The movie ’Noah’, starring Russel Crowe depicts on the one side how far we have drifted from mythology, and on the other how great our yearning for the myth is. It is a yearning for the incredible, the stupendous, the miraculous. The debates over whether or not the story of Noah is true arise again, ever fiercer. For many a secular mind the whole thing seems absurd. ”Why even argue over a fairy tale?” Both sides of the altercation however have one belief in common – the Old Testament text claims to be true literally and historically.
Here is how I see it: The story is not a fairy tale – it is a myth and as such it is true. I would dare say more true than any history book I have ever read. And it does seem a little strange that a century of academic study in the fields of mythology, psychology and comparative religion has passed so many unnoticed, Hollywood included.
The Flood myth is universal. In fact, there are well over 200 flood myths across the world that we know of today. These myths tell the same story with some variations, they do arise from cultures where people have observed their land being flooded, but also from desert areas, such as Arizona and Nevada. The symbolical value of water as a bringer of both destruction and growth can not be overlooked here, for mythology is symbolism and allegory, and not historic text.
Just as there are many flood myths there have been many a Noah and many an ark built throughout history. The building of the ark and the gathering of animals tell us the tale of how the great world religions emerged. As civilisations have been torn apart by animosity and hatred there have been the counter-reaction known as the Revitalization Movement. Anthropologist Anthony Wallace coined the term as he studied the phenomena in North America, but the characteristics of the Revitalization Movement can be seen in the early history of every world religion and of countless others. In the Bible we read that the water rose above the highest peaks, symbolically saying that the greatest kings and rulers of the time were all engulfed in war. Many references to the same symbolism can be drawn even within the Bible, perhaps most notably from the book of Isaiah.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed…
If we imagine that animals represent different tribes, ethnic and religious groups so Noah’s gathering of animals makes perfect sense, for when we study the history of every world religion we find that diverse peoples have gathered and united in one common faith and prevailed against discord and hatred.
Noah dies at a very high age. We may recall the mythological figure known as the Phoenix, the bird with golden feathers that sets itself aflame only to arise from its own ashes. The Phoenix was in different cultures believed to have a life span ranging from five hundred to a thousand years. That is roughly the time a religious dispensation – an established faith – lasts before a new religion is born. Christ died at an early age, but his teachings and community survived, and after three centuries Christianity was established on the highest peaks of what were the remains of the Roman Empire. Noah need not have lived any longer than Jesus, but if he (Noah) was a revered prophet, his religion surely would have borne his name and thus his name would have been revered for as long as his teachings were remembered. It is also quite possible then that his dispensation reached its apex after six hundred years, as his teachings were infused into all parts of society.
The one part of the Story of Noah that touches me the most is the dove with the olive branch. First a raven is released from the ark and as it flies to and fro the earth dries up. But the dove, being released after the raven finds the earth still flooded. Why is the earth dry in the eyes of the raven but flooded for the dove? The raven represents ignorance and so it falsely believes the world to be dry and safe and settles on it. It harbors that kind of restlessness that we see in populists and revolutionaries. It believes that flapping its own wings and loud croaking is sufficient to rid the world of injustice. The dove represents purity and discernment – the virtues necessary to see in what state the world is really in. Only after a second flight does the dove return with the olive branch, imparting to those lacking the power of flight that the earth is yet again producing verdure – that the seeds of virtue have rooted and sprung forth. Society is now being revitalized. At the third flight the dove does not return at all – peace is firmly established. Just as these two birds – these spiritual stations – must have been present in Noah’s community, so we may also find them within ourselves. If we seek to view the world with eyes undimmed we must cast out the raven and be like the dove – pure in heart and mind.
The religious myth is a metaphor designed to help us reach a deeper understanding of our human nature and of our place in history. In the world of myths many a windswept Noah can be seen pointing toward something greater – perhaps a brighter future for humanity – but we in the twenty first century are staring blindly at the finger.