Ola Wikander and Fictional Beings

i-f1aac554ca5cc93e309ff78d053f9f82-ola_wikander.jpgOn 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.


23 thoughts on “Ola Wikander and Fictional Beings

  1. Now that’s an interesting question… On the specific subject of Ba’al / Jahwe, I would argue that they’re not the same, because they clearly weren’t conceived of as being the same entity by their respective adherents, hence the struggle between them. Gods “are” whatever their believers believe them to be, and one of the things believed of Jahwe was that he was “not Ba’al”.

    The mythological personages of the Mabinogion (and other similar material) are a whole other matter – the more I look at them, the more I’m convinced that those societies didn’t really conceive of deities in the way we do… Even the identification of Lugh and Manannán as “Gods” seems a bit iffy.


  2. Uhh… where did I get the impression that ol’ Yahweh was a war god (“lord of hosts” and all that stuff)?

    Can anyone here recommend any good (English-language) books on the (ahem) evolution of monotheism?


  3. In the deep future, the distinction between these following two deities will equally be questioned; because they were both women, they were both highly public and publicized figures, they were both considered good-hearted, bright examples to hold in highest esteem, they were both mysteriously contributing to “lifting the spirits” of members of the general public, and they physically died in the same year, even the same month. But one of them goes by the by-name Baal’at – or ‘Lady’ and the other Matir/Matra – or ‘Mother’.
    But I personally belive that the mythos is quite far removed from the real persons, – with Diana and Theresa as with some Ba’al and Jahwe. One of the guys was a man of stern priciples in the east, the other of even sterner principles and less sense of humor, but operating further towards the west.
    Apparently, Wikander is – as other translators – missing the main point about the the Enuma Elish, that the Tiamat is an allegory of A GROUP of mortal people, not just one intensely hated mortal mermaid. And that the Baal of Sidon was not the same physical man as Poseidon, as this is also an error in translations.
    Most religions are based on badly interpreted lyric texts, and therefore some religions are in substance the discussion around the hopelessly flawed translations.

    This search for certainty and “truth” is the onthology of our endarkened times, and if the plain truth of those matters was ever revealed to them, it would certainly not give them the desired resulting emotions.

    But let us see the good in it: That even vertebrae of the mammals with teets, bellybutton and all, – even of the primate order – can succeed in aquiring the status of ‘god’.
    By the way: I do not believe in Darwin either!
    My motto is: “Survival of the cutest”


  4. It’s just like famous people who attract anecdotes and quotations. If we hadn’t been such good record keepers nowadays, perhaps in 300 years time people would attribute the same anecdotes and quotations to G B Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Were they the same person? Nope, but their posthumous legends compete for the same mythological stuff.

    YHWH and Baal were not conceived of as one and the same god, thus they are disctinct, even though they subsequently have attracted the same legends.


  5. How do we know that Jahwe and Baal weren’t conceived of, somewhere and sometimes, as identical? Baal simply means “the Lord”. So if I were to ask a Late Bronze Age Canaanite “Do you believe in the Lord God who smote the dragon?”, then he’d reply “Yes of course!”.


  6. I think you’re partly onto something, Martin, but also partly missing something. Yahweh (the way he’s spelled in my Bible) is the Lord who smote that big snake all right. So he’s absorbed a lot of Baal. But he doesn’t die, so he isn’t quite Baal either. He has Asherah by his side early on but loses her along the way somewhere, so he’s also El or Elohim to begin with, both with and without Ashtart. Then at least occasionally, he seems to be that silvery pillar that’s holding up the sky (the hard bowl of a firmament, that is, keeping Waters Above from Waters Below). Plus, while he giveth, he also taketh away. So, my conclusion is, he isn’t just Baal, he’s also everybody else, and so not them at the same time. As a result, while those other guys say you should boil a kid in its mother’s milk, he says you shouldn’t. And while those other ladies says you should eat a pig to honor them, he says you better not!


  7. Ba’al does mean “the Lord,” and there’s some indication that Ba’al is identical to the Eastern god who was absorbed into the Greek pantheon as Adonis (i.e., Adonai, “the lord,” one of the ancient titles of Jesus).

    There were at least two gods in the Canaanite pantheon known as Ba’al — there was Ba’al Hadad (Lord of Storms) and Ba’al Hammon (Lord of Fertility). In the Ugaritic texts, Ba’al (presented without qualifier) usually referred to Ba’al Hadad, so I assume that’s where Wikander is going with this.

    One thing that makes it tricky is that Ba’al worship predates the worship of El (although Ba’al in earlier accounts seems to be a generic reference to a village or household god), but the later mythologies make Ba’al Hadad the grandson of El (the Father of Gods [the gods being “the Elohim” as referred to in the Bible]), and the son of Dagon (agriculture [not fish, as you Lovecraftians might expect]).

    Etymologically, Yahweh is related to Zeus, Iapetus, and Jupiter (Deus Pater), so that pretty much links him to El in his role as father of gods. So, you could say that Yahweh is derived from El, but syncretizing some characteristics of Ba’al, Dagon, and other Canaanite deities.If you want to complicate this further, you can point out that although Adonis is a late addition to the Greek pantheon, the older god Apollo is both etymologically and theologically very similar to Adonis, albeit more thoroughly Hellenic.

    From my reading today, I learn that the Carthaginian (that is, Phoenician [aka Canaanite] removed by time and distance) Ba’al was linked by the Romans to Saturn, and by the Greeks to Cronus, and that just fucks up my thesis further.

    I think it’s fair to say that Ba’al in the Ugaritic texts is a solar god akin to Adonis or Apollo, and that the Jahwist god YHWH (Yahweh, Jehovah, etc.) ultimately derives from El, but with syncretic accumulations of “desirable” aspects of a number of ancient masculine Semitic deities. (The really interesting thing is to look at Canaanite goddesses in light of familiar Bible passages. These people were sexually fucked up, and we’ve been dealing with it ever since.)

    It’s interesting to me that all these notions of “gods” with “personalities” are only found among people who spoke Indo-European languages, or had contact with Indo-European speakers. Asian, Sub-Saharan, and New World peoples seem content with nature spirits, airy-fairy abstractions, or magic.

    You know, as an atheist who was raised Christian in a theistic culture, all this stuff is fascinating to me. It places everything from the Pope to some smarmy fundagelical squarely within a tradition that extends back tens of thousands of years to the early migrations of Homo sapiens out of Africa. The belief in anthropomorphic gods maps rather neatly on to the migration of certain alleles in genetic maps of human migration. Which is not to suggest that god-belief is genetic, but rather that memory is long, which is rather cool, if you ask me.


  8. I always thought that Yehovah was just a Hebrew speaker pronouncing the name of the Roman god Jove. (That latter had two syllables back when he was lord of the universe and all that.)


  9. One more comment about YHWH/Jahwe:
    The bible clearly claims that El is the same as Jahwe. It states that he (El and varieties like Allah and Ba’al) wished to change his name, and henceforth be known under the name of Yahue (God of the Yahued/Jew). Not really an invention of Moses, but it springs from the story of the guy who changed his name to Isra-El after an all-night, intimate “wrestling” in his tent with God/El, since Israel Means “he who “wrestles” with El(/Allah/Ba’al etc.)”
    After the name-change, the name Israel should also change to ‘Israyahu’, just as Nathanael became Nathana-yahu.
    Therefore also
    Ariel is Ari-yahu
    Gabriel is Gabri-yahu
    Rachel is Rach-yahu
    (Im)Manuel is (Im)Manu-yahu
    Samuel is Samu-yahu
    Daniel is Dani-yahu

    Martin is right according to the bible, clearly stating that there is an evolution at least in name, and also claiming that the PRACTISES of the Canaanites were not according to the uniting restrictions imposed by Moses. In the time of Moses, he still a Storm-god of wrath, terror and intimidation, with reactionary and explicit methods of aquiring submission.
    Centuries later, he was also given the christian virtues of being merciful, – even forgiving and loving, two very incompatible concepts for the El who first revealed his name-change to Moses.
    The Ba’al/Lord of the Serafim/Cherubim people in the Book of Eden, is also a fictional character, but distinctly smacks of “based on a true story”, or perhaps rather this disclaimer: “Any similarity with real physical charachters of the past are wholly un-intentional and co-incidental, and neither the writers, editors, translators or publishers are not to be subject to any form of scrutiny whatsoever concerning this story or any other matters, and remain wholly out of the line of questioning…”

    The mechanism of the evolution of anthropomorph objects of veneration is a multi-staged process where the basic raw material is ALWAYS a physical character, (in the sense of an unusual or remarkable mortal man or woman) and the fictional elements are added in gradually larger portions throughout the processing until the product finally is to the liking of the supplier, – and supplied in the way and to the extent he or she believes will meet the needs of the end-user.
    Prophane and divine are given a distiction, and therein lies the question for the believers and the answer for the un-believers. Do you WANT to to see the distinction or not?
    Even members of academia and adherents to scientific methods are reluctant to remove this distinction, and will perpetuate the murkiness where there could be clarity.

    The belief in either/or rather than both at he same time is a deep-set mental obstacle, even for great filosophers.


  10. Pierce, you may want to look at Tim Callahan’s accessible 2002 book Secret Origins of the Bible.

    Diana, “El” and “Elohim” just means “the god” and “the gods”. In fact, the use of the plural Elohim is one of the clearest reminiscences in OT of a polytheistic earlier version of the mythology.


  11. Does St. Lemmy mean, here, that he regularly sees God and that when Lemmy takes acid God seems taller than usual? Or does he mean that he regularly sees God and and when God takes acid he becomes taller? Or does he mean that he only sees God when Lemmy takes acid, and God is taller than Lemmy?


  12. If gods are the projections of the collective id of their adherents, it shouldn’t be surprising that peoples living in proximity and holding many cultural ideas in common should have similar gods. It also isn’t surprising that the subtle differences between these gods, though the gods themselves may be indistinguishable to you, loom disproportionately large when the peoples are conflict, and that they are called into service to justify the cultures’ worst id-driven impulses.

    In the luxury of peacetime the God of western culture has assumed a mask of benign qualities that represent the best things to which western culture aspires — He is merciful, benevolent, the enforcer of morality, the guarantor of human freedom. But all it takes is a spark of cultural conflict and the God of Deuteronomy shows His face again.

    As the creations of culture, they are born when cultures energe, fight when cultures fight, merge when cultures conjoin, and adapt when cultures adapt. Some day, when western culture has become thoroughly secularized, the nascent god of scientific rationality will be called upon to defend his people from the adherents of more primitive deities with their insane fanatacism and barbaric practices, and your god, Martin, will stride forth on the stage once trod by Enlil, Marduk, Zeus and Thor.

    First, though, he needs a catchy name, and some killer attributes.


  13. I don’t see why it has to be an either/or same/separate distinction. I’m perfectly willing to allow for a spectrum on which we can place fictional characters where on one end, two ostensibly different characters are, say, different in name only, and the other end where they are clearly distinct fictional characters.

    For example, I think that Zeus and Jupiter would be very far to the “Same Guy” end of the spectrum, as the Romans (it is my understanding at least) more or less knowingly stole him and his mythology from the Greeks and renamed him. Likewise with all Roman-Greek analogues: Saturn/Chronos, Venus/Aphrodite, and my favorite, Apollo/Apollo. These are fictional characters who differ only in name; their stories are the same, their relationships to each other are the same, even their adherents, to some degree at least, recognized that Jupiter was just Zeus warmed over and Latinized.

    Somewhere near that end of the spectrum fall Ba’al and Yahweh. There are some subtle differences in their stories, their names mean more or less the same thing if in a different language, but their adherents (each a different group of people) conceived of them as different entities which by itself, under the Neil Gaiman school of theological ontology, would, in fact, make them different entities.

    Possibly somewhere near the middle (closer to one side or another depending on your Jesus Seminar proclivities, I suppose) are Jesus and Mithras, or Jesus and Horus, or Jesus and any other sacrificed messiah godman figure.

    On the far “Different Guys” side are, perhaps, Thor and Coyote. They were conceived by different cultures that had no contact with one another, they serve different mythological purposes, their stories are completely different, etc. Nothing about them is the same save that they are both mythical divinities.

    I wonder if these debates will be happening 1000 years in the future with our own mythological characters, say Dr. House from House and Dr. Cox from Scrubs. They’re both crotchety, emotionally stunted, but brilliant doctors who treat people terribly, drop wisecracks, and pathologically push away everyone they actually care about; there may even be a case to be made that Dr. House is a derivative of Dr. Cox.

    From where I sit, it’s pretty clear that they’re somewhere on the “Different Guys” end of my spectrum; they’re in different shows which inhabit different fictional universes, on different networks, and so forth, but future anthropologists or mythologists might see it differently.


  14. A related question to Akusai’s Same Guys/Different Guys structure: What about legends vs. the historical figures that spawned them? Is St. Nicholas, bishop in Asia Minor, the Same Guy as Santa Claus? Is Jesus of Nazareth the Same Guy as Jesus Christ, Son of God? John Nash vs. John Nash as played by Russell Crowe?


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