Essay: Monolithic Theories and Egyptian Myths

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¶ … Monolithic Theories and Egyptian Myth

Myths seem to resonate with a part of mankind that has never been adequately explained. They have continued to fascinate mankind long after mankind learned to stop taking those myths literally. Many seekers and scholars turn to myths out of a belief that understanding the true nature of myths will somehow help mankind understand itself.

There have been a number of compelling theories on the nature and purpose of myths. G.S. Kirk has reviewed and classified these myths into five discrete types of monolithic, almost universal myths. Thesis: The five theories, together, are exhaustive in that all Egyptian myths fall into at least one of the five monolithic theories. (Pinch, 42). However, the assumption that these theories are exclusive is invalid. In fact, these myths often exemplify multiple theories at once, revealing these theories to be much less discrete than first imagined.

Background

The first theory, proposed by German Indologist Max Muller, was that all myths were nature myths. That is, all myths sought to represent the workings of nature in some way. (Kirk, 43). This is done most commonly through reference to weather phenomena. It is also commonly done through stories about the natural order of the universe. Cosmological explanations attempted to illuminate the origin, evolution, structure, and ultimate fate of the Universe, as well as the natural laws that keep it in order.

The second theory, proposed by Andrew Lang, proposed that all myths have an essentially aetiological purpose. They all attempt to offer a cause or explanation of something in the real world. (Kirk, 44). They did not, as nature myths, necessarily attempt to explain the "why" questions of the universe and its natural order. Instead, for Lang, myths are more concerned with "how" questions. They attempt to explain certain patterns and events that occur in the natural world as well as more local social phenomena.

The third theory, proposed by Manlinowski, proposed that all myth functions as a "charter" for the customs, institutions, or beliefs of the society that creates them. In a traditional society, myths serve to validate customs and institutions, although the myths never seek to explain the rationale for the customs and institutions. (Kirk, 59) in this way, charter myths characterize societies as less curious and noble-minded than do the nature and aetiological myths. According to the charter theory, societies create myths in order to justify or validate a custom that it wishes to sustain.

The fourth theory, proposed by Eliade, proposes that the purpose of myth is to evoke the creative era of mankind, the era before rational, goal-oriented thought came to dominate the universe. By evoking this dreamlike state, mankind is able to revive some of its unique creative power. (Kirk, 64). This theory is grounded on an historical understanding of the universe. It posits that myths are concerned with taking mankind back to a more beautiful time, the time before divinity abandoned mankind to its present mortality and suffering.

For Eliade, myth is not interested in cosmology, science, or symbolism, for those arts are too cultivated for the primitive man who created myth. Rather, myth is meant to have a specific physical or emotional effect on its audience, to induce a magical state. In this way, it is more like medicine than religion or science. To put it colloquially, myth is meant to get the audience "high," not to educate it.

The fifth theory, proposed by Frazer, posits that myth is meant to describe or recreate ritual. (Kirk, 67). Frazer defines ritual as a religious ceremony in which a prescribed series of actions are scrupulously observed. Frazer calls ritual the "doing" element, whereas myth is the "saying" element to the equation. In this way, ritual and myth are two sides of the same coin.

Analysis

The myth of Ra, the Sun God, is a very good example of the myth of nature. Ra is the Sun God who is thought to have created everything in the known universe. Ra describes the state of the universe before he came into being: "Not existed heaven, not existed earth, not had been created the things of the earth, and creeping things in place that; I raised them from out of Nu from a state of inactivity." (Budge, the Gods and the Egyptians, 309). The myth thus describes the transition of the universe from a condition of stillness and space to a condition of movement and objects, which is perhaps the defining process of the natural world.

Although the myth of Ra, the Sun God, exemplifies the myth of nature, it also exemplifies the theory of the Eternal Dreamtime. Ra created the gods in heaven, heaven itself, the underworld, and the beings inhabiting the underworld. Egyptian hieroglyphs described Ra's declaration of these acts: "I am he who came into being in the form of I was (or, became) the creator of what came into all; after my coming into many things which coming forth from my mouth." (Budge, the Gods and the Egyptians, 309). The story of this creation, and the words describing, are perhaps the most sublime evocation of the creative era possible, the equal of the Vedic "I am that." And just as the Vedas have been known to make some "high," the creation story of Ra likely achieved the same effect.

The myth of Osiris and the Final Judgment appears to represent the workings of nature, as Muller's theory posits. The Book of the Dead, in general explains what happens to people after they die. In the Book of the Dead, the God Osiris waits in a great hall for the dead, with a symbolic scale on which the dead are to be judged. (Budge, Book of the Dead, 25). If the dead lie or admit to the wrong deeds, they are devoured by Amman. (Budge, Book of the Dead, 26). If a dead soul passes all of the tests that the trials and tribulations, it gets to go to the beyond and live for eternity in paradise. Thus, the Book of the Dead is meant to illustrate the workings of perhaps the most natural process, death.

Although the book of the dead is primarily a myth of nature, there are elements of the other theories in the book, often in the same passage. The myth of the Final Judgment, for example, also illustrates the theory of myth as a charter. Osiris is accompanied by subordinate gods that play a supportive, but crucial role in the execution of his duties as judge of the dead. Thoth, "…the judge of right and truth…" is there to ensure that the dead do not lie to Osiris when they are given a chance to speak. (Budge, Book of the Dead, 26). Thoth, by being the guardian of right and truth, exists to ensure that the dead do no lie. Thus, the myth of Thoth and the Final Judgment encourage men to follow the rules while alive by ensuring them that they will not be able to lie about what they did at the final judgment. The myth validates certain customs and traditions prescribed by society by discouraging deviation from them.

The Book of the Dead also exemplifies the theory of myth as ritual. Spells included with the Book of the Dead enable the dead to protect itself from crocodiles: "Do not come against me, do not live by my magic; may I not have to tell this name of yours to the Great God who sent you." (Taylor, 184). This protective spell is, in Frazer's terms, the "doing" element of the coin, whereas the myth of Repulsing Crocodiles in which the ritual arises is the "saying" element. Thus, the spells surrounding the myth of the final judgment seek to describe certain rituals.

However, unlike Frazer, who believes… [END OF PREVIEW]

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