Tag Archives: myths

Disrespecting the Gods

A guest post from Aspasía S. Bissas

 

I blame Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson & the Olympians) and Neil Gaiman (American Gods).

All right, I don’t really blame them, but they and a host of other fiction writers and TV showrunners aren’t helping. By turning the Gods into mere characters, showing no real regard for the beings that inspired and populate their stories, they’re setting the stage for an atmosphere of disrespect.

There’s an emerging culture of scorn for the Gods. Not the usual scorn heaped on Them by various monotheists and atheists, but a new form, coming from people identifying themselves as pagans and polytheists, even adherents of the Gods they’re disrespecting. You can find them online, especially on Tumblr, where cursing a God out happens as casually as shipping a favourite couple.

Zeus is a common target for misplaced hate. “F*** Zeus” is tossed around both jokingly and angrily, in both cases usually in reference to His perceived promiscuity and adultery. Hades is another such targeted God, thanks to the myth of His abduction of Persephone (I won’t even start on His name being used synonymously with the Christian Hell).

There’s also a gentler form of disrespect evident, where those who feel connected to a particular God or Goddess decide that they can speak for Them. I’ve seen many a post presenting Aphrodite as a magical gal who sprinkles blessings like candy on all who believe. Although these posts claim to offer insight into the Goddess, they show little awareness of Hellenic forms of worship or the concept of kharis. Neither is there a sense that the writer is sharing personal gnosis; rather, the posts read like wishful thinking or fanfiction, where the Gods exist to befriend and take care of humans.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be close to the Gods, or even with questioning, doubting, or rejecting Them; but our interactions with the Gods should come from a place of knowledge and learning, not from reactionary ignorance. Aside from applying modern human standards and judgments to ancient stories and deities, what these instances of disrespect all seem to have in common is a lack of knowledge, as well as a lack of interest in delving deeper. The Greek myths are not canon, and they’re certainly not meant to be taken literally (the story of Persephone and Hades, for example, represents transformation, not actual abduction and imprisonment—a point many critics seem to miss). Furthermore, much of what has been written and translated about the Gods has come to us from non-pagan, often antagonistic, sources. They can’t be treated as reliable or definitive.

For those interested in the Gods of a particular path, there’s no getting around it—you need to study. Read contemporary sources and scholarly works (and pay attention to potential biases of writers and translators). Read books and articles by other pagans and polytheists. Read multiple versions of myths, and pay attention to symbolism and deeper meanings. Talk to other pagans and polytheists—if something about a particular deity or myth bothers you, ask others what they think. Do you want a relationship with a God or Goddess? Learn how to best approach them. Find out what you can do to forge a meaningful connection.

We don’t have to abandon our favourite authors, ignore what bothers us, or stop being fans of the Gods. But when the urge to disrespect them strikes, maybe we should question our own assumptions, rather than the Gods themselves.

 

Aspasía S. Bissas is a Hellenic polytheist and seeker of everyday magic. She’s the author of the dark fantasy novel Love Lies Bleeding, and can be contacted via her website or Facebook page. She can also be found on Tumblr.

 


What Paganism can learn from comics

There’ isn’t a definitive narrative for the Marvel universe. People keep re-writing Batman, Superman, Spiderman, retelling their origin tales. The X-Men have had more re-boots and parallel universes than most of us could keep up with. Some people only ever see the films. People keep telling new stories about these characters because they are popular. The stories keep up with wider social changes. None of these stories ever is or ever should be considered the ‘real’ version.

Imagine that as a person far into the future, you had some of the surviving comics to draw on. You had the middle bit of a film, a book review, three comics, seven fragments of fan fiction and the script for a crossover project. You don’t know which ones came first. You don’t know that you have fan fic in the mix, much less which bits fall into that category. Whatever sense you made of the content, it would not seem to you as it did to the people who created it.

When we look at what writings there are about myths, legends and ancient histories, it is of course tempting to think there’s an underlying truth to uncover. A real version. We look for coherence in stories about Gods and heroes. Coherence is generally in short supply. It occurs to me that we have something in mythology that has more in common with modern comics reboots and re-imaginings than it does with the agreed and fixed texts of book-orientated religions.

There may never have been a fixed, original story. There may be no single coherent truth to uncover. When we’re talking about figures like King Arthur, or Loki, the modern treatment of them in films and books may simply be a continuation of what’s always happened – people tell stories about characters they like.


Ladies of the Lakes

The Lady of the Lake raising her arm from the water to offer Excalibur to Arthur is a powerful image, one of the defining images of Arthur’s myths, I think.

Working on the graphic novel adaptation of Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, I’ve been obliged to notice that it’s not just one lake lady. Also, as a personal note, in some versions, Nimue/Vivien is a lady of the lake.

The second, less famous lake lady rocks up to Arthur’s court bearing a sword only a good knight can pull from its scabbard. This is a bit of an evil joke, because the man who takes the sword is then fated to kill someone he loves with it. Swords from lakes may be magical, but they aren’t reliably benevolent.

Who are these ladies? Spirits of place? Half-forgotten deities? Literary plot devices? A bit of minds-eye candy?

As I’ve been colouring on the project, I’ve thought about them a lot. I’d like to offer my unsubstantiated personal uncertainty on the subject. (It’s not gnosis, I really don’t know…)

We know the Celts made offerings to water, including offerings of weaponry. There are sites, in lakes, where lots of booty was thrown in. I think this has to be connected. One possibility is that the ladies of the lakes are a vague folk memory of the lake beings to whom those offerings were made. Another option is that they’ve come into being to explain the underwater hoards. It makes sense if you find a treasure under a lake to imagine it belonged to someone, and from there it’s not very far to the strange women lying in ponds distributing swords as a basis for a system of government.


Folklore, myth and new writing

All three of the titles in this set of reviews have a really interesting relationship with folklore and mythology.

Coal House, W.S. Barton I came to quite by chance through a Twitter conversation. It’s a really creepy ghost story, with high levels of tension but not a lot of gore. I couldn’t put it down and read it in one evening. I can definitely recommend it. A haunting landscape, and a great plot. The folklore role in this is really interesting. A couple buy an empty house on impulse. Then the local people start being weird at them, but no one wants to talk about it. There’s some dark and troubled folklore associated with the house, but people seem reluctant to take it too seriously, until the deaths start again… everything anyone needed to know was there in the local folklore all along, but people coming in from further afield, and people not wanting to seem superstitious keep that valuable information out of the mix for too long. Given how well, and how long important information can survive in oral tradition, there’s something very pleasing about the way spooky tales do tend to validate the folklore while the people who sneer tend to be eaten first.

More about the book here – http://www.rudlinghouse.com/books/fiction/coal-house-by-w-s-barton/

 

Kadath, Charles Cutting is a graphic novel published by Sloth (Hopeless Maine has moved to this house). Its a tale that both operates within and cunningly subverts the Lovecraftian mythos. I think what’s happening with Lovecraft is a fascinating case study in modern myth making, and Charles has certainly added to the mix. Based on The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, is makes explicit that the main character from Lovecraft’s story is really Lovecraft himself and brings to the fore all the detestable things about the man. It’s no mean feat to make a story viable with a loathsome main character, but it works – not least because it’s visually so appealing. Set mostly in the realms of dream, it shows a dreamworld that seems more like Dunsany than Lovecraft, and is enchanting. Carefully avoiding any spoilers, this is on one level a moral tale about people who obsess about the wrong things, and creative souls who are more enchanted by their own egos than by anything… well… enchanting. A remarkable and gorgeous piece of work, highly recommended.

More about the book here – http://www.slothcomics.co.uk/kadath.html

Invoking Animal Magic, Hearth Moon Rising. This is a book offered as a study text for would-be students of animal magic. I confess I didn’t read it that way, not being someone who is looking for study options at the moment. I read it instead as a fantastic collection of myths, folklore, and personal insights relating to a set of creatures. Hearth Moon Rising has picked out a selection of creatures with particularly rich and magical folklore and explored the differences and similarities in tales from around the world to help the reader connect with these various beings. I especially like the way that there’s no attempt to shoehorn international folklore into single narratives, and that the diversity in stories is kept really visible. The tales are brilliant, and shared with considerable wit, wisdom and insight. It was an absolute joy to read. I suspect it’s a great study course, but if you aren’t looking to practice, it’s well worth having for the stories, and everything you can learn and enjoy in them. As it’s an illustrated book, I recommend getting the paperback – an ebook won’t do the visuals any justice at all.

More about the book here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/invoking-animal-magic


Romance myths and other grey areas

There is a myth that what women want is a guy who is forceful and dominant. He shows up in films and romance fiction as the ‘alpha male’ – suffering from entitlement issues, a lack of sensitivity and an ego the size of a house. From such archetypes, a subset of young men, and perhaps older ones (I don’t see them so much on twitter) assume that being aggressive, pushy and demanding is what women want, and that the closer you get to raping women, the more they will want you. Mr Grey takes this unfortunate archetype to whole new depths, by all accounts.  I haven’t seen or read 50 Shades and mean to keep it that way because rape described as romance makes me very angry.

What’s attractive about the alpha male romance? Often it’s the takedown. It’s the woman who has the sexual power, self confidence, virtue and strength to reduce the snotty, self important git to a pile of humiliated mush, willing to sacrifice all pride and dignity if only she will love him. It’s not the bad boy archetype that women are most usually attracted to, it’s the bad boy put on a leash and brought to heel. In many ways it’s the same as the attraction of the emotionally unavailable male (the Mr Spoks) and the allure of thinking that restraint and control might be breakable, for the right woman.

The trouble with these stories is that they encourage women to think that if you stick it out long enough and are good enough, the less than ideal bloke will be magically transformed into something you wanted. People only change if they want to, and taking someone on in the hopes of turning them into something else is seldom the best plan. Such stories as these also have some guys thinking that what women want is to be bullied and mistreated – mostly they don’t, mostly they want to rescue that kind of man from himself. On the whole it’s a story set that isn’t doing us any favours.

A man who knows what he wants is undeniably attractive, if he can ask for it, and if he can take no for an answer, and do so with some grace and style. The man who forces his wants onto others isn’t attractive. While we don’t have as many stories with the roles reversed, it should be equally true that a woman with the confidence to responsibly express what she wants is attractive, and a woman who tries to take, isn’t. The biology biases the probabilities a tad here, but there is more to failed romance than ugly, forced sex.

The stories we tell each other shape our expectations. It occurs to me that my mother and grandmother and many other women of their generations loved ‘Gone with the wind’ – a tale in which a snotty young lady who cares nothing for other people’s feelings or happiness, sets out to force her desires onto the world. She’s no kind of role model either, and romantic expectations based on that book and film combo would be about as unhelpful as the current shades of grey. Perhaps the rest of us could agree to leave Mr Grey and Miss O’Hara in the same cupboard, as possibly deserving each other, and come up with some better stories about human relationships.


Second hand Graves

Elen Sentier’s guest blog got me thinking about my own relationship with Robert Graves, and the wider implications for Pagans. Like Elen, I first came to Graves through my family. I recall my father reading The White Goddess when I was a child. Ideas of maid, mother and crone entered my mind, uncritically. The sacrifice king, the oak and holly kings, all got into my mind. Only later did I find out where I’d picked all of that up. I didn’t acquire the Celtic Tree calendar or the issues of Ogham as a sacred, ancient and Druidic language as a child, but for second and third generation modern Pagans, that’s easily done.

When I finally read The White Goddess, and enough of the Golden Bough to develop an impression (I hated it, was mostly my impression…) it struck me that Graves was writing poetic truth. Taken on those terms, his work is amazing, awen-laden stuff and well worth your time. It suggests incredible magic just beyond your reach, and the desire to grasp that may keep you fruitfully questing for the rest of your life.

However, the trouble with Graves, is that a lot of people seem to have taken it as history. Ideas from The White Goddess have leached into Pagan writing to a remarkable degree. I’ve seen dashes of Graves all over the place. His interpretations of Ogham shape the consensus understanding now dominating modern Paganism. His tree calendar has gone distinctly feral while the sacrificial kings he acquired from Frazer are now so well established that we’ve all accepted the folk song ‘John Barleycorn’ as a religious expression. Having grown up with folk as well, Mr Barleycorn always struck me as being a personification and celebration of the beer – not ancient Paganism, but part of that innate human inclination to celebrate.

Most of us will first encounter the ideas of Robert Graves second hand and out of context. The odds are it will be the tree calendar. If you’re a Druid, you might get crane bags, the battle of the trees or the ogham interpretations. Drip fed the ideas of Graves, they become part of your world view, and if you get round to The White Goddess having internalised a few of these, it’s all too easy to read uncritically, miss the poetic, and invest in the idea of Graves as History.

We have made modern myths. Myths are in essence stuff people came up with, and the measure of a myth is not its age, but what it gives to us. In that regard, a modern myth can be just as helpful as an old one. How helpful is Graves? The idea of working closely with trees, and the possible pattern is definitely useful, but the dogmatic approach that ties trees to months regardless of what grows where you live, seems counterproductive to me. I have great personal dislike for his triple goddess archetype – maid mother and crone divides femininity into pre-kids, breeding and no longer breeding, trapping women into a restrictive identity story. I do not like his attitude to women, muses or goddesses. Woman as passive, inspiration giving muse/goddess, man as inspired creator and poet underpins his thinking. Stuff that! And then there’s the sacrifice kings, another narrative of heterosexual power exchange, male sovereignty, passive goddess overseeing…  it does not speak to me. I do not want a role in this story.

If you find Graves inspiring, as myth or as poetry then go for it, enjoy. My concern is that we’ve used his work to restrict ideas of goddess, femininity, gender roles and ideas about what it means to live this life as a Pagan.


Working with myths

One of the things that makes a truly archetypal story so powerful is that you can change a lot of the superficial details and it still holds up. There’s something in the essence of the story that can bear being stripped of its original details, and will still make sense. It enables retellings, and the translating of myths into more familiar settings where we can be readily reminded of their relevance. It can also be fun and playful. For these reasons there’s a lot of borrowing from established greats.

Artistically speaking this creates a number of challenges. Firstly you have to figure out what you think the essential parts of the story are. If they don’t automatically make sense in the context of your re-telling, you have to work out what parallel thing they can become. Secondly, retelling needs to be more than transforming the surface details to fit a new setting. It has to speak to us, showing us why this story is interesting, or relevant. As a creative person you can’t just rehash the familiar, you’ve got to try and bring something of your own to it, as well.

Back last winter I was asked to write a series of short stories for a podcast. Curious to see what potential listeners would like, I floated out a request for themes and suggestions on facebook. One of the things that floated back to me was the idea that I could do a modern re-telling of Beowulf.

How do you make Beowulf make sense as a story in a modern context? First and foremost it is a tale of a lone hero overcoming the monster that has decimated a community. We have the hero, the mead hall, the killer, the fight leading to the torn off arm, the premature celebration of victory, return of the deadly return of the monster, perilous journey, the pool, the monstrous mother and finally, success. In a Viking narrative world, all of those features make sense because they are how reality works for the people inhabiting it. I could see the space to go a bit Clive Barker on the monster side, but everything hangs on the set up that will get you to suspend your disbelief just far enough…

And if you’re curious as to what I did, you can listen here…

Mr Grendell Requests


Weighing your heart

There’s a concept in Egyptian myth about how, in the afterlife, the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather. A heart that is too heavy with sin and guilt will sink and is eaten, and thus endeth everything for that person. I have absolutely no certainty about what happens to us when we die, but I have read a few things that interest me around how the consciousness we develop might impact what we get when our bodies pack up.

So, with no assumptions about the literal truth of any of this, what might make our hearts weigh heavy, and what might lighten them?

It would seem obvious to think about the weight of pain we have caused to others as balanced against the love, joy and compassion we have brought into the world. How does that balance up? The odds are we do not really know. We can look at our intentions, and whatever feedback we get, but quite how we affect anyone else remains a mystery. Doing good things is no guarantee, because there are people who take offence at bleeding heart do gooder types. In being nice to people we can reinforce their most destructive behaviours. In insisting on thinking the best, we can become enablers of abuse. If we do not know the consequences of our actions, how does that weigh on our hearts?

‘Sin’ is a word I find difficult. The idea of sin is so often religiously based and doesn’t have as much as it might to do with how we treat each other and the planet. Which leads me round to the thought that prompted all of this. I woke this morning with the idea of a carbon balance in my mind. If there are gods who weigh and measure, what if the current balance is all about our carbon? How big is your carbon footprint? How many trees have you planted? How much carbon is there, weighing on your heart?


Pagan pondering the Mediaeval

I’m in the process of reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and I think it has implications for the mediaeval texts beloved of modern Pagans. I’m very aware that I’m wading in to a topic I barely know about, so, I’m just waving a thing because it may need waving.

The first section of Don Quixote was published in 1605. It’s a satire on what was at the time a popular genre across Europe, namely the chivalric romance. By the looks of it the chivalric romance goes back to the 12th or 13th century, easily. There were enough texts and readers for a satire of it to make sense. The premise for Don Quixote is that the man has been driven out of his wits by reading too many of these things, and has come to believe they are true.

Chivalric fiction, as far as I can make out from this book, is all about your knight errant, who has to have some largely unrequited love interest and run around performing impossible feats in her name. The Arthurian myths are specifically referenced by the Spanish author, as being examples of this. I was aware of Chretian de Troys, (is that how you spell it?) and that Lancelot came to the Arthurian tradition from the French authors, but had no idea why. The answer, it would appear, is because this is a genre and it was happening across Europe. It’s like superhero fiction and romance combined. There’s magic in it, and mighty feats. There’s also a drawing on actual historical figures and events such that many romances of this genre are a tangle of the two, again, from what I can make out.

There are so many texts beloved of Pagans that were recorded in the Mediaeval period, and that purport to represent something older. I’ve read The Tain, I’ve failed to get through Le Morte D’Arthur, there’s all the wondrous Welsh stories, and they exist in a context. A genre that spanned the continent and centuries, full of heroes, epic fights, marvellous heraldry, lavish descriptions of costume, unlikely speeches, magic, impossible acts… and a tendency to draw on history for inspiration. Of course this does not rule out drawing on myths as well, authors are seldom averse to stealing good material and recycling it.
When we come to these texts as Pagans, it is often with our eyes to the ancient past, and what might be revealed, and not to the context of the stories themselves. I suspect the context matters. Genres tend to shape the ways in which stories are told, the elements you play up, the things you skip over. In this case it may explain both Lancelot and the grail myths, which always struck me as a bit shoehorned in. Maybe they were. But what else owes to literary habits of the time and not to the ancient Celts?

It occurs to me that we might have a better shot, as a community, at finding the truly old stuff in these stories, if we went in by first pinning down the rules, conventions and normalities of the chivalric romance genre, and then looked for what doesn’t fit. Giants and wizards, princess and challenges, they all fit the genre, from what I can see. I’m not sure we’d have much left. Of course that a thing fits in a time and place does not rule out its being older, but it does raise questions.
I know I have neither the time nor the skill to do the work that might be useful on this score, and I have no idea if anyone out there is working on this stuff, and from a Pagan perspective. So, I’m waiving and waiting to see what anyone else comes up with.