Jewish mythology is generally the sacred and traditional narratives that help explain and symbolize the Jewish religion, whereas Jewish folklore consists of the folk tales and legends that existed in the general Jewish culture. There is very little early folklore distinct from the aggadah literature. However, mythology and folklore has survived and expanded among the Jewish people in all eras of its history.
Even if the larger interpretation of Mythology as folklore is accepted, the nature of Jewish traditions, or minchagim that would constitute the "transmissible entity" rarely reach to the Tanakh period.
The "material culture" of Judaism is mandated by its general rules or Halakha that include the Mezuzah as its earliest example, and the Tefillin as the most often seen example. Neither are considered to be "folklore artifacts" with both manufactured by qualified scribes.
Almost no "culture" can be traced from modern observant Jewish communities to the Tanakh. The wide differentiation observed even within the normatively "orthodox" haredi societies underscores the lack of common "culture" despite the commonality of Kol Torah among its leaders such as the World Agudath Israel.
Although "behavior" is something that is derived from the Tanakh by the observant Jews, the many rituals that could be considered folklore can not be practised die to the lack of availability of the designated place, the Temple in Jerusalem. These rituals have been replaced by other, rationalised rituals that bear little resemblance to accepted forms of folklore or mythology in other societies.
The classical rabbi themselves were at times not free from sharing in the popular beliefs. Thus, while there is a whole catalog of prognostications by means of Dreams in Ber. 55 et seq., and Rabbi Johanan claimed that those dreams are true which come in the morning or are dreamed about us by others, or are repeated, Rabbi Meïr declares that dreams help not and injure not. Dream interpretation s not however a factor in considering mythologyfication of Talmud knowledge since it was at the time a part of the wider nascent development of what later became the discipline of Psychology, and also incorporated Astrology, and effect of digestion on behaviour.
An example of typical mythology in the Talmud (חולין נט ע"ב - ע"ב, Chullin 59b) exists as a discussion about a giant deer and a giant lion which are both originated in a mythical forest called "Dvei Ilai". The deer is called "keresh". The lion, called "tigris", is said to be so big that there is space of 9 feet between the lobes of his lung. The Roman Caesar Hadrian once asked a Rabbi to show him this lion, since every lion can be killed, but the Rabbi refused and pointed out that this is not a normal lion. The Roman Caesar insisted, so the Rabbi called for the lion of "Dvei Ilai". He roared once from a 400 amot and all the city walls of Rome tumbled down. Then he came to 300 amot and roared again and the front teeth and molars of Roman men fall out. The story is however not to be interpreted literally, bus is typical of a series of similar seemingly mythical stories found throughout the Talmud that are a common source of material for the Jewish exegesis.
The authorities of the Talmud seem to be particularly influenced by popular conception in the direction of folk medicine. A belief in the Evil eye was also prevalent in Talmudic times, and occasionally omens were taken seriously, though in some cases recognized as being merely popular beliefs. Thus, while it is declared to be unlucky to do things twice, as eating, drinking, or washing, Rabbi Dunai recognized that this was an old tradition. A remarkable custom mentioned in the Talmud is that of planting trees when children are born and intertwining them to form the huppah when they marry. Yet this idea may be originally Persian and is also found in India.
It may be possible to distinguish in the haggadic legends of Biblical character those portions that probably formed part of the original accounts from those that have been developed by the exegetic principles of the haggadists.
The uniqueness of the Talmudic style of both recording meaning and deriving it using exegesis places the many seemingly mythological components of the much larger halachic content into a content very unlike the purely story-telling corpus of other cultures.
A variation in custom is sometimes found between one set of Jews and another which enables the inquirer to determine the origin of them. Thus, English Jews sometimes show a disinclination to sit down with thirteen at a table, probably copied from their Christian neighbors who connect the superstition with the Last Supper of Jesus; whereas Russian Jews consider thirteen as a particularly lucky number, as it is the gematria of "echad" (one), the last and most important word of the Shema. [aleph (1) + khet (8) + daled (4) = 13]
On the other hand, many stories are specifically Jewish in nature and origination. For example, the belief that the resurrection of the dead will take place in the valley of Jehoshaphat, and that, therefore, the corpse must have a three-pronged fork to tunnel his way to Jerusalem if buried out of the Holy Land, is a specifically Jewish corollary to their narratives of an after-life, and a veneration of Jerusalem.
There is considerable evidence of Jewish people helping the spread of Eastern folk-tales in Europe.. Besides these tales from foreign sources, Jews either collected or composed others which were told throughout the European ghettos, and were collected in Yiddish in the "Maasebücher.". Numbers of the folktales contained in these collections were also published separately. It is, however, difficult to call many of them folktales in the sense given above, since nothing fairy-like or supernormal occurs in them.
There are a few definitely Jewish legends of the Middle Ages which partake of the character of folktales, such as those of the Jewish pope Andreas and of the golem, or that relating to the wall of the Rashi chapel, which moved backward in order to save the life of a poor woman who was in danger of being crushed by a passing car in the narrow way. Several of these legends were collected by Tendlau ("Sagen und Legenden der Jüdischen Vorzeit").
In the late 1800s many folk-tales were gathered among Jews or published from Hebrew manuscripts by Israel Lévi in "Revue des Etudes Juives," in "Revue des Traditions Populaires," and in "Melusine "; by M. Gaster in "Folk-Lore" and in the reports of Montefiore College; and by M. Grunwald in "Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volkskunde"; by L. Wiener in the same periodical; and by F. S. Krauss in "Urquell," both series.
Altogether some sixty or seventy folk-tales have been found among Jews of the present day; but in scarcely a single case is there anything specifically Jewish about the stories, while in most cases they can be traced back to folk-tales current among the surrounding peoples. Thus the story of "Kunz and His Shepherd occurs in English as "King John and the Abbot of Canterbury"; and "The Magician's Pupil is also found widely spread. The well-known story of the "Language of Birds," which has been studied by Frazer, is given in "Mitteilungen," i. 77. No. 4 in the collection of Wiener is the wide-spread folk-tale of "The Giant's Daughter," which some have traced back to the legend of Medea. Two of the stories collected by Grunwald, No. 13, "The Birds of Ibycus," and No. 14, "The Ring of Polycrates," appear to be traceable to classical sources; while his No. 4 gives the well-known episode of the "Thankful Beasts," which Theodor Benfey traced across Europe through India. Even in the tales having a comic termination and known to the folk-lorists as drolls, there are no signs of Jewish originality. The first of the stories collected by Wiener is the well-known "Man in the Sack," who gets out of his difficulties by telling passers-by that he has been unwillingly condemned to marry a princess.
The ancient Hebrews often participated in the religious practices of their Near Eastern neighbors, worshiping other gods alongside their own god, Yahweh. For instance, during Ezekiel's time, Hebrew women joined in the worship of Tammuz, a Babylonian fertility god. These pagan religions were forms of nature worship: their deities were personifications of natural phenomena like storms and fertility. Because of its nature worship, Mircea Eliade argues, Near Eastern paganism expressed itself in "rich and dramatic mythologies" featuring "strong and dynamic gods" and "orgiastic divinities".
The Biblical prophets, including Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, had a concept of the divine that differed significantly from that of the nature religions. According to Jewish mythology, their lives were full of miracles, signs, and visions from Yahweh that kept Jewish mythology alive, growing, and distinct from the pagan mythologies of its neighbors. Instead of seeing Yahweh as their own tribal god, one god among others, these prophets saw Him as the one God of the entire universe.
The prophets condemned Hebrew participation in nature worship, and they refused to completely identify the divine with natural forces. In so doing, they set the stage for a new kind of mythology — a mythology featuring a single God (Yahweh) who exists beyond the natural world. Unlike Tammuz, who dies and revives along with the vegetation, the God of the Hebrew prophets is beyond nature and, therefore, isn't bound by the natural rhythms:
"Where the Babylonian gods were engaged in an ongoing battle against the forces of chaos, and needed the rituals of the New Year festival to restore their energies, Yahweh can simply rest on the seventh day, his work complete.Through the prophets' influence, Jewish mythology increasingly portrayed God as aloof from nature and acting independently of natural forces. On one hand, this produced a mythology that was, in a sense, more complex. Instead of eternally repeating a seasonal cycle of acts, Yahweh stood outside nature and intervened in it, producing new, historically unprecedented events:
"That was theophany of a new type, hitherto unknown—the intervention of Jahveh in history. It was therefore something irreversible and unrepeatable. The fall of Jerusalem does not repeat the fall of Samaria: the ruin of Jerusalem presents a new historic theophany, another 'wrath' of Jahveh. […] Jahveh stands out from the world of abstractions, of symbols and generalities; he acts in history and enters into relations with actual historical beings.On the other hand, this transcendent God was absolutely unique and hard for humans to relate to. Thus, the myths surrounding Him were, in a sense, less complex: they did not involve the acts of multiple, anthropomorphic gods. In this sense, "Jahveh is surrounded by no multiple and varied myths", and did not share in the "rich and dramatic mythologies" of his pagan counterparts.
The Hebrew prophets had to struggle against the nature gods' popularity, and Jewish mythology reflects this struggle. In fact, some Jewish myths may have been consciously designed to reflect the conflict between paganism and a new uncompromising monotheism. In Psalm 82, God stands up in the divine council and condemns the pagan deities: though they are gods, He says, they will die like mortal men. Freelance scholar Karen Armstrong interprets the creation myth of Genesis 1 "as a poised, calm polemic against the old belligerent cosmogonies", particularly the Babylonian cosmogonic myth. The Babylonian Enuma Elish describes the god Marduk earning kingship over the other gods, battling the monster Tiamat, and creating the world from her corpse. In contrast, Armstrong argues, in the Genesis account (and in the book of Isaiah that describe Yahweh's victory over the sea-monster Leviathan),
"the sun, moon, stars, sky and earth are not gods in their own right, hostile to Yahweh. They are subservient to him, and created for a purely practical end. The sea-monster is no Tiamat, but is God's creature and does his bidding.
The Hebrew story of Noah's Ark and the flood has similarities to ancient flood stories told worldwide. One of the closest parallels is the Mesopotamian myth of a world flood, recorded in The Epic of Gilgamesh. In the Hebrew Bible flood story (Genesis 6:5-22), God decides to flood the world and start over, due to mankind's sinfulness. Noah is warned by God to build an ark, and directs him to bring at least two of every animal inside the boat, along with his family. The flood comes and covers the world. After 40 days, Noah sends a raven to check whether the waters have subsided, then a dove; after exiting the boat, Noah offers a sacrifice to God, who smells "the sweet savour" and promises never to destroy the earth by water again -and making the rainbow a symbol of this promise. Similarly, in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the bustle of humanity disturbs the gods, who decide to send a flood. Warned by one of the gods, a man named Utnapishtim builds a boat and takes his family and animals inside. After the flood, Utnapishtim sends a dove, then a swallow, then a raven to check whether the waters have subsided. After exiting the boat, Utnapishtim offers a sacrifice to the gods, who smell "the sweet savour" and repent their choice to send the flood.
Another ancient flood myth is the Hindu story of Matsya the fish. According to this story, the god Vishnu takes the form of a fish and warns the ancestor Manu about a coming flood. He tells Manu to put all the creatures of the earth into a boat. Unlike the Biblical and Mesopotamian floods, however, this flood is not a unique event brought on by a divine choice; instead, it's one of the destructions and recreations of the universe that happen at regular intervals in Hindu mythology.
Many of the Hebrews' pagan neighbors had a "combat myth" about the good god battling the demon of chaos; one example of this mytheme is the Bablyonian Enuma Elish. According to historian Bernard McGinn, the combat myth's imagery influenced Jewish mythology. The myth of Hashem's triumph over Leviathan, a symbol of chaos, has the form of a combat myth. In addition, McGinn thinks the Hebrews applied the "combat myth" motif to the relationship between God and Satan: originally a deputy in God's court, assigned to act as mankind's "accuser" (satan means "to oppose"), Satan evolved into a being with "an apparently independent realm of operation as a source of evil" — no longer God's deputy but his opponent in a cosmic struggle.
Even the Exodus story shows influence. McGinn believes the "Song of the sea", which the Hebrews sang after seeing God drown the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, includes "motifs and language from the combat myth used to emphasize the importance of the foundational event in Israel's religious identity: the crossing of the Red Sea and deliverance from the Pharaoh. Likewise, Armstrong notes the similarity between pagan myths in which gods "split the sea in half when they created the world" and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in which Moses splits the Sea of Reeds (the Red Sea) — "though what is being brought into being in the Exodus, is not a cosmos but a people". In any case, the motif of God as the "divine warrior" fighting on Israel's behalf is clearly evident in the Song of the Sea (Ex. 15). This motif is recurrent in poetry throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (I Samuel 2; Zechariah 9:11-16;14:3-8).
Joseph Campbell notes that the Eden narrative's forbidden tree is an example of a motif "very popular in fairy tales, known to folklore students as the One Forbidden Thing". For another example of the One Forbidden Thing, see the Russian fairy tale Bash Chelik, in which the hero is forbidden to open a certain door but he does anyway, thereby releasing the villain. Also see the classic story of Pandora's box, which existed in ancient Greek mythology.
Other traditional cultures limited mythical events to the beginning of time, and saw important historical events as repetitions of those mythical events. In contrast, the important events in Jewish mythology are not limited to a far-off primordial age: Jewish myths and legends stretch "out of the far past into an eternal future". According to Mircea Eliade, the Hebrew prophets "valorized" history, seeing historical events as episodes in a continual divine revelation. This doesn't mean that all historical events have significance in Judaism; however, in Jewish mythology, significant events happen throughout history, and they are not merely repetitions of each other; each significant event is a new act of God:
"The fall of Samaria actually did occur in history [...] It was therefore something irreversible and unrepeatable. The fall of Jerusalem does not repeat the fall of Samaria: the ruin of Jerusalem presents a new historic theophany.By portraying time as a linear progression of events, rather than an eternal repetition, Jewish mythology suggested the possibility for progress.
This view of history was very innovative for the times. Inherited by Christianity, it has deeply influenced Western philosophy and culture. Even supposedly secular or political Western movements have worked within the world-view of progress and linear history inherited from Judaism. Because of this legacy, the religious historian Mircea Eliade argues that "Judaeo-Christianity makes an innovation of the first importance" in mythology.
R. C. Zaehner, a professor of Eastern religions, argues for Zoroastrianism's direct influence on Jewish eschatological myths, especially the resurrection of the dead with rewards and punishments.
Mircea Eliade believes that the Hebrews had a sense of linear time before their contact with Zoroastrianism. However, he agrees with Zaehner that Judaism elaborated its mythology of linear time with eschatological elements that originated in Zoroastrianism. According to Eliade, these elements include ethical dualism, the myth of a savior, and "an optimistic eschatology, proclaiming the final triumph of Good".
He goes on to show parallels between Biblical stories and modern science-fiction:
The Hugo Awards, one of the highest distinctions for science fiction writers, have been awarded to plenty of Biblically derived stories, for instance:
Another example is the Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion anime series, which takes kabbalah elements, while narrating a reinterpretation of events surrounding Adam, Eve and Lilith on a futuristic and apocalyptic way.