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On the other hand, many folks who favor historical documents over modern creations have also been burned by the unvetted creativity of earlier generations of modern paganism, who too often valued inspirational content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.

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About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

2 responses to “On Making New Myths

  • EmberVoices

    I’m reminded if Kipling:


    Yea, I sang as now I sing, when the Prehistoric spring
    Made the piled Biscayan ice-pack split and shove;
    And the troll and gnome and dwerg, and the Gods of Cliff and Berg
    Were about me and beneath me and above.


    Then the silence closed upon me till They put new clothing on me
    Of whiter, weaker flesh and bone more frail;
    . And I stepped beneath Time’s finger, once again a tribal singer,
    And a minor poet certified by Traill!


    Still the world is wondrous large,—seven seas from marge to marge—
    And it holds a vast of various kinds of man;
    And the wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Khatmandhu
    And the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban.

    Here’s my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
    And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
    “There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
    “And—every—single—one—of—them—is—right!”
    ===========

    I’d add more intelligence of my own if I were less groggy. Needless to say, I agree with you, and I think this post is beautiful, and I very much look forward to your tales.

    –Ember–

    Like

  • EmberVoices

    Reblogged this on EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir and commented:
    We can not help but create new myth as we practice. It is a natural side effect of living our faith. -E-

    Like

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