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

Making Light: Help me, Joe Campbell, you’re my only hope May 21, 2013

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.

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!

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