Scholars of Mythology by Barbara Ardinger 


Barbara ArdingerHere’s how my mind leaps around. I was mooning about and trying to figure out what I wanted to write for this blog when I picked up one of the books in the stack at the other end of the couch. I bought The Mythology of Eden by Arthur George and Elena George because I’d read the thoughtful review by Judith Laura, a Goddess scholar I know and respect.

In their introduction, the Georges present a paragraph by biblical scholar Millar Burrows that explains that myth is:

a symbolic, approximate expression of truth which the human mind cannot perceive sharply and completely, but can only glimpse vaguely, and therefore cannot adequately or accurately express. … It implies not falsehood, but truth; not primitive, naïve misunderstanding, but insight more profound than scientific description and logical analysis can ever achieve. The language of myth in this sense is consciously inadequate, being simply the nearest we can come to a formulation of what we can see very darkly. … The procedure is quite legitimate if [we] understand what is being done (p. xii). (Burrows’ book is An Outline of Biblical Theology, published in 1946.)

Mind leap: Wow, I said to myself, does this describe the revisionist fairy tales I write? I try to see through that dark glass more clearly and recast old ideas in new ways. (I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious. I don’t mean it to.)

Mind leap: And, I further said to myself, we scholars who write for Feminism and Religion often write about myth, though we don’t always acknowledge that our religious stories are indeed myths. It’s like the old joke—“If I believe it, it’s religion. If you (or they) believe it, it’s myth.” Even though we sometimes call our myths the inerrant word of this god or that goddess, the stories in all of our holy books are our instructive myths. Read Burrows’ definition again.

Mind leap: Back around the turn of the century when I was writing Pagan Every Day, a daybook published in 2006 that is not just about Pagans but pretty much inclusive of myths and religions and their holy days around the world, I couldn’t find a ancient Greek, Roman, or Norse festival that fell on December 7. Aha! I finally said to myself—how about scholars of mythology? The authors of books we’ve been reading all our lives. Here’s what I wrote:

The primary sources of the mythologies we know are written in dead languages—Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Latin, 13th century Icelandic, etc. Linguists can read these languages, but you and I depend on secondary sources, which are the translations, interpretations, and commentaries. The great age of scholarship in mythology lasted from about 1850 until about 1950.

Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867) was an American writer whose Age of Fable, published in 1855, retells the myths, legends, and stories of Charlemagne, King Arthur, and the Greco-Roman gods and heroes. It is the first significant American book of mythology.

Sir James Frazer (1854–1941) was a Scottish social anthropologist who traveled widely in Greece and Rome. His most famous work is The Golden Bough, originally written in 1890. The third edition (completed in 1936) runs to thirteen volumes. Although in many ways outdated, it remains popular.

Edith Hamilton (1867–1963) was a classicist whose most famous books, The Greek Way (1930) and Mythology (1942), are still in print. Hamilton was born in Germany and grew up in Indiana; she and her sister were the first female students accepted at German universities. Her books are based not on archaeology but on a love of the classics and the daily life of olden times.

Robert Graves (1895–1985) was a prolific scholar and novelist. The PBS mini-series, I, Claudius, is based on his work. Graves is best known to pagans as the author of The White Goddess (1948)—neither history nor herstory, neither theology nor thealogy—in which he invents the “capricious and all-powerful Threefold Goddess.” The Greek Myths was published in 1955.

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) is best known for The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) and his interpretations of mythology as given in the PBS series, The Power of Myth (first broadcast in 1988).

When Bulfinch, et al., were doing their work, myth was considered to be primitive, mere fiction. (See that old joke again.) Nowadays, scholars are seeing basic and perhaps eternal truths in the stories in our holy books. They’re also seeing that the contents of holy books are truly stories.

Mind leap: And we’re still making myths today. I’m a big fan of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. I looked at my bookshelves again. One Frog Can Make a Difference.  Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life. I bet the Muppet universe has a mythology, too. Jim Henson as their creator god. Here’s what I wrote in Pagan Every Day about Miss Piggy. It includes my favorite pun in the whole book. Read it and laugh. Or groan.

The Goddess Of Everything hurled herself into the world in the first episode of The Muppet Show, September 27, 1976. She had a supporting role at first, as an astronaut (porkonaut?) in “Pigs in Space,” but then … well … she and Kermit fell in love. She demanded more lines, bullied the guest stars. Soon we witnessed a satined, sequined theophany. Excuse me. Theaphany. Starring in five seasons of The Muppet Show and five Muppet movies, she ascended in purple-gloved glory to the heavens of the Muppet pantheon. Who can forget the Busby Berkleyesque underwater ballet sequence in The Great Muppet Caper where The Pig rises in perfect balance atop the fountain of life? It’s a porcine apotheosis.

And then she ventured into epigraphy: she wrote a book. We pray to our goddesses to help us live our lives more happily. Like the oracles and sibyls of old, The Pig pronounces words of wisdom. Her Guide to Life tells us everything we will ever need to know about beauty, fashion, finance, manners, romance, success, and other vital topics. Do we think we’re ugly? “Not everyone can be a superstar,” Miss Piggy says, “but anyone can be a semistar, a starette, or a teensyweensystar.”

Our goddesses attend to our emotional needs. Henson knows, life in the 21st century is not easy. “Misery loves timpani,” The Pig writes: “If your depression is particularly acute, you may be able to deglumify things a bit with some upbeat music. But if you like classical music—as moi does—do be careful: even the most sprightly, toe-tapping symphonies have at least one grouchy movement filled with oboes, doldrums, and bassinets.”

There’s no one like The Pig. Aggressive and winsome at the same time, she loves her Kermie. Maybe she’s the reason it’s not easy being green….

 Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

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Categories: General, Goddess Spirituality, Myth, Paganism

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9 replies

  1. There’s nothing quite like mythology! It speaks to us in ways that other forms of writing just cannot accomplish. I find this (“truth” coming to us in the form of story/mythology) one of the hardest things for many people to grasp. Thanks for this post, Barbara, not just reminding us of the scholars of mythology, but showing us that no story is “set.” Religion, made of stories, is always transforming. Loved reading about Miss Piggy.

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  2. in which he [Graves] invents the “capricious and all-powerful Threefold Goddess.”

    It is still not recognized that the maiden, mother, crone are pretty much his invention. Gimbutas does speak of birth, death, and regeneration, but these are not personified as human females primarily, and they are not the same thing as Graves’s three. Yet so many believe that Graves’s three are the faces of the Goddess. Problematically, Graves encouraged Goddess feminists to believe that the Goddess is “about” three stages of human women’s lives, as if there were only three, as if we all followed the same paths, and worse, as if “the Goddess” is “all about our human lives.”

    Worse still, Graves imagined the “capricious and all-powerful” Goddess who slays her son-lover. He felt he was slain by the White Goddess, the Muse of Poetry. My Muse does not desire to kill me (maybe my ego was never big enough to need to be slain) and my Goddess is not violent (though I believe death is real). Graves apparently liked human women to “beat him into submission.” That’s not my Goddess either. So why does anyone look to Graves to tell us who the Goddess is?

    Or to Campbell for that matter who saw the Goddess as the beginning and end of the hero’s journey (a motif echoed in Wicca) but not as a traveler or heroine in her own right.

    I rest my case.

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  3. I would suggest one more jump–back to the turn of the 18th/19th century: Friedrich Schelling. Most of his work only became available in English this century and Steinkamp’s translation of Clara is as good a place as any to start. Ernst Benz’s summary of Schelling (Theogony and the Transformation of Man) in one of the Bollingen series edited by Campbell remains vital (in my opinion) to understanding his thought.

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  4. To answer your first mindleap – YES! I do believe that much of the revisionist fairy tales, fiction, and other such writing that comes out of the feminist spirituality and religion community is “mythmaking” in this very deep and “truthful” sense. Our lives reflect commonalities with all humans who have ever lived, but also the unique insights, challenges, and wisdom that come from living in our own time and place. I believe that one of our tasks as a community is to give voice to those inner truths that we hold and that our world needs to hear and “mythmaking” is one of the most effective ways to do that.

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  5. On recommended scholars of mythology — I was startled and profoundly intrigued by a book by Sherry L. Ackerman (2008) titled, “Behind the Looking Glass,” and which posits Alice and allegory as a “delivery mechanism for higher spiritual teachings.”

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  6. Thank you for another delightful and informative post. Many people in modern times are lacking in an understanding of mythic and poetic truth. The fundamentalist approach insists that something is literally true or its false. That can be dangerous when applied to any religious text. People need to tell stories to make meaning. Miss Piggy is a splendid example of an an imaginative character who takes on her own life, rich with mytho-poetic truth–that no one has to take literally or fight a war over.

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  7. Someone, a writer, once told me that the deepest truths can only be explored through story. I think many in the West have lost appreciation of myth/story and, as Elizabeth mentioned above, have turned wonderful stories into meaningless fundamentalism.

    So thank you for again reminding me of the marvels of a good story, and of the grand Muppets, my favourite characters!

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