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29 June, 2012

M is for Mythology

I sometimes get the impression that a lot of people are confused about mythology.

I suspect that growing up in a Christian-dominated culture is part of this.  I commented recently on this elsewhere, actually.  The question of the historicity of Jesus is a constant thread of discussion about Christian mythologies, with a whole lot of people basing their comfort with the theology of the religion with whether or not a particular person lived, died, and was resurrected in a particular way.  It's a fascinating frailty, and one that I think promotes the nutcaseries of Creationists, who, too scared to imagine a universe in which their historical figure may not have been precisely as depicted in their mythology, have a need to literalise all the rest of their myths, too.

(Yes, there exist a number of religions with historical founding dates and known personalities involved in their foundings, but very few of them are strongly focused on the particular person of the founding figure as opposed to their teachings.  It's my very unstudied understanding that this is one of the reasons that Islam finds Christianity to be an imperfect implementation of the teachings of that particular god - that Christian theology got hung up on the messenger, rather than the message, thus requiring another prophet to come along and correct the more egregious mistakes.)

(Though it is of course quite common for outsiders trying to demonise groups to start accusing them of being effectively idolaters worshipping their founding figure - that is, after all, how "Gardnerian" became an appellation for a particular denomination of Wicca.)

So on the one hand, there's this strange notion that a myth has to be a statement about history and the world in order to be functional, which is a legacy of a cultural rooting in a religion that has mythologised history as foundational; on the other hand, there is the post-Enlightenment idea that what is important is the verifiable, the factual, and that is all that counts as "real".  So not only are myths historical, but they have to be factual to be valuable.

Can we kinda drop this nonsense and actually pay attention to the function of myths?

Someone who deals with this stuff sociologically will tell you, more or less, that mythology is the corpus of sacred stories dealing with cosmic truths.  (And 'religion' is the translation of sacred story into functional belief and action.)  And cosmic truths are not the same thing as facts, because facts can never provide you with meaning.  "Meaning" is one of those things that can only happen inside your head - or someone's head.  The structural processes of meaning can be codified into story, possibly even sacred story, but they will never be intrinsic in the scientifically measurable modern world.

In Terry Pratchett's Hogfather, the character of Death made this point quite sharply when he said (if you will forgive my lack of smallcaps):  "Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy."  These are things we make, not things that we find; our stories tell us how to make them, or how to fail.

The realm of meaning is one that is navigated in part through shared cultural landmarks, and I think in the modern day a lot of that has been separated from the spiritual.  We may still think that 'red' is a good mark for danger or peril, and use it to say 'stop' as a result, but we don't have that laced through the rest of our lives, we no longer have our ritual procedures written out in red ink above our liturgies, nor is the red and black of the land something that most of us are living with every waking hour.  When folklore comes up that ascribes meaning to events or makes connections between things, the ordinary thing to do is to say "superstition" and dismiss it.

And the gods get turned into big cosmic babies, or the sneering "beard in the sky", because the stories about them become more and less than they are.  Because the ancients must be idiots, Thor is just "Oh, this is the story people told to explain why there was thunder", and now that we have science, we don't need Him.  The most trivial, superficial aspects of the gods are thus all that remain, and the concept that we can know how thunder happens according to science and hear the rumbling of that goat-drawn chariot just doesn't appear to cross the mind.  We do not care, anymore, about the coming rain in partnership with the lady of the wheat-gold hair, so the meaning of the marriage of Thor and Sif isn't something that anyone bothers to think about; our boisterous common folk are schooled into nine-to-five jobs or inappropriately, well, common, so their large-appetited and raucous defender becomes unworthy of honor.

And that's not even one of my gods.  I'm sure if I actually, like, knew something about Norse powers I'd be able to do more in-depth things.

But these are ways of expressing things within the world.  If the moment of creation - call it the Big Bang if you like, it doesn't matter - was the orgasm of a deity, what does that mean about our relationship with sexuality?  If humanity is the tears of a deity, do we care about whether they were shed in joy or sorrow?  If the sun becomes weak and frail when His daughter leaves in a snit, what does that say about the importance of women, of family, or of harmonious social relationships?  If both order and chaos stand to place the crown upon the king's head, what does that mean about power, rulership, the nature of government?  If a powerful, beautiful god becomes terrible and destructive when not aligned with the hand of love, what does that mean about power, about beauty, about awfulness, about love?

These are sacred stories.  They are not a periodic table of deity, a historical recording of events, or an engineering plan.  We humans are creatures primarily of kronos; They are primarily of kairos.  In Egyptian terms, we function primarily in djet, linear time; They in neheh, cyclic time.  Every time is, or can be, the First Time; every moment is simultaneously unique.

In religious work, we combine djet and neheh into a spiral of time, and become cosmic.


Bastemhet said...

Awesome. Actually, you´ve inspired me to take a look at the Kemetic myths and really delve into how we can apply what they meant to Kemetics of that time, and what we can draw from them today. I like that idea. Thanks!

bottledhammer said...

I don't think this is purely Egyptian thought - I am an American who has Celto-Germanic Gods - see the cycle yet linear to create a spiral effect of sorts. I think you know what I mean in that regard..

Thank you for posting this.