Monday, April 25, 2011

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Myths

I don't take the myths of my gods literally. I don't think Athena popped out of the head of Zeus, or that Dionysus was born from the Lightning God's thigh. I have no idea if Syrinx really turned herself into a bunch of reeds while being chased by Pan (though I wouldn't blame her), and frankly I don't care one way or the other if it actually happened.

Myths illustrate things about the gods. The stories of Pan raping nymphs are in there because when you call upon Him, it is very easy to lose control. That doesn't mean all Panheads are rapists, it just means that those who foolishly call Him might do something they don't intend to. Worshipping Aphrodite does not one make promiscuous, but getting lost in the power of Aphrodite might. Myths reveal all that is good, and bad about a deity, and it is a constantly evolving thing.

Myths also illuminate cultures. Zeus was able to give birth to sons and daughters because Greece was a patriarchal society, a man giving birth to his own son or daughter is a display of power, a triumph over the natural order. It's probably less an indictment against Zeus, and more of one against certain men in Greece, similar to how Yahweh's wife was written out of the Old Testament by a different set of men.

I got myself into trouble last week because a few people inferred from my rather snarky post that I discount myth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Myth is truth, about a society, a people, a god. I don't take it literally, but I do heed its warnings.

Last week I was trying to illustrate the differences between (some of) the followers of Monotheistic versus Pagan faiths. To me the story of "Exodus" is a myth, there's no historical evidence for it, and its purpose seems to be to illustrate the nature of Yahweh. In Exodus, his nature is revealed as angry and warlike, a war god par excellence who can bring down plagues and kill every first born child.

If I was a Jew living in Jerusalem, between two much greater military powers, like Egypt and Babylon (or Assyria depending on who is ruling what at the time), I'd want my god to be warlike and capable of protecting me too. When you live between Empires it probably pays to be warlike, so Yahweh became like his followers, and his followers like him. Exodus was never meant to be taken literally, it was meant to be taken as a myth promising the followers of Yahweh that they would one day have revenge on those who would harm them.

The difference between a myth like Moses and Exodus, and Hercules and the Hydra, is that no one is wasting their time trying to prove the literal truth of Hercules. There's nothing inherently wrong with Passover (I do find it a little mean spirited, but I know why it's mean spirited), but there is something wrong with pretending that it was a literal event. The literalness of the account shouldn't matter. If your faith depends on "literal truth" you'll die an atheist or an agnostic, because belief is impossible to prove by its very nature.

So I believe in myth as an illustration of a greater truth that science can't prove one way or another. Three thousand years ago in Arcadia a shepherd began to hear a voice say "Pan" over and over again. He answered the voice and wrote a story about it, that story spread to others and more stories were written. While those stories were being written the god might have whispered in the ears of his followers, or perhaps his followers just wrote tales illustrating their perceptions of Pan. Whatever happened, a body of myth grew up around that god, and it was so telling, so vital, and so important, that it has existed for thousands of years and has continually shone a light on Pan and how to interact with Him.

One of the great things about myth is that it is constantly evolving, and it gladdens my heart when my deities pull the heartstrings of poets and writers in the Modern Age. So while the poetry of John Keats might have just been an English assignment for you, for me "I Stood Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill" is a new piece of the myth of Pan:

So did he feel, who pull'd the boughs aside,
That we might look into a forest wide,
To catch a glimpse of Fawns, and Dryades
Coming with softest rustle through the trees;
And garlands woven of flowers wild, and sweet,
Upheld on ivory wrists, or sporting feet:
Telling us how fair, trembling Syrinx fled
Arcadian Pan, with such a fearful dread.
Poor nymph,--poor Pan,--how he did weep to find,
Nought but a lovely sighing of the wind
Along the reedy stream; a half heard strain,
Full of sweet desolation--balmy pain.

Those who know me well know that I also attach a great deal of significance to Tom Robbins' "Jitterbug Perfume" for similar reasons, and Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson" series of books also sheds new light on the god.

So yes, myth is very much alive, and it's something I take very seriously.


  1. Jason, I like your reasoning, and I agree with your thoughts. You might however want to switch up that lovely poem to a different font color, cause you can't read it unless you highlight it. And that shepherd probably didn't write much down, it was probably spoken and sung from person to person. Other than that, awesome. :)

    I've recently been thinking about what modern pagan myths are, and how they might be evolving over time and how I might want the myths I tell my children to look. Myth is the story of how we see the world, and what we think is important. I think myth and story is more important than we modern scientific people give it credit for.

  2. =) I like your view of myth. Reminds me of Campbell a lot, and I take a similar view to it as well. Mythology is my primary, underlying paradigm, no matter what I claim to be at the moment (ie. Discordian presently). There's always so much one can take away from it, and so much one can learn about mankind.