Emory Report

March 2, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 23

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 have missed."

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.

-Linda Klein

Return to March 2, 1998 Contents Page