Myths and the gods

The Shakespeare Theater is doing an adaption of the Oresteia (compressing it to one play of three acts) this season, and reading the notes on it in the season guide got me to musing about the nature of myth, especially in regards to the mythic portrayal of the gods. It’s fashionable these days to comb through (for example) the Greek myths and point out (with an odd combination of salacious humor and prim outrage) the “awful behavior” of Zeus.  And too much of the urban fantasy these days portrays the gods and spirits as just people with powers (if not spoiled superchildren or divine vending machines), and treats them flippantly or disrespectfully.

I think a lot of modern Western humanity’s arch snarking about the subject (and an underlying discomfort that causes it) comes from a number of modern, Western ideas:  1) that the gods and their motivations and plans are entirely knowable by and comprehensible to humanity; 2) that every situation allows us to make the right choice that leads to a good outcome or the wrong choice that leads to a bad outcome; 3) that we are capable of judging the gods and their actions as much as if not more so than vice versa; 4) that humanity is the crown of creation, the apex of evolution, and the master of its own fate…

All of these ideas are false from the polytheistic point of view.  Yes, myths can be re-interpreted (with respect), and the gods change the way they work with us as we change and are changed.  One real change about the modern era- it seems to be possible (though not for everyone) to ignore the gods… but if you choose to interact with them, and also try to hold onto any of those ideas, you’re in for a rude surprise.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Keen
    Nov 02, 2018 @ 19:54:22

    I completely agree, though I’ve arrived by a slightly different understanding… I feel a good deal of Western society’s discomfort with lifeways that don’t fall under the dichotomy of the monotheist/humanist umbrella comes from Protagoras’ proclamation that ‘man is the measure of all things’, in that humans are the ultimate arbiters of what is real and what is unreal, what is good and what is bad, what is important and what is of no consequence, and what is true and what is false. I feel it’s a kind of dangerous sort of anthropocentric relativism that’s had the consequence of placing each of us at the center of the universe, so to speak, and has had the profound effect of eliminating even the possibility of non-human logic and non-human priorities from our collective thought. Therefore, everything we encounter is measured against our empiricism, preference, and mores. We’ve eliminated plurality in favor of human hegemony, and I think it’s extremely difficult, even for polytheists, to grasp this, let alone see that many of us still operate within this bias.


  2. aeddubh
    Nov 02, 2018 @ 21:05:53

    Good point. I have to keep remembering that I grew up in a society and culture that is based on dualism and anthropocentrism… just realizing that I’m a polytheist doesn’t make it all go away. Lots of spadework still to do in my case, at least…


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