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The Need for Sacred Mythology
By Amber Laine Fisher
Every spiritual tradition has a sacred history and sacred language. The combination of history and poetry underscored with spiritual truth and revelation results in the powerful tool that we today call mythology. Mythology is spiritual metaphor, a way of revealing the divine through storytelling, a way of building community through divine understanding. Mythology allows people of varying backgrounds to become linked to each other through sacred history and language, giving them common ground upon which to speak to and of the gods. Through mythic story, individuals and communities learn not only to better understand their gods, but they learn to forge relationship between symbols and the Divine, thus bringing the sacred out of the ethereal and into the present time and space.
As sacred history, mythology is of paramount importance to us as neo-pagans, because we lack a central sacred text to derive our ideals and goals. Without scripture to infuse our lives with divinity, the only sacred link we have to our history is mythology. Mythology itself becomes sacred, giving us common ground to discuss dogma, theology, magical theory. Because myths lend themselves to so many different interpretations, the theology that we can derive from them will be quite varied. As difficult as this is, it is also beautiful. No religion is without theology, and yet for neo-pagans, our theology is not bound in books of leather. Instead, our theology lives in our hearts and minds, and is carried on by the language of mythic literature.
Yet for some reason, many of us are under the impression that history ended quite some time ago. We understand the need for sacred history, and point to the tales of our forebears as being sufficient to breath life into our faith and practices. We seem to have forgotten that for our grandchildren, our lives, too, are history. And if we take the time to think about the spiritual truths that have been revealed to us through symbolism, we realize that our lives can also be sacred history. Therefore, each of us is living myth. Each time the gods reveal themselves to us through everyday symbols, simultaneously gifting us with divine insight, we are in the middle of spiritual metaphor. When we lead sacred lives, we leave sacred histories behind. And through the sharing of those tales, through the telling of the stories of the new relationships and networks that we have uncovered, we lend future generations richer language to communicate with, sharper symbolism to enrich their own lives.
The noted mythologist Joseph Campbell said that myths serve four purposes. They are:
Each of these ideas is absolutely paramount in the building and unfolding of neo-pagan faiths. Because we have very little dogma and almost no central texts upon which to build our paradigms, we have to rely on our mythology to do this for us.
Yet we cannot merely look with dreamy eyes to the past and cling to ancient mythology as being the end-all-be-all of symbolic story. As times change and we evolve, we need myths that address modern issues and symbols that perhaps ancient people didn't have to grapple with; myths to address, for example, the recurrent mathematical equations that occur everywhere in nature (like the nautilus spiral) and the inherent sacredness of numbers and their relationships, the sacredness of time, same-sex couples, cross cultural syncretism, technology, etc. Our civilizations are evolving, and our spiritual needs are evolving. The rift between secular and spiritual will only continue to grow if we do not take the time to infuse modern inventions and truths with sacred language and story. Modern myth is all around us. From George Lucas’s Star Wars to Charles de Lint’s Someplace To Be Flying (among a myriad of his other works), we are still locating the sacred in the mundane, still spinning our stories. These are our modern social myths, and they feed something within us that is hungry for the vivid imagery mythic literature provides. Similarly, we must be vigilant about the creation of modern religious myths that address the more modern constructs in our religions.
This is, of course, of varying importance depending on the neo-pagan tradition in question. Wiccans, for example, will likely have a greater need for mythology that addresses their magical theory than, say, the Asatruar, for whom magic is not a central element. It would behoove Wiccans to weave mythic literature that addressed the importance (or even plausibility!) of such ideas as the sacred circle, the law of returns, the Rede, initiation, etc. All of these ideas are central in Wiccan theology, and yet there are painfully few (if any) modern myths that address the spiritual reality of these concepts. Without a way to underscore mythology with poetic myth, we are left with hard-nosed dogma, the very thing the average neo-pagan so desires to avoid.
Building sacred history means building community. Sharing mythic language means sharing symbolism and revelation that provides a medium for growth and change within any given community. By sharing stories of the spirit cloaked in symbolism that we are familiar with, individuals become linked to each other. This network strengthens every individual, because it provides him or her with a safe place to explore difference, and seek validation. It is much easier to seek out the Divine when we are within a nurturing community that supports our searching. For many neo-pagans, this is not a physical community, but it may be a community that spans both time and place. It may be linking the individual with specters from the past, or it may be linking likeminded people scattered throughout the world. But having that sacred language, that shared bit of sacred history, grants individuals a sense of connection to something larger, and offers them a sense of validation.
Entertaining the child within us is essential. Especially in ecstatic religion, which many neo-pagan religions are, experiencing the sacred on its most basic level is what keeps us going day to day. We titillate the child with Mystery with ritual, engage her with music and incense. Just as important, however, is the rapture we experience in mythic literature. Speaking to the child within, we make sense of the theology, the dogma, the ideology. All of the theology and magical theory in the world are nothing if they are not blended with the mythology that turns esoteric ideas into stories that can be lived and relived. Mythological motifs root us in the culture of our religion-and that makes our inner child very happy. When we allow ourselves to stop analyzing and just accept the beauty of the word for its inherent power and mystery, we can truly gaze into the heart of our respective cultures, and that in and of itself is very nurturing.
Many of you are probably wondering how it is possible-or even wise-to shape mythology. If mythology lies at the very center of our faith, and if it truly does speak from divine influence, how can we as individuals shape mythology? It is indeed a good question. What we must remember is that mythology is not merely the stories of our gods. There is more to mythology than cosmology, or the soap opera dramas of Greek and Roman fame. Mythological motifs can include images of human struggle, quests for truth and knowledge, coming of age, self-discovery, etc. When we speak of sacred history and sacred language, we are not bound by notions of gods, holidays, and astronomical (or astrological!) events. As long as we are dealing with spiritual themes (of which there are many!) and relating our plight through symbolic storytelling, we are weaving myth. We are imbuing the mundane with mystical vitality, turning the profane into passion.
Understanding the role mythology plays in our individual religions and
understanding how mythology affects our lives will lead us into a re-discovery
of the validity and power of mythic language. Soon we will stop allowing
the ancient myths to be enough to quench our desire for metaphor. Once
we start to understand that our present is the history of future generations
and begin to recognize the very real need for spiritual parallels between
mundane symbols, we will again begin to spin tales of myth that will enrich
our cultures, religions, and lives. The neo-pagan faiths are beautiful
and empowering in their own right, but coupled with the power of myth,
there is little that our religions cannot grant us. Once we begin to develop
sacred mythology that speaks to our modern selves, we will begin forming
sacred history for all who will follow us, leaving the imprints of our
lives and stories on the very soul of the world.
(1) Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, pp 4-6
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