Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Living Myth

I am taking on a new ethnography project. My work concerns the growth of polytheist religions in contemporary societies. Early data indicates that these people represent a significant shift away from the neopagan sensibilities of an earth-based, magickal-practicing, life-death-rebirth cycle-celebrating religion concerned deeply with the spiritual growth of an individual and honoring the divinity within each individual. Polytheists are reconstructing the religious observances, practices, holidays, and ritual structures that were in place prior to the heavy advent of Abrahamic Monotheism. Their goal is not to cultivate a deeper, more spiritual, and more meaningful individuality. They are instead striving for a relationship with the Gods/Goddesses. They seek to honor their Deities in the way that their ancestors have. They seek community that is based on the principles and ethics that can be found through a more rigorous religious practice. As one interviewee put it, "The point of a relationship with the Gods is to be worthy of their company." This is a sentiment shared by many polytheists. Polytheist practice centers on honoring and revering the Gods- it is a devotional practice, not a magickal one.

One major finding has emerged thus far from my research: myths as living narratives. Once upon a time, the myths that contemporary people see as literature, legend, folktale, plot device in a comic book or movie were actually living narratives. They were passed from generation to generation through the oral storytelling tradition for years before they were captured and imprisoned in the written word. Stories in the oral tradition are remarkably protean. As the culture changes and the people of that culture begin to have a different view of one or two deities, the myths about those deities would reflect these shifts in consciousness. Also, myths are sacred stories- often stories describing the origin of natural forces, mankind, the Gods. They weren't told around a campfire late at night as girl scouts on a one-night camping trip might do. These myths were related in a sacred context- told only on certain holidays, in certain designated sacred spaces, and only to those who were considered to be appropriate initiands into the mythic mysteries.

Times have changed and myths are splashed all over out pop media culture. And they are beginning to take on a life of their own within these media. Two examples of this are the Thor movie that just came out, and the CW TV show Supernatural. The depictions of the gods in entertainment serve to shift people's understanding of what these gods actually are. For example, Sif is a home-and-hearth sort of goddess primarily ruling over agriculture- her flowing golden hair symbolized the harvest and time of plenty for the clan. She was not, as has recently been depicted, a short-haired brunette goddess of War. Yet that has now been grafted onto the preexisting myth, and a strange mixture of the two will coalesce and spread as the honor and worship of the Goddess Sif gains ground.

While I don't love what has been done to Sif, the situation is one modality of the larger situation I see happening in polytheism. As modern people encounter and learn about the old Gods, their understanding of these gods begins to shift. In order for the myths to apply, they must be reconceived as sacred narratives that present ethics, values, and beliefs that are then brought to bear on present times. The myths, in other words, have been resuscitated and restored to their status as sacred dynamic narratives. The more polytheists began to revive and and refashion meaning from the myths, the more the myths are going to evolve to reflect present life concerns. The longer this process continues, the more often that insights and experiences gleaned by modern people who seek to live the truths of their myths, the more that myths are going to transform through incorporating new material and new data. This is not a process of "rewriting" the mythic narratives. Myths are not literature to be perused and then put down. They are living dynamic narratives that have been trapped for thousands of years in the amber of a grapholectic society, and they are being revived and freed to once more be living, dynamic narratives. Evolution in mythic narrative is a positive and natural process consistent with the transmission of myths from one generation to the next.
The Polytheists I am talking with have repeatedly confided that their understanding of particular Gods & Goddesses. The believe their Gods are more rich and complex than can be seen in the existing narratives. Over time, their personal understanding of the myths will be added to the mythic narrative as it is passed from one generation to the next. They are reviving the flies trapped in amber and giving them new life in the contemporary world.

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