Mythology: Continued, not Revised

I stand with Planned Parenthood. They do amazing work. Whether it is providing cancer and STI screenings, helping young trans people with HRT, or just plain supporting reproductive justice, they are making people’s lives better.

But it wasn’t always as simple as that.

In the “About Us” section of the Planned Parenthood website, you can read about their founder, Margret Sanger.

Despite her heroism, Sanger had beliefs, practices, and associations that we now acknowledge and denounce, and work to rectify today. For example:

•In her effort to educate about birth control, Margaret Sanger spoke to almost any group interested in the topic. This included giving a speech at a KKK meeting in Silver Lake, New Jersey, in 1926 — where she failed to condemn or question the racism or terrorist acts.

•Sanger endorsed the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that compulsory sterilization of the “unfit” was allowable under the Constitution. This decision enabled states to sterilize citizens deemed unfit without their consent and sometimes even without their knowledge.

While she was an important and influential leader in the early days of the reproductive rights movement and the history of Planned Parenthood, we recognize that Sanger’s decisions were rooted in racism and ableism that hurts communities and goes against everything Planned Parenthood stands for.

What Planned Parenthood did here is important, and we should all take note.

They did not attempt to “retcon” their negative history. They did not deny the allegations leveled at Margaret Sanger. They paused, acknowledged that she was flawed, and they stated, in unequivocal terms, their rejection of who they were in the 1920’s.

Why is that so important? Well, the truth is important. More than that, though, the first step in growth and change is acknowledging that there is a problem. An important part of continuing in that growth is to continue to acknowledge that there was a problem. That is how we prevent ourselves from falling back into old, negative habits. Just ask anyone in recovery.

Why am I bringing this up?

Because over the course of PantheaCon, there were several discussions I participated in about changing and evolving mythology.

To be clear: I am in favor. With caveats. 

We Can’t Leave It The Way It Is

I don’t know about your religion, but Hellenismos has some Grade A issues with its mythology in the context of the modern world. The way sex and power are dealt with by the deities described in their mythology is problematic and not something to be venerated.

If you understand the way an anthropologist looks at religion, you understand that myths are a reflection of the values of the people. In the ancient world, mythology was fluid. Myths are different from region to region, era to era. The changes and differences reflect the values of the people who made those modifications.

If you want to know what happens when you have a religion which refuses to change in response to the shifting values of its people, Christianity is a fabulous example, on both ends. In it’s infancy, it embraced a libertine spirit and an ethos of love, setting it apart from other religions of that day, and fueling its growth until it had won the very heart of Rome. In the modern day, it is doubling down on values from the ancient world which are horrific by modern standards, fueling what is known as The Great Decline. Christian countries are full of atheists. Roughly a third of people brought up Christian in North America will not be Christian by the end of their lives.

We can’t leave it the way it is and expect the religion to grow.

We Can’t Ignore What Is Written

Ancient people did not have information technology and could pretend that the myths had always been that way.

We can’t do that anymore, in short, because Wikipedia.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge that while our gods and customs and rituals are beautiful, they come out of a problematic past. We cannot deny our past — it’s pretty much everywhere for everyone to see.

Neither can we ignore the lived experiences of our deities. You may not agree with the values expressed in a particular myth, but it needs to be acknowledged that the gods were called in the ancient world and were expected to be whatever the myth of the time said they were. They were expected to feel those feelings and speak to those memories.

By denying that it happened, we are, in essence, gas-lighting our gods.

Maybe your myth is that Zeus never really cheated on Hera. But where do those emotions from a past wherein that was the reality she lived in go? Maybe your myth is that Kronos never ate Demeter, or Hera, or any of their siblings. How do you suppose you’d feel if you were Rhea, and someone tried to re-assemble the deity that swallowed your children?

We can say that yes, the myths reflect who we were two thousand years ago, but that they do not reflect who we are now. But that leaves us without a mythology that reflects our modern values.

We Can’t Let Post-Christian History Pass Without Explanation 

Our thinking on certain things is wildly inconsistent. I have met people who somehow hold ALL of the following views:

  1. The gods are all-powerful
  2. The gods desire worship
  3. Christians forced people to convert to Christianity in the ancient world

This needs theological attention. If gods are all powerful, and desire worship, why would they want their cultus to be suppressed?

Answering this question in various ways gives us an opportunity to not only make sense of what happened to Hellenismos during the Christian period, but also gives us an opportunity to explain the difference between the way the ancient myths describe our gods, and most people’s modern experiences of them.

Rape mythology litters the past of most Hellenic deities, and yet people who experience our deities in this way in modern times are in the extreme minority. I have literally never met a Hellenic mystic with direct experiences of the Greek Pantheon who experiences them in this way.

So what happened to them? Was the Christian Era, like the Trojan War, the result of a conflict between the gods?

We don’t know. We can’t know. It is as mysterious as the creation of the world itself, in many ways. But Hellenes had plural cosmologies.

The one thing we can’t do is to whistle past the history and this transformation. We can’t just pick up where we left off and pretend like the last two thousand years didn’t happen. 

We Can’t Pass Fiction Off As Mythology

When I read the Homeric Hymns aloud, I get chills. The stories are alive. They happened, and they are still happening. They are a part of the gods, and the gods are still in them.

I’m going to say something which applies to far more than just mythology: just because you want something to be true doesn’t mean that it is.

The difference between mythology and fiction is that mythology is contagious. It is like a fire that spreads. If you’ve done it right, then the myth will proliferate everywhere in various forms, with various modifications. If you haven’t done it right, no explanation of how the story came to be will cause anyone to buy it.

The story either lives, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, we have to let it go.

I have a great deal to say about how living myths are created — as a collaborative act between deities and their communities. But that is a very in-depth topic for another article.

We Can Consider Modern Experiences As Myth

If the clergy of a deity overwhelmingly tell me that a deity is a certain way, I believe them. I believe them even if it isn’t exactly consistent with ancient mythology. I believe them especially if it’s a religion that I’m not a part of, or a deity I don’t know.

Just as ancient mythology reflected the values and culture of ancient people, modern experiences of deities reflect the values and culture of modern people.

If a bunch of people tell me that a deity violates consent, I avoid that deity and I do not attend their devotionals. If someone tells me that a deity helped them with a certain thing and it turned out well, I will look that deity up when I have a similar need.

Especially when I hear certain things from a basic majority of people working with a deity or tradition, I take that reputation very, very seriously. If it is catching on, if it is gaining a foothold, if it has captured popular opinion, then it’s a sign that genuine inspiration is occurring.

It is far, far better, in my opinion, to accept that the majority of people experience a deity in a certain way. The alternative is looking at the differences between it and the state of the gods two thousand years ago and assume that any and all discrepancies must be “filter.”

It’s better to reject a deity altogether than to force them to be something they are not. It is better to reject a deity altogether than to insinuate that mortal beings have more control over their cultus and the way that they manifest than the deity themself does. After all, if mortals have so much power over who a deity is, and how they exist and walk in the human world, who should be worshipping whom?

But always, and in all cases, we must never forget where we have been, even if the present state of things is very different.

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