Chesterton and Toynbee on Sumerian and Greek Mythology

The explosion of interest in the ancient near east, and the rise of archaeology and anthropology in the late 19th-early 20th centuries stands as one of the great eras of historical research.  It added a great deal to our understanding of so much of the past related to the Old Testament.

Unfortunately these discoveries came at a time when Darwinism, Victorian conceit, unbelief, and the Whig interpretation of history all coincided to help radically misinterpret much of what they found, and nowhere is this more evident than in their commentary on Sumerian mythology.

In Donald MaKenzie’s  Myths of Babylonia and Assyria he mentions in the preface how scholars believe that Egyptian and Sumerian mythology had a common, ancient, as yet undiscovered source.  At this the Christian might raise an eyebrow of amusement and hopeful anticipation that Mr. Alexander might say something profound.

But no, because from there he quotes approvingly from Joseph Frazer who believed that this “homogeneity of belief” came from a “homogeneity of race” *(see below).  From the muddling use of big words he continues to slide down the slope . . .

  • In Sumerian mythology we do not deal with symbolized ideas but simple folk beliefs enlarged into greater stories.
  • Babylonian creation myths can be traced back to a story of some tribal hero who liberated the people from some oppressive neighboring tribe.
  • Sumerian dragon stories show disunity more than anything else, for some have the dragon bringing drought and others flood.  Translation: Those silly Sumerians!
It seems to me that this dissection, done with intent to kill, misses the overall point.  Myths, in their view, “evolved” from stories with “different local color, and different local geographies,” into a grand story that explained the origins of everything.  But as Chesterton said in The Everlasting Man, 
We cannot say that religion arose out of religious forms, because that is only another way of saying that it only arose when it existed already.
Somehow, according to the MacKenzie/Frazer school, the Sumerians had the audacious intelligence to found civilization itself, yet persisted in the Victorian-imposed imbecility of supposing that their view of the creation of the cosmos had its origins from some local chieftan hailing from some “local geography.”  But even if you want to suppose some gradual ascent, that still does not solve the problem.  How to explain the spiritual underpinnings of the stories? Chesterton again writes,
An event is not more intrinsically intelligible because of the pace at which it moves.  The medieval wizard may have flown through the air to the top of a tower.  But to see an old gentlemen walking through the air in a leisurely manner would still seem to call for some explanation.  Yet there runs through all the rationalistic treatment of history this curious and confused idea that difficulty is avoided, or mystery eliminated, by dwelling on mere delay . . .

Art is the signature of man. That is the sort of simple truth with which a story of the beginnings ought really to begin. The evolutionist stands staring in the painted cavern at the things that are too large to be seen and too simple to be understood. He tries to deduce all sorts of other indirect and doubtful things from the details of the pictures, because he cannot see the primary significance of the whole; thin and theoretical deductions about the absence of religion or the presence of superstition; about tribal government and hunting and human sacrifice and heaven knows what.

Greek mythology  has just as much strangeness and murkiness to it as Sumerian mythology, with violence and capricious gods doing as they please.  And yet, western Europe never subjected Greek myths to the same kind of psuedo-scientific dissection and subtle derision. Why might this be?

One reason could be that western Europe knew of Greek/Roman mythologies for many many centuries prior to the late 19th. Having been known in a more sensible age, Greek myths could be taken in the more proper literary  sense than their ancient near-eastern counterparts.  Another could be that their assault on Sumerian mythology helped train their guns, a kind of test run, for their assault on the Old Testament.

But I think a truer reason might be that Victorian Europe, and especially England (from whence so much of that nobly minded scholarship came) saw themselves as the inheritors of the Greek legacy.  Surely then, Greek foundation myths had some nobler origin than their Sumerian counterparts.

The Toynbee Convector has a great anecdote from Toynbee related to England’s patterning themselves after the Greeks, especially their “idolization of the parochial state,” (i.e. idolatrous nationalism) which I quote in full.

At some date during the latter part of the breathing-space between the general wars of A.D. 1914-18 and A.D. 1939-45, the writer of this Study heard the presiding officer of one of the livery companies of the City of London bear testimony which was convincing, because it was unselfconscious, to the primacy, in his Weltanschauung, of one of these tribe-worships. The occasion was a dinner at which the company was entertaining the delegates to an international congress that was in session in London at the time, and the presiding officer had risen to propose the toast “Church and King”. Having it on his mind that a majority of his guests were foreigners who would not be familiar with an English tribal custom, the president prefaced the toast with an apology and an explanation. No doubt, he said, the order in which he had rehearsed the two institutions that were to be honoured conjointly in the toast that he was about to propose might seem to a foreigner not only quaint but perhaps even positively unseemly. He apologized for abiding, nevertheless, by the traditional order, and explained that he did so because it was the pride of the city companies to be meticulous in preserving antique usages, even when these had become so anachronistic as to be open to misconstruction by the uninitiated. — from A Study of History, Vol. IX

The tragic irony of all these brilliant and inquisitive men like Mr. MacKenzie and Mr. Frazer ascribing real spiritual hunger to “homogenous local ethnographies” is that they reduced themselves to tribal worship of their local community, and suffered the cataclysmic fate that the Greeks suffered from 431 B.C. – 338 B.C during the years 1914-1945.
*On the love of long words, Chesterton again is spot-on:
One of my first journalistic adventures, or misadventures, concerned a comment on Grant Allen, who had written a book about the Evolution of the Idea of God. I happened to remark that it would be much more interesting if God wrote a book about the evolution of the idea of Grant Allen. And I remember that the editor objected to my remark on the ground that it was blasphemous; which naturally amused me not a little. For the joke of it was, of course, that it never occurred to him to notice the title of the book itself, which really was blasphemous; for it was, when translated into English, ‘I will show you how this nonsensical notion that there is a God grew up among men.’ My remark was strictly pious and proper; confessing the divine purpose even in its most seemingly dark or meaningless manifestations. In that hour I learned many things, including the fact that there is something purely acoustic in much of that agnostic sort of reverence. The editor had not seen the point, because in the title of the book the long word came at the beginning and the short word at the end; whereas in my comment the short word came at the beginning and gave him a sort of shock. I have noticed that if you put a word like God into the same sentence with a word like dog, these abrupt and angular words affect people like pistol-shots. Whether you say that God made the dog or the dog made God does not seem to matter; that is only one of the sterile disputations of the too subtle theologians. But so long as you begin with a long word like evolution the rest will roll harmlessly past; very probably the editor had not read the whole of the title, for it is rather a long title and he was rather a busy man.