The Origin of Evil in Ancient Mythology

Look, I know that this is a blog about addiction and sobriety. Okay?

And I promise that things will go back to normal, soon! I will be discussing addiction in my next post. I promise!

So please enjoy this episode from My Life With Kant, where I discuss evil in ancient literature. Please forgive any spelling and grammatical errors.

Enjoy!

MyLifeWithKant

If you are no stranger to this podcast, then you should know….that existence is a troubling thing to grapple with. And one of the most troubling aspects of existence, is that it must end. We fight our entire lives for survival, but it’s a battle that we must eventually lose. But our ideas of death…have changed greatly over the last thousand years. I mean, it’s still a terrible thing to think about…but our mystification of it have more or less subsided.

However, I like to think that the realization of death was what kickstarted our path down theological and philosophical. People of ancient and pre-historic times had to come to realize, that no matter how hard you try, death wins in the end. This thought…possibly leading them to ask questions like: “what’s the meaning of life” and “what happens when we die.” There was no understanding, in those times, about the necessity of death. And possibly to ease their fears, ancient thinkers had to look to the gods in order to find solace in life…thus leading us down the long path of imperial dogmatism, that we still find ourselves in today.

And indeed, perhaps the earliest known piece of fiction “The Epic of Gilgamesh” deals with this very problem. Now the version that I have doesn’t mention this….but according to the Great Courses lecture series titled “Why Evil Exists” by Charles Matthews…which is excellent by the way…but he says, and I’m paraphrasing here…the epic actually begins by saying “This is an old story, but one still worth telling”. And that’s a great way for it to begin. It sort of reminds me of Star Wars: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. But it goes to show you, that this is a VERY old story….one that was being told long before it was enscribed on clay tablets. So it shows, that humans have been thinking about death for a very long time.

However, this Epic of Gilgamesh is also an example, or I should say an exploration, of evil, as discussed in that lecture series. So Star Wars is not unique in that regard, it’s a simple rehash of stories told before it. As the idea of the good forces of nature versus the dark side, and how those two forces play out in the physical world…has been a literary and philosophical device since….AT LEAST Mesopotamia. Humans have been exploring this subject since the very beginning of intellectual thought. However, in this very early thought, evil was considered an intrical part of the universe, as presented in the Enuma Elish. This myth (The Enuma Elish), can either be seen as an inspiration to, or a rival thought to the later Genesis myth of creation. But myths like these, that brought forth the idea that it was the clash between good and evil that resulted in our physical world. This, of course, contrasts with the account in Genesis, where the universe was made perfect, only to later be perverted into evil.

But the Epic of Gilgamesh begins with our hero (Gilgamesh), not quite living up to the standards of good. He is a half-man/half-god king, that has probably let power get to his head. The gods hear the elders of the kingdom, who want to put a stop to Gilgamesh’s antics. So the instruct the goddess, Aruru, to put a stop to him…So she created Enkidu, half-man/half-beast, to balance out his powers. And the two infamously become friends. Prior to their meeting, Enkidu becomes fully enveloped in his humanness, and comes to dominate Gilgamesh physically, and brought him back to his humanness. It’s through this revalation in his friendship with Enkidu, that Gilgamesh wishes to do great things.

But their adventures together, and their successes, causes them to forget their mortality…but this reality becomes all to real with the death of Enkidu. Gilgamesh is absolutely devastated. Alone, Gilgamesh goes through his own trial and tribulations in seeking immortality, but only comes to learn that it is impossible for him. So in the end, as I have said many times before, it’s what we do between birth and death, that counts. The story of Gilgamesh and his fate, depends on what version you have…since it appears that the epic itself was stapled together over the centuries. But there’s one ending that has the moral being, that it is better to live life itself, rather than dwell in the underworld. And the one according to Charles Matthews is, that you can’t go into the final battle (meaning death) with anger in your heart. But it all ends the same way…Gilgamesh dies, and that’s the end of all of our stories….but we can’t go into that battle with regret, hate, or wanting…because you have fought the good fight, and have reaped its rewards.

Now we can think of the Epic of Gilgamesh as being this big, extraverted, and grandiose story about life and death. And considering that its likely an old tale that was told around the campfire (for hundreds or possibly thousands of years), so you have to hit those high marks of memorability in order to survive and ultimately become one of the first stories committed to the written word. And when we consider a great deal of the literature of the ancient world, they are similar stories of heroism, conquering evil, and man’s folly.

However, one story, goes against all of that. This one is a far more introverted tale of suffering and evil, making it therefore…far more terrifying. This is the Book of Job, which is a story that most of us became aquainted with through the church. But that interpretation, the one we were presented with, grossly undersells the terror and evil we actually face. If we remove all of the baggage that later Christian thinkers attached to this story…what we find is something truly ahead of its time. The Book of Job, I’ve read somewhere, some years ago, could possibly be the oldest book in the Old Testament. I don’t know if that still stands, but if it were true, I think it would further mystify the text for me. Because it would show, that our observations and ponderings about the arbitrariness of evil goes beyond the Abrahamic religions…I don’t know.

But, as a kid, this was the book that horrified me. Body horror, like exorcisms and unwarranted physical suffering, are thoughts that keep me up at night. One dream I had in particular, there was an innocent man in the desert, with the unseen devil inflicting physical pain on him. His rotting flesh was falling off of him, his bones breaking to the point where he was immobile…yet he continued to believe in the goodness of existence. However, with him alone and dying on a hill in an unknown desert…the dream just ends. It’s an awful dream to have as a kid. And I think that that’s what still unnerves me about the Book of Job, and why I think it transcends whatever sort of theological interpretations thrusted upon it. It touches a nerve with all of us, when we consider why bad things happen to seemingly good people.

But Job is a blameless man…whom God takes pride in through his uprightness. However, Satan, God’s rival, believes that if he can reverse Job’s fortunes, he can undo his righteousness. God accepts the challenge. And already, this becomes a scenario, that’s asking questions that are still relevant…Satan believes that Job is good, simply because God has blessed him. If he had never experienced those fortunes, Job wouldn’t be the man he was. To me, this is a radical idea the ancients were exploring…when we consider nature vs. nurture, and free will….the authors of Job (perhaps unintentionally) were engaging in early philosophical and sociological thought…would we be the same people today, had we of faced different fates? Or are our characteristics fundamentally who we are? Satan answering no to the first question, and God answering yes to the latter.

But these two forces of nature, The Good and the evil, and their decision to essentially torture Job…was arbitrary. Satan just so happened to be in God’s domain that day, and the two decided to see what Job was made of. Mind you, it was Satan’s that came up with the idea to begin with, and God allowed it. So, we can say that evil is the instigator, as it is indeed in all of story-telling. Yet we have a choice.

And despite all of the horridness that Job endures, he still choses not to curse God. However, that doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t take its toll. And what we get as a result, is existential despair at its best. His friends believe that he must have done SOMETHING to warrant his suffering. So Job wrestles with the idea of an all-powerful God, that has the power to prevent evil, yet still permits it. Yet unbeknownst to Job and his friends…his suffering is without purpose. So even though this story involves the supernatural…we have a character that is troubled with the meaningless world, that has turned against him.

Yet it becomes clear to Job, that his inward focus on this suffering, by cursing the day he was born, by lashing out at his friends, is just a contributing factor to his ongoing pain. As one of his friends asks, and I’m paraphrasing: “should the earth change for your sake?”. So Job’s self-pity, was in some way, exasperating his own torment…believing himself to be a victim of God’s trap….the circumstance of his existence. Believing HIMSELF to be good, Job falsely took comfort in thinking he would be forever blessed. However, such actions do not exempt one from the doings of evil…just as evil actions don’t exempt one from the doings of good. I wonder what would have happened in reverse…had God wanted to reward someone undeserving…but I suppose that that kind of story is far more common than Job’s situation. But these stories go to show how, the forces of good and evil play out on the human soul.

But Job, as with Gilgamesh, came to realize, that the things THEY THOUGHT they knew…were wrong. The lessons that they received were different…Job came to realize that by ACTING good alone, was not enough to shield him from evil. I guess if the Book of Job took a position on the moral debate…on what makes an action good or evil…it would probably align itself with the intentionality side…where the intentions reflect the REAL character of an individual. But, as everyone knows, Job becomes humbled by these revealations, and God restores his prosperity. This story has a happy ending. But, as with my dream…sometimes the nightmare just…ends. But even in death, there’s a choice. We can go into the final battle with contempt, or we can into it without our hearts buried in anger.

Now the story of Job would go on to be incorporated into the larger Judeo-Christian canon, so perhaps some of its darker implications become muted. But as paganism went on the decline in Europe, competing theologies were taking its place…fighting against, and influencing one another. The religion that ended up winning the battle…Christianity, would slowly begin taking the hearts and minds of thinkers in Europe and the Levant. One such thinker, was St. Augustine of Hippo…who later end up marrying Christian theology with Neo-Platonism. But before he converted, he was a believer of Manicheanism, one of Christianity’s biggest competitors in the early first millennium AD. From the prophet Mani, that from what I gather, was also a follower of Christ, but was teaching it from a different perspective. So it would be interesting to study in what ways Manichaenism influenced mainstream Christianity, by either adopting some of it’s ideas or responding to those ideas.

But for the Manicheans, the material world, and our very own bodies, are encased in the world of evil. In the Book of Job, God allowed Satan to test Job. But perhaps in reality, according to the Manicheans…perhaps He was actually unable to prevent it. This is a very different take on the traditional view of an omnipotent God, which might partially explain why this religion didn’t last. The Good, or God, has to share this power with the prince of darkness. In fact, it was the struggle between Good and Evil, that created this world…beginning with darkness lashing out at the Light. So we see a common theme here…evil as the initiator of the story. Without evil, we would not have this world…just as we would not have a story without an antagonist. And out of this conflict, in addition to the material world, we get the human soul.

This is where the struggle continues….on the battlefield that is the human condition.

But what these old mythologies tell us…from the Enuma Elish to Manicheanism, is that both good and evil are reliant on one another. Manicheanism in particular, places the human soul as the extension of the good…as in, that’s what we essentially think of ourselves. Manicheanism just reinforces that. And the things that we want, or don’t want to want, are acting against our very nature. As the mind distinguishes itself from the rest of the world, the imagination creates the myth…they myth of the self and everything that acts against it. These myths helps us to distinguish the world, they only become a problem once when they are believed. But we are always the hero to our story, it’s the world that’s the villain.

 

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