You can find an absolutely amazing academic resource in Open Yale Courses, where you can download video or audio recordings of all the lectures for some of Yale University’s introductory courses, as well as the transcripts and reading lists of those lectures.
My favourite is RLST145: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), by Professor Christine Hayes. I’m not religious, but I am interested in the bible as a literary, cultural and social text, and that’s exactly how this course approaches it (as opposed to treating it as scripture). I haven’t listened to all the lectures, but I’ve listened to the first few a couple of times, and they offer a fascinating perspective on the bible, with a ton of surprises. A lot of what I’ve learned from priests, Sunday-school teachers, and the well of Christian common-knowledge turned out to be wildly inaccurate if not completely false, like the idea that Adam was created before Eve and is therefore superior.
Anyway, as some of you will remember, I recently did several fantastic read-alongs for The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. In this trilogy, the gods, their histories, and ongoing lives play a major role. The other day I started listening to the Hebrew-Bible lectures again, and the second lecture kept reminding me of the novels. This lecture – The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Biblical Religion in Context – compares polytheism to monotheism, using the writings of Yehezkel Kaufmann. Kaufman’s theory was that the move from polytheism to monotheism was revolutionary rather than evolutionary because the two belief systems involve fundamentally different ideas about god(s) and the universe, rather than simply having a different number of gods.
This relates very strongly to fantasy, mythology, and the nature of god(s), which is why I kept linking it to Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. It no doubt has relevance for other epic fantasy or other fiction where gods or their mythologies play a role; it’s just that this trilogy was foremost in my mind. In Jemisin’s world, the gods are real. Not only do they exist, some of them live among humans. For the reader, they’re major characters. Kaufmann’s theory isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t fit Jemisin’s world exactly, but it still provides an interesting framework for understanding her worldbuilding and characters.
It’s worth watching/listening to/reading the lecture in full, but I’ve picked out the main points about how polytheism differs from monotheism, and explained how they relate to The Inheritance Trilogy. I’ve kept it SPOILER-FREE, but please forgive any inaccuracies or lack of information as I didn’t re-read the books for this article, since I’d only just read them a few months ago. If you spot anything that needs to be corrected, let me know in the comments. Continue reading