By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: The Great Courses
Narrated by: Professors Grant L. Voth, Julius H. Bailey, Kathryn McClymond, and Robert Andre LaFleur
After beginning the “Great Mythologies of the World”, there is a temptation to move on after several hours of listening. However, 30 hours later, still listening; one marvels at the inventiveness of human beings seeking life’s meaning.
It is no surprise to find two of the four narrators are religious-studies scholars. One might conclude religion falls into the category of “Great Mythologies…”.
Depending on one’s definition of civilization, Mesopotamia is considered the oldest civilization on earth, dating back to 6500 BC. That seems somewhat plausible based on its nearness to Africa but one wonders if there is an undiscovered civilization in Africa that predates Mesopotamia. After all, Lucy’s bones (found in South Africa) are two million years old and a human jawbone in Ethiopia is 2.8 million years old; i.e. 6500 BC is not so long ago.
In any case, there are some fascinating stories about civilization myths in this “Great Courses” series. Whether sun, moon, stars. and life came from exhalation of a supernatural being, the Big Bang, God’s seven days, or evolution, it is interesting to hear stories of minds’ past.
There is no question that stories change based on tellers of tales but, according to these lectures, there are many insights to cultures from which they came. In stories of Mesopotamia, belief in an afterlife drives Pharaoh’s to create monuments and accouterments for passage to the next world.
Rome’s adoption of many of the Greek gods lays the frame-work for one of the most powerful civilizations in the ancient world.
India’s rise in the world is equally filled with gods and goddesses reflected in classical Hinduism which came from the Vedic civilization. Interestingly, India’s early mythology is not as burdened by a caste system as later society. A common myth that pervades all mythologies is the importance of fire and its introduction to civilization. The God of Fire is the messenger between gods and human beings in India’s mythological history.
In Africa, the critical value of water for life and the arbitrariness of survival are couched in stories of trickster gods.
In North America, early Inuit and Indian tribes adopt obeisance to nature in ways similar to African cultures.
In Hawaii, human dependence on nature is reflected in stories of gods that rule sea, land, and sky.
The most interesting myths are of tricksters who exist in every culture. Tricksters are amoral gods that have two literal or figurative faces. Their actions result in unpredictable consequences. One face is evil; the other is good. They are usually gods with goals for tricking society–to either amuse themselves or teach a lesson to those who violate social mores. They provide the notion of life’s unpredictability.
It reminds one of science’s discovery of quantum mechanics. Life seems predictable in the nineteenth century, but becomes unpredictable in the twentieth. Quantum mechanics seems like a modern version of ancient mythology’s tricksters.
In the end, one is left with the same questions seemingly answered by ancient myths. How did the world begin? Why does evil exist? Is there an after-life? Is there a God or gods, or are we on our own? What is life’s purpose? Does every effect have a cause or is life a matter of luck and circumstance?