Thursday, December 1, 2011

Literal and figurative mythology

One thing about my education is that it was rather varied and sometimes put me in classrooms where I was way out of my element. I somehow ended up frequently the only scientist in rooms full of art and literature majors.  Or the only Anthro major in an American Indian Studies class (awkward!). How about the only Pagan in a philosophy of religion seminar, or the only mom in a class about women and labor (as in work, not babies).  It made for some memorable and entertaining (for me, not necessarily others) experiences.  It also tended to teach me a lot about myself, my beliefs, how I view life and what I present to others.

One case in point, I took Celtic Literature as part of a general education specialization segment (my concentration was in folklore, so I took Fairy tales and Folklore and Classical Myth in Movies).  While reading the Tain (part of the Tain Bo Culainge or Cattle Raid of Cooley), the class was "discussing" (read congratulating each other on complicated and unprovable interpretations) the symbolism of the two bulls.  I couldn't help myself, I had to spout off my theory, which was based largely on my experience growing up around cattle.  What if the the bulls battling each other and destroying everything including themselves wasn't really symbolic of anything other than the fact that animals sometimes fight and kill each other, especially when they aren't being taken care of.  It seemed plausible.  The professor and the class were not impressed.  In fact, they refused, in all of their vast experience around cattle (I should note that Northern Nevada has lots of ranches, and my aunt and her husband own a cattle ranch), to even discuss the possibility.  I related the incident to two other professors (one in the anthropology department and another in Comparative World Lit); they thought it was an interesting idea that deserved some thought and that it was a funny criticism of art and literature as disciplines.  I never stopped thinking about this.  It occurred at a time when I was beginning to accept that reality is not, actually, observably concrete.  We all experience it a little differently, but our cultural constructs are what lead us to impose borders between real and not.

At what point is mythology meant to be literal and not symbolic?  Our human ancestors were not much different from us in terms of biology and brain development.  They lived their lives very aware of the cycles and cruelties sometimes found in nature.  They were also better acquainted with death, loss and the things you must accept because there is seems no rhyme or reason for them to have happened.  Mythology in some cases provided explanations for seemingly inexplicable forces of nature; in other cases, it provided the framework, history and significance of tradition, ceremony and symbols.  Were they meant to be taken 100% literally, or were they beautiful, subtle allegories that we know longer have the cultural sophistication to appreciate?  Were our ancestors naive, or are we?  If they could speak to us, to explain their mythologies, their worldviews, would we be surprised by their cleverness, their ingenuity, their acceptance of realities we cannot fathom?

As a modern Pagan, how do the myths fit into your life, your worldview and your spirituality?  How do your reconcile ancient stories that may have been altered many times for many reasons to the world here and now?  Do you view them as glimpses of the past only?  For me, the answers depend largely on which myth we are talking about.  To me, Arianrhod's curse on her son was not about him; it was about having her choices taken away.  The Iliad and the Odyssey remind me that even gods can be fallible and that it is never a good idea to insult anyone's deity.  Bloddeuwedd is proof that you can create all you want, but you can't always control those creations. Pwyll's arc of the Mabinogi can be read as cautionary tales against action without thought.  Coyote's tales illustrate how creative chaos can be, as well as remind me not to get too full of myself, lest the Trickster gods decide to instruct me in the failings of pride.


  1. For me, myths are mostly stories about how people thought (or learned, in dreams and during journeys) how the world happened. They reflect what people knew about the world back when the story was originally invented. And it depends purely on the person listening to the story NOW whether there is any deeper meaning in the story - whether it resonantes with something our inner self knows. Everything else is just fancy plays.

  2. We can't know what the storytellers intended, particularly with stories that existed for a long time before they were frozen in ink. We can make guesses - sometimes reasonable, well-informed guesses - but they remain guesses.

    What we know is what the stories mean to us here and now. They may be timeless truths, inspirational wisdom, connections to our ancestors, or simply entertaining tales.

    Their true value doesn't come from analyzing them with your intellect. Their true value comes from letting them speak to your soul.

  3. Thanks, Diandra and John! I'm glad you both commented. Some stories ring very true to me (like Rhiannon's response to Pwyll after he called out to her "Better for the horse, had you asked sooner), while others I wonder if they were ever meant to be didactic or religious.


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