On Saturday night I attended a talk by bright young philology and religion studies comet Ola Wikander. In 2003, at age 22, he published a Swedish translation of the Baal cycle and other Canaanite mythological matter for the lay reader. In the five years since then, he’s done the Enuma Elish, the Chaldaean oracles, an essay collection on ancient languages, a popular introduction to Indo-europan studies and a historical mystery novel co-written with his dad. His PhD thesis on the relationship between certain themes in Ugaritic and Old Testament mythology is due in 2011. In his spare time he blogs in Swedish and English (Ola, I can’t find a blog in Ugaritic!) and translates manga for his girlfriend. We’re dealing with a hugely talented young scholar with a keen interest in popularisation.
Wikander’s talk at the Classical Society’s annual meeting was lively, interesting and entertaining. He spoke on the subject of his thesis, looking at the fascinating relationship between texts about Jahwe in the Old Testament and others about Baal from several centuries before. Essentially, within the context of mythology they’re the same guy: a storm god called “the Lord” who kicks the Sea Monster’s ass. Yet much of the Old Testament chronicles the struggle between Jahwe’s and Baal’s priesthoods.
This all brought some old thoughts of mine back to the fore. How do we know if two fictional characters are separate or identical? Me and Ola Wikander are not the same person. He’s younger, shorter, has different eye and hair colours, and tens of people saw us talking to each other the other night. But nobody ever sees Jahwe and Baal chatting. In fact, all we have about them is mythological reports on what they are like. And these reports are uncannily similar, as they recycle a lot of generic mythological tropes about storm gods that were knocking about promiscuously in the Near East in the Bronze Age.
In Norse mythology, Odinn shows up under a load of different identities. Snorri lists many names for this character, one of them being “The Masked One”. Scholars of religion will quite happily say about a character in a text that “this is most likely Odinn in disguise”. What do they mean by that? Sometimes they mean that the author of the text intends us to identify the mysterious stranger as Odinn the Masked One. But in other cases, they mean that there was once a group of people who believed that it was Odinn, but that by the time the myth in question was codified, this knowledge had been lost. Likewise with the heroes of the Mabinogion: textual notes inform the reader that “this guy is probably the god Lugh though the writer of the text is not aware of it”. And conversely, famously, with the many avatars of the Hindu gods.
This ambiguity of “ontological status” really bothers me when I read about mythology. I understand that it’s a convenient shorthand to speak of gods being this and doing that just in the same way that Ola Wikander is a talented philologist and does give good lectures. But I’d like the verb “to be” to mean the same thing throughout a text. Saturday, when I suggested that the distinction between Jahwe and Baal is redundant, Wikander replied that “No, they are two gods competing for the same mythological material”. I don’t agree. Jahwe and Baal exist only as mythological material, and if the two sets of writings are closely similar, then the two are indistinguishable, comparable to two entries on Snorri’s list of Odinn’s names.
I am however willing to concede that Jahwe/Baal is not identical to Mickey Mouse, because I met him once at Disney World and he was nothing like the god of the Old Testament.