Reconsidering the Importance of Myth

Reconsidering the Importance of Myth April 24, 2012

Following up on my last post hasn’t been easy. Both a lack of time and deciding what to write has been difficult. Maybe my week off spoiled me and I’m just finding it hard to get back in the groove.

My last post got some surprisingly positive feedback from surprising quarters. I’ve received a lot of kind and interesting responses I’m still trying to process. One was public, and I strongly suggest you read Ian Corrigan’s response post. I want to revisit some comments he made, and issues raised by other responses, in the future, but today I want to talk about myth and how we view it.

The lack of continuity is one way modern Paganism is different from other religions. We talk about this lack occasionally, and acknowledge that we have no idea how Hellenic polytheism, or other ancient polytheisms, would have evolved unfettered over the centuries. But instead of picking up the torch where it was dropped, so often we are trying to create a new torch. I’m not talking about practice (someone, I forget who, said that reconstructionism is essentially finished when it comes to the practices of ancient Greeks). I’m talking about the way we think, and the way we view the world.

On a flight to Denver I read Ochani Lele’s Teachings of the Santeria Gods. I was surprised to find a book about a religion so foreign to me was so satisfying and comforting to read. I’ve thought long and hard about my reaction to those stories, and the answer I have come to is that they felt so right to my soul because they were not myths. They were not presented as myths. They were presented as stories that explain the world from Santerian culture. I didn’t realize how important that was until recently.

Consider that when an Abrahamic says that Abraham took Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him, they are not referencing a myth but a story that contains a fundamental truth that affects them today. Abraham is their father, their progenitor, and his test of faith has a real and significant impact on them today. It’s a reference point that helps them understand and work through the tests in their own life. It’s not a myth.

I find it interesting that the words myth and mythos seem to be relatively new, at least according to Merriam-Webster. While the official definition of myth doesn’t preclude truth, I think the use of the word has an implied undertone that what is being said is not real, fake, fanciful and imaginary. I think that’s true in modern Paganism where, although we study myths incessantly, we do not conceive of them as true. At best we see their virtue in a pop-psychology, Joseph Campbell meta-myth way.

I was watching Clash of the Gods several days ago and was fascinated on how they emphasized the virtue of the stories to people’s everyday lives. Of course, they were a bit skewed because they were heavily biased to show how the stories relate to the New Testament of the Bible. While I was annoyed at their “this has value because you can see it mirrored in Jesus” angle, I found the way they were approaching the stories to be thought-provoking. Their ability to tie the stories to geographic locations and explain the more fantastic elements through fantastic science was inspiring. There are places where voices from the rocks could lure you in too close, and turbulent straits that create whirlpools.

Odysseus as an example of Hellenic virtue is an interesting concept. Particularly the story of him being lashed to the mast when they went past the Sirens. His humility is evident in understanding his limitations. He is no superhuman. He instructs his men to lash him to the mast, to plug their ears with wax, and to not free him until they were well-past the Sirens, despite what he may say or do. This story exemplifies the Hellenic virtue of fully embracing your mortality and recognizing your limitations, and also the Hellenic virtue of achieving excellence via ingenuity rather than hubris. Odysseus isn’t the only man to hear the Sirens and live because he is superhuman or like the Gods, he does so because he is clever enough to know how to make accommodations for his own limitations. He doesn’t transcend, he accepts his humanity fully. Had he thought he was of sufficient willpower to resist the Sirens unaided, he would have surely died.

I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately. I think it holds a key that unlocks some of the answers I seek. What if the proper approach to religion is to lash ourselves to the stories and trust that by letting go, by surrendering, that the ship will bear us past our troubles and towards a greater understanding? What if it is hubris to call these stories myths, to distance ourselves from them, to not consider them as fully true as the ancients once did? What if this frustration and dissatisfaction that I feel is because I keep being dashed on the rocks of the Sirens because I think I’m better informed and less superstitious than those that came before me? In truth, I’m not better or wiser or hipper than the ancients.

We come up with a lot of reasons why we are better than the ancients. Feminism is one, but in truth women haven’t had the vote for a full century yet. When I hear people discuss the limitations of women in ancient times I think of Victorian women who visit each other, who need male escorts to go out in public places, and whose homes comprise the majority of their world. Anyone who has watched Downton Abbey see a world where women, both aristocratic and working class, are largely confined to their homes, have strict rules for what is acceptable behavior, and their value either lay in their marriage or their domestic service. That world dissolved less than 100 years ago, and lives within the memory of our eldest elders.

Would any of our modern social norms come faster or slower had Christianity not dominated the West? There’s no telling, but I suspect that all things come to fruit in their proper time, regardless of which religion dominates. Ancient Paganism had all the seeds to foment feminism, and I have no doubt they would have sprouted in time. We forget the sovereignty of Ithaca was dependent on Penelope, and she ruled it well in all the long years of her husbands absence. Had Odysseus never returned, or had she rejected him as an imposter, perhaps she may have married the country and ruled alone, as Elizabeth I did thousands of years later in England. Elizabeth was also hounded by unwelcome suitors for years who tried her patience, and was under considerable pressure to marry.

In truth, I can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t take up the torch precisely where it was left, strange beliefs and all. For many years I’ve referred to Hephaestus privately as Papa Phaestus, and I sit here today thinking that if I embrace the story of Pandora as true, then the epithet of Father is apt. And why shouldn’t the story be true? We all descend from mitochondrial Eve, and if we throw away all comparisons to the Abrahamic Eve we are left with the fact that woman was carefully created and blessed by the Gods. Pandora let go of the darkness of our primitive past and carried hope forth into the future. Since we are all related to that single woman, we all carry hope within us, male and female and everyone in between. We are each of us torch-bearers.

I think my task is to lash myself to the mast like Odysseus, trust that my limited understanding will be strengthened and bolstered by cultivating faith in the Greek mythos, and trust that if I proceed with humility rather than hubris, then maybe I’ll make it past the Siren’s rocks. Maybe I’ll make it home.

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