Myths are a vital source of information for us about the attributes and activities of our Gods. We can hardly say that they are mere stories, even if we think that they have something less than the status accorded to the sacred texts of the Abrahamic traditions, for instance. But our traditions are very diverse indeed, and there are texts among some of our traditions that have a status scarcely less than this, at any rate. We, too, are ‘people of the book’—only we have many, many books, as well as oral traditions, and rituals, which are another way of encoding information. Nor do these exhaust the ways in which our traditions are embodied.
Even if we do not accord a status to myths equivalent to that of revealed texts, however, we must recognize that insofar as they are authorless, as is said of the sacred texts of the Hindu tradition (the Sanskrit term is apauruṣeya, literally, ‘impersonal’), they cannot merely be grasped in the same fashion as the work of a single discrete human author, that is, they cannot be approached as mere literature. At a minimum, they are works embodying a collective spirit of devotion to our Gods, a product of generation upon generation of experience of Them, and the infrastructure around which entire civilizations formed themselves. Just by virtue of this infrastructural status, a myth cannot be reduced to a single authoritative interpretation, because it is in the very acts of interpreting and applying myths that these civilizations formed themselves, and every formation, every institution, incorporates such interpretations. So the purpose of such interpretation could never be to reach closure, even if our approach to myth was wholly mundane, for even such a mundane approach would have to recognize the generative nature of interpretation.
A fortiori, then, if as some polytheistic thinkers have affirmed, the myths are the eternal and continuous action of the Gods Themselves forming, not merely culture, civilization, but the very cosmos itself, not once upon a time, but forever now, there could be no question of arriving at a final, authoritative interpretation of a myth because our intellectual and devotional engagement with myths is itself part of the life of the cosmos. In our effort to understand a myth, we close a circuit of divine action, a circuit in which the Gods have sown meaning into the cosmos which fructifies through us, through our recognition and understanding of it, and our application of it to our lives on every plane, devotional, intellectual, ethical, corporeal.
Insofar as myth is not only a token of the Gods’ action constitutive of the cosmos, but also an active and effective instrument in that very process, there not only can be, but must be interpretations of a myth corresponding to every plane of formation of the cosmos. And so the most important principle of mythological hermeneutics is not to use interpretation to foreclose other interpretations, but to stimulate and to foster them, as the best interpretations nourish the possibility of others.
The poorest interpretation, therefore, is not one which reads a myth within a narrow scope, for example, as being the charter for a specific, concrete ritual action, but one which shuts down other interpretations by a harmful literalism. This is particularly harmful when it directly impinges upon the agency of the Gods Themselves, either by reducing them to mere types, on the one hand, or to beings subject to weaknesses that we would regard as flaws even in our fellow mortals. Our fellow mortals suffer from every sort of burden and handicap that excuse to varying degrees their vices, and that make their virtues shine all the brighter in consideration. How strange, indeed, if the Gods, without these handicaps, could not overcome these same vices, and how much worse than ourselves it would render Them. This is why none of our ancient traditions would have accepted the characterization of their Gods as ‘imperfect’ or ‘flawed’.
Where the myths appear to depict the Gods as flawed, therefore, we must understand that there are ways of interpreting these myths that restore to the Gods Their freedom of action. And this, indeed, is how we must see it, because in making the Gods slaves to petty emotions, 1 we limit Their agency every bit as much as if we regarded Them as mere types or mechanisms. In interpreting Them thus, of course, we do not harm Them, but only ourselves, and those we might persuade to see Them likewise, introducing obstacles into the path of devotion. There is a place for anthropomorphizing the Gods, that is, for seeing Them in our own image, but only insofar as it facilitates Their action on behalf of the cosmos, because otherwise, what is the point of even engaging with Them? Similarly, there is a place for speaking about a God’s ‘role’ or ‘function’, in order to facilitate engagement with Her, especially at its inception, but we must discard these notions to the degree that they would restrict that engagement.
With this primary principle in mind, therefore, that the interpretation of myth has its excellence in facilitating the cosmogonic activity of the Gods Themselves, I would like to briefly present three concrete techniques for mythological exegesis, drawn from the works of the ancient Platonists (notably Olympiodorus) which I intend to follow up in future columns with examples of their application to actual myths. 2
- Eternalizing process
The sequence of the mythic narrative is from an apparent ‘earlier’ to an apparent ‘later’ moment in time. In order to free the Gods to be the agents constituting time, rather than subordinating Them to it, we interpret the myth as a static index, not in time or horizontally, as it were, but vertically, between simultaneous states of being.
- Equalizing relations
Mythic narrative involves many relations in which one God is active and another is passive. To free the Gods to be the agents constituting these relations, rather than subordinate to them as a preexisting nature, and to be equally constituting agents of those relations, rather than the ‘active’ God being more constitutive than the ‘passive’ God in the mythic conjunction, we interpret every event in the myth as the product of the will of every God.
- Conflict as Conflicting Goods To free the maximum cosmogonic potential of each God, we interpret conflicts between Gods not privatively, as conflicts of good and evil, or between goodness and its lack or absence, but as conflicts between goods which are divergent within the cosmos or for us.
The purpose of these hermeneutic principles is in each case not to deny the reality of the corresponding forms of limitation—limitation by temporal sequence, limitation by relation, limitation by conflict—but precisely to secure the reality of these phenomena by granting them constitution by the Gods Themselves, whereas if we were merely to subject the Gods to these limitations, these limiting factors would themselves lack any clear existential foundation; and it would be this condition that would most likely induce us to regard these phenomena as illusory.
- Note that I do not speak here of emotions that, to borrow some terminology from Spinoza—without necessarily importing all of the metaphysics that comes with it—increase, rather than decrease, the God’s power of action. There are sufferings of the Gods, for example, the power of which open entire domains of experience. ↩
- For a fuller account of this method, see “The Theological Interpretation of Myth,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 7.1 (May 2005), pp. 27-41 (reprinted in Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion (New York City: Phaidra Editions, 2014). ↩