The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth

By Donald H. Mills | Go to book overview

Preface

A number of ancient Near Eastern myths recount a hero’s battle with a water demon or water divinity. These divinities often come to symbolize primordial or pre-cosmic chaos, and the hero’s victory over his watery adversary is emblematic of a cosmic creation or re-creation. This study investigates how myths of heroic battle with chaotic adversaries inform and condition several ancient heroic narratives. In particular, it examines the ways in which this mythic pattern functions in response to the cultural needs, religious concerns, and worldview of its audience. The Babylonian hero Gilgamesh, the Greek heroes Achilles and Odysseus, and the Old Testament patriarch Jacob all encounter the chaotic in their respective struggles with watery adversaries.

It is the thesis of this study that these mythic narratives give vivid expression to the terrifying experience of the chaotic while providing the conceptual framework by which ancient poets could ritualize, in ways meaningful to their respective communities, the hero’s movement from chaos to victory. Because myth and ritual each serve to make intelligible social organization and to clarify a multitude of problematic human relationships, the riddle of the chaotic lies behind every ancient mythmaker’s struggle to express a sense of order in a world where chaos often seems to reign.

The last chapter explores points of contact between the ancient mythic patterns and the discoveries of modern scholars engaged in the theoretical study of chaos and chaotics.

There is, of course, much that could be written about the multicultural dimensions of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations and the interconnections of their world views, but I believe that The Hero and the Sea is unique in that it expands the realm of inquiry by using the methodological insights of literary scholars, comparative religionists, anthropologists and psychologists to explore ancient conceptions of chaos. For these ancient narratives of heroic struggle uniquely transcend time and culture to speak to the universal human condition. Thus, they give expression to all those hopes, aspirations, and fears that have defined, for ancient no less than modern thinkers, what it means to be human in a chaotic world.

I would like to express appreciation to the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at Syracuse University for help with the some of the productions costs of this volume. I owe also a great debt of gratitude to those who have read the manu-

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The Hero and the Sea: Patterns of Chaos in Ancient Myth
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Foreword iii
  • Preface v
  • Contents vii
  • Chapter I - Mythic Patterns 1
  • Chapter II - Gilgamesh and the Heroic Confrontation with Death 21
  • Chapter III - Achilles and the Scamander 55
  • Chapter IV - Odysseus and Poseidon 95
  • Chapter V - Old Testament Patterns- Creation, Flood, Exodus 135
  • Epilogue - Chaos and Cosmology, the Modem View 161
  • Bibliography 185
  • Index 195
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