About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Myth of Myth


In the modern vernacular, the word "myth" has developed a connotation of meaning false or untrue.  This is at odds with the original definition of the word which is:

            "a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or
            event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation,
            especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains
            some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature. "

To put it simply, a myth is a way to explain our relationship with each other, with the Gods or with the world.  It is a way to explain things that have no simple explanation.  It should also be noted that a myth can have a factual component.; it does not need to be demonstrably false to be a myth, in fact it can have a significant component of actual facts and still be a myth.  The Trojan War is a perfect example of this.

Why does the sun move across the sky?  Because Apollo rides across the heavens in his fiery chariot.  Why do we have winter?  Because that is when Persephone must return to the Underworld, which causes Demeter to grieve.  Where do we come from?  God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.  And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.  And God said, Let there be Light; and there was Light.

In essence, a myth, far from being a falsehood, is a sort of meta-truth, a universal "truth" that is not dependant on fact, but addresses what could be termed a Jungian concept.  It is an aspect of the universal subconscious.   

And all of the religions of the world, from the earliest pre-history to the modern era, are no more and no less than myth.  Christianity is no less a myth than the religion of the ancient Greeks or Egyptians.  The Norse myths are no more mythic than the Buddhist. 

All religions are myths because all religions address the three relationships of myth: man to man; man to God(s); and man to world.  People today like to differentiate religion from myth, but in actuality, the Bible, the Torah and the Koran are all collections of myths.  Myth supports a religion, and defines it.  The myths are a vehicle for understanding "God."

Which brings me to my main point.  People today seem to view different religions with a bizarre patronizing attitude.  I began to address this in my blog post "The Case for Soft Polytheism."  They act like believers of other faiths are not really serious about their religion; as if the followers are just playing a game.  They view other religions as myth in the modern sense of the word, and they act like the followers of other faiths view their own religion as "just a collection of crazy stories."

Let me state this unequivocally, every genuinely religious person believes in their faith as strongly as you believe in yours.  The ancient Greeks were as devout in their worship of Zeus and the other Gods in their pantheon as a modern Christian is in their devotions to God and Jesus.  The Greek myths were every bit as important to an Athenian as the Bible is to a Baptist.

This devotion is not a game, it is the core of a person's being.  And yet, among many Christian circles, they act like it is a game, like other people's faith is somehow less central to their lives. 

To illustrate this, I will share a personal anecdote.  I am a Foundationist Pagan.  By this, I believe that there is Truth in all religions, and we must find the Truth that fulfills each of us as individuals, even if that Truth is found through disparate traditions.  My Truth draws from many sources, including the Abrahamic Traditions, Hinduism, and Celtic beliefs.  Spiritually, I am probably similar in my beliefs to Thomas Jefferson.

My faith is central to my being, and I consider myself to be a profoundly religious person.  I live my faith every day of my life, and it is the guide for all of my behaviors.  I rarely talk about that aspect of my personality, because one of the Truths that I believe is that religion is an extremely personal matter that should not be discussed, at least not in terms of professing your faith.

The last time I was in New York City, I visited a spiritualist.  I have a Houdini-like interest in them; I have never found one that did anything more than a cold reading, but I find them entertaining.  (I enjoy trying to figure out what clues I gave away to let them read me, it's a fun game)  Anyway, this particular psychic pegged me as a Pagan, not a surprising thing, given the pentagram around my neck.  (However this story is not about my debunking psychics.)  After my confirmation that, yes, I am a Pagan, she got a message from God that I needed to dedicate myself to Jesus. 

After I asserted that, perhaps I could, but not under that specific name, she said, no it must be Jesus.  She did not understand that my faith is not wash and wear, and can't easily be discarded.  In her absolute belief in her Truth, she discounted any option that people might have other Truths that are equally as valid and essential to their being as hers was to her.

This is the attitude that invades all proselytizing religions: the view that followers of other faiths are not really devout in their beliefs, and since their beliefs are obviously false, it should be easy for them to convert.  And this missionary position even cuts across sectarian boundaries.  Baptists and Catholics share the same Bible, the same God and the same basic belief structure.  They only differ on small points of faith.  And yet, each one sends missionaries to try to convert the other.  I know many Protestants who went on missions to Mexico.  (Really) Unless you follow the specific flavor of Christianity, you are as damned as a non-believer.

This attitude of "I can change their faith" is fed by the numerous politicians in America who do change their faiths like clothing.  The fact that many politicians convert to a new faith because that faith might shore up their constituency shows that they actually have no faith at all.  To them, religion is just another form of drag to dress up in to win votes.  Especially appalling are those who convert to more and more conservative faiths, just to prove how reactionary they are.  It is almost like you cannot be a Republican and a Methodist.  Similarly, there are those who think you cannot be a devout Catholic and a Democrat.  (And some Bishops even want to withhold communion from people who vote pro-Choice)

Faith is not something for show, it is not a flag to be waived to demonstrate some bizarre version of religious patriotism.  Faith is intensely personal.  It can change and evolve, but that change comes from personal growth and a deeper understanding of the world.  It does not change to suit a voting bloc, and it does not change to make someone else happy.  

No one has the right to ask someone else to change their beliefs, because if those beliefs are genuine, you are asking someone to give up a core piece of their identity. 

And nothing is more destructive to actual faith than that.

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