The origins of mythology and mind thought in the West and the East were built out of various and complex sources, but its origins are in both cases coming from Mesopotamia, the place where civilisation started. The purpose of this article is to look at the time when myth split and followed different routes in the East and the West. As I just mentioned, to do that we need to go back to the times of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Joseph Campbell wrote in “The Masks of God” that there are two completely opposed mythologies of the destiny and virtue of man. The first one, followed by the West, claimed that men is partaking of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, while India and the far East believe that men partake of the fruit of eternal life. The origins of the separation of good and evil are with Zoroastrianism religion, which brought ethical oriented dualistic mythology into place. This religion originated in Iran and was followed by the Persian Kings at the times of the Ancient Greeks. This religion though started much earlier, it is one of the oldest known religions on earth. This dualistic creation was based on two divine figures, Ahura Mazda, symbol of the sun, the stars and good and its counterpart, Angre Mainyu, who was the deceiver.
According to Dr. Campbell the Indian metaphysical point of view is symbolic and poetical while the biblical is ethical and historical. In India the divine is everything, immanent and transcendent, while in the West there is a separation of nature and the divine. In India man purpose is to look inside psychologically and recognise the divine within him or herself. In the West by contrast we see another different view of the divine. Greek religion for example separated humans from gods. The west seems to dissociate god and man, while Indian gods are not a mask that may appear before the meditating mind, but the mystery of the ultimate depth of man’s own being, consciousness of being and delight therein.
Looking at the origins of this separation, we see for instance that in Mesopotamia existed the Bull God and the Cow Goddess as leading fertility symbols. There were also images of godsons of the Great Goddess such as Innana, Ninkur, Sag, Ishtar, Astarte or Artemis. The Mesopotamians believed on the King dying and resurrecting, idea that came originally from prehistoric and late Neolithic-Mesopotamian times. The ancient Egyptians believed in Osiris and Horus as dead and living Gods. They also had the cow goddess Hathor and the father bull Osiris. In the other hand, in those places people were buried at their will and believed in a cosmic order and an own destiny. In life, Ancient Egyptians believed that Horus and Seth were in continuous conflict, but in the sphere of eternity death and life were at peace. Gods were functioning as members of a larger body or totality, Ptah, who dwelled on them as eternal force, or Ka. God was on everything, immanent and transcendent. This same order of things was seen on Maat and Me. With the time, in Egypt the divine evolved to the God Re, who was above the others, separated from everything else. These were times when Pharaohs weren’t anymore divine but just good.
In the formative period, an overpowering experience of order was felt, not as something created by an anthropomorphic first being, but as itself the all-creative, beginning-less and interminable structuring rhythm of the universe, which supplied the wind that blew its civilisation into form. In Mesopotamia indications from the calendar king dynasty years are that the mythology had as an aim, not history nor fertility, but some sort of order, a mathematical order, astronomical referred notion about the relationship of man and the rhythms of man’s life on earth and regeneration. In Mesopotamia it was also found this view that man was an organ of the universe, together with the gods. As an example we find the cosmic order story of the deluge.
This though seemed to have changed in Mesopotamia with the time, especially in the later semitic mind, when this cosmic union fades away and gods were no longer administrators of a mathematical order, but were themselves omnipotent, freely willing creators of a comparatively arbitrary order. Man becomes a slave of the Gods. There is a separation between the nature and the divine and humans are out of the divine sphere. An example of this can be see in the tale of Etana, which narrates the impossibility of human immortality. This separation of the divine was followed after by Ancient Greeks, then the Romans and other Western cultures. This was felt in concepts such as hybris and defeat, seen in mythological stories such as Homer or the works of Hesiod.
This view contrasts with Oriental philosophy, which see the path to immortality almost invariably as a win. The oriental hero hasn’t born yet, he or she is eternal, changeless and of great age. The East turns the divine towards a psychological task of achieving peace, harmony and depth of soul in this vale of tears.
This Mesopotamian arithmetic order is taken by the Orient. The mystery of biological death and regeneration is met in mathematics. This same mathematical order influenced the creation of concepts such as Dharma in India or the concept of Tao in China. An Orient feeling, which is of metaphysical tremendous, the deep awe before the great, unchanging truth, and the full submission of all human judgement to a mystery unnamed, which is infinite, impersonal, yet intimately within all beings, all things, and in death too.
This article is based on “The Masks of God: Oriental mythology” by Joseph Campbell.