Chapter 8: The Mythological World of Ancient Man

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 8: The Mythological World of Ancient Man

To understand and meet the challenge of the new world we must turn back to examine the roots of the Christian heritage. This leads us to the Bible, the definitive witness to the faith of our fathers during its long formative period. But the Bible we have seen, must be studied against the background of its own original context in the ancient world. Until this century little was known of the ancient world before 500 BC. except that which is contained in the Bible. We must now take time to sketch the outlines of the world of man in the ancient Middle East since this formed the immediate background for the people of Israel who gave us the Old Testament.

As ancient man surveyed his world, he found himself surrounded on all sides with movement and change, not only in fellow-humans, animals and birds, but in running water, scudding clouds, heavenly bodies traveling across the sky, rising dust-storms, the occasionally quaking earth and the vegetation which sprang up, flowered, fruited and died. Wherever there was movement there was life. Wherever there was life, there was evidently something corresponding to what he knew in himself, such as his own consciousness, his will and his emotions. He saw personality or personal life everywhere. The world to him was not an ‘It’, but a vast, powerful and complicated ‘Thou’.

This means that when he tried to understand what he saw, and give some kind of explanation for the life and movement he witnessed, it did not occur to him to look for an abstract principle or a natural law. He was not interested in asking how a thing happened. That did not even appear to him to be a problem. He saw with his own eyes how a thing happened. What he wanted to know was who was behind the action. Everything that happened was thought to be willed by someone or other, and because this was the cause of the action, he would have thought it foolish and naïve to look for a simple explanation which would hold good on all such occasions. The person who had caused the action might well will one thing at one time and something different the next, just as he himself could vary his action to suit his mood.

But who were the persons whose actions he believed he was witnessing? Here, of course, no one ancient individual ever had to start off from scratch and puzzle it out for himself. Once human language had developed, ancient man was always the recipient of the heritage of oral tradition. He received this from his fathers and passed it on to his children with perhaps only very little change. But there was always room for a little change and that is how the heritage of ancient ideas of the world was gradually built up.

The oral tradition he received (and this all helped to make him the civilized man he was becoming) had already created names for the large number and varied kinds of personal forces who made his world such a live place. The names varied from one culture to another, as did also the kind of person or being that they represented. Fundamentally they were all ‘spirits’. In most languages the word ‘spirit’ was derived from, or was still identical with the word for ‘wind’ or ‘breath’. Since the wind can be seen by what it does and yet remains unseen, and since continued breathing is the best way of testing between the living person and the dead body, these words were the obvious ones for ancient man to use to describe the unseen personal forces at work.

But there are many diverse movements and forms of life in the world, and this naturally became reflected in the types of beings man came to recognize. There were major ones whom he called gods and goddesses, some with quite wide dominion, and others with clearly defined roles. There were also local spirits, good and bad, some of them puckish but harmless, some to be feared, some to be welcomed for their kindly aid.

Ancient man thus recognized himself to be in a very complex world, only one portion of which was visible to the naked eye. There was a whole intercourse of personal dealings going on in the world around him, just as real, even though unseen, as what was going on in the neighboring village of the next valley hidden for the moment by the intervening hills. These personal spiritual forces placed man at a disadvantage just because they were unseen. Ancient man was at their mercy, and it was in his own interests to win and retain their favor. He inherited from the past the knowledge of the best methods of achieving this end. Any new methods he picked up in the course of his own experience were stumbled upon by accident, rather than discovered by venturesome experiment, for it did not pay to wander far from the known way.

In his encounter with this complex world, ancient man attributed equal reality to all his experiences. For him there was no absolute distinction to be made between dreams, hallucinations, and the impressions he received during the hours of wakefulness. The voices he heard and the people he saw were all equally real whether they were in dreams or daily life. In his dreams no doubt, as in ours, the strangest things happened, but then the whole world was to him a mysterious place where wonders abounded, and where nothing was impossible.

Now we must take his understanding of the spirits of the unseen world a stage further. They formed a whole community on their own, and this divine society he pictured in his imagination after the pattern of his own human society. Some of the social affairs of this spiritual society impinged upon his own visible part of the world, and some of them went on wholly in the unseen. Since these spiritual powers were personal, with wills and passions like our own, they loved, quarreled, fought and entered into intrigue. All these doings he expressed in the form of stories which today we call myths. (‘Myth’ was simply the Greek word for any story told by word of mouth.)

What we nowadays know about dreams and the subconscious can help us understand in part how these myths came to be created. We know that dreams result from the various emotional conflicts which arise in us as a result of our daily experiences. Although in sleep we have temporarily lost consciousness, our mind goes on wrestling with these conflicts at lower or subconscious levels of mental activity. These lower levels do not deal with abstract concepts as readily as does the more highly developed stream of consciousness, and so the various factors of the conflict are translated into more objective symbols. The dream may take the form of a drama where people known to the dreamer play the parts of the ideas and concepts included in the particular conflict.

Perhaps in this process we have some hint as to the way in which the mind of ancient man, less adept in handling abstract concepts, was led to express the conflicts he felt among the unseen forces about him in the form of stories of the gods and spirits. In many ways these stories were a projection of the conflicts aroused in his own mind by his confrontation with the world he experienced. It is unlikely that any of the stories in the form in which they have come down to us were created by one man. Instead, they were a gradual development as an original theme was filled out and extended by successive generations. The comparative study of the myths of the ancient Middle East shows that the myths were in a continuous process of development and adaptation.

It is important to realize that, unlike our situation today, the mind of ancient man enjoyed almost unlimited freedom in developing the story. He lived in a world in which almost anything seemed possible. Once again we have a parallel in our dream experiences, where the subconscious mental processes are freed from the monitoring influence of an informed sophisticated consciousness, ever ready to bring a halt to any idea too outlandish by saying, "Don’t be ridiculous. That’s impossible." But when we wake we may recall the most outlandish dreams we have had. So it was with ancient man. In his case there was no body of accepted knowledge of the seen world to confine and actually hamper the processes of his imagination by impressing upon him what was really possible. Many of the ancient myths, like our dreams, are marked by the complexity of the plot and sub-plots, the lack of consistency in the characters and their actions, and the introduction, without warning, of further players in the cosmic drama.

In such an intellectual climate as that, some of the mythical interpretations of observable phenomena given by ancient man would have seemed to him much more obvious and common sense than our modern explanations, should it ever have been possible to present the latter to him for the purpose of choosing between them. For example, he experienced the same physical sense impressions as we do when witnessing the breaking of a drought by means of a violent storm. But our meteorological explanation in terms of barometric pressure, temperature and wind movements would have struck him as too abstract and remote to explain anything. Was it not clear that the hot wind that had been scorching the crops was the hot breath of the angry Heavenly Bull, which had now met its match with the arrival of the gigantic bird whose immense widespread wings were already darkening the sky and blotting out the light of the sun?

The process of myth-making has been called "the intellectual adventure of ancient man". But it was not simply an intellectual exercise, far less a form of entertainment, for ancient man knew himself to be involved in the processes of life and divine encounter which he saw all around him. Most of the myths which have come down to us in written form were not just stories or explanations of phenomena. They were part of a cultic activity and were associated with ritualistic acts, religious ceremonials, sacred dancing, and drama. It was in these media that ancient man played his part in the world scene, and responded in that way which he believed to be most appropriate to the occasion, and which would further promote his welfare.

Let us take, for example, his response to the changing seasons. He could not help but notice that the spring brought new life both in the fields and among the flocks. The cereals and fruit-trees quickly grew until they flowered and reached maturity in grain and fruit. But then the signs of life began to depart, and, as autumn fell, it was just as if the whole world was coming to a standstill in the state of death. How could he be sure that the annual cycle would start up all over again? There had been handed down to him a pattern of ritual which was believed to ensure that it would. In any case he knew that some seasons were better than others, and it was clear to him that this meant that at some times the gods were more pleased with his response than at others. So to ensure the return of the spring and to promote a successful and plentiful season he sought to win the favor of the gods concerned, by playing his traditional part in the cultic ritual.

This varied from one ancient culture to another but was performed in the late autumn, the winter solstice, or the early spring. In the Babylonian New Year Festival their creation myth was recited and partly acted out. This was a long involved story of how Marduk was elected King of the gods in order to attack and defeat Tiamat the goddess of the watery deep, who was spreading chaos by spawning all sorts of evil creatures. After the victory Marduk brought order out of chaos, cut the dead body of Tiamat in two to make heaven and earth, and so created a fit place for the gods to dwell in. The creation myth was deemed appropriate at the New Year because it was thought that before the return of spring life was possible, the basic creative act had to be performed afresh.

A common theme of the myths of the ancient cultures was the death and resurrection of the god of fertility. In Babylonia it was Tammuz, in Syria Adonis, in Egypt Osiris, in Canaan Baal, in Greece Persephone, whose death was marked by the falling leaves of autumn, whose imprisonment in the underworld of death explained the winter, and whose release by the gods of the underworld for one reason or another made possible the spring revival.

Now that we have briefly sketched the role of myth and ritual in the ancient world we can see why it is convenient to use the label ‘mythological’ to describe the world of ancient man. It is used in this book to refer generally to ancient man’s distinctive way of looking at and responding to his world. For this reason it is important to see that we shall be using the word ‘myth’ in a somewhat different sense. They are related in that the mythological world view of ancient man was expressed in the form of stories or myths, but it shall be argued later that there is something more permanently valid in ‘myth’ than in what has been here called the ‘mythological’.

The reason for this is that there is a strong link between myth and poetry in that they both derive from the fertility of the human imagination as man makes his response to his environment at the deepest level. But whereas ancient man drew no clear dividing line between objective knowledge and the insights to be expressed in poetry, this is something we are forced to do. In the new world the mythological world view of ancient man is obsolete, but poetry is not obsolete. While it is true that myth is no longer appropriate for the objective understanding of natural phenomena, it may still have a valid role to play for the expression of man’s sense of mystery and wonder in the world in which he finds himself. In both myth and poetry there is a freer and more fruitful use of words and concepts than prose, logic, or scientific description would allow.

We shall now summarize the chief characteristics of the mythological world of ancient man. Firstly, the whole cosmos was subject to a cyclic rhythm. The natural alternation of day and night, the waxing and waning of the moon, the yearly round of the seasons, the succession of one generation by the next, all led ancient man to a cyclic view of time. In cycles of different length he saw himself returning to an earlier point. This meant there could be no such thing as permanent progress and development; there could be only successive periods of growth and decay. The gods and men were all involved in this cyclic rhythm. We are used to the cyclic rhythm in the daily, monthly and annual routine, but we have become so conditioned to the sense of history in terms of a continuous line in which the past recedes ever further away, that we find it difficult to appreciate the time-world of ancient man.

Secondly, the mythological world was inevitably polytheistic. It was the meeting place and often the battle ground of a whole host of divine forces. Sometimes one major god might be thought of as having won the ascendancy, and then he became a king of the gods, but often there was no clear unity or system. The unseen world of the divine mirrored in many ways the human world, and the gods displayed all the same emotions and craftiness. It may be said that man was in effect working out the problems and conflicts he saw in his visible environment by projecting them into the divine figures which symbolized them.

Thirdly, the mythological world was divided into two parts, the unseen world of the gods, often associated with the sky above, and the visible tangible world to which men were confined. The gods could move freely about both parts and frequently did. They could break into men’s affairs when they wished, and they could keep to themselves when they desired privacy from the inquisitive eye of man. The gods were thought for the most part to be very jealous of the advantages which their divine immortality gave them over the limitations of mortal man. It was natural that men should look up with envy to the unseen world of the gods, and the search for a method to become like the gods and to win immortality became a common theme in the myths which expressed their longings. Ancient man thus showed a strong tendency to develop an other-worldly look, and to depreciate the importance and significance of the tangible world in which he lived.

Fourthly, the unseen spiritual world around him so dominated the life of ancient man that the cultic practices of sacrifice and ritual, by which he sought to win the favor of the gods, were of paramount importance. Religion and religious practices embraced everything, whether it was family affairs, agriculture, politics or war. Religious practices showed a strong tendency to become stereotyped and unchangeable, and this had the effect of imprisoning man in an intricate network or pattern of behavior, inherited from the past, from which he could not escape. That which originated in an attempt to win for him such elements of freedom as divine favor could bestow, ended by becoming a taskmaster.

Such was the way in which ancient man saw his world. The Bible presents the story of Israel from the lips of her own thinkers, prophets and witnesses, and shows how she believed herself to be called out from this ancient world to pioneer a new and distinctive way for the whole human race. In the succeeding chapters we shall examine the distinctive marks of the Judeo-Christian heritage, as they come to light when the Bible is studied against the background of the mythological world of ancient man. And we shall try to show that much that has come to a flowering in the new world has its roots in that rich heritage.