Monthly Archives: June 2018

On Making New Myths

Is there room for new myths in modern polytheism and paganism? It’s a more contentious question than one might think.

labyrinth_02Ancient myths, also known as the Lore, are useful to us modern seekers of old gods in that they give us a baseline to work from. They give us common points of reference for an invisible world we grasp only partly, and often more with the head than the heart. Ancient myths give us an idea of who our spiritual ancestors in pre-Christian times thought they were dealing with, though it’s been argued that devotional inscriptions and poetry might be a better guide than mythic folk stories.

So, on the one hand, we’re reluctant to dilute the usefulness of these points of reference by giving modern works equal weight, especially modern works created expressly as fiction. If you doubt me, ask a random sampling of Heathens what they think of the Thor movies…

It’s a valid point, in the way that a road map is less useful, the more we let just anyone add in new highways and towns where they kind-of-sort-of remember them being, or (perhaps worse) where they think such things ought to be because it just makes sense.

On the other hand, many folks who favor historical documents over modern creations have also been burned by the unvetted creativity of earlier generations of modern paganism, who too often valued inspirational content and visions of how the world ideally should be over mainstream facts, and answered challenges to their new myths by claiming that consistency and foundation in history are irrelevant, and the myth they invented last week is just as true and factual (if not more so) than anything in a Dusty Old Book by a Dead White Guy.

I do believe that the gods are still here, still act in the world, and still inspire humans to tell stories about them. I’m in favor, then, of the creation of new mythology. After all, we are not living in ancient Athens or Heliopolis or Saxony, and so our relationship to the gods must change to fit our context. That said, a lot has changed since the days of Homer, Hesiod, and Orpheus.

The myths as popularly known today are a patchwork amalgamation of fragments of ancient texts, some of which are more complete than others, run through the lenses of  Christian monks writing their takes on the “superstitious tales” of the common folk and, in English at least, Victorian scholars obsessed with forging a consistent and socially acceptable canon out of the written versions of an ancient oral tradition, itself full of contradictions and regional variations.

The myths were not intended to be taken as what we would consider literally true historical fact, because the folks who first lived by these tales had a different idea about the distinctions between history, allegorical tale, and folklore–and sometimes didn’t differentiate at all. So it’s a safe bet that the gods are still active in the world just as they have always been, it’s just that they never did it as obviously or unsubtly as a literal reading of myth would suggest.

There are plenty of devotees of the gods out there writing new prayers, hymns, and adaptations of old stories. It may not seem that we’re producing new mythology, but it only seems that way for two reasons:

The modern approach to storytelling is different than it was. The old myths grew through sharing and repetition, each new teller adding embellishments and forgetting details, with the most popular versions being the ones remembered. While plenty of ancient poets sang for their suppers, the current business of fiction handles the creation and distribution of story in a way that stifles such evolution-through-telling and drowns out a lot of the folk-tradition tellings in favor of something that appeals to a broad audience and sells advertising.

The other reason is that what we view as established myth is being looked at from a great distance through time. We’re swimming in the creation of myth; it just doesn’t look like we expect The Myths to look like because it’s a body of shared tradition that is constantly in the process of re-creation and revision, not in a Big Book of Mythology with academic credentials.

Consider also that we who worship the old gods are a minority in the world, scattered a few here and a few there across the globe. Those groups and individuals who desire and are inspired to write new myths are doing so, but there’s no consensus on what, if any of it, should be included in the mythic canon.

In many ways, we’re in a place more like the ancients were before the great poleis conquered respectable patches of land and classical poets wove local stories together in a way that flattered conquerors.

In this valley, we have six main stories about Zeus, and our Zeus lives on that mountain over on the northern horizon. Two valleys over, they have seven stories of Zeus, only three of which are the same as ours, and they say Zeus lives on a mountain on the eastern horizon. A ways past that is an island that only shares one story in common with either valley, and they say Zeus lives on top of the mountain at the center of their island.

All these stories are true. If the stories I grew up with don’t match yours, I’m not going to be so impolite as to start a bar fight over it; I’ll just listen to yours, tell you mine, and we’ll pass a pleasant evening. And, maybe, we’ll both take new stories home to share.

So, the story of Dionysos as told by the hymns and prayers I write for my group tells a different version of the classical stories of Him than you’ll find in most mythology collections. It’s also different than His story as told by a pack of Dionysians in Maine, or as told by folk story tellers in Greece. What matters isn’t whether or not the stories pass an abstract bar of Truth, it’s whether they help you connect with the gods.

And that’s the final test of any new mythology: Does using it bring you closer to the gods? Does it help you see parts of them you haven’t seen before? Or does it just leave you confused by contradictions that you can’t reconcile, or worse, disrupt your relations with your fellow devotees with endless arguments over who’s right?

I’ll be posting new, or re-written, stories of my gods here, from time to time. I’ll do my best to be clear about whether or not I’m referencing accepted myth. So consider us travelers from different valleys, and if you find value in my tales, take them up, If not, listen to them as “just” stories, and no harm done.

Tending the Bull: A Review

I recently acquired Tending the Bull  by H. Jeremiah Lewis, AKA Sannion. Reading it has settled a long-standing mystery for me. Yes, Sannion can write clearly and succinctly, when he has to.

Image from the Amazon page for the book. I'm linking below, so I hope they don't mind.I’ve heard folks read some of Sannion’s writing, either online or in print, and complain that he must be trying to be obtuse. I don’t thinks so; it seems to me that his usual style is a teaching tool. Normally, he writes around a point, dropping a hint here and a partial conclusion there, mixed with a very generous helping of  block quotes from works classical, scholarly, fictional, and poetic. Online, he also includes music and video links. What I think he’s doing here is trying to lead the reader to make a discovery, by teasing out the not-necessarily-obvious themes running through his examples. It’s a variant on the Socratic method, really, and can be just as annoying to modern readers as one imagines it was to the ancient philosopher’s interlocutors on the streets of Athens.

This mode works for me, usually, and I appreciate the challenge, at least when I have time to read and re-read the quotes until I finally get it. It’s like staring at one of those Magic Eye posters until the hidden image resolves, except that I can never make those work.

There is plenty of this style in Tending the Bull, but there are just as many passages where Sannion lays out in plain language just what he’s talking about: the devotional practices of the Starry Bull tradition. It’s not a comprehensive list; for example, the lists of gods, demigods, and heroes honored in the tradition is absent. So is any kind of formalized liturgical calendar.

That’s all right, though, the book isn’t meant as a kind of initiate-by-mail manual for the Starry Bull. Instead, it’s a description of the basic ritual obligations and practices of the boukoloi, those who serve the members of the tradition as ritualists, maybe magicians, and sometimes diviners. The book won’t teach one to be a boukolous. Achieving that is a more complex matter, requiring personal instruction in the tradition.

What the book will do is give some idea of what the religious life of an initiate looks like, including a brief history and description of the Starry Bull Tradition.

A quick aside: this bit, though it’s only part of one chapter, was one of my favorite bits. I’m a bit insecure, you see, and whenever I’m feeling less than confident in my own practice and the development of my devotional group, part of my brain jumps up and down and yells about how I’m DOING IT WRONG! It then goes on to point out how not having a thick book of established liturgy or a huge number of people showing up to monthly devotionals or the name “Thiasos Bakkheios” on the lips of polytheists everywhere is proof that I’m DOING IT WRONG!

As Sannion describes the current state of the Starry Bull, and the route they took to get where they are, I don’t feel so bad. When that part of my brain starts to jump, I can just wave this book at it, and shout back, “Ha! I am not!”

But back to what Tending the Bull says about life as a Bakkhic devotee: It’s about prayer and libation, and it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Unsurprisingly, Dionysos seems to favor inspiration and variety, so while there are official holy days and whatnot, there are also many, many variations on Starry Bull practice that seem to work just fine.

The minimum work of the boulokous involves daily prayers, a new-moon devotion to the ancestors, and another monthly rite of prayer and maybe divination on behalf of community members who ask for it. That doesn’t seem so complicated, does it? So what’s in the rest of the book?

Aside from the expected quotes, there’s a quick guide to non-ritual activities that can bring one closer to Dionysos and his kin, a good deal of information of historic Dionysianism, and a couple of rituals one might choose to use, adapt, or ignore. The book totals only 127 pages, so that’s really quite good for a brief overview of the topic.

So is this the book for you? Will it open your heart and booze budget to Dionysos and his troupe of attendant friends and family? Will this book save your IMMORTAL SOUL from damnation and sobriety?

I dunno, man. You do you.

If you’re curious as to what the Starry Bull folks are doing these days, it’s good. If you are new to Dionysian devotion and at a loss for things to try, it’s really good. I recommend it, because even if you don’t end up doing things the Starry Bull way, it’s still an example that devotional practices don’t have to be complicated and time consuming. And, hell, even if you aren’t aiming to devote yourself to Dionysian, most of the things suggested as non-ritual practices are good for having a well-rounded, well-lived life.

Tending the Bull is available from Amazon.

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