Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking

By Michael Fishbane | Go to book overview

Introduction

A THINKING ABOUT THE SUBJECT

Myth is that most elusive of cultural forms—forever avoiding the constraints of definition and analysis; yet always attesting, through its protean persistence, to an indomitable grip upon the human imagination. Call myth what you will, others will certainly put it differently and claim good grounds for their standpoint. For those bred in the West, the ancient Greek patrimony casts a long shadow over the mind, particularly through its well-known juxtaposition of myth to other forms of thought or creativity. The most characteristic contrast is between mythos and logos. The early occurrence of such words as mythologia or mythologeuein (also mythoeomai and mythēsasthai) indicates that originally mythos (as a formulated speech) was a type of articulation of a plan or story—even a fabulation about the gods or heroes in archaic times or in the course of culturally formative events. However, the sources vary as to whether mythos or logos is the preferred term or value. Thus, quite contrary to common presumption, the term logos often appears in Hesiod and Homer as a negative, untrustworthy, and even crafty form of speech; whereas mythos in its varieties is 'an assertive discourse of power and authority that represents itself as something to be believed and obeyed'. 1 Gradually, from the sixth and fifth centuries bce on, in the period sometimes referred to as the first sophistic enlightenment, mythos and logos marked different valences—with great and long-standing cultural consequences.

For Plato, when myth was just being itself, whether the 'greater' myths of the poets or the 'lesser' ones of grandmothers and nurses, it produced marvellous imaginative fictions (mythōdēs) about reality—well-suited to oral genres or poetry, and even leading to persuasion and insight, but hardly conducive to rigorous dialectic or truthful discourse (alēthinos logos). 2 It thus had to be rejected for its distortions and illusions, but especially for the

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