SKEPTICISM AND MYTHS

Skepticism regarding myths and their gods date back to the sixth century BCE – in Greece!
 

The presocratic philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon was one of the first Greeks to question the anthropomorphism of the gods, saying that:

 

… if cattle and horses and lions had hands

or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do,

horses like horses and cattle like cattle

also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies

of such a sort as the form they themselves have.

 

Therefore, according to him, humans have merely projected their own qualities – whether good or bad – onto their deities. Homer’s and Hesiod’s renditions of the gods as adulteres and deceivers were also offensive to him: the gods were supposed to be virtuous in all manner of things and possess exemplary behaviour.

Theagenes of Rhegion was another 6th-century philosopher who delved into the structure of myths. Apparently, the portrayal of gods in Homer and Hesiod impressed him negatively as well. He claimed that people should understand offensive mythological narratives not literally but allegorically. Take for example the description of the Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad. The internal strife among gods should be interpreted as a strife of natural elements: dry wars with moist, heat with cold, etc.
Palaephatos is responsible for codifying the first rationalistic approach to understanding myths (On Unbelievable Tales) back in the 4th century BCE. He defended the idea that if something does not exist in his own day, it did not exist in the past either. For example, centaurs were not seen wandering in 4th-century Greece. Therefore, one should come to the conclusion that they never existed at all. In his text On Incredible Tales, he gives us another example of his rational approach towards myths:
The story about Callisto is that while she was out hunting she turned into a bear. What I maintain is that she too during a hunt found her way into a grove of trees where a bear happened to be and was devoured. Her hunting companions saw her going into the grove, but not coming out; they said that the girl turned into a bear.
As Hansen points out, “the allegorism of Theagenes and the rationalism of Palaephatos represent two basic approaches to the interpretation of mythology. They represent a middle way between a literal acceptance of mythological tradition and a wholesale rejection of it.”
Interestingly enough, these two approaches would be responsible for the survival of myth until our days. Myth as allegory, in particular, has acquired enormous popularity since Fulgentius in the 5th century AD. More recentlty, Freud and Jung have also capitalised on the view of myth as allegory to illustrate and support their psychological theories.

For more on the topic, read these other posts:

THE BEGINNINGS OF SCIENCE

CHARACTER IS FATE

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The 5th element 

If the planks of a boat were replaced through time, would the boat still be the same boat when all the planking had been replaced? (The Delphic Oracle)

In an attempt to explain and understand the world around us, science has developed an approach or methodology to shed light on issues which, otherwise, would still belong to the realms of the inexplicable due to their intricacy and complexity. In other words, by reducing elaborate interactions in the universe to essential and more basic mechanisms, science manages to give us a reasonable explanation about how the universe works. This approach or methodology is called Reductionism. A simple definition from Wikipedia:

Reductionism can mean either (a) an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things or (b) a philosophical position that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts, and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of individual constituents.

Some examples: All chemical elements in the universe are made of the same sub-atomic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons (scientists have also discovered that these particles are formed by even smaller ones, such as quarks and bosons); earthquakes have their origin in simple ruptures in the rocky layer of our planet; the colour of our eyes is determined by genes which are passed from generation to generation. Reduction, as we can see, has provided humankind with precious insights on how things work and why.

However, while some people argue in favour of reductionism, others are fiercely critical. Holists – as the latter are called – say reductionists have transformed glorious sunsets into wave lengths and frequencies, cathedrals into layers of mortar and bricks. Holists accuse reductionists of interfering too much in areas beyond physics and other sciences by giving explanations to events that cannot be explained by particle interactions, frequencies and chemistry/physics laws. They even say that just like an ideology based on a religious doctrine, reductionists also tap into an ideology: one which is based on materialism (Broad, 2006).

Water is composed of one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen. Taken isolated, a molecule of water displays few distinctive characteristics. However, when trillions of them are together, incredible things may – and usually – happen: rivers, oceans, floods, storms, clouds, mist, ice, snow, etc. In other words, water contains other elements far beyond its molecule. Its properties and characteristics far exceed those of its molecule. Our brain cells, synapses and electrical impulses also say very little about the myriad of thoughts we have and the decisions we make each day; or the words we utter in order to compliment, express feelings of love or anger.

So, if you haven’t yet thought of an answer for the question at the beginning of this post, now is the time. Your answer will reveal if you tend to be a reductionist or if you have a more holistic view of the world around you. Is the essence and “soul” of the boat more than the sum of its parts?

Curiously, it was the Greeks who first reduced nature’s foundations into mere 5 elements: earth, air, fire, water and aether (Aristotle, c. 350 BCE).

Reference:

Broad, William J. The Oracle: The Lost Secrets And Hidden Message Of Ancient Greece. 2006

A trip down memory lane 

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Let’s jog our memories

In Greece, an early form of ideographic characters – Linear A – was developed by 1750 BCE when the Minoans inhabited the region. Around 1400 BCE, the Mycenaeans (who conquered the Minoans) adapted this primitive script into what is called Linear B. When Greece fell into the Dark Ages (1100 – 800 BCE), no evidence of the use of writing is found.

We take writing for granted nowadays so trying to fathom how life must have been without any kind of written records is a tough call. The oral tradition was so important to those primeval Greeks that there even was a goddess dedicated to memory: Mnemosyne. As Vernant (1983) points out, memory is an elaborate function in our brains and is interconnected to psychological aspects, such as our perception of time and the self.Mnemosyne also presides over poetry. Indeed, before the advent of writing, poems and verses were an ingenious way to make information available to everyone, from generation to generation. Knowing and remembering required no disambiguation at the time. And in those days, poets’ creations were centred in the past, depicting facts belonging to the Heroic Age or even beyond that – the time when the universe was created.

Evoking the past brings what no longer exists back to life. Our memory is then responsible for breaking the barrier separating present and past and for bridging the gap between the world of the living and the world of the dead. A descent to Hades (home of the dead) in order to learn and become better-informed. And Mnemosyne bestows on those willing to take the trip down this memory lane the privilege of coming back to Earth (home of the living) safe and sound.

In the oracle of Labadaea, for example, consultants were invited to take a harrowing trip to a chamber that would connect them to the underworld. Those who had journeyed into the world of the dead were taken to two springs called Mnemosyne (memory) and Lethe (forgetfulness). By drinking the waters from the first spring, they would retain in their memory everything they had experienced and learnt. On the other hand, by drinking from the second spring, not only would they forget all they had seen in the underworld but also what they had experienced in their lives on Earth.

Forgetfulness is seen as a deadly water in this account. Death is then defined as not being able to retrieve our memories.
In Plato’s Republic the same theme appears in the description of an arid plain called Lethe where the souls of the deceased awaited for their next incarnation. Plato tells us of the River Ameles from which waters thirsty souls would quench their thirst but forget everything in their memories as a consequence. In order to break free from the continuous cycle of incarnations, souls should drink from the Lake of Memory in order to retain all their experiences from past lives in their memory and become immortal.

Indeed, those who lose the ability to recall events from memory due to an illness or old age seem to live in a sort of psychological vegetative state. Unable to bridge their past and their present, they cannot reflect upon their lives, ponder their actions, learn with their mistakes, come to conclusions and plan for the future. In short, losing their individualities and halting the mental processes responsible for their individuation.

Plato and Pythagoras before him waxed euphoric about the importance of exercising the memory. Pythagoreans were supposed to conduct a minute anamnesis of their day, every day so as to exercise and harness their memory. They believed that exercising their memory was a sort of purification to bring spiritual relieve. Pythagoras was said to have the power to recall even his past lives!

And it is sort of funny how little do we jog our memory nowadays. In an age when additions and multiplications are easily made by a calculator, our friends’ birthdays are conveniently displayed on a computer screen, pictures have captions, social networks display trivial details of our recent and distant past for everybody to pry on, we don’t need to commit a lot of information to memory. Would it be a sign that we are all dead already?

Reference
Vernant, J.B. Mythe et pensée chez les Grecs: Etudes de psychologie historique (Paris), 1965

The Greek Big Bang

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Where’s Uranus?

Greek mythology contains several accounts of the cosmogenesis or the creation of the universe. Such stories give us the key to understand how the Greeks explained the creation of our world as well as the start of life on the planet before the advent of philosophy and science. These tales also throw some light on the background to the birth of some of the gods, goddesses and fantastic creatures who abound in the Greek myths.

Hesiod tells us in his Theogony (circa 700 BCE) that right after Gaia (the earth) brought Uranus (the star-studded heaven) forth, they started making love and the earliest races of creatures that inhabited the Earth were born: the hecatonchires, monsters with 50 heads and 100 arms; the cyclopes, a race of one-eyed giants who were skilled in metalworking; the titans, who became the rulers of Earth and gave birth to a myriad of other gods and goddesses. The most important titan was by far Cronus (1), who defeated Uranus and fathered most of the deities of Mount Olympus, as we shall see.

In an apparent endless copula with Gaia (a dark male-fantasy impulse?), Uranus would impregnate her many times but make it impossible for his offspring to leave their mother’s interior (2). One day, Cronus was encouraged by his mother to put an end to that torment and he castrated Uranus with a scythe. In pain, Uranus disengages from Gaia and all their children were free at last. Time passes by and now an adult and married Cronus is told he would suffer a fate similar to that of his father. As a result, Cronus would swallow each and every child born to his sister/wife Rhea (another titan) as soon as they were delivered. Zeus would have been swallowed if Rhea hadn’t tricked Cronus by giving him a stone instead of her baby. Later, Zeus took revenge of his father and made him vomit all his children. After that, a full-scale war between Zeus and his siblings (Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Hestia and Demeter) against the titans began. The war came to an end only with the help of the cyclopes and the hecatonchires, who fought alongside Zeus and his siblings. Zeus’ mighty lightning was said to have been forged by the cyclopes.

What is interesting about this story is the fact that Uranus is depicted as fuelling an irrational hatred for his creations and kept them well-hidden. And this is a quality that makes him completely different from other sky deities. All other sky gods, in all other mythologies, are stricto sensu creators: they are responsible for the genesis of the universe: the earth, the stars, the animals, the trees, the human beings and even other gods and goddesses. Uranus is an exception and his mutilation brings his sterile and pointless fertility to an end. After him, life finally had a chance to express itself and fully develop.

But why is it that the Greek creator god would not allow its creations’ full expression?

Uranus has to be seen as Gaia’s consort only. She is the great deity holding all attributes related to procreation and fertility. Uranus is no more than an agent who plays a secondary role: that of fecundating a female deity so as to help her generate life. Hesiod tell us of Gaia creating Uranus, so she is the primal creator. Interestingly enough, the most probable etymology of the god’s name is the “rainmaker” or the “fertiliser”. Therefore, his attributes put him closer to other mythological gods such as the Sumerian Marduk, the Hindu Paryanya and the Norse Thor (all of them associated with lightning, thunder and storms) whose primary role is to fertilise a superior female deity.

For life to “emerge”, favourable conditions had to be established: Uranus’ disengagement from Gaia creates a physical space and the right conditions for life to develop. A hostile and oppressive atmosphere no longer exists and the earth can finally bear life. Psychology-wise, Gaia and Uranus are very representative of the differences in the roles played by the mother and the father in the raising of children. The mother is usually the one who is constantly present and close to her children, nurturing them and offering unconditional love and support. The father, on the other hand, assumes a more distant role in the upbringing most of the times, in most households. And often times, the male parent represents the overbearing power of authority which limits their offspring’s full expression.

Food for thought:
If the earth, the sky and the stars were together, doesn’t it mean that the universe was in a condensed and dense state and for life to be generated, the earth and the heavens had to be separated/expanded? The expansion of the universe! Any resemblance to any modern cosmological model to explain the origins of the universe may be mere coincidence.