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Mythology Myth

MYTH, MYTHOLOGY (Gr. μῦθος; "word," "word content," "narrative"). A myth is a story about the universe that is considered sacred. Such a story deals with the great moments of man's life: birth, initiation, and death, referring them to events that took place in "mythical time." The myth is often recited during a dramatic representation of the event it narrates (e.g., the Enūma eliš was recited at the Babylonian New Year festival). Through the ritual, man becomes contemporary with the mythical event and participates in the gods' creative actions. Thus man can create, maintain, or renew fecundity, life, etc. Myths can be classified according to their subjects, as: theogonic, cosmogonic, anthropogonic, soteriological, and eschatological, myths of paradise, myths of flood, hero myths, etc.

In the Bible

The word "myth" was first applied to biblical narratives in the 18th century, when the question of the historicity of the first chapters of Genesis arose. For J.G. Eichhorn, for instance, the biblical narratives contain philosophical truth (e.g., the Garden of Eden narrative) or are based on a kernel of historical truth (the narratives concerning the Patriarchs). In the mid-19th century the term myth acquired a more precise meaning in biblical research. Biblical scholars who held that myth and polytheism were inseparable (e.g., Y. Kaufmann and H. Frankfort) denied any possibility of finding myths in the Bible, though they do not deny the existence of residues of myths or "demythologized myths" in the Bible. A number of apparent myths and mythical subjects which found their way into the Bible, have been collected and compared with extra-biblical parallels. In the prophetic and poetic books, references are made to the Lord's struggle with the primeval dragon, variously named Tannin ("Dragon," Isa. 27:1, 51:9; Ps. 74:13; Job 7:12), Yam ("Sea," Isa. 51:10; Hab. 3:8; Ps. 74:13; Job 7:12), Nahar ("River," Hab. 3:8; Ps. 93?), Leviathan (Isa. 27:1; Ps. 74:14), and Rahab (Isa. 30:7; 51:9; Ps. 89:11; Job 9:13; 26:12–13). A special parallel to this theme is found in the Ugaritic myth of Baal and his struggle against Yam, in which mention is made of Leviathan (ltn; C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), 67, 1:1) and Tannin (tnn; nt, ibid., 3:37) as well as of Nahar (nhr). In this myth the dragon is called, as in Isaiah 27:1, bari'aḥ ("fleeing serpent") and ʿaqallaton ("twisting serpent"; cf. Gordon, ibid., 67, 1:2–3). The same theme is found in the Babylonian creation epic Enūma eliš (Marduk's fight with Tiamat, "Sea") and in the Hittite myth of the storm-god and the dragon Illuyankas (Pritchard, Texts, 125–6), and with variations in Sumerian, Egyptian, Phoenician, and other literatures.

The idea that man was made out of clay (Gen. 2:7; Job 33:6) is common to the Bible and other extra-biblical literatures, especially the myth of Atraḥasis (W.G. Lambert and A.R. Millard, Atra-Ḥasīs (1969), 56ff.; cf. also Enūma eliš, 6:1–38 and the creation of Enkidu, Gilgamesh 1:30–40, in Pritchard, Texts, 68, 74). In Genesis 2:7, the Lord breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life; in Atraḥasis, man is the product of the mixture of clay and the flesh and blood of a slaughtered god. In the latter source, man is created to do the work the inferior gods refused to do (cf. Gen. 2:15).

The biblical story which has the most striking Mesopotamian parallel is the flood story (Gen. 6–8; Gilgamesh, tablet 11 – in Pritchard, Texts, 93–97, cf. also Atrahasis). In both accounts a man and his household escape the deluge thanks to divine providence; the flood hero is told to build a ship (ark); after the flood, the ship comes to rest upon a mountain (Ararat or Nisir); birds are sent out in exploration; a much appreciated sacrifice is offered by the survivor; God (or the gods) repents of His bringing about the flood. As in other myths, the main difference between the biblical and extra-biblical version of the flood story resides in the fact that the biblical one is monotheistic. Other differences can be pointed out. For example, the fact that Noah takes with him only his family, while Utnapishtim (the Babylonian flood hero) makes a point of taking craftsmen with him, may well point to different types of society.

Residues of hero myths can be found in Genesis 5:24; 6:1–4; 10:8–9; and II Samuel 23:8ff., for example. The stories about Samson, Jephthah, Gideon, and so on have much in common with the hero myth genre.

In biblical poetry there are echoes of myths: the wind has wings (I Sam. 22:11: Hos. 4:19); thunder is the Lord's voice (II Sam. 22:14; et al.); the Lord rides the clouds (Ps. 68:5), etc. Although mythical patterns can be found in the Bible, the biblical authors are not especially interested in "extra-temporal events," but rather deal with God's intervention in history. The Bible is less interested in the cosmos than in man.


T.J. Meek, in: JBL, 42 (1924), 245–52; E. Norden, Die Geburt des Kindes (1924); Th. H. Gaster, Thespis (1950), idem, in: Numen, 1 (1964), 184ff.; Y. Kaufmann, in: JBL, 70 (1951), 179–97; H. Frankfort et al., Before Philosophy (1952); M. Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (1954); idem, Patterns in Comparative Religion (1958); S.H. Hooke (ed.), Myth, Ritual and Kingship (1958); E.O. James, Myth and Ritual in the Ancient Near East (1958); J. Barr, in: VT, 9 (1959), 1–10; J.L. Mc-Kenzie, in: CBQ, 21 (1959), 265–82; B.S. Childs, Mythand Reality in the Old Testament (1960).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.