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The History of a Myth

by Tudor Parfitt

Pub Date: May 15th, 2004
ISBN: 1-84212-665-2
Publisher: Phoenix/Trafalgar

One of the “enduring motifs underlying Western views of the wider world” gets a scholarly assessment, thanks to British journalist Parfitt.

The myth of the Lost Tribes of Israel has its origins deep in Jewish antiquity, writes Parfitt: the restructuring of the tribes of the “twelve sons of Jacob” and the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms, followed by the Assyrian invasions of 732 and 721 b.c. and, two centuries later, the removal of much of the southern kingdom to exile in Babylon and eventual assimilation into the Assyrian population. “This is the point,” Parfitt writes, “at which the history of the Lost Tribes of Israel stops and the history of the myth of the Lost Tribes starts.” The psalmists’ laments for lost cousins gave way in time to reports by Jewish travelers, filed from such places as Yemen and Tunisia, with secondhand sightings of Hebrew speakers living far from their brethren; one such report, from the ninth century, promises that the children of the lost tribes “never die in the lifetime of their parents,” while the adults are “warlike, Spartan in their habits, and wealthy.” This comforting view gave way to a modification of the myth in Christian hands, whereby the lost tribes were now the savages that European travelers encountered along their way; Torquemada, for instance, explained the great temples of Mesoamerica as structures modeled on the altars of Jerusalem, while Diego Durán was certain that the Aztecs had to be Jews, considering their “rites and superstitions, their omens and false dealings.” This strange Other was further transformed in the 19th century, when Joseph Smith founded Mormonism on the notion that the lost tribes had somehow got to America. The myth continues to be modified today, Parfitt writes, as the descendants of converts to Judaism turn up in places like Myanmar and Ethiopia.

A passable study of biblical history and comparative mythology.