This concise, authoritative text gives an excellent overview of the myths of the ancient Middle East and their interconnections.
I bought this little Pelican paperback in January 1986, which reminds me that I got it while researching my novel Truth of the Python. Now, working on a new opus also set partly in the ancient Near East, I find myself dipping into it again. My copy is mostly disintegrated, but it’s also heavily highlighted.
My own introduction to mythology had been by way of Carl Jung and then Joseph Campbell, both of whom I admire deeply. But brilliant and deep as those scholars were, I find myself leaning on the introduction to S. H. Hooke’s little book when I’m looking to remind myself of what myths are. In the first paragraph Hooke says
The myth is a product of human imagination arising out of a definite situation and intended to do something. Hence the right question to ask about the myth is not, “Is it true?” but “What is it intended to do?”
Using this simple, pragmatic question, Hooke discerns five types of myth:
- the ritual myth
- the myth of origin
- the cult myth
- the prestige myth
- the eschatological myth
He gives a brief description of each, and notes how the diffusion and combination of myths can be partly traced by various methods. Then, having laid the groundwork of the subject and his method in 7 short pages, he launches into the main text, in which he summarizes and discusses Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, Hittite, and Hebrew mythology, and follows that with a look at the role of myth in Jewish apocalyptic and in Christianity. It’s a huge field of survey, which the author makes seem both full and unhurried.
The longest chapter is that on Hebrew mythology, and indeed for us readers in the West the main point of interest in Middle Eastern mythology is no doubt the Bible. Hooke shows how the mythic parts of Genesis (Creation, Cain and Abel, the Flood, etc.) relate to similar tales in the other Middle Eastern cultures, and shows briefly and clearly how the Bible itself contains several mutually inconsistent myths of its own.
The chapter which seemed the most sketchy to me was that on Egyptian mythologya vast field which Hooke treats in just 14 short pages. Nonetheless, the myths that he does treat are well chosen and simply described.
In all, this is an excellent survey of material that is hard to find all in one place, especially at this short length, and with this level of authority. In that respect it is almost like a briefing document. If you’re wondering, Why should I care about Middle Eastern mythology?, this is a good, quick way to find out.