Thoughts on mythic morality

(Disclaimer/CN: This post discusses such things as depictions of rape, theft, murder, kinslaying and incest. None of what of what I write here should be taken as approval of, or apologia in relation to these acts.)

“You look at trees and called them ‘trees,’ and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a ‘star,’ and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, ‘tree,’ ‘star,’ were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was ‘myth-woven and elf patterned’.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien 

The above quote is a charming one, isn’t it? Tolkien’s invocation of another way of seeing, of existing, beguiles us with its sense of possibility. It is, like much of myth and story, fundamentally conservative – not in the political sense, but in the conservational sense. As an attempt to preserve, or at least, keep possibilities open in the mind of the reader, it’s pretty good. Of course, the wrinkle is – or some may say – that this took place in the distant past. Nobody, they might say, sees the world like this – or if they do, then their perception is deluded – because we are past that. We see the world representationally now, striving towards accuracy. Anything else is just superstition, is it not?

The mistake these stereotypical straw men make – within the context that I have breathed life into them for – is to suggest that a linear path between “then-now”, and “past-future”. Actually, they make several mistakes, not least because of their unexamined bias. I’ll not elucidate them all here, but suffice to say that our vegetative friends have not considered, amongst other things, the role of the cultural, historical, and philosophical structures which influence how we perceive and know things. In philosophy, such consideration of knowledge and how, why, what, and where we know things is called epistemology.

The thing with philosophy is that it covers many things: morality, ethics, metaphysics, linguistics, epistemology, sociology etc. We have words for all these things, and they are often their own disciplines. Philosophy – literally descending from “philia” + “sophia”, meaning affection or love for wisdom – can cover a kind of work in them all them all, precisely because understanding and using what is learnt in these many and varied arenas, and dong so well? Understanding the implications? Knowing that we know nothing for certain and that things are seldom as they first? 

This is wise, these things are wise, and so: wisdom is the useful, sound, and valuable deployment of knowledge and living life itself well.

Our straw men, conjured into existence by the magic of speech and words – shapings of breath digitized and transmitted across the planet to you, dear reader? They are brought forth into a world where the majority of its unexamined structures descend from the cultural shapings of men with pale skins. Dig further back, and deeper, and you will find that those men re-ordered, restructured and built upon the knowings and experiences of people who were not white or male. 

The structures of how we perceive, how we know what we know – even how we are taught to think, and express and feel? These did not come from nowhere – unfiltered and whole from the mind of one omnipotent, omniscient, Creator. Rather, many powers and potencies, principalities and agencies act all together. 

The flows of power, influence, propaganda, social and economic capital; the emotional and cultural response to events and experiences. All of these are contoured and shaped by the many. That many of the pale-skinned men shaped much of our world today is an accident of birth which is then compounded by economic and social factors based on climate, trade routes, geography, resources etc. This acquisition is then compounded  and backward rationalized – the accidental conflux of factors becomes a self-justification for ideas of false superiority, which drives behaviours which weight things in the favour of that group.

Make no mistake reader – there are still many worlds, even today. Bounded spaces, their boundaries staked out by those with the influence and ability to enforce them. That this is being written by a pale skinned man from North Western Europe is no coincidence. Nor is the fact that many will be able to read this, though my tongue is not what they speak natively – their first words carried a history different to mine. For various reason those people learnt my language which sneaks up behind others and mugs them in dark alleys, or engages in savagely lucrative trade deals.  

History literally is an accounting what has gone before, thus recounted by those later to be reckoned as accurate sources and authority. It is not all violence, theft and brutality. It is cultural exchange, trade, sharing, incorporation and diffusion also. All these things flow between in flux – this is influence. Influence is often codified and commodified under the rubric of power in an attempt to wield it more universally – which inevitably divorces it from its original context and forces a more acquisitive mindset amongst those who seek it, rather than seeking out points of influential confluence and integrating oneself within that.

The orality of history, and cultural transmission, is not something often thought of today. With the advent of writing, information and knowledge conservation shifts to the texts themselves as authority – the metaphor of something being “there in black and white” refers to newspapers, but the sense of it descends from textual authority. 

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the historic belief structure of those pale people is rooted in a distortion of a heresy of a Middle-Eastern monotheism, which in itself seems been an offshoot of various Middle-Eastern polytheisms. That Judaism has a central authoritative text, leavened with thousands of years of oral and written commentaries and arguments should be noted. That this text was itself an edited version which scholars believe contains multiple texts, and was added to and redacted from, in response to socio-political and religious reasons over time,  is also of note. That that text was selectively edited and canonized, before being translated in various languages in response to socio-political and religious reasons over time, is worth further note. 

That this collage of ancient material is elevated to holy scripture and used as basis for moral authority for the majority of the pale people for over a thousand years, and used as justification for imperalism, rape, murder, theft, oppression, oppression on grounds of sexuality, gender – and was a fundamental source of, and during, the social construction of the concept of race – would be shocking, were it not for the desire for that which is referred to as ‘power’ and ‘authority’. 

The singularity of authority and power presupposes scarcity. This is to say that fixed, codified protocols of behaviour, perception, and emotional affect allow definition and navigation in an unpredictable kosmos. By structuring experience, we make sense and it is by sense that we structure the world in a feedback loop. 

In a society based on orality, it is the stories that are told which preserve, iterate upon, and transmit knowledge and culture. In this, it’s worth quoting Marshall McLuhan: “The medium is the message.”What this means is that how a message is transmitted influences the message content and context. Similarly, it is how and by whom-as-medium it is transmitted which influences the message. Oral societies are often conservative in nature – there are ways things are done, and for reasons. Thus, to deviate from that is dangerous, precisely because things are done that way for a reason which benefits certain people.  Whether those certain people are an elite or a society as whole varies according to societal structures.

Those who deviate are dangerous for several reasons – they are unpredictable, which in many societies at one time meant that they are or were a potential threat. They are non-conformist, which implies they may not honour the social contract which is supposed important in keeping everyone safe and keeping the world-order-as-society knows it running.

Recall Tolkien’s charm? His elder possibility is a world-order or worldview (weltanschauung) which sees the numinosity in all things. It thus sees flux and agency and multiplicity.  In the case of polytheism and animism, the multiplicity of agents  and powers suggests a multitude of agents all acting on one another and interpenetrating – rather like ripples or interference patterns. Gods and “Big spirits” ( terminology that is pretty much synonymous in the mind of this author for the purposes of discussion) can be said to have mythic “mass”. A large stone dropped into a pond will make bigger ripples and cancel or interfere with smaller ripples generated by smaller pebbles. 

When considering gods as establishers of world-order – or even creating worlds, it’s instructive to consider that in many mythologies, this is accomplished by the overthrow of a previous order or set of structures, and their reconfiguration. Which is usually, to judge my many world mythologies, a polite way to suggest murder and butchery; fundamentally catastrophic  in all the linguistic and etymological senses of the word.. Once bloodily established, it is usually the actions and processes of the gods which keep the kosmos running. This accreted behaviour forms mores. Myth is thus a recounting of these behaviours and deviations therefrom, not simply as dry recounting but as felt experience which stimulates emotional and psychological affect which joins all participants (human and otherwise) into a shared epistemological framework.

In any society, the element of performance is key in any media – not just what the media ism but how it does it, as mentioned above. In an oral society where knowledge is shared through speech, whether by poetry or storytelling, the performance of the teller is key, as is the setting and context of the delivery.

Many myths depict rape, murder, theft,  trade, sharing, incorporation and diffusion. In this, they are as much like other forms of media as anything else. Likewise, it of course is the choice of those personally affected by such things not to engage with such things if they feel it would be detrimental to them. Yet, in dealing with myth, particularly if one views it not as synonymous with falsehood, but in fact expressive of some world-reality which forms the root of of our perceptions and experience, we often have questions of morality.

To say that myths containing rape, incest, murder, theft etc “offer a window onto a different time” or to suggest that the actions of a mythological figure are literally representationally true and thus that figure should be hated and despised is to present only a fairly shallow reading in the view of the author.

Let us take the Norse god Odin – he who, according the texts we have, committed near- genocide against giant-kind; slaughtering his own kindred the god (along with his brothers) butcher the primeval giant Ymir and use his body to make the worlds. The brothers then create humans by breathing life into two logs/trees found by the sea shore – far better then men of straw, no?

He steals the Mead of Inspiration (itself brewed from the blood of a murdered god) after seducing and tricking its giant-maiden guardian, but not before killing nine thralls in order to get close to her father – bearing the name Bolverk (evil-doer). He uses magic to impregnate Rindr after she turns him down repeatedly, making it so that Valli, the agent of vengeance over thr death of Baldr, is a product of rape – regardless that he is in the shape of/dressed of a woman at the time.

He attempts to have his way with Billing’s daughter, but is discovered and chased away by a pack of angry men. He sets up heroes to die in the midst of battle, abandoning them at the precise moment they need his aid. He is, in short, a major bastard. 

Did the Norse enjoy stories of rape? Was it a particular genre that pleased them? We have the images of Vikings as raping and pillaging, after all?

Certainly, there are texts that suggest they had a different view of sexuality and violence than we do today. But is perhaps our take on Odin in the myths we have had passed down to us heavily biased? Of course. For one, it appears the idea of Odin as chief god in Iceland was due to the preponderance of preserved texts. Archaeology suggests Thor was more popular with the population-at-large than the weird and terrible bastard wizard Stabby McOne-Eye the murder hobo. 

But Odin is the Master of Inspiration – and both kings and poets were buoyed by his patronage. That this is passed down, collected and written down by a Christian after Christianization of Iceland, and then translated to English, some eight or nine centuries later?

This influences the medium and message. Further, amongst certain neopagans and heathen polytheists, there is a tendency to look at the preserved texts in a similar way to the Bible. This is a product of the mutations of that North West European brand of heresy we mentioned, contextualized in sectarian manner (Protestantism has a lot to answer for).

Even if the myths are treated not as literal, we have been culturally contoured to look at myths which describe religious and numinous experience as exemplary. That’s to say, things that serve as examples or moral models, illustrations of general rules. In a sense, that’s akin to looking to police procedurals or popular movies, or 24hr news channels for a sense of morality today. Such things do contain troubling assumptions today – valourisation of violence if it “gets the job done” in movies, or  news stories inciting rage for political or social gain as example. Yet their key raison d’etre is experiential affect. Information and mores may be passed on and inculcated unconsciously, yes. But to view their content as explicitly and directly representational without bias? This is surely dangerous.

Furthermore, our attitudes to sexuality and violence, both as distinct groupings and how they interplay in all forms of media are worthy of critique – exactly what is acceptable and why? What is the historical and social context for this?

So if myth is not to be read as moral exemplar, what then? In this we must engage beyond a surface reading, if we so choose. As method of epistemic transmission and framing, myth is is not exemplary, but does aid in modelling. It is the response to myth that aids modelling not the myth itself. 

To say Odin is a rapist, a murderer, and thief is important – not because he is, or is not these things, but what that means  to the audience participating in the myth, both historically and currently in context. This is why his self-naming as Bolverk is so important, within the context of the myths. Performer and audience and mythic figure all acknowledge this behaviour as unacceptable to humans. 

Throughout the myth cycle, the “morally dubious” stories illustrate deviance from acceptability is only viable longterm if one is influential, and this motif exists across cultures. There are always consequences for such behaviour, whether it be the dooming of the world, or more subtle responses. Yet they serve a doubly illustrative function in the case of Odin, and other such figures (often Trickster or magical figures) wherein their behaviour and character is ambiguous precisely because of that nature – existing asocially, breaking rules and remaking them, surviving and prospering in impossible ways, in often hostile environments. This renders such figures “unsafe” “criminal” or “unnatural”, perhaps even queer in relation  to wider society. For such figures, it is the transmission of this quality via the myth which the narrative preserves, even when preserved and iterated upon by time. 

In this context, to state again, solely literal representational readings of myth are mistaken. This is not to say it is all symbolic, but rather that metaphor transmits information – an Iroquois story says their people learnt to tap maple syrup from squirrels. 

An Iroquois boy  saw a red squirrel cutting into tree bark with its teeth and later returning to lick the sap; the young Iroquois followed the squirrel’s lead and tried the same technique by cutting into the tree bark with a knife, thus discovering the sweet sap. Long derided as mere “myth” or “folklore” it took until the 1990s for a scientist named  Bernd Heinrich to observe and record it, publishing in a scientific journal – thus ‘legitimizing’ pre-existing indigenous knowledge. 

That such knowledge only became ‘acceptable’ or ‘real’ when performed outside of its original form tells us much about the biases of so-called ‘Western Culture’ as regards myth and folklore. Yet, this example proves the utility of such transmissions, existing over the centuries. That Iceland’s corpus of myth (even in those tales that remained to be written down) may contain metaphorically encode experience which can be re-experienced through felt-sense is made all the more likely, given the preservation of highly localized folklore and histories.

Questions of legitimacy or lack are defined by flows of influence and power – inextricably linked to agency and consequence. Myth is therefore conceivable as a manifestation of currents of social influence and should never be held as a fixed thing, whether or not one has positive or negative emotional response to its figures