Following yesterday’s post at Polytheist.com‘s Facebook feed, wherein I reminded folks what the platform exists for (and who it exists to serve and engage), a reader responded with a question about one statement I made regarding mythology. Many Polytheists today draw a large bulk of their religious underpinnings from mythological literature, often without clear instruction or training in how to distinguish mythic lit from theological works from religion or religious text, mish-mashing it all together in just one big vat of “these are our wordsies on the pagies!” kind of thing. I’m clearly not anti-mythology or anti-academic, although this particular reader took that message away from what I wrote. Here was my reply to him, which I feel is an important conversation we should be having:
“Hi, [reader’s name]. The complete statement you are quoting here [from my post yesterday] is: “[i]nterest in mythology of ancient cultures, or the scholarship therein, is NOT religion; that would be mythology or literature studies.” Obviously many (but not all) Polytheist religions have bodies of associated mythic literature, often descended from previous ancient oral traditions, which are expressions of the cultures, and societies, and eras that these come from. These mythic literary expressions lend themselves QUITE helpfully, and vitally, to the 21st century pursuits of Polytheist restoration and reconstitution. Mythology is wonderful, and where it exists for a given tradition, it is a HUGE boon to that religion.
However, generally speaking, mythology is a field of literature, NOT a religion. When you attend a university to study mythology, it is generally not part of the Religious Studies or even Philosophy or Theology departments; it is couched in literature or its own field of Mythography, or related. There are LOTS of secular scholars and interested parties in our world today who are fascinated by, and wanting to engage around the subject of, ancient mythology, for reasons which are NOT religious. For example, one regular commenter on our site is a mythology scholar who is a firm atheist and secularist, who is entirely disinterested in our religious communities rights, freedoms, needs, or theological developments: he comments ONLY to antagonize and criticize authors. (Often the mythological needs or inclinations of a secularist are entirely separate from those of a Polytheist religionist.) This person will argue (to death, really) any point he finds a grip on in a column, pulling the conversation COMPLETELY away from religion, and into pedantic nonsense that wouldn’t even be tolerated in true academic circles, secular or otherwise.
It is also important to note that mythologies of the ancient world are only infrequently intended as religious texts. They are records of oral traditions and expressions of culture, and are more often *based* on the religious expressions and values of that people, rather than forming it. The Norse did not rely on “the Lore” for their religion, rather “the Lore” is descended from commentaries on their religion. The Hellenes did not rely on Greek literature for their religion, rather these myths were written in descending explanation and record of the religions of a given Greek region.
Practitioners today often treat mythic literature as a holy book akin to Abrahamic religions and their books, which is in most cases not how these texts were regarded in their parent cultures. They are useful collections of myths for us today, when and how they relate to our individual religious relationships. (Many gods and pantheons simply do not appear in surviving mythic literature, however, and so they are hardly the only means of relating to our gods.)
My bookshelves, similar yours, probably, are lined with mythology books. I draw from mythic literature and recorded story as much as anyone else in my religion’s practices and considerations. My statements are NOT against mythology, or those who utilize mythology in their religious pursuits. Similarly they are NOT to be read as anti-academic, or even anti-secular. (In fact, I’ve dedicated a whole set of statements around this in the FAQ of the site, discussing how we are not “anti-” anything, simply for having a dedicated space for religious dialog.) As some of our primary contributors are professional academic scholars and professors themselves (Edward Butler, PSVL, Galina Krasskova, etc) we as a platform are clearly NOT anti-academia; however we are also not a secular academic publication house.
The needs of secular inquiry are often quite different than those of the religionist, simply put, and we at Polytheist.com ascribe value to the idea that recognizing distinctions between differentiate things — in this case, (1) secular academic pursuit and (2) religious dialog, academic or otherwise — is valuable and important, but moreso, intrinsically necessary for the restoration and reconstitution of Polytheist religion in our increasingly secular world. (This, again, should not be read as an anti-secular statement, but rather that the growing tides of secularism, especially radical secularism, often stand as directly and literally named adversaries and antagonists to religious development, thought, and freedoms of practice. This is evidenced time and again on other websites, whose “comments” sections and forums light up with atheo-pagans intruding on, or repeatedly assaulting in generalized spaces, Polytheist dialog for no purpose greater than to besmirch it, us, our traditions, and our gods. Disempowerment and trivialization are the first steps in the game of eugenic erasure.)
In conclusion, my statement is plainly this: Polytheist.com is a religious site. There are LOTS of secular places for secular mythographers to go and get pedantic and antagonistic about whathaveyou. This is NOT those sites. It does not exist to serve the secular needs of the secular/atheist mythography fandom.”
By equating our religious traditions to our mythic (literary) traditions, atheist scholars are able to couch our religions forever in the field of hypothetical and pedantic debate: we are merely zoo animals for them, playing out in the sandbox that they themselves feel ownership around because of their own lineages (of academic descent). By failing to dissent from this supposition — that our traditions and these myths are wed intrinsically to one another, rather than distinct and occasionally intersecting or cross-supporting — we are failing to bucketedly bail out our still-compromised hull, which is taking on stagnant, heavy water.
“Compromise” is not a good thing, as the line-above statement illustrates clearly. A compromise is often lauded today (by secular theorists) as a mark of maturity and sophistication, a show of humility and problem-solving goodness. However, in the fields of conflict resolution and mediation facilitation, “compromise” is described as a “lose/lose” situation: all parties attached to a given problem suffer an individual or shared loss as the direct result of compromise. “Compromise”, then, needs to be understood as “taking damage and losing something as a result of it”. Sometimes compromises need to be made in the field because real life circumstances call for it — for example, flooding some chambers of a water craft and losing access to them in the process, in order to save the rest of the vessel during a legitimate real-time emergency — but these are by no means the ideal or standard circumstances. “Cooperative resolutions” are, however, described as “win/win” dynamics, wherein all parties are recognized distinctly, and subsequently, their distinct needs are identified and collaborated around to arrive at agreements which serve all at the table in some manner.
Realistically speaking, it is impractical, unhelpful, and also stupid to suggest that mythologies from a given ancient Polytheistic culture are “strictly religious” and therefore secularist scholars are intruding upon them by engaging them. This is an ahistorical stance to begin with; these myths were often recorded for relatively secular purposes, or at least tangental to religious focus; they descended from religions, rather than being the precursor to them, and hold relevance (for example, in the study of world history or literary developments) outside of religion. So, it would be illogical and wrong to attempt to “prevent secular study of mythology”. Right? Right.
However, secular scholars are often pitted against religious communities, unable to recognize the “end point” of their lens of consideration and purview, and intrusively try to deny religionists access to discussing mythologies from a religious/theological standpoint without secular oversight or involvement. In other words, there is an (often unspoken, but sometimes named) view that popularly speaking, religionists — Polytheists — are not welcome in mythographic studies or engagement. (Don’t believe me? Ask some of the many devotional Polytheists working in academia.)
And so distinctions become necessary. Our myths are not our religions, they are tools and fields of study which may lend themselves to our religion. (Similarly, alcohol is not religion, nor is the study of how alcohol is made, nor the science of alcohol’s impact on the human body. The inclusion of alcohol within religious practices does not synonymize them. Read more about how to determine if something is something or something else here.)
But along this same grain, we as religious communities must hold space for these distinctions not merely to preserve the integrity of our hull from secular collision, but also to prevent internal combustion of the sort that leads to detonation. Polytheist religion is about relationships and total world views and experiences, not merely hypotheticals and stories and myths. Our myths are instructive, certainly, but they are hardly set in stone. Regional cultus — that is, the relational recognition that the gods and spirits engage with different regions of people and groups and traditions of people in accordance with different agreements, agendas, or avenues of experiential deliverance — in both ancient and modern execution indicates that mythic structures may switch out, and swap around, or collapse in on themselves in individual cultic bodies, meaning that two closely related cults may have wildly different interpretations or even sequences of related myths. Because the purpose of myths is not to be “the one true mythic story” or a historic account or a metaphysical topography; the purpose of myth is to be myth, which is a vehicle for certain important-to-religion things (such as the vesseled delivery of moral or cosmogonic lesson, parablic illustration of culture/society dynamic, or hidden Mystery road to an understanding of destiny’s hand-hold in the universe.)
Polytheist religion is not a religion based upon mythology, nor an anachronism seeking to recreate through role-play the ways of the ancients, but rather these are religions of relationship and recognized distinctions, which are free to draw equally from myth as it is written or myth as it is re-interpreted or dreams as they are received by dedicated oracles or science or philosophy or experiences mythically unfolded in real and present time against the gods and forces of our traditions embodied physically in some mannered corner of our incarnate world. We must, as religionists, honor the scholars and academic minds (and traditions!) which have preserved so much rich history and accounted record of these ancient ways and stories, while simultaneously recognizing our pursuits as separate (and not even parallel to) those and theirs, which is itself NOT a suggestion of antagonistic regard or dismissal. We must, as religions, honor the academic heritage of our secular world, without allowing it to transform our Polytheist traditions into “Bulfinchian Religion”.
As in many things, it is an “And/Or” rather than “pick one, motherfucker!”. One can be a Polytheist religionist and also enjoy secular study of literary myth. One can be a secular mythographer and also choose not to deny rights, freedoms, and liberties to religious groups one is not affiliated with; the existence of religious groups does not negate the importance of secular scholarship, nor does the popularity and mainstream acceptability of secular scholarship mandate that Polytheist religionists must suspend religious considerations when engaging mythological literature. One can, and indeed, MUST, learn to navigate between these things, discerning between and identifying lenses of consideration, motives of inquiry, and intentions of engagement with a given field, body of material, or practice.
“…polytheistic religious scholarship and study of these texts is its own pursuit and offers unique gifts and insights that are distinct from a secular study of the same material. By that, I mean study of mythic texts and cultural records for religious purposes and employing the tools and insights of polytheistic religion. In academic scholarship, currently there is no place for this sort of religious scholarship of pre-Christian mythic material. You aren’t taken seriously if you attempt it at all. So this is something that is only being done by a small minority of independent polytheist scholars. But I think it’s hugely valuable.”
“the development of theology is not the same as developing mythology. Both can be sacred pursuits that add to the development of a religion, but one is not necessarily the other.”
It is important that we as communities and allied bodies of thought and practice continue to raise the bar as we navigate the nuances of these vital matters. Edward Butler, whose prolific theological and philosophical writings can be found in books (such as “Essays on the Polytheistic Philosophies of Religion“, and “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus“) and in journals and at his own blog, Henadology, at Polytheist.com and in a number of publications available elsewhere, explains that:
“The indispensable element in mythological hermeneutics, for the polytheist, is the relationship with the Gods. This is the touchstone; when Plato criticizes the poets in the Republic, it’s because the things the poets say about the Gods, if they were taken literally, could get in the way of people developing a proper relationship with Them, and that is the prime value. So the whole interpretation of myth by Platonists in late antiquity, where myth does attain a status somewhat like scripture—we find there the term theomythia, “divine myth”—is guided by the truths about the Gods that are inherent in right relationship with Them and constitutive for that relationship. Without this, one would just be doing structuralism, where motifs are shuffled and reshuffled according to an utterly indifferent algebra of signs, or Durkheimian religious studies, where Gods and worshipers alike drop out, as the society is the only integral unit.”
Material, be it physically objective, conceptual, divine, tangible or intangible, can be considered through any number of lenses of consideration, by which I mean through any number of “disciplines“. One might engage in the study of a tree by assessing its relationship to fungal cultures or bacterium or avian tenants, or they may engage instead as an ecologically informed economist assessing the literal chemical dollar value of the annual output of oxygen produced by said tree, or they may instead observe the tree as an impressionist painter, or as a writer of apocalyptic death sonnets, or as an amateur architect designing and building their first tree-house. The tree is still a tree in each of these engagements, but the relationship that the tree holds to each of these observing and engaging agents is an entirely different dynamic. Attempting to forbid the study of avian occupation of coniferous groves on the grounds that these do not properly address the importance of a rare invasive invisible protozoan which feeds on indigenous fungal matter is non-sense, as would be attempting to synonymize the tree-house-builder with the economic chemist with the apocalyptic death sonneteer. There are different distinct disciplines because doing things is a whole lot easier when one can properly identify what it is that they are doing, and why.
Discipline is hard, and the disciplined engagement with various disciplines is harder still. One such tricksy discipline is that of discernment, which as I have written before requires certain combinations of things recognized in their relational sequence: (1) *distinctions* drawn between things identified by their context (2) *definitions*. That is to say…
the discipline of discernment draws upon delineated distinctions which in turn require explored and recognized definitions appropriate to the context.