It started when I was ten or eleven, this inner conflict between wanting to believe a story uncritically, and finding out the real truth behind it. The trigger was the fate of Lot’s wife who (look up the Bible or Google)disobeyed the Lord’s command not to look back while fleeing with her family from the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. “She did look back,” declared the dogmatic and unpopular Rev. in charge of our religious education, “and was turned into a pillar of salt.” Wow. I could almost see the deadly white glistening pillar, shaped like a woman but consisting only of salt; a just punishment for disobedience, the Rev. added. Yes, but how exactly did it happen, I began to wonder, and when the tussle between unquestioning acceptance and strong doubt became too unpleasant, I asked my favourite teacher, who couldn’t stand the Rev., to explain. “Simple,” she said. “Lot’s wife turned back, the smoke and the gases coming from the destroyed cities knocked her unconscious, the salt in the air settled on her until she died, by which time she must have looked like a column of salt.” And that was that.
Quite a few decades have passed since then and eventually, probably as an antidote to the constant flood of largely unpleasant factual information, I began to enjoy myths and stories without asking rational questions about their accuracy. My inner child was making up for the spoilsport curiosity of the tiresome real brat of long ago.
And then in quick succession three of my favourite myths were shown up to be just that, knocked down by rational explanations. The first victim was Wilhelm Tell, the 14th century Swiss hero who risked everything to defeat a hateful tyrant. Tall, strong, intrepid, a champion of the crossbow, under duress he shot an apple off his little son’s head and later shot the tyrant – a true superman. “Of course you know Tell never existed,” said a Swiss friend. “He was invented when the people needed an invincible hero to believe in. But it’s a nice story, and at least Rossini wrote a lovely opera around it.” That didn’t entirely compensate me for the loss of a hero.
Another hero, Joshua, didn’t fare much better. “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho”, is a rousing tune I still hum sometimes, raising my voice for the final line:: “and the walls came tumbelling down”. It’s done with the sound of lamb ram horns and Joshua commanding the children to shout, until the walls etc. Great stuff and, I thought, not unlikely: after all, sound is energy, and if a certain sound sung by an opera singer can crack a champagne glass, maybe the power of concerted sounds can bring down stone walls. Elementary, my dear Watson. And then, alas, I came across some modern research by Carl Watzinger et al., informing me that “In the time of Joshua, Jericho was a heap of ruins, on which stood perhaps a few isolated huts.” Furthermore, the researchers “did not find substantial evidence for renewed occupation in the late Bronze Age, at the time of Joshua.” Which is when my cherished fantasy of beaming Joshua, crashing boulders and jubilant children came tumbelling down.
Finally came the scholarly information that despite countless Old Master paintings of the biblical scene, the fruit which Eve plucked from the forbidden tree was not an apple. The truth has been lost in translation: the Latin word for evil is malum, and for apple it’s malus, truly easy to mix up. Besides, for reasons of climate apples could not have been grown in the supposed area of Paradise. Apparently the fruit our ancestress plucked, because it seemed “good for food, pleasant to the eye and to be desired to make one wise” was a sycamore fig. A fig! Brown, fairly shapeless, very plain. Nothing as glamorous as a shiny, smiling red apple; no painter would have been inspired by it. But the fig’s claim is supported by the Bible story – consider the fig leaves Adam and Eve used to make aprons for themselves, and try to use apple leaves for the purpose. There is also the suggestion that the whole story is about sex, not fruit —-
Which is where I shut the door on further disclosures. Will someone please give me a story that can’t be explained away?