Walls: Understanding myths
a matter of interpretation
Biblical scholar Neal Walls took time off last summer to begin work on
his new book, Fertile Myths: Interpretations of Ancient Near Eastern
Myth, a collection of essays applying contemporary methods of myth analysis
to ancient biblical texts.
"My training leads me to believe the narrative and symbolic nature
of myth allows for multiple levels of meaning that may be appropriated through
proper analysis," said Walls, who received a University Research Committee
award for his study. "By applying contemporary methods of myth analysis,
I hope to throw light on aspects of these texts that previous interpretations
In his book, each chapter or essay will analyze a myth using a different
approach. Forms of analysis will be drawn from the fields of anthropology,
psychology, art history and gender studies. "Rather than let the variety
of methods determine the shape of the book, I have chosen to let the myths
determine which approaches I use," he explained.
Last summer he worked on a chapter titled "On the Couch with Horus
and Seth," which he described as "a Freudian interpretation of
an extremely bizarre myth from ancient Egypt." According to the myth,
Seth is the brother and Horus is the son of Osiris, king of the gods. After
Seth kills Osiris-who is brought back to life as lord of the dead-Seth and
Horus compete to see who will replace the fallen king.
"The numerous episodes of incest, decapitation, castration, obsession
with bodily fluids, excessive Oedipal conflicts, attempted homosexual rape,
dead fathers and sibling rivalry make this myth a perfect subject for Freudian
analysis," Walls said.
"While I'm not a Freudian, I want to argue that looking at the myths-applying
that method-lets us see things in the myth we don't otherwise see."
Method is so important, he said, because what is seen is a "matter
of how you look at it." A psychological approach looks at the psychology
of the characters and the effect this might have on the potential audience
of the text, he said. An approach such as structuralism would be more concerned
with the organization behind the narrative and with details such as kinship.
Other essay topics for his book include a structuralist analysis of the
Baal cycle-the elaborate Canaanite myth about the fertility god Baal and
his rise to the kingship of the divine assembly-and a comparative literary
approach to the biblical and Babylonian accounts of human creation.
The book will also include an iconographic analysis of the Canaanite
goddess Astarte and the serpent, and a feminist approach to Canaanite myths
of the virgin warrior goddess Anat. An additional essay will use methods
and perspectives developed in gay and lesbian studies to analyze the text
of Gilgamesha, a hero of ancient Mesopotamia.
Apart from popular books on Egyptian art and religion, there's a general
lack of scholarly study of ancient Near Eastern mythology, Walls said. While
there are numerous translations of these texts available for even the casual
reader, there are very few attempts at analysis beyond assumptions of an
ancient obsession with fertility.
"What caused me to start the project was an overly simplistic interpretation
of these ancient myths by people who knew the languages-which I think is
crucial-but didn't know much about myth analysis," he explained. "I'm
hoping to put those two things together."
Walls, an assistant professor at the School of Theology, teaches graduate
courses in Akkadian (Babylonian) and Ugaritic (a Canaanite dialect) as well
as the Hebrew Bible. His primary focus is the religion of ancient Israel
within its ancient Near Eastern context. His published dissertation on the
goddess Anat also engaged in comparative, structuralist and feminist analysis.
to March 2, 1998 Contents Page