Myth and the Decline of Religion
Reading Time ~6 minutes
I believe that myths, mythological archetypes, fables, and all that can be traced back to humanity’s primal spiritual tradition, are actually only important when they are grounded in real life. I would like to make use of the word “priest” as I go about continuing the article, however the word seems to be commonly referenced to Christian priests. My intention is, however, to not bring Christianity as the focus of my article, so the term “Hierophant” will be used instead.
Hierophant is an interesting word, as is common for most of the entries one would find in a Greek dictionary. The word is compound, coming from ἱερός (holy, sacred, inspired by the divine) + φαίνω (to present, to disclose). In the ancient times, the word was an honorary title reserved for the top-tier priest of the Eleusinia Mysteria, a religious practice was aimed to lift the individual to a higher spiritual level by revealing the purpose of his life . Along with the Kavirian Mysteria, aimed to reveal what happens to the soul after death, the two rituals were of paramount importance to the ancient world.
So hierophants of various religious backgrounds aspire to formalize myth and present only the core principles in the form of dogma; the fuzzy outlines that envelop and give meaning to the central theme are often re-framed, or abandoned entirely so as to lead the faithful on an already beaten trail with distinct, strictly defined limits. Go off the beaten path, and a dominant religious movement will brand you as a heretic or heathen. However, myths and archetypes are intentionally abstract, so as to provide the initiate the flexibility of adapting his own experience on the mythical frame.
The epic hero faces his all-powerful and all-sinister demonic nemesis; the initiate faces his smoking addiction. Framing the devil as a skinless, horned beast with charred wings that boils in an infernal pit of fire is one thing; but let this much be clear: the initiate will probably never be called upon to stop a demonic invasion or to slay a dragon going rampant.
Instead, they will be called upon to manage their enervation when they return home after a soul-crushing day at work, only to find that their children are full of energy, or that the dog has once again defalcated on their favourite carpet. They will be called to muster the willpower to visit the gym or go for a run, to quit smoking, to avoid eating trans fats, to watch less TV, to read more books, etc.
Religion can make someone pious by prompting the individual to identify with the light-side of their psyche. Strive to do all things that are good, avoid all things that are not, that can summarize the vast majority of religious doctrines; the sum of things that are good differ of course: For Hindus, fasting for the Ekhadashi and eating beef is bad. For Christians, fasting before Easter is good and eating with gluttony is bad. For Muslims, fasting for Ramadan is good, and eating haram food is bad. For Jews fasting on Yom Kippur is good, and non-kosher food is bad. Of course, before the existence of organized religion, myth taught that fasting is a beneficial practice by presenting the tribunals passed by gluttonous characters.
The lowered benchmark of spirituality proposed to the dogmatic faithful produces likewise modest returns with minimal expenses and risk. Rather than empowering the individual with the self-confident and self-reliant psychological mechanism (which would require a highly copious and toiling process of personal involvement with the myth), religion offers the individual a crutch, and prompts him to follow the beaten path. This path is not entirely a bad thing in itself either: if the individual lacks the self-produced curiosity, treading upon risky waters will surely lead to their demise. As has been clear in many occasions, carving one’s own path definitely poses the individual with a single demand: self-confidence. The risks of abiding by religious dogma are virtually non-existent; you will live your life following a set of traditions and presumptions that are accepted by your society, able to push spiritual worries under the rug. You will go to mass on Sunday, or to the synagogue on Saturday, or the mosque on Fridays and leave the group prayer with a gasp! “My spirit is at rest! The good lord has provided once more”.
However, the time-wise efficiency comes at the cost of watered-down content. While dogma might be clear and easily understandable, it is usually limited by time and culture, hence it is fragile. The ancient message of a fabled Jewish rabbi, or a tribal leader or a caravan leader from 1500 to 3000 years ago are quickly losing their vitality (as time passes by faster and space becomes increasingly interconnected). In the process of having their spiritual stamina or mana run out, new faithful are hard to come by, and old ones are aging and dying out.
But what happens when a more time-efficient medium is uncovered? The old one is replaced. It can be argued that exactly this is the case today. Movies, works of literature and art, content that is easier to consume than a religious textbook, are being rolled out at an increasing pace.
So, “Do not abandon hope all who enter here” to paraphrase Dante. It is clear that mythical archetypes live on; works of art work to channel them in novel ways; The Matrix’s Neo is the age-old Master trying to navigate through a digital world; Tony Stark was reborn to new powers (mastery over all things mechanical) after his desert tribunal in Iron Man 1. Diana Prince is the all-powerful wild woman who uses her magical lace to see through the perpetrator’s lies. Jean Grey is the omnipotent wife and mother redeeming the powers of her dark side through sacrifice.
The mass appeal and market-driven plots have the flexibility that is necessary for a spiritual movement to grow through its earliest infancy. On the other hand, the rigorous dogma that has been in the process of solidifying itself over millennia may prove too stringent for the rapidly shifting waters that our age is determined by.
The hero is still here. He is still a protector, a leader, a bringer of justice. She is still a mother, a martyr, an unstoppable force. Only this time, the hero does not wear the carpenter’s, or the shepherd's, or the merchant’s cloth mantles; the hero wears tight-fitting a leather suit. He does not walk around the wooded countryside; he flies over a concrete jungle.
Similarly, the hierophant has a new form that follows function. Rather than the priest acting in a ritualistic matter, it is actors who can reach much vaster audiences through the new powers of digital distribution and cinema. It would appear that in this brave new world, it will be Iron man’s uniform, Superman’s bionic leather suit etc that are called to fill the symbolic gap. That is our age’s nouvelle vague.