The Lives of Saviors Conform to a Hero Narrative

By Ed Neumann, October 27, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

People have always held deep convictions about “bigger-than-life-heroes,” saviors who would appear at their darkest hour and, wielding supernatural powers, right what is wrong. These beliefs are ubiquitous and cross-cultural. Unfortunately, they are rarely based on reality.

Today, such superheroes are largely found in comic books. However, there are the occasional real people who, over time, accumulate legends of their exploits — certain Catholic saints, for example; leaders like Kim Jon Il, who scored eleven holes-in-one the first time he played golf; or former vice president Al Gore, who invented the internet singlehandedly!

Despite being rated the second most admired woman in America in a 1945 national survey, Betty Crocker never actually existed. The same goes for Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Ronald MacDonald. These corporate mascots were invented as part of modern business marketing. Like the legend of King Arthur, a life story was often fabricated making them seem all the more real.

Saviors in the ancient world, however, tended to conform to a hero narrative. One such narrative is known as the Rank-Raglan hero mythotype. Named for Otto Rank and Lord Raglan, the two scholars who first described it, the mythotype is a list of 22 traits or incidents which occur with regularity in hero myths of most western cultures:

1) Mother is a virgin
2) Father is king or rightful heir
3) Hero’s parents are related
4) Circumstances of conception are unusual
5) Hero is reputed to be the son of a god
6) An attempt is made to kill him as an infant
7) He is spirited away from assassins
8) Reared in a foreign land by foster parent(s)
9) Little is reported about his childhood
10) Upon reaching adulthood, he returns to future kingdom
11) Before taking throne, he battles and defeats a great adversary
12) Crowned or hailed as king
13) Marries princess, queen, or relative of his predecessor
14) Reigns uneventfully for a time
15) Promulgates laws
16) Loses favor of gods or subjects
17) Driven from throne / land
18) Mysterious events occasion his death
19) Dies at top of hill
20) Body goes missing
21) No children succeed him
22) He has one or more holy sepulchers

In his 1936 book, The Hero, Raglan notes that historical figures rarely achieved more than six of these traits. Even Alexander, Caesar Augustus, and Mohammed with all their legendary accretions couldn’t manage half.

For those heroes who meet more than half of the Rank-Raglan criteria, a special category exists. Historian Richard Carrier, who refers to the hero narrative as “the fable of the divine king,” finds fifteen ancient figures who make the grade, fulfilling twelve or more of the elements. They are listed below with their R-R score:

Oedipus (21)
Theseus (20)
Moses (20)
Jesus (20)
Dionysus (19)
Romulus (18)
Perseus (18)
Hercules (17)
Bellerophon (16)
Jason (15)
Zeus (15)
Osiris (14)
Pelops (13)
Asclepius (12)
Joseph, son of Jacob (12)

Many pre-Christian heroes, who may or may not have made the above list, were considered savior gods, preexistent beings who incarnated as miracle-workers. Some even “fulfilled prophecy” as Buddha, Krishna and Zoroaster were thought to have done. The death and resurrection of the Thracian god Zalmoxis assured followers of eternal life. And those baptized into the Osiris cult were saved in the afterlife.

Notably, every one of the fifteen was at one time regarded as a historical person. That is, each had been placed in a historical context and was believed to have been an actual divine or semi-divine being who lived on earth. Each would have had followers willing to kill and die for them.

Yet, it would be exceedingly improbable for any living person to have made the list. None of the Egyptian, Greek, or Roman demigods listed are now thought to have existed. And, according to Dr. Carrier, most mainstream scholars think Joseph and Moses were purely legendary characters as well.

That leaves only Jesus, who, when the Gospel of Matthew is taken into account, scores 20. However, if we use only Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ score falls to 14, on par with Osiris. In other words, Matthew, who is known to have copied 90% of Mark’s Gospel nearly verbatim, further “legendized” Jesus’ narrative, making him appear even more of an archetypal hero.

So, like modern corporate mascots, ancient god-men were often invented and embellished for religious marketing.

“People sought to create unity by fabricating ‘historical’ founders and rallying around their sayings and deeds,” says Carrier in his upcoming book, On the Historicity of Jesus. “Their actual existence was not a requirement, and indeed might have been more of a detriment. But belief in their existence was a must for the story to have a powerful authoritative impact.”

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