Joseph Campbell, who became the most famous scholar of world religions, because of his book, The Power of Myth.
In his studies of world religions over his long career, Campbell discovered powerful and often repeated ideas that imbue all the religious traditions of the world. He found that the stories we call myths were at one time, or is still, a part of all religions and represents attempts to answer pretty much the same fundamental questions. What makes these myths powerful is that they are so basic to all human questing. And if we look at the religions around the world we, too, will find a plethora, a wealth of deities, gods and goddesses and spirits who have been and still are part of serious religious expressions.
It helps to remember that the only thing that separates a myth from a mainline religion today is time. These myths are humanity’s earliest attempts to explain how the world came into existence, why there are people and all other manner of life, why bad and sad and glad things happen, why people act the way they do. We are still trying to answer those questions, and while there are some pretty good answers these days, we know that not everyone accepts them. We are still having in this relatively well educated country and even with all our media and science-raging debates about whether evolution or the Genesis creation story got us all here today.
We are living in a world that is still filled with mythological stories, with gods and goddesses, and we are still seeking those basic answers to the same basic questions. How did we get here? Why are we here? What are we supposed to do? Is this all there is?
Myth is most often nowadays used to mean a story that is not true, but in the study of world religions the term means something else entirely. Myth means both old and part of serious religious beliefs or expression, however incorrect the details may seem to us. Myth is about the metaphors of the spiritual seeking of all peoples, including our own.
Myths were first developed out of the simple stories that conveyed on the metaphorical level what people of a given time believed to be true. For instance, the ancient Greeks believed the gods lived at the heights of Mount Olympus, just as many people today believe God is in Heaven.
As a people evolved, so did their stories, and out of the storytelling that is innate in human beings, stories grew about hero-figures, or creatures with superhuman powers. Legends developed as well, such as the story of Paul Bunyan. A legend is usually based in some historical fact. Undoubtedly there was a man of unusual size and strength in the great north woods, and as the stories about him were told and retold, the legend developed. Like the proverbial fish stories, with the fish getting longer with each recounting of the fishing expedition.
Most myths and legends are about the struggles of humanity to survive and get along, and to deal with the problems of evil. So, most of the gods and goddesses are seen as divine figures who helped in the grappling with these problems, or caused the problems.
As Joseph Campbell understood, these myths, and the gods and goddesses of the myths, often bear striking similarities. And the closer cultures are in proximity, the more the religious stories and practices are alike. As the English writer on world myths, John Bailey wrote:
The story of God becoming angry with the evil in the world and sending a flood to wipe out occurs in the traditions of the Greeks, the Sumerians, the Jews, the Hindus, and the Chinese. In other ways, however, the stories differ sharply from each other. The Creation stories, for example, usually include the geographical features of their country of origin: the Scandinavian story of Odin is set among ice and rocks, whereas the Australian story of the rainbow snake tells of a hot, dry land where water was scarce.
What strikes me most is that all cultures have developed these religious beliefs and stories that support them, so at least we can say there is some impulse in human beings toward making meaning, and what we generally call spirituality and religion.
And all religions that are known come to some understanding of ultimate reality usually defined in the western world as God; such deities are a connection of human myth making as well.
As we look back through the veils of mythology, and with the aid of modern archeology, there is a lot to learn about the deities of the world. Deities always possess powers that we humans wish we had, or power we wish we had more control over.
It is well established in this archeological record that the earliest deities were some variant of the Mother Earth goddess. Around the globe in the most ancient sites of human society these usually small clay goddesses, with their large bellies and breasts often with no head or feet, just torso emphasizing the fruitful parts are found at hearths, making them house goddesses as well as tribal or cultural deities. It makes sense if we consider that to these primitive ancestors of ours, childbirth was probably the most miraculous thing they saw, then the birth of plants, the birth of the sun each day, the moon and stars at night, as it may have seemed to them. The sense that the earth itself was a great mother. Even today, Catholics celebrate and honor the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.
When the followers of Moses came to the land of Canaan they set about destroying the sites of the goddess Astarte, or Asherah, which dominated the land. They then established Yahweh as the only god. So, up until the time of the great pharaohs and the establishment of Israel some 5000 years ago, multiple deities reigned around the world.
I mention the pharaohs first, because there is good evidence that Ankhaten introduced the first concept of monotheism to Egypt, which was Ra, the sun god. A stele found in Egypt makes a mention of Israel as a slave group-there were many such groups-and religion scholars generally agree that a figure like Moses, or Moses, did in fact carry the concept of monotheism to the area of Canaan, now known as Israel.
For far longer that the world has had monotheism, though, the world was filled with gods and goddesses and spirits who were credited with every aspect of human concern. What is often hard for us to remember in these times is that these myths lived in a great oral tradition, handed down by word of mouth for hundreds or even thousands of years before they were ever written down. They were pre-science, before people began to think of using any scientific method. Still, as Bailey suggests, they tell us much about the way of life of early humanity, about human hopes and fears, and the answers human beings gave to the question of the meaning of life.
I have tried to contain the multitude of deities into a few main groupings, the first dealing with creation myths, the second with good and evil, and the third dealing with society through heroes and prophets.
In the creation myths, most have some spirit force or creature that exists. In Polynesia it was believed that Narreau the Elder sat alone in darkness, needing no sustenance; but over a long time, Narreau began to transform until he became two. The elder Narreau disappears into the mist and the younger Narreau sets about separating the earth from the sky and light from darkness; then all the creatures emerge into the earth by his magical powers. His final act was to plant a tree, which bore the fruit of human beings. Then setting the universe in motion, Narreau the younger fades into the mist of the first sunrise, leaving some little bits of his spirit in the world.
The Australian aborigines see creation as beginning with a supreme spirit who creates a great rainbow snake out of which he pulls all the elements of the world.
Nyame, the sky god of a western African tribe, lived alone in space. One day he took a basket and filled it with plants and animals and all manners of birds and insects then made a trapdoor and climbed down. The basket is the earth-the trapdoor and holes are the moon and stars. At this time there were spirit people living inside Nyame, and they climbed to look out his eyes and fell down through the trapdoor and landed on earth.
And on and on. There are as many creations and creators as there are have been peoples of the earth. Then the myths deal with the problems of good and evil. For the Judeo-Christian traditions there is the story of the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit of the tree of life, also the story of Noah.
The last category is Heroes and Prophets, those humans the gods and goddesses use to do their work, to be their spokespersons, as it were, that is to say, there was a time when slavery was an accepted practice around the world with very few exceptions, and the myths supported these practices, even those of our Judeo-Christian traditions. But as people have continued to evolve as social beings, we have come to accept that there are better ways, and so religious traditions have changed along the way. As we still see, though, such change is not easy, and takes a long time.
So many of the religious traditions and practices of today will one day fade into that mist of myth, but we will through the stories continue to be a world of many deities. We can only hope that the gods and goddesses and spirits of humanity will move us to do better and kinder things for each other and for the world.