There has recently been something of a furore in parts of the Germanic revivalist sphere over matters of what we might term ‘scriptural literalism’ and ‘mythic truth’.
We don’t intend to get into the details as to what caused it – only to reproduce (with some slight editing) an endeavour at an explication as to the necessity for the latter paradigm which I tapped out earlier this afternoon in reply to somebody who’d taken (inaccurate) aim at me over these matters.
“There would appear to have been some miscommunication. At no point did I say (or mean to say) that the myths weren’t true, hadn’t happened, or that Gods were just symbols, psychological forces, etc.
However, it is a complex situation.
Allow me to illustrate with an example or two.
You don’t know me, so I should perhaps also clarify – I am a Hindu (but significantly Germanic by ancestry, and Indo-European by outlook).
I believe very strongly that The Indo-European Gods Are The Indo-European Gods. And therefore, I wind up cross-applying elements sometimes.
Now, Indra is Thor, and Jormungandr is Vritra. Slain with Mjolnir or the Vajra. And yes, yes Jormungand is, in fact, dead per an array of verses – people just seem to go with the Gylfaginning ‘ambiguity’ on it for some peculiar reason even though that’s Sturluson’s interpolation.
And also, while we are on the subject, Herakles contra the Hydra is significantly expressive of the same mythic complex, as well [although with some complexities because there’s another related myth that gets blended in in some tellings – long story].
Why do I mention that?
Because i) it would be very easy to get hung up on the fact we have a half a dozen different accounts from the Hellenic corpus alone (let alone the Vedic, Eddic, etc.) and the various specific differences of presentation encountered therein … and miss the ‘essence’ of the myth.
And ii) taking a literalist perspective would lead to one, presumably, going about looking for a really really really big serpent skeleton somewhere. Which is, oddly enough, kinda what Pausanias contemplated in his Description of Greece [II 37 4] –
By which I mean, the man went to the stretch of water where the combat with the Hydra was reputed to have taken place, took a look at the topography , and declared that it must have ‘just’ been a really large (single-headed) poisonous snake.
In other words – taking a ‘literalist’ position became taking an ‘euhemeric’ position … and thereby being forced to reduce down in scope something mythic (with a Capital M) to something that an ordinary mortal mind could easily comprehend with his own eyes.
And frankly – even though it has various of the same ‘descriptors’ attached to it .. “Very Strong Man Fights Big Water Snake, Armed With Club” is an altogether different sort of combat to Striker/Thunderer Deific Slays Demon-Dragon Of The Waters, Armed With Thunder-Weapon.
Let’s take a different example.
Consider Mt Kailash, where Shiva lives (broadly speaking). Think of it like Mt Olympus in that regard.
Now, satellite imagery of the summit from space is .. unlikely to show His Residence atop the peak …
Which doesn’t at all stop this from being an incredibly holy mountain. Same deal for Olympus – and especially because there’s actually something like two dozen Mt Olympuses dotted around the Eastern Mediterranean , because the Greek colonists turned up, named the highest peak in their now-local vicinity after Olympus, and promptly went about integrating this into their loka-lized belief system – even to the point of continuing as if the Gods (or at least, certain thereof) had always lived there. As I say, this happened multiple times – and leads to quite a bit of head-scratching during the Classical Age as to where various myths are supposed to have ‘really’ occurred.
Now, as it happens, given Rudra is Dyaus Pitar … and Dyaus Pitar = Zeus Pater = Jupiter … and yes, Odin …
We can therefore conceive that Kailash and Olympus (er .. various Olympuses) are both co-expressive of the same effective concept –
Namely, that Mountain where the Sky Father (and Household) have residence.
Does this mean that He is physically There .. at all of these ‘Theres’ , and at the same time? Well, maybe. One might certainly encounter a cloaked wanderer if one ventures in such a direction and is pious.
But the two facts remain – first, that one is unlikely to find visible, tangible, satellite etc. evidence of His Residence up there … the physical, literal manifestation thereof;
And second, that this doesn’t matter, because the metaphysical presence is nevertheless there, in any case.
Also, to head back into the Germanosphere … consider the description that Ruodolf of Fuld gave of the Irminsul that was destroyed by Charlemagne :
The Saxons hailed this as “universalis columna, quasi sustinens omnia” – the ‘pillar of the universe which supports all’.
Now, the thing is – that post (the Irminsul aforementioned) did not have to be the literal support of all the Worlds in order to have the sacredness of being such, nor for it to be an outrage and an abomination for Charlemagne to have had it destroyed.
Because even though that Irminsul was not literally Yggdrasil – it was still a ‘resonancy’ of it. It was still a ‘saliency’ for the Axis Mundi, and the Cosmic Order it embodies [viz. Rta, etc.] out here in this world, upon this plane of ours.
And so yes – Charlemagne did not, in fact, bring crashing down all the worlds entire by sundering that one Irminsul in a grove in Saxony (although certainly, one can argue that it correlated with a ‘localized’ apocalypse of a world(-view), a belief, in territory under his rule).
Even though it is not really accurate to say that Irminsul merely “represented” the Axis Mundi World-Tree in some effervescently emptily symbolic sense … it nevertheless wasn’t the World-Tree, ‘only’ a ‘loka-lized’ partial expressive/embodiment of Same.
And so that’s basically where I see a lot of this ‘scriptural literalist’ style stuff going awry. Because it gets all tangled up in … I suppose one might say ‘wood for the trees’.
It sees only a limited – and insistently so – dimension to things, and misses much more vital essence. Not least because it’s often so busy rushing around attempting to plug all of the ever-escalating ‘holes of logic’ that this or that particular critical perspective might manage to deploy upon any given legendary (re-)telling in earnest. And so, as we had noted viz. Pausanias’ exemplar above of the Hydra reduced to the scope of a rather large water-snake … the Myth becomes itself insistently reduced down to somewhat and somewhere beneath the merely Human gaze … so that it cannot possibly be challenged and pulled down by perceived ‘hostile’ forces instead. Hence why Gods get symbolically reduced in scope and grandeur and glory down to the situation of having been merely mythologized human kings of yesteryear.
Yet the converse is also, in its fashion, apt to consider as well.
In that Irminsul instance – taking the “universal pillar” comment at face (literal) value would lead to something not true (or, at least, not true in the sense that a literal reading would render it).
Even though it’s also not untrue (and definitely True in a slightly differing sense), as we had but briefly sought to extoll above.
The Irminsul of Saxony was not Literally Yggdrasil (or local Saxon / Continental West Germanic equivalent), and did not literally have the rest of the Universe hanging upon its boughs.
It didn’t have to.
All it had to be was the loka-lized embodiment for a saliency for the essence of the Myth – and therefore to be more than simply an empty ‘symbol’, yet less than the fully-scaled substance of such and same.
All up – Myths, as with other forms of ‘events’, are “Patterns in Reality”. That’s what ‘stories’ are, and also what ‘laws of nature’ just so happen to be.
They’re, in a way, both.
And therefore, I cannot help but feel that we lose out quite significantly when we effectively reduce Myths down to just ‘stories’ [in the sense of tellings of events prior to have happened] – just as we also lose out quite significantly by reducing them to ‘purely’ “natural laws” as well (not least with all of the abstracted and impersonal sense that that implies).
And that is before we get into the ritualistic etc. dimensions wherein these ‘big’ Patterns In Reality can also be engaged in, in miniature and in mesocosm [er .. ritual space] by us as metaphysical actions – small ‘patterns in reality’ emulating the Big Ones that Precedented Same.
In sum – I definitely DON’T think it accurate to (literally) claim that Myths are things that axiomatically have never happened …
it’s just that trying to compress the how they’ve happened, into “this is literal history like [x event]” … well, I suspect that works about as well as ambling toward Anatolia, anticipating that one can quite literally walk one’s way to Asgard without leaving this earth with one’s feet (let alone heart, eyes, mind, and soul). [For those in the audience not acquainted with the works of Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus … these Christianized works sought to euhemerize the Nordic mythos so as to re-situate the home or seat of the Aesir at Troy or Byzantium respectively – but let us not get into all of that now]
Myth, and the Beings encountered both therethrough and therein, do not owe us any explanation … much less of the kind that is comfortably packaged ‘down’ to our level as its sum totality of breadth, depth, and constellation (nor complexity) of constituent components.
We can approach it. Indeed, we must approach it.
We can seek to engage with it – indeed, for those of us who are genuinely religious, we must seek to engage with it …
But it must always and ever be, on its terms, not those of the minds and eye(non)sights of mortals who might otherwise seek to lower it down to where we are more comfortable looking and thinking.
Anything else is the merest projecting of our inadequacies skywards in search of eclipsing the supreme.
And for the properly pious person – that just simply won’t do.
2 thoughts on “On Mythic Truth”
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There is also every reason to believe in versions of these myths that seem to contradict the greater Indo-European corpus provided we recognise that they have usually been distorted from the originals by ‘other’ groups (Zoroastrians, Christians, etc.), as even these can offer insights into ancestral beliefs.