Monday, May 17, 2010

Midrash Similar to Mythology

How does one address the issue that there are many instances when Midrashic teachings are extremely similar to Greek mythology? There are many instances where the storyline expressed by a Midrash will be similar to a mythological legend, sometimes the two are identical (examples will be cited). This question has bothered many for centuries and many answers have been proffered. Many are comfortable with stating that the Greeks stole Jewish concepts and incorporated them into their own ideologies. The problem that some have with this approach is that the culture of the Greeks and that of Chazal seem so diametrically opposed that it seems unreasonable that one would have taken from the other.

I would like to offer a theory and offer an example to support it that is pertinent to Matan Torah (and, of course, would love to hear feedback). Chazal understood that the natural forces of both science and history are encoded and symbolized by the stars. They can be deduced via knowledge of the movements of the stars (the original 4 8 constellations) and the associated symbolism between the stellar patterns and various items. (See Ibn Ezra Shemos 33:31 and Rabbeinu Bachye Bamidbar 23:9; also see Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma) For example, the Torah was given in the month of Sivan and the mazal of Sivan (the constellation that rose with the Sun during this month in ancient times) is Teomim, Gemini the Twins. Twins demonstrate a connection between two entities that is unmatched elsewhere. When united they display a complete state not possessed by others. The name Teomim may have its roots in the word Tam meaning complete. (See Midrash Tanchuma Haazinu 1) It was in this month that Klal Yisrael united with Hashem via the Torah.

The Greek mythology is depicted in the night sky. The constellations tell over these legendary stories. One can find the constellation Perseus near Andromeda, Cetus, Cassieopeia and Cepheus. These figures play the roles in a storyline that has monsters, heros and damsels saved at the last minute in Greek mythology.

Since Chazal agree with the basic depictions of the constellations, (see Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachma) then it stands to reason that they saw elements in the natural world that express these concepts. I do not know if the Greeks took from Chazal, had a tradition dating back to Adam or if this was a natural science that they were able to uncover, but it seems that they also studied the sky and created their myths based on the constellations. That being said, if they express these concepts in a similar fashion to the way a Midrash is stated, it should not be shocking. Of course, the Greeks did distort (and even worship) these ideas and concepts and the figures turned into gods and the stories did not display their true meaning (if the true meaning was ever completely uncovered), but this definitely helps show why similarities not only can, but should occur between mythology and Midrash. (Unfortunately, the symbolism behing the aforementioned constellations is beyond the scope of this post, but the symbolism seems to depict the idea of the Sotah and that Hashem will eventually bring back His wife, Klal Yisrael, even though she has strayed from Him.)

The example with Matan Torah can be seen in with the constellations, Aquarius, Aquila and Cepheus. Aquarius is a Water Pourer, but is also associated with the child of the highest god in Greek mythology. Aquarius represents the "child" of Hashem in reality as it is the mazal of Klal Yisrael. (Ibn Ezra Shemos 31:18) This child was taken by an eagle, Aquila, to rejoin his father in the spiritual realm. We are taught that Hashem took us from Egypt to be his premier nation "on the wings of eagles." (Shemos 19:4-5) In the month of Sivan when Gemini would be rising with the Sun, Aquarius would be setting in the west. At this time, Cepheus, a constellation that represents a king, is seen at the height of the sky sitting in his throne. The "son" Aqaurius is standing on the ground in the west, but immediately next to him is the eagle, Aquila, to take him to his king, Cepheus. It seems pretty clear that the Greeks were (wether knowingly or not) expressing Matan Torah in their legend.

There are many other examples like this (like the story of Procrustes), but unfortunately this post cannot go for forever.

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