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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An interesting juxtaposition

I don’t want to ruin anyone’s fun–which motive seems to be imputed to me every time I say this–but I don’t care about seeing the new Star Wars movie and I would rather pretend it doesn’t exist. I discussed this with several people on Facebook, and it was interesting that with maybe two exceptions, everyone seemed to think I was saying that I thought the movie would be bad.

Instead, what I was saying is that I do not think this nostalgia that prompts us to relive movies over and over says anything good about our (American/Anglophone) society and its cultural projects. When I want to revisit the Star Wars universe, I watch Star Wars again. (Yes, it will always be “Star Wars” to me and not “A New Hope.” I know, I’m aging myself. It seems an appropriate way to celebrate finding my first grey hairs this month. You damn kids get off my lawn.) Don’t get me wrong. I get nostalgic like anyone else, and I enjoy a bit of escapist action cinema. Man, if I could recapture the sense of empowerment and inspiration I got from watching She-Ra as a kid I would not only magically leverage the hell out of it (something I am trying to figure out how to do), I would bottle and sell it. But I do not feel the need to constantly revisit-but-with-slight-cosmetic-changes-“improvements” the experiences of my youth. I certainly do not feel the need for a J.J. Abrams version of Masters of the Universe. I’m actually a little afraid that by having put that idea out there into the universe it’s going to happen. Please don’t let that happen.

Well, maybe if Wes Anderson had directed the new Star Wars, with Bill Murray as a jaded and cynical Luke Skywalker and Owen Wilson as Chewbacca…I might have gone to see that. But I digress.

My main complaint about the Star Wars prequels–which I refuse to acknowledge in my universe–is not that they were “bad” in so very many ways, but that they betrayed the whole worldview, philosophy, and cosmology of the original movies. I mean, midichlorians? Talk about selling out to scientistic-materialism. I know it’s not the ’70s anymore and the New Age is looking a bit tarnished and beat up, but it was so sad to see something mythic reduced to the merely fictive. So I want nothing to do with any further Star Wars elaborations, and the same goes for Star Trek (the Abrams version of which similarly betrayed/abandoned the mythos of the original–or to paraphrase some dude I don’t know on Facebook, Abrams made a good action movie, but he didn’t make a Star Trek movie), Tarzan, Point Break (not making that up), and all the other remakes, retreads, reboots, sequels, and prequels. I swear every time another Marvel superhero movie comes out an angel commits harakiri. Can we at least agree not to remake a movie until 25 years have passed since the original came out?

Setting aside my cantankerousness, I actually am dismayed by the way nostalgia has grown so out of control. I read an interview with Simon Pegg when The World’s End came out which I can’t find anymore, but basically he was complaining that

“…the growing consumerism attached to genre films that has preyed on audiences’ nostalgia for youth. Citing the philosophies of cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, Pegg explains how society has become infantilized to distract us from the real horrors of the world. ‘There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the “The Force Awakens” and the “Batman vs Superman” trailers,’ Pegg writes, ‘than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.'”

It’s ironic, if not maybe just a teensy bit hypocritical, that these words are coming from a guy who starred in both the new Star Treks and the new Star Wars, but I agree with what he’s saying here and for better or worse, the Cornetto Trilogy are among the very few films pointing out the extremes to which nostalgia has been leveraged by marketers and the mindlessness of the general populace in consuming it.

So anyway, that is my bad attitude to the whole thing. I feel a little vindicated that less-than-fawning reviews of the new Star Wars are beginning to appear. That (in part) is why I clicked on this link when a friend posted it on Facebook:

From “A New Hope” to no hope at all: “Star Wars,” Tolkien and the sinister and depressing reality of expanded universes

The next thing I saw in my news feed was this link from Gordon:

Empire of Chaos preparing for more fireworks in 2016

The juxtaposition of the two is interesting. The subtitle of the first article could with equal truth be appended to the second: “When fantasy sagas never end, we see the cycles of brutality and totalitarianism that fuel them don’t, either.”

American exceptionalism and EU/ECB/IMF/NATO’s various politico-economic just-so stories are our fantasy saga. In light of that, read this synopsis of America’s current chapter of the saga:

Give Me Only Good News!

I realize this comes off as awfully pessimistic. I don’t want to make things harder for you this Bickanytide*. As when I first suggested to my Facebook acquaintances that perhaps a new Star Wars doesn’t really warrant pants-wetting levels of enthusiasm, I am only suggesting we widen our perspectives a bit to look at bigger patterns and maybe just maybe have a good think about it. But what am I saying? If you’re reading this, you are already my kind of weirdo. I wish you a happy midwinter and a wond’rous feast of St. Bickany!

*Totally stealing that from Gordon. Too perfect to pass up.