Myths About Myths

Mythconception #1 (Greek): The Trojan Horse is in the Iliad.

Even Daria fell for this one, in the episode when she tried to get her younger sister to read the Iliad:

DARIA: Try this. I think you’ll get into it.
QUINN: Ha, ha, very funny. Now give me something that I can read.
DARIA: No, I think you’ll like it. It’s about this girl who’s so popular that everybody fights over her.
QUINN: Any horses in it?
DARIA: As a matter of a fact, there’s a great big one.
QUINN: This is a trick, isn’t it?

Daria, Quinn, and the Trojan Horse

But in fact the Iliad isn’t an account of the entire Trojan War; it starts nine years after the beginning of hostilities, and ends while the war is still going on – too soon to include the Trojan Horse. (The horse does get a brief mention in Homer – but in the Odyssey, not the Iliad; our fullest info on the Horse comes from such post-Homeric sources as Triphiodorus, Vergil, and Quintus of Smyrna.)

Mythconception #2 (Norse): All heroic Viking warriors slain in battle go to Valhalla.

Nope. Only half go to Valhalla; the other half go to a lesser-known – but apparently equally desirable – hall called Sessrúmnir (“many-seated”) in Fólkvangr (“field of warriors”), presided over by the goddess Freyja. The principle of selection is unclear.


Mythconception #3 (Hebrew): Noah took two of each kind of animal onto the ark.

Not according to Genesis. True, God does initially tell Noah to bring two of each kind (Gen. 6: 19-20), but God soon goes on to clarify that Noah should actually take seven of each kosher animal, and two only of the non-kosher ones (Gen. 7: 2-3). (I guess this answers the question of what Noah and his family ate while they were in the ark.) [Updated: I am an idiot. Of course that should be seven pairs of each kosher animal – though now I wonder whether he was also supposed to take two pairs for the non-kosher ones.]

Noah's ark

To be sure, the Genesis account appears to have been put together from at least two different sources, one of which simply says two of each kind and calls God Elohim, while the other offers the seven-kosher-and-two-not rule and calls God Yahweh; but in Genesis as we have it, the final word seems to be seven-kosher-and-two-not.

Mythconception #4 (Hindu): Once Rama rescues his kidnapped wife, they live happily ever after.

Not so much. Because Sita has been living in another man’s house, the presumption is that she has been unfaithful to her husband. Rama knows this presumption to be false, but as a king he values public opinion more than he values Sita – Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion, so to speak – and so, despite having spent the entire massive epic trying to get his wife back, once he does so he sends her into exile. It’s as though Odysseus had showed up on Ithaca and said to Penelope: “Hi honey, I’m home. Love ya. Now get off my island.”

Rama and Sita in their salad days

Mythconception #5 (Celtic): The sword in the stone was named Excalibur.

Monty Python sadly leads us astray here:

OLD WOMAN: Well, how’d you become king, then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. … You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you! … I mean, if I went around saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!

The Sword in the Stone

But at least in most of the earliest versions of the story, these are two different swords: the sword that Arthur drew forth from the stone to establish his legitimate claim to the throne was never named, while Excalibur was a different sword that Arthur got from the Lady of the Lake after he was already king.


25 Responses to Myths About Myths

  1. Mike Gogulski March 25, 2009 at 6:24 pm #

    Daria? Bah, I thought you said “Darla”… down, boy.

    Valhalla always sounded kinda lame… like heaven, but with meat on the bone. Anything with Freyja presiding, though, count me in!

    Interesting set, though. It’s probably just as well that the dominant myth-makers whose tales still influence culture today didn’t have things like internets. I’d hate to imagine what a hash would become of something like Aesop’s fables subjected to Wikipedia or 4chan treatment.

    (PS: Monty Python never leads one astray. Not ever!)

    • Joshua Lyle March 26, 2009 at 9:03 am #

      By at least some accounts, Freya’s hall is also where all of the women that fall in battle go, so count me in for that constituency. My gay Norse pagan friend referred to Odin’s half of the arrangement as “West Valhallawood”, if you can picture that.

      • Roderick March 26, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

        Though there are at least valkyries in Valhalla, so it’s not strictly all-male. Just no mortal women allowed.

        • Joshua Lyle March 26, 2009 at 1:52 pm #

          Indeed, but if I find myself dead and headed to the eternal Scout Camp in the sky I’m still headed to the part with Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts hanging out together instead of the side with just female counselors, to stretch the metaphor a little too far. Almost all of the divine servants I’ve heard of seemed to be pretty poor company to me.

  2. Darian W March 25, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    Interesting post. Are there any anthologies of Greek or Norse myths you’d recommend?

    • Roderick March 25, 2009 at 11:11 pm #

      For Greek mythology, I’d recommend Robert Graves’ Greek Myths. For Norse mythology, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Norse Myths.

      Hmm, for some reason Brandon’s latest theme makes it impossible to see my text as I type it.

      • Roderick March 25, 2009 at 11:12 pm #

        Well, maybe I spoke (wrote) too soon, since the problem seems to have ceased.

        • Roderick March 26, 2009 at 2:51 pm #

          Well, in fact the problem is intermittent.

  3. iceberg March 25, 2009 at 9:49 pm #

    Just a few corrections regarding Noah-

    Its not 2 & 7 – its one male-female pair of each impure animal specie, and seven male-female pairs (14 total) of each kosher animal specie.

    Noah wasn’t Jewish- that honor goes to Abraham- so Noah wasn’t restricted by kosher dietary laws.

    In addition, prior to the deluge, mankind was forbidden to consume animal products, but because of Noah’s act of saving the world’s species, he merited for mankind the right to consume animals. But at no time during the deluge was Noah permitted to consume the kosher animals.

    Last, there is a distinction between Elohim and the Tetragrammaton, and each one is a facet of God’s interaction with the world. Elohim is the strict, and if necessary, harsh, justice of the world. The Tetragrammaton is his facet of great mercifulness and infinite patience.

    • Roderick March 25, 2009 at 10:56 pm #

      Its not 2 & 7 – its one male-female pair of each impure animal specie, and seven male-female pairs (14 total) of each kosher animal specie.

      Duh. You’re right, of course. And I knew that at one time ….

      I’m less convinced of the other claims in your comment.

      • iceberg March 26, 2009 at 1:10 pm #

        I guess it’s not really of that import to you since you classify the Bible as myth, but for the purposes of greater clarity I made those other points which follow the exegesis of traditional Jewish scholarship.

        Do you find it controversial that Abraham the Hebrew was the first Jew? The appellation ‘Hebrew’ was given because he was the first to “cross over” (“Ivri” in Hebrew) into covenant with God. Anyway, if you consider Noah to be a Jew, that would mean that all of mankind would be Jewish then, no?

        • Roderick March 26, 2009 at 1:28 pm #

          I don’t think all the Bible is myth. I do think the Noah story is. In particular, I think it’s a Jewish/Hebrew myth (albeit perhaps adapted from older Mesopotamian sources), whether or not Noah himself should be considered personally Jewish/Hebrew or not within the context of the story.

          I’m agnostic as to whether Abraham was a historical figure or not — insufficient data. Assuming he was a historical figure, I doubt there’s any fact of the matter as to whether he — or anybody — was “the first Jew.” “Here Judaism begins” is the kind of judgment that can generally be made only retrospectively and somewhat arbitrarily.

          If meat-eating didn’t arise until after Noah, what’s going on at Gen. 4:3-5?

          Re Elohim and Yahweh, see this.

        • Roderick March 26, 2009 at 1:40 pm #

          If Jewish law didn’t apply in Noah’s time, then how did Noah know what God was talking about when he referred to “clean” and “unclean” animals?

        • iceberg March 27, 2009 at 2:55 pm #

          The kosher dietary laws were commanded after the Jews received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In any case, these prohibitions never applied to gentiles, unlike the Seven Noahide Laws.

          ‘Clean’ and ‘unclean’ are not accurate translations of the concept of “Tahor” and “Teme’ah”. The best you can do in English is ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, but this is still inadequate. In any case it’s indicative of a special spiritual quality (Tahor) or the lack thereof (Tame’ah).

          There are physical traits that can identify if the animal has such spiritual qualities, i.e. a combination of being a ruminant and having cloven hooves.

          Oddly enough, the Hebrew Bibles’ description of the animals that entered the ark were either called “Tahor” and “Lo Tahor”, the latter which is simply the negation of the former in a neutral sense, and unlike “Tame’ah” which expresses a spiritual void.

          The concepts of Tahor and Tame’ah applied in Noah’s time as well– sacrifices could only be brought from animals in the former category.

        • Brandon March 27, 2009 at 12:33 pm #

          Which parts of which Bible aren’t myth?

        • iceberg March 27, 2009 at 2:37 pm #

          Re: Gen. 4:3-5 –They prohibition was forbade consumption, not sacrificial offerings.

          I’m not sure if they were permitted to slaughter animals for their leather, but they certainly were permitted to use their shearings.

          Also, this following quote is a traditional Jewish Orthodox interpretation that highlights the differences between Elohim and the Tetragrammaton:

          “We know that each Divine name indicates a different encounter with God, revealing different attributes and perspectives of the Divine truth, and of our relationship to God.

          “Elokim” is God revealed as the Creator of nature, borders, rules, principles, and regulations. This is the name that appears throughout the creation story. In addition, this name refers to God when He is revealed as a Judge, committed to laws, order, justice, consequences, cause and effect. God, as Elokim, responds measure for measure to the choices and deeds of people. Therefore, God as Elokim cannot save the Jews, because they don’t deserve it.

          However, God is not only referred to as Elokim, but also as YHVH. This divine name is mentioned when God is revealing His compassion. It indicates that God is not only a Creator, a Ruler, and a Judge, but also a compassionate Sustainer. He lovingly extends and shares Himself with us, perpetuating our existence at every moment. We do not exist independently of YHVH, rather we are unified with Him, as the rays of the sun are to the sun or the thought is to the thinker. Therefore, YHVH suggests that God is like a compassionate parent and we are His children.

          God as Elokim is committed to the laws of nature, and only works within the limitations of time and space. Therefore, God as Elokim could not liberate the Jews from Egypt.

          God as YHVH, however, is beyond nature. He is the miracle worker Who, in the name of love, can transcend time and space and perform supernatural feats.”

          article link:

  4. Anon73 March 26, 2009 at 3:32 am #

    It’s interesting to look at the documentary theory of how the Torah was put together. It’s a sort of libertarian story, with early works (J & E) being rich and literate and later works (D & P) being less literate and more focused on justifying the privileges and authority of the priesthood.

  5. Aeon J. Skoble March 26, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    Since I get all my information about the Arthur legend from 2 films, “MPHG” and “Excalibur,” I had double-confirmation that the sword in the stone was in fact Excalibur. So I’m going to stick with that. Good call on the Trojan Horse, though, that’s just flat-out wrong.

    • Roderick March 26, 2009 at 1:32 pm #

      If I recall correctly, in Excalibur he pulls it out of the stone, and later pulls it out of the lake also! He should have pulled it out of a tree as well, and then he could be Sigurd/Siegfried.

      • Brandon March 26, 2009 at 1:49 pm #

        In Excalibur, he uses the sword’s magical powers to defeat Lancelot, and the sword breaks in half (Arthur is a Paladin who has done evil, so the sword will not stand for that). Impulsively, he throws the sword into the lake. The lady of the lake gives it back to him whole. At the end of the movie, the sword is thrown back into the water, and the lady of the lake reaches up and grabs it.

  6. Sergio Méndez March 27, 2009 at 11:59 am #

    Prof Long:

    How could Noah take “Kosher animals”, if dietary prescriptions given by God in the bible are given centuries after to Moses (I think it is in Leviticus and Deuteronomy)?

    • iceberg March 28, 2009 at 9:30 pm #

      Check Genesis 8:20 which follows the flood.

      Prof- take a gander at Genesis 9:2-4

      • Roderick March 28, 2009 at 9:48 pm #

        I don’t know whether ganders are kosher. But beyond that, what in those passages were you taking to prove what to whom? I’ve lost track.

        • iceberg March 29, 2009 at 2:05 pm #

          Noah was permitted to consume any animal after the flood. That is found here-

          Genesis 9:
               2. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered.
               3. Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.

          The distinction of ‘Tahor’ vs. ‘Tame’ah’ (which is being conflated with kosher vs. unkosher) is limited to discussion of which animals are fit for sacrificial offerings. These categories do overlap significantly, but they aren’t the same– you can have an animal which is ‘Tahor’ yet unkosher, i.e. if it lacked the proper steps in the ritual slaughter process. There are animals which are kosher yet are Tame’ah– they are fit for consumption, but not sacrificial offerings.

          In any case Noah was commanded to bring 7 pairs of Tahor animals (Gen. 7:2). After the flood subsided, he made sacrificial offerings from these same animals (Gen. 8:20)

          All I’m trying to prove here is that kosher dietary laws had no bearing on Noah’s diet. The confusion here appears to be stemming from an inadequate translation of the original Hebrew, and a conflation of the concepts as explained above.


  1. Topics about Horses » Myths About Myths - March 26, 2009

    […] Artificial Intelligence put an intriguing blog post on Myths About MythsHere’s a quick excerptQUINN: Any horses in it? DARIA: As a matter of a fact, there’s a great big one. QUINN: This is a trick, isn’t it? DARIA: Yes. […]

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