Recently I read a blog from a site entitled Women in Greek Mythology, where the author laments the ‘Dangers of De-Mystification‘. She wonders that her ‘use of them [the Greek Goddesses], my appropriation of them, wasn’t “authentic”‘. I commented that I had to disagree, that her current understanding of Greek goddesses and how they fit into the worldview of ancient Greeks did not make her use of them any less authentic.
An interesting thing, this re-use of gods and goddesses. As our knowledge of ancient societies expands we struggle to see them from both our modern perspective and through ancient eyes. We have discarded the notion of gods and goddesses romping at Olympia, or flying down to meddle in human affairs, but this does not make these characters any less legitimate. We’ve rejected notions of magic, our superstitions recede, our belief in the fates has been replaced by will, by our notions of self-direction. Yet the stories and myths surrounding antiquity continue to haunt us and to lure us into their fascinating worlds.
Every society appropriates the myths and/or characters of its predecessors. Universal myths seem to permeate all our stories, legends of survival, of first families, of immortality or the search for it, for example. For a very long time we attached stories to seasonal changes, the idea of rebirth as personified by such characters as Persephone, Osiris, of the Green Man, or Jesus of Nazareth. Just about every pantheon has children of the gods and goddesses, those half-breeds whose lineage is part supernatural, part human. Think of Achilles, the Tuatha de Danann, or the Buddhist concept that we are all potential buddhas. The stories are supernatural, but very human at the same time. They connect us with the past, and to the future. They affirm that we are of one race, our roots shared with every other human being who has graced our beautiful earth.
Are all of those mentioned above, and many more, examples of appropriation as the legends and myths travel with us to new places and times? Very possibly. But is it wrong, is it a sort of cheating? No. They all serve our very human need to explain ourselves, not just to ourselves, but to the universe, to our ancestors and descendants. We need to attach purpose to our lives, to explain why none of us can imagine a world without our existence, whether in the here and now, or beyond that into the eternal. We’ve never found an actual fountain of youth, or a river of immortality, but legend assures us that the gods will live forever if we just remember them, and that there is always the possibility to join them.
I think many our legends of old manifest themselves in that uniquely human way called grief. We cannot understand why those we love are taken from us. We cannot come to terms with terrible losses during catastrophic events, crop failure, rivers that change course, weather destroying what we have made or even why the sky falls sometimes. Our myths, our goddesses and gods provide a comfort zone, a sort of bridge between our mystification and theirs. It is very serious and often very painful. But it is bearable when we can do the very human thing of turning to our stories, our myths, our gods who populate our lives. They are absolutely essential.
Women in modern society are turning to ancient stories, particularly those involving female characters, to re-interpret them, to discover their origins during times when we had higher standing in our communities, more impact, more leadership. Archaeology and palaeoanthropology suggest that goddesses are much older than gods. They are the first supernatural race, the first anthropomorphized characters we used to answer such mysteries as those above. In the western world, we have gravitated so far away from those early notions that we have convinced ourselves of a superior, more sophisticated supernatural, a unity, sexification and transcendence that we do not believe our earliest forebears were capable of. But in reality, we cannot know what they thought, and we have the disadvantage of examining the meagre remains of their societies through the haze of modern worldviews. Consider Catal Hoyuk, or Egypt, Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat?
I have often wondered if our most ancient ancestors understood that there was no such thing as the supernatural, but that their shamans and priestesses knew those to whom they were responsible required a tangible way to interpret the wonders, the tragedies, the helplessness of living and dying. And so, they created supernatural beings in a most recognizable form… themselves, not necessarily to be worshipped, but to provide answers and continuity, assurances and partnership for their people.
Are we so different today? If we agree that we are not, then it is very right for us to continue to transport our myths, to alter them to suit our needs, as an easement to our lives and a way to purpose ourselves, to rejoice in and celebrate all the life around us, to accept its challenges with grace, hope and faith. We become our gods and goddesses, and they us.
Web Pages of Interest
** seated goddess: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/htit/ho_1989.281.12.htm
Catal Hoyuk: http://www.catalhoyuk.com/
Ancient Egypt: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/02/afe/ht02afe.htm
Machu Picchu: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/prehistory/latinamerica/south/sites/machu_picchu.html
Angkor Wat: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668