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

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