Making Light: Help me, Joe Campbell, you’re my only hope

My original post on (super)heroes got way more attention than I had expected, much of it negative, but a great deal that was positive as well. My first response was to say that the arguments that I’m not adhering to a Reconstructionist path are absolutely true. After that, a whole passel of other disagreements also came up, some of which I found… confusing, mostly because I’m not really sure how we got there. Metaphorically speaking, I was driving the short commute to Nashville and some of y’all ended up in Puerto Rico somehow. I hear it’s nice there, but that’s not where I was going.

Part of my religious training was to read and watch a great deal of Joseph Campbell’s works and I really can’t explain where I’m coming from better than he can.

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I’m completely okay with not seeing myths and heroes in the same way that we understand the ancients to have done. That approach doesn’t work for me. It does work for others and that’s great, but it’s very simply not my thing. I don’t even feel the need to be right about this. Religion isn’t science. Faith isn’t history.

So, where I see interesting embodiments of archetypes that often follow similar journeys as the old heroes and who bring ideas about both virtue and vice to a modern audience, others see “just” stories. Where others see the old heroes as historical persons worthy of veneration, I’m simultaneously skeptical of their historicity while accepting their importance in a Hellenic context. I just take a more metaphorical approach. If you’re the sort that has to have the bones and gravesites, it doesn’t bother me a bit. I just don’t need that to get Truth from the stories.

Does that mean I think the gods are just characters in a story? Of course not. Does it mean that I think characters in stories are gods? Again, no. Comic/cinematic Thor is an alien. Thor from the Eddas is a god. In fact, most cinematic representations of Apollo make me cringe a little because they don’t mesh with my understanding either from the primary source material or from the way he has interacted with me. I’m sympathetic to our Heathen brethren who are helping newcomers sort out Tom Hiddleston’s excellent performance from the god as he is understood by other Heathens. I can see how that might get old after a while.

Many of us look at the mythology of, say, the Abrahamics, as a metaphorical thing. We doubt and we’re skeptical of things like a historical Adam and Eve, a bush that burns but is not consumed, a global flood and a man with a big boat. And, in fact, a literalist approach to the Christian Bible is something that’s so far afield of my belief, that I don’t understand how a person can believe it. But people do and as long as it makes them better at being in the world and as long as it is fulfilling for them without harm to others, I’ve got no problem with it. Sure, it confuses me and it’s really not my thing at all, but I can’t tell them what to believe any more than they can tell me. From where I stand, if myths are going to be metaphorical, they’re going to be metaphorical. I can’t point to someone else’s mythology and say “that over there is metaphorical, but mine is historical,” because I can’t back that up and I can’t make that make sense to me.

But again, seeing the myths as metaphors doesn’t mean I believe the gods are just characters in a story. They are my gods. I speak to them, I feel their presence, I know from experience that they are Real. They are not real to me like Samwise Gamgee is real. They are real to me like my cat is real, but they often speak to us in metaphor and story. What it boils down to, I suppose, is that like Catholics and Pentecostals, we’re using the same source material and much of the same language, holidays, and names for the divine, but we are not practicing the same religion.

It’s useful in discussions like this to be respectfully curious about the places where we disagree. In my experience, this is a good way to find common ground or at least to cultivate mutual understanding where there is little common ground. I look forward to learning about other approaches to myth, so feel free to drop a comment and we can have a chat about it.

Making Light is an occasional column by Hellenic polytheist Sunweaver. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

Seeking the Grail: Why Begin the Quest?
Socially Responsible Magic: Why We Need to Have the Hard Conversations
The Zen Pagan: What Does It Mean For the Gods to Exist?
When Worlds Collide – Coming Back From Pantheacon
About Sunweaver

In addition to her personal and group practice as a priestess of Apollo, Sunweaver works as interfaith clergy with a diversity of religious groups in the Middle Tennessee area. She is a founding member of the Rutherford County Women of Faith and has worked with the area interfaith center, Wisdom House, to help bring positive awareness to the non-Abrahamic religions. She is a mother of two, a fiber arts enthusiast, and a holds a Master's degree in biology.

  • Suzanne Hill Thackston

    you’re still going to infuriate those who wish to be infuriated. so many people read, not to understand, but to pounce. but i’m so glad that for those who actually wanted further clarification rather than a platform from which to pontificate, you’ve taken the time to do so.
    of course, you do realize that using the dreaded A word will cause the pouncers to read no further. ‘SHE IS TELLING THE N00BS THAT THE GODS ARE NOTHING MORE THAN ARCHETYPES!!!!! #*&^%$
    watch for it. ;) khairete

    • Sunweaver

      Well, yes. Haters gonna hate, as they say.

      I really encourage people, especially n00bs, to use their own best judgment. I’ve been a practitioner and priestess for years and I’ve got some experience and knowledge under my belt, but my authority doesn’t extend past my own practice. I can share my knowledge and experience, but each person’s practice and relationship with the gods is their own.
      Nobody’s got to believe what I do or practice what I do.

  • Conor O’Bryan Warren

    I’d like to just correct the implication that just because we suspect certain heroes to have been historical persons does not mean we are literalists. The great majority of us see them as allegorical just as you do, the only difference being that we are saying that the hero cult being grave centered. This does not mean we are treating the myths with complete histrocity, we just recognize that there was a grave where folks worshiped the hero in question.

    However, this statement sums it all up. “I suppose, is that like Catholics and Pentecostals, we’re using the same
    source material and much of the same language, holidays, and names for
    the divine, but we are not practicing the same religion.” and honestly, often times it isn’t even Catholics and Pentecostals, the difference (to me) seems much more like Orthodox Jews and Catholics quite honestly.

    The disconnect comes from a ‘language’ or ‘culture’ gap between us. I wrote up about it here:

    Approaching it from such different points is bound to generate tensions.

    • Sunweaver

      Approaching it from such different points is bound to generate tensions.

      Sure it is and I really wanted to make it absolutely and perfectly clear that what I am practicing is not Reconstructionism. I think there was some confusion there that I hoped to have cleared up here.

      I’d like to just correct the implication that just because we suspect
      certain heroes to have been historical persons does not mean we are

      The impression I got from a number of different sources was leaning toward literalism and it confused the heck out of me. This is a completely different statement and one that makes much more sense now that you’ve put it that way. We can understand the Buddha, for example, to have been a historical person, but there are some pretty crazy stories about him that developed later on. I get what you’re saying.

      For me historicity isn’t the important thing. I find it academically interesting, but spiritually unimportant. It’s not that the heroes are unimportant, but that it doesn’t matter to me if they were real persons.

      • Conor O’Bryan Warren

        Oh yeah, I get that. I understand that. I think where most of the ire came from was a dissonance by what *we* mean by heroes and by what *you* mean by heroes. Now, my own personal frustration with this doesn’t even stem from your post, rather it stems from *other* posts floating about which basically conflates superheroes with theoi. I get that you are approaching the movies and comics from a point of mythical analysis, which is good in my opinion. (And if you want a very good comic to analyze, I suggest We3. Keep the kleenex handy though)

        And yeah, I don’t think some people have been as. . .articulate as they could have been. I have more interest in clarification and making sure that everyone is on the same page at the very least, the same sentence preferably.

        I can see where *you* are coming from (others, I have a far more difficult time with).

        • Sunweaver

          Y’know, I’d be happy if we were in the same library.

          “…*other* posts floating about which basically conflates superheroes with theoi.”

          Yeah, I’m not sure how we got there, either. Thank you for your perspective on this discussion and for clearing some things up for us.

    • Suzanne Hill Thackston

      i think the point about graves and hellenic recon worship is a good one. but it’s a very, very recon view. i’m far further down the recon side of the spectrum than any of the other routes, but many of us honor heroes with no connection whatsoever to their gravesites. not all the classical heroes HAVE identifiable gravesites.
      i’m glad the point came up, because it’s vitally important to many recons. but hero worship can and is practiced and interpreted across a far broader spectrum than that which incorporates tending the site.

      • Conor O’Bryan Warren

        I think that you really (since Hellenists are spread over the world) must make certain concessions and guesses on gravesites. The modern hero cult must not ignore the grave, but it can’t fixate only on it. A pilgrimage for certain heroes (such as lets say Abe Lincoln, MLK Jr. , Shakespeare, or Oscar Wilde) may be appropriate every once in the while, but it may be also ideal to honor them by proxy (perhaps effigies?)

        You know me Suz, I’m *ALL* about doing what works and what makes sense. A person who has an active hero cultus should consider a pilgrimage to their hero(s)’ grave(s) every once in a while, sorta like how American Hindus make pilgrimages to HIndu Temples every once in a while.

        • Sunweaver

          We’ve got some really great sites across the US for this sort of veneration of historical persons. Washington D.C. is particularly good for it, but there are places in every state where great men and women can be honored.

        • Suzanne Hill Thackston

          i guess it’s less of an issue for me since i don’t actually worship heroes in the strict meaning of the word. in practice it looks much the same, but internally it’s more ‘honor’ than ‘worship’ although i incorporate many of the same elements vis-a-vis offerings, epithets, libations etc.
          standing at the gravesite of chaucer gave me chills. and shakespeare. amazing stuff.
          but not ‘necessary’ in my book, and not likely to ever happen in the case of my beloved theseus, or odysseus.
          from inspiration by dver’s stuff i’ve built up a deep and meaningful personal cult of alice. i don’t worship alice. but i do worship persephone, who speaks to me through my alice devotions. it’s not rocket science to keep the literary, mythical and divine separate. and the literal alice liddell really doesn’t figure into it much at all.
          and i think in the case of the original premise, it was mostly thrown out there as HERE’S SOMETHING ELSE SHE GOT WRRRRROOOONNNNGGGG, instead of having an actual discussion about the validity of incorporating fictional characters into one’s practice.

          • Conor O’Bryan Warren

            Yeah, exactly. I have to remind people that the MYTHICAL Zeus is not the same as *ZEUS*. If you want to see how the ancients perceived Zeus you have to look at how they worshiped him and look at the cult of Zeus. It goes on of course, for all the theoi. The myths are to be interpreted and analyzed to help you further understand the Gods.

            As for Hero Worship, I personal relegate it to somber celebrations on birthdays (or as close as we can approximate) and leave it at that. Though, I’d love to visit the grave of Shakespeare.

            I personally can understand incorporating fictional characters in the act of *understanding* a deity better (though, I personally could not use a literary character as a tool like that. My brain doesn’t work that way). I’m personally just opposed to the actual veneration, but not the contemplation of themes. (After all, playing The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game series helped me contemplate how we might change and worship the theoi in times of severe crisis. Plus, the storytelling of the game was phenomenal and the relationship that Lee and Clem had explored the importance or unimportance of biological relations in fatherhood. Stories and the characters are VERY useful for getting someone thinking about a theme or issue.)

            • Sunweaver

              “I have to remind people that the MYTHICAL Zeus is not the same as *ZEUS*.”

              That is an excellent point. I tend to take the primary literature with a pretty big grain of salt because it’s come to us through not only the filter of the person who first wrote it down, but often also the filter of a translator or a person who is retelling these myths. People are going to put their own spin on a story as they retell it because that’s just the nature of story.

  • C.M. Underdown-DuBois

    I <3 Joseph Campbell, like a Hobbit <3s Second Breakfast.
    The thing is Gods are Archetypes, but not all Archetypes are Gods. See what I did there? Yes. The world is much more Both/And that it ever was (N)either/(N)or, but sometimes our Lizard Brains don't like that. The trick is when one realizes that one is Truly Living a Symbolical life and as you say, the Gods speak in Stories, Parables & Metaphor. What does one do with that? :)

    • Sunweaver

      One tells stories as an act of devotion, is what one does, I suppose.

  • Henry Buchy

    I think part of the difficulty is approaching the question from a religious/theological perspective rather than a magical/metaphysical perspective.

    That there is a process by which one can create a being or object through force of ‘will’. There have always been practices of imbuing objects with life force, mana, chi, prana, energy etc, or creating a being in the same fashion. It works on the same principle of charging poppets, talismans, wards, fetishes or totems. Sam Webster touches upon one application of this practice in his recent essay on Idolatry/iconography.

    More modernly, there is also the process known as creating an egregore, Though the process itself is hardly modern, an example being the tulpa of Tibetan Buddhism.

    The act of ‘worship’ is an exchange of energy, the focus of the “worship” becomes like a battery, storehouse or reservoir of energy that can be tapped. It doesn’t much matter whether the object that receives such energy had been living or not. In the case of gravesites, the grave itself becomes the reservoir, just as, in Sam Webster’s article, the idol or icon does.

    Personally, though, I would make a distinction between created beings, and those beings which were once living persons which are fed in this way, due to other metaphysical aspects.

    • Sunweaver

      One of the major differences in my belief and a belief more in line with a Recon practice is that I’m not convinced that most of the old heroes were once living persons. That doesn’t diminish their importance as far as I’m concerned, but it is a huge difference in how I see them. To bring it back to popular culture, Superman and James T. Kirk both have “birthplaces” that you and I know are references to fiction. What’s that going to look like two or three thousand years from now? Those places are really important to a lot of people and who’s to say that a place like that might not function like a reservoir like you are describing here.

      Now, I’m not saying that I revere these characters as gods. That’s not it at all. I’m not even saying that I see them as intercessory beings such as saints and angels in Christianity. There’s a great discussion on thought forms in here, but that’s not really what I’m getting at. What I am saying is that for my own belief and practice, the qualification that a hero had to have been a living person is not necessary.

      One of these days I’ll write about thought forms as they relate to fandom experiences and religion. There’s a lot to explore there.

  • Christine Kraemer

    Positive response to the issue from Edward Butler, calling for more symbolic exegesis by contemporary Pagans:

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