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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Gimme that old time religion

I often think about where I’d be now if I had followed my earliest instincts. I have always had what you might call the religious temperament. The earliest thing I can remember wanting to be when I grew up is a priest. My mom believes that small children should have to sit through boring church services so they’ll learn to be well-behaved in school, and she also thought religion would be edifying for me, but she didn’t much care what sort of religion. So, as she tells the story, she decided she would take me to a different house of worship every week and let me choose which one I liked best. The first place we went was our local small town Catholic church (we’re not Catholic), and that was it. I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I was about 4 at the time. I can still remember how much I loved the stained glass, the statues, the paintings of stations of the cross, the singing, the incense… I begged my mom to sit in the front row. She made me a deal: if I behaved, we’d move forward one row every week. So the weeks passed, and we moved up, until we were in the second row back. That Sunday, as the priest was preparing communion, I stood up on the kneeling board, turned to face my mom, and said in a stage whisper that reverberated through the whole church, “Hey Mom, how come there aren’t any women priests here?” The priest started laughing. My mom was mortified. As I seem to remember happening so often during my youth, she said, “Shhh, I’ll tell you when we get outside.” And she did. “I never want to go back there,” I said. And I meant it. The Church lost its most devout follower that day, I tell you what. I was 5. Thenceforth I felt I was on my own where religion was concerned. I became obsessed with reading about every kind of mythology. By the time I was about 12, I was a hard polytheist, though I didn’t know it at the time. I was using tarot cards and had started learning astrology. Looking back, I have no idea how that happened. It certainly didn’t come from my family–I was an only child, my mom was raising me by herself, and she was and is a New Age Unitarian-Universalist-type Christian. She was not super thrilled about my proclivities, but didn’t make much of an attempt to discourage me because she was sure I’d outgrow it. I remember I would beg her to take me to the local Tower Books, and bless her heart, she bought me a lot of eclectic stuff over the years, including my first tarot deck. Had I not been discouraged, I would probably have become some kind of Celtic or reconstructionist. But there was a subtle disapproval. My mother has this dismissive way of saying, “Well…” when you propose something she suspects is tomfoolery that is like icewater in the veins. I was always very independent, but also very obedient–I think mainly because I hated it when my mom turned out to be right about something and thus I turned out to be wrong. Also I began to realize that mainstream society did not look kindly upon polytheism. I once told the librarian in high school that I was inventing my own religion, which I thought would be better than saying that I was a budding Celtic reconstructionist, not that I knew what to call it, and she naturally scoffed at the idea. I was going through a rough time then, and I just sort of put religious themes aside. I believed in God mainly because I was afraid not to, but felt no connection (and in fact, a good deal of bitterness) to the Christian god. My maternal family have passed down stories of ancestors who were witches, mystics, and psychics and it was taken for granted that it runs in the family. Yet my mom didn’t want to teach me anything about it, ostensibly because I was “too young.” My mom is convinced that I will manage to kill myself performing even the safest and most routine activities, so when it comes to magic she is certain I will summon and become possessed by legions of demons. The unintended consequence is that I became convinced that I was the black sheep who had no psychic or magical ability. I don’t think anyone in my family had any idea how much pain and shame I felt because of this. Everyone said it would come eventually. I just wanted to be special, and to think that everyone in my family but me had been gifted special specialness was hard. I know, cry me a river, right? But being special matters a lot to teenagers. When I was 15 my mom got a job in Sevilla, Spain and we moved there for the then-foreseeable future, which turned out to be three years. For the first time, I set foot in Christian churches again, put purely from historical and anthropological interest. One day during Holy Week of 1993 we went to one of the major churches as tourists and I had my first direct UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis) experience.

Nuestra Senora de la Esperanza Macarena.
Nuestra Se~nora de la Esperanza Macarena.

Every church in Sevilla has at least one statue of Jesus and at least one statue of the Virgin Mary. Of these two, the Virgin is unquestionably of greater social importance. She is almost always depicted as a dolorosa, weeping for the deceased Jesus (though a church may also have a gloriosa, a mother holding Baby Jesus). When I lived there, I was asked more than once whether I was a follower of the Virgin or Christ. Or, not and. During Holy Week, crowds of thousands gather in the streets and each church’s principal images are put onto ornate pasos (sort of like holy parade floats) and carried through the city on young men’s shoulders to the cathedral and back. The air is filled with incense smoke and lit by candles. Drums roll through the night, while bands play dirges for Jesus and exuberant marches for the Virgins. Penitents carry crosses behind the pasos, wearing pointed hoods that gave the Klan the idea. On the way, people throw flowers at them and sometimes are so moved that they break into extempore devotional songs. Followers of a given Virgin will hail them with shouts of “Beautiful! Beautiful!” while members of other churches, and thus followers of other Virgins, yell “Whore!” The whole thing produces a very altered state of consciousness, especially at 3 a.m.

La Macarena on her paso. Her trip through Sevilla takes approximately 13 hours.
La Macarena on her paso. Her trip through Sevilla takes approximately 13 hours.

Things may be different now. Even then, the archbishop was trying to crack down on the insults and fist fights that occasionally broke out between parishioners of different churches. Devotees would start shouting “Beautiful!” or “Whore!” and then a wave of “Shhhh!” would run through the crowd. But then again, it might be the same as it ever was. In my experience, the more authorities or people from outside Spain encourage Spaniards to abandon something, the harder they hold on to it (bullfighting, for example).

El Baratillo going through the Plaza de San Francisco. Our apartment was on the top floor of the building second from left.
El Baratillo going through the Plaza de San Francisco. Our apartment was on the top floor of the brick building second from left (or third if you count the little sliver of building at the very edge).

And some of the statues move. I have seen a statue of Jesus reposition the cross he was carrying. I have seen a Virgin smile, move her hands and eyes, and turn her head to look at the people sitting in her church–and that was also witnessed by three people with me, one of whom was an atheist who had a transformative religious experience because of it. Most of these statues date from the 1600s-1800s, and they are not mechanical. Anyway, I’m not talking about mechanical movements or optical illusions. The reason people can call the Virgin Mary a whore without cognitive dissonance is because these different statues are not regarded as mere representations of the same holy person. Each one is seen by her followers as the true Virgin, while all the others are impostors. Yet the statues of Jesus seem to be regarded as all the same being. Certainly Jesus never gets insulted, but nor does he get ecstatic praise. I can tell you that each Virgin has her own unique “vibe”: La Macarena feels like the sweetest, most unconditional love, sympathy, and joy, while El Rocío feels like a wild mare who will smite your foes with extreme prejudice. At least that’s how they are to me. Far from being one saint, they are different goddesses. (I wrote a bit more about El Rocío and her horses here.) But they are tied to their locality and the cultural context that gives them relevance, and I found that they didn’t transfer very well back to America. (Neither did I, actually. So. Much. Depression.) I spent the years between then and my Saturn return, approximately a decade, trying my best to adult and keeping my nose clean and to the grindstone. I finished college and went to grad school because that was what everyone expected and I didn’t have any better ideas. I had always been good at school so at least I got positive strokes for that, and I enjoyed and was good at teaching and writing. But I was having increasing difficulty fitting into my atheist, super-scientistic academic milieu. I loved doing scientific research, but hated seeing the name of science being used to bully others. I saw myself as a believer with nothing to believe in. As my research questions evolved, I began to see that I would not be able to answer them from inside academia. I desperately wanted to think divergently, but no longer remembered how. I got very interested in Buddhist philosophy, but I had difficulty embracing the idea of being a Buddhist, in no small part because most of the others I met were annoying. The Saturn return gets a lot of bad press, but it was actually a pretty good time in my life (Saturn is a cake walk compared to the shit Pluto throws at you, but I digress). I began to realize that I was no less mystical or psychic than the rest of my family. I came to terms with and embraced my need for spiritual fulfillment, even though I hadn’t found the right outlet. I finally voiced out loud what I had long suspected, that most New Age pop-spirituality and the Law of Attraction in particular are BS. I guess you could say I finally started to come into my own, to see myself instead of the many expectations about who I should be. As I finished grad school, my mother became seriously ill, and I moved back to California to take care of her. This freed me from having to decide whether to abandon an academic career–the choice was made for me. Although being a caregiver is in many ways the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, being stuck inside for 20+ hours per day does give me a lot of time to read and write. In spite of all the work I do taking care of my mom, I have made massive progress on my Great Work, even though I am still just at the beginning. Hey, it’s a long road, and I walk slowly. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what religion I ascribe to, I have come back around to polytheism seasoned with animism, pantheism, and panentheism. (And yes I know those last two are supposed to be mutually exclusive, but I don’t see it that way.) I guess you could say I believe in all gods, though I wouldn’t work with all of them. There is no one cultural pantheon that calls to me more than another, but certain deities from various cultures. I find that I cannot bring myself to identify with the term “pagan,” though I suppose that’s how others would identify me, and there doesn’t seem to be any other term that fits me either. I naturally rebel against hierarchy and am not a joiner, so will probably never become a priestess within any organized lodge or temple, though someday I may choose that service. All remains to be seen.

Xi Wangmu and the Star Festival

Tanabata streamers and wishes.
Tanabata streamers and wishes.

Tanabata, or the Star Festival (the 7th day of the 7th month, by either the lunar or solar calendar), is a holiday I was introduced to while staying in Japan. According to legend, on this day each year, two mythic lovers separated by the Milky Way are reunited. In China, where the story originates, the festival is known as Qixi or the Festival to Plead for Skills, and in Korea as Chilseok. When the festival is celebrated according to the solar calendar, it corresponds generally to the beginning of the summer monsoon rains, when the oppressive heat and humidity becomes slightly more tolerable; however, in the lunar calendar it falls around mid-August and was originally the beginning of autumn.

Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way

In brief–Orihime (the star Vega), the weaver-princess, was the daughter of the King of Heaven. She fell in love with Hikoboshi the cowherd (Altair). But when they were together, Orihime neglected her weaving and Hikoboshi his cattle, so the King of Heaven cast them apart and created the River of Heaven (the Milky Way) to keep them apart. Orihime was grief-stricken at the loss of her husband, so the King of Heaven agreed to let the couple meet once a year on the 7th day of the 7th month. But neither could cross the river, until the magpies, or in some versions the magpies and crows, made a bridge for them.

In one Chinese version of the story, Orihime (or as she is known in Chinese, Zhinu) is the daughter of Xi Wangmu (the Queen Mother of the West, or Great Female Ancestor of the West) rather than the King of Heaven. Xi Wangmu is a very ancient deity, whose cult exploded in popularity during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and one that I find particularly fascinating. I am indebted to the webpage “Xi Wangmu, the shamanic great goddess of China” by Max Dashu for the following information.

Xi Wangmu lives between heaven and earth, in a paradise garden among the clouds on Jade Mountain or She Wu (“Female-Snake-Shaman”) Mountain. In her garden grows the World Tree which bears peaches of immortality. With her are various magical animals, including the three-footed crow, the nine-tailed fox, the rabbit in the moon, phoenixes, and qilin. In a 3rd-century AD scroll, Xi Wangmu describes herself thus: “With tigers and leopards I form a pride; Together with crows and magpies I share the same dwelling place.”

“Xi Wang Mu controls the cosmic forces: time and space and the pivotal Great Dipper constellation. With her powers of creation and destruction, she ordains life and death, disease and healing, and determines the life spans of all living beings. The energies of new growth surround her like a cloud. She is attended by hosts of spirits and transcendentals. She presides over the dead and afterlife, and confers divine realization and immortality on spiritual seekers.”

Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard's tail.
Xi Wangmu, right, with tiger teeth and a leopard’s tail.

In the earliest representations of her, Xi Wangmu looks like a human but has the teeth of a tiger and tail of a snow leopard. The tiger is the directional symbol of the west, and may have been since the very dawn of Chinese civilization in the Neolithic. She bears a staff, and wears a sheng headdress marking her as a weaver “who creates and maintains the universe” and controls the stars and constellations. The involvement of Xi Wangmu in the myth of Tanabata might indicate that it was originally a festival in her honor:

“This sign [the sheng headdress] was regarded as an auspicious symbol during the Han dynasty, and possibly earlier. People exchanged sheng tokens as gifts on stellar holidays, especially the Double Seven festival in which women’s weaving figured prominently. It was celebrated on the seventh day of the seventh month, at the seventh hour, when Xi Wangmu descended among humans. Taoists considered it the most important night of the year, ‘the perfect night for divine meetings and ascents.’ [Cahill, 16, 167-8] It was the year’s midpoint, ‘when the divine and human worlds touch,’ and cosmic energies were in perfect balance.”

(My emphasis.) After the Han Dynasty, the worship of Xi Wangmu was blamed for inciting ecstatic peasant movements and especially for too many uppity women peasants, so the goddess was “civilized.” Gone were her wild hair and fangs, replaced by royal robes and jewels, and her opposite, the Queen Mother of the East, was replaced by the King Father of the East to balance out what was perceived as an excess of feminine directional power and yin. In some literature she was demoted to mortal human status, or even depicted as a kind of succubus. Nevertheless Xi Wangmu remained beloved by the people, who often referred to her as “Nanny.”

tanabata streamers

Inspired by a miraculous tale of love, or by the awesome cosmic powers of Xi Wangmu, Tanabata is a day to make wishes for the fulfillment of long-cherished dreams, in particular the desire for new skills. People write these wishes on slips of paper and hang them on tree branches, and colorful streamers decorate the streets. Japanese festivals are open to all comers, being a matter of community participation rather than religious or cultural identification, while the stars are visible from all over Earth (albeit different ones in different hemispheres), so I don’t think there are any issues of appropriation to fear here.

If you wish to celebrate the Star Festival, you can complement the colorful modern traditions with more ancient ones, including:

  • Nine lamps dedicated to Xi Wangmu
  • Propitiating ghosts and the dead
  • Sewing fall/winter clothes, embroidery, weaving
  • Offerings of melons and fruit, candles, incense, and miniature clothing, shoes, or furniture in groups of seven
  • A “wish-fulfillment banquet”