus came.
None of this is to say that “everyone worshipped the same God” or that there wasn’t differences in people’s faiths. There are always differences in the different belief systems. The issue is, the differences aren’t necessarily clear cut in the ways we’re used to seeing them. Let’s take the myth of Medusa for example. There’s differing stories about Medusa and whether she was always ugly or whether she was at some point beautiful before becoming ugly. Within the category of “people who believed that Medusa was important” there was disagreement about who she was. Within the category of “Christians” there’s disagreement about whether Jesus was predominantly a savior whose existence makes salvation possible or a teacher whose beliefs and actions need to be followed. Moreover, it matters what type of God people believe in, if they believe in one that dehumanizes others or calls them to love others. But, religions are always very complex.
More and more I’m exploring the Bible with thoughts about colonialism and decolonializing. I think about how much of the Bible is around a group of people’s struggle first as a kingdom and then as a captive people ruled by empires. How can they keep their religious beliefs alive? How do they restructure themselves in light of their new conditions? It reminds me of challenges posed to the First Nations in Canada as they deal with questions of governance, identity and change.
The Bible represents one collection of voices within a particular era. Since this collection of documents was preserved, we know more about those voices than we do about the others who lived near them – like the Moabites, who feared the Emim that had lived there before. Archaeology is uncovering more; people are translating more, and we can learn to hear to hear the other voices from the margins of the Biblical text as well. We can learn to recognize how the Biblical writers were often in dialogue with the other voices, mocking certain aspects of other gods, absorbing other aspects into their own.