MYTHS – STORIES THAT TEACH US HOW TO LIVE

Ancient cultures sought to understand their existence and explain their connection to the world through myths and rituals.

Myths are the body of stories and legends that a people perceive as being an integral part of their culture. Before the invention of writing, these stories and legends were handed down from generation to generation in the form of rituals and oral traditions. The reappearance of certain themes, time and again, in different mythologies, leads to the realization that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.

Myth basically serves four functions:

  1. The first is the mystical function – realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery
  2. The second is a cosmological dimension, showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery comes through.
  3. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order.
  4. But there is a fourth function of myth, and that is the teaching function, illustrating how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.” [1]

At their core, all myths exist to teach us. They teach us about ourselves and others, and they show us how to live our lives. Myths serve more than just the folkloric functions in society of “do this”, “don’t eat that”, “be careful when travelling there”, and so on; myths are the guidebooks for life itself, with all its beauty and mystery. Myths are the keys to understanding the whole of human experience.

Myths are not literal truths. Myths are not lies. Mythology is poetry: it is metaphorical. It is said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words; it is beyond words, beyond images, beyond music.  Mythology stretches the mind beyond that point, to what can be known but not told.

All cultures create ‘masks’, which are the names and images for the divine, and they serve as metaphors for an inexpressible transcendence, being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought.

The idea of the divine as being something over and above the natural is a destructive idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing what they truly wanted to because supernatural laws required them to live as directed by the church. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been imposed upon them as inescapable laws.

This is destructive to the soul. The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden sees nature as corrupt, and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.” [2]

Joseph Campbell, the great writer on mythology, said many times that a new global mythology was arising based on the concept of Gaia, the Earth Mother.

 Which brings us to the big question – who or what are the Gods? Are they just stories, the dreams of men, metaphors? Or do they exist?

There are hundreds of thousands of god and goddess names, some of whom were worshipped in Britain, many more that were not. We find that within a single pantheon that the names of the gods are not always consistent; some gods absorb the names, titles and attributes of another with the passing of the centuries. Mythologies evolve and change, are absorbed and assimilated into other cultures.

The question that every individual Pagan must resolve for themselves is does this mean we are to believe literally in all these differing deities? If we do, where do we choose a particular time in history to fix the names and attributes of the gods we chose to worship? To choose to be a Celt of 300 BC as opposed to a Celt of 100 AD, or a Viking of 50 BC as opposed to a Viking of 300 AD involves serious logical and spiritual dichotomies. Even if it is possible to make these decision, can we really enter into the ‘world view’ of an older culture without imposing our modern preconceptions on it?

In the Craft we are taught that “…beyond the two is the One, which we cannot name or limit, for the One is without limit, therefore we do give our worship unto the Lady and her Lord.”

This is far from being a belief in a supreme monotheistic god who is separate from his creation; it means that everything, even the gods and goddesses, are part of a single great whole, a manifestation of pure consciousness, Divine energy.

The Craft view is that in the process of manifesting, consciousness divides itself into two parts, God and Goddess, yang and yin, define it how you will, which, though seeming to be separate, cannot exist without one another, any more than a coin can have one side.  Only when they combine can action, movement and creation arise.

Through the splitting of the primordial principle at the beginning of creation, the duality within our lives came into being, together with a strong force that is constantly striving to re-unite with the other part.

In the Craft it is believed that the Divine Spirit is not separate from creation, it is creation. It is us, and everything else. There is no real difference between spirit and matter – gods, humans, and everything else are part of each other, part of the One.

The oldest Pagan gods were always embodiments of natural forces – vegetation, storm, sun, moon, sea, wind, sky, storm, thunder, fire, earth, water, rain, fertility, creation and destruction.  For me, these are facets of the Divine we can approach and work with. When you invoke the name of a deity, you are invoking a particular facet of the Cosmos. If you invoke the Norse god Thor, you are invoking an aspect of thunder, but this is not the same as invoking Taranis, the Celtic god of thunder, which has a somewhat different energy, while still embodying thunder. That doesn’t mean that the energies – or gods – are metaphorical, or products of the human mind, it just means their nature is beyond human understanding, and we work with what we can comprehend.

Myths are stories that give us clues to the nature of life, temporal and spiritual, manuals to the whole experience of ourselves and others. Used wisely, myths initiate the individual into the realities of his or her own psyche and become guides to spiritual enlightenment.

No matter the culture or tradition, the hero of every myth takes the same journey. Each hero departs, interacts with other archetypal beings and encounters difficulties and trials, completes his quest or fulfils his purpose (which is sometimes not to complete his quest) and returns, changed in some way. As King Arthur and his knights sat feasting, there appeared the mysterious Holy Grail in their midst. All the knights set out on the quest to find it. They had many adventures and many of them perished in the quest, until at last it was found by Galahad, the perfect knight.

The adventure can be one of inner exploration and spiritual seeking as well as some kind of high adventure. This mythic journey is present—and nearly identical—in many major religions. Buddha, Moses and Jesus, for instance, all embarked on spiritual quests, met with allies or enemies, were tested and each returned transformed. Prince Siddhartha Gautama at the age of twenty nine left his palace to meet his subjects. Despite his father’s efforts to hide from him the sick, aged and suffering, he saw a bent old man. When his charioteer explained to him that all people grew old, the prince went on further trips beyond the palace. On these he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. These depressed him, and he initially strove to overcome aging, sickness, and death by living the life of an ascetic, then left the palace to live the life of a mendicant.  During this time, he was offered a throne, asked to be the spiritual heir of two yoga teachers but refused them all, still searching for enlightenment. He tried self-mortification and fasting, nearly starving himself to death until a village girl saved his life by feeding him.  After this he began to reconsider his path, and decided that this was not the way.  He realised that extreme asceticism did not work, and began to focus on meditation, discovering what Buddhists call the Middle Way, a path of moderation. Eventually, sitting under the Bodhi tree and after forty nine days of meditation, he achieved enlightenment.

Each of us has embarked on a journey, whether we like it or not – the journey of life. Powerful forces have made a gateway for each of us to be incarnated in this place and time. Myths are guides to how we live life, and whether we live life heroically is up to us.

If Frodo and Aragorn had decided just to stay in the pub, instead of returning the ring, it would have been a very short book in which evil prevailed. If Stephen Hawkins had just curled up in a corner when he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease instead of immersing himself in his work and living life as fully as he could, he probably would have died really quickly and we wouldn’t have A Brief History of Time and all his scientific discoveries.

Our names might not go down in history, but each of us is the hero of our own story. The life quest is different for each person. It might be a spiritual quest, as when Siddhartha Gautama left behind the life of a rich man and sought enlightenment.  For you, the quest might be to be a good healer, a wonderful parent, a skilled carpenter or blacksmith, an inspired musician, a poet, artist or spiritual initiate. Maybe the quest involves a few or even all of these.

So, are you the hero in your own life-quest, or are you playing the sidekick in everybody else’s story?  Do you act or just react to the people and situations around?

Usually, we don’t have a handle on is what our story is or we let other people tell us what our story should be. Basically, our story is whatever we believe about ourselves to be true. The way you tell yourself your own story can make you the eternal victim of childhood abuse, or can make you the hero who overcame it.  Myths can teach us how to live.

What myths—all myths—tell us is that the meaning of life is the experience of life. Eternity isn’t some later time, eternity isn’t a long time: eternity has nothing to do with time. It is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time obscures.

 The experience of eternity, the infinite, right here and now is the function of ritual. In ritual, we create sacred space, outside of normal space and time. We empty ourselves of thoughts and desires in order to cultivate ritual consciousness – which is not thinking, not looking to the past or future but being completely present and open. Only then can we connect with the infinite. Only then, does pantomime and ceremony become lifted to the level of sacred ritual. Only then do we realise that all the Gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us.

Ritual lies at the heart of what we do, and it is the part that most people struggle with. I always say to aspirants that unless you can come to ritual properly prepared, and work with ritual consciousness, you will experience nothing but pantomime and find it empty. After a while, if you work on it, you may attain ritual consciousness for a second or two, when you feel a deep connection, before it disappears. The aim is to be able to sustain it throughout the ritual .In a group, the aim is for the whole group to experience it together for the duration of the ritual.

Don’t be put off – if you create a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

© Anna Franklin 2017

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

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Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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