Modernity and Myths: Introduction

I am planning to write a series of posts over the year on myths and how modern people regard them.

In the 4th Century, Sallustius wrote one of the oldest known treatises on the Gods – called “On the Gods and the World.” According to Sallustius, myths were divine since they represent the Gods (Themselves) and their activities. He wrote “That myths are divine can be seen from those who have used them… But Why the myths are divine is the duty of philosophy to inquire.”

Sallustius asserts that the meaning of myths may not be apparent to everyone. Although the Gods do give commonsense to everyone, not all use it. “To teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish and the lack of zeal in the good.” He explains that hiding the truth compels people to ponder it. Therefore, myths have revealed (clear) and unrevealed (hidden) aspects of the Gods. Sallustius does assure everyone that “the soul may immediately feel that words are veils to the truth which is a mystery.”

In his treatise, Sallustius divided myths into five categories. Theological myths speculate on the essences of the Gods. (These myths interest only philosophers.) Psychic ones discuss the Soul, while physical myths tell of the activities of the Gods in the world. (Both psychic and physical myths are for poets.) Material myths concern the archetypes of the Gods such as Apollo as the Sun (however the Gods are never archetypes). Mixed myths, the most common, aim at unifying the humans with the Cosmos and the Gods.

In contrast, people raised in industrial societies of the modern age have different ideas. They have many problematic assumptions of myths in general. For example, traditional myths today are regarded as stories to entertain. In contrast, history, which supposes what did happen, is the truth. Actually, history is selective in remembering certain events and deliberately forgetting others. In the minds of modern people, myths and histories have become fused to create a particular vision of reality. One example of this is the myth of progress, which is regarded by many people to be fact.

Moreover, time and memory are regarded differently. The Ancient Greeks viewed time as a block – past is future and future is past. Therefore, divination is prescience since it dips into the time stream. Modern people, in contrast, see time as an upward arrow – past is past, and future is future. Oral tradition is faulty, whereas the written word is true. The Greeks believed that the written word was suspect since the writer could change the myth. For them, oral tradition what was faithful to the truth.

Read a version here: https://hermetic.com/texts/on_the_gods-1

Entering the Mythic Mind

As a part of Polytheistic devotions, the myths need to be read and pondered. Since they are taught as simply stories, myths have lost their sacredness for the everyday person. To counter that, a reader can recall William Butler Yeats placing the poet at the meeting point between heaven and earth. To Yeats, a poet’s calling was to be the oracle connecting two realms. Therefore, a myth can be regarded in this manner.

Myths shape the meaning of human existence within the cosmos. They connect the ordinary with the numinous, by offering symbols to ponder. Understanding them is critical in developing the right way of living. By sharing a gnosis of the various Gods, a myth unlocks the sacred.

Entering the myth means leaving behind the concept of Materialism. This philosophy insists that physical matter is the fundamental reality. It can be regarded by the religious as the denial of the Spirit in all things. Materialism is reflected in the belief that the Gods are only figments of the imagination. The corollary to this is the dogma of Mechanism. That says that everything that happens is the result of predictable cause and effect. In contrast, mythic words are magic, for they weave the world into being.

The mythic mind perceives the world not as an object of thought but as a subject of feeling. While the intellectual tradition of the West emphasizes logic and rationality, the mythic mind moves through perceptions. That means polygenesis is expected and welcomed. Multiple creation stories, which contradict each other, fit together as a whole. For example, in Egyptian mythology, Hathor showed that the fruitfulness of the world is sacred. Meanwhile, Ptah spoke the world, and wisdom was recognized. The world became a living being who “involved a simultaneity of opposite states.”

In “A Secret History of Consciousness,” Gary Lachman writes “The mythic structure existed in a kind of sacred circle (temenos) a self-enclosed sphere containing the polarities of Heaven and Earth, a kind of Cosmic Egg whose protective shell housed human consciousness.” Things are neither this nor that, but before or beyond or both. Time is not linear moving from a past to a present to a future. Past and future are meaningless because time holds all at once. The past is in the present, the future in the past, since events move from a beginning and return.

Reading a myth entails many levels of “seeing.” Myths both make the world and redefine it. To understand a myth deeply is to be transformed by the sacred. It presents the truth that illuminates the reality that everyone is a part of.

(I am planning to blog further on reading myths.)

Levels of reading a myth:
Time:
What is the temporal relation between the teller and listener? Between the various relationships within the myth?

Space:
What is the chronotope (how time relates to space)? What is the structure of the cosmos? What is featured in the myth as landscape?

Quantity (Number):
What numbers have special associations?

Quality (Kind):
What is being described and how? Are there genealogies or a unity of opposites?

Relations/Cause:
The entities in the myth are linked in multiple ways. How do they interact and influence the world? Are things created out of nothing?

The Curious Theologies of Neo-Paganism

After reading “Paganism in Depth: A Polytheist Approach” by John Beckett, I felt unsettled. His books and blog are well-received by Neo-Pagans. So why was I feeling empty after reading the book? I believe that was unsettling to me was that Beckett places the Neo-Pagan in the center of the Cosmos. I interpreted this to mean that they are separate from the ecosystem of the Cosmos, entering and exiting at will.

Beckett (Note) writes for these Neo-pagans on how to deepen what individual practice they may devise. He says, “All of us start with our foundations. Our experiences lead to belief as we try to interpret what happened to us. Our beliefs lead to practice as we try to implement our understanding and as well, we try to re-create our experiences. Practice leads to more experience. This becomes a virtuous circle that draws us into deeper understanding, deeper practice and stronger experiences.”

Tara Burton in her book, “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World,” assesses Neo-Paganism of today. According to Burton, people of these new religions follow the Doctrine of Emotional Authenticity: What matters the most is the personal experience. She asserts that, “the world view of Paganism is the promise of personal and political empowerment through untraditional and literally unorthodox avenues.” Beckett, in his statements, exemplifies that.

Neo-Paganism began as intensely political acts of resisting the mainstream culture. Neo-Pagan “Resistance” meant rejecting Christianity and its institutions. They decried how Christianity re-enforces the patriarchy. However, Neo-paganism is tied to Christianity, since they define themselves in regard to that religion.

Neo-Pagans continue to “resist” Christianity, while remaining steeped in the political culture of Neo-Liberalism. They rebel against the status quo while fighting to preserve it. Beckett and others stress self-sovereignty which has a political and class bias. The idea of a person as “Captain of their fate,” is an upper-class Neo-Liberal idea. Self-sovereignty can devolve into self-indulgence since the person is the hub of the wheel. The corporate mainstream culture is embedded in the religion of Neo-Paganism. For example, they buy products that support their causes, which the corporations’ market to them.

Burton observes that the aim of the Neo-Pagans is, “the new world that will inevitably arise from the ashes of a patriarchal, racist, homophobic, repressive Christian society will be infinitely better, fairer, and more loving than what has come before. The Remixed faith in individual human potential, and in the potential of human beings to rewrite their relationships to one another and to their communities is here extended to the world at large.”

Through their magic and beliefs, Neo-Pagans believe that they can create the new world. However, modern secular society holds those values already. Human potential is the focus of the mainstream society, with an emphasis on self-help.

Burton notes, “But if these ideologies are to survive, they will need to take on a more formal shape. They need to become not merely religious sentiments or implicit theologies, but ironically institutions withstanding the weight of internal dissent and providing a unified from against more established spiritual rivals… provide a sufficiently strong narrative that offer a robust sense of not only meaning and purpose but also ritual and community.”

Notes:
Note. Beckett identifies himself as a “Pagan, Druid, and Unitarian Universalist.”

Polytheism: After Reconstructionism

For Western Polytheists, a lot of their time is spent trying to reconstruct the Polytheism of the ancients. They are trying to revive, reconstruct, and modernize these religions, that were taken from their ancestors. Usually, this endeavor requires a lot of research and reading. The result is that the person’s Polytheism becomes bound up in a dry intellectual tradition. The lore becomes more important than personal gnosis.

At “Axe and Plough,” Marc discusses “Post-Recon? What Happens Next.” For what comes “next,” he introduces the concepts of “renewal, restitutions, and restoration.” His aim is to have a “living breathing religion.” My interpretation of Marc’s terms is as follows. “Renewal” means to embrace the living traditions of the ancients such as piety. “Restitution” is resolving the neglect that humans have done in the cosmic ecological (Note 1) system that they are a part of. “Restoration” is the act of recreating the ancient religion for modern times. Using these concepts, a person can develop a methodology to revive their “living” Polytheisms.

His post can be found here: https://axeandplough.com/2020/05/23/post-recon-what-happens-next/

“The Soul of a Pilgrim” by Christine Valters Paintner offers suggestions on how to do this. Paintner, a Lay Benedictine and Abbess of the Abby of the Arts, writes for a Christian audience but her advice can be applied to Polytheists. In her writing, she presents eight stages of pilgrimage from “hearing the call” to “coming home.” (Note 2)

We Polytheists have responded to the call of the Gods. Our inner fires are lit as we try to relearn and recreate the Polytheism of our Ancestors. However, we do not have a map except for scraps of lore. “Reconstruction” focuses on creating a coherent map out of the scraps. To do this, Paintner advises relinquishing control, as you cross the threshold starting your journey. Then trust that the flow of greater currents will carry you home. For me, it is the direction of the Gods. When I feel lost, I consult the Ancestors and follow their direction.

While on the pilgrimage, Paintner stresses daily practice. For Polytheists recreating their religion, devotions act as touchstones that will sustain them. What offers structure to deepen our faith are the rituals and practices of our traditions.

In her writing, Paintner warns against trying to domesticate the Sacred into prayers that follow our own rules. That is, in my opinion, the problem with modern Paganism. By placing the Gods into “teacups,” people expect Them to be genteel and delicate. In so doing, the Gods become housebroken and companionable to Pagans. This is how humans separate themselves from the ecological system of the cosmos.

In her book, “Earth: Our Original Monastery,” Christine Valters Paintner explains that ecosystem. There are three circles, in her opinion. The egoic circle refers to a person’s private feelings. The next, the ecological circle is the bridge from the inner to the outer worlds. The third circle, the cosmological is where everything and everyone embrace in a sense of transcendence. Now, everything is intertwined and interwoven with everyone.

By re-entering the ecosystem, we become ready to be broken open and moved beyond our safe places. The Holy cannot be tamed. By remaining separate from the Cosmos, we can pretend that our Gods are domesticated. Then we can never encounter the Unknown Gods in their awful mysteries. Rejoining plunges us into the Great Unknowing.

Sannion (House of Vines) has discussed how he intends to construct the Starry Bear Tradition. Through personal gnosis and research, he is tracing how certain Gods such as Odin move through multiple worlds, times, and realities. Searching folk traditions and myths, he is focused on which piece fits into making the puzzle, “whose finished picture has been lost.” By beginning again, Sannion embraces the unknown on his way home to the Starry Bear Gods.

As for me, I am in the throes of an oddly-eclectic devotion. My main focus is Roman and Mesopotamian Gods. However, I have altars to Anubis, Hekate, The Morrigan, and the Gods of Canaan. I also have altars to the Ancestors, the Prehistoric Dead and the Norse Gods. I have no idea where this is going but I am on my way.

Notes:
Note 1. This ecosystem consists of Gods, Spirits, the Dead, Ancestors, humans and the Others (elves, dwarfs, etc.).

Note 2. The Eight Stages are:
Hearing the Call and Responding
Packing Lightly
Crossing the Threshold
Make the Way by Walking
Being Uncomfortable
Beginning Again
Embracing the Unknown
Coming Home

Explaining Monism or Are the All Gods the Same?

blue and white abstract painting

Photo by Tomáš Malík on Pexels.com

In his poem, “In God’s Grandeur,” Gerald Manley Hopkins declares “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” This Jesuit priest and poet eloquently describes monism. “Everything has an essence that points to God’s nature and its connection to all of creation.”

Monism is the theological view that all Gods are of one essential essence. The creator is also the creation. (Note 1) Therefore, the universe is a single closed system of unity. Christian Wolff (1677- 1754) introduced the concept of monism to counter the mind-body dichotomy of Western intellectual tradition. (Note 2) According to Wolff, the mind and the body are manifestations of the same substance. The philosopher Williams James wrote that monism is the “all-form” or the “collective-unit form,” with the whole defining the parts.

In Hinduism, Acharya Ramanuja of Vaishnavism (Note 3) said that Vishnu who created the universe is also the created universe. He taught that the Soul (Divine Self) is separate from Vishnu (Universal Soul). When the person achieves Final Liberation, their Soul merges with Vishnu. The person’s individual nature is not lost but embraced in Vishnu. This theology is known as Qualified Monism (Vishishtadvaita).

In monism, the cosmos is a monad, a single consciousness that expresses itself in many forms. No matter the form, it is still the One. Therefore the Gods would be attributes of the One. Qualified Monism allows the Divine Self to be separate.

In “A Pluralistic Universe,” William James wrote that the “Monism thinks that the all-form or the collective-unit form is the only form that is rational. The all-form allows no taking up of

or dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated.” Disagreeing with that philosophy, James said that unity was not possible since there was always something still out there. Instead, the parts defined the whole, but the parts are not all there.

James further added, “Things are with one another in many ways but nothing includes everything or dominates over everything. Something always escapes. However much may be collected, however may report itself as present at an effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.”

I think that if you have only one entity (creator and created), how does that entity know that it exists? It takes at least two to confirm the other of what is and what is not. For example, without the shadow, how does anyone know what the light is?

Qualified Monism is a puzzle to my thinking. Vaishnavism says that the Soul becomes a companion to Vishnu. How is something apart but not apart? If the soul is separate, is it an equal to the creator? Is it the other entity? But when it becomes a part of the Creator, does not that combination become a different entity?

A river starts when a single stream merges with another stream. The quality and essence of the newly formed river is the mingling of the two streams. As more streams merge with the river, the water does not mix automatically each merger. For a distance, the separate waters can be seen as two colors or currents. Eventually they do mix, with the river being different in color or in current. As James says, something always escapes. Rivers wander over the landscape leaving behind ox-bow lakes.

Notes:

Note 1. Yahweh of Monotheism is separate from his creation. This is panentheism where the God animates all of the universe but transcends it.

Note 2.  The “mind-body problem” is the relationship between consciousness and the brain. It was addressed by Rene Descartes as Cartesian dualism.

Note 3. In Vaishnavism, Brahma, Krishna, and Shiva are attributes of Vishnu.