Wednesday, November 06, 2013

David, Goliath, and the combat myth...

I've recently been listening to some episodes of the "Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean" podcast, presented by Prof Philip Harland. They're not exactly the most professionally made things, most are simply recordings of parts of his lectures at York University (Toronto, Canada), but I find them particularly fascinating. Recently he's been talking about the 'Combat Myth'.

The Combat Myth is an archetypal story which seems to have been prevalent through many, if not all, religions in the ancient middle east. While there are variations in the theme, and embellishments peculiar to each telling, there is a basic pattern to the story which is common to all. Specifically:
  • There is an ancient and monstrous god/creature which represents chaos, or evil in some of the later tellings.
  • The king of the pantheon of gods is unable to control or defeat the monster.
  • For a time, no hero can be found who is willing to step up and attempt to defeat the monster.
  • Eventually a young god (sometimes, but not always, the son of the old king god) steps up, defeats and kills the monster, and claims (or is given) the kingship for himself.
  • Sometimes the young god creates the world out of the body of the slain monster.
This pattern can be seen in the Akkadian myth of Ninurta (the young god) and Anzu (the chaos monster, formerly the servant of Enlil, the old king) which probably goes back at least 2000 years BC, possibly much longer ago. It can also be seen in the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, sometime between 2000 and 1000 years BC, and in the myths of Baal and Yam, and Baal and Mot, from about the same era. There even appears to be evidence of the same story being told of the Hebrew God Yahweh defeating Leviathan (the sea/chaos monster) in the Psalms (74 and 89), although the actual arc of the story is missing in the bible.

Reflecting on all this, I found myself thinking about the story of David and Goliath. Its basically the same story as the Combat Myth, but told as a human story, supposedly in human history.
  • Goliath is a monstrous evil enemy.
  • Old King Saul can do nothing to defeat the monster.
  • For a time, no hero can be found.
  • Eventually a youngster, David, steps up, kills the giant, and ultimately becomes king.
OK, so in the David story he had already been selected as a future king, and didn't immediately depose Saul, but not all the other versions of the story are exact in all the details, either.

It very much looks to me like this is simply a retelling of the Combat Myth as a legend about an ancient hero. So this isn't likely to be a historical event. This seems really quite obvious to me, so I was surprised (after Googling a few relevant phrases) to find that nobody out there on the internet seems to have discussed this parallel. Surely I haven't stumbled on to an original thought...?

I wonder which other stories in the life of the great hero David were invented on the basis of mythic themes?