History or Myth? Was: Black Draupadi?

Luis Gonzalez-Reimann reimann at uclink.berkeley.edu
Thu Aug 21 19:15:42 UTC 1997

At 05:37 PM 8/21/97 BST, Lars Martin Fosse wrote:

>Evidently, both the Mbh. and the Bible contain historical information. But
>both of them also contain rather a lot of mythology. The problem for the
>scholar is to determine whether he is dealing with historical or
>mythological material when he is interpreting the texts. 

>Anyway: There is no history without historical documents: Inscriptions, eye
>witness accounts, archives..... Popular memory cannot be trusted. And this
>is why I think that Smith's last question isn't apt: round or white?
>historical or mythological? With no means of checking on the historicity of
>the information, Mbh. is, for all practical purposes, mythological. As an
>historical source, it must be used with the utmost care.

Dear Lars Martin,

I agree with your first paragraph.  I almost agree with the second one,
except for the supposition that for all practical purposes the Mbh has to be
considered myth.
I still think that John Smith 'plate' question is apt.  It is all a matter
of degrees and approach.  The 'danger' is in the assumption that it is
either one or the other, either historical or mythological.  This can lead
to extremes.  You seem to be addressing one of the extremes, namely
uncritically taking the epic as history.  In that respect, your warning is
on the mark.
But there is also the other extreme, that of considering the Mahabharata
(and other epics) as purely mythological, a la Biardeau.
In the case of the Mbh, the historical-mythical opposition doesn't
necessarily have to revolve around whether certain events are exact
historical facts (although it can).  It can also take the form of whether
its story is an old k.satriya tale based on some facts (however distorted)
that were later mythologized, as Hopkins argued (and van Buitenen agrees);
or a myth with an intention, that is, a purely mythological plot dressed in
historical garb, as Biardeau maintains.

By the way, didn't Schliemann discover Troy because he stubbornly took the
Iliad as history?

All the best,

Luis Gonzalez-Reimann
University of California, Berkeley

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