How important is myth to your practice?

The Myth of Io, by Bartolemeo de Giovanni, c. 1490

In what way is your practice rooted in ancient Pagan religions, if not by myth?

– by B. T. Newberg

Do ancient myths play a large part in your practice, or only a minor role?  Perhaps even no role at all?

By myths, I mean historical traditions of stories that have come down to us from specific cultures, and which typically involve pantheons of gods and sometimes other fabulous creatures and beings. For example: Greek myths of Dionysos and Persephone, Norse myths of Freya and Odin, Irish myths of the Dagda and Cerridwen, etc.

Please take part in the poll, then leave a comment on the issues discussed below.

One thing I’ve noticed in the Naturalistic Pagan community is that myths get much less air-time than in other Pagan circles.  They may be talked about indirectly, i.e. as the abstract phenomenon of myth, or not at all.  Here at HP, most of it has been of the indirect variety.  This makes me wonder how central myths really are to Naturalistic Paganism.

On the one hand, the issue is almost certainly a bias effect resulting from the nature of our community: what distinguishes us is not the myths but our beliefs about them, so we tend to dwell more on the nature of myth than myths themselves.

On the other hand, I can’t shake the feeling that for many of us, such as environmental types and perhaps other varieties, myth may be minor or even absent entirely.

If that is the case, and the poll above ought to give some sense of whether it is or not, then that leaves me with a question:

  • In what way is your practice rooted in or inspired by ancient Pagan religions, if not by myth?

Please leave a comment with your reply.

21 Comments on “How important is myth to your practice?

  1. I chose Very Important. The images of mythic deities grace my altars, and their stories color my rituals. But to me the mythic deities are personifications not persons, and neither they nor their stories are Absolutely Central. It is what’s behind the mythic deities, what they personify, the spiritual essence of Nature, that is central. To me the ancient myths represent a particular people’s relationship with the forces of Nature as told from the poetic conventions of their time. I get a lot out of studying ancient myths and religions from this naturalistic perspective. But we do not live in ancient Athens. In the end we must build our own relationship with Nature appropriate to our times. This may mean altering ancient stories to be more in line with our own understandings and values or in some contents it may mean leaving mythic personifications behind, although for me there is an emotional engagement that comes with giving Nature a face.

    • I absolutely agree about the value of “altering ancient stories.” Perhaps this is a defining characteristic of naturalistic approaches to myth. I see the material as pliable; I feel called to rework it, reimagine it. I think the phrase Glenys uses is “restory.”

    • I also agree about reworking the myths to fit my needs. I mix myths and freely alter them in a way that a Recon would probably find disturbing. My attitude toward myth resembles that of Joseph Campbell.

  2. Such an interesting question. I consider myself of the “environmental type.” The image of Gaia is central to my orientation. To me the central question is: How can we celebrate our participation in the Great Mother?

    Also, I regard myths as an important component of any well-rounded education, so I’ve read a couple books of myths to my young daughter, and she has received and embraced them enthusiastically. It’s difficult to draw a distinction between that and “my practice” — and perhaps there isn’t one.

  3. I have a lot of qualifications for this answer from my tradition about myth. As a polytheistic Hebrew, I must engage a monotheistic canon primarily as my myth as well as reimagine and reconstruct what I felt was there before it was shaped by those forces as well as myths of other (but very interrelated) peoples, such as the Ugartic myths.

    So at times I spend a lot of time focusing on myths, other times, I don’t. At times, just being in nature as my myth. I think I share this later with most others who speak of being naturalistic.and/or humanistic. Some neopagans speak of texts being less important, yet rely a lot on myths.

    Not a simple question at all for me.

  4. I should also mention my practice has three main aspects: baking bread, writing, and meditation. Of these, myth plays a role in the first two, but my meditations are generally myth-free. I think.

      • Baking bread is rich with mythic potential. I tend to link it to Gaia but the story of Demeter also comes to mind.

  5. I chose very important. Several myths are central to my practice. These include the descensus averni of Ishtar/Inanna/Kore, the passion of Dionysus/Dumuzi/Ba’al/Osiris/Yeshua, the birth of the Sun child Horus/Christ, the hierosgamos of Innana and Dumuzi, the Wild Hunt, and others. But I am very liberal with the details, as you can tell by my mixing of pantheons above.

  6. Editor B wrote:
    >Baking bread is rich with mythic potential. I tend to link it to Gaia but the story of Demeter also comes to mind.

    Do you make the association with myth sort of after-the-fact, upon intellectual reflection, or do you feel it arising as you make the bread? I only ask because this sort of engagement with myth seems to me like good evidence of integrated mythic attunement.

    • It’s something I try to incorporate in the act. It requires effort, and the more habitual the routine of baking becomes, the more effort it requires to remain mindful of such things. After baking weekly for about a year and a half, I can do a lot of the steps in my sleep, and it’s easy for my mind to wander to any random topic. But in the act of combining ingredients and kneading, in particular, I try to focus on the mythic situation, to recover the sense of connection and remember my participation.

  7. I think we should also consider the role of modern scientific theories (such as the theory of evolution or Gaia theory) in our collective practices. I’ve said before these theories may be our myths. Some might protest: Those aren’t myths! But I beg to differ.

      • Lots of issues there, really. I think we need to take of how we bring scientific theory into mythology, especially when a story told might or might not seem more compelling than what happens via the scientific method. I’m not sure this is simple process, either.

  8. I meant to say, I think we need to take care of how bring science into mythology, especially when the scientific method might or might not get in the way of the story being told.

  9. I regard myths as very important to ritual, even though I’m quite clear that they are, at best, metaphorical in nature. Not only does that leave myths as open to reinterpretation, but also reinvention. Remember Newtonian laws are myths to those based in a Quantum reality.

  10. I just look at myth as a process of storytelling, not necessarily something I plan on using the rigors of the scientific method towards. I’m not saying science shouldn’t be brought into mythology, I just think we need to be careful to confuse our own personal gnosis of interacting with the earth with the actual science of the Gaia hypothesis for example.

    • Good point, Aron.

      I also think it’s important to distinguish between applying science to the phenomenon of myths and to their content. For example, it might be a bit pedantic and beside the point in most cases to show that what a given myth teaches is not scientifically compelling. On the other hand, it could be quite enlightening to study scientifically how and why that same myth continues to exert appeal.

  11. I’m not sure what myth means in reference to quantum physics. You mean they operate on difference paradigms and models, David?

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