History or Myth? Was: Black Draupadi?

Lars Martin Fosse l.m.fosse at internet.no
Thu Aug 21 19:52:43 UTC 1997

>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.

I think my basic point ist this: Unless you can prove (at least to some
degree) something to be history, you might as well treat it as legend or myth. 

>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.

I think both Oldenberg and Parpola have given historical interpretations of
parts of the Mbh. (Oldenberg saw Krisha as a historical person). 

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

That is a very interesting point. But let me point to another case: Attilas
presence in Germanic epics (the Niebelungenlied) and in the Nordic Eddic
writings (where he is called Atli). He is, undoubtedly, a historical figure.
However, in these texts he comes across as a legendary figure. There is
little of historical value left, historians cannot use these tales as
historical material. I think that what happened in Greece, was that Greeks
(and/or for that matter other peoples in the area) made war on Troy during
some part of their history, probably repeatedly, so that Troy was made the
scene of the great epic tale, the Iliad. This does not mean that the
literary motives that you find in the Iliad are historical, although scraps
of history very well may have crept into the tale. But if that is the case:
What scraps, exactly? Eliade made a study of Yougoslav epics relating to
events that took place during the Middle Ages. He can show that historical
figures that lived in different centuries are made to fight
shoulder-to-shoulder in the same battle! (Again: See the book I mentioned
earlier). It would seem that literary and mythical archetypes gobble up
historical persons and events, so that history is made to conform to myth.
True history does not grow out of epics and literary tales (at least most of
the time). It is the product of inscriptions, personal testimonies and

I think, therefore, that Biardeau has good reasons for treating the Mbh. as
a mythological piece. Whatever historical persons and events have left their
traces, they will have been adapted to the religious and ideological needs
of the people who transmitted the epic. The structure of the epic determines
what sort of history is allowed and what not. Thus, history becomes an
integrated part of myth.

Oh well, I suppose that I am just an old sceptic .........

Best regards,

Lars Martin Fosse

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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