Monday, September 4, 2017

Defining Mythology

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Myth Education explaining just what it is that I mean when I use the term "mythology."

Defining Mythology

The terms myth and mythology get tossed around a lot, but their colloquial usage can be quite different from how we use them within the context of this book. For example, MythBusters was one of the greatest television programs of all time: it saved lives, taught people to think in terms of the scientific method and to challenge unproven claims, and showed us all how neat things look when caught on high speed camera. One thing they failed to do on MythBusters was to ever actually take on a myth. The way they use the term on MythBusters, and in fact, the way we hear it most often in our daily lives, a myth is a popular idea that is not based on evidence. The ideas that it is easy to shoot fish in a barrel, that you can’t fly a lead balloon, or that you can make your muscle car more aerodynamic by rotating the body 180 degrees are all myths. Or, to put it another way: they are bullshit.

The myths we are talking about in this book are not bullshit. Maybe. I mean, probably, yes, they are largely untrue tales in a literal sense, but myth and mythology in this context are more than just that. In my years of teaching courses on mythology I’ve developed a working definition. It’s not a definition that you’ll find in a dictionary and certainly there is plenty about it that most (if not all) other mythographers would disagree with, but for my purposes in class and the purposes of this book it should do just fine.

Mythology is the set of stories (myths) that a particular culture believes to be true and which that culture uses as a means of understanding both themselves and the world around them.

That’s the basic definition but it needs to be teased out a bit for clarity.

“The set of stories” that makes up a mythology is a big tent. A big, porous tent that allows room for all sorts of things. No mythology, not even something like Christianity or Islam, can be condensed into a single book. Yes, many mythologies have a single text (Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Dianetics etc.) as the core of their beliefs, but it would be lunacy to suggest that any one text collects the complete and total history and variety of philosophy of a single person, let alone a complex and mutable culture. If the Bible were truly the last word on Christian belief, there would be no need for the enormous industry of people writing devotionals, philosophy papers, and even novels. There is more to Christianity than the one book. That’s true for every culture. Especially when you account for the fact that in the history of the world only a fraction of the mythic tales that have been told and believed have even been written down. We know Homer’s version of The Iliad because it was written down but that does not make it the only version. It doesn’t even necessarily make it the best or most definitive version, just the one that made it down to us through the ages—the received form of the myth. The received mythology is all we have to work with. There are times when we can look at the received versions of stories and characters and make educated guesses about what they may have looked like in older, unpreserved forms, but such analysis can often prove difficult, if not impossible. The one thing we know for certain is that we don’t, and likely never will, have a full, comprehensive insight into the evolution of these mythologies. Stories change over time as they are transmitted orally. They change intentionally or unintentionally when they are translated for new audiences. We can often say what the most popular or most significant version of a myth is, but that doesn’t make it the only one. It is not a closed set, it is a wide open one.

Myths are culturally specific. The myths of the Greeks are not the same as the myths of the Egyptians. That’s fairly obvious but what’s less obvious, perhaps, is that even when one culture draws their myths from another culture, they are not the same. The Romans took a lot of their myths from the Greeks but they made them Roman. And not just the facile stuff like “Zeus” becoming “Jupiter,” but the tone, the intention, the meaning of the stories change and become distinctly Roman. Figures from one culture are syncretized with another to form something new that may or may not end up being greater than the sum of its parts. To complicate things even further, cultures change internally and with them so do the myths. The stories told and the gods worshipped in northern Egypt in 4000 BCE are not the exact same ones as those of southern Egypt in 4000 BCE, or those in northern or southern Egypt in 2000 BCE or in 40 BCE or in 2017 CE. To understand the myths you need to know the culture they are coming out of, and in order to understand the culture you need to know their myths. They are as inextricably linked as they are ever changing.

Truth is an elusive beast, so when I say that these people believe these stories to be “true,” it’s a loaded statement. “True” does not mean the same thing to every culture at every time or to every person within them. Take modern Christians for example: some believe the Bible is literally true, right down to how the sun revolves around a flat earth. Others believe that it is metaphorically or spiritually true—some of your more liberal Christians will even say that it doesn’t matter if Jesus was an actual historical man or not because the truth of the teachings is all that matters. And then, between the two extremes, you have those who believe parts are literally true (Jesus was fully and historically god and man) whereas other parts are metaphorically true (the world wasn’t created in seven twenty-four-hour periods but was created by a single, benevolent god). This is true of virtually every other culture’s relationship with their myths as well. Did Erik the Red believe that each peal of thunder came from Thor or did he believe that the tales of the gods were meant to show us how to live? Some Egyptians may have believed that the sun was rolled over the horizon each morning by a dung beetle whereas others didn’t take it quite as literally. Truth comes in many forms. And, importantly, this definition of mythology does not say anything about the actual truth value of these beliefs, only that it has some degree of perceived truth value by the believer. So, when I call Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or any other belief system a “mythology,” I am not calling it either true or untrue, just saying that the believer finds a degree of truth in it. “Myth” is not a pejorative.

Myths serve the function of helping people understand the workings of the universe as well as their own inner workings. We are largely talking about pre-scientific cultures who did not have, for example, a knowledge of plate tectonics or the Earth’s molten core to explain earthquakes and volcanoes. They didn’t have medical diagnoses to explain why people had seizures or why some people were attracted to the opposite sex, whereas others were attracted to members of their own sex. So, we use myths. They explain not only why the sun rose in the sky this morning, but also what, if anything, we need to do to help make sure it does again tomorrow. Some myths serve clearer functions and offer better explanations than others but they all reveal something about the way the people telling or the people hearing the stories perceived the world.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Top 5 Deities to Believe In

It’s easy to not believe in a monotheistic god. Monotheistic gods, I argue, are pretty unappealing. Not only are they often stern, authoritarian, vengeful pricks, but they are (let’s be honest) pretty boring. It’s not their fault, of course, it is more or less a requirement of the job. If you’re the god of everything there isn’t much room for specialization or even characterization. I’m quite content accepting the idea that those divine solo-acts aren’t real and am genuinely thankful that they aren’t. While I don’t believe in the gods of polytheistic religions either, there are some deities that, I admit, would be nice to have around from time to time.

In an effort to capture the zeitgeist of our time, here is one of those “listicles” millennials are so fond of. Here are five deities that I might choose if I was forced to believe in a deity. If you want to pick your own favorite deities, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of my forthcoming book Myth Education which will be available September, 2017 and features nearly one hundred gods, goddesses, and other supernatural creatures for you to choose from.  

5. Oshun

Oshun, the Yoruban goddess (orisha is the more accurate term but why quibble?), is pretty great. Throughout the mythologies of the world it is not uncommon to find the figure of the first woman who, through her greed, ignorance, or impetuousness, brings everything bad into the world. From Eve to Pandora, women are blamed for inflicting mankind with sin, disease, the Star Wars prequels, Donald Trump, and everything else that is evil and wrong in the world. Oshun, however, flips the script. Oshun, the lone representative of womankind, is sent from Heaven with sixteen men to finish off the creation process here on Earth. Surprising to no women at all, the men refuse to listen to any of Oshun’s input. So Oshun proves just how important women are by creating a group of super-powered women who prevent the men from accomplishing anything until they agree to work alongside, rather than against the women. She’s the creator of civil disobedience, peaceful protests, and the goddess of fertility, love, and not taking any crap from men. Oshun is the kind of deity I’d be happy to bend the knee for, if only she existed.  

4. Loki

Several of the deities on this list are there because they are inspirational or aspirational figures. They are deities who represent the better angels of our nature and send positive messages of community and compassion. Loki is not that type of figure. Loki is just entertaining. The Norse Loki may not be as handsome as the sexy, sexy Tom Hiddleston, but he’s even more fun to watch. He dissembles better than Richard III, and spins tales more proficiently than Rumpelstiltskin spins straw into gold. Sure he causes all kinds of trouble, but more often than not, Loki is the sole victim of his own tricks: he gets his lips sewn shut and his testicles tortured, he gets impregnated by a horse, and even designs the very net that is used to capture him. He constantly traverses boundaries both literal and metaphorical. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we start worshipping Loki, or even that his type of behavior should be emulated or praised.  All I’m saying is: if there had to be a god, wouldn’t it be nice to have a dynamic, charismatic, and amusing one?

3. Bes

The Egyptian pantheon is filled with colorful and unusual looking figures. There are deities with cat heads, dog heads, falcon heads, cow heads, ibis heads, crocodile heads, snake heads, frog heads, lion heads, beetles for heads, and whatever the hell Seth’s head is supposed to be, as well as gods with blue, green, or black skin and women with wings, horns, and/or furniture on their heads. Amongst the entire menagerie, however, Bes still stands out. Rather than being tall and lean like most Egyptian gods, Bes is short and squat. He has big, round ears, a beard reminiscent of a lion’s mane, and is most often depicted with his cartoonishly large tongue sticking out of his up-turned mouth. In short (pardon the pun): Bes is adorable. It isn’t (just) his physical appearance that earns him a spot on the list of gods I’d like to believe in. As cuddly as he appears, his function is even more endearing. Bes is the stalwart protector of some of the most vulnerable members of society: children. Even before birth Bes is there to help women through pregnancy and the historically dangerous process of childbirth. Once the mini-humans have safely squirmed into the world, Bes keeps them safe from various dangers, both external (such as disease and hungry, hungry hippos) and internal (like nightmares). But wait! It gets better: Bes keeps all those nasty gremlins at bay by sticking out his tongue at them and doing a silly dance. Not only does he keep children safe, he does it in a kid-friendly manner. What, I ask you, could be more adorable than a baby-protecting dwarf doing a jig to scare away monsters?

2. Tlazolteotl

The Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl makes this list for purely utilitarian reasons. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but human beings have made a bit of a mess of this planet. Both literally and figuratively, there is a lot of shit that we’ve dumped onto the pale blue dot which has been nice enough to provide us with residence. Tlazolteotl is just the goddess we need to clean it all up. No, she’s not some benevolent earth goddess who can magically reverse climate change like that thing from Moana; Tlazolteotl is a filth-eater. Rather than passing judgement or forcing you to say x number of “Hail Mary”s, she is happy to hear your confessions and chowing down on your shame and guilt is all the payment she requires. She’ll gladly lap up your dirty secrets like a divine version of Robert Mueller, but she also eats literal dirt. Just imagine if we had a goddess around to eat our garbage, pollutants, and piles of poo. We could continue to destroy the Earth with total abandon, and no regard for consequences and it’d only make the deity happier! No special sacrifices needed, no paying lip-service to being “stewards of the Earth”, we can just keep doing all the horribly shit we’re already doing and it’d be nothing more than feast for Tlazolteotl. Why clean up our act when Tlazolteotl can do it for us?

1. Kuan Yin

Ok, this is a bit of a cheat. Kuan Yin is not a god. Kuan Yin is, rather, a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are Buddhist figures who have attained enlightenment, but rather than taking on full buddhahood and leaving the world behind, bodhisattvas stick around to help bring others to enlightenment. Bodhisattvas are not deities, but are godlike enough to be included here. Especially because Kuan Yin is awesome. In all stripes of Buddhism, including the decidedly non-theistic forms, Kuan Yin is one of the most important and recognizable figures.  Also called Avalokiteshvara, Kwannon, and various other names (depending on language or culture of origin), Kuan Yin is always regarded as “The One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” While even Kuan Yin’s sex is inconsistent (because mercy knows no particular sex or gender expression), they are always a figure of deep mercy and compassion. Often depicted with dozens of arms, Kuan Yin is there to help those in need in any manner they require. If you’re hungry she offers food, if cold he offers shelter, if you’re stranded somewhere and your cell phone is below 15% she’ll show up with a charger cord, or if you just need a hug he always has an extra couple of arms to help you out. Given the state of the world (war, starvation, oppression, abuse, Trump) it would be wonderful to have an all-merciful, all-loving pseudo-deity like Kuan Yin around.

Since, I argue, none of these figures actually exists we don’t get the benefit of their divine aid. Which, frankly, sucks because it would be great to have a god or gods who cleaned up after us, looked after those in need, stood up for equality, mercy, and compassion, and kept us entertained. Without godly guides to save us, what are we humans to do? Maybe (and I’m just spitballing here) we could learn to rely on and be reliable to each other, and together we can be the arms of Kuan Yin and we can do the heavy-lifting required to clean up the messes we’ve made. Myths can provide us with some great lessons, even without believing in the existence of these or any gods. Those things that are good and admirable about these figures should be emulated to the best of one’s abilities. We don’t need these deities to be real to use them as powerful symbols. Stand up for what’s right like Oshun, break boundaries like Loki, protect like Bes, clean up your shit like Tlazolteotl, and show the compassion of Kuan Yin.  

That being said, do not emulate Tlazolteotl too literally -- eating poop is really never a good idea.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Why Myths Matter

Hello. My name is Dave Fletcher and I disbelieve in many, many gods. Onus Books have invited me to do some guest blogging in the lead-up to the release of my upcoming book: Myth Education: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses and Other Supernatural Creatures.

For a number of years, I co-hosted the award winning Reasonable Doubts podcast. On Reasonable Doubts, I did a regular segment called PolyAtheism wherein I explored some of the vast array of gods, goddesses and other mythological figures that have been worshipped, and/or feared throughout the history of the world. For nearly a decade now, I’ve also been teaching courses on Mythology and, along with my family and eating sushi, the study of myths and mythological characters has become my great passion in life. Myth Education is the result.

The book contains profiles of nearly 100 different beings from an array of cultures. Included are Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Norse, Indigenous American and African figures. No Greeks or Romans, but I’ll talk about that later on.

“Ok. Cool,” you say, “but why should I care about myths? I don’t believe in any of those gods — Heck, no one has believed in most of those gods for centuries! Why should I, a skeptic/enlightened critical thinking type person give a crap about imaginary gods?”

Fair question. The answer is simple: myths matter.

Myths offer a glimpse into the collective history of human culture and belief. Myths were told by pre-scientific (often even pre-literate) cultures as a means of understanding both themselves and the world around them. Long before the studies of psychology, medicine, astronomy, biology, geography, geology et al. humans longed to explain why they felt the way they felt, why the weather changed, where we came from and what, if anything, we as humans could do to improve our position in the world or at the very least, stay alive. Often times the ‘answers’ derived from myth are obtuse (“We must offer up eggplants to keep bad weather at bay!”), other times they are horrifying (“We must rip the hearts out of people to ensure that the sun rises tomorrow!”) and sometimes they were surprisingly accurate (“If we allow a corrupt leader to rule us, nature itself will lash out” — just wait and see how true that one proves to be as the climate reacts to the policies of a certain overripe tangerine). Just as the study of history is critically important, the study of the history of belief is crucial to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past.

Many myths reveal incredibly dark truths about humanity — we see that violence, abuse of power, prejudice, sexism, and victim blaming are not simply modern social ills, but are deeply rooted in the history of humanity. Myth Education touches on a number of those tales and I’ll discuss some of them on this blog in the near future, but I wanted my first post here to highlight the other end of the spectrum.

While I don’t believe in any deities, dragons, or demi-gods, nor would I suggest any of you believe or worship them, there are some legitimately good lessons we can learn from their stories. Take for instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Only rediscovered and translated in the mid-1800’s, Gilgameshis one of the world’s oldest works of literature and is, frankly, a hell of a fun story. For those of you unfamiliar, it is the story of a semi-divine man named Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a pseudo-historical figure who lived and reigned in the Sumerian city of Uruk. His story wasn’t recorded in its present form until long after this legendary king lived and I’m pretty comfortable with saying that whatever the true story of the actual Gilgamesh was, the Epic bares very little to any factual information.

The tale begins with Gilgamesh being a real asshat. Sure, he’s big and strong and three-fourths divine but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. He abuses his power, disrespects the elders of his city and employs the right of prima noctae to become a serial rapist. Calling him a ‘bad ruler’ is like calling Trump a ‘bad president’ — it’s an extraordinary understatement. He’s so horrible that his own people beg the gods to take him out, which is the ancient equivalent of writing to your congressperson: it makes you feel like you’re doing something but it won’t really have any effect. Unless you’re in a myth. In myths, the gods sometimes listen and, in this one, they crafted a feral counterpart to Gilgamesh, the hairy beast man named Enkidu.

Enkidu was sent to take down Gilgamesh but after a brief scuffle they fall into a deep and abiding bromance and become closer than brothers. Together Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed the forest monster Humbaba, insulted the sex goddess Ishtar and slaughtered the deadly Bull of Heaven. Because of the wanton hubris of these warrior bros, the gods agree to kill one of them. Spoiler: It’s not called The Epic of Enkidu. Rather than using another heaven-sent beastie to end Enkidu the gods cause him to become sick. For days and days, Enkidu suffered horribly from this insidious wasting illness before he finally succumbed to it. And this is the point where everything changes for Gilgamesh. As a warrior, Gilgamesh has faced death innumerable times. Death is bloody and painful, but gods damn it, it’s also really cool. A battlefield death while locked in mortal combat is, Gilgamesh believes, frickin’ awesome but with the passing of his closest and dearest companion Gilgamesh sees for the first time that death isn’t always so glorious. Death is awful. Death is slow and gross and so Gilgamesh decides that he’s not going to do it.

In an effort to find out how to not die, Gilgamesh ventured out into the world to find a man named Utnapishtim who is immortal. Gilgamesh travels alone for weeks until finally tracking down the old man. When he does, he asks Utnapishtim how to become immortal. Utnapishtim explains that he was made immortal by the gods after he survived a worldwide flood. His experience sounds a whole lot like another Middle Eastern deluge tale and when Gilgamesh was rediscovered, the fact that the story of Utnapishtim is so similar to that of Noah and was written earlier than the Bible, caused no small amount of backlash. It didn’t make Gilgamesh feel very good either, because, of course, that route to immortality wasn’t really available to him. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh of a couple of other ways to gain immortality, but he failed at both of them.

Defeated, depressed, and more than a little road weary, Gilgamesh made his way back home to Uruk. Then, he has an epiphany. Gilgamesh realizes that there is one more way to become immortal and this one really works. Rather than living forever, Gilgamesh decides that he will become immortal for being remembered for what he did in life. He amends his ways, makes up for his past bad behavior and goes on to rule his people as a wise and fair king.

If there is only one life (and absent of any evidence to the contrary, there is only one life), like Gilgamesh, we would do well to create a legacy that will live on after us. Because while a human will surely die, humanity itself lives on. Enjoy life, Gilgamesh teaches us. Make the people around you happy. Be good. While not all of us will have names that are still known thousands of years after our deaths like Gilgamesh, the impact we make will live on. It’s the only kind of immortality that actually exists and the nifty thing is that it is available to all of us. That is both a great honor and an enormous burden but it’s one we should all be cognizant of and something we should strive for.

Not all myths are quite so poignant, nor do they all offer a moral, let alone a good one. But when they do, they can be quite lovely and are just as relevant to a modern skeptic as they were to an ancient believer.

Gilgamesh and nearly 100 other figures are profiled in the forthcoming Myth Education. Since I have the pleasure to teach these types of stories at an art school, I’ve decided to incorporate some beautiful original art into the book, much of which is being contributed by my former students. Because I believe good art deserves to be paid for, I’m currently running an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money to both pay the artists for their extraordinary work and to help pay for promotional efforts to get as many eyes on this book as possible. You can make a donation and collect various rewards here. Volume 2 is already in the works and will feature even more characters from around the world. I’m also working on a more esoteric collection of essays called Myth Interpretations and a collection of mythic stories retold tentatively titled Myth Adventures.  

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Myth Education Coming Soon!

My first book Myth Education: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses, and Other Supernatural Beings will be heading to a bookstore near you (digitally if not geographically) September, 2017.

Myth Education is unlike any other mythology book you're likely to find. Not only does it cover dozens of figures from a variety of cultures, but also features over 100 pieces of original art created by an array of artists. It's worth getting for the art alone, but if you're so inclined you can also read the words which offer a modern analysis of some of the greatest and weirdest figures of world mythology.

I'll be posting some previews of the book in the lead up to it's release, but first, to whet the appetite, here is a complete list of the cultures and characters included in Myth Education.

Chapter 1 -- Egyptian Mythology: Maat, Ra, Osiris, Isis, Seth, Horus, Anubis, Sekhmet, Hathor, Thoth, Bastet, Bes, and Khepri

Chapter 2 -- Mesopotamian Mythology: Ea, Marduk, Ishtar, Ereshkigal, and Gilgamesh

Chapter 3 -- Chinese Mythology: Pangu, Nu Gua, Fu Xi, Yu, Jade Emperor, Xiwangmu, Yi, Zao Jun, Lei Gong, Dien Mu, Xingtian, Gonggong, Kuan Yin, and Monkey

Chapter 4 -- Japanese Mythology: Izanagi, Izanami, Amaterasu, Tsukiyomi, Susanoo, Hachiman, Raiden, the Shichi Fukujin, Fudo Myo-o, Kishimojin, Tsukumogami, Kappa, Tengu, Kitsune, and Tanuki

Chapter 5 -- Celtic Mythology: Tuan Mac Starn, Fomorians, Tuatha da Danann, Lugh, The Morrigan, The Dagda, Cu Chulainn, Finn McCool, and Brigid

Chapter 6 -- Norse Mythology: Yggdrasil, Aesir, Vanir, Odin, Thor, Loki, the Children of Loki, Freyja, Freyr, Heimdall, Tyr, Sif, Valkyries, Jotun, Balder, and Ragnarok

Chapter 7 -- Indigenous American Mythology: Hero Twins, Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca, Coatlicue, Huitzilopochtli, Xipe Totec, Tlazolteotl, Sedna, Coyote, White Buffalo Calf Woman, Blue Jay, and Windigo

Chapter 8 -- African Mythology: Mawu, Cagn, Waka, Itherther, Heitsi-eibib, Hai-uri, Eshu, Oya, Oshun, Mami Wata, Hlakanyana, Mbaba Mwana Waresa, Mwindo, and Anansi

Monday, March 14, 2016

Sita Sings the Blues

Here is a wonderful example of a modern adaptation of a mythological tale.  It's called "Sita Sings the Blues and is Nina Paley's retelling of the Hindu epic The Ramayana. It is a musical, using jazz from the 1920's and blends a variety of animation styles to tell the story of the Ramayana from the perspective of the hero Rama's wife, Sita.

Check it out.  It remains one of my very favorite examples of 'modern mythology.'

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Pepsi celebrates the Year of the Monkey with a tribute to the Monkey King

Just in case you had any doubt about how pervasive Monkey is in Chinese culture here is another example.  Yes, it is ostensibly an ad for Pepsi, but beyond that there is a truly remarkable story about four generations of one family who have portrayed the Monkey King.  Check it out here. It really is  a bit touching and pretty cool to see a major worldwide brand making use of everyone's favorite monkey.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Monkey Resources

If you're struggling to get into Monkey or are confused about what's going on and what it all means, you can check out the links below for some helpful information.

Chapter by chapter breakdowns as well as many, many beautiful illustrations for Monkey can be found here:

For summaries, info on the author, character descriptions, historical info and a bit on modern takes on the story, you can check out World Literature Compass. NOTE: Some of the links are broken but there is still a fair amount of available information in the sections that are working.