What is Mythology? (Part 8: Mythopoly)

The word “Mythopoly” came to me as I was waking up this morning, so I thought I better try to explain what my subconscious was thinking.

I had hoped that I had coined a new term, but a quick Google search discovered a few custom-made board games bearing that title, including Sarah Anderson’s wonderful gameboard pictured below:

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I am thinking of “Mythopoly,” however, as a combination of Mythology and out-sized claims to ownership, the idea of one religion seeking to sell a story as its own, as the only authentic version, or even to claim that its worldview is “the one true way,” effectively crowding out all competing views.

Often this is accomplished by simple omission. Some religious leaders and parents do not teach children alternative myths, either because they are not familiar with other traditions, or because they wish to keep their youth in willful ignorance. (Philosopher Daniel Dennett has been advocating for the teaching of world religions in public schools. In this video, he explains how ignorance of other traditions contributes to the toxic environment of distrust between faiths.)

Perhaps such comparative studies might also create inter-faith dialogue (of the constructive or deconstructive sort) as uncanny connections between myths emerge. In Part 7, I said that regardless of attempts to read myths as literal divine transmissions, myths will always remain myths. When read closely and with an open-mind, it becomes impossible to take them simply at face value.

What other conclusions could students of world religions reach upon learning, for example, the endless list of gods and mythological figures before the time of Jesus who were brought into this world in miraculous ways, either by being conceived through Parthenogenesis (birth without fertilization), emerging through their mother’s sides instead of the vaginal passage (Buddha and Set), or by being born from a rock (Mithra) or even from the foam surrounding severed genitalia floating in the ocean (Aphrodite)?

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One could conclude that these alternative stories are false and that only Jesus’s miraculous birth is true (In other words, enact a mythopoly). Or, you could see these sorts of miraculous births for what they are: well-trodden motifs in mythological stories, created for effect or symbolism or propaganda. They imply a great deal about the special status of the character, and may even suggest a theology (to be born in a non-natural way preserves purity and cleanliness and a certain remove from the material trappings of this world), but they should not be taken literally.

This idea of miraculous birth is just one of countless mythological motifs used around the world, in various cultures, and across different time periods. Once you lay out the world’s mythical motifs on the table, like cards, and sort them neatly into piles (one pile, let’s say, for all the myths featuring angry sky gods at war with earth-bound goddesses, or another pile for myths with half-man/half-god characters sent to earth to prove something to the world), it becomes much more difficult to maintain a Mythopoly without a serious case of denial.

Two distinct possibilities could then arise in the mind of the student:

1) All myths are bogus, just recycled themes passed along as pre-rational attempts at explaining, indoctrinating, and entertaining captive audiences, but they are ultimately the by-product of a by-gone era.

2) It can’t just be a coincidence that cultures who had no communication with each other and/or lived one thousand years apart developed mythologies featuring compatible ideas. It must be universal psychological principles at play, reflecting fundamental similarities between humans across time and across cultures.* Therefore, by studying these myths, we can learn about the human experience and how it has been represented in mythological imagery as old 4000 years (which just includes the oldest written myths, not artwork or cave paintings that are even tens of thousands of years older).

Option 2 has led to an entire tradition of mythological study, beginning perhaps with Carl Jung and moving through Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman, perhaps even into integral thinkers, such as Ken Wilber (who claims Campbell as an early inspiration, and whose work is comparative to its core) and William Irwin Thompson (who is highly critical of what he sees as “chauvinism” in Campbell’s work, but who nonetheless reads and approaches mythology as a mirror of psyche.) It is this kind of archetypal, psychological, and spiritual reading of Mythology that is featured heavily in my course and which is one basis for reading it critically in a Literature classroom.

In fact, no study of Mythology is complete without diving into the work of Joseph Campbell, who may be single-handedly responsible for restoring contemporary interest in mythology. More on Campbell in future posts.

*There are, of course, other explanations for certain reoccurring content. First, stories passed along via oral transmission really could survive, thrive, and become absorbed into other traditions as long as the geographical scope was not too large. This is why, for example, the story of Noah’s Ark appears first in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh and then migrates into Jewish oral tradition over several hundred years. Apparently, it was a powerful enough story to maintain an audience for so long. Second, translation conducted by colonizing groups was often accompanied by substantial revision in order to interpose their own culture into the subjugated people’s myths and values. This is why some Aztec myths contains Christian imagery and references. Third, we cannot automatically discount the idea of a World Spirit or “Meta-God” whose divine revelation, though unitive, takes on the local flavor wherever it appears. In other words, there is a God, but It is just way more multicultural than It gets credit for. Finally, one can always take a more conspiratorial route and read these coincidences as the product of an alien being leaving messages for us. After all, the various accounts of gods walking the earth in spectral form (or something like the far-roaming white-skinned god writers such as Graham Hancock discuss) could be connected to the same parental alien civilization doing its proselytizing. Doubtful, but imagination is a wonderful thing. 

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What is Mythology? (Part 7: Religion and Mythology)

What is the difference between mythology and religion?

There are two cynical answers: “Nothing” and “A mythology is just a religion no one believes in anymore.”

I reject both of these answers, mainly because they fail to grapple with the subtleties of the question. With a wave of a hand, 100,000 years of human culture are dismissed.

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Also, the terms “mythology” and “religion” are addressing two different things. Mythology is the study of myth. Religion is a system of beliefs and practices formally organized and set into action in the world. Myths are usually contained within this system. While myths can be formed outside of religion (think of national myths, such as Johnny Appleseed), most myths have some connection with religious systems. It could be said that myths are the literary content of religion.

Of course, there’s an instant problem with this statement. Many religious adherents will object to sacred stories being referred to as “literary.” This is where the cynics are on to something (namely the slippery subjectivity involved in distinguishing  between myth and religion), and it results in the following scenario:

If a religious adherent reads a story from his sacred scriptures and believes it to be literally true and the product of divine authorship, the writings, to him are not myths. If, however, that very same story is perceived by another person as a non-literal tale that emerged from an oral tradition of human authors, it is safe to claim it for mythology.

This was, essentially, Robert Grave’s position on the matter. He believed  that a religious story was only a myth to those who did not belong to the religion.thewhitegoddess071

But wait, you ask, doesn’t this imply that the definitions of religion and mythology depend solely on preference?

No, I would argue (in disagreement with Graves) because regardless of how it’s perceived, the myth remains a myth. In fact, if a myth can be read by one person as literal, divine truth, by another as non-literal symbolism, and still another as veiled anthropology, its qualities as a piece of writing must have myth-like qualities, namely a style that calls to mind the previous discussion on myth-as-fugue in Part 2 and Part 3.

This helps clarify a key difference between religious writing and mythological writing, a difference we could characterize as directness vs. indirectness, or perhaps as prose vs. poetry, though that may complicate things.

Let me back up. Religion can be said to be the structures, institutions, and rules that govern the faithful’s participation in their belief system, which is metaphysical in nature and which usually has scriptural support from a range of writings we can loosely divide into two categories:

1) The direct writings necessary to spell out rules of behavior and define beliefs and doctrines clearly enough to create the semblance of coherence among the followers and to distinguish their religion from the next.

2) Indirect and stylized writings that suggest the mysterious qualities of the metaphysical dimensions of the religion, usually without explicit messages attached.

It’s the difference between Leviticus and the Book of Job. The Book of Job, as a story without an explicitly defined moral, lends itself to multiple interpretations. (Check out Carl Jung’s Answer to Job if you want to see how far a legitimate interpretation of Job can go.)  In fact, the Book of Job is more probe than story. The truth is not directly revealed because, God tells us, we can never know. It is also a story containing fantastical events and improbable characters. Additionally, some scholarship pegs it as the oldest book in the Bible and the result of a long, evolving oral tradition, written before God and Satan were adversaries. Indeed, they consult with one another as partners at the beginning of the story.k9504

The Book of Leviticus, though containing figures, such as Moses, we may consider to be mythological, is largely a collection of laws meant to be followed to the letter as part of religious practice. Perhaps one could argue that the origin and moral authority upon which these laws rest is mythological in nature, but the nature of the writing itself is direct, prescriptive, and straightforward. In Leviticus 2:7, for example, we know exactly what is being asked of us: “And if thy oblation be a meat offering baken in the fryingpan, it shall be made of fine flour with oil.”

Religion, then, is about how to adhere to a belief. Myths, we could say, are about why, provided the answer is not, “Because God said you had to. It’s right here in Leviticus.”

Perhaps a better way to say it is that myths leave the mystery open. Most religions are comfortable with this as well, to a certain extent, as long as they also have access to a more codified methodology for manifesting their beliefs in the world, via their organization and legal systems.

Clearly religion and mythology are closely related (though myths do get created outside of the confines of religion), but at what point does mythologizing end and religious-izing begin? (I made that word up).

You can see why a cynic might answer “Nothing!” to the question, “What is the difference between Religion and Mythology?” because it seems as if I’ve engaged in nothing but semantics. I think the boundaries are blurry and the discussion of their differences should continue to be open-ended.

Let me just finish with one more answer: The aim of religion is largely to help a follower become better at practicing that particular religion. Myths, regardless of which religion they may be associated with, should make you wonder what you’re even doing here.

The Psychology of Apocalypse

The world will not end in 2012. I tell you why.