For a number of years, I co-hosted the award winning Reasonable Doubts podcast. On Reasonable Doubts, I did a regular segment called PolyAtheism wherein I explored some of the vast array of gods, goddesses and other mythological figures that have been worshipped, and/or feared throughout the history of the world.
For nearly a decade now, I’ve also been teaching courses on Mythology and, along with my family and eating sushi, the study of myths and mythological characters has become my great passion in life. Myth Education is the result.
The book contains profiles of nearly 100 different beings from an array of cultures. Included are Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese, Japanese, Celtic, Norse, Indigenous American and African figures. No Greeks or Romans, but I’ll talk about that later on.
“Ok. Cool,” you say, “but why should I care about myths? I don’t believe in any of those gods — Heck, no one has believed in most of those gods for centuries! Why should I, a skeptic/enlightened critical thinking type person give a crap about imaginary gods?”
Fair question. The answer is simple: myths matter.
Myths offer a glimpse into the collective history of human culture and belief. Myths were told by pre-scientific (often even pre-literate) cultures as a means of understanding both themselves and the world around them. Long before the studies of psychology, medicine, astronomy, biology, geography, geology et al. humans longed to explain why they felt the way they felt, why the weather changed, where we came from and what, if anything, we as humans could do to improve our position in the world or at the very least, stay alive. Often times the ‘answers’ derived from myth are obtuse (“We must offer up eggplants to keep bad weather at bay!”), other times they are horrifying (“We must rip the hearts out of people to ensure that the sun rises tomorrow!”) and sometimes they were surprisingly accurate (“If we allow a corrupt leader to rule us, nature itself will lash out” — just wait and see how true that one proves to be as the climate reacts to the policies of a certain overripe tangerine). Just as the study of history is critically important, the study of the history of belief is crucial to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past.
Many myths reveal incredibly dark truths about humanity — we see that violence, abuse of power, prejudice, sexism, and victim blaming are not simply modern social ills, but are deeply rooted in the history of humanity. Myth Education touches on a number of those tales and I’ll discuss some of them on this blog in the near future, but I wanted my first post here to highlight the other end of the spectrum.
While I don’t believe in any deities, dragons, or demi-gods, nor would I suggest any of you believe or worship them, there are some legitimately good lessons we can learn from their stories. Take for instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Only rediscovered and translated in the mid-1800’s, Gilgamesh is one of the world’s oldest works of literature and is, frankly, a hell of a fun story. For those of you unfamiliar, it is the story of a semi-divine man named Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh is a pseudo-historical figure who lived and reigned in the Sumerian city of Uruk. His story wasn’t recorded in its present form until long after this legendary king lived and I’m pretty comfortable with saying that whatever the true story of the actual Gilgamesh was, the Epic bears very little resemblance to any factual information.
The tale begins with Gilgamesh being a real asshat. Sure, he’s big and strong and three-fourths divine but that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. He abuses his power, disrespects the elders of his city and employs the right of prima noctae to become a serial rapist. Calling him a ‘bad ruler’ is like calling Trump a ‘bad president’ — it’s an extraordinary understatement. He’s so horrible that his own people beg the gods to take him out, which is the ancient equivalent of writing to your congressperson: it makes you feel like you’re doing something but it won’t really have any effect. Unless you’re in a myth. In myths, the gods sometimes listen and, in this one, they crafted a feral counterpart to Gilgamesh, the hairy beast man named Enkidu.
Enkidu was sent to take down Gilgamesh but after a brief scuffle they fall into a deep and abiding bromance and become closer than brothers. Together Gilgamesh and Enkidu killed the forest monster Humbaba, insulted the sex goddess Ishtar and slaughtered the deadly Bull of Heaven. Because of the wanton hubris of these warrior bros, the gods agree to kill one of them. Spoiler: It’s not called The Epic of Enkidu. Rather than using another heaven-sent beastie to end Enkidu the gods cause him to become sick. For days and days, Enkidu suffered horribly from this insidious wasting illness before he finally succumbed to it. And this is the point where everything changes for Gilgamesh. As a warrior, Gilgamesh has faced death innumerable times. Death is bloody and painful, but gods damn it, it’s also really cool. A battlefield death while locked in mortal combat is, Gilgamesh believes, frickin’ awesome but with the passing of his closest and dearest companion Gilgamesh sees for the first time that death isn’t always so glorious. Death is awful. Death is slow and gross and so Gilgamesh decides that he’s not going to do it.
In an effort to find out how to not die, Gilgamesh ventured out into the world to find a man named Utnapishtim who is immortal. Gilgamesh travels alone for weeks until finally tracking down the old man. When he does, he asks Utnapishtim how to become immortal. Utnapishtim explains that he was made immortal by the gods after he survived a worldwide flood. His experience sounds a whole lot like another Middle Eastern deluge tale and when Gilgamesh was rediscovered, the fact that the story of Utnapishtim is so similar to that of Noah and was written earlier than the Bible, caused no small amount of backlash. It didn’t make Gilgamesh feel very good either, because, of course, that route to immortality wasn’t really available to him. Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh of a couple of other ways to gain immortality, but he failed at both of them.
Defeated, depressed, and more than a little road weary, Gilgamesh made his way back home to Uruk. Then, he has an epiphany. Gilgamesh realizes that there is one more way to become immortal and this one really works. Rather than living forever, Gilgamesh decides that he will become immortal for being remembered for what he did in life. He amends his ways, makes up for his past bad behavior and goes on to rule his people as a wise and fair king.
If there is only one life (and absent of any evidence to the contrary, there is only one life), like Gilgamesh, we would do well to create a legacy that will live on after us. Because while a human will surely die, humanity itself lives on. Enjoy life, Gilgamesh teaches us. Make the people around you happy. Be good. While not all of us will have names that are still known thousands of years after our deaths like Gilgamesh, the impact we make will live on. It’s the only kind of immortality that actually exists and the nifty thing is that it is available to all of us. That is both a great honor and an enormous burden but it’s one we should all be cognizant of and something we should strive for.
Not all myths are quite so poignant, nor do they all offer a moral, let alone a good one. But when they do, they can be quite lovely and are just as relevant to a modern skeptic as they were to an ancient believer.
David Fletcher is the author of Myth Education: A Guide to Gods, Goddesses and Other Supernatural Creatures.