Welcome to the fifth post in the series I am doing about mythology and the bible. You can see the other posts in the series here.
I will reprise my caveat from last week:
I am not attempting to read the stories of the bible in their theological, historical, scientific, or literary contexts. I am interested in the way they function for a particular audience (modern American Christian children), making this a rhetorical project.
And, actually, this week I want to move away from my focus on children as audience and instead look at a number of post-biblical audiences. Moving away from the micro focus on fairytales and fables, I want to spend this week focusing on legends. In the future, I will address myths in the big sense or origins and endings, Alpha and Omega stuff. Here, again, are the distinctions I made the first week:
Generally speaking, myths are large stories of cosmic proportions. They explain the reason the world, humanity, fire, or any other thing integral to human life exists. They are about gods and goddesses. Legends tend to be more regional. They explain how a city was founded, or why that particular mountain is where it is. Legends frequently involve human heroes. Fairy tales are local stories, particular to certain villages or towns. Unlike myths and legends, though, they tend to refrain from naming a recognizable place. Rather, they take place “once upon a time” or “in a land far away.” They feature unnamed characters or, if they are named, they have generic names. For instance, Hansel and Gretel may sound odd to us, but they were as common to Germany and Austria as Jack and Jill once were for us. Fairy tales serve a different purpose than myths (cosmic explanation, history of origins) or legends (cultural explanations, political justifications). They are about how the ordinary person, frequently a child, overcomes a difficult obstacle. Now, of course, these delineations are not perfectly neat, but they serve their purpose. Fairy tales, legends, and myths can all interact with each other and function in relation to each other. The result is a mythology. Thus, for example, The Hobbit is a fairy tale that fits comfortably in the legend of The Lord of the Rings which, itself, is a footnote in the grand Tolkien mythos, most holistically found in The Silmarillion.
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There are lots of places I could turn to demonstrate the way that legends function in real political, social, and religious contexts. I’ve already talked about how, originally, the story of Samson serves as a legend for Israel—helping to explain enmity with the Philistines, etc. I argued that such legends can and have been appropriated by later audiences to function in different ways. So, for instance, the story of Samson is now a fairytale told to children.
Another example is the legend of the Roman Emperor. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the germanic armies of the north, the Eastern Empire (the Byzantine Empire) endured, though in a very reduced form, until the fifteenth century. The Byzantine Emperor was the only legitimate claimant to the title, and his empire the only legitimate political heir to the Roman state. Nevertheless, the popes—making use of the forged document known as “The Donation of Constantine”—claimed to be the legitimate successors to the imperial throne. Thus, in 799 Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne—who was King of the Franks—the Holy Roman Emperor. Much of the history of Europe is tied up in political leaders claiming to be the legitimate heirs to the Roman Emperors, and thus the rightful rulers of Europe. Additionally, After the Byzantine Empire fell in the late 1400s, the King of Russia (who had married the heiress of the Byzantine Empire) took the title of Tsar (a corruption of Caesar) and represented himself as the legitimate Roman Emperor and the Russian Empire as a “third Rome.” WWI was fought over the death of the heir to the Holy Roman Empire. Even in WWII, Hitler invoked the myth of Rome with his salute, use of the Roman Eagle, neo-classical architecture, and claim to be the leader of the Third Reich (the first Reich being the Holy Roman Empire, the second Reich being the German Empire united under Emperor Wilhelm I towards the end of the nineteenth century).
Returning to discussions of the bible, I wish to demonstrate different ways legends have been built up around the bible, derived from the bible, or ripped from the bible itself.
The Holy Grail has inspired many legends. The Holy Grail—the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper—was the object pursued by many in the Arthurian Legendarium. The idea being that Joseph of Arimathea came to England after the ascension of Jesus. He brought the grail with him. This serves to give Norman occupied England a sense of history and connection to the prevailing religious sentiments of the day. Ripped straight from the gospels, the Holy Grail became a bejeweled, magical cup. Both the success of Monty Python and of Indiana Jones indicates the continuing success and resonance of this particular legend. Indiana Jones also exhibits the continuing success of the myth of the legend of the Ark of the Covenant.
The Crusades—fought in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries—were a series of wars fought by Christian Europe over and against Islamic control of the Holy Land (and sometimes against the Orthodox Christians). The Crusades arose out of the notion that Christian Europe, by right of being Christians, had legitimate ownership of the Holy Land more generally and various sacred spaces within the Holy Land more specifically. Thus, God was invoked to bless the military campaigns. In this case, the legend of Christendom (the political unity of Christian peoples orchestrated by God, connected to the legend of the Christian Roman Empire) justified various military and political ends.
Zionism (in both its Jewish and Christian varieties, as well as it’s secular variety) is a legend concerning the same piece of Holy Land desired by the Crusaders. Jewish Zionism is tied directly to the biblical legends concerning the founding of the Kingdom of Israel. Claiming that God gave the Holy Land to a particular ethnic group, Jewish Zionists today maintain that the Jewish people today are the heirs to that original covenant. Secular Zionism grasps the religious legend, but invokes the Holocaust as the justification for the existence of the State of Israel. Jews should never be defenseless again, they claim. These two varieties came together in the establishment of Israel in the British mandate of Palestine in 1948. Christian Zionism, a new phenomenon, invokes the same legend that Jewish Zionism does, but it adds notions gleaned from St. John’s Apocalypse that the end of time (and thus Jesus’ return) won’t occur unless Israel is established as a socio-political entity. John Hagee and the Left Behind books serve as the best example of this notion.
Biblical legends have also mattered in America. I will add that the Puritans who founded New England invoked the biblical notion of a city on a hill, a notion that led to a belief in Manifest Destiny. And, even more fascinating, is the Mormon creation of legends about Jesus visiting the Americas and then giving Joseph Smith a special revelation. The use of biblical and related legends is alive and well here.
It should go without saying, but I will say anyway, that most of the legends that I reference in this post resulted in the brutal oppression of people. The Crusades were violations of Christ himself. Zionism first brutally ripped land away from a people who had lived there for centuries and then imposed a murderous and oppressive regime on the Palestinian People. The current situation is becoming more and more apartheid like all of the time. The Left Behind books represent disgusting and extremely poor biblical scholarship, the result of which is a dangerous love and support for Israel. Manifest Destiny resulted in the brutal murder, relocation, and oppression of the Native Americans. Unjust conditions persist today.
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Next week I will discuss larger myths like origins and the end. Hopefully we are beginning to see the way that fairytales can fit into legends and how legends can fit into myths. In the fairytale of Samson, the land of Israel serves as the entire backdrop. In many of the legends I have discussed today, Israel itself is central to function of the legend, but is not all encompassing. Legends zoom out a bit. Hopefully we will see how myths zoom out even further. I will eventually discuss the implications of a mythology of the bible for the present day.