Politics of myth

Looking back over the trajectory this blog has taken, it’s kind of all over the place, but a lot of it is what I call, for lack of a better word, “mythologyology.” (I created a new category for that.) For example, when I write about deities, which I do a lot, it’s not devotional, nor is it a litany of their accepted characteristics or a retelling of their stories. I find that I mostly end up looking at how the deities and their myths have changed through time, been appropriated or renegotiated, what they mean to us. A bit dry and academic, perhaps, what can I say? I find that interesting and instructive.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how human politics and myths entwine–how it works, and what it means for us ethically and epistemologically–and while I’m finding it difficult to get my head around such a huge topic, I’m going to assay it.

It’s not the first time I’ve turned my mind to such things–many years ago I presented a paper on imperial politics in ancient Shinto–but my interest was reawakened by the backlash against Jupiter on the internets some time ago. Previously I wrote about how the goddess Brigantia seems to have evolved into both Brigid and Britannia: Only in the latter incarnation did she retain (what seem to be) her original ties to quasi-ethnic, quasi-national sovereignty, and how we got from what very likely was a goddess of hierarchy and military domination to an unusually empathetic saint and neopagan tutelary goddess remains mysterious. In passing I mentioned the fact that Amaterasu is the most important deity in Shinto in large part because she is the ancestress of the imperial family, and they comissioned the few extant recorded myths that exist in Japan. Chris Knowles did a long series on the mytho-politics of Lucifer and by extension, other liberating-civilizing deities who seem to have gotten shafted by the followers of angry storm gods.

I have a bunch of thoughts about the politics of myth and I’m just going to put them down in rough form and try to connect them as well as I can:

  • I wouldn’t go so far as to allege some kind of human universal here, but I can’t help but notice that a lot of ancient religions, as they have come down to us (i.e., as they were when they were codified in writing) have deities that represent/establish/dispense justice and social order as well as antinomian deities (“tricksters”) who upset or skirt around that order. The law-and-order deities range from kindly civilizer types to savage tyrants, and the tricksters range from naughty and oafish to highly destructive.
  • Often the law-and-order (henceforth L&O) deity is or becomes explicitly tied to social hierarchy. In their mythos social order may also be explained/justified in terms of natural order. From a socio-historic perspective, that doesn’t seem to happen unless the local human society is strongly hierarchical–does this mean we impose that scheme on the deities, or does it come from the top down? (Gnostics would say the latter.)
  • Storm deities seem to frequently be assholes, the terrorists of the ancient pantheons, typically ruthless, wild, destructive, vindictive, and scary. Accordingly, warriors seem to like them a lot. Once war became an industry (so, based on archaeology, beginning around 3500 BC) and professional and/or hereditary warrior classes started appearing, those asshole storm deities started spreading everywhere the armies went and becoming more and more associated with hierarchical power. Professional armies only exist for the purposes of conquest, and they require conquest of new territory to feed and pay them. Even when the army is not so much professional as hereditary, e.g., where the warriors make their living as farmers but go a-viking seasonally, there is still a constant need for new land in order to feed growing families and to provide a theater for young men to scale the socio-military ladder. Hereditary warrior classes go hand-in-hand with raiding and migration, while professional armies go hand-in-hand with empires. Military and political power become inextricably entwined in such systems. It becomes inevitable, then, that the warrior-god becomes the king-god.
  • Which is perhaps ironic, since my impression is that storm deities often start out as antinomian trickster types (albeit often of the nastier variety). But they do give boons to their followers, so as long as you’re a member of their constituency, you will probably regard them as Goodies rather than Baddies. A storm deity favored by warriors who retained some of his trickster ambivalence is Odin, though over time he has been moving ever-further toward the L&O/kingly role. (One thing I can’t stand about superhero movies is the way they bowdlerize mythology, but if we consider them part of the evolution of myth, it’s interesting to see how Thor and Odin are portrayed in the Thor series. Particularly in Thor: Ragnarok–SPOILERS–where Odin is entirely of the kingly, law-and-order type, until he dies and the kingship is assumed by Thor the storm god. Thor also becomes one-eyed, which anthropologically and historically was a marker of Odin’s Otherwordly vision; in other words, Thor not only gets the throne but the magical vision as well. Typical storm god.) A different storm god case study is the Shinto kami Susano-o. In some regions of Japan, Susano-o is the local tutelary deity, a dragon-subduing hero, and a protector against plague. In the imperial histories, however, he is violent, unpredictable, and destructive. Although Shinto is comfortable with ambivalence in the kami, I think it’s pretty evident that this is an inter-regional, inter-clan case of your-god-is-my-monster.
  • Just to make that point more clearly, often who is a L&O deity and who is a trickster or even a devil depends on where you are looking from, because…
  • …when deities are grounded in the local geography/bioregion, they are also usually tied specifically to the people who live there. It makes sense: They’re part of the ecology too. Deities can become explicitly political, in the sense that they are tied to the polis (the meaning of Brigantia is the same as the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European form of polis and Britannia is, of course, the goddess of the British) or the demos. In Shinto this is expressed as the relationship between the ujigami (clan-kami) and the ujiko (clan-child–the human). You could say that “Brigantia” is essentially a short way of saying, “She of the people who rule this territory from the hillforts (and by extension those who pledge allegiance to them).” It’s the same deal with Athena and Athens and countless others. (If this stuff about Brigantia/Brigid/Britannia isn’t making sense, please see my post about that.)
  • Sometimes the king-deity supplants or subdues the trickster (e.g., Zeus and Prometheus, Yahweh and everybody else, God/Jesus and Satan/Lucifer, Odin and Loki). Other times the L&O deity and the trickster manage to operate more harmoniously, usually when the trickster takes a subservient role (e.g., Zeus and Hermes, Amaterasu and Susano-o). In human socio-historical terms, this might reflect the conquest of Group A by Group B, where Group B turns A’s L&O/polis-deity into a monster and then relegates them to hell or servitude, or simply to the dustbin of oblivion. Isolde Carmody and Chris Thompson of Story Archaeology speculate this happened to Midir (whose name means “Judge”), a classic L&O deity if ever there was one, who was essentially written out of Irish mythology during the medieval period. The indigenous Irish concepts of natural and social order represented by Midir, which had been so central to earlier tales, were incompatible with those of the recently-arrived Norman conquerors, and thereafter Midir just disappears.
  • On the other hand, sometimes the L&O deity and the trickster, in these cases often a magician, co-exist in a more-or-less balanced state of tension (e.g., Osiris and Set or–per Io at Via Gnostica, because I personally don’t know much about this–Ogun and Shango).
  • It is just as much a political move to view, e.g., Brigid as a goddess of the (neopagan) people as it was to view Brigantia as a goddess of the warrior-rulers. It’s just that the political values of her constituents are different.
  • Whether we like it or not, most of our known deities will have been ones of polis, kingship, or military because elites are the ones who could afford to erect temples, statues, altars, and inscriptions. Many of the rest will be deities of general fertility, prosperity, or sex because they’re fun and everyone likes them. Of course there will be exceptions to this. There are the deities from less stratified societies which the West only discovered recently through ethnographic study, for example, and the deities that were important to the ordinary people probably filter down to us, albeit much transformed, through oral folklore.

I don’t believe that deities are simply the products of human imagination, though it’s clear that the two interface in complex ways. Which came first, the storm god or the war band? I suppose in the end it’s impossible to say whether war and sociopolitical inequality began in our world and were superimposed on our understanding of deities, or began in the Otherworld and grew unchecked here like some sort of noxious weed. Maybe a bit of both. From my point of view (hating the fact that murder is the world’s main industry), I’d say that extensive dealings with oppressive storm gods were probably ill-advised. But humanity’s fraught relationship with those gods goes so far back, it is useless to mope about what might have been if we’d made a different choice. Also storms are a reality and I’m not arguing we should ignore these powers.

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The warrior rose: first assay

Rosa multiflora on the farm
Rosa multiflora on the farm. Adorably plump farm kitty for scale.

I am not sure how to begin.

My last post on invasive plants wasn’t just random musing; I’m about to start working with one of them, Rosa multiflora. I’ve been gardening and making herbal remedies and of course cooking and eating plants for many years now, but this is an altogether deeper level of work I’m about to begin, unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

It was initiated by the rose herself.

As a garden lover, I think roses are nice, but they probably aren’t my favorite flower (I think that title would go to Japanese irises). Of course rose flowers are beautiful and I do adore the scent. But have you ever looked at the rose bush itself? They’re really not all that attractive.

But those are your ornamental rose varieties. Wild roses are something else again. Wild roses are brimming over with magic and fierce beauty. And as an herbalist, I am in love with rose medicine (I use that term broadly, encompassing the physical, spiritual, and magical). I need rose medicine. (Here’s a good monograph on rose medicine. And another.)

At the farmhouse where I used to live, there were a couple of multiflora rose bushes that had been tolerated as ornamentals–it is a beautiful species–but it grows wild everywhere here. In fact it’s extraordinarily difficult to restrict or eradicate because the gracefully arching canes that make it so aesthetically pleasing even when not in flower (well, I think so) will root wherever they touch the ground, and it tolerates many types of soils and habitats. “In Ohio, it is especially troublesome in the southeastern part of the state” <– understatement (source).

Its thorns are prolific and unusually vicious: I’ve had minor pricks that barely drew blood continue to ache for days afterwards. They can be strongly recurved and seem to reach out and grab you, snagging absolutely every part of you and your clothes. It is universally loathed by people who live or work in the countryside.

But not me. Early on I formed a certain grudging respect for this rose. Yes, she hurt me a lot. Tore up some of my clothes. But she’s a fighter and a survivor–nay, a conqueror.

And yet she’s also every bit a Rose, that millennia-old symbol of love, beauty, and sensuality. In June she is covered in fragrant heaps of little roses–white, some tinged ever so softly pink, with golden centers–beloved of bees. In fall her branches are beaded with tiny glistening scarlet hips, beloved of birds.

My favorite of her common names is “rambler rose,” but in my mind and heart I have always known her as the Warrior Rose. She has an intense female-warrior vibe that I realize I have barely begun to understand. Now she says we have work to do, and I have no idea what that is going to entail, exactly, but it starts now.

On “invasives”

Rosa multiflora, cleavers, and other invasive plants
An assortment of invasive plants found growing around my former house

I know some people around here (and elsewhere) who feel tremendous antipathy toward invasive plant species. Once I tried to broach the idea that this was both futile and misguided–or at least that it’s useful to consider that possibility.

I mean, with most invasives, we’re never going to be able to get rid of them. That horse is out of the stable and long gone. Even if we could eradicate them, what kind of trophic cascade would then result? When are we going to learn our lesson?

Then, as Gordon White has pointed out, there’s the historical fact that the idea of a pristine, indigenous nature that is being–what? Tainted? Miscegenated?–with non-native species is a relic of empire and colonialism. It’s right in there with noble-savage-ism and racism and all those other unpleasant imperial bedfellows.

Do I really even need to compare the way we talk about invasive plant (and animal) species and the way we talk about immigrants? I find it very *interesting* that the same woke liberals who are in favor of virtually unrestricted human immigration (otherwise who will do the jobs they think they’re too educated for?) and are quick to make the connection between anti-immigration policies and racism, are often the same ones who are most intent on restoring nature to some imaginary and ahistorical “pristine,” invasive-free state.

Ecosystems change. All the species of a bioregion collaborate in that change through time, from the pollinators to the poopers* to the keystone species to the architects (humans and beavers). It is true that humans cause the most radical change, taking species out of their original bioregions and putting them elsewhere; and sometimes we really mess up. (Don’t get me started on the idiocy of planting eastern sycamores in desert California where there are already perfectly drought-adapted and lovely native sycamores.) Sometimes, even when our intentions are good, we screw up and make things go extinct. In the past couple-three hundred years, we have had a distinct inability to think or perceive holistically, unfortunately juxtaposed with the technological ability to mess with every pie we can get our fingers into, and you can see the disastrous results in how we have interacted with “nature.”

But you know this already, so I won’t belabor the point.

So anyway, when I suggested that antipathy toward invasives was futile and misguided, I was met with that I-don’t-even-know-who-you-are-anymore kind of shock and horror: What?! Do you just want all the native species–the beautiful, precious native species (will no one think of the native species?!)–to go extinct??? What about all the brave souls toiling to eradicate the invasives and Protect the Environment (TM), don’t you care about them??? I suppose you think we should just throw the emerald ash borer a tickertape parade, huh???

Maybe for the record I should state that I’m neither anti-human-immigration (having been an immigrant–an illegal one at that–myself, as well as the descendant of immigrants to this continent, and having devoted many years to the anthropological and archaeological study of human migration and certain resulting ecological changes), nor am I saying that we should just shrug our shoulders and give up on trying to correct some of the ecological disasters we’ve started.

But I am saying that adaptation and harmonization are worth thinking (and working) with. And that invasives are part of your bioregion too, even if you consider them “undesirable.”

*Ask me about my theory on the role of poop in the origins of agriculture!

2018 already?

Hey there. It’s been a while.

2017 was a pretty full year for me, with a lot of changes, some of which interfered with maintaining this blog (and a lot of other stuff).

I had gotten into my spiritual practices more in earnest in 2016, which I was able to do because I was unemployed for the first half of that year (despite my best efforts). I got deeper into meditation, journeying, and talking to my ancestors and the spirits, and trying to get to know the land in this area–and that was pretty productive. During Summer 2016 I experienced some really weird and interesting magic that is extremely hard to describe, but it involved revisiting (in mind/spirit) an old relationship that had been unresolved for, like, 18 years. It was also closely intertwined with music–and I discovered some awesome new music during H2 2016–and something that I can only call a kind of spiritual/emotional time-travel. Lots of synchronicities too. I learned how important creative (re-)writing of one’s own narrative can be. Besides the spiritual stuff, as I was living in an old farmhouse on old farmland (christened Firefly Farm), I was looking forward to doing some farming. Composting, growing vegetables, keeping chickens and bees, etc. I had also planned to continue with my herbal studies/remedy-making. Alas, I did compost, but didn’t do anything with it (it wasn’t ready when I planted my vegetables). The veggies were almost all eaten by the neighbor’s free ranging chickens. And as it turned out I never amassed enough initial capital to invest in chickens or bees. As for the herbal stuff, the spirits made it clear that I had “remedial work” to do that mostly didn’t involve the herbs–and so it proved.

So in 2017 I continued with the spiritual work. In the spring I started a soul retrieval process that lasted several months (spirits had told me in 2016 that it was going to be necessary). Meanwhile, things became increasingly tense between me and my friend with whom I shared the house, and in 2017 she was able to buy her own place, so we moved out and parted ways amicably.

I took the opportunity of homelessness to visit a city where I had lived a few years previously and where I still had stuff in storage that I wanted to retrieve. It was a lovely couple of weeks where I got to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in years, jettison a lot of baggage, and get my stuff. Many of my friends have left academia for one reason or another, one of them to pursue a musical career, and through hanging out with her again I was exposed to even more amazing new music and I realized that I really need to spend more time around artists. I decided to learn to play a musical instrument (still haven’t though because I am terrible at follow-through). When I was a kid I was constantly writing poems, songs, and stories and drawing and painting. I don’t know where all that creativity went, but getting it back was a main reason I undertook soul retrieval. But it hasn’t really reappeared yet.

For the most part the summer was a blur of temporary residences where I didn’t really have sufficient space, privacy, or time to do much. And that’s when things started to fall apart. My spiritual practices languished; I fell into depression and anxiety; the spirits stopped communicating with me very much; my journeying (when I could manage it) just didn’t feel like journeying. More like “active imagination,” though that is still useful, I suppose. I hit a wall. But the soul retrieval wrapped up, and had some really interesting consequences.

I actually feel like two souls were returned to me; I don’t know the details because for some reason the shaman I worked with chose not to communicate with me about it any more. But synchronicities resumed, many of them involving music, I finally finished the work I was doing to resolve the unresolved relationship from years back, and people started reacting to me differently. I started having dreams in which a ghostly, childlike version of myself began to try to communicate with me. But the work was just beginning, and a lot of it has been painful.

In the fall I found a permanent place to live (well, as permanent as any residence ever is for me) in the town where I work–the poorest town in Ohio. Objectively, I know it’s an ugly, depressing place, a dying coal town with a polluted watershed and a serious opiate problem–but I don’t feel depressed by it. In fact, I’m in love with it, and that mystifies me. I don’t know why I’m here or why I care about it so damn much, but I feel like it’s where I am meant to be, at least for now.

For three months I had a long-term substitute teaching position in a local high school, because the regular teacher was out on maternity leave and the man who normally subbed had died in a tragic accident shortly before. Since he usually made his own course materials, no one had prepared anything for me, so it was sink or swim time, teaching a subject I had never taught before.  I adored the kids and I love to teach…alas I don’t love our educational system. But I think I’ve ranted about that before, so enough about that. Although I taught university courses for nearly a decade, teaching high school was a whole new experience–much more difficult (because you have to do it all day, five days a week, and it’s like 75% babysitting). In some ways it was very disheartening, because with this being such a poor community, many of the kids have already given up on themselves by the time they’re 14. Too many adults have given up on them too. But most of them are wonderful, and the experience made me feel more committed to the community–although to some extent it remains an unrequited love. I’m the new girl in town, and this is the kind of place where I will still be the new girl if I live here 30 years from now. It takes a long, long time to be accepted.

Just before Halloween a local woman died of a drug overdose. I didn’t know her but was somewhat friendly with a guy she was seeing, and had encountered her a few times through my job. She was very young (21 or just barely 22), and even though she and I really didn’t connect with each other (or want to) while she was alive, after she died she haunted me for a week. Longest frickin’ week of my life. I don’t mean that her ghost was physically present (do ghosts have a physical presence?)–at least I don’t think so. But she was present in my mind, in an all-consuming way. I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I got so depressed I didn’t eat or get out of bed for three days. I called off work. I experienced a crushing identity…crisis? I don’t know what to call it. Absence of identity was more like it. I literally stopped knowing who I was anymore, although I could rattle off a list of habitual behaviors and tendencies, but there seemed to be nothing to cohere them. Although I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t see any point to being alive. Then, one week after I heard about her death, I decided to go for a drive to enjoy the fall foliage (which was awesome last year). Just as I was turning out of my side street and onto the main drag, I found myself blocked by a funeral cortege–and then I had no choice but to join it, as there is only the one street going through town. I don’t know if it was her funeral, though the timing was right; but driving along at 5 miles an hour, I had some time to think about her and say some more prayers for her and her family. And the haunting lifted. She moved on.

To some extent I am still experiencing the sense of non-self though.

As for winter, it has been either non-eventful or I have yet to really recognize the events. I got the cold that’s going around that lasts three weeks, and then I somehow injured my back, and financially I’ve never been poorer, so that had me being very non-participatory. This being the eastern US, it has been unusually cold, snowy, and icy, so like everyone I’m spending more time hunkered down indoors. The personal, inner work has continued though: The ghostly child self who appears in my dreams has brought a lot of childhood abuse and resulting issues around love and shame back into my awareness for re-hashing and it suuuuucks. It has been as excruciating as it has been slow. Very much winter work. Grounding meditation has proved to be essential.

So I’m entering 2018 feeling rather battered and storm-worn, though hopeful. Pluto is finally moving off my progressed Sun and out of my 10th house (though it’ll be back when it retrogrades), and Saturn just moved off my progressed Moon (they will cross paths again too), so it should be interesting to see how that plays out. By 2020 I’ll be free of those two a-holes, at least. As I think about it, it seems silly that we celebrate the beginning of a new year during the time when, seasonally, things are very much not beginning. This is a time for introverting and cocooning, not starting new projects and making ambitious resolutions. That’s springtime stuff.