Q: Black Draupadi?

Lars Martin Fosse l.m.fosse at internet.no
Thu Aug 21 16:30:46 UTC 1997

>>>Yes, and the details you give of comparable elements in the two are
>>>genuinely interesting. But "is the MBh historical or mythical" sounds like
>>>a dangerous question to me. "Is the Bible historical or mythical?" --- "Is
>>>this plate round or is it white?"
>I think it's quite apt.  There is no reason why these epics could not be
>both mythological and historical.  The only "danger" in such a premise is in
>methodology -- would our bibliographies have references to carbon dating or
>the collective unconscious!

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. 

As for history, extracting historical information from the Mbh. is a tricky
problem. However, see van Buitenen's introduction to his Mbh. translation.
He gives an interesting example. As far as the Bible is concerned, we have
certain opportunities of checking on it in other ancient documents from the
Middle East (e.g. cuneiform writings). This is, I believe, more difficult
with the Mbh. The bottom line is, if you can't demonstrate that something is
historical - as opposed to mythological - then the "historical value" of the
historical information is nil, even if it IS historical. And this is often
the case with the Mbh. Let me give you an example: The late Roman emperor
Theodoric the Great made such an impression on Germanic peoples that they
built a whole set of legends around him. 500 years after his death, the
historicity of the information given about Theodorik ("Didrik" in Old Norse
sources) mainly consisted of his name. Practically everything else that was
told about him, was balderdash (historically speaking), although it makes
good reading. Mircea Eliade has written about this kind of phenomenon in
"The Myth of the Eternal Return". Bottom line: Popular memory retains
historical happenings for 300 years at the most. After that, everything is
turned into myth and legend, archetypes taking over. Often, myth takes over
practically immediately (Eliade gives a very striking example!)

Anyway: There is no history without historical documents: Inscriptions, eye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.

Best regards,

Lars Martin

Dr.art. Lars Martin Fosse
Haugerudvn. 76, Leil. 114,
0674 Oslo

Tel: +47 22 32 12 19
Fax: +47 22 32 12 19
Email: L.M.Fosse at internet.no
Mobile phone: 90 91 91 45

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