Myth and Religion

There is a habit in certain corners of Heathendom—most often in /r/asatru, of the groups that I’ve joined—to decry the mixing of myth and religion. It comes up whenever someone, for example, asks how a particular story relates to the world around us. Almost invariably the response is unqualified and used to stop discussion.

Sometimes it’s just a simple statement:

Don’t confuse Mythology for religion.

Other times it’s buried with other things in a list:

3) Don’t confuse mythology with religion.

Perhaps it’s at the end of several paragraphs:

And stop confusing myth for religion.

And occasionally it’s given additional details that border on being useful:

You confuse Mythology with Religion

This is actually something that is very common in Heathenry, particularly with newer heathens. The Myths do have information, but they are not scripture. It helps to understand that the myths are born from ritual, they do not create ritual. With that in mind, you can reconstruct ritual from myth, but the cause and effect cycle must be understood or you will not make the best choices in your reconstruction.

There’s a singular issue with this: a religion without myth is no religion at all. Myth is an integral part. It informs us of so much. It preserves information. It provides reasoning for things. It gives context for things elsewhere within the religion. To lose one’s mythology is to lose one’s culture. The very people who complain incorrectly are also people who simultaneously mourn over the lack of information—practices, beliefs, rituals, and more—that has survived the centuries.

A person cannot necessarily say that all myths are not divinely inspired. It is a certainty that at least a portion—indeed, a probable, vast majority—of the tales originates from man. But to deny that the gods may have pushed some information onto us is a short step away from saying that the gods simply don’t provide anything at all. (As annoying as it is to make a slippery slope argument.) I have met many people who have claimed to have been told something or helped by a non-human entity in some manner. Perhaps they’re all insane, but this is an alternative that brooks no trust in the community.

My own favourite story to mention regards Óðinn’s missing eye in Norse mythology. So he gave up his eye for knowledge, but, according to some, this is just a story with no additional value. He’s just missing an eye then, although this could be stretched further to say that no myths mean that we know nothing about his description at all. Wouldn’t you want to know more? I certainly would. Perhaps there was a sacrifice of an eye, as the story goes. Perhaps it’s a reference to a ritual that existed in forgotten times, as seemingly excessive as that appears. Perhaps it’s an allegory for what one may need to give up in order to achieve one’s goals. Or perhaps it’s a mixture of the three. Regardless of the source(s), a myth has its value.

Myth is not a separable thing. It is not fully distinct from ritual, theology, and morality. All portions of a religion are interconnected and play off each other. In this sense, myth is not religion, but ritual is not religion either. All things must be together in order to make the whole.

People in unrelated discussions like to point out how holiness is defined in Heathendom: it’s about being whole, unbroken, and healthy. It’s literally the Proto-Germanic root. By this very definition, our religion without myth is incomplete and thus no longer worthy of being considered holy. If we can ascribe no acts to greater forces and choose instead to embrace solely science, why be involved in Heathendom at all? Be an atheist and free up some counter space now that you won’t need that altar.

People who want to see myth pushed to the side do not understand the value of myth. It’s our connection to the past. It shapes our religion and how we see the gods and the world. It gives us a narrative in which we find meaning; a meaning that changes over time because our world changes, too. It can be the result of practices, but it can also cause new practices. Forgetting its importance results in a loss from which we cannot recover readily.

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