Truth vs. Fact (part 1)
Posted by Erik on February 25, 2007
(Note – this post really should follow “Why Hellenism?”, but that one is not complete yet and I wanted to get one out of the pipeline…)
One of the most common questions I get when discussing my religion with non-pagans (given where I live, this means most likely Christian, and usually some form of Protestant) is something along the lines of, “You don’t really believe in all that stuff, do you?” (The obvious answer, of course, is “Well, yes – if I didn’t, why would I bother having this as my religion?”… but I like to go for the less obvious answer, as we will see.)
I do, in fact, believe in “all that stuff”, although not always in the way most people in Western cultures are trained to think. If the discussion gets deep enough to bring out the fact that I’m not even Wiccan, but Hellenic, then – almost inevitably – the next question is about Zeus’ love life. I love this question.
Do I believe that Zeus actually seduced all those girls as a swan, a bull, a shower of gold, and so on? Not necessarily… although as He is a God, of course, anything is possible. What I *do* believe is that whether these things “actually happened”, the stories themselves have something important to tell us. In this particular example, what I gain from these stories is a sense of Zeus’ role as “Father of Gods and Men” (remembering that the name the Greeks called Him is descended from the indo-European *dyeus pater, roughly “sky father”), and how important that aspect was to the ancient Greeks. I’m sure that’s not the only possible meaning in these stories, but that’s what I get from them right now.
The problem, of course, is that most of us brought up in the Christian West, particularly in the Protestant traditions, are taught that in order to be “true”, myths have to be “fact”, a concept that I have taken to calling “time machine theology” – i.e., if I had a time machine, could I go back and see the Crucifixion, or Prometheus chained to the rock, or whatever (a poster called “Jack” has a couple of excellent posts on that topic from a Christian perspective in the combox for this post over at Maclin Horton’s “Light on Dark Water“, a good Catholic blog). I think that this impoverished approach to sacred story is at the root of a lot of the religious fault lines that sometimes threaten to pull our society apart at the seams.
Taken absolutely (and only) literally, most mythologies look somewhat absurd – including mine and yours; it’s only when we look at them “in a myffic kind of way” that we see how they make sense.