From the October 2009 E-Block.
As many readers know, I'm often fascinated by parallels in practice of secular scholarship which shed light on practice in Biblical scholarship and apologetics. A reader noted something interesting in this regard concerning other "parallels" -- yes, the well-worn idea that Christians "borrowed" from pagan myths to create the New Testament.
It is amazing how quickly even some scholars are (like Aus, whose book we review in this issue) to see parallel elements as proof of borrowing. But in at least an example we will now discuss, from a secular perspective, the scholars were not so quick, in spite of what would be considered persuasive evidence by an Aus or an Acharya, to say that "borrowing" was the answer.
Enter Joel Chandler Harris. For those who don't know this name, he was the fellow who in the 19th century put together the Uncle Remus stories. (See a bio by an academic source here.) There's a lot of talk about Harris on other accounts; e.g., did he "steal" the heritage of African-Americans, but we won't be addressing that here. Rather, we'll be addressing some comments he made concerning charges that (ironically!) those very African-Americans "stole" the Remus material from somewhere else.
How is this relevant? The issue was that many of the Remus stories bore what seemed to be uncanny similarities to stories in other cultures. We all know how critics make use of this where Christianity is concerned. One set of critics charges theft and borrowing. Another set (of the Joseph Campbell vein) claims it is all a mystical template in our heads. The significance here is that Harris was aware of similar ideas of borrowing for the Remus stories, but that there were other ideas as well. Let's look at those in Harris' words (keeping in mind the speech of his period, using terms some today would find offensive).
First, Harris introduces the matter thusly:
Professor J. W. Powell, of the Smithsonian Institution, who is engaged in an investigation of the mythology of the North American Indians, informs me that some of Uncle Remus's stories appear in a number of different languages, and in various modified forms, among the Indians; and he is of the opinion that they are borrowed by the negroes from the red-men. But this, to say the least, is extremely doubtful, since another investigator (Mr. Herbert H. Smith, author of Brazil and the Amazons) has met with some of these stories among tribes of South American Indians, and one in particular he has traced to India, and as far east as Siam. Mr. Smith has been kind enough to send me the proof-sheets of his chapter on The Myths and Folk-Lore of the Amazonian Indians, in which he reproduces some of the stories which he gathered while exploring the Amazons.The reader can see an immediate parallel here to claims made by "copycat" theorists -- those who will appeal to sources as far away in time and space as the Mesomaerican deity Quetzalcoatl (!) to find parallels to the story of Jesus.
Interestingly, Harris sees the widespread nature of the Remus-style stories as evidence not for direct borrowing of one party from another, or of anyone from anyone. But what are these similarities? He gives these examples:
In the first of his series, a tortoise falls from a tree upon the head of a jaguar and kills him; in one of Uncle Remus's stories, the terrapin falls from a shelf in Miss Meadows's house and stuns the fox, so that the latter fails to catch the rabbit. In the next, a jaguar catches a tortoise by the hind-leg as he is disappearing in his hole; but the tortoise convinces him he is holding a root, and so escapes; Uncle Remus tells how the fox endeavored to drown the terrapin, but turned him loose because the terrapin declared his tail to be only a stump-root. Mr. Smith also gives the story of how the tortoise outran the deer, which is identical as to incident with Uncle Remus's story of how Brer Tarrypin outran Brer Rabbit.How might these similarities be explained? We'll offer our ideas in a moment, but let's see Harris' commentary:
This similarity extends to almost every story quoted by Mr. Smith, and some are so nearly identical as to point unmistakably to a common origin; but when and where? when did the negro or the North American Indian ever come in contact with the tribes of South America?Harris asks the quite reasonable question we have asked of many copycat theorists: When and where did Palestinian peasants come across the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or Buddhist missionaries? This is not a question asked to escape obvious implications of copying. It is something that deserves to be asked.
Harris goes on to quote an authority, thus:
Upon this point the author of Brazil and the Amazons, who is engaged in making a critical and comparative study of these myth-stories, writes:
"I am not prepared to form a theory about these stories. There can be no doubt that some of them, found among the negroes and the Indians, had a common origin. The most natural solution would be to suppose that they originated in Africa, and were carried to South America by the negro slaves. They are certainly found among the Red Negroes; but, unfortunately for the African theory, it is equally certain that they are told by savage Indians of the Amazons Valley, away up on the Tapajos, Red Negro, and Tapura. These Indians hardly ever see a negro, and their languages are very distinct from the broken Portuguese spoken by the slaves. The form of the stories, as recounted in the Tupi and Mundurucu' languages, seems to show that they were originally formed in those languages or have long been adopted in them.
"It is interesting to find a story from Upper Egypt (that of the fox who pretended to be dead) identical with an Amazonian story, and strongly resembling one found by you among the negroes. Vambagen, the Brazilian historian (now Visconde de Rio Branco), tried to prove a relationship between the ancient Egyptians, or other Turanian stock, and the Tupi Indians. His theory rested on rather a slender basis, yet it must be confessed that he had one or two strong points. Do the resemblances between old and New World stories point to a similar conclusion? It would be hard to say with the material that we now have.
"One thing is certain. The animal stories told by the negroes in our Southern States and in Brazil were brought by them from Africa. Whether they originated there, or with the Arabs, or Egyptians, or with yet more ancient nations, must still be an open question. Whether the Indians got them from the negroes or from some earlier source is equally uncertain. We have seen enough to know that a very interesting line of investigation has been opened."The reader will note that despite what seem to be close similarities, this authority did not simply leap to the immediate conclusion of literary theft. Perhaps by this day, folklore scholars have decided exactly what happened with these stories, but the point is that this shows that there is critical examination to be done before a decision can be made. It's not enough to just set the parallels side by side and express amazement, as indeed is done by many copycat theorists.
It would perhaps have not been unreasonable to suggest -- for the examples of the tortoise stories above -- that the similarities emerged not from borrowing, but from the common, universal traits of a tortoise. A tortoise's shell makes for an excellent blunt object, hence two stories of one falling on someone. A tortoise's leg looks like a root; hence the factor of the appearance of the leg is in common. A tortoise is slow; hence the story of the race. In turn we might argue that the differences (a deer versus a rabbit, for example) point to independent origins for the stories. And so on.
Again, perhaps by now folklore scholarship has superseded Harris and his sources on these points; as likely as not it has. But it remains that the copycat theorists, by way of this example, are not exempt from having to perform critical comparisons.