The evidence for “Paleo-Eskimos”

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There’s a fascinating (and frustratingly short on details) article on CBC about the so-called “Paleo-Eskimos.” Apparently, genetic testing has found that there is no relation between this group and the later Inuit peoples. What this means, in short, is that there was a group of people living in the arctic for about four thousand years, totally unrelated to the people there now.

There are two aspects of this story that are particularly fascinating. The first is that despite an overlap between the “Paleo-Eskimo” people and the Inuit, it appears that (almost) no interbreeding occurred. This is extremely rare. Even when cultures have specific prohibitions against interbreeding with outsiders, there are nearly always exceptions – people who didn’t follow the rules, sexual violence from the other culture, things like that.

The second aspect about this that I find really interesting is that Inuit oral legend had preserved their knowledge of this other people:

Inuit still talk about the Tunit people they encountered when they arrived. The oral tradition says the Tunit were very shy and would run away when approached.

This is a complicated issue when looking at mythology because it can be very difficult to tell the difference between preserved history and entertaining fabrication, mostly because so many stories are a combination of both, at least in general terms.

When reading Judges, I talked a lot about trying to find the history buried in the myth, and gave some of my own impressions and stories. Without corroborating evidence from other disciplines – such as archeological and genetic evidence as in the case of the “Paleo-Eskimos” – it remains pure conjecture.

But no less fascinating.

EDIT: A friend posted this article validating another Inuit oral tale, this time relating to the Franklin arctic expedition.

Ten Ancient Stories and the Geological Events That May Have Inspired Them

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The tagline (“If you dig deep enough, say scientists, you can find some truth to legends and creation stories”) is a bit silly, but the descriptions are interesting. Some, like unique geological features, are plausibly the source for their related stories. There is, however, a great chasm of a difference between saying that a story was inspired by a geological feature or event, and saying that there is an underlying truth to a legend.

building_of_ramas_bridge-wikimedia_commons.jpg__600x0_q85_upscale

You can read all of their legends and their “explanations” over at the Smithsonian

Inanna prefers the farmer

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The goddess Inanna is ready to marry, but must first choose a mate. Her brother encourages her to marry the shepherd-god Dumuzi, but she finds that the farmer-god Enkimdu is more to her liking. Angered by her choice, Dumuzi picks a fight with Enkimdu, but Enkimdu is able to calm the situation by promising to give him gifts and, even, to let him have Inanna. And so it is that Dumuzi, the shepherd-god, seems to win the argument and the favour of the goddess.

(Source)

Sound familiar? It should, because we covered it in Genesis 4.

As with the flood story (a Babylonian version of which is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh), we see that bits and pieces of many of the Bible’s stories were floating around in the collective cultural memory before they were written down (and edited) by the authors of the Hebrew Bible.

This is Ishtar: Pronounced “Easter”

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For the most part, my Facebook friends are a pretty awesome group of people. The majority of them are atheists and skeptics, and they tend to be really good about fact checking and demanding sources. But for some reason, all of that gets thrown out the window as soon as the topic is religion, suddenly it’s okay to hit that “share” button without even the quickest of fact checks.

So this week, I’ve been seeing a few of these This is Ishtar: Pronounced “Easter” memes posted pretty much every day.

Ishtar Easter

No, guys. No. Just quit it, okay?

The issue in this instance is, of course, that Ishtar has nothing to do with Easter. As The Daily Beast points out, the linguistic argument is simply false. “Easter” is a germanic word, used exclusively (as far as I know) in English and German (where it’s called Ostern). Back to The Daily Beast: “The Greeks and Romans called it Pascha, which is why Easter is Pasqua in Italian, Pascua in Spanish, and Paques in French.  How exactly did the name of a Canaanite fertility goddess skip all the way to England from the Middle East without stopping in Rome or Byzantium?”

So where does the name “Easter” come from? Well, it may come from a Pagan goddess, the Germanic Eostre. The month that roughly correlates to April is recorded as having been named after her, so it makes sense that a major celebration being held during that time would pick up the name. (Of course, even this interpretation is a little problematic. Cultural shifts are rarely noticed and recorded while they are happening, and those who are trying to piece together the timelines and influences after the fact are just as prone to error and bias as anyone else.)

If you’re interested in learning a bit more about the Ishtar graphic or the origins of Easter, The Belle Jar blog has a pretty good post covering the basics.

Here’s the thing, guys: I know that dudes like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris (who wrote in The End of Faith that Isis was a “the goddess of fertility, [who] sports an impressive pair of cow horns”) and others have a certain status in the atheist movement, and that it’s tempting to assume that people who make their careers out of debating religion might actually know a little bit about that of which they speak. Thing is, they don’t. They really don’t. They may have facts and figures about modern expressions of religion, or blasphemy laws, or the teaching of Creationism in classrooms, but these are men who don’t give two flips about theology. They are not spending their time learning about mythology or the history of religious belief.

So just because the Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Science and Reason’s FB page posts some little “gotcha” graphic doesn’t mean it’s true. So please, please don’t repost it without using a little of that skepticism you’re so proud of. Thanks!

EDIT: Tom Verenna has a good post up about the Ishtar meme as well. Go read it!

 

*There’s a much larger discussion to be had about the accusation of Christianity “stealing” from other religions, and what that really means both in a historical context and as it is applicable to modern theology and practice. But let’s just stick to one topic at a time. 

Is Moses or Aaron the main protagonist?

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In popular culture, Moses  is the principle actor in the plagues narrative. I suppose it’s just easier to remember a single player. So when I started reading Exodus and found out that Aaron is the one performing all the magic tricks (well, you know, as conductor for God’s power or whatever), I was rather surprised.

Turning the river to blood, St. Albans Psalter, 12th century

Turning the river to blood, St. Albans Psalter, 12th century

I started thinking about why this might be the case, especially since God went through all the trouble of teaching these magic tricks to Moses back in Exodus 4.

I think that there was previously a folk myth in which Moses is the principle actor in this story, but that Aaron was added as his intercessor when the story came to be told by the Priestly class. Moses is a folk hero and belongs equally to all Hebrews, whereas Aaron is a stand-in for the priests. As such, they had a very strong motive for elevating his role in the plagues narrative (and beyond).

This would indicate a process of myth creation, from “campfire story” to written chronicle. It exemplifies the evolution of a myth as it passes through different story tellers, finally becoming ossified in the written version we now have. It’s interesting to think of how different the story might have become had it continued to be passed orally through the fall of the second Temple, the rise of Christianity, and beyond.

This is pure speculation from my untrained self, of course. So please do take with a grain of salt.

Genesis 29: Jacob "Goes Into" the Wrong Girl

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In Genesis 27, Jacob played a nasty trick on his father by dressing up like his sibling. This time, true to Trickster tale form, he gets to be the butt of his own (well, Rebekah’s) joke.

We open with Jacob continuing his journey towards Haran, to look for a wife among the daughters of his maternal uncle, Laban. When he finally gets to “the land of the people of the east,” he sees a well with flocks of sheep lying around it. There’s a large stone covering the well, and we’re told that when all the sheep were gathered, the shepherds would roll away the stone to water the sheep and then roll it back.

Son of Nahor

Jacob asks the shepherds if they know “Laban, the son of Nahor” (Gen. 29:5). Of course, we found out in Genesis 24:29 that Laban’s father is Bethuel, and Nahor is his grandfather. It’s possible that “son of” is just a Hebrew way of saying “in the lineage of,” but unfortunately my study bible has no notes on this passage so I’m purely speculating.

Although a quick Google search tells me that many Christians find this passage troublesome as well. I wasn’t able to find any explaining away of the contradiction within about a minute of searching (which usually means that it isn’t a hot topic), but looking at a passage comparison, I see that many Bibles have opted to “correct” the Word of God by changing “son” to “grandson.”

Love at first sight

In any case, the shepherds know Laban and point out his daughter Rachel, who is arriving with her flock of sheep.

Jacob's deal for Rachel by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1851-1860

Jacob’s deal for Rachel by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 1851-1860

Jacob is a bit confused by the fact that the sheep are being gathered around the well in the middle of the day, and remarks to the shepherds that it’s a bit early to be bringing them all together. He tells them to simply water their sheep and take them back out to pasture. They explain to him that they can’t water their sheep until everyone has been gathered.

My study bible says that this is an ancient practice to ensure fairness. The stone covering the well is too heavy for any one person to move. Therefore, all shareholders of the well must be present to open up the well. This way, they can make sure that no one takes more than is his due.

In any case, when Rachel approaches, Jacob rolls the stone away from the well and water’s Laban’s flock. He then kisses Rachel, “and wept aloud” (Gen. 29:11). We’re not told that the kiss was mutual. The phrasing is clear, Jacob is the actor, Rachel is the passive recipient. I have no idea why he starts weeping, either, but I imagine he must be quite a sight during sex!

After kissing Rachel, Jacob tells her who he is. Once again, the Bible seems a little iffy on the order of things…

A wedding gone awry

Laban has two daughters. The eldest, Leah, has “weak eyes” (which my study bible notes refers to them “lacking luster” rather than any kind of blindness), while the youngest, Rachel, is beautiful.

After Jacob had stayed with him a month, Laban asks him what he wants as payment for the work he’s been doing. By this time, Jacob is in love with Rachel, so he offers to continue working for seven years, at the end of which he can marry Rachel. In effect, he’s paying his bride price in kind (I’ll neglect to comment, this time, on the morality of paying for a wife as though she were a commodity to be bought).

Laban agrees to the terms because “it is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man” (Gen. 29:19). With that glowing endorsement, Jacob works for seven years.

Ever the romantic, Jacob goes to Laban and says: “Give me my wife that I may go in to her” (Gen. 29:21). Jacob takes a woman he thinks is Rachel and “goes into her,” but wakes up in the morning to find out that it was actually Leah. Ooops!

This is the second time (or third, depending on your reckoning) that someone in the Bible has had accidental sex. Who needs Reality TV?

In any case, Jacob goes to Laban and whines that he’s been given the girl with the “weak eyes” and Laban explains to him that in his culture, the younger daughter doesn’t marry before the elder. Jacob, apparently, hadn’t picked this up in the seven years he’s been there.

But no matter. Now that the eldest is married, Rachel is free to marry. So Laban offers to let Jacob have her in exchange for another seven years of work. Presumably after checking to make sure Laban doesn’t have any other daughters stashed away just in case, Jacob agrees.

Thankfully, he gets to do his seven years of service after his marriage to Rachel, so he gets to “go into” her after waiting only an extra week.

Rivalry between sister-wives

Jacob has little love for Leah. Seeing that she’s “hated” (Gen. 29:31), God makes her pregnant while keeping Rachel barren. After having her first son, Reuben, poor Leah says: “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Gen. 29:32).

No such luck, so God gets her pregnant again. Once Simeon is born, Leah says: “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also” (Gen. 29:33).

Third time’s the charm? Leah gives birth to Levi and says: “Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons” (Gen. 29:34).

Nope, not yet. But she gives up when she bears her fourth son, Judah.

Genesis 27: The Hebrew Trickster

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The Trickster is a staple of mythic traditions. Famous ones include Coyote, Raven, Weesakayjack and others among Native American groups, Loki in Northern Europe, Reynard in France, Hermes in Ancient Greece, or even the more modern Brer Rabbit in the Southern US. The Trickster is a male (always male) figure who, as the name suggests, plays tricks.

Trickster tales tend to be bawdy, outrageous, and extremely funny. The Trickster is morally ambiguous, sometimes working to the benefit of humans and sometimes to their detriment. He is also ambiguous in form, a shapeshifter. He may disguise himself as an animal or as a different person. Either way, his identity is rather fluid.

One of my favourite aspects of the Trickster is that he’s frequently the butt of his own jokes, concocting overly elaborate schemes that backfire badly.

Chapter 27 is a classic Trickster tale, set in a Hebrew milieu.

The Favoured Son

We found out in Chapter 25 that Isaac prefers his eldest son, Esau, because he hunts and brings home the noms. So now, in his old age and going blind, he asks Esau to go hunting so that he can have his favourite foods. In exchange, Isaac will give him a blessing.

Rebekah overhears this and decides to trick Isaac so that he blesses her favourite son, Jacob, instead. She tells Jacob to go out back and kill some goats, which she then prepares into Isaac’s favourite dishes. He’s blind, so he won’t be able to see which kid he’s blessing, but he still has his other senses. To complete the subterfuge, they dress Jacob in Esau’s clothing and tie some goat skin to the backs of his hands and neck (remember, Esau is the hairy brother).

Esau? Is that really you?

Disguised as his brother, Jacob takes the meal to Isaac. When Jacob presents the food, however, Isaac becomes suspicious and asks him how he found it so quickly. Hilariously, Jacob replies that it’s “because the Lord your God granted me success” (Gen. 27:20).

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

Isaac Rejecting Esau by Giotto di Bondone, 1290

This is a classic Trickster line. On the obvious reading, it’s clearly a lie. He’s not Esau, the meat isn’t game, and the Lord most certainly did not grant him hunting success. However, the hidden meaning is that God is on Jacob’s side, as the listener (who has likely heard other tales of Jacob) probably knows.

But Isaac isn’t convinced by this explanation. So he calls Jacob to him so that he can touch him, to make sure that he’s as hairy as Esau. When he touches Jacob, he feels the goat skins. “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:22). He then asks Jacob to kiss him and, while they’re kissing, gets in a sniff to confirm that he smells like Esau too (remember, Jacob is wearing Esau’s clothing).

Finally, Isaac is convinced that Jacob is Esau and he gives his blessing. “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth…” yadda yadda (Gen. 27:28).

Esau returns

With the blessing received, Jacob leaves the room just as Esau comes in with his meal. Esau approaches Isaac and offers up the food he’s just prepared and it doesn’t take long before they work out what’s happened.

Esau is in anguish and he begs his father to bless him as well. But that’s not how it works, because Jacob “came with guild, and he has taken away your blessing” (Gen. 27:35). And, because Isaac has already given away his only blessing, he gives Esau something that looks a whole lot more like a curse instead: “Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling me, and away from the dew of heaven on high. By your sword you shall live, and you shall serve your brother” (Gen. 27:39-40).

Esau vows to kill Jacob as soon as Isaac dies and, once again, Rebekah McEavesdroppy overhears. She tells Jacob to flee to Laban, her brother, until Esau cools his jets.

How do blessings work?

As a Trickster tale, this chapter works well. Trickster tales are often funny and light-hearted, and they don’t always make perfect sense. The idea that a blessing is a tangible thing to be possessed and fought over works well in a mythic context. The fact that the audience knows that a father can give multiple blessings, one or more to each of his children, just makes the fact that Isaac can’t all the more funny.

But the status of the Bible for many Christians (and Jews?) must somber our reading. The fact is that there’s a whole lot of people out there who view the Bible as the literal historical truth, and even more who view it as a moral guide.

If we’re to interpret it in light of this, the story goes from humorously ridiculous to just plain ridiculous. Isaac’s blessing was clearly intended for Esau – does God not realize this? Can God’s favour be evoked by magic incantation, to be bestowed or stolen according to human will rather than God’s? Or, if God likes Jacob best and wanted him to be blessed, making this whole episode part of his divine plan, why couldn’t he have just bypassed Isaac and blessed Jacob himself? What do we learn about the nature of God from this chapter?

And then there’s the “Good Book” set of questions: Is it right to lie and steal? Jacob is rewarded for his efforts, and nowhere are we told that there is anything wrong with his methods. Read morally, the interpretation is clear: the ends justify the means. And what about Isaac? Is it right for him to bless only one child, cursing the other? Is it right for him to bless one child by making him “lord over your brothers” so that “your mother’s sons bow down to you” (Gen. 27:29)?

This is the second time in this book that a father has cursed his own son, making him the slave of another. God remains silent.

I’m going to stop here even though there’s a bit more to the chapter. The break is in a weird place, so we get a portion of Chapter 28’s story at the tail end of Chapter 27. I’ll just cover it next time instead.