Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Is That All It's About, Part 4

Baby just don't lie to me You know I thrive on jealousy I boil it down to simple pleas Baby just don't lie to me --Local H, "Simple Pleas" I developed a saying sometime during my time at Western Illinois University. "If it wasn't written down, it probably didn't happen. If it was only recorded by one source, it probably didn't happen the way we think it did." This particular bit of cynicism doesn't come from the study of history, per se, it comes from the process known as historiography, also known as the history of the study of history. History is a complicated process. Those who only took the necessary, required amount of history probably don't see that. I didn't see it until I was taking three and four hundred level courses. Until then it was just a bunch of facts, regurgitated on to bits of paper when the time called for them. It's because history has largely become standardized for the K-12 and general requirements club. The Metric System of the history game is the textbook. Textbooks offer a distilled, sanitized version of history. We get the important dates: 1066, 1492, 1776, etc. We get the important people: Julius Caesar, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson and whatnot. What we don't get is the conflict and controversy. That is starting to change, but it, too, is getting a lot of resistance. Textbooks and history teachers now dare to offer controversial topics and, at least in America, controversy is usually followed by accusations of nonpatriotism from certain conservative elements. This is because teaching history as a somewhat scientific discipline is, well, new. There is an old saying that goes, "Winners write the history." This carries with it certain connotations, such as the idea that the winning side will then glorify itself while making the enemy in to a villainous mob. Hindsight is, after all, often the best justification for anything. I was reminded of this yesterday while visiting one of my favorite museums. The University of Chicago maintains a small museum of Middle Eastern antiquity known as the Oriental Institute. It's small, yes. I was only there for a couple hours and got everything I wanted out of the visit. But it has a wealth of artifacts and information from one of the premier institutions of higher learning on the topic, including many of the wall panels from the Assyrian palace of Sargon (um, Sargon II, I think). Sargon himself didn't really make it in to the Bible, but his people did, especially his son, Sennacherib. Assyria functioned as something of a bogeyman for the Israelites during the period of the kings and the split state of Israel and Judah. They attacked and destroyed the northern kingdom and were driven off from the very gates of Jerusalem by Yahweh after a change of heart by Hezekiah (I recall. It's kind of fuzzy and I don't feel like looking it up). There was, too, the interlude where Jonah went to Ninevah, the Assyrian capital, preached away, and the Assyrians repented of their evil ways, thereby pissing Jonah off, mostly because he'd really, really wanted to see the wrath of heaven poured out over the city. When I was in church and the subject of the Assyrians came up, it was inevitable that we'd hear how bloodthirsty and cruel they were. I have no doubt that they were fully capable of such things. One does not create an empire by being cuddly. However, the Assyrians were probably no more bloodthirsty and cruel than anyone else was, up to and including the Israelites, whose own National Epic is filled with all kinds of slaughter. The thing that gave me pause in the Oriental Institute was not, however, the 40-ton man-headed bull statue that once guarded Sargon's throne room. It was a small chunk of the Epic of Gilgamesh, mounted on a plaque and accompanied by a translation. Gilgamesh was the Mesopotamian Theseus or Beowulf, a mythical king from before the beginning of time who may or may not have been real but was somehow larger than life and the greatest of all heroes. Gilgamesh's Epic was the common root of the Mesopotamian National Epics and so was around during the Babylonian Captivity of the Israelites during the 6th Century B.C.E. Many point to the Flood of Noah as possibly being taken from the Epic of Gilgamesh, who had a similar tale. Oddly enough, I've tended to not entirely buy that. Noah's flood was quite different from Gilgamesh's. The Noahic Flood was actually somewhat closer in theme to a Greek flood myth, which tended to make me think that there might have been a catastrophic Mediterranean flood at some point well before recorded history that the Greeks and Jews both remembered in their own way. Another possibility was that for cultures who lived and died by the sea, floods were simply a way of life and the Flood Myth was repeated simply because of the power it had over an ancient people who didn't fully understand the power of water but really, really needed it. Anyway, I was reading the translation of a chunk of the Epic of Gilgamesh. I don't remember it exactly, but it was about a woman laying down at the feet of, um, either a god or another mythological hero, said male figure seeing that the woman was quite desirable, getting it on with her, and this activity leading to the birth of Gilgamesh. What shocked me, though, was that I suddenly realized I was reading the Biblical story of Ruth. See, Ruth was a non-Israelite who married an Israelite who then died. Ruth's mother-in-law went home and Ruth followed. A kinsman of the dead husband, Boaz, took pity on them. After a while the mom-in-law hatched a plan. Boaz had had a bit too much to drink, Ruth got herself made up all pretty-like and went and laid at his feet. In church we were always told that no hanky-panky happened and Boaz, who was drunk enough to pass out on the threshing floor, just realized that this Moabite tart lying at his feet was actually a good prospect for marriage. Right. Anyway, Ruth got pregnant and gave birth to Obed. Obed had a son named Jesse. Jesse had a bunch of sons. The runt of the litter was a shepherd boy named David. David would become King David, the possibly mythological Biblical hero of the Jewish people.* David, meanwhile, had a son named Solomon, who took the Israelite Kindgom to its zenith and was the envy of everyone. Except there's almost zero mention of Solomon outside of the Bible, with the possible exception of a depiction on an Assyrian obelisk, in which the figure identified as Solomon is kneeling before the Assyrian king (also located in the Oriental Institute). Oh, and just in case anyone is wondering, both David and Solomon had a descendant who is rather more well known than either one: Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, rather famously, had a mother who was mysteriously impregnated by a god, which was not an altogether uncommon motif of the day. Speaking of Jesus, there's some doubt as to whether or not he actually lived. We only have the Gospels, which kind of fall under that category of a single source and therefore unreliable account. The trump card that's always played by Christians who want to argue for historical validity is the Roman historian Josephus. He mentioned Jesus, so there. Jesus existed and the Bible is totally right. Except I used Josephus extensively as a source for a paper on the Maccabean Revolt. I also used the books of the Maccabees and I noticed something. Josephus basically copied the Maccabees, but stripped them of the Jewish religious context for a Roman audience. This, at least in my book, pretty much strips Josephus of credibility as an independent second source. That's the nature of historiography. A lot of ancient sources worked like that. They simply copied something written by someone before, but with changes for context, if not necessarily independent research. To someone who isn't a historian, though, that sort of thing isn't really self-evident, mostly because they aren't studying the events, they're studying the story about the event. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference. Then the concept of Biblical archeology pops in to muddy the waters still more. See, the Bible mentions a bunch of places where towns existed. Not surprisingly, there are signs that there were, in fact, town in those places. There is a cottage industry of people who basically call themselves historians but aren't who then turn around and trumpet the archaeological findings as proof that the Bible is totally accurate. I actually handled this topic back in my third post. Yes, Virginia, there was a Troy. But there probably wasn't a ten-year war fought over a misunderstanding about a woman. Is is possible, though, that there were decades or possibly centuries of raiding and skirmishing and maybe outright war over trade and access to the Black Sea? Hell yeah. And here I hit the point where I realize this is a really long post and I haven't even covered the Documentary Hypothesis or the nature of Apocalyptic Writings, nor have I broached Constantine, Eusebius, and the three accounts of the mythological foundation of the Church at the core of the later Roman Empire as recorded by two historians. Oy. To be continued, I guess... *As a sidenote: shepherd boys turned kings are a pretty common theme in antiquity, generally with the construction of royal parents receiving a vision of destruction on the eve of the child's birth and leaving said child to die. Only the child is rescued in some way and raised by shepherds only to accidentally fulfill the prophecy when it's pretty obvious that the whole thing could have been avoided if the parents had just kept the kid. Oedipus Rex is founded on this concept and probably borrows from Homer's Illiad and the backstory of Paris. In a story like Oedipus the point is pretty much, "You can't mess with Fate." However, it's entirely possible that the King David story is actually a precursor to modern tales like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where the simple country folk go to the seat of power and wow the big city politicians with their homespun wisdom and manage to make real, important changes.


Stinger said...

It is so strange, sitting here in the middle of a "500-year" flood, to be reading your post about the various Mesopotamian flood myths! (Well, not literally or even figuratively in the middle, but still -- part of a shocked and traumatized community.)

You make a great point about Gilgamesh's mother=Ruth=Mary. The more I read, the more I realize that there are only a very few stories -- they just keep getting re-packaged for the teller's audience.

Stinger said...

I meant to add that, back in the days of my own religiousness, I read a book called Peace Child. The missionary author kept finding parts of the local peoples' beliefs that were but a dim foreshadowing of the Christian Truth. The author's point, which I then docilely accepted, was that there is a Truth that everybody is reaching for, however haplessly.

Now, of course, I realize that there are simply just a few basic stories in the human consciousness!

(This is not at all, however, to demean the storyteller's art! Quite the contrary.)

Geds said...

We really only have a few stories. The trick is, and this is how I look at the storyteller's art, to figure out how to make the stories work for us, now, and update them as we learn more about the universe.

Ironically enough, meanwhile, the Fox Valley Folk Festival (where my guild runs a storytelling area and is having workshops) got flooded out last year. We're all kind of crossing our fingers and hoping the same thing doesn't happen this year, too. It's Labor Day Weekend, so we've got that going for us, but if the island its on floods and the grass is destroyed...

Fiat Lex said...

As always, a wonderful read, and it reminded me of something.

My dad's researches into archaeology had suggested to him (or so he told me) that the Noah story may have come from the filling-in of the Black Sea. Which apparently was once a populated valley, before shifting tectonic plates and a changing world climate brought the Mediterranean crashing down into it. Dunno if the archaeological evidence backs this up, but it's an intriguing thought.

Way more believable, at any rate, than another idea I've read here and there. Namely that the Flood myths which crop up in many cultures worldwide are a dim memory of our ancestors' passage to Earth on a spaceship. :D