The taxi office was next to a firm called “Acadia”, which of course I misread as Arcadia. When I gratefully dropped my case in my hotel room, my eyes lit on a coaster (a coaster?) depicting Herakles with the skin of the Nemean lion. The other decorations in this nice, thoroughly suburban hotel room were standard issue – rabbits, rivers and views. Yet there, on the table between the beds, sits Herakles, victorious after one of his dodecanal labours.
“They are all around us.” This phrase is generally meant in an esoteric sense, but in a more prosaic way, the statement retains a great deal of truth. It is worth taking the time to look, and to see, and perhaps to acknowledge.
Our language is riffled with allusions to the ancient divinities, whether we know it or not. The most obvious, of course, are the days of the week – Woden’s day precedes Thor’s day, closely followed by a day of Frejya. The Norse gods may be said, in a very real (linguistic) way, to watch over our days.
But there is far more – many references which whose who know the takes will pick up, but may well pass others by. Many people have at least a vague idea of what an Oedipus complex is, thanks to the work of the Viennese doctor who used classical ideas (dare I say in this context, “archetypes”?) to frame his theories. Yet how many could fill in the rest of the story – with the machinations of fate which brought Jocasta and Oedipus, mother and son, to the marriage bed? How many can recount Athena’s ultimate deliberation on the relative places of mother and father in a child’s development?
The centre of London is presided over by a statue of the son of Vulcan and Venus – yet although many, most, know of is association (again, at least linguistically) with the erotic, how many can recount the love story of the god and the girl? And of course, she connects the world of psychoanalysis mentioned above with Eros himself.
And what of the god who persuaded Psyche that suicide was not the solution to her woes? We use his name when we wish to show something is all pervasive (Pan-global, Pan European). How many, though, who fear the panic of the crowd know that it relates to the frenzy incited by the god in men and animals, particularly when disturbed at the heat of the day? (Mad dogs and Englishmen, perhaps?).
The connections continue, of course – the PanEuropean games will include a marathon, commemorating Phidippides’ run to Athens. And the tales tell us that on that journey, he encountered the Arcadian god…
Even children’s stories/cartoons perpetuate their presence. When attempting to depict someone as wise the chances are high that there will be an owl in the picture, or that the “person” will be an owl – as with the wisest presence in the Hundred Acre Wood. Merlin himself is accompanied by the owl Archemedies in the cartoon, The Sword and the Stone. The owl, of course, is sacred to Athena, who is, among other things, revered as the goddess of wisdom.
Purists may have cause to fulminate against some of the more blatant popular representations of ancient (and not so ancient) divinities and myths. I’m sure I’m not alone in deploring the mishmash of myths that went into any number of episodes of Xena and Hercules. And it would be, perhaps, difficult to find many people in the UK whose views of Herne the Hunter were not severely influenced by “Robin of Sherwood”.
Yet this process has been going on for centuries and seems to be in something of a renaissance at the moment. Perhaps Zimmer-Bradley’s books do present a view of Avalon which is not backed by the sources; the detective novels set in ancient Greece and Rome may give scant attention to the divinities of those countries but they cannot ignore them completely. Even the phenomena of the Lord of the Rings, though only tenuously connected to anything particularly ancient, requires its readers/viewers to suspend belief in a world where magic does not work (wherein most of them feel they live) and enter (often reenter, over and over again) a world where sorcery is a power in the land, where wraiths deal death and rings mean the continuance or not of life as we know it.
Booksellers tell us that fantasy and science fiction are the best sellers among fiction offerings, having overtaken the detective story as the escapist literature of choice among the reading public.
The simplistic and oft touted explanation for this is the blandness, the stress, the mundane nature of everyday life. While there is almost certainly some truth in this, I’d suggest another, or expanded, explanation.
In his latest work, Ronald Hutton1 mentions the curious fact that those with whom he discusses his work all more or less into three camps. The first are Pagans themselves, who clearly understand what he is on about and are mainly supportive. Secondly, there are those who, while not Pagan, have a religious framework to their lives; whether or not they agree with his work, in general they take it seriously and show an interest in it.
It is the third group which he found intriguing. Those with no religious framework to their lives, those who claim to be agnostic or atheist, those who might be called “the good post-moderns”, most often resorted to ridicule or showed outright fear at his subject matter. Hutton concludes that this group was reacting to something – spiritual experience- for which they have no place in their world view. Because they can not pinpoint it, or label it, or put it in the appropriate mental box, they are confused by it and react with either ridicule or fear .
This, I suggest, gives us a fuller answer to the puzzle of popularity: people are missing something, in the same sense that we miss a friend when they are no longer by us. Hutton found fear and distrust, but this was in a situation where people were being presented with someone who understood what they did not – someone who had at least an academic framework into which spiritual experience could fit. Left to their own devices, the odds are good that these same people are reading fiction and watching films which transport them to a world where magic works and wizards walk.
And thus, our comfort in- dare I say craving for – information, stories, pictures of the gods. As people, we seem to know instinctively that there is more to life than what we can see; as a society, we deny it. This leads to what the books charmingly label, “cognitive dissonance” ; that is, a situation in which reality and what our minds are telling us do not seem to be reconcilable; something in terms of our thinking is broken and we seek compensation for it.
Humans are rarely happy in a state of cognitive dissonance. Only philosophers seem to enjoy it and seek to precipitate it among others, and depending on the society, such people are either =shunted off into university departments or invited ti imbibe hemlock – in either case, society has ensured that they are out of harm’s way. We generally try to correct the dissonance once we notice it’s there, either by changing reality or by changing what we think about reality – as long as we end the dissonance, we’re happy.
Id’ suggest the prevalence of fantasy and science fiction, role playing games that include magic use, etc. particularly among those who would repudiate any spiritual dimension to life, is another way of dealing with cognitive dissonance – it’s just not one of the usual ones. Rather than change reality, it is a suspension of reality – an entry into an accepted worlds where the dissonance can not get a foothold. And thus, The Mists of Avalon, Dungeons and Dragons, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is at least a partial explanation of why we continue to surround ourselves with reminders of the ancient gods.
There is, of course, another explanation – not only do we not wish to forget, we will not be allowed to forget. To change the words of the bumper sticker slightly (to make it more widely applicable) “The Divine is alive and magic is afoot”.
1Ronald Hutton is an academic historian, professor of history at the University of Bristol. Although by no means the only one working in the field, he is by far the best known historian of Paganism in the UK).
© Diotima Published in Goat and Candle, April 2004