Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth — penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told. — Joseph Campbell
You live in a dark and uncertain time. You are watching the way of things, the world order you have always known begin to degrade, shift, corrupt. You see the flow of commerce move to new ports. Alliances crumble, new unimaginable threats to your way of life rear their head. The wealthy get even more affluent, and the poor are growing, both in number and in their weariness of putting up with it.
Infrastructure is on the decline, while political intrigue and power-brokering are on the rise. Old enemies return, and new ones are appearing all around you. Your once pristine cities are overrun with foreigners and immigrants. Wealth is consolidating, faith and belief dwindle.
Worst of all, your temples and churches are now beset by new temples, new churches!
The climate is in shift. Intrigue and corruption in business, government, and religion have led to the politicisation of everything. Pandemics are hitting home, filling people with uncertainty and fear.
You live, to paraphrase the old curse, in interesting times.
You are a citizen of the Roman Empire.
You were taught in word, culture, and custom that your civilisation and beliefs would last forever. You had no reason (until now) to believe otherwise.
And amid your declining empire, a new mythology is rearing its head. It’s a cult and a frightening one at that. Their followers have been persecuted and tormented for centuries, but now the tides are turning. In the centuries to come, the once-persecuted and suppressed Christian church will become the official church of Rome, and the old gods will become the side notes of history.
We’re not so very different
It would be easy to slough off the similarities between ancient Romans and ourselves as nothing more than coincidence or broad-stroke commonalities. Yet that would be both simplistic and disingenuous.
While technologically we are far out in front of those ancient Romans, mythologically we’re held in place by the imagery and symbols of our time just as they were by theirs.
Every culture has mythology, whether it is original or simply borrowed from previous cultures and transmuted to serve the purposes of its current host society. While many of us look at mythology as something historically academic or distantly primordial, the modern world is equally dependent on myth to guide itself.
Our stories and ideals shape us. While we may have abandoned the kinds of rituals familiar to the ancient Romans, we re-enact our myths all the time. Popular culture and media are the stages upon which we act out our mythology, much of it disseminated nowadays to the internet.
Movies, memes, graphic novels, fiction, music, and TV shows, all of this is a representation of our mythology. We tell and retell the same stories handed down to us dressed in new costumes, but fundamentally unchanged from antiquity.
The Hero or Saviour myth, the final battle of good against evil, these have turned into action films and TV series. Our ideas of a dualistic world, where one side is the ultimate good and the other the ultimate evil, are prevalent, especially in our approach to politics. Even the ideas of free will and an indivisible self, all are part of the mythology we have inherited in the West.
Yes, we are very much living out and reiterating our mythology. Yet like with those ancient Romans, we stand at a new era, a time when things are in flux. Will there be a new mythology for us?
Zoroaster and Dionysus: A Tale of Two New Mythologies
To answer this question, let’s first take a look at how Western civilisation’s mythologies came to be.
In his essay The Historical Development of Mythology, Joseph Campbell examines how we got where we are now. Campbell points to specific turning points in old mythologies, the result of which ultimately led to the birth of new and unexpected ones. These new and unexpected mythologies would flourish and go on to dominate much of the Western world, even to the present day.
Contrary to popular opinion, religious beliefs are rarely ‘stolen’ outright (as in ‘The Christians moved Christmas over the top of the Pagan winter festival’). In most cases, new myths and religions rises up from the fragments of an older one. This is not done intentionally, but simply the transmutation of what is known into what is emerging. Older ideas are incorporated into newer belief systems, and thereupon made new once more.
One need only look back at two elder belief systems and their profound impact on post-antiquity religions to see this in action.
Take first the case of Zoroaster. Zoroaster was a philosopher/prophet of the Indo-Iranian civilisation sometime in the 2nd millennium BC (no one is precisely sure when he lived).
The religious cosmology/mythology of his civilisation was a pantheon of gods in a timeless cosmos, where the gods are forever in battle, but invariably balanced in an unchanging universe. Humanity’s duty to the gods was sacrifice, prayer, and acceptance of the gods’ will, as did all the rest of creation. Ultimately, it was humanity’s duty to accept their fate and role in the cosmic battle and balance.
Zoroaster radically broke from this tradition. As legend goes, at the age of 30 Zoroaster was visited by the one true God, Ahura Mazda, the God of truth and light. Ahura Mazda told Zoroaster of the spirit of falsehood and darkness, Angra Mainyu, the existence of which was the source of all sin and misery in the world.
The prophesy stated there would eventually come a saviour who would lead the final battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The world and its wickedness would be destroyed, but from the ashes would arise a new golden age, when all of humanity would live in the glory of Ahura Mazda forever and ever.
Campbell points to Zoroaster’s revelation as one of the most significant turning points in human philosophy and religion. Zoroaster not only created the monotheist religious vision, but single-handedly cemented what is the eschatological foundations of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
Zoroaster was the first to teach the doctrines of an individual judgment, of Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body, the Last Judgment, and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body.
Many scholars believe that Zoroastrianism (the religion which would spring from Zoroaster’s prophesy) had a massive influence on the Jews exiled in Babylon. Concepts found in Zoroastrianism found fertile purchase in exiled Judaism, including the ideas of a Messiah, as well as the End Days when all the tribes of Judah would return to the temple.
It is not difficult to see how this vision of the universe then carried into Christianity and Islam. While the details of the Saviour and the Final Battle differ across religions, the fundamentals of this vision and mythology come right out of Zoroaster’s prophesy.
A new mythology was born.
The ancient Greeks had long considered Dionysus — the god of wine and harvest — as one of the pantheon of their gods. Yet it was the coming of Orphism — a religious sect in ancient Greece associated with the poet Orpheus — that Dionysus took on new importance.
Much of ancient Greece followed the state-sanctioned religious beliefs and practises of Hellenism, a polytheistic votive religion focused on the twelve primary gods of Olympus.
Like the old Indo-Iranian patheistic religion before Zoroaster, Hellenistic beliefs saw humanity as the extras on the stage of the gods. It was the duty of ancient Greek worshipers to accept their place of unimportance in the cosmic order. The gods did as they pleased, and humanity played little to no part in any of it, beyond dutiful worship.
By contrast, Orphism placed importance on only a very few gods, with Dionysus at the centre. Dionysus and Orphic religion came relatively late in Greek mythology. Orphism was thought to be a clear divergence from Helenistic religion in that it was as close to a monotheistic religion as could be found in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Orphic adherents sought to embody the spirit of Dionysus through the consumption of wine — the blood of Dionysus and the means to divine ecstasy. Orphics were known to consider bread and wine as divine foods, consumed in rituals and during sacred days of the god. According to Orphism, each worshiper could find a divine place for themselves through Dionysus, a major derivation from the older Greek religion.
According to Orphic traditions, Dionysus was born of Zeus (the king of the gods) and a mortal woman. Dionysus was later resurrected when he was killed and devoured by titans, but Zeus then resurrected him. Dionysus thus became associated with death and rebirth.
The primary festivals of Dionysian worship in ancient Greece were Dionysia, a harvest celebration held in late December to early January, and Anthestria, a springtime festival in which adherents celebrated the rebirth of the dead. Both makes sense, as winter festivals were often associated with a successful harvest, and spring festivals the world over are often associated with the defeat of death (winter) and the return of life (springtime). Dionysus — like many other pre-Abrahamic religious figures — was worshiped during such festivals.
With the passage of time and the transmission of world power from the Greek to the Roman Empire, so did the Orphic traditions and practises make their way into ancient Roman society. There, they were practised under the Roman god Bacchus. Divine name change notwithstanding, the practises of Orphism carried on in ancient Rome up to and into the coming of the early Christian church from the near east and into Europe.
It takes little to no imagination to see that there are clear similarities between Orphic Dionysus and Christian beliefs of Jesus. Early Christians saw a clear link between these traditions, and likely incorporated many aspects of Orphism into the new Christian belief system. Given that Greece and Rome were fertile grounds for the spread of the early Christian church, it is not hard to imagine that these two belief systems would have merged to a lesser or greater degree.
What had been a story of a Judean would-be prophet was transmuted in the early Christian church to one not dissimilar to Dionysus, a god-son associated with the divinity of bread and wine, celebrated in late December and early spring, a figure of death and rebirth which was promised to its followers if they only were devout in practises and belief.
Two belief systems — one older and one ascendant — led to another new mythology, one which would sweep the world for the next two thousand years.
Our Mythology Is Changing
Mythology, like civilization, is always on the move. While the changes may feel slow to the point of being at a standstill, the fact is, a changing world invariably leads to a changing mythology, and vice versa.
We are in such a time now. Our understanding of the world and the cosmos is rapidly mutating. Our beliefs, social norms, our comprehension of the world, the universe, and yes, of ourselves, is in flux as it hasn’t been in thousands of years.
We seek answers in a time which seems to offer few. The beliefs and ways of our grandparents feel like tired aphorisms of bygone days. And why wouldn’t they? We live in a connected age, a world which feels far in excess technological rather than spiritual. Science has exposed to us not only a deeper understanding of our world, but how the old beliefs no longer align with what we know to be true.
Intellectually, our post-modern understanding of the universe and ourselves may satisfy, but people are more than their intellects. There is a part of the human psyche which craves for meaning, something which all the technology in the world can never satisfy. When we speak of seeking a meaning of life, what in fact we are after is a sense of being alive, of truly being a part of our world and ourselves. This is meaning, and which is so often found in the transformative power of myth. What can be explained might satisfy our intellects, but it is what can’t be explained which we crave to find peace and contentedness.
The old worldviews no longer seem to satisfy as they once did. The myths of our forebears feel stagnant, lack the depth and understanding of our post-modern minds. This does not diminish our need for myth, even when considered from a purely Jungian perspective. Our psyches are hard-wired to assume key archetypes, primal imagery which guides us on our journey to self-awareness and wholeness.
So what are we to do? The old no longer satisfy, and yet what is to come next has yet to emerge, to be born.
We can choose — like so many regressive traditionalists — to turn back in fear, to force upon ourselves outdated ideals and mythologies. This amounts to little more than a repressive dark age, a violent refutation of the self-evidence of some new stage of our evolution. Will we once more allow ourselves to be cowered by fear and rigidity, or will we make room for the natural evolution of the next Renaissance, the new mythology to take its course? It is, in the end, inevitable, as progress can never be held back, no matter how much we try to do so. Much as we have done with our technology, now we can also do with our mythology. It is, at long last, time for us to collectively evolve.
Yet we recoil from such ideas — both personally and societally — such that we either belittle or screech angrily at the idea of an evolution of our myths. East, West, however you wish to slice up the civilisations of our species, the fact is we are on the brink of a new vision of ourselves in the world, and yet we pull back again and again from a precipice we fear to traverse.
Meaning is something we crave, but our lack of strength and zeal to seek this meaning is at the heart of our suffering. Mythology is a journey into seeking new meaning in the darkness, emerging back into our world with shared treasures for all people — specifically those which bring transformative meaning to our lives.
But we tarry at taking ourselves into any such dark places. We are frightened of the unknown, of the evils of the past, and of the strangely new, both in ourselves and in our societies. We are unwilling to let go of the old in favour of the new, a different and evolved vision of our purpose and meaning in the cosmos. This, of course, is the acme of irony. One can only move forward by taking the proverbial ‘leap of faith’, a letting go of an old ideal in favour of an unexpectedly new one. Our species is long overdue for such a fundamental epiphany.
How can one let go of the old? Stagnant and dissatisfying as it may be, our outdated mythologies give us comfort in a time of fear and change. A new mythology requires sacrifice, humility, transformation, and compassion. It is the history of our species that such transformations are rarely greeted with anything but animosity…at first. Changes in the mythology invariably encounter violent, regressive opposition, especially from the most fearful of our kind. It is a slow process, like the mitosis of memetic cells spreading across the minds of billions. Yet it is happening in millions of places, in millions of ways. The new mythology, like the new mythologies of yesteryear, begins as a whisper, a new vision espoused by the few, but in time embraced by the whole.
As with those ancient Romans, we are civilisations in rapid decline. Technologically, we’re well and truly forging ahead, but no societies are made of their technologies alone. Our old beliefs and social mores, our religions and eschatological vision of the world are tired nightmares which take us nowhere. There is no longer room for the Great Good against the Great Evil. We are penned on all sides by one another, a species divided from itself and our world, clinging to dead philosophies written in our ignorant and ignominious past. We are long overdue to abandon our old ways in favour of new ones, even if we are yet to understand what those new ways will be .
Soon enough, our old philosophies will be little more than chapters in history books. We must decide if we will ignorantly follow those old mythologies to their destructive and repressive ends, or abandon them and look to a new ideal, one which incorporates a better, more sustainable vision of tomorrow.
Something new and unexpected is coming. A new mythology is emerging before our very eyes.
If you look closely, you can catch it in the subtlest of ways…