Myth, Mythographers, and Context

In a recent post about how gods sometimes claim people, the comments section had another involved and sometimes heated discussion of an old question:  “If the gods are virtuous, why do Their stories sometimes involve Them doing unvirtuous things?”  Beckett himself addressed this in the comments, a link back to an earlier post, and in a followup post, and made some excellent points.  But I think I have something to add to this.

To start with, myths are stories about the Gods, but they are stories written down by humans.  Often, the writers and recorders are outsiders, people of different faiths and even of different cultures.  Snorri Sturluson was a Christian; so were the monks and secular writers who wrote down the Irish myths.  For that matter, all the Classical writers who wrote about the contemporary Celtic and Germanic religions were Greek or Roman pagans.  All of them interpreted what they heard through the lenses of their beliefs and cultures.

Even when myths were written down by those of the same faith and culture, the writers were still people, and their thoughts and ideas had an influence on what they wrote.  I’ve touched on this matter before, but it’s worth restating. Myths as written down are lensed not only through the prevailing culture and attitudes of the time, but also by the religious, political, and artistic agendas of those doing the writing.

And cultures and cultural mindsets change over time- Ancient Egypt had something like 3000 years of written history, and it’s a mistake to think that their culture and religion remained static over that time.  The shifting focus of afterlife texts, the rise of local gods to national prominence, the syncretization of gods with similar attributes, the many forms of the myth cycle of Osiris, Isis, Set and Horus… all these were shaped by the beliefs and concerns of the time, and of those who wrote them down in that time.

Myths and stories are still a valid portal to knowledge of the gods.  But we have to exercise discernment.  Much has been written in Pagan and polytheist circles about the “filter”- the set of unspoken and unconscious assumptions and values (monotheist, materialist, dualist, etc.) that have shaped our lives, that shape the culture we live in.  As  polytheists and Pagans, we have to be aware of this filter, and work around or against it as necessary.  But we also have to remember that our ancestors had filters of their own, and take that into account as we practice our discernment.

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