Tag Archives: Virgil

Magic And Miracles (2)

I can’t say whether the above picture is genuine or whether it’s been altered, nor did I find any credits for the image. Probably fake if someone held a gun to my head and made me guess. It does, however, provide an example of a modern trend: the alleged return to pagan worship by various groups of individuals.

Return of the Hellenes devotees (photo not credited)

Let me offer a few examples. In Greece, The Return of the Hellenes “worships” the twelve main gods of the Greek pantheon and was founded by Tryphon Olympios, a philosophy professor. In Iceland, the Asatru Fellowship similarly uses members of the Norse pantheon. Both groups have revived certain rituals and traditions from these ancient religions, but they see their “gods” more as metaphors and ideals than as deities. Wicca not only features an odd collection of beliefs and practices borrowed from various sources but also shows what I would call considerable internal variety and inconsistency depending on where it is practiced.

Asatru Fellowship procession (photo by Eran Livni)

Some may see it as a matter of degree, but generally missing from the above examples are the true worship of supernatural deity and the adherence to historical canon and doctrine which are characteristic of major religions. These modern phenomena are more like a customized re-invention of older systems of thought, and they tend to cherry-pick various beliefs and practices. There is a modern tendency to go cafeteria-shopping for a religion that satisfies one’s desires and expectations, but this practice begs the question of how anyone can worship something they made up themselves. The same can be said for the redefinition of older faiths, the “now it means this” phenomenon.

Apotheosis of Homer by Jean-Auguste-Dominique- Ingres (1827)

I wonder how many people who refer to themselves as pagans have actually studied the pagan philosophers, learned the tenets of pagan religions, or even familiarized themselves with such works as the Edda, the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, the Aenid by Virgil, or The Metamorphoses by Ovid. I’ve known a few people who have done these very things, but there are posers in any religion.

Ulysses and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
athena inspires odysseus for vengeance
Painting by Jan Styka in which Athena inspires Odysseus to take vengeance

Then, of course, there is the issue of intellectual sincerity. What do the adherents of these modernized, ancient beliefs actually believe? Are they  genuine, or  are they participating in pseudo-intellectual forms of cosplay? These are fair questions to ask anyone who professes a belief in the supernatural, myself included.

The Muse (1895) by Gabriel de Cool

Perhaps this is what one of my former students meant when she said something like, “I wanted to deal with people who knew what they were talking about,” when explaining to me why she had decided against the Wiccan religion after looking into it. Let me add that I have had a number of students who were Wiccan and that we got along well. I found them to be creative, intelligent, and likeable people. Some were even very studious in learning more about their beliefs, and one of those later converted to Christianity. Please don’t think that I’m trying to be insulting or derogatory when I point out differences between modern religions and those which are more traditional.

The Lament for Icarus by Herbert James Draper

Next week, I’ll continue with a more direct discussion of what the title of this series actually means.

To the critics of “manufactured mythology”

St. George and the Dragon by Briton Reviere
St. George and the Dragon by Briton Reviere

At the outset of this little diatribe, I think it necessary to get one fact straight. All mythologies are manufactured. Every myth, no matter what its age, was once new. To condemn new efforts in this area because the resulting works are not historical (translated “old” or “old enough”) can have the effect of stifling further creativity.

One might object that modern, manufactured mythology is not valid for the plain reason that people do not literally believe in it. But how much do we really know about what the members of ancient cultures actually believed? Perhaps significant numbers (even a majority) of them did not believe in the tales, either. We don’t really know. The Aenid by Virgil, for example, was a politicized re-telling of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but it is still considered a classic. As long as a new book is marketed and sold under the designation of fiction, it is reasonable to assume that the reader is intelligent enough to understand that the contents are not describing things that are literally real.

Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909
Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909

The criteria for judging new mythologies should be the quality of the writing and the possession of some degree of originality. That The Lord Of The Rings is sometimes criticized for being manufactured does not alter the fact that it is a resonant story that a good many intelligent and educated people consider to be good writing. As a starting point for his work, Tolkien (a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature) borrowed elements from older lore, but this is not a problem. His telling is still original, and it reads well.

The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring (original illustration by J. R. R. Tolkien)
The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring (original illustration by J. R. R. Tolkien)

I understand that there are those who dislike mythology whether it is old or new, and they should not be required to defend their preferences. Neither should those of us who genuinely like this sort of thing. Individual taste is individual taste. My advice to those overly prone to analysis and criticism is therefore simple. Ignore the genre if you wish, but if you choose to read a story, start out by trying to enjoy it. Bad writing does not require vigilant exposure. It has a tendency to expose itself.