Friday, September 30, 2011

Necessary Masks for the Larger Mysteries

This is part three of an ongoing series of posts on the nature of gods and spirits. Part one described the necessity of personifying experience in the medium of oral story and song. Part two concerned the different modes and purposes of empirical vs. religious modes of conceptualizing experience. In this part the two ideas are unified to discuss the reason that ancient cultures related to gods and spirits as if they were people.

Who are these creatures called the gods? They are dismissed as idle fictions by atheists and monotheists, capitalists and clergymen alike. But gods, in the plural, are found wherever human beings are found -- unless human beings claim exclusive rights, power and privilege, dispossessing the gods of their homes. Those who ask what a god is, like those have to ask what a mountain or an eagle or a forest is, will not learn the answer from a book. --Robert Bringhurst, The Tree of Meaning

Humans in every time and in every place in the world (besides, very arguably, the modern West) lived alongside a range of gods and spirits. The universality of this phenomena points to it as a basic human trait. Theories abound as to why humans should treat with these entities, and whether such beliefs constitute an adaptive trait or a mere “spandrel” or by-product of other adaptive mechanisms. One such theory posits that personification came about through the usefulness of a human template for understanding the complexity of non-human phenomena.
The most order is supplied by the highest organization, and the highest organization we know is that of human beings. Interpretations of the world based on experience of ourselves and other humans offer not only the significance of a powerful agent but also that of an organizing agent. Models based on humans account for a uniquely wide range of phenomena because humans, whom the models reflect, generate a uniquely wide range of phenomena. Anthropomorphizing the world at large therefore produces a world that is significant both practically and intellectually. (Guthrie, 89)
However, I believe that this is only half the story, told from a modern perspective which has limited an originally broad palate of personal relationships to only one kind: that with other humans. I believe our ancestors personified their experiences into "gods" and “spirits” not only because human beings evolved to have complex relationships with other humans, but that these relationships were simultaneously developed in response to interactions with the non-human world as well, making personification an overall adaptive strategy to both the human and nonhuman environment. Thus, seeing gods and spirits as “people” was as complex a relationship as humans could have with both other humans and non-humans, and was not originally a strategy reserved for only interacting with other humans beings.

Though we have obtained many very impressive understandings and abilities through the discipline of (imagined) objectivity, these scientific understandings do not provide us with an adequate model for actually embracing the full range of human experience and relationship with the nonhuman world because of the divisiveness and distancing of empiricism. A scientific worldview can create better theoretical understandings than a theistic one, and is thus extremely useful, but at the price of becoming distant from the experiences and phenomena under study, and thus removing a dimension of relatedness. This artificial disconnection from the world has been extremely damaging to our minds, bodies, societies, and planet through its insistence in seeing things as objects of study and exploitation instead of people worthy of respect. A dissected frog does indeed reveal the inner workings of the frog, but it is not the experience of the living, breathing frog, and, furthermore, it kills the frog.
Whatever a culture's vision of a world, the world at large remains our home, and that home embraces both the vision and it shadows. The world as our home is always multi-leveled. Like a house, it has many stories. We need to attend to this more holistic view of the world, to a view which embraces surface and depth, to a view which allows us to experience the world not just in terms of facts to be discovered and known, but also in terms of stories to be imagined and heard. Indeed, we need to do so not only because we live our lives through stories, but also because we need stories to make the living of life a human reality. (Romanyshyn, 183-184, italics in original.)
I believe that we have yet to discover a functional metaphor that accomplishes these things as well as personification.
Indeed anthropomorphism offers the greatest intellectual coherence possible. As humans are coherent yet uniquely diverse, so models based on them bring coherence to unique diversity. The point needs underscoring because the standard views of anthropomorphism...claim just the opposite: that anthropomorphism is oddly irrational and is based in confusion, in wishful thinking, or both. Once we see that anthropomorphism results from our most powerful model, we can see that we are bound to engage in it everywhere, not only inevitably but also reasonably. (Guthrie, 89-90)
The forces which animate the world are greater than us and the totality of their interactions is beyond our comprehension; the idea of phenomena as "people" is a strategy to create an understanding of experiences by embracing them in most complex sort of connection of which we are capable: a personal relationship. Despite critics of religion, this relationship does not preclude a simultaneous empirical understanding, any more than sympathizing with a friend’s troubles prevents us from also having a psychoanalytic understanding of the source of the troubles. In fact, I would argue that having the intimacy of a personal relationship with phenomena creates the kind of insight that is commonly used to improve empirical understandings and allow breakthroughs to new ones.

It is important to remember that personification was not a process in steps where first humans encountered phenomena, then anthropomorphized them into persons, and then established relationships with them. Rather the phenomena was approached using the familiar schema of personal relationship in order to create the initial understanding of phenomena.
We do not first personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when, and because we socialize with them. Recognizing a 'conversation' with a counter-being--which amounts to accepting it into fellowship rather than recognizing a common essence--makes that being a self in relation with ourselves. (Bird-David, 78, italics in original)
This sort of human-to-nonhuman relationship may at first seem radically different from a human-to-human one, however, we must remember that "it is as entire persons, not as disembodied minds, that human beings engage with one another, and, moreover, with non-human beings as well." (Ingold, 47) Furthermore, it is not the case, as Guthrie seems to assert, that human beings first learned to have relationships with one another in some sort of vacuum, and then used this as a template to form relationships with non-human phenomena. Rather, these relationships evolved simultaneously and influenced one another.
In this process, the relations that human beings have with one another form just one part of the total field of relations embracing all living things. ... There can, then, be no radical break between social and ecological relations; rather the former constitute a subset of the latter." (Ingold, 59-60, italics in original)
Humans learned to have cultural relationships with one another at the same time they were learning to have adaptive relationships with their environment, and these were both based on a general model of relationship, not one modeled purely upon the other. A prime example of the reciprocal nature of the evolution of this understanding is the use of natural phenomena to classify tribal clans in terms of animal, plant, or meteorological totems. In totemism humans classify the nonhuman world in terms of themselves, and themselves in terms of the nonhuman world. For this reason spirits and gods are often spoken of in familial terms: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, sister, brother, etc. This is not a metaphor comparing human familial relationships to relationships with non-humans, but rather the use of terminology to identify the same sorts of relationship,
since the spirit inhabitants of the land contribute to human well-being equally, and on the same footing, as do human forebears, providing both food, guidance and security, they to can be ‘big’ fathers and mothers. As such, they are ancestors of a sort, albeit ones that are alive and active in the present. (Ingold, 141)
At the same time as they personified them, however, ancient peoples also realized that gods were not the same as human beings, as shown by the strong contrast that was made between gods and mortals across cultures. This contrast is apparent in roots of the words for "gods" and "men" in various Indo-European languages. "As the gods were *deiwos, the heavenly ones, man was 'the earthly', designated by a derivative of the old word for earth, *dheghom-/dhghm-." (West, 124) Though gods were imagined as being like humans, they were not seen as humans. The gods had greater scope and power, they could change their shapes, appear in different guises, manifest as natural forces or a human emotion; their boundaries and limits were less distinct, their motivations often unfathomable. Keeping the gods distinct is necessary to avoid the extremes of antrhopocentrism, where the projection of human relations onto the nonhuman is accompanied by the assumption that the non-human shares our perspective and concerns.
Without some kind of desire or attraction we would not be roused to the labor of knowledge in the first place; but to know truly, we must also seek to surmount the snares and ruses of desire as best we can. We must try not to disfigure what we strive to know through fantasy, or reduce the object of knowledge to a narcissistic image of ourselves." (Eagleton, 122)
If antrhopomorphism becomes antrhopocentrism, relatedness begins to break down because the human end of the relationship begins to overwhelm the phenomenology of the non-human. The objective of modern polytheistic personification should be neither to replace the empirical point-of-view when that view proves useful, nor for man to recast the world in his own image, but rather to maintain a human relatedness with the nonhuman world.
If others become too transcendent, they disappear off our radar screen and we lose all contact. We then not only stop seeing them directly but even stop seeing them indirectly as this or that other. The possibility of imagining, narrating, or interpreting alterity becomes impossible....
On the other hand, if others become too immanent, they become equally exempt from ethical relation. In this instance, they become indistinguishable from our own totalizing selves (conscious and unconscious). The trick is therefore, I suggest, not to let the foreign become too foreign or the familiar too familiar. (Kearny, 11, italics in orginal)
Keeping gods and spirits somewhat alien encourages us to try to understand them as phenomena that are ultimately unlike humans. Personification is still the best tool we have for maintaining the complexity of our relationship to the non-human world, and remains the most instinctual (as anyone who has yelled at a computer can testify,) but we must remember that it, like empiricism, also ultimately falls short of revealing the true nature of phenomena. I think the best we can do is to keep both personified, spiritual understandings and scientific, empirical understandings in the toolbox of human comprehension, each employed as needed, sometimes in concert (with empiricism as an anchoring screwdriver providing the unmoving pivot for the turning and tightening embrace of a spiritual wrench,) to make meaning of human existence in relation to both human and non-human existence in the fullest way possible.

Thus gods and spirits are indeed real, but not in a purely objective and literal sense where a supernatural explanation is required to validate their reality. The gods are not “Big People in the Sky;” however, seeing them as "people" allows us to establish the most complex and active relationship we are capable of with those forces which are larger than us. By having a relationship with these forces, we "hear" them and are "heard," but this does not mean a big hand is going to come down from the sky to do things for us. Rather by "listening" and "speaking" with gods and spirits, we stay in touch with these forces, which allows us to react to them in interactive and beneficial ways. I would argue that a ritual such as praying for the blessing of a plow does not directly affect those aspects of agriculture which we now understand scientifically, and it is certainly clear that a successful crop can be grown without such rituals; however, I would argue that successful farmers have an intimate understanding of, and relationship to, the land and its cycles of growth. Formalizing this relationship, speaking to the gods and spirits, and doing the ritual in their honor, can enhance this understanding and put us into the most complex relationship we are capable of having with very real forces of fertility, all the ones that science has classified and those it has not, while maintaining the totality of experience, thus allowing us a heightened sensitivity of perception and interaction with those forces, which can only benefit our attempts to grow crops, especially if this attempt is being made by a group of people united by the same cultural conception of deity.

Ultimately, gods and spirits are cultural masks which we place upon nexuses of experiences whose complexity is keenly felt, but never fully comprehended. The mask cannot be torn away, for what is underneath is too complex to be completely apprehended by the human mind. Thus, the purpose of these masks is not to conceal these nexuses, but rather to reveal them thorough a personified interface so that we might enter into a relationship to them, to give them eyes, ears and mouths so that we may not only see them, but be seen by them, hear them and be heard.
Far from dressing up a plain reality with layers of metaphor, or representing it, map-like, in the imagination, songs, stories and designs serve to conduct the attention of performers into the world, deeper and deeper, as one proceeds from outward appearances to an ever more intense poetic involvement. At its most intense, the boundaries between person and place, or self and the landscape, dissolve altogether. It is at this point that, as the people say, they become their ancestors, and discover the real meaning of things (Ingold 56, italics in original).
Telling stories about gods and worshiping them is not a fantasy that diverts one's attention from an objective, empirical world that is the one and only truth of human experience, rather it focuses attention on relation and interconnection and, through a nonanthropocentric sense of personhood, immerses one in an intimate understanding of the world, rather than creating distancing models of it which, despite their undeniable usefulness, should not be mistaken for the length and breadth of human experience of the world.

Over the years I have developed varying levels of relationships to gods and spirits, as have many other modern people, and, despite the many advantages of modernity, many traditional cultures have maintained these connections. I suspect that they have found, as I have, that the experience is fulfilling, practical, and very real. However, though I may sometimes treat gods as if they were "big people," I, like our ancestors, recognize that gods are not really persons in the same sense which human beings are, but rather forces greater than I with which it is healthy, and perhaps ultimately necessary, to have personal relationships. Neither supernaturalism nor pseudoscience is required to validate the reality of this experience. It is equally true that a modern, rational explanation, like the one I have laid out here, is also not necessary to validate the meaningfulness of this experience, but it allows me to reconcile the apparent contradictions of seeing myself as both a modern person who recognizes the explanatory power of science, and a heathen who feels compelled to honor the polytheistic gods and spirits of his ancient ancestors, without violating the essential premise of either worldview. Using the language of those ancestors, however, all I need say is: "Hail the gods!"

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the adaptive role of gods and spirits in helping to maintain sustainability in the human use of natural resources.

Copyright 2011 by The Heretical Heathen


1. Note that I prefer the term “personification” as in “making into a person,” to the term “anthropomorphizing” or “shaping into a man,” as I do not think having human-like relationships with non-humans means they should be treated as men, but rather they should be dealt with as their own kind of “person”. Though Guthrie hit upon the great practical importance of what he calls "anthropomorphism", he ultimately still saw it as false empirical reasoning which should be replaced by the "better" understanding of modern science. He, like Boyer who elaborated on his theories, does not seem to perceive the importance of personified relationships as a natural method of staying connected with the larger social and natural worlds, and thus its contribution to human well being and survival, even among modern people who also possess the ability to utilize an empirical worldview. Atran and Ingold, however, who, in my opinion, approached the topic with more breadth and rigor than either Guthrie or Boyer, do see this potential.


Bird-David, Nurit, "'Animism' Revisted: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistimology" in Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, Feb. 1999

Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009

Guthrie, Stewart, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, 1993

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Kearney, Richard, Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 2003

Romanyshyn, Robert D., Technology as Symptom and Dream, 1999

West. M.L., Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gods as Experiences, Not Explanations

This is part two of an ongoing series of posts on the nature of gods and spirits.

The stories of gods and spirits, contrary to the supposed "just so" purpose of mythology, were never meant as a literal explanation for experiences of the real world. The question of the existence of gods would not be one that would have interested our ancient ancestors since gods were a cultural framework of meaning for holistically understanding phenomenological experiences, rather than empirical accounts of those experiences.

In the empirical/scientific paradigm, human experience is dissected into disciplines and aspects such as psychological, cognitive, emotional, sociological, cultural, natural, biological, metaphorical, etc., but our ancestors, not having many of these conceptual categories, do not appear to have differentiated them so precisely.
A god, so considered--more specifically, a potent and powerful god, one with a history--constitutes the manner in which a group or family of stimuli of isomorphic motivational significance reveals itself to or grips the collective (communicated) imagination of a given culture. Such a representation is a peculiar mix (from the later empirical viewpoint) of psychological and sociological phenomena and objective "fact"--an undifferentiated mix of subject and object (of emotion and sensory experience), transpersonal in nature (as it is historically elaborated "construction" and shared imaginative experience). The primitive deity nonetheless serves as an accurate representation of the ground of being, however, because it is affect and subjectivity as well as pure object (before the two are properly distilled or separated)--because it is primordial experience, rather than the mere primordial thing. (Peterson, 113)

Gods and spirits allowed our ancestors to categorize experienced phenomena in meaningful ways by formulating stories to direct attention to, and enhance participation with, meaningful aspects of those experiences.
Far from dressing up a plain reality with layers of metaphor, or representing it, map-like, in the imagination, songs, stories and designs serve to conduct the attention of performers into the world, deeper and deeper, as one proceeds from outward appearances to an ever more intense poetic involvement. At its most intense, the boundaries between person and place, or self and the landscape, dissolve altogether. It is at this point that, as the people say, they become their ancestors, and discover the real meaning of things. (Ingold 56)
This is quite a different enterprise from trying to accurately capture the empirical nature of experience by removing human participation as far as possible. "Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomena" (Peterson 9.) Our ancestors did not make a clear distinction between literal and metaphorical concepts;
the 'physical' and 'literal' themselves were not what the 'physical' and 'literal' are to us. Rather, the phenomena themselves carried the sort of multiple significance which we today find only in symbols. Accordingly the issue, in a given case, between a literal and a symbolic interpretation, though it could be raised, had not the same sharpness as of contradictories." (Barfiled, 74)
After a storyteller had recited a sacred story or poem, or a priest or headman made a sacrifice, our ancestors would not ask "do we mean this literally or figuratively?" as they did not make this distinction as often or as definitively as we do today. They also probably didn't ask the question: "just what is a 'god' anyway?" since it was the immediate experience of gods that interested them, not their existential status. "The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive." (Peterson, 9) Thus while dealing with the question of the reality of gods in a modern context we must always keep in mind the difference in classifying and communicating experiences in ancient times verses now.
In mythtelling cultures, theorems that address the nature of the world are expressed in personified form. The grammatical statement made with personified elements is what we call a story. Where the languages of myth are displaced by those of mathematics, a different assumption is made. Even where we all know better, both the constants and the variables are treated as if they were dead. A grammatical statement made with depersonified, depersonalized elements is know by and large as an equation. We find them in music, abstract painting, and academic prose as well as mathematics. These are denatured forms of myths, in principle no better and in principle no worse. Tradition matters in both cases. But in both cases, who is doing the telling, and how, matters every bit as much. (Bringhurst, 104)
 Though the scientific worldview has indisputable explanatory and technological power, it is not an avenue to some kind of absolute truth. It is sometimes easy to forget that our modern separation of experiences into categories is artificial and
that the evolution of consciousness hitherto can best be understood as a more or less continuous progress from a vague but immediate awareness of the 'meaning' of phenomena towards an increasing preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. The earlier awareness involved experiencing the the phenomena as representations; the later preoccupation involves experiencing them, non-representionally, as objects in their own right, existing independently of human consciousness. (Barfield, 142)
An artificial and imagined distance is required to create the illusion of objectivity for the purpose of separating and examining experiences scientifically. "...whenever we attempt to explain this world conceptually, we seem to forget our participation within it. Striving to represent the world, we inevitable forfeit its direct presence." (Abram, 40-41) This distancing from immediate experience in favor of theoretical objects often causes us to forget that phenomenologically our immediate experience always remains an undifferentiated mass of the psychological, cognitive, emotional, sociological, cultural, natural, biological, and metaphorical "objects" we have created, and that "much of this mapping the world in the advance of our experience of it has meant the substitution of quantitative measures for the world's qualities" (Romanyshyn 51). imagines a universe divided into living subjects and dead objects. There is no space for anything intermediate, ambiguous, and metaphorical.
This is a restrictive perspective and it has led us to believe that entities, other than human beings, taking on interior subjective qualities are merely "anthropomorphized" or "personified" objects, not really persons in the accepted meaning of that word. If we find persons elsewhere than living in human bodies, we conclude that these persons have be transferred from "in here" to "out there." We believe we have unconsciously put our experiences into them; they are merely fictional or imaginary. We have made them up just as the persons in our dreams are supposedly made up out of the experiences of our ego. We do not believe that imaginary persons could possibly be as they present themselves, as valid psychological subjects with wills and feelings like ours but not reducible to ours. (Hillman 1-2)
 In reality there is no true objectivity. "All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment" (Eagleton 120). The moment our carefully trained rational minds lose the limited focus afforded by our prefrotal cortex, the illusion of objectivity evaporates and we realize that we, like our ancestors, are always immersed in our experiences.
It is not a private, but a collective dimension--the common field or our lives and the other lives with which ours are entwined--and yet it is profoundly ambiguous and indeterminate, since our experience of this field is always relative to our situation within it. The life-world is thus the world as we organically experience it in its enigmatic multiplicity and open-endedness, prior to conceptually freezing it into a static space of "facts" -- prior, indeed to conceptualizing it in any complete fashion. (Abram, 40)
 Our ancestors, immersed in these worlds and in participation within them, sought to represent the powers they felt all about them in terms of a multitude of gods and spirits. These polytheistic entities arose out of our ancestors’ experiences and their relationship to those experiences. Thus gods and spirits were not inspired by human minds in search of distanced explanations of phenomena as separate from the human experience, but by human minds actively immersed within phenomena and trying to represent the phenomenology of human experiences
...the existence of religion--indeed, of any cultural path--results from a confluence of cognitive, behavioral, bodily, and ecological constraints that neither reside wholly within minds nor are recognizable in a world without minds. Theories of religion that concentrate on only one of these factors, however correct or insightful in part, can never be thorough or comprehensive (Atran 11).
Gods and spirits were born not just from the human mind, nor can they be found in a theoretical, empirical world removed from human minds and experience, but exist within a creative union of both the human mind and its experience of the outer world.

In the next post in this series I will consider why meaningful experiences are inevitably personified, made into gods and spirits, in polytheistic cultures.

Copyright 2011 by The Heretical Heathen


Abram, David, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1997

Atran, Scott, In Gods We Trust, 2002

Barfield, Own, Saving the Appearances: A Study of Idolatry, 1988

Bringhurst, Robert, The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, 2008

Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009

Hillman, James, Re-Visioning Psychology, 1992

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Peterson, Jordan B., Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, 1999

Romanyshyn, Robert D., Technology as Symptom and Dream, 1999

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wyrd: The Tree, the Runes, and the Knot

"Wyrd bið ful aræd!"  Fate is utterly inexorable!  ("The Wanderer", 5, Tolkien trans.)

Try to imagine that there is no objective linear time, only concurrent processes and cycles of growth.  Our bodies grow and cycle through processes of respiration, digestion, etc.; the earth grows through its changes and circles the sun; the sun grows through the life cycle of a star and circles the galaxy; and so on.  These growings and cycles impact one another, but are also driven each by their own nature and impetus, like genetics and homeostasis in the case of living things, mass in the case of planets, or like clocks, which don't actually measure anything external but are driven by internal mechanisms. "Complex systems...tend to be nested, on within the other, and are separated by fuzzy boundaries.  These are boundaries which allow for the flow of energy, materials, and information between larger- and smaller-scale system, but maintain each system's integrity."  (Wessels, 12.)  Thus, smaller systems are embedded in larger systems, and though each maintains its own particular nature, each is also connected to, and dependent upon, the smaller systems it contains and the larger systems in which it is contained.

The collective interaction of all systems and cycles is what I feel is meant by Wyrd.
Verða [the root of "wyrd"] derives form the IE root *uert-, which denotes the kind of motion common to 'turn, spin, rotate.' ... The idea basic to verða contains this element of 'turning' and probably represents some kind of change of location or reorientation in space.  Its meaning evolves logically from 'turn (from one place or position to another)'; 'turn (into)'; 'become'. (Baushatz, 13.)
The Tree

  I know that an ash tree stands called Yggdrasil,
a high tree soaked with loam;
from there come the dews which fall into the valley,
ever green, it stands over the well of fate [Urd/Wyrd].

From there come three girls, knowing a great deal,
from the lake which stands under the tree;
Fated [Urth/Wyrd] one is called, Becoming [Verthandi] another,--
they carved on wooden slips--Must-be [Skuld] the third;
they set down laws, they chose lives,
for the sons of men the fates of men.  ("Volupsa", 19-20, Larrington trans.)
Urth reflects actions made manifest, brought to a full, clear, observable, fruition; they have 'become'; they are accomplished.  Verthandi clearly reflects the actually occurring process of all that Urth eventual expresses.  The two Norns are closely linked, with the influence of Verthandi flowing directly to Urth.  As actions pass from Verthandi to Urth, they move from 'becoming' to 'become'.  As Skuld is involved with necessary or obligatory action, she stands slightly apart from the other two Norns.  She seems to make reference to actions felt as somehow obliged or known to occur;that is the necessity of their 'becoming' is so strongly felt or clearly known that they present themselves as available to be incorporated into the realms of Verthandi and Urth. (Baushatz, 14.)
Wyrd is like a tree, like Yggdrasil.  The tree's genetic structure, its "skuld", is a "plan" for how the tree should grow.  But this is not a "future"; its genes are part of the tree's present structure.  As the tree follows this genetic growth plan, it is also affected by its environment, so the tree does not end up as a perfect manifestation of its genetic plan.  As the tree grows, it adds more rings of "urth", and people who know how can look at the rings and tell how much rainfall there was during that time, etc.  The history of the tree's experience is part of its present structure.  So the structure of the tree at a present moment, the "verthandi", is made up its past growth, its urth, and skuld is the plan for growing new structure, but this plan is not the future, for the future growth will be affected by variables which have not yet occurred and which will affect how this skuld "verthandi's" into urth, how what ought to happen encounters the phenomena of the present moment and thus becomes the structure of an irrevocable past.
The 'falling' of the dew reunites the waters from the tree with those of the well, into which the roots of the tree extend.  The cyclic nature of this process with the well as both source and goal, beginning and ending of the nutritive process, combines all of the structural semantic elements of brunn [wellspring, the well of fate/Urd/Wyrd], representing both an active, natural welling source and a collecting storing source.  The myth presents a continuous cycle of activity.  (Baushatz, 20.)
I know everything, Odin, where you hid your eye
in the famous well of Mimir.  ("Volupsa", 28, Larrington trans.)

This wellspring, this "welling" and "collecting, storing" source is also related to memory, which is itself something that both stores and wells up.  The meaning of the name "Mimir", the giant who guards the well, is related to "knowing" and "remembering".  Our genetic past is stored within our cells, much like the tree, but we also have our past stored within our minds as memory and knowledge.  But, again, this is not truly the past, for it is part of the structure of our present minds.
The human brain does not for the most part organize events according to the sequence in which they happened or were recorded.  Human memory is not a tape that we must rewind to get back to the desired spot.  When we go to a place and remember the last time we were in that place, we do not do so by rewinding our memory through the sequences of events between now and then.  Simple introspection shows that people cannot predict what thought will come to them  a minute from now: Pick up a pen, stub your toe, have a drink, eat a cookie, and "out of the blue" may come a memory from any time in your past, even early childhood.   “Just as physical space is suffused by culture and memory with blend-prompting powers, our brains, in a very different sense, but with equal powers, gives us imaginative compressions of things that we know are far apart in time and space.”~ (Fauconnier & Turner 317)
Likewise, knowledge and memory are our sources for making calculations about the future.  The future only exists for us as imagined possibilities in the present.  Our minds in the present moment, with their memories of the past and imaginings for the future all wound together are the wyrd of the psyche.  From this well Odin drank, giving an eye for the privilege--Odin, lord of fury, of losing oneself in the ecstasy of the moment, whether in battle frenzy or poetic reverie.  Two eyes become one.  Looking backwards to the past and looking forward to the future weave together into one single vision of the present.

[The ravens] Hugin and Munin ["Thinking" and "Remembering"] fly every day
over the wide world;
I fear for Hugin that he will not come back,
yet I tremble more for Munin. ("Grimnismal", 20, Larrington trans.)

We create memory and knowledge from sensory input which, in turn, is informed by other memory and knowledge, all processed in different parts of the brain and woven together into our experience of the present moment.  Sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee is a simple matter, yet this experience is the culmination of numerous sensory and meaning systems.
As neuroscience has shown, the many aspects of a cup of coffee--the color of the cup, the shape of the opening, the topography of the handle, the smell of the coffee, the texture of the surface of the cup, the dividing line between the coffee and the cup, the taste of the coffee, the heavy feel of the cup in the hand, the reaching for the cup, and so on and on--are apprehended and processed differently in anatomically different locations, and there is no single site in the brain where these various apprehensions are brought together.  (Fauconnier & Turner 7-8)
This multifaceted process is used not only to create experience from sensory stimulation, but it is also used to recreate these experiences as memories and to construct simulations of possibilities for future experiences.
Episodic memory's failure to provide exact replicas of experience appears to be not a limitation of memory but an adaptive design that helps us to retrieve and recombine memories in order to run vivid simulations of future experience. ...  Tellingly for this constructive episodic simulation hypothesis, imagining the future recruits most of the same brain areas as recalling the past..." (Boyd, 157.)
Thus our ability to remember the past and imagine the future are both echoes of the stored experiences of the present.

But Wyrd was not only seen as manifesting in living systems, such as the growth of trees and the memories of people, but also in the nature of what we would call "inanimate" objects as
characterized by
the māðum, a valuable article, such as a sword or cup or piece of jewelry, which often has some intrinsic worth but greater symbolic value.  A sword may be valued as worth a fixed amount of gold, but as a māðumā its worth may be incalculable -- it is the stored up history of the object which gives it its power.  Every warrior who has used it, every battle it has been used in, every oath upon its naked edge, every feud it has caused or settled, all these past events have contributed to the tale of the sword, its 'worth' (but not its monetary value, necessarily) and meaning.  (Pollington 44-45.)
And, as an objects reflected the past deeds in which they were involved, so did places retain meaningful events which occurred there.
A particular place in the land is never, for an oral culture,  just a passive or inert setting for human events that occur there.  It is an active participant in those occurrences.  Indeed, by virtue of its underlying and enveloping presence, the place may even be felt to be the source, the primary power that expresses itself through the various events that unfold there. ... experienced events remain rooted in the particular soils, the particular ecologies, the particular places that give rise to them.  (Abram, 162.)
Who has not had a rush of memory having returned to a place from one's past or coming across a forgotten memento stowed in an attic?  We visit special places such as gravesites and memorials to summon the "spirits" of the dead and we visit museums to see the personal artifacts of important people of the past.  We still recognize the wyrd of these places and objects.
This use of space as a prompt to blend events, intentionality, and times is a basic cultural instrument: We visit the graves of dead relatives, heroes, and martyrs; we visit the towns where Vermeer and Shakespeare were born; we return to our alma mater; we go to chapels or churches to pray even when there is no service, and of course the graves are either in the floor of the church or in the graveyard next to the church.  Part of the motivation for these visits is the sense that, if we actually inhabit them, we can more easily integrate our thinking and emotions with the people, cultures, and events associated with them, no matter how ancient.  Cultures organize these compressions by designating certain places (the cemetery, the churchyard, the Vietnam Memorial) as calling for special attention to associated compressions across times and events for the purposes of remembrance.  Physical spaces are already attached by memory to sensations and events in our past.  A culture does enormous additional work to load these physical spaces with material anchors for memorial purposes (gravestones, relics, plaques).  Many other material anchors incidentally become prompts for memory and time compression (such as our personal effects, rooms in a house we once inhabited or inhabit now, cars we have owned)  (Fauconnier & Turner 316.)
Special objects and sacred places hold the past immanent in the present moment and influence future events and actions.  They have their own wyrd.

Polytheists see things in terms of multiple, interacting aspects personified by gods and spirits who have their own domains and story cycles.  Wyrd is the sum total of all of these domains, all individual processes and cycles and their interactions.  Wyrd is above the gods because they only have sway over their domains, not the domains of other gods, so they cannot affect the totality of process and cycle, but are merely a part of it.  The Greek concept of Moira, meaning "fate" or "destiny," has a similar meaning.
Moira simply means 'part,' 'allotted portion'; from that primary meaning it is agreed that the meaning 'destiny' is derived. ... Each God has his own allotted portion or province--a certain department of nature or field of activity.  This may also be regarded as his status; it gives him a determined position in the social system.  Within his own domain his supremacy is not to be challenged; but he must not transgress its frontiers, and he will feel resentment at any encroachment by another. ... It is this conception, not that of the individual human fate, that is generalized in Destiny, Moira.  She represents the apportionment to each God of his province, status or privilege.  It is at once plain why she is above any or all of the Gods, and how the limits she sets to their powers can be thought of as moral limits. ... The original conception of Moira thus turns out to be spatial, rather than temporal.  We are to think of a system of provinces, coexisting side by side, with clearly marked boundaries.  The conception has been obscured by the--in our opinion, later--mode of conceiving of the three Fates as corresponding to divisions of time--Past, Present and Future. (Cornford, 16-17.)
This "system of provinces," is the same as the systems within systems of Wyrd.  Wyrd is also spatial rather than temporal because it is not a timeline of past, present and future, but rather the immediate simultaneity of interactions among the structures of the past as existing in the present moment, which already contains the trajectory of the future.

The Runes

I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.

No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.  (Havamal 138-139, Larrington trans.)

Odin discovered the runes among the roots of Yggdrasil.  The runes are an alphabet, basic letter units that can be combined to form a myriad of meanings.  The runes were also thought to be magical--to carve them meant to make something happen, to bring something into being.  Of course, no magic is needed for this to be true.  What someone writes may be read by another, and this may have an effect on that person.  In this way ideas come into being and reproduce themselves.  Richard Dawkins compares transmissible ideas to genetic code, coining the word "meme" for an idea transmitted and preserved by a culture.  The Norns "carved on wooden slips" and "set down the laws."  They use combinations of runes to write out the fates of gods and men.  Like the three Fates which personified the Goddess Moria, the established order of all things, the three Norns personify Wyrd, the being of all things.

In ancient Northern European cultures, as in other oral cultures worldwide, cultural knowledge, what we now call "myth", was disseminated over distances and passed down the generations in song.  These songs were created through a process of memorized "genetic" tropes which were combined in each performance depending on the the taste of the audience and the current political situation.
 ...we know how the bards learn: by listening for months and years to other bards who never sing a narrative the same way twice but who use over and over again the standard formulas in connection with the standard themes.  Formulas are of course somewhat variable, as are themes, and a given poet's rhapsodizing or 'stitching together' of narrative will differ recognizably from another's.  Certain turns of phrases will by idiosyncratic.  But essentially, the materials, themes and formulas, and their use belong in a clearly identifiable tradition.  Originality consists not in the introduction of new materials but in fitting the traditional materials effectively into each individual, unique situation and/or audience.  (Ong, 59.)
The versions of "Volupsa" and "Havamal" and "Grimnismal" quoted above are not the "true" versions, but simply three of many varying versions which simply happened to be recorded.  In a living polytheism these tropes would continue to recombine, giving birth to new songs which would tell new versions of the stories in ever-evolving cycles of "truth."  A living lore as opposed to fossilized scripture.  The sum total of these stories, the collective myths and legends of the cultures of the world, which is greater than the ego of any individual or traditions of any one culture, gives us a glimpse of the archetypal foundations of the collective human experience.  These archetypes, are, in turn, the "genetic code" of gods and spirits, which recombines in different times and cultures to produce different varieties of deities and supernatural beings.  These beings are products of their culture and time, yet their foundational building blocks are universal and unchanging, like the fixed alphabet of runes which can combine to form multitudinous words and meanings.

The monotheist big "g" god, on the other hand, is omnipotent and omniscient.   His plans cannot be thwarted and no fate reigns over him.  He tells but one story which proceeds cleanly from creation through judgment and into eternity, which could be one of bliss or punishment for us lowly mortals.  This is not a cycle, but a straight line.  The concept of time is also a straight line, (despite the fact that clocks are circular) like the "timeline" diagrams found in most history textbooks.  But the truth, according to the growth and cycle model, is that the "past" part of the line has not been left behind.  It is woven into the structure of the "present" and sets the course for the "future", and thus it is not a line at all, or, if it is, it is a spiral, an unfolding of cycles, each based on the same prototype, but each unfolding in new and unique ways.  Not time, but pattern, cycle, spiral--the plan for the future directing the unfolding of the present which contains the structure of the past.

The Knot
The sign known as the "valknut" or "knot of the slain" is three interlocking triangles.  "The form is tripartite and interwoven; the context is mortuary, Odinic and Otherworldly and it has both equine and feminine associations. This set of conditions is peculiar to the mythology of the World Tree and can be related to certain beings associated with it. The World Tree is Yggdrasill or "The Steed of the Fearful One", which makes it a doublet of Sleipnir [Odin's horse]. It has three roots which link the worlds together. According to Snorri Sturlson, each root leads to ... the Well at which the three Nornir gather to decide the fates of humans and gods alike."  (Stone.)
The valknut is an ideal representation of Wyrd, since it has the three aspects of 'becoming', 'become' and 'should become', united as one, first in the form of a triangle, and then in the form of three triangles interlocked.  Three times three is nine, and nine were the nights that Odin hung on the tree to discover the runes.  Three is a significant number in many cultures, and the "number nine, or by augmentation, thrice nine, occurs often enough in Indo-European religious contexts to suggest that it was a traditional sacral quantity."  (West, 329)  Some suggest that the valknut is a symbol for Odin, but this greatly limits and simplifies its meaning.  "If the valknut symbolizes anything then, it is probably either wyrd, death, or perhaps even the Nornir themselves, who are more or less the same as wyrd anyway." (Stone)  Odin, in his relentless pursuit of knowledge of Wyrd, sacrificed himself to both the well and the tree.  Through Odin's gifts of ecstatic vision: breath, which controls consciousness and creates speech, and alphabetic writing, by the use of which an infinity of stories can be created, he is the conduit through which mortals may also gain and communicate knowledge of Wyrd.  The valknut is a symbol of this knowledge, and thus encompasses both Odin and that which is greater than him--the knowable and unknowable aspects of Wyrd.

"Wyrd is over us, each shall meet/His doom ordained at the dragon-cliff!"  (Beowulf, trans. J. Duncan Spaeth.)
For all men, clearly, the most significant moment of existence comes at the instant of death, the point at which man joins existence beyond this world.  The wise man prepares himself for this instant when his individual life and the power of wyrd will be in closest conjunction; he attempts to place his life most directly in the main current of the flow of wyrd.  He must act in accordance with prescribed codes of conduct received from the past; by so doing, he will protect his reputation and insure himself good fame.  His actions will be governed by what he knows; therefore, the wise man seeks to discover all he can.  The force of past events, which surges so meaningfully into present life, offers him some information about the nature of wyrd itself, but man, as he lives within the realm of the tree, fails in knowing the past fully.  As he values himself, however, he will strive to learn.  He will attempt to associate himself directly with all he knows to be good and wise.  By so doing, he will place himself in the most auspicious light so that he will die well; the moment of death is the moment of greatest significance in all of ordinary life. (Baushatz 28-29.)
Wyrd is associated with death because, as far as our consolidated egos are concerned, the end of our process is death and the dissolution of the mind/body system we call "me".  The runes of our doom are written in our genes and woven through our bodies.  Our behavior, outcomes of the wyrd of the psyche, can also help bring on our end. Yet, that which was our bodies is absorbed back into the earth to feed the growth of other living things, as happened to our ancestors when they were buried long ago.  In this way we do truly join our ancestors when we die.  And some of us lives on in the genes which we pass to our decedents, and our words and deeds which live on as memories and, perhaps, stories told by those whose lives we have touched.  "I know one thing that never dies: the reputation of a good man."  (Havamal 77, Larrington trans.)  Wyrd takes on a special meaning for us when we die because the moment of death is the culmination of a lifetime of our fated growth, the weave of our thought and memory and our interaction with the larger systems of the world.

The Northern Europeans were fond of stories about deaths that occurred to achieve some larger purpose--heroic deaths--because this helped make the meaning of this culmination vividly apparent.  Yet they also believed in the power of the individual to continue to influence events after death in the form of ancestor spirits, alfar and disir, and the passing down of the maegen or "ability" of renown ancestors to their decedents, or through the significant objects, māðum, that had been used by that person.  This was their understanding of the legacy of a life, how the past continues to reverberate in the present.

I think if there is one lesson to be learned from Wyrd, it is that there is always only here and now.  "Past" and "future" only exist as part of the weave of the present moment, which flows continuously in cycles of growth and decay and growth.  Each of our acts adds a layer to our own foundations, and that of our families, communities, nations, and the world itself.  The Old Norse word for this legacy was örlog, which literally translates as "that which was first laid down".  Each of our deeds resonates endlessly as ripples in the waters of the well of memory.  For this reason we, like our Northern Europeans ancestors, should strive to live our lives well and fill our present moments with deeds both bold and good.

Copyright 2011 The Heretical Heathen


Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996

Baushatz, The Well and the Tree, 1982

Boyd, On the Origin of Stories, 2009

Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy, 1912

Fauconnier, Gilles & Turner, Mark, The Way We Think, 2002

Larrington, trans. The Poetic Edda

Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy, 1982

Pollington, The English Warrior, 2002

Beowulf, trans. Spaeth, Duncan J.,

Stone, Alby, "Knots of Death",

Tolkien, J. R. R., trans. "The Wanderer", 5.

Wessels, Tom, The Myth of Progress, 2006

West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Why the Language of Myth Speaks of Gods

In a series of posts I will be exploring ideas about the nature of gods. It is my contention that gods do not need to be "supernatural" to be either meaningful or real, and that they can be explained rationally, but not completely understood or encompassed rationally, since experiences of, and relationships to, the gods is an essential part of their nature. Since mythology is the first way we learn about gods, I will begin with myth.

Let us first note an apparent dichotomy in the ancient understanding of gods. On the one hand, when ancient gods were told of in stories and poetry, they were represented as very human-like entities. They had human bodies, they lived in palaces and houses, their social structure was similar to that of human society, and they had the same passions and faults of character as men. Yet, outside of stories, ancient peoples had no expectations of meeting their gods in human form.

"Pagans obviously thought that [gods] existed in some real sense, if not perhaps exactly as they were depicted in art, literature, or oral tradition. Anthropomorphism, even to the most hardened idolater, is always to an extent metaphorical and no-one would be more surprised than a devout pagan to see a god in the flesh--even the heroes of Greek epic were somewhat taken aback." (Dowden 215)

Pagan peoples tirelessly examined their world for signs and omens indicating the mysterious movements and desires of the gods. They prayed to their gods with the full expectation that if they prayed properly they would be heard, even though the gods were nowhere in sight and regardless of how many other worshipers in different locations might be simultaneously vying for a god's attention. When they sacrificed to gods, they often dedicated inedible portions burned beyond all possibility of human sustenance. From these few examples, and many more which could be easily added, it seems quite clear that the representation of gods in stories was quite different from the expectation of the experience of gods in life. Research has found that this is equally true of not only modern polytheists, but monotheists as well.

When asked to describe their deities, subjects in both cultures [America and India] produced abstract and consensual theological descriptions of gods as being able to do anything, anticipate and react to everything at once, always know the right thing to do, and be able to dispense entirely with perceptual information and calculation. When asked to respond to narratives about these same gods, the same subjects described the deities as being in only one place at a time, puzzling over alternative courses of action, and looking for evidence to decide what to do. (Atran 94)

But why is this the case? Why would pagans both ancient and modern tell stories about gods that were so different from their experiences of those gods? Why not tell stories which represented gods as mysterious bodiless beings who could gain sustenance from sacrificial smoke and simultaneously hear any number of prayers in diverse locations? Why instead were gods inevitably represented as men on a grander scale? In this post I will attempt to answer this question by looking at the nature of myth. However, this will not exhaustively explain the phenomena of gods; it is only the beginning of an exploration. In future posts I will consider other aspects and functions of divinity and the personification of experience.

The meaning of the word “myth” has undergone a drastic change over time. Though now it usually means some kind of fantastic story which may foster a false belief, the original meaning was quite different. Originally the term mythos signified "an assertive discourse of power and authority that represents itself as something to be believed and obeyed. Nowhere in the epic does it mean 'false story,' 'symbolic story,' 'sacred story' or anything of the sort." (Lincoln 17-18) When the word is used in Greek epics it refers to "a blunt and aggressive act of candor, uttered by powerful males in the heat of battle or agonistic assembly." (Lincoln 17) Myth-speech promises action, either martial or political. Thus the original meaning of “myth” implied both authority and impeding action.

It is perhaps easy to understand the connection of myth to authority, since the myths were the medium by which people in an oral culture passed down the the knowledge and wisdom of their forebearers.

Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation. (Ong, 41)

Oral cultures must carefully preserve their stories if the knowledge of previous generations is going to be passed on. This is what lends myth its authority. But myths must also change as a culture changes, which sets up a dynamic tension between conservatism and innovation.

Of course oral cultures do not lack originality of their own kind. Narrative originality lodges not in making up new stories but in managing a particular interaction with this audience at this time -- at every telling the story has to be introduced uniquely into a unique situation, for in oral cultures an audience must be brought to respond, often vigorously. But narrators also introduce new elements into old stories. In oral tradition there will be as many variants of a myth as there are repetitions of it, and the number of repetitions can be increased indefinitely. ...the old formulas and themes have to be made to interact with new and often complicated political situations. But the formulas and themes are reshuffled rather than supplanted with new materials.

Religious practices, and with them cosmologies and deepseated beliefs, also change in oral cultures. Disappointed with the practical results of a cult at a given shrine when cures there are infrequent, vigorous leaders...invent new shrines and with these new conceptual universes. Yet these new universes and the other changes that show a certain originality come into being in an essentially formulaic and thematic noetic economy. They are seldom if ever explicitly touted for their novelty but are presented as fitting the traditions of the ancestors. (Ong, 41-42)

Myth in this sense is the expressing of traditional values in the context of current social, cultural and political climates. Thus myth carries authority in two senses: the cultural knowledge and wisdom of the past expressed through a mythic cosmology, and how that knowledge and wisdom is appropriated to legitimate (or possibly undermine) the current social, cultural and political power structures. Thus the connotation of authority in myth. But why would the stories of gods also be linked with speech implying impending action?

Myths were spread by singer/storytellers who would sing/recite the stories of the gods, often accompanied by a musical instrument such as a harp, to live audience. Research and speculation on this sort of transmission of information can help us understand both the connection of myth to action and why supernatural entities, such as gods, are often an essential component of these kinds of stories.

The active performance of bards was an integral part of not only the format of transmission of myths, but the power and meaning of their reception. Stories of oral cultures were never created to be inscribed indelibly in print, since this technology was not available to oral cultures. They were created to resonate the human imagination in order to inspire human memory and emotional commitment. But human memory is limited; in order to help insure retention the stories had to create unique and stirring experiences in the human imagination and body. A bard reciting the myths of his people had to not only create a memorable story, he also had to create a memorable experience. The listener learned the story not by merely memorizing it, but by being swept up in it much in the same way we are often swept up by a cinematic experience. Listening to a mythic story was not passive witness; it was participatory action, not learning by merely listening, but learning by "doing".

But the doing, so far as it concerns the preservation of important language, was of a special kind. What you 'did' were the thousand acts and thoughts, battles, speeches, journeys, lives, and deaths that you were reciting in rhythmic verse, or hearing, or repeating. The poetic performance, if it were to mobilise all these psychic resources of memorisation, had itself to be a continual re-enactment of the tribal folkways, laws and procedures, and the listener had to become engaged in this re-enactment to the point of total emotional involvement. In short, the artist identified with his story and the audience identified with the artist.” (Havelock 159)

The necessities of oral memory involved not only the performance itself, but also the content of that performance. As the listening was made active by the performance, so the story itself needed to consist of dynamic action.

The mechanisms set in motion among the average audience consisted, so we have argued, of activities of the nervous system common to all human beings. It is easiest to excite such bodily acts through words if the words themselves evoke action and hence if they describe action. The content of the epos [epic] should therefore itself consist preferably of a whole series of doings. ...they are essential to the rhythmic mnemonic process, and you can re-enact only a description of action. You can be stimulated by words to identify yourself with what 'they' say only when 'they' express emotions and passions in active situations. (Havelock 167)

In this sense the “mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance.” (Peterson, 9, italics in the original.) Myth, unlike science, does not answer existential questions, but rather provides visceral models for moral action.


action presupposes the presence of an actor or agent. The preserved epos can therefore deal only with people, not with impersonal phenomena. ... It is a commonplace to say that metaphor is a staple of the poetic diet. We can take this for granted and then observe a basic principle underlying the metaphors of the saga. Phenomena other than persons can be described, but only as they are imagined to be behaving as persons would. The environment becomes a great society and the phenomena are represented as members of this society who interact upon each other as they play their assigned roles. ... They have to become 'alive' and 'perform' as living beings, greedy, resentful and the like. ... They constantly provide an apparatus by which causal relations can be rendered in a verbal form with which the listener can identify. They become imitatable and so memorisable. The complexity of the causative chain is simplified; the abstract factors are all crystallised as the interposition of powerful persons. (Havelock 167-170)

Thus the demands of the oral medium were a factor in the creation of its central device. "When we look at oral poetry from this point of view, we can see the the most common metaphor employed is a god." (Havelock 169) But the reasons for personifying “impersonal phenomena,” run deeper than just creating affective metaphors. Gods were the personification of collective cultural understandings as active beings and identified with through the dynamic process of the performance of bards. In this sense, gods and heroes became models for action--visceral demonstrations of the positive and negative consequences for certain kinds of attitudes toward, actions in, and relationships with the world. “...oral cultures must conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld, assimilating the alien objective world to the more immediate, familiar interaction of human beings.” Ong, 42)

Recent neurological evidence supports Havelock’s premise concerning the affect of dramatic narrative stories upon the listener, and, as he probably did not suspect, also the reader. We evidently understand fiction worlds by actually creating a simulation in our minds that engages the same neural pathways that would be used if the descriptions in the text were actual sensory data and the actions described in the text were actually being undertaken by the reader. “As people comprehend a text, they construct simulations to represent its perceptual, motor, and affective content. Simulations appear central to the representation of meaning.” (Barsalou 633, after Boyd.) Stories are not stored in some sort of text in the mind, but in a memory that is rooted in mind, body and the emotions.

Therefore, the understanding developed through mythic language was one of virtual experience. We remember a good story in a similar fashion to how the we remember our own lives, and we learn from them in a similar way as we learn from our own experience. A rational argument may compel belief, but it is less successful at compelling habitual action, as anyone who has resolved to break a bad habit has often quickly found out. A decision made by the very small rational part of our brain often cannot by itself sway the larger irrational systems of our minds and bodies from which most of our behavior stems. But a negative experience is often an effective impetus for change in behavior. If a story is well-wrought, it can simulate an actual experience and make the positive and negative aspects of that experience life-like enough to be as compelling as lived experience because dramatic narrative resonates not only with our rational minds, but also with our emotions, unconscious, and bodies. Stories can be a fully human experience and are more persuasive for long-lasting inspiration or change in human behavior. In addition, stories which are performed, such as those of the oral tradition bards, can take advantage of dramatic technique to enhance and reinforce the effect of the experience.

The three primary necessities of the passing of knowledge in an oral form: the need for it to be memorable, the need for it to be dynamic, and the necessity of personification, go a long way toward explaining the nature of mythological stories. If the story is to be dynamic, it will need to be driven by conflict and action. Quests, battles, and rescues, as well as motivational concepts such as honor and revenge, are the stock of mythic stories for this reason. “By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle.” (Ong, 43-44) The active nature of myth necessitates that forces be personified: human forces become heroes, and larger than human forces take the form of monsters or gods. Furthermore, the personified characters of myth--heroes, monsters and gods--must not only be locked in memorable struggles with one another, they must also be themselves memorable figures.

Oral memory works effectively with ‘heavy’ characters, persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. Thus the noetic economy of its nature generates outsize figures, that is, heroic figures, not for romantic reasons or reflectively didactic reasons but for much more basic reasons: to organize experience in some sort of permanently memorable form. (Ong, 69)

In fact, the more outrageous or “counter-intuitive” (Boyer) figures are, the more memorable they are. “Bizarre figures here add another mnemonic aid: it is easier to remember the Cyclops than a two-eyed monster, or Cerberus than an ordinary one-headed dog.” (Ong, 69) Though myths must not grow too far from the mundane world, or they will loose their cohesion of meaning and ease of trasmissiblity.

However, “all this is not to deny that other forces besides mere mnemonic serviceability produce heroic figures and groupings. Psychoanalytic theory can explain a great many of these forces.” (Ong 69) Since traditional mythic storytelling was not the product of a single imagination, being a series of tropes that were rearranged and added to by many storytellers over long stretches of time and cultural and political change, and since audience reception and participation were essential to its functionality, the heroes, monsters, gods, and their struggles had to have wide psychological appeal and resonance. Mythic performance, by a long process of trial and error, honed its subject matter and imagery to mirror essential human psychology. Thus it is not surprising that Freud, Jung, and many other seminal psychological theorists utilized myth to help explain the essence of the human psyche. They were drawing upon an informal kind of research which, though it lacked precise methodology, possessed the advantage of an enormous scale of time, geography and population. The various stories that resulted from this long process of narrative evolution and adaptation contain the essence of human meaning filtered through a cultural lens.

Mythic stories were “believed and obeyed” (Lincoln 17) not through the power of rational persuasion or the heavy hand of dogmatic authority, but through the lived experience of the bard’s performance, not merely as an isolated event, but as part of a continual process of maintaining memorability and resonance with the living culture as a whole through the connections and commentary which the stories made with the listeners’ lived experiences in cultural, social, political, psychological and natural worlds. Through the act and experience of mythic storytelling, human meaning was simultaneously and continuously created, negotiated, and preserved. When looked at in this way, myth reveals itself not as some sort of primitive attempt at empiricism, but as an ingenious cultural device which utilizes an act of collective imagination to create a continuous and dynamic dialogue of meaning between mankind and the world in which the subject matter itself, in the personified form of heroes, monsters and gods, takes part in the conversation.

Having discussed why gods appear they way they do in myths is not the whole story, nor should it be seen as a dismissal of the meaning and reality of gods. I have many other aspects of deity to discuss in future posts, and it is my hope that both the meaningfulness of relationships with polytheistic gods, and the reality of the gods themselves, will unfold with greater clarity with each post.

Copyright 2011, The Heretical Heathen


Atran, Scott, In Gods We Trust, 2002

Boyd, Brian, On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, 2009

Boyer, Pascal, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, 2001

Dowden, Ken, European Paganism, The Realities of Cult from Antiquity to the Middle Ages, 2000

Havelock, Eric A., Preface to Plato, 1963

Lincoln, Bruce, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, 1999

Ong, Walter J., Orality and Literacy, 2002

Peterson, Jordan, B., Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, 1999