I’ve been re-reading Propp’s work on the structure of folk tales (Morphology of the Folktale) and this passage struck me this time:
[I]f all fairy tales are so similar in form, does this not mean that they all originate from a single source? The morphologist does not have the right to answer this question. At this point he hands over his conclusions to a historian or should himself become a historian. Our answer, although in the form of a supposition, is that this appears to be so.However, the question of sources should not be posed merely in a narrowly geographic sense. “A single source” does not positively signify, as some assume, that all tales came, for example, from India, and that they spread from there throughout the entire world, assuming various forms in the process of their migration.
Propp, V. (2010-06-03). Morphology of the Folk Tale (Kindle Locations 2049-2053). University of Texas Press. Kindle Edition.
Propp then goes on to raise our awareness of other possible common sources:
The single source may also be a psychological one.
Family life is one such possible single source. Daily living another.
This passage jumped out at me probably because not long before I was re-reading parts of Childs’ book The Myth of the Historical Jesus, in particular his criticism of the assumptions of scholars who study the historical Jesus. He uses Crossan as a typical example:
[I]n a 1998 article, Crossan seems intent on finding and locating a kind of “cause,” or at least the source, for multiform manifest versions of Jesus’ sayings in the original voice of Jesus. He proposes the “criterion of adequacy” to replace the criterion of dissimilarity as the first principle in historical Jesus research. He defines it thus: “that is original which best explains the multiplicity engendered in the tradition. What original datum from the historical Jesus must we envisage to explain adequately the full spectrum of primitive Christian response. (p. 50)
Recently I posted on the twenty-two typical incidents Lord Raglan found in certain types of mythical tales and that Richard Carrier uses to classify Jesus. I avoided dwelling upon “spiritualizations” of the elements. So when we come to Raglan’s point twelve,
(12) He marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor
I resisted addressing the early Christian symbolism of Jesus marrying the Church or the “New Israel”, the “daughter” of the previous Israel who had been metaphorically married to God (Ezekiel 16).
So I was surprised to find another classification scheme for similar stories being transvalued (“spiritualized”) by a scholar responsible for a very well received commentary on Exodus and accordingly earning very high praise indeed in the reviews of his work.
While Lord Raglan identifies elements typical of the hero in the sorts of myths that can be associated with religious rituals, Vladimir Propp analyses the plots and structural elements of folk tales. (Lévi-Strauss takes another step and examines the relationships between such tales and how they reflect different cultural mores.)
Among the structural elements in the plots of folk tales identified by Vladimir Propp are the hero being assigned a difficult task, passing an ordeal, vanquishing rivals, undergoing a change of status, marrying a princess and ascending a throne. Another Propp (no relation), William Propp, a professor of history and Judaic studies, finds these elements in the story of the Exodus. He begins by explaining that the biblical narrative is more complicated than many folk tales given that it has three heroes — Moses, Israel and Yahweh. With reference to the elements just mentioned he writes on page 34:
In some fairy tales, when the Hero returns, he is assigned a difficult task (function M). After passing an ordeal (function N) and vanquishing all rivals (function Ex), he undergoes a change of status (function T), marries a princess and ascends the throne (function W).
Some scholars (e.g. S.G.F. Brandon) have opined that Jesus was something of a revolutionary or rebel leader; others (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson) that he was “a messiah myth” (the link is to an earlier post of mine listing the mythical traits of gods and kings of the Middle East).
Other scholars (e.g. Robert M. Price) have compared the Gospel narrative elements of Jesus against the various functional components of folk tales as extracted by Vladimir Propp.
One nonbiblical historian who, to my knowledge, has never written a word about Jesus, has written about a certain type of rebel leader, however, and compared the realities with the myth or legend that has universally attached itself to these sorts of people. Eric Hobsbawm has researched the phenomenon of social banditry (from China through Europe to Peru), or the Robin Hood types of figures. His list of characteristics of the “noble image” that attaches itself to these figures is interesting.
It bears a striking resemblance to the qualities of the kings and gods of Thompson’s messiah myth traits as much as to the heroic human outlaw. If the same qualities attach themselves to both the human outcast and a mighty god or king of another, much earlier, era, then one is entitled to suspect we are looking at some deeper psychological need/attraction at work here.