Monday, October 3, 2011

Polytheism: myth and meaning

If gas prices hadn't spiked to $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, I wouldn't be reading Greer's opinions about polytheism today in 2011. But such strange connections make up the stuff of life. I discovered Greer through his peak-oil blog in my search for explanations about what was happening to the oil markets three years ago. What initially attracted me to his site among the many others was the historical sensibility of his stance that civil collapse is a long and messy process—not at all the abrupt end of the world so many people imagine. But what kept me reading his blog week after week was his strange way of explaining his stance through his talk of myth and meaning.

Though I find myself eager to finish A World Full of Gods and to move on to the next topic of classical monotheism, I want to include a post about Greer's ideas about myth and meaning. He raises the topic in the eleventh chapter out of thirteen, which from my point of view as a polytheist skeptic may be mistakenly too deep into the book. It's the chapter of most value to non-polytheists, as the skill of thinking-about-thinking benefits oneself in so many endeavors, both inside and outside religion. On the other hand, most people read for the confirmation of their existing beliefs, and I doubt many non-polytheists will ever crack open this book, so what does it matter how far into the book this chapter is? As it is, I'll relate some of Greer's ideas about myth and meaning here at JEC because I've intertwined his ideas into my own jargon for talking about philosophy and science, and I want to share the story.

According to Greer, a myth is a story that gives meaning to the world. This sharply contrasts from the term's common use, where myth means a falsehood. Indeed, as Greer points out, a myth that's unequivocally false would do a poor job providing meaning to anything and would thus be a poor myth. Rather, the validity and meaning of a myth lies in the ears of its listener. No one doubts Easy Rider is fiction, but how many of the Baby Boomers we see riding their motorcycles out on the open roads on any given weekend haven't found at least some meaning in Peter Fonda's and Dennis Hopper's portrayal of nomadic independence? Myths work on many levels, unlike facts.

As with trying to make sense of a Coen Brothers' movie, problems emerge when people ask what a myth is about. Myths aren't about anything; they're mere stories, building blocks for people to ascribe meaning to the universe they experience. A listener can give any story a wide range of meanings, from the literal to the abstract symbolisms we drudged through in high school English classes. Those differences in meaning stem from differences in interpretive schemes, and no scheme is right or wrong except as measured by other myths and their schemes.

Myths are not veiled presentations of some other discourse; all other discourse are veiled presentations of myth…

Thus, there's no way to escape the use of myth. The human brain hardwires us to use them as a way to understand things. Indeed, the modern man's belief that he doesn't believe in myths—that mythical thinking went extinct along with many other superstitions from long ago—follows from his very belief in a specific myth, a myth that has captured our collective imagination for the last couple hundred years, the Myth of Progress. The Myth of Progress holds that humanity, darling of the universe, moves ever onwards and upwards to bigger and better futures, that our lives are better than our parents' and our children's lives will be better than ours. There's no room in the ascent of man, as the myth goes, for the irrationality of myths.

Greer's point in all this, far from the impossible task of ending our beliefs in myths, is that we ought to know more myths. No myth makes sense of all phenomena, and our ability to make sense of our experiences is largely tied to how many myths we know.

Our problem is not that we have no myths, but rather that too many of our myths tell the same story and make sense of the world in the same way. Most of our stories end and they all lived happily ever after. We are left floundering and baffled when things do not turn out that way, and our hopes of perpetual improvement burst like bubbles—financial or otherwise.

This is where polytheism comes in. Paganism has a wealth of myths covering many possibilities and circumstances: triumph and defeat, pride and humiliation, fidelity and adultery, and so on. There's no one moral or one set of morals one can derive from Paganism. Such diversity empowers.

I take Greer's ultimate battle here to be with secularism and its linear view of history. However, Greer also criticizes monotheisms for their myths' otherness, their detachment from nature. Greer is a druid and likes his stories, on the whole, to draw from and reflect nature and its balance, limitation, and reciprocity. Greer advocates his view well, though in the end it's all just another story.


Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree. Geri

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Anonymous Geri— Your reply starts with a great lead!—but its story lacks a plot. As it is, I'm left scratching my head: you felt it worthwhile to state disagreement, but you didn't explain with what or why you disagree. What's your point?

Bobby and the Presidents said...

JEC: Another good thought provoking post.

When reading this particular text: "Most of our stories end “and they all lived happily ever after.” We are left floundering and baffled when things do not turn out that way, and our hopes of perpetual improvement burst like bubbles—financial or otherwise." my first thought was that this must explain why such a high percentage of "The Literary Classics" are tragic stories, whereas the bulk of novels are "happily ever after" and provide only momentary, if that, happiness. A tangent, yes, but you know me well enough to expect the same.

Craig M. Brandenburg said...

Bobby et al.— Could be. I compare happy endings to sugar: providing, as you say, momentary satisfaction. Maybe many of the classics are classics because they're acquired tastes that leave lasting meaning to readers.

That said, one of my favorite literary characters of all time is Harold Lauder from Stephen King's The Stand. Though I'm not much of a King fan, I found his tale of Lauder's rise and fall touching and meaningful.

As always, thanks for the tangent!