Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Faith and Mystery

Studying mythology is very much a journey of faith for me. I don't talk about it a lot on here, because I don't like to step on toes-- it isn't really about TRUTH, or one right way, and I've always felt faith and religion are and should be very private things. Whatever my beliefs, they're between me and the powers that be, and the same for yours. We don't have to agree. In fact, the world would be a much less interesting place if we did. I wouldn't be able to study both Classical Myth and Norse Myth along side my own Catholic upbringing, if everyone agreed, and where's the fun in that?

But as a Classicist (and interestingly enough I rarely feel this way about Norse myth), I often find myself wondering why in tarnation anyone would want to worship gods that were so cruel, so arbitrary, so generally unjust. What is there to honor in a god like Zeus, who rapes women as he pleases, or even Athena, the vaunted goddess of reason, when she throws it all out the window to curse Medusa for being unfortunate enough to draw Poseidon's eye. It's so easy to sit back and say we've evolved beyond that kind of thing, as a race. We've wised up enough to realize that worshipping a god like that makes no sense. There is no substance, maybe, or there is no justice, or there is no worth.

It's easy to think, in those unguarded moments of arrogance, that we are much more civilized now as a culture. But in America, we are by and large a culture firmly rooted in Christianity and Judeo-Christian myth. On the surface, the New Testament does present a more genteel deity than the gods that the ancient Greeks worshipped. The Olympians could be called a lot of things, but Champions of Forgiveness and Love they were not, and Jesus and His Father were something of a revelation in that respect. At least to the Greeks and the Romans (and perhaps that's why it took hold in the west, but the east maintains its own much older faiths still).

But if you look at the Old Testament, you can see the same shapes of those Olympians. Punishments were harsh, sacrifices were demanded, and God could be just as cruel to the people who didn't live by His rules as any Olympian. You don't need to look much beyond Genesis for examples: The punishment and banishment of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, and if I had been Abraham, asked to sacrifice my own son to PROVE something to an all-knowing God, I don't think I'd have gone along with it myself. Beyond Genesis there is much, much more, and I could list them all day-- one of my personal favorites  is the story of Samson, in Judges (a strange thing to say, I know, because Samson is incredibly mean-tempered and cruel. Maybe he reminds me of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, who I love to hate, but I also pity Samson and Delilah both).

In fact, I almost find reading the Old Testament to be even more disturbing than Greek Myth. Maybe because I'm not connected to the Greeks with my own faith. But maybe too, that's part of the point. MAYBE faith is supposed to be about the mystery. MAYBE if we aren't wondering if we're a little bit insane for trusting these crazy gods, we're doing it wrong. Maybe that's what faith is all about-- the mystery of whether or not you're completely sane for going through it all and trusting and believing, in spite of everything.

Of course, all the talk of mystery could just be the Catholic in me. But I think, for all the things that change, we will never give up faith in things that don't make sense.


  1. I agree the myths have a mystical power.

    And hey, don't forget about Asclepius, who gave Jesus a run for his money. This was a god who would take anyone that everyone else rejected, would ignore class and offer services for practically free to those who couldn't afford to pay. He was indeed worshipped as not just a healing deity, but as a savior, in part because he was struck down by Zeus for helping humanity shake free a bit of the grip of death. He also maintained connections with Chiron, his teacher, and nymphs, in their role as healers by water, and in that connection with the nymphs, he catered to the common man. Lastly, being the son of Apollo, who was later merged with Helios in the Egyptian style, his role as the supreme deity was slowly fermenting, and in my opinion his cult would have succeeded to a great extent if the early Christians didn't go on the attack against paganism.

  2. Ahhh I had indeed forgotten! That is VERY interesting to think about. That might make a really awesome alternate history book, actually.

  3. If either of you writes that book, I will read it!

    I've never thought of the Christian God as very compassionate and forgiving, so to me He is just another facet of Diety that fits right in with the crazy, superficial, selfish Greco-Roman/Egyptian/Norse pantheons. But they can all teach us something about humanity (Athena, as you mentioned - brilliant and reasonable, and still subject to jealousy and rage) and our faults. And I do love the mystery of mythology.

  4. It's funny because I don't really have the same reservations with the Norse pantheons. Maybe I haven't done enough reading yet to get the real feeling of their flaws. Thor has a temper, sure, but he's just as quick to forgive and forget. Odin is more about wisdom and wit than much else. My impressions of them are much more forgiving across the board.

    And you're right that God himself does not teach us all that much about humanity. Jesus does, to some extent, but the Old Testament God was not so much about any of that.

  5. I think the Norse pantheon is by far the least petty and jealous of them all, but maybe that's only because I know the least about them ;) Still, knowing the world-view of the people that worshiped them, I think they would be less petty and jealous. I think a lot of the negative values we attribute to the Greco-Roman (and to slightly lesser extent Egyptian) pantheon was just a view into the pettiness and jealousies and world-view of the people who worshipped them.

    You can take it further with the Christian God (also a bit petty and jealous, like all iron-age peoples in the area at the time) and Jesus (a complete antithesis of that) because most of Jesus' worshippers at the time were the downtrodden. Slaves, women, ect. People without power, who desired compassion and forgiveness above all else, I imagine, as well as this idea that in the next life things would be better. The problems came when the powerful people, who didn't necessarily crave compassion and forgiveness above all else, decided to make him their Deity. A compassionate Diety with an asshole Father (erm, sorry God) doesn't mesh so well with teh greed of the powerful, but the idea of ultimate forgiveness does.

    So, um, know we all know how I feel about that. *steps off soapbox*

  6. There is a difficult to research conspiracy theory that states that the Catholic church took so long to release translations of the final Dead Sea Scrolls because they contained evidence that the bible was taken from/based on the same stories that fed so many other mythologies. Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse. All of them share similar components.

    What you have to say about faith is spot on, I think. If we had knowledge of why the histories and tales were and weren't reasonable/real, then it wouldn't be faith any more.

    But once you decide to worship a god of chaos, none of it has to make sense any more. It's not supposed to...just a suggestion ;-)

  7. That is a very interesting way to analyze the religions, Sticky! But I think the shift in Christianity came before the powerful-top-of-the-food-chain really got involved in the worship. I believe it started with the early church leaders themselves who were trying to moderate the teachings of Jesus to make the faith more acceptable to the Jewish leaders, so that it was less of a threat to the status quo in general. No doubt that people in positions of power used the church for their own purposes too, and a lot of that has trickled down as well.

    Loralie: It absolutely takes from those same traditions, and I don't think anyone needs the dead sea scrolls to see the proof of it. There are so many common themes and similar stories, the flood being probably the most easily recognizable cross-culturally.

    But I am not sure that you have to worship a god of chaos in order for things NOT to need to make sense. :) I am pretty sure any faith gives you those same permissions to say "it doesn't have to make sense, it just is."

  8. Just looking at it from a purely 'story' point of view, I know sacrelidge, all that 'bad' stuff gods did was the foil to a collective sense of 'humanity' isn't it?

    My purely athiestic astetics lead me to wonder if they weren't really 'just' a way for men, to appologize for their 'human condition.' In a simplistic sense they didn't have to feel so bad if their wife got raped because it was 'Zeus', right? or if life just sucked so bad, that they could at least have 'faith' that it wasn't their fault and they could embrace the 'meanness' of their gods as a means to an end. Namely to boost their sense of what was right and good about their 'behavior' OR To pray for strength, and glory and the death and en-slavery of their enemies.

    In a very basic sense its certainly compelling, and not too far from the norm of human psychology, which we don't have to look to far into our distant past to validate, now do we?

  9. Tom: I would not doubt that plays a role. The misbehavior of the gods makes a perfect excuse for a whole slew of things, and certainly it allowed for blame shifting. Sacrifice and ritual gave people a sense of control-- if the gods were angry, they could do something to try to appease them, instead of not having any way of stopping something terrible that was going on in the world. I mean, the gods might not have listened, but they could at least TRY.


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