Myth was participated in by ancient peoples (and modern ones, too) via ritual. An example from the classical world is the ritual search for Persephone that some pagan Greeks would embark upon for a feast day related to her being held in the Underworld by Hades. And Christians have always participated in the death and resurrection of Jesus via the Eucharist (which shows that ritual participation is not about “re-enactment”).
Mythology, then, is what happens to the narratives of myth when they become “merely” stories without ritual participation. (This myth and mythology distinction is used in ritual theory but does not hold everywhere.)
These thoughts returned to me as I have been studying The Kalevala, a collection of pagan Finnish poetry existing as “rune songs,” made in the 19th century by Elias Lönnrot and stitched together to create narrative arrangements. This collection was very influential and inspiring for J. R. R. Tolkien (and he based some of his own writing on it).
Lönnrot also included his own newly-composed introduction and conclusion to the work. This editorial and even authorial act has earned Lönnrot criticism as engaging in “fakelore” rather than “folklore,” because many in his century’s folklore movement looked at their work as being essentially scientific — they were called to be observers and recorders, not editors or authors. The past was essentially another country to be visited and mapped, but not lived in.
But it seems to me that Lönnrot saw no problem with making choices about what to include, where to include it, and even with adding his own material — because he regarded himself as participating in the same process as the rune-singers from whom he collected the works. So in this ritual theory frame, Lönnrot is participating in myth while those who expected him to be only a collector regarded the piece as mythology.
Mind you, this is attenuated by the fact that Lönnrot probably did not see himself as participating in the myth of the gods of the Kalevala. He was a Lutheran Christian, after all. One Finnish scholar, Juha Pentikainen, even says that Lönnrot’s Kalevala is a Christianized work (mainly by his selection). So while he was not engaging with myth via pagan ritual, he was at least participating in the myth of the rune-singers.
The Problem of Reading Pagan Literature But Not Being Pagan
All this relates to the sense that the past is “another country” in that, in addition to looking at other “countries” on a map, there are also various ways of attempting to live there or visit there. The Kalevala as the Lönnrot collection strikes me as one attempt to do that.
In his essay on Lönnrot’s work, Tolkien wrote about the problem of reading pagan stories without objectively believing in the pagan gods (i.e., that they exist), and says that something is lost without that belief:
As a matter of fact one does sometimes hear the Kalevala, and things like it, cited as evidence of the enduring paganism of Europe that (we are told) is still fighting a gallant and holy battle against the oppression of Christianity, and of Hebraic Biblicality. To argue about this would really be to stray far from my present point and purpose; but the temptation to say something about our attitude towards the ancient gods is too strong. Without disputing about the attitude of the Finnish people up to, say, about a century ago when these things were taken down (for I do not know enough about them), I am still quite ready to admit that without something approaching to an objective belief in the old gods we definitely lose something of the magic of all old tales, something in them is ‘all beyond our comprehension’; it is no good saying that the sea is still poetically boundless, for to the very people who can appreciate the poetry of the sea the roundness of the earth and the unfortunate existence of America on the other side of a strictly limited Atlantic ocean is most constantly and vividly present in the imagination; the heavenly bodies are by them above all most clearly realized not to be the heavenly beings. The organization and greater security of modern life: gentler social manners; a wealth of bodily conveniences, and comforts, and even destructive luxuries; tobacco, doctors, and police; and more (the one thing that is certainly worth it) freedom from the shadow of the darker crueller and fouler superstitions, we have purchased at a price – there are no magic islands in our Western sea and (as Francis Thompson says) ‘none will again behold Apollo in the forefront of the morning, or see Aphrodite in the upper air loose the long lustre of her golden locks’. We are grown older and must face the fact. The poetry of these old things remains being immortal, but no longer for us is the intoxication of both poetry and belief. The holiday I suggested is a holiday from poetic and literary development, from the long accumulated weight of civilised tradition and knowledge, not a decadent and retrograde movement, not a ‘nostalgie de la boue’ – only a holiday; and if while on this holiday we half hear the voice of Ahti in the noises of the sea, half shudder at the thought of Pohja, gloomy land of witchcraft, or Tuonela yet darker region of the dead, it is nonetheless with quite another part of our minds that we do this than that which we reserve for our real beliefs and for our religion, just as it undoubtedly was for the Icelandic ecclesiastics of old. Yet there may be some whom these old songs will stir to new poetry, just as the old songs of other pagan days have stirred other Christians; for it is true that only the Christians have made Aphrodite utterly beautiful, a wonder for the soul; the Christian poets or those who while renouncing their Christianity owe to it all their feeling and their art have fashioned nymphs and dryads of which not even Greek ever dreamt; the real glory of Latmos was made by Keats.
As the world grows older there is loss and gain – let us not with modern insolence and blindness imagine it all gain (lest this happen such songs as the ‘Land of Heroes’ are left for our disillusionment); but neither must we with neo-pagan obscurity of thought imagine it all loss.
– J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Kalevala,” in The Story of Kullervo, ed. Verlyn Flieger, pp. 113-5
Included here is the argument that technological mastery bore with it the price of spiritual knowledge. And this is a Sarumanic dynamic, as well — the fallen wizard trades in his unity with the Valar (the governing angels in Tolkien’s world) for the ability to dominate via industry. Saruman’s fall is a fall into a more materialist existence. That is of course a profoundly negative take on the trade.
Tolkien also says that the one great gain in this trade is being free from “the shadow of the darker crueller and fouler superstitions,” which we can’t read as being an argument for materialism — he is not a materialist. But rather, especially for anyone familiar with how morality actually worked in ancient paganism (which Tolkien certainly was), turning away from the worship of those gods was profoundly liberating. Strength is no longer worshiped, and the weak are not seen as divinely appointed thus.
He seems a bit ambivalent on whether “belief in the old gods” means simply “acknowledging they exist” or “belief” in the ancient sense, which involves faithfulness, loyalty, worship, etc. I lean toward reading it in the latter sense particularly when he talks about that liberation from cruelty. After all, as a Roman Catholic Christian, he certainly believed in the existence of demons, which the Bible says is the true identity of the “gods of the nations.” But perhaps he is also critiquing his own society, which does not believe in the old gods simply in terms of existence (“objective belief”). And so they lose the “magic” of the old tales.
Do the Pagan Gods Even Exist? Or, You Know, Fairies?
But can the pagan gods be said to exist according to Tolkien? I am not sure if Tolkien touches on this directly, but he leans rather toward it in this passage from the originally unpublished Manuscript B of “On Fairy-stories”:
Leaving aside the Question of the Real (objective) existence of Fairies, I will tell you what I think about that. If Fairies really exist – independently of Men – then very few of our ‘Fairy-stories’ have any relation to them: as little, or less than our ghost-stories have to the real events that may befall human personality (or form) after death. If Fairies exist they are bound by the Moral Law as is all the created Universe; but their duties and functions are not ours. They are not spirits of the dead, nor a branch of the human race, nor devils in fair shapes whose chief object is our deception and ruin. These are either human ideas out of which the Elf-idea has been separated, or if Elves really exist mere human hypotheses (or confusions). They are a quite separate creation living in another mode. They appear to us in human form (with hands, faces, voices and language similar to our own): this may be their real form and their difference reside in something other than form, or it may be (probably is) only the way in which their presence affects us. Rabbits and eagles may be aware of them quite otherwise. For lack of a better word they may be called spirits, daemons: inherent powers of the created world, deriving more directly and ‘earlier’ (in terrestrial history) from the creating will of God, but nonetheless created, subject to Moral Law, capable of good and evil, and possibly (in this fallen world) actually sometimes evil. They are in fact non-incarnate minds (or souls) of a stature and even nature more near to that of Man (in some cases possibly less, in many maybe greater) than any other rational creatures, known or guessed by us. They can take form at will, or they could do so: they have or had a choice.
Thus a tree-fairy (or a dryad) is, or was, a minor spirit in the process of creation who aided as ‘agent’ in the making effective of the divine Tree-idea or some part of it, or of even of some one particular example: some tree. He is therefore now bound by use and love to Trees (or a tree), immortal while the world (and trees) last – never to escape, until the End. It is a dreadful Doom (to human minds if they are wise) in exchange for a splendid power. What fate awaits him beyond the Confines of the World, we cannot know. It is likely that the Fairy does not know himself. It is possible that nothing awaits him – outside the World and the Cycle of Story and of Time.
– J. R. R. Tolkien, “Manuscript B,” in Tolkien on Fairy-stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, pp. 254-5
Here we have Tolkien expressing possible belief in lesser, created spirits who help to govern the creation. This is entirely consistent with the Bible. And in the Biblical narrative, some of those beings rebel against God and become what we now know as demons. So, yes, there are governing spirits that have been obedient to God and those who have rebelled.
As moderns, we find ourselves functioning within a materialist frame and wondering at how pre-modern people could possibly believe in spiritual beings, monsters, etc. — whether one has religious commitments also to believe in such things (but cannot quite see how to do that) or whether one is essentially laying down judgment on the supposed “ignorance” of pre-modern people. Yet as Tolkien says in his Kalevala essay, without that objective belief, the old tales are not just bereft of “something of the magic” but are even “all beyond our comprehension.”
He doesn’t go into how or why exactly, but if I may speculate, I don’t think it’s only that moderns read these stories differently from people who believed that they were “objectively” true. Again, ritual participation that all religious people engage in that connects them directly to their myths, which, when lost, turns those myths into mythology.
But I think much of the problem is that moderns tend to look at pre-modern stories with a “But here’s what REALLY happened” frame. For instance, we look at thunder god stories and say, “Those ancient people didn’t understand thunder or lightning, so they made up a story about a god to try to explain it.” (Though that doesn’t explain why they would even think of something like a “god” to begin with or why anyone would actually take that seriously.)
Yet ancient pagan testimony is of encounter with actual divine beings who not only split the sky and shook the earth but actually said things to them, appeared to them, had a certain appearance (weirdly including a pretty consistent size of about 15 feet tall across almost all cultures everywhere in the world), commanded certain kinds of rituals, etc.
What do we do with that? I don’t find the “They were just ignorant, and we are smart” explanation at all compelling. Perhaps more honest to the evidence would be “There are some very good liars out there who were able to sway thousands of people, who then entrenched that lie for centuries, which was continually believed and inspired faithfulness even though there was no real evidence for its being true.” You can imagine I don’t find that compelling, either, but it’s better.
I do think it worth pointing out the problem of reading pagan mythology as though those who first heard these tales and also participated in them via worship and prayer were reading them in the same way we are. That is not to say that we are bound to try to recreate the experience of pagans reading pagan myth (we cannot except perhaps via means most of us would never want to undertake and as Christians should not) in order to read well. But perhaps even if someone is a true materialist atheist, he can adopt Tolkien’s “secondary belief” for a while to get a little closer to receiving these tales in a fuller fashion.
All that said, I have written and said a number of times before that reading Tolkien as well as mythology and folklore can help us to re-enchant the world and thus engage more fully with the unseen world as it truly is. And all these stories make far more sense and are actually beneficial to us if we approach them not with a materialist skepticism but with the understanding that the people who first told them weren’t just a bunch of ignoramuses or liars.