Different societies have different beliefs that create a diversity of cultures. Elements in mythology provide explanations for common human questions of life and consequently shape the ideas and values of a people and their civilization.
With the mystery of creation comes the belief that some greater, intangible force was present at the beginning of time and exists beyond our physical world. Different creation myths and religions present a variety of superior powers with certain control over our lives on Earth. In the Christian faith, there is only one, all knowing God who is represented as the Holy Trinity and perceived as a male. In Greek mythology, there are many gods, each representing a different aspect of life. Unlike God in Christianity, they are flawed in the sense that they are essentially human beings with the capability to be jealous, greedy, and wrathful. More different still is the deity of Native American beliefs that is not portrayed as a figure, but as simply a force that inhabits and connects all things, specifically in nature. The Gnostic belief interestingly shares elements from some of the former; there are two levels of divine powers and a strong emphasis on unity. The One is perfection and an indescribable, harmonious blend of everything; quite like an abstract version of God. Beneath this force are aeons, gods who watch over the universe and can make mistakes, similar to Greek gods. Though they believed in equality between genders, Sophia is the main goddess of knowledge and wisdom; and the female forces, unlike the male God, are considered more important spiritually. The different characteristics of divine spirits that are worshipped are reflected in the cultures that they create.
Mythology contains an opposition of good and evil which affects how life is defined in a culture and creates the foundation of a people’s purpose in being. Ultimately, in their lifetimes, people strive for the ‘good’, an idea formed by their beliefs that influences their thoughts and actions. In the Genesis story of Paradise Lost, the original sin cast humans out of the Garden of Eden, and brought labour and suffering to Earth. For Christians, life is a struggle to resist the temptation of Satan and evil of sin, which causes the downfall of man. On the contrary, the Gnostic religion does not believe in sin, only errors, that even the gods are able to make. Gnostics believed that the material world was a mistake and vice lies in the physical matter that the world is made of; the human spirit that is perfect and what is significant in life. In Native American pantheism, there is no definite line of good and evil, but rather a balance of all things in life, both living and inanimate. The world as a whole is venerated and humans must live not in superiority, but in harmony with nature. In Greek mythology, the gods have total control of one’s fate; not necessarily that people cannot make choices, but that the actions of humans cannot manipulate the destiny that awaits them. People are simply the pawns of the gods and follow the paths that were predestined for them. Mythology creates different attitudes towards life that form cultures with varying views of the role humans play in their world.
The inevitability and ambiguity of death is frightening and caused people to develop a belief that there was something beyond the physical that is preserved at the end of a mortal’s life. Religion creates a multitude of ideas regarding the saving of one’s soul and life after death. In the nature oriented Native American faith, life is a cycle which death is merely a part of; because the souls of all beings share a bond, a person’s spirit never dies but rather becomes a part of all things. In Christianity, after death, a person faces judgment based on his doings in life, and his soul is either saved into heaven, or sent to be tortured in hell. In Greek mythology, a similar process occurs in the underworld, where souls are judged to be saved or condemned. In both these cases, people’s actions on Earth determine the fate of their valuable souls; life is a short and linear period of time to prove oneself for the outcome of eternity. There is judgment in the Gnostic faith as well, but not of the same finality; punishment for the soul is to be reincarnated, and reward to be free from the bounds of the material world. Unlike Christians, Gnostics do not bear the heavy weight of sin and penance to achieve salvation, but seek gnosis to be enlightened in their lives. In Homo Religiosis, an experience brings out inner knowledge and understanding that one always had but was not aware of and instantaneously transforms a boy into a man. Gnostics believed similarly that all human spirits possess knowledge within that when accessed allows the soul to return to its perfect state in freedom and harmony with The One. In our modern world where atheism is growing, distinct cultures and beliefs are perishing because they blend into a norm. Science has replaced the role of mythology in explaining then unanswerable questions and technology has become a global culture. Looking back on ancient myths, it is easy to feel a loss for the diversity of cultures that flourished and are now disappearing in our modern day culture.
Published from November 22, 2011.
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