As LDS we tend to be fairly uncomfortable with the concept of Myth.
Or rather, we’re uncomfortable with the idea that myths have something to do with real history. We’re, of course, not alone in this. The desire to neatly and clearly draw the lines that separate myth and reality, story from history, fiction from non-fiction is intrinsic to the modern, post-Cartesian world we collectively inhabit. “Myth” is probably most commonly used colloquially as a synonym for error, misbeleif, or even lie. (I myself recently chided a certain MMM scholar at T&S for his imbibing of the “myth” of the omniscient, omnipotent Brigham Young). The word has been configured linguistically and semantically in a way that makes it epistemologically suspect.
We tend to bristle when the language of Myth is used to describe or comment on the scriptures. There are solid grounds for this reaction among those who take scriptures seriously, since it is often those who dismiss them out of hand that most vehemently insist on their mythical character. To speak of the “myth” of the Exodus or the Flood is typically to relegate these stories to the realm of the fictive, and to cast those who believe them as ignorant, unscientific, simple-minded, confused, or simply stubborn.
I’m not unsympathetic to these concerns; but I also find the mythic components of many scriptural stories — particularly those concerning the origin of humankind — to be intriguing, compelling, and utterly impossible to ignore. Of course here I’m not using “myth” as a synonym for “untruth” — that is as taking away from a story’s truth value — but as enhancing and enriching its truth. Martin Buber spoke of Myth as a metaphorical expression “not of an imaginative state of mind…but of a real meeting of two Realities.” He described the “mythization” in scriptural stories of the collective memory of intersections of nature and super-nature, of meetings between God and Man. (Buber actually developed this line of thinking, drawing distinctions between Myth, Saga, and Legend, depending the nature and degree of separation between God and Man in the world represented in the story). Jim Faulconer, citing Eliade, has illuminated these questions from an LDS perspective. For my part, I understand Myth as a story in which multiple and multivalent layers of symbolic, metaphorical, and parabolic meaning are embedded within the narrative.
The classical example here is the story of the Fall, of Man’s expulsion from the Garden Paradise. The mythic elements of early Genesis have been discusses at great length by throngs of scholars and thinkers from an almost endless variety of backgrounds. Carl Sagan’s erudite “Speculations” on the subject earned him a Pulitzer Prize. I won’t belabor the details, but the gist of almost any mythical reading of the Garden of Eden story is as follows: Expulsion from the garden is a symbolic representation of the human race’s transition from animal to man; from a romanticized harmony with nature to a systematized exploitation of it; from eating freely a variety of foods that grow spontaneously and naturally to a steady diet of grain (“bread”) sustained by tireless work; from a genial relationship with animals to dominion over them; from nomadic hunter-gathering to agriculture and living in cities; and from the blissfully childlike naivete of life in the Garden to the complex symbolic reasoning and frustrating ethical quandaries of the Real World.
Looking at myth in this manner — as the many represented in the one, as the universal manifested in the particular, as the length and breadth of history captured within the narrow confines of a tightly constructed narrative — can be illuminating. Narratives are never value-neutral, and the mythic reading of the Genesis story suggests possible answers to perpetually vexing questions about the nature of human beings, human minds, human societies, and human culture. Framed from the perspective of evolutionary anthropology and cognitive-developmental psychology, such questions might include: What is the relation between self-awareness, free will, and consciousness of death? Of what nature is the knowledge capable of driving a wedge between man and nature, irrevocably severing the long-held symbiotic relationship between them? Is human progress (agriculture, complex societies, food surpluses, city-dwelling) really the self-evidently positive force that we’ve come to believe it to be?
But such a reading also presents real complications for people who believe the persons described to have been real, flesh-and-blood, historical individuals. The word/name “adam” doesn’t help matters in the case of the Eden myth. Adam means man, and where proper names end and general nouns (definite or indefinite) begin is less than clear. The KJV slips back and forth between “the man” and Adam while inside the Garden, shifting to a more sustained use of “Adam” after expulsion. But if we really want to internalize the lack of clarity, we might do well to imagine an English version that replaces “Adam” with “man,” “Man,” “the man,” etc. Adam’s historical existence is further problematized by the fact that the narrative sustains a mythic reading so well; that is, it conforms allegorically in such a creative way to proto-human/human history. If Adam is a free agent, as the narrative wishes so plainly to emphasize, surely he could not have programatically patterned his choices and behavior as an individual so they would reflect in miniature the development of an entire species that is his namesake. The mythical reading evacuates the narrative of plausibility as an actually occurring, historical, clinically described set of events. The characters may or may not be based on real individuals, but the story doesn’t describe real history, and the power of the myth is not dependent on its attested historical accuracy or reality.
Enter Joseph Smith.
The Prophet of the Restoration penned revelations/commentaries/translations on numerous biblical passages. Of particular interest here is his expansion of the Hebrew origin story, as he more richly develops the mythic elements of the narrative. The scope of those expansions could sustain a book-length treatment. For now, I’d like to explore the example of the Cain/Abel story. Typically, this is read as an allegory of the age-old conflict between agricultural societies and those dependent on animal husbandry. The more efficient and more intrinsically resource-exploitative forces of agriculture overpower and marginalize the livestock keepers, seizing in the process the controls of the fate of humanity. Agriculture is a necessary precondition for complex, stratified societies, and Cain is credited with building the first cities — that is, with laying the foundation of the modern world as we know it, on the coattails of agricultural surpluses. Joseph Smith’s treatment of this story adds vital content as well as dimension. He introduces a key element into the narrative with sweeping implications: greed. Cain is motivated to murder Abel, not over mere petty jealousy, but because he has learned a secret that has kindled his lust for power. The “Mahan” principle, what Hugh Nibley has aptly described as the “conversion of life into property,” the awareness that the accumulation of material wealth (and here, as in other societies, property=freedom) can be limitless, provided one is willing to destroy life or cause suffering in the process of its acquisition. The words “am I my brother’s keeper?” ring far more ominously with far deeper implication in the context of a story of a fratricide motivated by the prospect that “the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands.”
Curiously, though, while Joseph Smith amplified and enriched the mythic elements of this story — a process which tends, in theory, to mitigate Cain as a historically plausible actor in the events described — he also added considerable depth to Cain’s individuality in the process. The Cain of Genesis is rather tepid, two-dimensional, an archetype rather than a person. His behavior is inexplicably rash, as if he is acting out a pre-scripted drama, typifying in a microcosmic narrative macro-historical forces of change, lost innocence, and embodied wickedness. The Cain of Moses 5, by contrast, is idiosyncratic, complicated, enticed, hesitant, brazen, remorseful yet prideful, torn by competing loyalties, utterly human — far more human in the basest but most manifestly believable ways than his deflated Genesis clone.
This represents what I would argue is a constant tendency in the scriptural reconstructions of Joseph Smith; the mythic figures participate in richer, more fully-developed allegorical narratives but are also more fully-fleshed-out, believable individuals. The Prophet eats his proverbial cake by filling magnificent mythic stories with characters — individuals — that leap off the page in their distinctive humanness. Joseph Smith’s Cain is more compelling as a myth and a man.