The Intersection of the Myth and the Meaning

To those participating in the Bishop In The Grove’s Bookclub reading of T. Thorn Coyle’s Make Magic of Your Life, join me on Twitter throughout the month of April and engage in a Twitter dialogue about the questions raised in this book. Be sure to @reply with the hashtag, #MakeMagic and Thorn’s handle, @ThornCoyle.

Now, onto today’s BITG post…

The Intersection of the Myth and the Meaning

Hot Cross Buns

My husband and I were standing in the kitchen, preparing a meal to take to my grandmother’s house for Easter. We were talking about the difference between Easter and Christmas, and how he had always preferred Christmas.

He talked about how the Jesus of Christmas and the Jesus of Easter seemed like two different people. To him, the lead-up to Christmas was always so intense and exciting, filled with anticipation. And the payoff, the birth of Christ, spoke to something wonderful about humanity. It was the moment in the myth when the divine became humble.

I’d never thought of it that way.

I proceeded to explain to him why Easter had always been more important to me than Christmas.

Easter brought into clarity how humans like me were in relationship with God. As a Christian, it made my station clear. It made the need for Jesus clear. It brought home the reason for being a Christian: reconciliation to God, and reconciliation to ourselves about our imperfect nature.

[Side note #1: I no longer hold this belief.]

Perhaps most importantly, Easter made the Christian myth relevant in the world. It provided me a way of applying the myth in my life. It said, “This thing happened, and because this thing happened you can better understand yourself. You can now go into the world and better understand the nature of the world.” Lent, the season preceding Easter, was equally important for me because it rooted the myth into my personal life, and encouraged in me a deep reflection on the parts of myself I often avoid acknowledging.

Christmas, on the other hand, was less visceral for me. Funny, right? Christmas is all about incarnation; about the divine being made human through birth — the most visceral act. Yet it did not feel as immediate or as potent as the Easter myth. Easter was about the complexity of humanity. Holy Week, even, provided all of these opportunities to reflect on the ways in which, in spite of all of our virtues, human beings do ghastly things to one another. It forced me to looks at my own potential for complicity in hatred and cruelty. It was humbling.

[Side note #2: It would be incorrect to dismiss this exploration of what Easter or Christmas meant to me in my early Christian life as “Christian baggage.” Having conversation about our past, or engaging with the stories which have been relevant to us at different times is not “baggage.” The term is reductive. I think we can be bigger than that.]

When I think about my proclivity toward inquiry about different ethical, and perhaps even moral convictions within the Pagan community, it is not because I believe in replicating a Christian-like, sin-based, transactional model of interaction with the divine; rather, it is because I have always believed that the stories you tell about the gods you worship need to be relevant in the world you live in. They must be more than just stories. They must have application.

I was never an advocate of literalism in the Church. I thought that was missing the point. The stories of Easter didn’t need to actually happen in order for them to be important or applicable. They could be symbolic while still being relevant.

And the point is that they were. Relevant.

So when I write about Pagan bubbles, or the effects of casting circle, or the function of love within a Pagan paradigm, I’m doing so because I am a person whose initial religious identity was heavily influenced by the idea that one’s religion must inform how they understand themselves in the world. I’m sure there are plenty of Pagans who can explain how their religious practices and mythologies directly influence their engagement with the world, and I’d like to hear from you here.

While the m-word (morality) may reek of wine and wafers and be stained with a duality that makes many of us cringe (myself included), the intersection of the myth and the meaning is where morality is born.

Is that correct? Can you find a way to phrase that last part more accurately?

But that’s beside the point of the original realization. Easter meant more to me because it made my myth into something I could apply in my life while informing me of my relationship to God. I may now see divinity as something different than I did then (and I do), but I still long to find, uncover, or create stories which make a similar connection. I’m not interested in finding the exact right one (I don’t think such a thing exists), but I am on a quest for meaning.

It all has to mean something, or it means nothing.


11 responses to “The Intersection of the Myth and the Meaning”

  1. + Yvonne Aburrow Avatar

    I think the foundation of Pagan ethics is the idea that everything is sacred, because the Divine is / deities are immanent in everything.

    The stories and mythologies that we share illustrate the idea of deities and spirits being involved in the world, and of people taking care of each other and of animals and plants. These are the illustrations of that basic insight.

  2. Erin F Avatar
    Erin F

    I wrote this up at work today, but didn’t have access to a computer to type (I read the original article on my phone), so it had to wait til now. Here goes nothing.

    I think the first thing to keep in mind is that the Christian salvation story-from the birth of Jesus to his death and subsequent resurrection-is not a singular myth, in the same way that every story told about Zeus or Heracles or An Dagda makes up a single myth. Each canonical gospel, Matthew, mark, Luke, and John, is a collection of stories or myths, put into a book, mostly chronologically. The Bible is a collection of books, each book is a collection of stories. Each story, then, serves a different purpose.

    When Jesus refuses to turn away the women, or dines with tax collectors, those myths can have a moral purpose–in those cases, inclusion. Jesus paying his taxes isn’t necessary for our salvation, but it teaches something. Other stories, like the birth of Christ, or Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, don’t necessarily have a direct moral implication. “If your friend dies, bring him back to life” is not a useful piece of advice for most people I know. Those types of stories have another purpose–the humanization of a deity. They make Jesus a relatable figure, and give his followers another way to approach him. The Jesus that wept is much more approachable on a personal level than the omniscient, omnipresent figure that “God” is often made out to be. Those stories give him humility and humanity.

    What about Pagans, then? We have no sense of an infallible written word, by and large, so are our myths just… fun stories? How about this: why can’t it be both?

    Some myths have clear moral implications–Prometheus stole from the gods, and was punished. Odysseus persevered, and was rewarded. Not every aspect of every tale contains moral implications. Even if we had a sense of infallibility, we don’t have the original, unaltered text (at least in most cases), and that brings up philosophical implications about the deities that are part of the reason I abandoned Monotheism in the first place.

    There are pagan myths that show gods with weaknesses, humans overcoming the divine, or both working together for a greater purpose. We have moral stories, we have stories that teach us to relate, and we have stories that seem to serve no purpose at all.

    Why do we tell stories?

    The short answer, I think, is that we tell stories because… they’re our stories.

    Stories and myths bind us together. They make us one people, one folk. Regardless of the veracity of each particular myth, they are *ours*. Christian myths bind Christians, Greek myths bind Hellenes, American myths bind Americans (George Washington and the cherry tree, anyone?). We tell each other our tales, as a mother relates her grandfather’s deeds to the son who will never meet him. We gather around the fire and weave tales to each other, caught up in the magic of story telling (and yes, it is magic), and in the back of our minds, we are hearing *our* stories. We are thinking, “Yes, I am a part of this. The myth and history are within me, and within us.”

    We need not find a reason for every story we tell–the stories themselves are reason enough. We need only remember that we are one people, and the stories we tell reflect that.

  3. Kenneth Apple Avatar

    Both stories can be seen in the older Pagan light, the birth of the new year in midwinter and the rebirth of life in spring. It means something, but it can mean different things to different people. Christmas in the sense of the birth of Jesus has always interested me, in that it is a grafting of a hellenic story onto a new religion to appeal to greek speaking potential converts. It is a classic story of the birth of a greek demi god. He might as well strangle snakes in his crib like Hercules. Not the only way to see it or interpret it, but the one that always jumps out at me. Everything means Something to somebody, nothing means something to everybody.

  4. Conor O'Bryan Warren Avatar

    I look at the myths, and I can’t help but find meaning. The battle of the Olympians against Typhon, the rape of Persephone, the slaying of the Minotaur, the birth of Aphrodite, the assault by the giants, when I sit down, and think carefully about the myths, I have yet to find one that I couldn’t glean something from in some way. I didn’t and don’t rely on Philosophical schools giving me ‘keys’ or advice on how to interpret, I sit down, I read, I think. I firmly believe that any myth can be made relevant to your life if you think about it. I went to the DUUF’s Easter service on Sunday, and the Rev. Pam and Scottie BOTH made the story of the resurrection relevant to even me. If it isn’t relevant, you aren’t thinking about it enough.

  5. William E. Ashton Avatar

    In his book, “The Other Side of Virtue” author Dr. Brendan Myers offers that the very soul of our ethics and morality comes from the times, we as developing humans sat around fires, told tales of our gods and heroes, and considered their actions in our own daily lives. In short, morality is indeed born from myth and meaning.

    My own practice is rich with opportunities to engage the lore, myths, and tales of our shared pagan past, and through that engagement produce the ways and means to step courageously into my life as an informed, inspired being.

    The disconnect for me is that many of the myths of old do not hold relevance in today’s more globally-conscious, aware, scientific world. I’ve often considered handing a script, with only a cast of characters (SkyFather, EarthMother, the Thunderer, etc), and historic rules of engagement between them, to a group of creative writers, poets, and musicians of a certain location (Boulder, CO for example) and creating new myths that speak to the gods relationship with specific places and cultures in the here-and-now.

    Some may call me a blasphemer, or heretic for relating to the myths this way, but without this ability to grow and adapt, our practice becomes a stagnant, dead thing… the complete opposite of what the natural world teaches us about flexibility, organic growth, and adaptability. In other words, we need relevancy to continue the spirit of these traditions. We can only create this relevancy through being present in our practice.

  6. LisaSpiral Besnett Avatar

    I think the interesting thing about the intersection of myth and meaning is that the myth stands and the meaning is entirely dependent on what we bring to the table. As a young man it doesn’t surprise me that the story of Easter, in it’s entirety, was more compelling than the birth story. There’s no room at the inn looks entirely different when you are a young pregnant girl with no health insurance. What are we willing to sacrifice to bring the Divine into our lives is one way to interpret both stories. Intersections create a numinous edge. Those are the most interesting, most fertile and ever changing areas of exploration in any spiritual practice.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      I think it’s interesting that you saw gender playing a role in my connection to Easter, Lisa, especially considering my husband (also a cisgendered man) felt a stronger connection to Christmas. I don’t see gender playing quite as big a role in this.

      “What are we willing to sacrifice to bring the Divine into our lives is one way to interpret both stories.”

      I like that idea.

      I’m curious – are your opinions formed by a Christian practice (either current or former)? Part of what I’m curious about is how there can be a similar immediacy in the way that Pagans relate to their myths and stories, and I’m wondering if you can speak at all to that.

      1. LisaSpiral Besnett Avatar

        I don’t see gender necessarily being the connecting point. Given your description I saw your gender as potentially a reason you didn’t relate to Christmas as strongly, as per the example. I did a pretty comprehensive exploration of Christian practice as a youth. I do a workshop called “coping with your spiritual roots” based on the belief that we wouldn’t be where we are without having gone through our history. So yes I suppose I do have some Christian influence on my opinions. But I think that Pagans have an ability to relate to their myths and stories with a greater immediacy. Paganism doesn’t expressly define your relationship to the story in the same way that Christianity does. I do see people who devote themselves to a Deity or a myth cycle (including Christianity) and working through the lessons of those stories within their own lives. Check out my book Manifest Divinity through Immanion Press and you’ll have a better sense of where I’m coming from in terms of relationship to the Divine, in any context.

  7. Tammy Wooliver Avatar
    Tammy Wooliver

    Why does it have to mean something? Is that because the ego needs to believe that human existence has meaning? This sounds like trying to rationalize what cannot be rationalized…only experienced through the mystery of reality, which is the mystical journey. And from engaging the mystical journey, stories/myths come forth as a way to contain what is irrational. What I hear in this post is someone who misses a mystical tradition that invited him into a mystical process. There are many theologies out there that attempt to “define” Christianity… but most of them fail. I’m not a believer in “original sin’ and I’m a reincarnationist and consider my spirituality to be shamanistic (mystical)…and love Christ consciousness. As for what the institutions (churches) do with it…well they’re human too… so I take it with a grain of salt and work to stay true to the mission that I know to be mine to take.

    1. Teo Bishop Avatar

      “Why does it have to mean something?”

      That’s an interesting question, Tammy. It seems obvious, and not necessarily an extension of ego or rationality. We tell stories because we accept and believe that they hold meaning. I trust that the Easter and Christmas story mean something to you, as a minister. The meaning exists, even if it is different than the meaning of the institutional Church.

      So, the stories we tell have to have meaning, otherwise we wouldn’t tell them.

      You may read correctly about my longing for more of a mystical engagement with my tradition. I think that looking at how I engage with story is an important step in that mystical journey.

      1. Tammy Wooliver Avatar
        Tammy Wooliver

        I had the Buddhist idea of nonattachment as I wrote the question. We get attached to our stories, to the need to have meaning. I wonder if it gets in the way of truly experiencing mystery. That being said, I also believe that Sacred story/mythology is mystical in that it encompasses the archetype of all our stories. We could have a long conversation about symbols and how the Divine seeks us out…why do we think it is us seeking the Divine? 🙂 Many blessings, peace, and light on your search.

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