Exploring an evolving mythology

Scholars@Hallwalls lecture looks at how and why myths begin and change

Release Date: March 18, 2016 This content is archived.

“This is about how we mythologize; how we make myths; and how and why we change them. ”
Marla Segol, associate professor
departments of Jewish Thought and Transnational Studies

BUFFALO, N.Y. – What if Pandora, the first human woman in Greek mythology, had never open the jar that released evil into the world?

Wait a minute.

Pandora opened a box, not a jar.  Who says, “Pandora’s jar?” But it actually was jar. At some point, an element of that myth became something else.

The story changed, and Marla Segol, an associate professor in the departments of Jewish Thought and Transnational Studies, will discuss how and why mythology changes in the next Scholars@Hallwalls lecture on April 1 at 4 p.m. at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 341 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo.  Presented by the university’s Humanities Institute, all Scholars@Hallwalls events are free and open to the public.

“The timing of Marla’s talk couldn’t be better, given that this is the inaugural semester of UB’s new Department of Jewish Thought,” says Erik Seeman, director of the Humanities Institute. “Marla is one of six members of the department, and her expertise in medieval history and her facility in numerous ancient and modern languages make her a crucial member of this impressive new center of Jewish scholarship.”

Segol says she’ll be looking at the myths that are used to integrate the Greek medical microcosm into the Jewish sacred narrative.

“But this is also a talk about how our stories change.”

Sometimes the explanation is simple. In Pandora’s case, a mistranslation accounts for the jar becoming a box. But Segol’s talk explores a more complex evolution that begins with the ancient Greek model that associated every part of the cosmos with a part of the human body.

The Greeks and other ancient civilizations based much of their medicine on four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile, the bodily fluids that influenced health. The fluids in turn were related to the cosmic elements of air, water, fire and earth.

“Hippocrates and Galen both believed that the humors were taken from a vast storehouse of elements out in the world,” says Segol. “They’re with you when you’re alive and they return to their source upon death.”

The world is made out of the same thing as humanity, according the late antique medical microcosm.

The ancients also believed that creation was a divine work. But why did God decide to get busy after being a non-creating deity?

“A lot of Jewish mystical literature (Kabbalah) describes that process,” says Segol. “Many of these mystical narratives use Greek models of emanation that were reinterpreted in late antiquity to come into accord with monotheism.”

“They used that narrative to understand the transition to a creating God.”

The group of 10 emanations are collectively called sefirot, a word with roots meaning, “to tell,” “story,” “sapphire” and “number.” Each of the emanations were part of the divine personality that emanated out into the universe and were ultimately mapped onto different parts of the human body.

“Early interpreters believed the human body looked like the divine body,” says Segol. “There were those who thought it should be qualified, but the belief was there.”

 “So the human body is a microcosm for the divine and the human body is a microcosm for the cosmos, according to the Greek model,” says Segol. “Kabbalah brings those two models together.

That’s the Adam Kadmon, the primordial man, according to Segol.

“That’s the story I’m going to be telling.”

But in addition to telling that story, Segol says she’ll also be talking about storytelling.

“This is about how we mythologize; how we make myths; and how and why we change them.”

Segol says the Greeks told these stories to uncouple medicine from religion, to get away from divine causality.

It’s a process that is still happening today.

“We tell a story to answer a question, or at least engage it,” she says. “Among other things, myths address contradictions and one of the ways they address contradiction is by telling more stories.”

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