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Thematic Patterns in Mythology

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A Thematic Look at the Chief Deities of Babylon, Greece and Norse Mythology
by: Robert J. Escandon MA, C.Ht.

The mythology of a culture provides insight into how ancient civilizations perceived the world around them. Themes exist as fundamental constants throughout history. According to Joseph Campbell, these themes, which he refers to as monomyths, convey a basic pattern that can be found through various mythologies.4 The paper will explore Babylonian, Greek and Norse mythology and the themes of the Chief Deities of their respective pantheon. I will first address the role of myth through a discussion of the ideas of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and the perspective of Comparative Mythology. Next I will look at the ascension of Marduk, Zeus and Odin through mythology. Next I will present examples of how certain themes are shared throughout the aforementioned Mythology of the different cultures, followed by a look at how Mythology evolves throughout culture.

The Roles of Myth
Mythologies have themes that have been examined to be cyclical in nature. Comparative mythology is the collective comparison of all world myths. It is the analysis of shared themes from one cultures mythology to another. Mythology is a descriptive narrative that explains the world. Our modern world is a direct extension from the themes presented within mythology. Mythology has shaped our modern civilization. For the most part the stories, sometimes fantastic in nature are an intertwined expression of a civilization’s values, ethics, hopes and belief structure. All these factors mold the modern world with its thematic echoes. According to Jaan Puhvel, a comparative mythologist, all civilizations share a mythological and religious heritage. The themes found in mythology are universal. 12

Historically, mythology is a narrative explaining a cultures worldview. When in actuality, the people that experienced these events, like the Babylonians or the Greeks, experienced something that was very real to them. It provided a civilization with a reference point, or rather a jumping off point to kick-start their society. Carl Jung considered myths as an extension of evolving the human life and mind. They gave way to a path to categorize certain behaviors and actions. Jung referred to these as archetypes.10 Archetypes, Jung believed, are a key aspect in understanding not only the ancient world, but also understanding the human condition. 10 Archetypes, found throughout history and mythology alike, create a platform to convey a collection of values and ideas about ethical responsibility. These frameworks guide a person into a particular set of events and behaviors, a pre-fabricated thematic path so to speak. Mythology, along with its Gods, Heroes and Villains serve as inspiration for cultures to follow, oppose, endure and replicate. Jung argued that they are part of a collective unconsciousness that is shared and expressed on various levels of culture and independent expression.11

Mythology is a window into the ancient world. This window provides a look at origin. Walter Burkert, a German scholar whose focus is mainly on that of Greek mythology, states that the Greeks’ religious practices were heavily influenced by what the myths presented as the origin of their civilization.2 Origin is a major influential factor to all cultures everywhere. It is something viewed with respect that is comprised of both fear and inspiration. It is an expansive unknown factor, yet one of the most influential factors in mythology. All accounts of origin happen without the human eye to witness the alleged events that gave birth to the world. Creation stories, which inherently are a part of mythology, depict the thematic rise of a grand problem, a call to action of sorts and continue to tell the tale of the person who answered the call. In part, this is the Hero’s Journey described by Campbell. 4 At the end of this journey, the Hero is immortalized and becomes a perpetual symbol of inspiration. There is no greater influential symbol of inspiration than a parent. The parent in the case of this analysis will be the chief deity of the mythological pantheons. While the contemporary eye may look at this data as tales of fantastic voyages, they were undoubtedly real to those who experienced them and to the generations that followed. The people of those cultures lived and breathed a fantastic world that most only know about through books. Since it was real to them, they were ultimately influenced by the stories told. If the gods conducted themselves in a particular manner, and humans were molded from the likeness of the gods, it was expected that such behaviors and traits were adopted as well. Chief deities in mythology were typically the ones that shaped the world. Through sacrifice, they met evil, vanquished it and made the world livable for humanity. These actions inspired civilizations to adopt the attributes, attitudes and overall personas of the gods. Essentially, these attributes are archetypal molds that are adopted by man. 4

Comparative Mythologist Joseph Campbell notes that at the center of most mythology there is a chief deity, usually depicted as a man of human form. 4 This deity is the centerpiece that holds a mythological framework in place, inspires and controls the will of the other gods under him as well as the people that worship him. This deity is usually noted as traversing an epic endeavor or quest that leads him into this role of leader of gods within the respective pantheon. This chief deity has attributes that make him a hero amongst all the other gods because he was willing to sacrifice what others would not.

A Look at the ascension of Marduk, Zeus and Odin
For the purposes of this analysis, I will look at the general themes of chief Babylonian, Greek and Norse gods. Each one of their stories commence with the rise of a problem, what Campbell would refer to as a call to adventure.4 It is followed by the slaying of some kind of ultimate evil usually represented by a hideous monster that threatens to end the world. The Babylonians called this monster Tiamat, the Greeks called it Typhon and the Norsemen called it Ymir.5 7 This ultimate evil is of such great threat that other gods within the respective pantheon held little ground when confronting it. When all is perceived lost, a hero emerges from the ranks of the gods to face the monster, the Babylonians called him Marduk, the Greeks called him Zeus and the Norsemen called him Odin. Through great peril and sacrifice the hero god wins the great and epic battle saving the world and making it livable for humanity, which echoes a death and rebirth process. This journey, within its own respect is the reason why the hero receives praise and recognition, a custom given to all heroes throughout history that extend directly from mythological accounts. The battle of good versus evil is what this thematically breaks down to. This particular hero god has sacrificed his own well-being in order to bring a sense of peace and balance into the world. Ultimately, this hero god is a key point in the establishment of order from chaos, right from wrong and is a major point of reference for all to aspire to reach a similar greatness.

Marduk, Zeus and Odin all share similar themes in their rise to power. The call to action, the belief in self, good versus evil, sacrifice and the creation of a new world are all shared themes within these accounts. What makes these accounts important is that these chief deities are the founding fathers of the civilizations in question. They are seen as a parental figure. This being said, the influence that such a figure has on the civilization is profound and hard to deny. They serve as a point of undeniable reference. In a brief look at the Babylonian pantheon ruled by Marduk, his rise to power is because he answered a call to action. There is a perceived problem, that none of the other gods can find a solution to for some reason or the other. Through the ranks a hero emerges to answer that call. This problem ultimately leads Marduk in the acquisition of his seat of power. In this case the other gods within the Pantheon wanted to get rid of the primordial goddess of the ocean, the evil Tiamat. Since they could not do so themselves, Marduk, saw an opportunity and took the challenge under the condition that upon Tiamat’s defeat, he would be acknowledged as King of the gods, according to the scholar Jacobsen Thorkid.9 The call to action is not answered by many, but by one that transcends the limitations of the self. Marduk, believing that defeating Tiamat was in fact possible, took the challenge in order to transcend his peers. In agreement to Marduk’s conditions, the young god armed himself with enchanted weapons that held the power to overcome this great evil. The idea of conquering evil, the theme that there is a force in the universe that threatens existence itself is a motivating factor for any species. This is a relevant theme throughout history, as there is nothing more motivating factor than the destruction of the world itself. Killing Tiamat is what propelled Marduk into his seat of power, holding domain over not only his fellow gods, but over humanity as well.

In the Greek account, Zeus, the chief deity has a similar call to action. Zeus’s rise to power begins much like Marduk’s, a problem in need of a solution. According to Edith Hamilton, a Greek scholar and mythologist, this particular call to action begins as Cronus, father of Zeus devours all of his children.7 Cronus does this out of fear that they would rise against him like his fathers children before him. Zeus, spared from Cronus, is tucked away into a cave and raised by Gaia. Years later upon reaching the age of manhood, Zeus confronts his father and forces him to free his brothers and sisters. Zeus, able to accomplish a task that was perceived as impossible led the freed gods into a battle that resulted towards the imprisonment of not only Cronus, but of his fellow Titans as well. Upon this victory Zeus was acknowledged as the king of the gods, accomplishing a task that was virtually impossible for the other gods to accomplish.2 Naturally, such heroism was awarded with leadership, but Zeus would then again face another call to action. The Titans who were Gaia’s children were imprisoned by Zeus after the battle. Unhappy with this outcome, Gaia summoned Typhon, the father of all monsters to put a stop to Zeus and the newly formed pantheon of Olympiams. Thematically tied to Tiamat, the human-headed dragon Typhon was the Greek version of the great evil that threatened the world. The other gods saw this task as impossible, much like the Babylonian gods saw the defeat of Tiamat as impossible in contrast. Zeus once again answering the call to action defeats the evil Typhon and once again saves the world from eminent destruction.7

In a brief analysis of Odin, chief deity of Norse mythology, one can see similar themes within his call to action as well. Ymir, the first of the frost giants created the rest of his race from his sweat, which in turn created a cow that would feed the frost giants milk. In an ironic turn, the same cow began to lick the ice and from that emerged the first of the gods. Buri the first god had a son called Bor, and he had three sons from a union with the daughter of one of the giants. Odin, the most powerful of the three sons of Bor took it upon himself to defeat Ymir, who had turned evil and sought to destroy the world. 5 None of the other gods except for Odin could hope to defeat the primordial giant, which was obsessed with the destruction of the newly found race of gods. Odin answering the call to action destroyed Ymir with the help of his brothers. Upon Ymir’s death, the world was created from his body making the world livable for humans.

Shared Themes
Through the lens of comparative mythology, one can see related themes in Marduk, Zeus and Odin. Collectively they are all chief deities within respective pantheons that all rose to power by thwarting a great evil. In part, he sacrifices his youth in order to attain strength and enough knowledge to one-day challenge Cronus, his father. The same can be seen with Marduk as he challenges Tiamat, the ocean. Tiamat thematically is the ocean, the creator of life, which transforms into the great evil. Odin slays the frost giant Ymir, which is also the creator. All three of these gods, attain a position of power by inherently replacing those who came before them. Tiamat, Cronus and Ymir collectively had their justifications as to why they wanted the destruction of these younger gods. However, history is told in the perspective of its heroes. All three of these chief deities were successful in conquering the aforementioned evils hence becoming cultural heroes. In more ways than one, these cultural heroes become the creators of a new world. This motif is often referred to as chaoskampf. 6

Mythology gives forth a cosmogony of how the world was created. For the most part, the stories of Marduk, Zeus and Odin are all a form of the Chaos Cosmogony,6 usually referring to a cultural deity fighting a primordial monster of chaos that is perceived as a serpent, dragon or snake. Odin being the exception among the three, still shares this theme when he creates a new world from Ymir’s body. This creation process is void of human influence. It is obvious, that through oral tradition these events were passed down from generation to generation until finally recorded, elevates these mythical heroes on a pedestal that is unreachable to the human. The evil in this case is chaos. It is an unorganized and uncategorized existence that cannot be followed and is obviously void of human life. In the Babylonian account, which is an extension of its Sumerian counterpart, Marduk fights the ocean, Tiamat. Tiamat is the form of chaos within this myth and is focused on the destruction of the new race of gods that in turn came into existence because of her.9 Marduk gives definition to the chaos by reestablishing it in a sense. He gives the world a categorized form in order for humans to live. Zeus’s fight with Typhon is the same and Odin defeating Ymir, Ymir in this case being a giant instead of a dragon is inherently the same in terms of thematic. All three of these chief deities share common traits in terms of their heroism. These chief deities serve as a fundamental point of reference. They are in charge and without them, the world would not be the world. It would be a formless chaos shrouded in darkness, chaotic and void of life.

Campbell goes into great length in analyzing the function of myth. In a sense, these three chief deities are one in the same. Though they are separated by time and culture they function as pivotal points of reference. According to Campbell they are representations that point beyond the obvious. Yes, Odin is a god in search of knowledge, savior of humankind, he represents leadership, bravery and sacrifice, all very important elements to modern and ancient man alike. But what the myth of Odin truly represents is beyond words.3 He represents an unreachable level of understanding beyond his call to action. The same goes for Marduk and Zeus, which attain a level of that no human can dream to reach. All of them fight creatures that symbolically represent something beyond simply the conquering of evil. The deities represent order, life and evolution. They represent what one can become and acquire in a metaphoric viewpoint.

Campbell suggests that one of the functions of myth is to uphold the social order.3 Babylon, Greece and the Germanic cultures all had structured social order in order to keep their respective civilizations intact. This in part is taken directly from their respective mythologies. The evolution of the hunter-gatherer class into that of a complex society is a transition that was not easily attained.1 Looking at the myths symbolically, the social order of a complex society was born from the chaos of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Thematically one can see this one theme carry over throughout the three aforementioned cultures. In a sense, the birth of complex society is the birth of the human world. The actions of these chief deities are held in high regard. They are slayers of their makers that attain a position of high regard. It is human nature to look outwardly for reference points. How one acts, how one thinks is inspired and influenced by those around them. Mythology to the ancient human was in a sense law. It is religion that expresses the myths in practical forms of ritual, an offering, a rite of passage: all ways of honoring the gods.

Jung expresses that the themes found in mythology are a part of the minds collective unconsciousness.10 They are part of a motif that represents a kind of instinctual behavior or response. The modern world tends to see mythology and religion as two different things when in reality they are one in the same. Jung attributes these tendencies as an expression of rites of passages, in a sense, a production of evolution. The deities represent a higher calling. Plato, who was studied extensively by Jung, denotes that archetypes or eidos are found deep within a person.13 They are part of a collection of thoughts and dreams that are imprinted in the soul. In his theories of forms, Plato describes what Jung later calls archetypes as universal blueprints. They are perfect in form, unchanged and constant. It is through human expression that these forms take life. In part, these forms, rather frameworks are formulated ideas that are believed to be with us from a very young stage in life. Humans are given religion at a very young age. Before one can speak, eat or even care for themselves, the fundamentals of religion and its practices are introduced. They are givens and perceivably inseparable to the human condition.

To the Greeks, Zeus was a fundamental element within their world. He was a given, always there even before the birth of the person. Zeus is a form that becomes a reference point to all Greeks. Zeus’s actions and values are regarded highly. They form a model figure to all Greeks who wish to attain greatness. The same can be construed for Odin and Marduk. Within mythology, these archetypes adopt a human form that represents divinity. A god in human form defeats great evil. This great evil is purged and from its destruction, a new world emerges. In actuality, what these chief deities truly represent is a symbolic interpretation of an evolving life. The chief deities in a way represent the universal parent. Much like all parents, they hold all influence and for the most part control over the lives of their children. Though there is a choice in all matters, these frameworks are intact before children attain a sense of self-awareness. They root within the human mind even before the idea of choice is introduced.

Evolving Mythology
Mythologies are constantly evolving. For the most part, their evolution is dependent on the area of the world that they derive from. They are constant forms that exist deep within the person. Where these forms actually originate from is an argument all on its own. The point of the matter is that they exist and have existed throughout time. The Babylonian mythology derives from the Sumerian culture that preceded them. Marduk for the most part holds the same values that the chief Sumerian god Enlil has. They are frameworks that are expressed throughout civilizations. They evolve throughout history through modification, updates in a sense. The order from chaos theme is simply an ancient account, or form of the contemporary big bang theory. Though the modern world has excluded a collective pantheon to express these forms, the chief deities of antiquity can be found collectively expressed in a more monotheistic form of one god. These frameworks are perpetual and evolve throughout time. What separates Marduk, Zeus and Odin are simply the civilizations that reinforce these forms. They are frameworks that can be theoretically followed and traced throughout the historic timeline of the world.

Carl Jung considered myths as an extension and expression of the human condition.10 The framework represented by Zeus, Marduk and Odin thematically sets up a world in which humankind is expected to evolve, to replace those who came before him and in one way or the other convey dominance over the natural world. Zeus shows this through the slaying of his father Cronus. Marduk expresses this by destroying his own creator Tiamat and Odin through the destruction of the frost giant Ymir. All three deities are cultural heroes that establish a reference point for its people. They exist before time and space is relevant. At first orally passed down from generation to generation, all myths were later recorded after said events took place. Meaning, that they had a chance to modified and updated as the civilizations evolved. Whether they are an exaggeration of actual events or completely fabricated is left to speculation. The fact of the matter is that the modern world is an extension of the mythologies of ancient civilizations. They provide a framework that is undeniably present. Whether the modern world views these historic events as actual fact or simply as a narrative story, they influenced the world back then and continue to influence the world now. Marduk, Zeus and Odin are not simply the chief deities of their respective cultures. They are an extension and realization of a thematic that is found within all people. They are representative of a universal parent figure, which is why they hold so much power over ancient man and inspiration to the modern world. Whether this thematic has always existed or is simply an expression of the mythology of their own rise to power is inconclusive. The frameworks that these gods represent are a platform that provides a set of values. Comparative mythologists collect the data provided by the myth in hopes to categorize and exemplify said themes. In reality these themes have simply been extended throughout time and modified so that they are relevant in the contemporary world.

The eidos, as Plato would refer to are a part of a deep collection of thoughts. They are imprinted in to the soul before one is even born. Though there is no way to collect this type of data logically and without rising debate, the ideas represented within chief deities of mythology are universal ideas that extend throughout different cultures. These ideas are later passed down from generation to generation until one civilization takes another over. The idea is then modified to that civilization so that it is relevant and important. Each time the idea becomes clearer more evolved and more powerful. Since knowledge is indefinite and limitless, it is collected and analyzed based on interest and perception. While that interest and perception may or may not waver, the themes that are presented within the analysis of mythology are constant because they are universal themes that extend from civilization to civilization.12

 

 

Works Cited

1 Barker, Graeme. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers. Oxford University Press, 2001.

2 Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical (Ancient World). Wiley-Blackwell, 1991.

3 Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. Anchor, 1991.

4 Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library, 2008.

5 Foster, Mary H. Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology. Theophania Publishing, 2011.

6 Gregory, Andrew. Ancient Greek Cosmogony. Duckworth Publishers, 2008.

7 Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Grand Central Publishing, 2011.

8 Hesiod. A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC. 2006.

9 Jacobsen, Thorkid. Mesopotamia: Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians (Dictionaries of Civilizations). University of California Press, 2007.

10 Jung, Carl. The Collected Works: The Archetypes of the Collective Unconsciousness. Princeton University Press, 1981.

11 Jung, Carl. Man and His Symbols. Dell, 1968.

12 Puhvel, Jaan. Comparative Mythology. The John Hopkins University Press, 1989.

13 Plato. The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Princeton University Press, 2005.

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