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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2 thoughts on “Politics of myth

  1. Oh, more of this, yes.

    To clarify on the Yoruba front, though, the politics of Ogun & Shango isn’t quite the same as the politics of Odin & Loki or Osiris & Set. The tensions there are of a different sort, rooted in what seem to be pretty common subsaharan tensions between the institution of the king (often tied to our thunderers, though with a very interesting side of oceanic figures) and a couple of other, related, institutions–the hunter’s societies and the blacksmiths. Ogun and Weyland, perhaps, have a little more in common with each other than Ogun and Loki.

    I am almost certain that more than little of that tension relates to the place of women within these societies, too. Yoruba kings tend to have a special relationship to their mother and to the market women (themselves caught up in the complex of mythical witch figures, the mothers). Hunting lodges, by contrast, are fraternal and tend to emphasize male bonding through the careful exclusion &/or intense regulation of women’s presence. You get female figures, but it sort of feels a little like what goes on in the broadly mithraic & Scythian (I think that is the right term? I don’t dwell there so apologies if I’m a little off) trends: an idealized female figure (Scubla suggests this is often the grandmother figures, maybe he is right?) who justifies the exclusion of other women & becomes the anchor for fraternity.

    The trickster figure, yeah, you get those, too, and folks will tend to talk about Legba-Eleggua, who is so Hermes-like sometimes it kind of hurts. Judith Gleason suggested that Eleggua may have displaced Ogun from a central role in the divining cults of the region–if true, that would go a long way to hashing out some of the tensions, because Legba has too-close relations with a lot of female powers, making him a natural fit to negotiate between the king-thunderer and women-mothers that animate the king’s power (& those divining cults enter into close alliance with kings during the height of these empires), in contrast to Ogun who is hypermasculine and has to be coaxed into relations with women (& is more likely to have uncomfortably rape-y myths ascribed to him).

    I wonder if some of the shift you are noting with Brigit (war goddess to her popular form now) has to do with a slippage, the skip from a figure originally born in a male cult being claimed & reworked by women, because in male supremacist societies, these are some of the few female figure allowed to circulate publicly. That’s just me noodling, though; don’t know tons about it.

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    1. This is very interesting! Thanks for filling in more detail about the figures in Yoruba religion–I’d like to know more about them but as yet have only scratched the surface.

      Thinking more about the Brigantia/Britannia/Brigid thing, first I was wondering to myself, why do so many male-dominated warrior societies have war goddesses? I mean, the Greeks of course had Ares, a war god–but also Athena, a goddess. And so on. And then it occurred to me that with both Athena and Brigantia/Britannia, the goddess is not *only* a war goddess but an ethno-goddess. So there is arguably an element of mother-figure there. We know much more about Athena’s mythology, and there we can definitely say that she was a tutelary goddess too. So I wonder if she was, at least at one time, viewed as a sort of progenitrix? I know she was a virgin goddess, but “virgin” had something of a different meaning back then, and besides, mythology is full of virgin births. She needn’t have been a progenitrix in a literal sense, it might only have been metaphorical. I also should probably say that I realize that deities don’t have to fit into a narrowly-defined category; I mean, look at all the hats Isis has worn.

      Also interesting that you mention the parallels between Legba and Hermes, and the contrasts between Legba and Ogun vis-a-vis women. Because from what I know of Greek mythology, Hermes–as compared to Apollo and especially Zeus–doesn’t have any particularly rapey relationships to women/goddesses. And he’s even the father of Hermaphroditus, who was androgynous, which strikes me as significant even though Hermes was represented by hermai which were frequently just penises, or penises with bearded faces, and what’s more overtly masculine than that? (On a personal note, how I long for a socially-recognized and -approved vision of manhood that could be masculine without being violent and oppressive. But a lot of people are singing that song these days.)

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