When I wrote a series of posts on resonances between the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes and several features of Old Testament narratives, I confessed I did not know how to understand or interpret the data. But someone else does. Philippe Wajdenbaum in 2008 defended his anthropology doctoral thesis, “Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.” He applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, something Lévi-Strauss himself never got around to doing, although he did eventually encourage biblical scholars to do so. This post looks at one detail of a detail-rich article in the 2010 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (Vol. 24, No. 1, 129-142), “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” (After a few more posts on this my next project will be to see if the same type of analysis can be used to suggest origins of the Gospel myths.)
Lévi-Strauss and structural analysis of myths
In Wajdenbaum’s words,
For Lévi-Strauss, a version of a myth is always derived from an existing adaptation, originating most of the time from a different culture and language. A myth must always be analysed in comparison to its variants within the same cultural area where contacts between populations are proven. (p. 131)
Wajdenbaum is analysing the Bible narratives as myths (though he concedes they may contain some historical elements), and comparing the accounts with narratives and laws from Greek literature. While Ancient Near Eastern literature offers many laws similar to those in the Bible, he thinks the Greek literature has not been explored in this context to its full potential. (I am already wondering about the Gospel narratives, and the relationship between Jewish and Greek mythical and literary culture in this context.)
For Lévi-Strauss, similarities between myths that may appear as coincidental at first look must be investigated more deeply. This investigation may ultimately reveal that the analysed narratives are actually variants of the same myth. In Les Mythologiques, Lévi-Strauss builds a very strong case for this argument in his analysis of Native American myths. The story of “The bird nester” can be found in hundreds of different variants in every part of both South and North America — proving that the same initial story spread itself through millennia of oral diffusion. . . .
Lévi-Strauss describes how that the order of the episodes of a myth can be reversed from one variant to other and that many motifs can be inverted. . . .
Lévi-Strauss sought to discover universal rules of transformation in all myths, similar to the discovery of universal principles in structural linguistics and phonology. The aim of Lévi-Strauss was to show
that mankind thinks everywhere the same; that there is no objective distinction between so-called “primitive” and “civilised” thoughts.
Parallelism is not a dirty word. Like the proverbial hammer that cares not whether it is used to build a house or bash the skull of a prisoner, analysing parallels can serve valid and good and invalid and bad functions.
Parallelisms must not be analysed in an isolated way, but one must try to find out the possible narrative structure that links the similarities together. In other words, the similarity . . . is not sufficient by itself to speculate about any possible borrowing. . . . we must examine the place and role of these in their own contexts. . . .
Phrixus and Isaac
So with the context of the methods of Lévi-Strauss in mind, no-one will jump to the conclusion that the well-known parallelism between the Greek myth of Phrixus and the binding of Isaac indicates a source-derivative relationship. What will be needed, after examining the parallels, is an examination “of the place and role of these stories in their own contexts”. That step will probably have to wait for the next post.
Here is the Phrixus myth in, hopefully, a quick easy to read ladder, with a crucial key noted in step ten.
- Athamas, king of Boeotia, married Nephele, a cloud goddess created in the image of Hera by Zeus.
- Athamas and Nephele had twin children: a son, Phrixus, and a daughter, Helle.
- Athamas afterwards rejected Nephele and married Ino.
- Ino hated her stepchildren, Phrixus and Helle, so plotted to have them killed by their own father.
- Ino bribed messengers who told king Athamas that the oracle of Delphi (speaking for the god Apollo) required the sacrifice of Phrixus on Mount Laphystion in order to end a famine in Boeotia.
- Just as Phrixus was about to sacrifice his son Prixus, Zeus (or Nephele in other versions) sent a golden-winged ram to rescue Phrixus and Helle by flying away with them.
- Helle fell off, hence the Hellespont (Helle’s sea).
- The ram brought Prixus safely to Colchis (Georgia).
- In gratitude Prixus sacrificed to Zeus the golden ram that saved him, and hung its golden fleece on an oak tree.
- Now, while it may seem quite inconsequential, probably the most important ingredient of this myth is that it is “the prologue of the epic of the Argonauts, who will come to Colchis years later to bring the famous Golden Fleece back to Greece.” The significance of this will become apparent in my next post where I begin to compare the structural contexts of this myth and the binding of Isaac.
We can recognize the resemblance to the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.
- To test the faith of Abraham God orders him to sacrifice his only beloved son on Mount Moriah.
- Abraham submits to the command and binds his son.
- At the last moment God sends an angel and interrupts the sacrifice.
- Abraham sees a ram stuck in a bush, and sacrifices that ram instead of his son.
But note the inversion “of one small detail”:
In the Greek version, the ram is killed first; then its fleece is hung in a tree. Whereas in the biblical version, the ram is first stuck in a bush and sacrificed afterwards. This inversion of detail can lead us to wonder whether these stories could both derive from a common source; one could derive from the other; or that the resemblance is only due to a coincidence. Therefore we must examine the place and role of these stories in their own contexts, respectively the epic of the Argonauts and the biblical narrative. (p. 132)
That will be the subject of the next post on Wajdenbaum’s SJOT article.
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