Advances in Literary Study
2014. Vol.2, No.1, 19-26
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (
Myth and Epic
Harold Toliver
University of California, Irvine, USA
Received November 19th, 2013; revised December 21st, 2013; accepted January 6th, 2014
Copyright © 2014 Harold Toliver. This is an op en access article distributed un der the Creative Commons Attri-
bution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
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Anthrologists and literary critics tend to read even sacred ancient literature in the manner of Homer’s and
Virgil’s epics, tha t is, as fiction with historic al elements. They don’t, however, always follow up with the
implications of that. Mesopotamian myths and epics are similar to Greek and Roman ones in that regard.
The pertinent questions are who believed what and what effect literal belief in myths had on given social
orders. One answer in the Hebraic tradition is typical of other traditions, namely that calls for reform at
home and for campaigns against enemies abroad rely heavily on the presumed historicity of the texts. For
the Israelites, that means the unquestioned validity of covenants struck between legendary patriarchs and
Yahweh, at least within the Yahweh cult itself. The hybrid forms of Dante, Milton, and others in the
Christian European tradition draw on both well-traveled epic conventions and the veracity of biblical tra-
ditions, as Milton does in turning a Homeric invocation of the muse into an appeal to the Holy Spirit.
Much as Milton, too, is now read as a poet rather than an inspired seer, so probably were earlier authors
who claimed direct personal revelations. If that was in fact the case, it would have weakened moral
teachings less than cult recruitment and the call for military campaigns against foreign powers. Whereas
legal and ethical matters have much to recommend them independently of their origin, waging war on re-
ligious grounds requires strong convictions.
Keywords: Myth; Epic; Yahweh; Oracle; Traditio n ; Milto n ; G e nr e; Meso po ta mia; Is ra el; I mpe ria lism;
Belatedness; Rhetoric; Belief; Homer; Satan
What’s in a Name
Merely name a character in an epic Zeus or Venus and the
nature of the narrative changes drastically. Thus when Milton
introduces the Father/Son dialogues of Paradise Lost III, we
learn ahead of time how Adam and Eve will be judged and how
satanic posturing will be dealt with. That isn’t a story-telling
device for Milton. He clearly believes that man’s first disobe-
dience has in fact brought ruin to mankind and altered the
original topography and climate of the planet. For modern
readers, belief in the historical veracity is usually limited to
texts which are still considered to be inspired. The parent texts
behind many of the western and near eastern traditions are
those collected in the Hebrew anthology, where Yahweh de-
fines enemies, sets battle plans, and sees to the discomfiture of
enemies. The covenants he strikes with Abraham and Moses set
the terms of over a thousand years of presumed national history.
Belief in that historicity underlies the laws and ordinances of
Leviticus and Deuteronomy and eventually Christianity and
Myths in Hesiod’s Theogony (2004) and the epics of Homer,
Virgil, Lucan, and Statius are less likely to assert judgments
openly and make no pretense to the law-making not only of
Yahweh but of the Mesopotamian Anunnaki. In openly fic-
tional myth and epic, moral questions and character are more
shaded and ambiguous than they are in the oracles. Achilles and
Hector are complex characters. With his brutal slaying of Tur-
nus, Aeneas presents a somewhat clouded and tarnished heri-
tage to Augustus and current Roman ambitions for the expan-
sion of the empire. That is decidedly not the case with the
Hammurabi Code, oracular sermons, and the laws and ordi-
nances of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
In any age or any culture, one obvious benefit of simulated
history reinforced by divine connections is that the circle of
believers—the cult and perhaps the nation—occupies moral
high ground. Recipients of revelations have advantages in rais-
ing armies, as they did not only in the soothsayer-validated
expeditions of Mesopotamia and the wars of Yahweh but in the
Crusades and still do in terrorist cells. Thus joined to the war-
rior elements of epic, the advantages carry into administrative
hierarchies and fields of battle, increasing the harangue poten-
tial and transforming the poet into the prophet.
As I indicated, such texts look altogether different outside the
times and regions, all the more so in the light of the natural
history of the past several centuries. Why belief is regional and
communal is a question for brain studies like those of Thomas
Gilovich (1991) and Michael Shermer (2011). I’ll leave that
aspect of belief with merely the observation that for genetic
reasons people are vulnerable to knowing what isn’t so”, in
Gilovich’s phrase. A Hindu reading Paradise Lost has less
difficulty taking it as an epic style fiction than at least some
17th century Christians did. Reconstructing effects on readers
long after the fact is difficult, but what a text implies about its
expectations for the rank and file is often reasonably clear
where we know enough about the context. Epics and oracular
sermons have named authors and hence are more available for
Sitz im leben (contextual) studies than mythology normally is.
Myths too once had social settings, however. We may not know
what those were in any detail, but the author’s address to his
audience tells us a good deal. What people are assumed to be
thinking guides the author’s admonition of them and extracts
his claim to authenticity.
Whether biblical or another other kind of sacred literature
from Persia, Mesopotamia, E gypt , or Rome, any highly valued
heritage has an indoctrination side to it. That should go without
argument: it wasn’t the divine council that wrote the Hammu-
rabi Code but Hammurabi and his administration. Only region-
ally were the Anunnaki thought to be represented in the Tablet
of Destinies that granted extraordinary power to those who held
it. Ruling authority was no less tangible at the administrative
level for that. From gods it descended to emperors and contin-
ued on down into the bureaucracy.
In the heroic literature of Sumeria, the first of its kind re-
corded in writing, some of the deities in question probably grew
initially out of personifications of natural forces, but in taking
on lives and character they ceased to be restricted to raising
storms or making the sun shine. In establishing surrogates in
kings, Utu, the sun (later Shamash), assumed social relevance
well beyond anything directly related to the sun. That pattern of
broadening top-down agency held from the first known exam-
ples all the way through European divine right monarchs. None
of the validity claims retains any credibility in the light of
natural history, though similar ones still crop up under the in-
fluence of sects adhering to ancient texts. Over a period of sev-
eral mil lennia, myths that applied to civil affairs appear to have
been nearly as widespread as civilizations .
Where an urban center was involved, tensions between cen-
ter and perimeter complicated the chain of command. Adding
required conformity in belief to tribute owed to the ruling cen-
ter doubled the grounds for foment. Much of the presumed
history of ancient Israel is devoted to apostasy and dissent out-
side Jerusalem, the main ca use of the divine wrath the prophets
expect to be visited on offending parties.
Outside of backward regions, few nationalist campaigns are
any longer presented as holy wars, but as I suggested the myth
of divine causes and even mandates hasn’t completely disap-
peared. Mein Kampf, to take an infamous 20th century example,
combined harangue with prophet-like visions of a cleansed
world. Joseph Goebbels, Otto Dietrich, and Adolf Hitler con-
sidered the extermination of the Jews the work of the Lord, or
said they did. For the most part we can skip what ministries of
propaganda have produced as of negligible literary value,
though caution against underestimating them is always in order.
In sorting out the prime elements of the literary forms it is more
important to recognize that characters in these several literary
genres and the audiences being addressed aren’t expected to
live peacefully for long. Anything heroic is by definition in
turmoil. A holy war adds to the tumult and at the same time
looks forward to something more than a temporary truce. How
it is all to end varies, but some form of ultimate peace and
tranquility is to follow for some. That adds conviction to the
enlistment campaign and obscures such motives for aggression
as plunder and contests for hegemony.
Investing personifications with human emotions makes them
all the more available for intervention in state affairs. They can
then single out conduits on the basis of loyalty as Yahweh does
with Abraham and Moses. The Hebrew anthologists are again
likely to be considered more authentic in that regard than hold-
ers of the Tablet of Destinies or the oracles of Apollo. Com-
mandments in them were spelled out with a force and an elo-
quence that carry their own recommendation. The creation
narrative in Genesis serves as a background demonstration of
Yahweh’s unparalleled strength and hence by implications the
unique authority of his covenants. The power of sun and storm
does something similar in the Mesopotamian, E gypt ia n, and
classic traditions.
By making former covenants into revisionist ones, Christian-
ity and Islam exploit the same validating power. Numerous
splinter sects have since done so in their turn. Once the highest
of moral grounds had been claimed, nothing less will do. The
Reformation wars were a confusing crossfire of multiple sects
drawing on the same sacred aura.
Milton’s parody of warfare in Heaven takes a radically dif-
ferent turn in that respect by dissociating divine power from the
call to arms. The first warrior rebel is none other than the father
of lies. His heroic bluster and the passivist hero’s rejection of
empire in Paradise Regained are a turnaround for the poet
himself, only recently a defender of the puritan rebellion and
regicide. The Holy Spirit visits individuals who don’t need
even churches let alone armies. The Messiah in Paradise Re-
gained thus rejects not only conventional battlefield epic but
concentrations of power in any ruling elite. The link between
ecclesiastical and civil hierarchies is broken. That doesn’t ex-
plicitly require abandoning the Hebrew legacy, but if the rule of
saints has to go it would seem to follow that the rule of ancient
Jerusalem does as well. The only trustworthy expressions of
divine intent and epic magnificence are the creation, the Son,
and the Holy Spirit. They may lend authority to inspired poets
but no longer to bishops and magistrates.
The new paradisal order, t ransferred off the planet, begins in
the modesty of the savior, who returns unarmed and unobserved
Home to his Mother’s house private” (PR 4.638-639).
Incorporated Literary Kind s
Where a narrative is as extended as those of The Aeneid and
Paradise Lost, inset moments are defined by their functions in
it. That includes identifiable literary forms that normally stand
on their own. Their inclusion requires their redefinition, as
Milton reassesses nearly every literary tradition he touches
upon in putting it in a doctrinal context. Paradise Lost concerns
the authorized history of the world, what started it, and what
will end it. Pastoral, for instance, is thus rooted in Eden and the
marriage of Adam and Eve, definitively correcting the unre-
quited love of idyls and eclogues and correcting the death-in-
Arcadia theme. The original source of immorality and mortality
is disobedience. Its cure is the eventual celestial paradise with
no further place for classical pastoral unless in the solemn
troops that move along other streams” in Lycidas”.
All such amendments of classical traditions including dia-
logue, hymns, laments, and soliloquies fall under the compre-
hensive concept of the Light and world-making Word. Where
incorporated kinds may not have had any very pronounced
didactic functions on their own, in the story of man’s first dis-
obedience and divine justice they fall into place alongside
everything else.
Without exception literary forms for Milton must be defined
in that context, including Hebraic ones. Indeed everything
natural and human is part of a single extended narrative, cross
referenced by the concept of governance as explained in the
celestial dialogues. The place of different levels of word-mak-
ing is defined by the allowance for free will in tension with
Every creature is expected to keep to an assigned place in the
hierarchy. Obedience means just that—making the most of
one’s assigned place and not leaving it. Word power comes
with place. The pursuit of forbidden knowledge is equated with
climbing and overreaching and thus with inflations of literary
kinds, as Satan takes the Ciceronian or Senecan public speech
and puffs it up into rebellion against God. After the defeat in
the greatest war of all time, his real place is permanently Hell.
All speeches from the rostrum and plans for conquest are puff-
ery. What Raphael and Michael bring from outside Eden is
exceptional in adding to one level knowledge from another, but
then so are visitations from the Holy Spirit even now delivering
the poem to the blind seer.
Why that must be so I’ll consider later in the belatedness of
the poet and a need for an elevated authority nearly as great as
the Hebrew need for a champion above and beyond others in
the Near East. In brief Eve isn’t allowed to go heroic, but Mil-
ton must in the context of the post fall historical world, a pro-
longed interval place with a definitive beginning and ending.
Put in the didactic framework of the epic, such moments gain
resonance and become both models of the several literary kinds
and teaching instruments. Parody, ironic scorn, and heroic
bluster come with the fallen as distorted versions of proper
in-place response. Hymnal celebration and contrite confession,
which fall within the range of the faithful and the redeemable
fallen, are unavailable to the fallen angels, who can manage
only parody versions of them.
Something similar in cross referencing and partisan rhetoric
is true of biblical texts as well but under various authorship and
across the centuries. The cross referencing comes from back-
ward links to former authors, as Moses in Deuteronomy is as-
sumed as background to the prophets. The connections aren’t as
tight as those of a single author constructing a comparison and
contrast network, but later hymns, psalms, laments, wisdom
passages, and chronicles expand upon the initial Yahweh/Ab-
raham covenant and the intervening tribulations of Israel. At
any given historical moment, the disparity between the promise
of the covenant and the actual situation generates much of the
Hebrew anthology. The apex of the hierarchy is basically the
same as that of Christianity and Islam in that in all three noth-
ing exists that can’t be connected to the omni terminology cli-
maxed in God the Father. That is the burden of oracular ser-
mons as well. Any segment of a population not devoted to that
apex is defective. In Deuteronomy enemies who rise up before
the Hebrews are to flee seven ways. Their bodies becoming
food for all birds of the air” and beasts of the earth: “I will
send my fear before thee”, Yahweh promises, “and will destroy
all the people to whom thou shalt come... And I will send hor-
nets before thee, which shal l drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite,
and the Hitt ite ” (Exodus 23.27,28). Isaiah promises with respect
to Tyre that the very earth will wither under Yahweh’s assault
(24.6). The Lord will heap “terror, and the pit, and the snare”
on enemies (24.17) before he turns on the Israelites them-
selves. Do not idolize alien gods, Isa iah warns his listeners, lest
the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he
destroy you from off the face of the earth” (6.14 - 15). With
“curses, confusion, a nd frustration”, he will set upon even Isra-
elites if they have dared swerve from righteousness (28.20). If
those within the fold weaken they will be smitten with blind-
ness and confusion of mind (28.25 - 28).
In such passages Yahweh puts prior armed forces in focus as
Milton’s warrior Son does in finishing the war in Heaven. He
has far greater power and authority than Egyptian and Mesopo-
tamian predecessors. The listing device of the epic roll call the
Hebraic texts use less to name tribes and heroes than to compile
the details of mortification. Plot continuity and thematic coher-
ence depend not only on unquestioning devotion but on genea-
logy. To be included in the tradition, a belated author must es-
tablish his lineage. Not all narrative episodes need emphasize that,
and in fact quite a few don’t, but the greater context is assumed.
Mesopotamian myth and heroic literature arent connected in
that manner. The dynasties and the divine support shift from era
to era as of course do the nationalities of the authors. Some
enrichment of individual texts does follow, however, from the
repetition of deities even though one citation doesn’t refer di-
rectly to another. Subordinate genres including incantations,
petitions, rites of expiation, hymns, and laments find suitable
places in individual texts without reference to an inclusive con-
text. The connections are a matter of individual authors alluding
to predecessors. Genres of devotion are nearly as prominent in
Sumerian, Akkadian, Egy ptia n, Hittite, and Ugaritic literature
as they are in the Hebrew anthology but without a direct cul-
tural connection. That doesn’t prevent them from serving city
state purposes. The teaching and enlistment side of the texts is
less prominent than that of oracular sermons, but it does func-
tion as the stelae commemorations of emperors testify. Any text
of elevated style like any festival or ritual reinforces communal
spirit. Whether readers and participants realize it or not, they
are being indoctrinated. It will be collectively that they build or
raze cit ies.
Imperialism Raising Havoc
Among warrior kings who capitalize on epic grandeur, Ti-
glath-pileser’s memorial inscription, a mini-epic if that isn’t a
contradiction, claims that the gods have granted him “power
and strength” and commanded him to extend the border of
their land. They placed in my hands their mighty weapons,
deluge in battle. I gained control over lands, mountains, cult
centers, and princes who were hostile to Ashur” (Arnold &
Beyer, 137-138). The Tiglath-pileser deities are prominent
again in hunting exploits: “By command of the god Ninurta,
who loves me, I killed on foot one hundred twenty lions with
my wildly vigorous assault. In addition, eight hundred lions I
felled from my light chariot” (Arnold & Beyer, 142). That
Ashur and Ninurta have collaborated in state expansion is the
burden of the prologue addressed to them and to Enlil, Sin,
Shamash, Adad, and Ishtar (137).
The last mentioned Tiglath-pileser figure, Ishtar, is the mis-
tress of tumult as well as sex and war. Almost equally promi-
nent in myth, epic, tragedy, and oracular sermon, Tumult, a
scheme of sorts, tests the strength of heroes and upsets the pro-
tocols of civility. Though carnage is as common in Mesopota-
mian myth as it is in Homeric and Virgilia epic, few text s dwell
on it as much as the simulated histories of the stelae com-
memorations. Because these are carved in stone, they don’t
have the magnitude of Gilgamesh and later epics, but they
make a beginning. Conquest is the means of expanding territory,
and since people defend themselves it involves carnage. In the
Hebrew anthology, Yahweh is usually imagined to be the insti-
gator, not the kings or patriarchs themselves, but the genocidal
assault on Canaanite cities and killing of their men, women, and
children is in the traditional pattern. If archaeological findings
are correct, no actual invasion took place, and it is entirely pos-
sible that the earlier tales of conquest were also at best half true.
In the invention of a heroic past to equal or exceed those of
rival powers in their vicinity, Hebrew scribes, probably in the
reign of Josiah, made their ancestry the equal of the Near East
dynasties in conquests. Virgil does much the same for Augus-
tan Rome in elaborating on Homer’s Aeneas, son of Anchises
and the goddess Aphrodite.
Less dramatically the ruckus Ezra records in the rebuilding
of the temple and purging of foreign influences reduces most of
the contention to lawsuits. The people of the land” outside
Jerusalem are the chief offenders. The collaborative rebuilding
of the city, an unusually positive rallying of people in a hard
time, draws strays back into the fold. During the exile of the
Jerusalem intelligentsia, some who remained in Israel have
drifted away and must be shaken up and reorganized. Within
the precincts of Jerusalem, the collective psychology of cult
devotion takes hold, and even on the perimeter outside the
walls, cult members agree to put away their foreign wives and
children and return home. The only real resemblance to epic is
limited to the gathering of numbers. That is true again in the
recovery effort of the families Nehemiah summons to repopu-
late Jerusalem.
The ultimate victory that oracular sermons project as a last-
ing kingdom and Milton endorses at the end of several texts is
completely absent from mythology and classical epic. In the
Baal cycle of Canaan, a moment’s peace provides at best a hint
of what could be:
Remove war from the earth,
set love in the ground,
pour peace into the heart of the earth,
rain down love on the heart of the fields.
Hasten! hurry! rush!
Run to me with your feet,
race to me with your legs;
for I have a word to tell you,
a story to recount to you:
The word of the tree and the charm of the stone,
the word that men do not know,
the earth’s masses cannot understand:
the whisper of the heavens to the earth,
of the seas to the stars.
The war goddess Anat and resumed combat answer the
The oracular sermon in contrast raises the stakes both in the
scope of devastation inflicted on enemies and the rewards of
fidelity. It operates under a single high authority and requires a
transformation of normal human psychology into a soul battle
or psychomachia. After an initial concern with the former days
of kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, Isaiah turns to
the destruction of the Assyrians, as usual the doing of an
aroused Lord. In this case he needs no assistance in inflicting
wasting sickness” and destroying the enemy’s forests and fruit
of the land (10.16). The devastation of Babylon will follow. As
the Lord approaches to make the earth a desolation and to
destroy its sinners” (13.9), Damascus will cease to be. Egypt
will look up in terror to find him riding on a swift cloud, possi-
bly the source of the parousia phase of the New Testament’s
visionary end. At that terrifying sight, idols will tremble and
hearts melt. The divine avenger will turn brother against brother,
bring widespread confusion, dry up the Nile, and starve the
people. Tyre, the Leviathan, and Ephraim will be similarly
Considerable tumult turns up in Norse, Celtic, and Germanic
mythology, in the cruel deities of Central and South America,
and in a milder form in the Chinese concept of the bronze age
Ti, head of an afterlife that establishes a royal court beyond
turbulence. In the latter case, the carnage that brings eventual
bliss doesn’t take place on the battlefield but in the court itself.
For a courtier’s leadership to continue in a higher realm, his
servants must be killed to keep him company. Herodotus’
Scythians followed a similar policy. Sacrificial offerings, too,
are limited carnage presented as a way to lasting peace. Invad-
ing Spain is the way to the pax Romana in the Roman histori-
ans as the conquest of Italy is the way to Augustan law and
order in Virgil. It should again be clear in all these cases that
any association of sadism with sanctity is a fabrication with a
rhetorical purpose. It instills nationalist fervor in susceptible
readers. That receives less attention than it might in anthropo-
logical accounts of sacrificial ritual, esp ecially in the commen-
tary of René Girard (1977) and Paul W. Kahn (2008). Prophecy,
revelation, and sacred ritual are rallying devices founded on
communal illusions.
It is catharsis rather than lasting peace that characterizes
tragedy. If any benefits come of the protagonist’s death they are
shrouded in mystery. Consider Milton’s Old Testament exam-
ple, Samson Agonistes, and what comes to Samson’s country-
men. Where prophecy and sermon look to explicit enlighten-
ment and sometimes peace after turmoil, tragedy cuts off the
endings and brings not celebration but choral lamentation:
Chorus. All is best, though we oft doubt,
What th’ unsearchable dispose
Of highest wisdom brings about,
And ever best found in the close,
Oft he seems to hide his face,
But unexpectedly returns
And to his faithful Champion hath in place
Bore witness gloriously; whence Gaza mourn
And all that band them to resist
His uncontrollable intent;
His servants he with n ew acquist
Of true experience from this great event
With peace and consolation hath dismist,
And calm of mind, all passion spent. (1745-1758)
Unlike oracular sermons certain of their ground, in tragedy
no one knows why the unsearchable works in such excruciating
ways. Fate, another common theme in tragedy, takes the form
of God’s uncontrollable intent.” The chorus is limited in point
of view because the paradisal visions of Lycidas” and the two
epics are out of reach.
The Tradition in Criticism
Scholarship concerning early empires was handicapped until
around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries by the lack of texts,
some of which were later believed to have influenced the He-
brew anthology. Despite that shortage of evidence, Friedrich
Delitzsch in the Bible/Babel movement and Hermann Gunkel’s
account of folklore and legend in Genesis (1903) acknowledged
Assyrian literature and art to a degree not endorsed by all critics
and archaeologists of their day.
That Gunkel (Kindle edition, 2011) found Hebrew literature
brilliant and its amalgamation of legends and their infilling
with spirit of a higher religion” remarkable signals a shift in the
evaluation of biblical texts. What counts becomes as much
literary value as historical reference. Gunkel personally be-
lieved higher to be justified, but we’ve no way to tell whether
one text encouraged its readers to be more worthy or more
militant on average than another. A household with a Jewish
father, Egyptian wife, and well-behaved children might be
commendable, and breaking it up, as Nehemiah and Ezra urge
in the reconstruction of Jerusalem, might be bad for abandoned
wives and children. It remains debatable whether an especially
militant text inspires barbarity or is merely picked up to ration-
alize a predisposition. We can estimate its rhetorical aim better
than its actual effect.
Criticism of mythologies hasn’t generally emphasized the
social context as Gunkel and company were just learning to do.
Persuasion has many uses, social and political, and neither
myth nor ritual makes open use of them. As a narrative form of
vague origin, it is probably better to divide myth into topics of
the kind Northrop Frye and Jay Macpherson (1962, 2004) pro-
pose than to consider it a rhetorical device. The intimacy be-
tween myth and ritual also clouds the picture.
Since modern myth criticism got underway in the later 19th
century, anthropologists and social critics have often assumed
that myth derived from ritual. The question of priority aside, the
connection is logical. Ritual is incorporated into mythic texts,
and myths are reflected in ritual.
One plausible sequence would be first the personification of
natural phenomena, then the development of ritual devoted to
the personifications, and eventually institutionalized doctrines
and codes. Whether any given culture followed that sequence is
impossible to say since writing came several thousand years
after the first settlements. It does appear, however, that per-
sonifying natural phenomena led to the establishing of shrines
and of rituals addressed to gods and goddesses. An unrecorded
sun myth could have resulted relatively quickly in the Mesopo-
tamian Shamash or the Egyptian Re, or it could have taken
centuries. The only social effect we need to acknowledge at the
moment is that whatever induces people to think alike promotes
In The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama (1956),
Lord Raglan (1990) championed the anteriority of ritual, albeit
acknowledging a shortage of proof. With Carl Jung, Mircea
Eliade, Ernest Cassirer (1946), and Joseph Campbell, psycho-
logical and archetypal studies and some philosophical ones
complemented myth/ritual ones. Ritual has some of the stage-
by-stage movement of mythic narrative but lacks the characters
in conflict who populate story-form myths of origin. Its main
purpose seems to be to create a sense of belonging through
participation in solemn ceremony. Where antagonists appear in
ritual they are defeated abstractly and without tension of the
kind that accompanies epic upheaval. In any case, both myth
and ritual must have coexisted long before Sumerian and Ak-
kadian scribes recorded them. Gilgamesh, The Epic of Creation,
Erra and Ishum, Atrahasis, B abylo niaka, and the Baal cycle of
Canaan include ritualized passages. Even their battles are closer
to ritual demonstrations than the nationalist wars of the Deu-
teronomist or the carnage of Homer, Virgil, Statius, and Lucan.
In imagining gods stirring up seas, raising floods and storms,
destroying crops, burning forests, and inflicting famines and
plagues, myt hs assign them both cyclonic power and regularity,
much as nature itself mixes springtime growth, crops, irregular
floods, and storms.
Inspiration and Belatedness
Conduits, vessels, and messengers transmit influence from
one imagined level to another.
That is true alike in myth, epic, and oracle. What are actually
conveyed, however, aren’t messages from elsewhere but liter-
ary conventions, and they come from prior poets. The later
prophets harken not directly to Yahweh but to precursors.
Virgil (1990), Lucan, and Statius (2004) wouldn’t have known
about Homer’s anonymous predecessors, but they acknowl-
edged Homer himself.
Their belatedness affects the stance they assume in announc-
ing the themes of their texts. Virgil’s Arma virumque cano
(“I sing of arms and the man”) is Latin voicing in response to
Homer. In the Song of Roland, in Dante, Ma lory , Spenser, and
Milton, arriving on the scene late presents a more involved
heritage. Dante’s making Statius an honorary Christian parallels
his use of Virgil as a guide through the Inferno.
That particular selection of sources may have been due to
The Aeneid and The Thebaid framing ethical issues in terms of
individual merit and to the exegetical practice of turning clas-
sics into anticipations of gospel. Even so, Statius seems an odd
choice, since it is the fate of the polity rather than individual
warriors to which the bird flocks of Melampus and Amphiaraus
(3.500 - 548) refer. A reluctant city that takes no joy in warfare
has no fire or spirit” (4.345 - 355). Another reason for Dante’s
choice, however, may have been simply to underscore the limi-
tations of classical authors. If so that is a typical betterment of
sources, which is often the claim of the belated poet, as a new
testament if more enlightened than an older one. Dante’s Latin
sources can go only so far in the progress from the Inferno to
Paradise before someone equipped with revealed knowledge
takes over. The angelic host is ranked around a mystic center in
a state of peace and in visionary splendor beyond classical and
Hebraic literature. The choral configuration is unlike anything
in the epic battlefield hosts except in numbers and elevated
style. As an even more belated poet, Milton too displaces clas-
sical epic and English versions of the heroic situated in monar-
chical and courtly settings as they are in Malory, Spenser, and
Shakespeare’s battlefield plays. Converting the traditional muse
into the Holy Spirit enables the poet to transcend courtly pa-
tronage and its compromised literary environment. Expecting to
become a conduit of the sublime equal to biblical precedents
isn’t necessarily egomaniacal, since in De Doctrina Christiana
inspiration is required merely to read scripture. In At a Solemn
Music,” Il Penseroso,” and Paradise Regained the conclusion
is cast in choral amplitude similar to that of Lycidas” (as a
Roman Catholic poet, Dante isn’t in the picture), where those
who dwell with God weep no more,” as in Isaiah (30.19). That
departs less decisively from militant Hebraic prophecy than one
might expect, because once the purge is completed in Isaiah not
only will Egypt, Tyre, Assyria, and Babylon have ceased to be
but the wolf will dwell with the lamb and the cow and bear feed
together (11.6 - 9).
Where belatedness brings a power to lift the poet to the level
of his predecessors or beyond, the reception involves consid-
erably more than merely a decision to write a long poem.
Should the vessel be pulled abruptly out of his or her life, the
reception can become traumatic if not fatal. The bard of Para-
dise Lost isn’t subject to that trauma, perhaps because his
blindness and the failure of the Puritan rebellion have already
cast him out on his own:
So much the rather thou Celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there pla nt eyes, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. (3.51 - 55)
Through all her powers is crucial, however. If the poet is to
elaborate on scripture, the mind must be cured of deficiencies.
Knowledge of divine dialogues, the creation, and Satan’s
counterplot would otherwise be forbidden. Where the deities of
Homer and Virgil determine battles and national destinies,
Milton’s version of the trinity is responsible for the entire uni-
verse. What is revealed to the poet can include events that oc-
curred before mankind even existed.
Even in the classical tradition where revelations are less in-
clusive some who are chosen as vessels can’t take them in as
easily as the prophets and Milton do. In the extravagant fifth
book of Lucan’s Civil War (1992), a divine vision brings ex-
treme trepidation despite its recipient having observed the ap-
propriate ritual. Wanting to know his future and thinking to
forward Fate, Lucan’s Appius visits the caves of Phoebus and
forces Phemonoe (prophetic mind”) to make herself receptive
to Apollo—to be received in virgin’s breast... as the Sicilian
peak gushes when Etna/is pressured by the flames” (5.97 - 99).
Knowing the danger of becoming such a vessel, Phemonoe
refuses at first. When Appius insists, she is driven out of her
mind and runs wild through the cave dislodging with her bris-
tling hair the headbands of the god/and Phoebus’ garlands”.
Only in madness can an ordinary mortal receive such an ex-
traordinary vision:
All time converges into
a single heap and all the centuries oppress her unhappy
the chain of happenings so lengthy is revealed and all the
struggles to the light and the Fates grapple
as they seek a voice; everything is there: the first day, the
of the world, the Ocean’s size, the number of the sand.
(5.178 - 182)
Any mind would have to strain beyond its limits to number
the sands and foresee events to the end of the world. Some
vessels responsible for visions of such magnitude are struck
dead outright, “Because, if the god enters any breast, an early
death is the penalty... the human framework falls apart under
frenzy’s goad and surge, and the beatings of the gods shake
their brittle lives” (5.116 - 120). Even as Lucan distinguishes
between inspired godliness and madness, his epic benefits in
scope and intensity from Phemonoe’s fury, a variant of the
tumult/mystery co mplex.
Where the gods descend, amazing things happen, good and
bad. Whatever else happens, the text gains in broadcast volume.
A delivery from beyond calls for some such amplified voic-
ing, which translates as we’ve been seeing into rhetorical au-
thority. Milton’s narrator calls out warnings as if to mankind in
general. Lucan grows melodramatic. That turbulence is only to
be expected where a new order must destroy an old one. If the
message isn’t convincingly delivered, the prophet fails in his
History has many an unheeded prophet c onsidered to be mad
or fraudulent. Some who were eventually accepted by a cult
were initially doubted on the street, as Mohammed was in
Determining which annunciations and which texts are au-
thentic has an all-or-nothing polarity about it. Not to be chosen
is to be cast into outer darkness or taken as an anti-Christ, or
what amounts to almost the same, being excluded from the
canon and left unread. Apocrypha have nowhere near the
standing of canonized literature, and because of their truth
claims they have turned away from the category poesis from the
One needn’t be too deferential about assuming that skeptics
lived side by side with ardent believers even where they left no
texts. It is doubtful that all readers of stelae credited everything
they said. That doesn’t raise any problem with a Statius or
Virgil, but it does with the core texts of some cultures. At least
some of the time in their original settings as now hyperbole
would have been recognized for what it is. Bruce G. Trigger
(2003) cites newly conquered tribes among the Incas who re-
membered that before they were ruled by the sacred Inca king
their world had functioned perfectly well without him” (250).
No evidence exists that subject groups anywhere accept theo-
cratic claims uncrit ically and much evidence tha t they generate
their own counterideologies”. Going against the grain can carry
a stigma, as whistle blowing still does, but that is by no means
universal: “If fear of divine sanctions alone were an effective
control,” Trigger continues, “why did all ancient states have to
guard temples, palaces, and government storehouses from
thieves and threaten robbers with drastic physical punishments?”
In reading biblical literature, modern critics like Robert Alter,
Harold Bloom, Kenneth Burke, Herbert Schneidau, Meir
Sternberg, Gerald Bruns, Frye in several works (1962, 1982,
1990), a nd Harold Fisch have taught us a good deal about poet-
ics but typically less about the circumstances of composition,
contemporary agendas, and dissent. Archaeologists, historians,
and some textual critics have done better in that respect. The
militancy of oracular texts would have little purpose unless
their authors considered disbelief to be abroad. Condemnation
of the unholy is what gives them their edge. The Hebrews
found abominations among and all around them. The frequent
Muslim practice was and still is to consider non cult members
infidels. The medieval Christian practice was to portray them as
monsters. As Michelangelo’s fantasy painting of Saint An-
thony’s torments illustrates, saints and martyrs were vulnerable
to their bestial attacks. That is closer to traditional myth than to
Where codified doctrine, laws, and ordinances enforce or-
thodoxy, d issent is more like ly to arise. It no doubt occurred to
some under Hammurabi’s Code to question whether the gods
really wanted the hands cut off a child that struck its father. Or
wanted the daughter of a man who had fatally struck an upper
class woman to be executed in the man’s place (Arnold &
Beyer, 113). As the stridency of the sermons suggests, the
militancy of the Hebrew prophets was even more prone to rais-
ing dissent. It can crop up anywhere, however, within an eccle-
siastical order, in palace revolutions, and in families. From the
beginning of Israelite kings, Saul and Samuel as representatives
of civil and religious orders were at odds. Saul didn’t take
Yahweh’s instructions literally enough, and divine command-
ments allow no margin of error: “Now go and smite Amalek
and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but
slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep,
camel and ass” (15.3). In the opinion of Samuel, Saul is soft on
Samuel’s berating of him (1 Samuel) for sparing King Agag
is clear about what must be done to reconnect the current king-
ship with the legacy of Abraham and Moses. As a priest he
carries out the duty Saul has shirked: “And Samuel hewed
Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (15.33). Before the
Lord is the key: to be sanctified, any act must conform to divine
mandates where they exist.
Whatever the level of dissent among contemporaries, it is
likely to be greater outside the culture where little that claims to
be inspired is genuine and much spurious. That goes as much
for those who write of Enlil, Marduk, and Baal as it does for
Lucan writing of Phemonoe and Apollo or for Milton writing of
things invisible to mortal sight. It is Homer who assigns the
plot-forwarding roles to Poseidon, siding with the Greeks, and
Zeus, siding with the Trojans. He it is alone who assigns plot-
ting and strategy to Zeus and Hera and field operations to Po-
seidon and Apollo. At the outset of The Iliad the narrator an-
nounces his subject in what becomes a conventional an-
nouncement of any epic subject of magnitude:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which puts pains thousandfold upon
the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accom-
since that time when first there stood in division of con-
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. (1.1 - 7)
Despite bodies eaten by dogs and birds and souls hurled into
Hades, putting gods in the picture raises havoc to a high level.
In the death of heroes, tragedy and epic would converge but for
epic’s panoramic scope. Without the horrors, the combat would
be less intense and heroes less heroic, as tragic plots would be
less cathartic if pity and fear were diluted. The psychology of
sacrificial offerings calls for that expenditure of emotion on the
way to exhausted rest.
A Suitable Antagonist
Least filled with what might be taken for realism are ogre
tales and parables, the episodes of which can be vivid without
much detail. In the manner of gargoyles and caricatures, belit-
tling tales are sometimes directed at specific groups or classes,
as in the portrayal of owners and overseers from the standpoint
of slaves and laborers or of the morally depraved as seen by the
righteous. Collecting ogre-like deformity into a single archety-
pe produces a generalized scapegoat responsible for the world’s
failings. Scapegoats need have no particular assigned character
or single origin. The child-killing monster-goddess Lilith is
quite different from misshapen ogres, more like the deadly
beautiful witches of fairy tales. In the context of supreme fic-
tions, the more powerful the deity, the more comprehensive the
trouble maker has to be, unless, as in Spinosa, tribulations are
inflicted by God himself to strengthen character, an odd way to
explain an infant dying of the whooping cough. During early
Christian recruitment when the synoptic gospels were being
written, the apostles demonized rival cults including Judaism
and admonished converts to abandon what from then on must
be regarded as heresy.
Elaine Pagels in The Origin of Satan (1996) charts the best
known of the personified evils, Satan (al-Chadian in Arabic and
Islamic tradition), following him through several incarnations
ranging from an early Jewish superhuman to the author of all
evil in Dante and Milton. In Numbers and Job, Satan is the
virtual agent of the Lord himself, in other versions both an ad-
versary and a collaborator. In Milton at the precise moment
God makes the Son the highest communicant and the soon-to-
be voice that brings the cosmos out of chaos, he springs into
being as confusion personified. The negative element the Word
lacks he must provide if the linguistic spectrum is to be filled
out. The cannons he invents not only parody epic but put com-
munication in Belial’s punning terms of weight”. The can-
non’s mouth opens and chaos rather than a proclamation bel-
ches out. Rather than dance out choral responses the good an-
gels tumble in disarray.
Polytheistic monsters serve similar purposes in Greek myth,
but the furies and harpies among them tend to be regional and
aren’t associated with national enemies. They are thus more
avoidable than the universal Satan, though an angry Minerva or
a Juno (in The Iliad and The Aeneid respectively) is far ranging.
If Troy is to burn or if Turnus is to wage a senseless war he is
doomed to lose, the reason is to be sought in bickering immor-
tals. It is unclear finally whether they or Achilles and Aeneas
determine the outcome, but from the viewpoint of literary criti-
cism it doesn’t matter: both serve as story-extending complica-
tions and occasions to display courage, loyalty, and betrayal.
In distinguishing one thing from others, language defines by
exclusions and opposites. Ceci n’est pas un pipe, the Magritte
painting of a pipe declares. Neither is the word pipe a pipe.
True and false come as inextricably entwined as accurate and
inaccurate, integrate and disintegrate, construct and decon-
struct, good and evil. In mythic terms, an archetypal contrarian
or anti-Word comes before specifically detailed negatives. The
heroic raises the specter of mock heroic. In Milton only when
the opposite of the Word has been ushered in can language
include sarcasm, scorn, baiting, name calling, strutting, postur-
ing, feigning, hoaxes, fraud, falsehood, tall tales, simulation,
mendacity, skullduggery, pretense, feigning, diddling (even
taradiddling), swindling, rooking, toying with, forging, foxing,
and fobbing. Multiplying that English vocabulary by thousands
of equivalents in other languages gives us some idea how in-
ventive Homo ludens-deviosus-insidiosus-homicidus has been
for possibly some 2000 word-wise generations.
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