Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Mythology — part four: historicity

Apart from indulging in trivia, about the most useless question you can ask about a story from mythology or religion is whether a particular event actually happened, or on what historical event the story is based. For critical purposes, such a question would be like critiquing the playwright over the quality of the sets at a performance of the play. The events are just the props, the play's the thing. The story-teller, after noticing too many blank stares at the mention of the name of a long-dead historical figure, starts to use someone similar from popular history. A shaman might start the proceedings with a couple of stage tricks, not to attempt to prove anything, but just to set the mood  — like lighting incense, or hearing dramatic music start to play in the movie as the heroine asks "Is there anybody there?". No one at the movies storms out yelling "dramatic music never starts whenever I'm in danger!" What works best is what works for tonight's audience, not for one fifty years ago.

In the beginning was the spoken word. Then we started writing everything down and writers gained a sort of immortality by insisting that their words be quoted as "Smith says...", instead of "Smith said...", even though Smith might have been dead for centuries. As religious texts came into being, in a different reality, they also became historical texts. The historian is always interested in the time that the text was written, even if the text is on a historical subject. The history is the answer to questions that were meaningful to people contemporary to the historian. So the historian would judge a religious text by how its lessons were received by the people at the time it was penned. From this information (as far as it is possible to discover), the historian can then translate the metaphors and idioms that would be too stale to be fully understood today into new forms that preserve the intent of the original author to be understood by the audience of the original time and place.

While finding religious texts so translated is not that easy, you can compare very different translations of Aristophanes' comedies: a strict word for word translation will not allow you to experience the play as if you were at its premier. It's comedy value depended on being just on the "'naughty" side of acceptable to the audience at the time, so certain things were said as euphemisms. A translation using modern idioms and, again, just on the "naughty" side of acceptable can still deliver the sort of audience response that Aristophanes wanted. To understand the religious texts, look for the metaphors in the events that are described, the historical is just set design and need only be judged against the understanding of its original audience. The truth that is written about is pretty well always given in metaphor. How could it be otherwise?

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