The following essay on Old Testament and Greek mythology was written by Caleb Klein, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.
For my Major Project I have chosen to study the differences between two ancient cultures and their religions: Greek and Hebrew. I selected this topic because of my love for ancient Greek mythology, and because we do not know what really happened so long ago—we have ideas, but we are not sure. If we compare two different cultures that were around at the same time, that have similar myths, we could research these myths, and from them, attempt to determine truth. Some people think that the similarities of the myths are just a coincidence, but I do not. I believe that these myths are drawn from historical events that happened thousands of years ago.
I will begin at the beginning, with the stories of creation of humankind. In Greek mythology, after the war between the titans and the gods, there was peace. Titans are extraordinarily powerful giants that predated the gods and sat on mountains as thrones. Two titans who sided with the gods, named Prometheus and Epimetheus, started to create the animals of the world. Prometheus wanted to make the best of them all, and he created man in his own image. Once each animal was finished, the titan Epimetheus would give each creation a gift, such as the tiger’s claws and the giraffe’s neck. When Prometheus finished making man, there were no gifts left to give him. So, Prometheus went up to Olympus and stole the Olympian’s fire. When Zeus found out about this, he chained Prometheus to a mountain, and a giant eagle came to tear out his liver every day for three hundred years, and it grew back only to be torn out the next day. Zeus was angry about Prometheus giving man such great intelligence, and he was scared that he would overthrow the gods. In addition to chaining Prometheus to the rock, the gods created another being, woman. The twelve Olympian gods each gave her a gift, such as Aphrodite’s gift of beauty, and Athena’s gift of wisdom. But Zeus gave her curiosity, and a jar that she was never allowed to open. This jar was known as Pandora’s box. One day, Pandora’s curiosity overcame her, and she said, “Just a peek!” She opened the jar, and all of these horrible things came out and bit her partner, man. These were no ordinary bugs, these were things like jealousy, hatred, and murder. Pandora closed the jar just in time to keep hope in the jar—she kept hope for herself.
In Hebrew mythology we learn that God created humans in his own image, as with the Greek myth. But there are actually two different Hebrew creation stories and they have very different perspectives. The first, in Genesis chapter one, describes how man and woman were created together at the same time. In this story, they were created back to back and then needed to be separated. In the second creation story, which is found in Genesis chapter two, God first created man alone, by himself. God placed man in the Garden of Eden, and told him only to eat from the tree of life, not the tree of knowledge. God saw that man was lonely, so he put him to sleep, slit open his stomach, and removed one rib. From this rib he created woman. Their names were Adam and Eve. One day, Eve was walking alone through the garden, when the serpent came. This was not the type of serpent that we know of—this one had arms and legs, and could walk, and it spoke to Eve. It said, “Eat from the tree of knowledge, it will open your eyes.” Eve did, and brought an apple back to Adam. They ate, and suddenly noticed their nudity, and fashioned themselves loincloths. When God came down to check up on Adam and Eve, they hid, but God found them. They admitted that they ate from the tree of knowledge, and Eve told God about the serpent. God cursed the serpent to crawl on his belly for all of eternity, and banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, and left them to be mortal.
In both stories, God and Zeus were angered with humankind for gaining knowledge, and punished them. Also, in both stories, there is one being that gave them knowledge, and they too, were punished. In both stories, man was created in God’s image. These parallels show how these two cultures were very alike, and explained things similarly.
Humanistic Jews believe in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to explain the creation of all animals, including humans. But these ideas did not come about until the 1830’s. Thousands of years ago, when the myths were created and told, they did not know about evolution, so this is how they answered their questions about their existence. Darwin’s theory, unlike the myths, is more gender equal. It suggests that man and woman evolved simultaneously, and is like the first Hebrew creation story, but most mythology tends to favor men as the original humans.
I will now discuss the comparison of the floods in Hebrew and Greek mythology. And, for those of you who do not know, there is a Greek flood myth! According to Jewish mythology, God created a flood to destroy the human race due to their wickedness. He selected one man, Noah, and his family, to take one male and one female of each species to live on an ark that Noah was told to build, to keep each species alive. When the flood came, they were ready. Toward the end of their journey, Noah sent out two birds to find land. When one bird came back with an olive leaf, suggesting that there was some dry land, Noah stopped there until the flood was over.
In Greek mythology, Zeus, like the Hebrew God, wanted to rid people of their wickedness. So, he decided to send a flood. A titan, Prometheus, learned of Zeus’ plan, and told his human son, Deucalion, and his wife, Pyrrha to build a chest. All other people were obliterated by the flood, except for a few who escaped to high mountains. After drifting along the current for 9 days, they landed on Mt. Parnassus (which is one of my favorite places on the planet because it’s where the city of Delphi was created!).
It was interesting to me that two very different cultures with different ideas both have flood myths that are extremely similar. I have learned through my studies that after the explosion in Chernobyl, Russia, scientists researched whether the Black Sea was contaminated by the radiation. In conducting this research, they dug in the sands and at first, found fossils of salt-water sea animals, but then they found fossils of fresh water animals! They therefore discovered that a great flood actually occurred in the location where these cultures existed. This can explain why two ancient cultures, from around the same time period, had myths that were similar, and this proves my theory that most stories are driven by a hint of truth!!!
I will now discuss the comparisons between the two invincible heroes, Samson and Achilles. Samson, from the Hebrew Bible, was one of the most famous powerful figures besides Samuel and David. He was also, as with Achilles, known for his strength. Samson was told by God to never cut his hair, or he would lose his unlimited power. He led many battles against the Philistines, and took out men by the hundreds. Although he was at war with the Philistines, he married a Philistine woman named Delilah. Delilah was a spy for the Philistines, and tried to figure out what Samson’s weakness was. She attempted three times to find out. The first two times, he did not answer with truth, but the third time he did tell her the truth, that if his hair was cut, he would lose his powers. So, late at night, Delilah told the Philistines his secret, and they came and cut Samson’s hair in his sleep. The Philistines took him captive and brought him to the Philistine Palace. One day they brought him out in front of a banquet, and tied his hands to two pillars that held up the ceiling. His hair had grown long again, and he prayed to God that he would restore Samson’s strength. Samson pushed down the two pillars, crushing all of the Philistines, and himself. This is how he died.
Now I will tell you of the invincible Achilles. When Achilles was a baby, his mother dipped him in the River Styx, where all dead mortals must pass to get to the underworld, and held him by the heel. Every bit of him that touched the River Styx was made impenetrable. Although he was made invincible, the part of him that did not touch the water was still vulnerable. The similarity between Samson and Achilles was that they were practically invincible except for one particular spot on their bodies, which was each hero’s weakness. When Achilles was older, he fought in the Trojan War, and was the greatest hero of that conflict. Like Samson, he took out men by the hundreds, for no weapon could penetrate him. Yet, during one of the greatest battles of Troy, a Trojan, by the name of Paris, guided by the god, Apollo, shot Achilles in the heel and killed him. Both Achilles and Samson were great warriors, with one weak spot that caused their demise.
Last but not least, I will discuss with you the two most famous heroes of these two cultures, Moses and Hercules. Moses, as a little child, went through great danger as he was put in a basket and floated down the Nile River. Hercules also went through something dangerous in his childhood when Hera, Zeus’ wife who was cheated on by Zeus and a mere mortal to make Hercules, sent two snakes to kill Hercules. Hercules, still a child, killed the snakes with ease. So as children they both survived dangerous situations. In both of these men’s great stories, they are commanded by a godly figure. For example, Moses is commanded by God to free his people. Hercules is commanded by his cousin, who is influenced by Hera. Both men are guided by an oracle-figure. Moses is told by the burning bush to save his people and was given advice on how to do it. Hercules is told by the Oracle in Delphi how to regain his honor. Both of the oracle-figures spoke on a god’s behalf, and told them both to do the will of a god. Both heroes then had to perform extraordinary endeavors and miracles.
Hero stories, like those of the Greeks and Jews, were created to teach the younger generations lessons about morals. I learn from these hero stories that honor is everything, and that righteousness was, and still is, praised. Doing the right thing is the moral of the stories, especially of Moses’ tale. The stories of Samson and Achilles show that no one, in any way, can be completely impenetrable—not only physically, but mentally as well—I mean feelings and emotions. Oracle-figures remind me of all the people in my life who influence me, like family and friends, even people like politicians, whom I don’t know personally, but see on TV. In both the Hercules and Moses stories, the oracles represent a godly being, and some people today say that they consult with God for answers. I do not because I believe that only we, ourselves, can write our own fate, and no one can tell us what will happen next.
I love all of these myths as much as I do because of their heroic stories with heroes, villains, monsters and average people. They speak of different creatures that are noble and fierce, and I love that so much because of my personality—my creativity and love for stories. The reason I like all of these different myths is because of some of the characters’ unbelievable and inhuman powers, and the tiny chance of success, but all of these tales end with success, even with that small chance.
Also, it interests me how these ancient cultures tried to explain things without our scientific intellect, predictions, and evidence. While I still love these stories, the other side of me is always trying to prove them wrong! This side is the scientific side of me that enjoys looking through microscopes, learning about atoms and molecules, and finding the actual answers that are proven to be one hundred percent correct. What inspires awe in me today is how humankind finds all of these answers, and no longer relies on mythological tales to explain things that at earlier points in history, we could not explain. The reason why humans crave these explanations is because we fear the unknown so terribly that if we do not find explanations, we will fall into chaos. So I believe, the more humankind develops in science and technology, the less of a need we will have for religious explanations of a higher being deciding our fate.
What I’ve learned is there will always be a divide in me: one side will remain a lover of myths and stories, and always crave creative fiction; and another that will always love finding the truth with evidence, and will value the advancement of human knowledge throughout the ages.