Tuesday, January 22, 2008
The Two Worst Things to Happen to Mythology, Part 2
Coming up with a word to describe the second horrible thing to happen to mythology is as easy as the previous one was difficult. The problem at hand in this case is monotheism. Mythology requires a certain sense of a capricious, chaotic universe. Superstition supplies that universe with a legion of mischievous gods and lower spirits, intent of confusing and delaying the progress of the hero. Polytheistic and animistic systems handle this problem very well. For the polytheist the acts of, say, Ares, to thwart an activity are cancelled out by Athena or Poseidon or whatever. For the animist the excitement of an enraged or helpful spirit fulfills the same purpose. So the mythical hero's journey is accompanied in turn by those who help and hinder. The gods themselves take on different forms and each holds a specific archetype. There's the supreme god, who theoretically has all the power but is beholden to the whims of the lesser members of the pantheon. There's a warrior god and a defender god, each with a specific role to play in expansion or protection. There's a god of water, a god of land, a god of crops, a god of winds, and so forth and so on. Each of these gods works in its own way, according to its own opinions, politics, and feelings toward the hero. By theorizing the anger of one god or the appeasement of another, the hero or the myth teller can account for the vagaries of the human experience. Monotheism does not have the ability to offer similar explanations. In a system of one, all-powerful deity, all of those random events in the human life cycle must be explained either by blaming the god itself or finding an external explanation of equal power to the godhead. This causes any number of problems and almost invariably results in a rejection of either mythology or monotheism -- sometimes both -- to one degree or another. The Jewish Bible doesn’t actually give the impression that the people were monotheists at all. Exodus 20:3, begins the Ten Commandments with “You shall have no other gods before me.” This is not a monotheistic stance, but a henotheistic one. The henotheist believes that there are many gods, but only one is in charge and deserving of devotion. The particular mindset created much of the conflict throughout the Jewish Bible, as the people continually wandered off to worship neighboring gods and had to be brought back in line by the timely appearance of a prophet. It sidesteps the problem with monotheism and mythology by allowing for the idea that maybe Yahweh is the best, but Baal and Dagon still show up every once in a while to screw with things. It also puts the onus for destruction on the people, not the deity, by basically saying, “Hey, you were sent in to slavery because you abandoned your god.” This would later be dressed up for philosophical and theological purposes as the argument from Free Will. It pops up a lot in Christian theology, so it’s fortunate that I’m going there next. Christianity had two handy ways of dealing with the problem of mythology v. monotheism. The first, and the one that has probably been the easiest, was to basically co-opt all mythology in to its own cosmology. One the one side, we got the Catholic Saints. Saints often took on some aspect of a mythological hero or god and were then venerated as intercessors. They, themselves, were not gods, but they were far closer to the level of deity than most and could, therefore, plead the cases of mere mortals before the throne. The stories themselves often contain mythological elements and in order to be canonized the saint had to have miracle stories attached to their particular biography. On that level, we can look to the rules for canonization as a storehouse of the values of the Christian age in the exact same way we can look to modern myths to understand the values of this age. So the requirements of excess piety and healings of a miraculous nature tell us something of what the ideals of the Christian Church were when those rules were handed down. (The rejection of the Saints by the Protestant denominations, meanwhile, has probably had negative repercussions because it has forced a Protestant mythology without any real structure. Although this is blue-sky speculation, so don’t hold me to the thought. I might explore it later.) Saints are all well and good to explain all of the good things that happen to Christians, but they don’t really help with the bad stuff. We find the answer to that problem in the characters of Satan and the demons. Satan briefly popped in to the Jewish Bible in the book of Job. “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, ‘From where do you come?’ Then Satan answered the LORD and said, ‘From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.’ The LORD said to Satan, ‘Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.”(Job 1:6-8) Satan and Yahweh then famously make a bet and kill off all of Job’s livestock and his children to see what he does in response. Satan is presented here as a Trickster god and his bet with Yahweh is decidedly similar to something like Loki and Thor going off to mess around in Midgard (in fact, one of my favorite myths is basically a story of Thor and Loki traveling to Jotunheim, the land of the giants, to mess with them). Everything that happens to Job in the story is to, as I said, settle a bet. It doesn’t fit in with a straight monotheistic worldview, but makes a lot of sense in a polytheistic setting. Replace Yahweh and Satan with Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera and you’ve just written the first part of the Judgment of Paris. When Satan pops up again he’s playing basically the same role. Jesus had just spent forty days in the wilderness when Satan attempted to convince him to give all the Jesus-y stuff up in favor of the quick fix. The conversation was more confrontational than the friendly bet, but it was still cordial and at heart a conversation between two reasonably equal players on a field. The Trickster is a common archetype in mythology. This particular god often comes and goes at will with the specific task of initiating chaos in the world. Certain conceptions replace the Trickster’s sense of humor with malice (or, in the case of Loki, move from humor to malice over time), but there’s still a general sense that this particular god is tolerated or even liked by the rest of the pantheon and is, in some way, necessary. The reason is simple: the Trickster actually is necessary. Humanity has always recognized on some level that chaos is a part of life. The Trickster is simply personified chaos, as is the wont of religion. Just as Loki drifts towards malice as the Norse cycle continues on, Satan drifted, too. The Book of Revelation shifted Satan from the Trickster to the Adversary and most modern conceptions of the character point back to that and two other sources for biographical purposes. Dante’s Inferno probably didn’t introduce the conceptions of Hell we have today, but it seems to have taken on a canonical level when it comes to such things, in spite of the fact that it was a thinly veiled political screed from a good thousand years later (of course, those of us who use the Documentary Hypothesis tend to say that Revelation itself was a thinly veiled political screed that really shouldn’t have been canonized in the first place). When people refer to Circles of Hell and think of it as being an underground location, that’s the Dante influence speaking. Many of the ideas might have come from Biblical sources, but a lot of it is basically made up. Milton’s Paradise Lost came six hundred years later and pretty much filled in the remaining blanks to the biography of Satan. It, too, leaned on non-Biblical traditions and flights of fancy to spell everything out. Somewhere in all of this, though, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism have to be brought up. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion from the Persian Empire. It’s thought that the spiritual Good v. Evil conflict worked its way in to Christianity from Zoroastrianism through Judaism from the time of the Babylonian Captivity (got that? Good). The Manicheans came in during the Sassanid Empire (the Sassanids were a Middle Eastern empire from around the end of the Roman Empire until roughly the rise of Islam). Manichaeism was similar to Zoroastrianism, but considered a heresy by basically everyone. They lend their name to a Christian concept known as the Manichean Heresy that basically says that Satan is as powerful as the Lord. The Manichean Heresy remains in modern Christianity. It’s just not talked about too much. But we can hear echoes of it in phrases like, “The Devil made me do it.” I’ve also run in to enough Christians who seem to think that they’re engaged in constant spiritual warfare for their own souls to know that many people have a tacit belief in a Devil on equal footing to their God. There is a third string, too, that goes back to that whole Free Will argument. Following the whole fruit eating scandal, “the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’”(Gen. 3:22) This is a fear reaction, much like the Tower of Babel story I mentioned a while ago. It doesn’t necessarily set people up to be part of the pantheon of the gods, but it does open up the possibility. And the fact is, the record indicates that the opening up of self-awareness in people frightened Heaven itself. No matter how it’s evaluated, though, mythology has a way of imposing itself on monotheism. Mythology, meanwhile, cannot survive in a purely monotheistic construct. It’s too dirty and asks too many questions about underlying assumptions. Monotheism, then, has to subvert mythology and make it agree with the monotheist’s underlying assumptions. Up next: An attempted synthesis.