Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Problem with Mythology

"The Rape of Europa" by Reni (1639)
We should probably be cautious when we read myths – too many of them are the spun out creation of storytellers that risk reducing the Gods to characters in a fairy tale. The great, divine and essential nature of the Gods may thus be obscured. It may to wise to be mindful that the popularity of some myths in the ancient world may have contributed to the decline of polytheism – and may also impede contemporary comprehension of the Gods. Christian writers of the Roman era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Minucius Felix, invoked Greco-Roman myths to mock the Gods, and therefore belief in them. The Christian poet Prudentius went so far as to write “depart adulterous Jupiter, defiled with sex with your sister” (cited in Beard 2 at 361). If we were to accept myths at face value then the early Christian fathers could be occasionally convincing, in terms of eroding our belief in the Gods. If we understand that myths may be beautiful and instructive in some way (sometimes acting as a gateway to sacred knowledge, for deep truths may be embedded within, as may be the case for many of the stories that we think of as no more than fairy tales:, but that they should always be treated with caution and never treated as somehow equivalent to religious scripture, then we get closer to the truth.

Roman polytheism did not, and does not, have a scripture containing holy stories that its adherents are bound to believe.
"The traditional religion of ancient Rome ... was unlike most religions of the modern world in many important respects. The fact that there were many Gods and that their number was not fixed (more deities might always be discovered at home, or imported from abroad) are only two of the things that make Roman religion so strikingly different from Judaism, Christianity or Islam. It is also the case that there were no tenets of belief that an individual would be expected to hold, no equivalent of the Christian creed and no authoritative sacred texts which laid down doctrine. That did not mean that there was a complete religious free-for-all ... But the crucial fact is that the community's adherence to its religion was demonstrated through action and ritual rather than words [Beard at 278-279]."
As I see it, the core of Roman polytheism is to venerate the Gods of the natural world – to live in harmony with the Gods, and thus the universe at large, so to achieve pax Deorum (peace with the Gods), because this is the environment in which people can be productive and successful (Shelton at 370). It isn’t about believing in stories told and retold by poets, writers and entertainers. The myths which speak of Gods vying for power, marrying each other and so on can tell us about what attributes the ancients ascribed to various Gods, and these myths are wonderful because they have helped to keep a kind of knowledge of the Gods alive for the past millennia or so, following the imposition of Christianity across the lands of Europe, but the myths are stories not scripture. For the most part they do not constitute sacred knowledge – though, when their deeper meanings are grasped, they may hint at it.

In particular, we should exercise caution when we encounter the Hellenic based view of Zeus (equated with Jupiter) as the father-king of the Gods, for this view was not universal in the classical age and it seems very unlikely that the Gods are arranged in a monarchical and patriarchal system, for these things surely belong to the world of the profane. As contemporary scholar Jörg Rüpke notes:
“Roman polytheism was very different from Greek. The internal structure of the pantheon, for example, was far less clearly marked: the various deities were placed on a more or less equal footing, not in a clear hierarchy [Rüpke, The Religion of the Romans at 16].”
Speaking for myself, I regard myths with a mixture of affection, reverence and caution.  Not everyone will agree with my thoughts on this matter but that is fine, for a diversity of views is a natural part of the polytheistic experience. I'm not looking for dogma in religion. If we honour the Gods through ritual action (maintain a shrine, make offerings, etc) we are all Roman polytheists. Though myths are the stories with which we are familiar, just as the Gods are diverse, so too are our attitudes to the myths which surround them.

Postscript (Sept 2015): for a much deeper look at the importance of mythology than I was able to offer please see Prometheus and Problem of Myth by Carmelo Cannarella.

  • Beard, The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 
  • Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge University Press 
  • Rüpke, The Religion of the Romans, Polity Press 
  • Shelton, As the Romans Did, Oxford University Press
Written by M. Sentia Figula.

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