23 April 2010

When religion becomes myth: part I

Last time I elaborated a bit on some of the differences between mythology and religion. To summarize my ideas: religion is centered around a theology which contains sacred stories, rites, rituals, codified beliefs and holy days. Mythology falls under that theology, they are the sacred stories that form the background and history of the religion and its sacred practices. So it would not be a fallacy to say that all mythology is created and sustained by a religion, be it practiced or not. But this begs the question: how do sacred stories go from being part of a religion to becoming what we think of as mythology?

As I stated earlier, all religions have mythology. And mythology, while defined as sacred stories, also has a very distinct connotative interpretation: the modern society tends to think of myths as old, outdated and related to “dead religions.” This is something that, in most cases, is ingrained into people as they grow and are educated. Consider this: in elementary school, many are told that mythology (usually Greek) are the stories told by ancient civilizations. Tales of gods, heroes and monsters from cultures long gone are all identified as myths, which are then sometimes explained as religious stories that have lost what makes them religious and sacred. Stories that are sacred to modern religions are called religious stories, stories from departed ones are myths. This association between mythology and the past is so common, that even in academic circles, myth is still used to explain the past, and is rarely, if ever, assigned to present day culture. God forbid someone tell a religious person that their holy books are essentially mythology, they will easily and gladly rain down righteous fire on anyone who even thinks about associating their sacred beliefs with the ideas and tales of the past. But this, as I have previously stated, is doing mythology a disservice, and blinding the modern day faithful into thinking of their stories as something beyond “mere myth.”

So let’s take a step back and honor the connotative differences for a moment. Let’s assume, here and now, that religion is religion, and myth is myth. They are separate, distinct categories of sacred tales, with marked differences, marked meanings and wholly different parts of our shared cultural history. Then why is this so? How can the sacred stories attached to ancestor religions lose their meaning and become “mere myth?” What process do sacred stories undergo that make them somehow less than what they were, and keep them separate from the traditions of the modern day?

One of the obvious answers is time. Mythology is tied to the past, to cultures that no longer exist. While these stories were once sacred to a cultural group, like the Greeks, Scandinavians, Egyptians or Aztecs, those groups no longer exist as they did, so of course their sacred beliefs must have vanished with them. But upon closer inspection, this idea falls apart. There are still thousands, if not millions, of humans who still hold the gods of the old world as sacred. Religious revivalism in the past century awoke common knowledge and reverence for beliefs and rituals that had long since “died out.” Add to this that many practitioners of the old ways continued to practice and share their traditions, albeit secretly, for generations after the core cultural group vanished, and it is easy to see that time not only did not, but never could have, eliminated the sacred beliefs from the world. Ethnic groups never truly vanish, even if they appear to. Just because the Aztec Empire was conquered by Spain does not mean all people of Aztec descent disappeared and became Spanish. And this certainly does not mean that some people within the society did not continue to adhere to their old customs. It is very hard to destroy culture, especially when it is such a dominant force in the lives of the group that created it.

Culture is under the same stresses as any other aspect of society. Sacred culture is not immune to this. In fact, when it comes down to it, sacred culture perhaps suffers from the most stresses in terms of conflict and upheaval. Unlike most other cultural products and traditions, sacred belief belongs to a part of the society that is very hard to eliminate- that of belief. It might be easy to trivialize sacred culture when compared to other cultural facets of a society, like material goods, agriculture, family dynamics and architecture, but unlike all these things, sacred culture lies within a sphere of the mind that can be so powerful, that all other cultural facets could be thrown away and the cultural group would still fight for that one remaining branch of what makes them a group. Ideology, unlike any other representation of a culture, is the one thing that can tie a group together and will keep them together, regardless of the situation. Material goods disappear, can be broken or traded away; agricultural techniques can and will change to suit the times; families come and go; but the sacred beliefs upon which a group is founded and holds itself together cross generations, boundaries and even open conflicts.

Why is this? Because, unlike any other cultural signifier, sacred beliefs are the one thing that cannot be taken away. A group can lose its land, its wealth, even its people, but unless the entire group is physically wiped out, with no traces remaining, those beliefs will still be a part of the group that can never be fully silenced, so long as one person chooses to recite them. As long as there are believers, and they truly and deeply hold to those beliefs, it is impossible to erase them. They can be easily shared, easily spread, give the same sense of belonging and direction regardless of who holds them, and can easily be used as a rallying point for any members of the culture group at any time, or any place.

So how does all this relate to the idea of religion becoming mythology? If anything, this would prove that religion never truly dies, and thus never truly becomes “mythology.” At the end of the day, this is very true- religion never truly does fade away, so long as someone remembers and practices it. But I also did say that I was honoring the connotative definition of mythology, and this explanation completely refutes that. So its time to get back on track and discuss the connotative transformation.

Time, that was one of the ways religion turns into mythology. Going hand in hand with the idea that mythology is tied to the past, time would be the greatest indicator of what changes religion into mythology. But time in itself does nothing to facilitate the change. Case in point: time has seen Greek, Aztec and Scandinavian beliefs turn into mythology, all are from “classic” (ie old) civilizations, far removed from our own world. But if time alone were the signifier, then Christianity and Judaism would also have faded into myth, because of those three mentioned cultural traditions, two of them were actually younger than two of the most practiced religions of today. The Aztec beliefs were quelled in the 1500s while the Vikings disappeared around 1000. Meanwhile, Judaism is well over 5000 years old, and Christianity is around 2000. Both predate the Aztecs and Vikings as cultural groups and both subsumed them between 500 and 1000 years ago.

Time alone will not turn religion into mythology, but time working in conjunction with external factors will be what changes religion into myth. These factors can be almost anything, from aggressive and violent to passive and intellectual. But the associated factors are what in actuality enforces the change of beliefs.

Looking at some of the aggressive factors for a moment: war and conquest are the most visible, and probably the most common, ways that a religion is forced into becoming myth. When one group conquers another, suppression of the defeated group’s religion becomes one of the most immediate goals. As I mentioned earlier, religion becomes something of a rallying cry for the people being oppressed, and since in some societies it is intrinsically tied to the people and their government, the removal of religion from a conquered people becomes increasingly important. The religion need not be completely eradicated, mind you, it only needs to be removed from secular and sacred power, so the laws and will of the conquering people can be imposed on the defeated. With time, and the continued dominance of the invading culture, the religion will fade on its own, eventually being confined to oral or written books kept underground. This process transforms the religion from a sacred body into what is thought of as a mythology. This is what happened to the Aztecs, the Egyptians, many of the pagan traditions of Europe, indeed to a lot of old world religions. Contact with new cultures, and the ascent of the Roman Empire lead to warfare and forced conversions that would eventually allow for the dominance of one set of political and religious ideals. And the beliefs of the conquered were forced underground and into the moniker of “mythology.”

But aggression and war are not the only ways for religious beliefs to become mythology. I mentioned in an earlier essay that mythology evolves. As an anthropologist, evolution, be it of culture, knowledge or body, is the hallmark of human development. And much like our physical evolution required external stress to influence development, our cultural evolution is the same.

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