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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Rule Britannia–a case study and thoughts on deities, hierarchy, and ontology

Britannia

Among the many, many–MANY–thoughts and feels rattling around my head at the moment, I decided to pick out one thread and brain dump it here to see if it amounts to anything. I had actually planned to write about this a couple posts ago but, you know, life.

This thread has to do with deities and/of hierarchy, our moral stance on that, and neo-Gnosticism. It’s a big topic. Not gonna lie, this could get long.

Hierarchy is understandably very unpopular with those of us who are not at the top of it, and we Americans like to pretend it doesn’t even exist. Not long ago a little debate about Jupiter flared up online (I already opined on it here), and currently I seem to be hearing about Gnosticism all over the place (this is but one example and this is another). Gnosticism is a pretty eclectic umbrella, though–the currently popular belief is basically that everyone bigger than us is out to get us. In a nutshell: The world is a horrible place for us, mostly due to “control systems” that are at minimum imposed by earthly archons and perhaps by nonphysical, even transcendental, ones as well. Knowing this is the first stage in becoming liberated from the control systems, but we also have to take actions to avoid control and resist/destroy it where possible.

I have to admit I’m a little…alarmed is maybe too strong a word, certainly a bit concerned…by this rhetoric. I don’t deny that life as we know it is full of suffering and drudgery, nor that earthly (at least) control systems exist in which murder, oppression, and exploitation are a feature not a bug. The past couple months I’ve been experiencing a sort of slow-burning existential horror at the thought of how much of my too-short life I am expected to devote to people, organizations, and causes I at best am indifferent to, and at worst actively despise, in the name of “earning a living.” So I mean, I get where the original Gnostics that held this belief were coming from, and why it’s relevant again today. What bothers me is that I’m not hearing any real philosophical engagement with it. If you believe that humans are essentially prey/slaves/farm animals, that implies a certain ontology which, I think, deserves to be more than implied but actually made explicit and critically examined. Inquiring minds want to know. (This goes for animism too, by the way. It’s not enough to say everything is alive–woopty-doo.)

Though I have ample personal experience of the earthly control systems, I haven’t seen any evidence to persuade me either way as to whether any transcendental archons exist, and whether or not any or all deities should be classed as such, let alone what exactly they do.

I have been listening to podcasts as I do my (control-system mandated) chores such as mowing the lawn, and my favorite continues to be Story Archaeology, which ticks so many of my interest boxes, including folklore, Irish culture, language, and mythology, etymology, landscape, storytelling, and women in all of those things. Though it’s not a pagan podcast, I think it’s absolutely essential listening for those interested in Gaelic polytheism or Celtic reconstructionism, because the research presented helps to blast through all those crusty unhelpful concepts like “sovereignty goddesses.” It is one of the only places where new information about these deities is being produced in English, and not just the same old-same old that circulates, citationless, around the internets.

So here’s my case study/thought exercise. The latest podcast about Brig a.k.a. Brigid (see also this earlier one) got some wheels turning in my head, as I heard it around the same time the Great Gnostic Jupiter Debate was in full swing. I knew that the name Brig refers to a high place in the landscape, and is probably linguistically related to the continental form Brigantia which is attested in many inscriptions and possibly place names and, through syncretization with the Roman Minerva and Victoria, has come down to us in the form of Britannia. But (stupidly, as it now seems to me) I had not made the connection between high places and the hillforts or oppida which are widespread throughout the “Celtic” regions of temperate Europe. (In fact, that’s why it’s impossible to really say whether the place names are derived from the goddess or simply refer to a hillfort.) Connections between Brig and Brigantia are only conjectural at this point, but taken together there is very suggestive evidence that Britain and continental Western Europe had a victory-cum-warrior goddess who was a patroness of hillforts and the people who made them. Oppida are not really urban centers, though they might be classed as proto-urban; there were some residences inside but most people in a given region would have lived on isolated farmsteads outside the hillfort. Archaeologically we know that they were centers of iron-working and were heavily defended, and we speculate that elites resided there. Ireland doesn’t have hillforts proper but does have hilltop elite settlements. If the 2nd-century geographer Ptolemy is to be believed, there was an entire (large) tribe in Britain called the Brigantes, and the name of the Roman province derives from the word/name.

oppida distribution map
Source

So taken all together it looks likely that what we have in Brigantia is a goddess of the rulers, those who inhabit castles, essentially. People who live in castles generally go around oppressing people who live outside of castles. It makes sense that her name should appear in so many places and inscriptions, since castle-dwellers usually get to name all the things. But regardless of how Brigantia was perceived (or used) in the Iron Age, as Britannia she became a symbol of conquest and dominion right round the world. “Britannia rule the waves” indeed.

Brigantia

Now it’s true, Brigantia might not be Brig, and both might not have come down to us as St. Brigid, to be re-deified as Brighid. But there are some possible links: According to the 9th-century Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic)–and it is the only source for this–there were originally three goddesses named Brigid, one a goddess of poetry, one of smithcraft, and one of healing. Brig only appears as more than a name check in one Irish story, in which she invents keening (a form of mourning poetry) as she laments the death of her son at the hands of a smith in a forge. (Her son couldn’t be healed because his people had just got done destroying the only healing well. If Brig had any healing powers, evidently they weren’t of any use on this occasion.) For her part, St. Brigid is associated with healing wells and holy virgins who keep an eternal flame.

Bear with me as I tease that out. As much as we think of holy wells as a quintessentially Celtic phenomenon, Mallery (2010) argues that the Irish cult of the holy well was adopted from Roman Britain, and that those Romano-British wells that evidence deposition are all located near Iron Age and early medieval “royal sites.” So (1) maybe Brigantia came to Ireland from Britain like Nodens/Nuada and the holy well cult, or direct from the continent like Lugus/Lug and Ogmios/Ogma. Ptolemy does say there were Brigantes in what is now Leinster, and while the Romans never conquered Ireland, archaeological evidence does suggest some Romans went there. After all, St. Patrick himself was a Romano-Briton. And (2) maybe holy wells were an elite phenomenon. (I’m reminded of Lewis Spence‘s suggestion that druids were specifically priests of a cult of divine kingship, not the religion of the Celtic everyman.)

Next, you have the holy virgins keeping an eternal flame. One can’t help but think of the Vestal virgins, and certainly the Irish medieval chroniclers would have known about them–Ireland was the center of European learning at the time, after all, and that included Classical learning. My point is that while these nuns and their flame could have been an indigenous development, or even something harking back to extremely ancient Proto-Indo-European roots, there’s no way we can be sure it didn’t come over from Roman Britain along with other things that we know did.

As for the smithcraft, archaeologically we know that iron-working was performed at industrial scale at some of the larger oppida. The abundance of ordinary iron agricultural implements shows that iron wasn’t restricted to elites, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t control manufacture and distribution. There’s really no way it could happen at an industrial scale, at the probable site of elite residence, without elite patronage and oversight. That isn’t to say that iron-working didn’t go on at a smaller scale, it certainly did; but there was likely also an elite-dominated production scale. And one of the main categories of things produced was weapons. Indeed, the Iron Age in Europe saw the first emergence (so far as can be determined from archaeological evidence) of standing armies and full-time professional warriors. It was also the first time metal became widely available–bronze was scarce and monopolized by elites–and there are a plethora of magical beliefs related to iron and iron-working from many cultures. In short, smiths were magical people who made necessary war tools for rulers–there’s every reason to think the rulers would want to keep tabs on them.

I could try to get even more hypothetical and point out that poetry was something “Celtic” and Irish elites were hugely preoccupied with (indeed only the very wealthy could afford a professional keener for their dead), and that the stories associating St. Brigid with livestock and agricultural fertility link her to the source of those elites’ wealth, and her much-vaunted hospitality to the competitive display of that wealth. But I think there’s enough material here already to hypothesize that Brighid/St. Brigid has her origins as (and, as Britannia, still is) a goddess of warlike imperialists and their archonic control systems. The meaning of her name alone is sufficient to convince me that she is a goddess of rulers (yeah, I know that link is Wikipedia, but this article is as good as they get over there; contrast it with the page on Brigid which is pure dreck). We know that Jupiter was a god of emperors; we have forgotten that about Brigantia.

None of this is intended to tarnish the reputation of Brighid/St. Brigid. Elites write the histories and inscriptions in which their gods and goddesses are going to be prominent, so statistically, there’s a much better chance that after the attrition of thousands of years, those are the gods and goddesses who will make their way down to us. The priests of divine kingship are the ones we’re mostly going to know about. The pastimes and concerns of the elites are going to become our idea of what was important to the whole damn culture. You see the same thing with some of the Shinto kami, e.g., the only mythological texts in existence were written to legitimize imperial hegemony; Amaterasu is the best-known and most powerful kami because she is the royal ancestress. Nonetheless, everything evolves, including the tiny facets of deities that we can look at and comprehend. I put it to you that there will probably never be a form, or stratum, of human society that can’t find a relevant facet of Brighid/Brigid/Brigantia with which to connect.

So going back to the quasi-Gnostic worldview I mentioned at the beginning (never trust anything bigger than you), and its manifestation via the Jupiter debate (don’t trust anyone the elites like), I guess one could argue that Brighid does not have our best interests at heart and should be chucked out along with all other archons. For all I know, maybe that’s true; but there sure are a lot of people–including poor, marginalized people–in the Irish, pagan, Christian, and Vodou religious communities that love their manifestation of Brighid/Brigid/Brigitte. For me to assume they are all mistaken or selling out to the enemy feels too much like those fundamentalist Christians who say that when your dear granny visits you from beyond the grave it’s really Satan trying to deceive you. Or skeptics convinced that all the thousands upon thousands of people who report seeing ghosts or UFOs are ignorant green-teeth hillbillies and deluded victims of pseudoscience.

I don’t care whether you worship Brighid or any deities–that’s between you and them. But I do want to see these neo-Gnostic and animistic ontologies really opened up and explored. What happens to our ontology of predator/prey relations if we accept another common Gnostic belief, that reality as we perceive it is illusory and subjective and we are ill-equipped to recognize, let alone understand, it? To extend William James’ metaphor, just because we cats are miserable in the library, does that tell us anything about the library, let alone what’s in the books, let alone the librarians? Could it be that at least some of that misery stems from the fact that we fundamentally can’t conceive of a library, rather than it being malevolent? What if we are not even cats in the library, what if we are more like bacteria?

The entire concept of gnosis (as I understand it) was to connect with the real reality that is hidden by the sham reality we experience through ordinary consciousness. That can’t be done by reason alone, nor by faith alone, nor by observation of “the facts” we can perceive. If it were that easy, everybody would be enlightened. We will not succeed in (to borrow a phrase from Circle Thrice) “jailbreaking our minds” through clumsy, cat-specific predator/prey or pseudo-Marxist magical-class-war models of reality. If our models, or our deity worship, aren’t helping us see beyond cat-world, they are really not much use.