Today I wanted to talk to you all about mythology, and the role it plays in the Hellenic religion. Very often, when one tells people one is a Hellenic polytheist, one gets a reaction like this: “What? you really believe in those things? That’s just mythology!”. Such a reaction obviously stems from a deep-rooted misunderstanding of what the term “mythology” actually means, and how it relates to religion. Even within Hellenic polytheism some people don’t quite seem to understand the difference. Therefore I shall try to adress such issues in this post, hoping to clarify them for all, so that no misunderstandings remain.
Mythology is quite simply the collection of stories about the Gods and their interactions with the mortal world, trying to ascertain the origins of things. From the origin of the Kósmos, to flowers, animals, festivals, foundations of cult sites, cities, etc. They convey certain messages about the nature of the Gods, the Kósmos, relations to mortals, and so on. Oftentimes fantastical elements will be part of it, that don’t seem logical or natural, like Goddesses popping up out of foam, or the from the head of another God. Such instances are often used to say that “mythology isn’t real”, and believing in a religion is believing in silly fairy tales that make no sense. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the Hellenic religion, myths are not taken to be literal history, or a literal account of how things happened in some undetermined and undeterminable past. Even in antiquity accepting myths as such was considered superstitious and erroneous. This doesn’t mean myths were just seen as fairytales and pretty stories that had absolutely no value beyond entertainment in epic poems or dramatic productions. On the contrary, they were accepted as containing hidden truths about the Gods, the Kósmos, their relationships to eachother and to us mortals. They are considered allegorical.
Allegorical means that they needed interpretation by mortals reading or hearing the mythical tales, reasoning with a firm basis in logic was employed to try and discover these hidden tidbits of knowledge. Such interpretations are oftentimes very personal, and it depends on the individuals to accept or renounce interpretations proposed by others. Debates about myths and their many meanings continued throughout history, and are part of modern Hellenic polytheism as well.
The difference with religion is the following, I shall explain it by the example of Christianity. The Bible is Judaeo-Christian mythology, going to mass is the religion. The Bible/mythology tells how and why things are the way they are, and give reasons for certain ritual practices, and the religion is the actual practice of such ideas. Myths tell us why the Eleusinian mysteries were founded, and the initiates probably knew myths that explained how and why the Mysteries worked in the particular way they did. But myths weren’t all that important to the actual practice of the religion.
For example the God Pán in myths is shown to hunt númphai, seducing them and sometimes raping them. Because of this one might expect that númphai were worshipped separately from Pán, yet the opposite is true, their worship is in fact very closely linked. This shows an instance were the mythical tales in fact do not really have much importance for the practice and worship itself. This again underscores how mythology and religion are two separate concepts.
I hope everyone reading this is now convinced that being a member of a given religion, does not automatically mean that one must unconditionally accept it’s mythology. As far as the Hellenic religion is concerned, to do so would be against the Hellenic spirit, an act of irrationality and superstition. Yet sometimes people still do this, even people who adhere to the Hellenic religion. This is a great error, and I hope if any such person reads this, he/she will see the folly of such beliefs and abandon them.
I hope you enjoyed this blogpost ;-)