Reading Time: 5 minutes

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I was seeing my girls off to sleep Sunday night when suddenly, without warning, the Bronze Age broke loose.

It was one of those breath-holding parenting moments when you can’t believe your luck at being there to capture it. Delaney (5) announced that she had made up a myth of her own. For some reason I had the presence of mind to grab my laptop and transcribe as she spoke. Read it, then we’ll chat:

The Wall of Parvati

There was a girl named Medusa. And she knew this wall, a big wall, and she hated it. So one day, she sailed off in a boat with her sharpest sword and she went to that wall. When she got there, she took out her sword and destroyed the whole wall.

The god Parvati was watching her, the god of destroying, because it was her wall. So when Medusa left the wall, Parvati made the wall grow back up. When Medusa found out that it grew back up, she sailed off in her boat again, and when she got there, she cut the wall down again.

Parvati saw this happen (she’s an Egyptian), and when Medusa was gone again, she sent two of her Egyptian gods down to that wall and they made the wall grow again.

When Medusa heard about that, she didn’t want to come out in her boat again, so she put out one of her fastest snakes and made it slither to the wall. The snake used its very sharp tail to whip down the wall. But he couldn’t because the two gods were still there. He whipped the gods with his tail, and the poison went straight into them and they fell asleep, and then the snake whipped his tail against every piece of that wall and slithered back to Medusa.

Before I yak this to death, let me repaste her myth with elements cross-referenced to the myths Laney has heard as bedtime stories in recent weeks:

The Wall of Parvati1

There was a girl named Medusa.2 And she knew this wall, a big wall,3 and she hated it. So one day, she sailed off in a boat4 with her sharpest sword5 and she went to that wall. When she got there, she took out her sword and destroyed the whole wall.

The god Parvati was watching her, the god of destroying,6 because it was her wall. So when Medusa left the wall, Parvati made the wall grow back up. When Medusa found out that it grew back up, she sailed off in her boat again, and when she got there, she cut the wall down again.

Parvati saw this happen (she’s an Egyptian),7 and when Medusa was gone again, she sent two of her Egyptian gods8 down to that wall and they made the wall grow again.

When Medusa heard about that, she didn’t want to come out in her boat again, so she put out one of her fastest snakes9 and made it slither to the wall. The snake used its very sharp tail to whip down the wall. But he couldn’t because the two gods were still there. He whipped the gods with his tail, and the poison went straight into them and they fell asleep,10 and then the snake whipped his tail against every piece of that wall and slithered back to Medusa.

1 She knows Parvati from Ganapati Circles the World (Hindu). Parvati is the consort of Shiva and mother of Ganapati (aka Ganesha or Ganesh). Parvati’s also a Gryffindor, of course.
2 From Perseus and Medusa (Greek).
3The Iliad (Greek). Much is made of the hated wall around Troy in this excellent retelling for grades 2-4.
4 Several of our recent myths included sailing quests — The Golden Fleece, The Iliad, The Odyssey (Greek).
5 Perseus killed Medusa with the infinitely sharp adamantine sword of Hermes (Greek).
6 Shiva’s pro-wrestling name is “The Destroyer.”
7 No idea. We haven’t done any Egyptian myths yet. The Disney flick Prince of Egypt, maybe?
8 This has been a theme in several of the myths we’ve read lately — the sending of surrogates on tasks — including Cupid and Psyche (Greek) and Proserpine and Pluto (Roman).
9 We’ve encountered two magical snakes recently: in the Garden of Eden (Judaic) and in the Sioux myth of the three transformed brothers. And Medusa has snakes for hair, of course, so maybe she plucked one out and sent it on a mission.
10A jealous Venus tricked Psyche into inhaling a sleeping draught (Roman).


In that context, maybe you can see why I was all agog. My five-year-old daughter had constructed a syncretic midrash.

Midrash is a process by which new interpretations are laid on old legends or scriptures, and/or new stories are synthesized out of elements of older ones, usually for the purpose of instruction. Though early Jews freaked about syncretism across party lines–don’t make me link to the golden calf!–the construction of fictional midrash from within Judaic sources is recognized as a vital part of Jewish teaching.

In The Jesus Puzzle, Earl Doherty argues, with brilliantly grounded scholarship, that the gospel of Mark was just such a midrash, and that “Mark” did not mean it to be taken as literal fact any more than Delaney did. It was a teaching fiction.

But Laney’s work more closely resembles a deeper kind of mythmaking, one common in the Mediterranean Bronze Age and beyond: the syncretic merging of elements from different belief systems into something new and useful. There is much to suggest that the later character of Jesus is such a syncretic construct, sharing as he does the heroic attributes and biographical details of such earlier mythic figures as Mithras (born on Dec 25, mother a virgin, father the sky-god, 12 disciples, entombed in rock, rose on third day, etc), Krishna, Osiris, Tammuz, and countless others.

A fascinating tangent, believe you me, but I’ll never find my way out if I start with that.

So ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures spun new tapestries from the threads of religions all around them. Now here’s a 21st century kindergartener doing the same thing. Makes you think we’re onto something fundamentally human.

If we’d exposed Delaney to just one culture, one religion, she could be forgiven for imagining a no-kidding god on the other end of that one dazzling thread. By instead following a hundred threads, she realizes there are just lots of people on the other end — just plain folks, like Delaney — each of them spinning something lovely and new from the old threads they picked up. Follow enough of those threads and you find yourself outside the labyrinth of religious belief entirely, blinking in the sun.

The thing that left me most awestruck is that she even thought of mythmaking as a thing she could do. Picture a Sunday School kid making up his own bible story. Even though that’s just how Matthew and Luke were elaborated out of Mark, once the 4th century bishops weighed in and made it “gospel,” further creative energies have been (shall we say) discouraged. With rare exceptions, we are now receivers of that written tradition, not co-creators. That’s why the experience of hearing Delaney spin her tale moved me so deeply. She recognizes other human hands in the spinning of the mythic tapestry — so why not add her own?

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.