Other People's Myths
Other People's Myths
I have stolen my title from Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's marvelous study of what can be learned from studying the myths of and about others (and a good thing it is that titles can't be copyrighted). It is only fitting then, to also steal a story from that book—one she took herself from Heinrich Zimmer, and which eventually came from the oral tradition (thus justifying its theft by me as well).
Rabbi Eisik, son of Rabbi Jekel, lived in Cracow. One night he dreamt there was a treasure buried near a bridge in Prague. he ignored the dream (it was, after all, only a dream), but when he had had it two more nights, he decided to give it a chance and walked the long way to Cracow. When he got there, there was the bridge, just as he had dreamt it.
Unfortunately, there was one small difference: the bridge was guarded by a company of soldiers. So Eisik hung around for a few days, examining the bridge, and acting as if he was interested in its architecture, and anything else he could think of, hoping to get a chance to dig for the treasure. But no luck. Finally, the captain of the guard became suspicious and asked him what he was doing. Eisik told the story of the dream, and the captain laughed. "A dream," he said. "Who can believe in dreams? For instance, I have had a dream for three nights that there is a treasure buried by the stove in the home of Eisik, son of Jekel, in Cracow. But do you see me going to Cracow to dig for it? No, I stay here, where I am supposed to be." Eisik thanked him, and took the long way home again. He dug by his stove, and there was the treasure.
I will return to this story later, and its importance will then be made clear. But for now, let us turn from medieval Cracow to medieval Ireland and to the stories told there. Any of the Indo-European traditions will do, but I thought it best to use that which is in the plurality within ADF, that of the Celts, and in particular of the Irish Celts. First I will start with the tale of Donn.
When the sons of Mil were invading Ireland, the eldest was Donn. After invading and withdrawing, the sons of Mil were kept away by the power of the Tuatha de Danaan. Donn climbed the mast of the ship and sang incantations against the Tuatha de Danaan. As a result of this, though, he was cursed, and his brother Amairgen prophesied that if Donn were to go ashore, a disease would stalk Ireland. So Donn asked to be brought to another island, which is now call Tech Duinn. The souls of the dead go there before going on to their ultimate fate. (Gwynn, 1991, p. 311; also told in Lincoln, 1991, p. 34). That is what we know about Donn, an unimportant figure in a medieval tale.
But what if we turn from him and start to look at other people's myths? We can start with Ymir, the Norse giant from whose cut up body Odin, Vili, and Ve formed the world. Then we go south, to Rome, where myths appear as history. There Remus, the brother of Romulus, was killed for jumping over the walls of Rome his brother had newly (and sacredly) made. Some say his brother killed him; some say it was another, but according to his brother's law. Go east now, to the Vedic Yama, the first of all people to die. Because of this, he knows the way to the land of the dead, and now rules there.
Bruce Lincoln (1986) and Jaan Puhvel (1975) have shown how these myths descend from a Proto-Indo-European myth about how *Mannus ("Man") kills *Yemos ("Twin") and from his body forms the world. There is much more to this myth, and I recommend Lincoln's books to the curious. But this is enough for here.
Let us now return to Ireland. Donn has now become a much greater figure. From a minor character, who dies before the story really gets going, and who now serves as lord of a land of the dead, he has become an echo of the first sacrificed being, from whose body the world is made. And we have been given a glimpse into the pre- Christian Irish cosmogony.
Other examples can be adduced. Medb, for instance, has a parallel and a linguistic cognate in the Vedic Madhavi: she who was equal to two hundred horses. Macha is explained not only in relation with her Celtic counterparts Rhiannon and Epona, but with all the other Indo-European horse goddesses (O'Flaherty, 1980, chs. 6-8). Nechtain and his well become enlightened and expanded in importance by comparison with his cognates, Neptune, Apam Napat (Indo-Iranian), and even with the Vedic myth of the submarine mare.
Mythic symbols gain new meaning. In one of the versions of the Loathly Lady tale, the hero meets the hag at a place where a standing stone rises from a pool. From the top of the stone flows water, which pours down into the pool. An interesting enough symbol, but it is only when it is compared with Zoroastrian cosmology that it becomes clear. This image is exactly that of the Zoroastrians, making the standing stone an axis mundi. This encounter takes place at the center of the world, where all things begin and are given their value.
Even rituals expand when compared. The Irish coronation ritual described by Gerald of Wales, the famous horse sacrifice (Section 102) gains levels of meaning when compared with the Roman October Equus, Vedic Ashvamedha, and a four Hittite friezes (O'Flaherty, 1980, chs. 6-8; Watkins, 1985. p. 267.).
So now let us return to our rabbi from Cracow, to (originally) poor Eisik, son of Jekel. It is only by leaving his own home that he found the treasure that awaited him there all along. It was in a strange land that he found out about the gold that lay waiting for him by his own stove.
The moral of this myth, this selection from non-Indo- European legend (from other peoples' myths) is that it is sometimes by going out from our own tradition that we find the jewels hidden at home. This is one of the teachings of the Pan - Indo- Europeanism of ADF—that by investigating the Indo-European traditions as a whole, each one might be better reconstructed and understood, and its value increased.
So, if you want to be a Celt, be Celt. But take a trip through other people's myths. You may not become a Roman, Greek, or Vedic Pagan. But you may be surprised at what treasure lay at home, unrecognized because you had not listened to other people's dreams. Take the trip, and be a better Celt for it.
Gerald of Wales. The History and Topography of Ireland tr. John O'Meara. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1951.
Gwynn, Edward (tr. and ed.) The Metrical Dindshenchas, Part IV. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, reprint 1991.
Lincoln, Bruce. Myth, Cosmos, and Society: Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni- versity Press, 1986.
Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Other Peoples' Myths. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1988.
Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Puhval, Jaan. Remus et Frater. History of Religions 15 (1975), pp. 146-157.
Sturluson, Snorri. Edda. tr. Anthony Faulkes. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1987.
Watkins, Calvert. How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.