Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Myths Of Yesteryear: A Sunday Rumination

     I was listening to an old Steely Dan album, Aja, when the subject for today’s piece occurred to me. The track titled “Home at Last” planted the seed. It crept upon me little by little, as if it needed time to mature. Here’s the lyric:

I know this super highway
This bright familiar sun
I guess that I'm the lucky one
Who wrote that tired sea song
Set on this peaceful shore
You think you've heard this one before

Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last
Home at last

She serves the smooth retsina
She keeps me safe and warm
It's just the calm before the storm
Call in my reservation
So long hey thanks my friend
I guess I'll try my luck again

Well the danger on the rocks is surely past
Still I remain tied to the mast
Could it be that I have found my home at last
Home at last

[Becker and Fagin, of course.]

     You need a wee bit of education to recognize the genes of this tale: It’s Odysseus’s homeward journey to Ithaca and Penelope after the destruction of Troy. His adventures on the way included an important temptation: his desire to hear – and survive hearing – the legendary song of the Sirens, of whom it had been said that no sailor who heard that song could survive. Odysseus, a clever sort, had his men tie him to the mast of his ship, and then stop their ears with wax. Thus he contrived to hear the unearthly melody that had caused uncounted sailors to sail toward the deadly rocks upon which the Sirens perched...and upon which those sailors met their doom.

     Even so, the great warrior almost broke free from his bonds before his ship had exited the danger zone. The Sirens, you see, were a torment created by the gods, by which they contrived to persuade mortal men of the folly of aspiring to divine things. The gods of Olympus were like that: vain, capricious, self-absorbed, and by no means benevolently disposed toward Mankind. Indeed, the Greek mythos did not posit that the Olympians had a creators’ relationship with mortal men. They assumed the two estates to have quite different geneses.

     Though Odysseus’s valor and cleverness eventually convert the Olympians who sought his destruction into admirers, even allies, nevertheless several start out as foes determined to work his downfall. Nothing could more succinctly express the strange relationship between the Olympian pantheon and the race of men. It bore no trace of parents’ love for their children. It was more a matter of the gods’ occasional exploitation and torment of men, counterbalanced by men’s heroism and cleverness as required.

     The Roman mythos is parallel to that of the Greeks, despite a few additions such as the lares and penates that are irrelevant to the larger scheme. The Norse mythos is far grimmer. Yet there are persons alive today who advocate a return to the worship of those mythical beings as preferable to the Christian faith.

     Forgive me for this, Gentle Reader, but: Jesus wept.

     It’s not possible to argue a resistant man into accepting a religious proposition. Religious propositions are both unverifiable and unfalsifiable. While there might exist evidence for them, there will always be a way to explain such evidence away. There’s copious evidence for the life of Jesus, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection, but all of it can be dismissed by one determined to do so.

     Yet some who dismiss Christianity and the evidence for it are willing to buy into one or another of those older myths. Why? What evidence is there for any of them, except for the historical records that establish that others long dead believed them? Most important of all, what’s the point?

     Not one of the ancient mythologies involves a Supreme Being benevolently disposed toward Mankind. Not one holds out the possibility of an afterlife reward, or of afterlife penalties for wrongdoing. The majority of them were both fatalistic and bloodily savage. Their “gods” embodied the worst character traits ever found among men. Why would anyone worship such beings?

     It’s not something my powers of reasoning can explain, unless it’s rooted in a simple desire to be contrary. But it’s out there, self-demonstrating.

     To me, it stands as a lesson in the infinite scope of human perversity. I can only hope that God is merciful toward those who practice such irrationality.

     “Those that believe in nothing will believe in anything.” – multiply attributed, but possibly G. K. Chesterton

     The human psyche is constructed to require faith. It appears to stem from the possession of volition, reason, and limited knowledge within a temporal framework that permits the pursuit of individually conceived goals. So even those who disdain the Christian faith will eventually repose their faith in something. It might be as absurd as a faith centered on Olympus or Asgard – or worse, on themselves – but underneath all the claims of supreme objectivity a faith will be buried.

     If such persons can’t see their own lunacies, there isn’t much that can be done for them. Psychology and psychiatry are no help when it comes to such things. (Neither is electroconvulsive therapy.) The sole escape is from the irrational and pointless faiths into the faith of Jesus Christ.

     The political powers of Rome were founded on the notion that the ruling elite had been anointed by the Roman gods. That’s what made Christianity threatening to them. Indeed, it’s what makes Christianity threatening to all overweening temporal powers. It’s why this quote from Herbert Spencer is one of my favorites:

     I asked one of the members of Parliament whether a majority of the House could legitimize murder. He said no. I asked him whether it could sanctify robbery. He thought not. But I could not make him see that if murder and robbery are intrinsically wrong, and not to be made right by the decisions of statesmen, then similarly all actions must be either right or wrong, apart from the authority of the law; and that if the right and wrong the law are not in harmony with this intrinsic right and wrong, the law itself is criminal.

     There is a moral order in the universe, written into its most fundamental laws. That order cannot be the product of vain, capricious, quarrelsome “gods” with no particular interest in Mankind. But it can be the product of a Benevolence that stands above all else, that wants for nothing, and that despite its triune nature suffers no conflict. Indeed, that’s exactly what it is.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Andy Texan said...

Good sermon. Would that more pastors and priest gave it to their flocks.


sykes.1 said...

Excellent. If the neo-pagans were serious, they would be Hindus. Hinduism is, after all, the only surviving branch of Indo-European paganism. But Hinduism is too exotic and too brown for them.

A Reader said...

As it happens, I know some neo-pagans, one of whom is a reasonably clever, established, middle-aged father of three. He has some silly ideas about chem-trails, fluoridated water, and Planet X, but he is also incredibly hardworking and entrepreneurial. He worships Odin, I think. Minus the wacky conspiracy theories and his worship of false gods who are fated to die, he's exactly the sort of survivalist who could actually help restart a small town. I have never discussed in detail with him how he came to worship the Norse gods, but I would venture to guess that unless he grew up with them, something about their mythos appeals to his sense of self and his place in the world. It might be easy, in some ways, for a fatalist who wants to be a hero to chose that particular set of old gods. I pray for his soul, because he's a fundamentally decent man worships gods who frankly aren't worthy of him.
The other neo-pagan is much younger, much less stable, and worships Hera, though I think for reasons that reveal his general ignorance of Hellenic pagan mythology. The young man was married once and fathered a little girl, but the marriage fell apart. Possibly he married too young. Possibly he never knew what agape was to begin with, or how to live it out toward his wife. He subsequently fell in love with a different pagan girl. In order to get permission from his local idolatry-leader-ess to leave the mother of his child and start a new life with the new girl, he agreed, as I understand it, to begin worshiping Hera. This would be the same Hera who is notorious in Greek mythology for her vindictiveness toward her husband's rape victims, the offspring of those illicit encounters, and adulteresses in general. Makes perfect sense, don't you think?
In his case, I think he worships the god(s) who will give him what he wants. This is a roundabout saying he worships himself more than anything.

IlĂ­on said...

I guess I'll be taking this blog off the blog-roll of my dusty little blog, and ceasing to visit.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Bye! Have a nice life!