Mythology is a Finger Pointing at the Moon

The stories of the gods are not the gods. The descriptions of the gods given in those stories are not the nature of the gods. They are fingers pointing at the moon.


This is not the Moon.

To borrow a Buddhist story:

The nun Wu Jincang asked the Sixth Patriarch Huineng: “I have studied the Mahaparinirvana sutra for many years, yet there are many areas I do not quite understand. Please enlighten me.”

Huineng: I am illiterate. Please read out the characters to me and perhaps I will be able to explain the meaning.

Nun: You cannot even recognize the characters. How are you able then to understand the meaning?

Huineng: Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?

Or, you can watch this Bruce Lee video, if you prefer.

The gods are what we experience when we encounter them in the world. They’re the feeling of presence when we pour out libations or make other offerings. They’re the entity that enters our dreams to speak to us, regardless of what movie star our sleeping brains make them look like. They’re the voices that sometimes whisper to us at strange moments, they’re the forces that direct the falling runes or the shuffled tarot, they’re the power that leaves us awe-struck and silent when we look at the vinyards or the ocean or feel ourselves falling into the starry sky as we lay aground, gazing into the heavens.

The point is, the gods are not the images crafted by ancient poets to describe them, and they’re not the words Christian scholars used to write down those old epics, and they’re certainly not the words used by Victorian and later story-book writers to translate those writings.

The point is, the gods are not the morally questionable super-humans described old tales. They are what we find when we hear or read those tales, and decide to go looking for the gods. The myths may suggest ways to go about this search, but they don’t describe what you are going to find when you do it. More, you haven’t failed if what you find isn’t exactly like the character in the stories.

I can’t tell you that the figure from your dream was definitely not a god. I can’t even tell you that the figure was definitely not Dionysos–or that it definitely was, for that matter. I sure as hell can’t tell you that what you encountered was not Dionysos because you saw him wearing a kind of vine-wreath not mentioned in myth, or because I don’t like the actor your brain cast him as. In the end, the gods will reveal themselves to each of us as they will, not as we wish.

What I can do is say whether or not your experience matches my own. I can decide to include or not include your experience into my understanding of Dionysos (or whoever). I can decide whether or not I’ll advise others to do so. I can tell you whether or not I think doing, literally, what the god said is actually a good idea for you. If I’m teaching you a particular tradition, I can tell you whether or not that experience of the gods works with the rest of the tradition’s practice.

So study the myths, not to tell you what the gods are, but to tell you how to start the journey to reach them. Share your experiences of the gods with others, not so they can tell you whether you’re right or wrong, but so you can know that you aren’t alone on this road.

About Ashley Sarver

Ashley Sarver is a queer, nonbinary trans femme, polytheist, gamer, and disability caregiver living in the San Francisco Bay Area. View all posts by Ashley Sarver

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