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.

Evolution at the Ancestors service

Recently, I ran across the lovely poem Evolution, by Langdon Smith.  Even though it’s based on obsolete science and has a few other issues, it stuck with me.  When the UToS ancestors service was coming up, I got a strong feeling I should recite it there to honor the spirit of Evolution, that force of Love and Time that has brought about the life of this world.  I adapted the poem a bit, and it was chosen to lead things off, right after the opening songs.  I recited it to a heartbeat of drumming, and it seemed to work really well, lending a distinct presence to the rest of the service

Here it is, with some links added.  I haven’t marked my edits; it should be fairly easy to figure them out… I removed the “brutish Neanderthal” characterization, and split that section- the art referenced was produced by early Homo Sapiens Sapiens– made it more polytheistic, changed a few pronouns, etc.

By Langdon Smith (updated by Hugh Eckert)

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into life again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man’s hand;
We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was passed.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing sod
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of Gods.

I was thewed like an Aurochs bull,
You were strong and lush and fair;
‘Neath our brows so deep our eyes did keep
The sparks of new wisdom there.
Lit by the glow of our precious fire,
Safe in our rock overhang,
When the moon hung red o’er the river bed
We worked and we danced and we sang.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with careful craft;
You took a limb from an ash-tree slim
And fitted it, head and haft;
Then we hid us close to the reedy tarn,
Where the bison came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone we drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud we called through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
Our lives were full, our lives were short,
Too soon they came to an end,
And mournéd we lay underneath red clay
Until we should live again.

Next you were the chief of a hunting folk,
And I was your shaman mate;
Our tribe made its home ‘neath a tent of bone
And skin from a mammoth great.
For we followed the trail of a foolish bull
With all of our cunning and wit,
And drove him down in blood to drown
In a covered and spike-filled pit.

You carved that feat on a reindeer bone
With sure and steady hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That folk might understand.
For we had heart and thought- and art!
Ere modern laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
‘Til our primal days were gone.

And that was many millennia ago
In a time that no one knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico’s.*
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet;
Our years are few, our lives are new,
Our souls untried, and yet –

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today- well, who can say
We shall not live again?

The Gods wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnish’d them wings to fly;
They sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone folk made war
And the roadways snake past the frozen lakes
Where the mummied mammoths are.

For we know the clods, by the deathless Gods
Will quicken with voice and breath;
And we know that Love, with gentle hand
Will beckon from death to death.
Then as we linger at luncheon here
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.

* Never been to the one in NYC, but I’ve been to Emeril’s Delmonico in NOLA… yum.

Myths changing over time

I was just thinking about the modern re-working of the Persephone myth… the one where She and Hades are actually in love and elope instead of Him abducting Her.  I’m not going to bother digging up references- it’s all over the Pagan community, and even outside it (Messner-Loebs and Keith’s Epicurus the Sage has an amusing example…).  I’ve heard a few polytheists grousing about such modernizations, claiming that they are disrespectful to the Gods involved, and constitute a “politically correct” whitewashing of the truth.

I don’t agree.  Myths are sourced in the Gods and the holy, but they were given form by human minds and human culture.  Whether you think that the Gods change or not (I have my thoughts on the matter, which I may touch on at a later date), human thinking and culture do change, and have changed quite radically since the time the Greek myths were formulated.  Marriage by capture was widely practiced in the ancient Mediterranean, but it’s no longer something considered acceptable in the cultures that formed modern Paganism.  The lens changes, the image changes – even though the source of light remains the same.

This doesn’t mean that I can go around changing myths just because they make me feel uncomfortable or unhappy.  The Gods have the last word on Their stories, and should always be consulted.  I can’t speak for practitioners of Hellenismos or other Greek reconstructionist Pagan traditions, but I know that my group has sung songs for Persephone that use the modern form of the myth- and She was pleased.