An interview with Kenneth C. Davis, author of Don't Know Much About History
Q. What makes your book different from other works about mythology?
A. This book is like all the books in my series -- it tries to make a subject we should all know about interesting and fun. To be honest, most books about myths are academic -- which is just another word for boring. But myth is anything but boring. These are stories filled with sex, lust, violence, murder, infidelity, incest, brother against brother it's the Sopranos without the pasta! Seriously, my book looks at all the fascinating myths created by ancient cultures and connects them to history. In other words, you can't understand Egypt or Greece without looking at their myths. Most ancient civilizations whether in Egypt, China or Mesoamerica were theocracies, in which there was no separation between church and state. With connections to the gods and usually the cooperation of a potent priesthood, divinely anointed rulers held the power of life and death over their subjects. These ancient stories have a lot to do with what is going on in American today.
Q. What are myths?
A. Myths explained the "car wrecks" of the world for ancient people. We all make up stories when we rubberneck at an accident scene. Simply put, myths are stories really sacred stories meant to explain why things are the way they are in the world. Myth is a Greek word coined by the philosopher Plato, but virtually every civilization has invented stories to explain why the sun rose and set, why the crops grew, where we go when we die. For ages, the world was a place of mystery and danger, and people couldn't provide scientific explanations for what they saw going on around them. Myths are as old as humanity but as timely and human as the headlines.
Q. Mythology is all about the past -- a dead subject like Latin, right?
A. Not at all. Mythology is all around us -- in our language, our movies, psychology, religion. Is today a Thursday in March or a Saturday in June? The names of these days and months all come from Greek, Roman and Norse myth. And myths are even part of the recent headlines. In 2004 in Mexico the planned construction of a WalMart was met with fierce resistance because it was so close to the Pyramid of the Sun in the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, the place where the Aztecs believed "men became gods." Every year, millions of Hindus still travel to temples dedicated to Kali, an ancient Hindu goddess who slays evil but has always been known as a demandingly bloodthirsty deity. Most buy innocuous souvenirs of Kali bedecked with skulls and belts of severed feet. Yet in 2004, several disciples were charged with the very rare practice of ritual human sacrifice.
Q. So myths can be serious business?
A. Throughout history, our beliefs have influenced our behavior. Perhaps the most deadly historical example of the impact of myth on belief comes from World War II, when Adolf Hitler drew upon ancient Germanic myths to help enthrall an entire country. Hitler was deeply taken by Wagner's opera, which drew vividly on the world of German heroic myths, pagan gods and heroes, demons and dragons. Hitler intrinsically understood the deep emotional power of the symbols of these myths. Massive statues of ancient Germanic gods played a prominent role in the Nazi mass rallies at Nuremberg in the 1930s. Hitler grasped the visceral power, as well as the propaganda value of a shared Teutonic myth in uniting the German people with a master race ideology. In the past few years, the world has witnessed the combustible mixture of belief and fanatical devotion. "The virgins are calling you," Mohamed Atta wrote to his fellow hijackers just before 9/11. The notion of dying a martyr's death and gaining entrance to a paradise with the promise of virgins is clearly a powerful idea. They are motivated by beliefs whose roots stretch back to the most ancient of times.
Q. Your book suggests that mythic themes been have been reflected in recent pop culture. How so?
A. Look at some of the movies of the past few years. Box office hits like Star Wars, The Matrix, Finding Nemo and X-Men all tap into tales of legendary heroes and epic quests. In the spring of 2004, the enduring appeal of myth got a fresh wind with Troy. All of these films draw on mythic themes and often include very specific mythical references. In The Matrix, for instance, the names Morpheus, Niobe and Oracle are all drawn directly from mythic Greek characters. Perhaps it is no accident that some of them are among the highest grossing films worldwide. Throw in the extraordinary Harry Potter phenomenon -- another spin on the mythic quest of an ordinary boy with miraculous powers -- and you have yet another powerful piece of evidence that we still love myths. Perhaps best known for the song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," Disneys 1946 film Song of the South was inspired by the Br'er Rabbit stories, popular among African-American slaves. These stories, in turn, came from ancient tales of a mythic African Hare, a trickster god who crossed the Atlantic in the terrible Middle Passage and found new life in the American South. Tricksters, one of the most popular types of gods found in many societies, were greedy, mischievous, evil -- kind of like the Joker in Batman. Often, they took animal form, like the African Hare of Native American Coyote. Hmm. A mischievous rabbit and a greedy coyote trying to outsmart other animals. Sounds a little like Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner's tireless nemesis Wile E. Coyote. And you thought myths were dead.
Q. Have myths influenced Christianity?
A. Yes. Thought mostly ignored, the blending of Christian teachings with local myths has taken place in ancient Celtic Ireland, Mexico, and Central America, and in the Caribbean and American South. The intermingling of pagan myth and Christian rites and beliefs is one key element in the plot of the best-selling sensation The Da Vinci Code, which draws on the adaptation -- or theft -- of ancient pagan religions and rituals by Christians. While many of its most controversial elements are historically questionable, the book's runaway international success is another tip-off that lots of people think there are deeper connections to ancient myths and mysteries than we've ever been told by mainstream religion. The Celestine Prophecy is another novel that posits an elaborate church conspiracy to conceal ancient truths, plays to a deep-seated skepticism about organized religion, but also taps into a level of curiosity about ancient spiritual ideas and wisdom -- in other words, myths.
Q. How does ancient myth cast doubt on the divinity of the Bible?
A. Portions of the biblical flood story are found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a piece or literature much older than the bible. Tablets discovered at Nineveh, a city prominent in biblical times, were discovered in the ruins of a temple. A young man named George Smith eventually translated portions of Gilgamesh, an ancient Babylonian epic poem that is widely considered the world's oldest known work of literature. The contents Smith revealed turned the accepted world of Christian biblical beliefs on its head. His translations included episodes of a great flood that contained clear parallels with the biblical accounts of Noah's flood, along with many other elements shared with the Book of Genesis. Next, a leading German scholar stated that the Bible was not the world's oldest book, as Christian and Jewish scholars had taught for centuries. These ideas have been rattling religious teacups ever since!
Q. So, history, myth and civilization all go hand in hand.
A. Right! The same ancients who invented the wheel, zero, writing, bronze, glass and fireworks invented the myths, making it impossible to separate one from the other. While the impact of myths may seem less obvious, these ancient stories are still a powerful force in our lives today. They remain alive in our art, literature, language, theater, dreams, psychology, religion and history. DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT MYTHOLOGY traces the story of myths through the ages and shows how myths helped make civilization. It also looks at the way myths moved from one group to another in the exchange of civilizations. The familiar mythology of the Greeks did not emerge full-blown from the sea -- the way Aphrodite supposedly did. It drew upon ideas from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, and other ancient neighbors. Myths don't spring up -- they are often borrowed from older sources, molded and remade into new myths.