A Storied Faith

MYTHS, FABLES & PARABLES

People have been explaining themselves, their relationship to the gods, and what life means with myths for thousands of years, before language began to be written down and ever since. One of the first epics to be recorded, the Babylonian tale of Gilgamesh, is about our desire to overcome death. Norse mythology (my favorite) shows us that wisdom comes at a terrible price: Odin, the father of the gods, plucks his eye out and drops it into Mimir’s well to become wise.

There is a depth in the Norse myths that I never found in those of the Greeks, whose gods seem to be humans writ large and stupid: bigger versions of ourselves and our passions. Even if some of this is true of the Norse myths, there is more there: the purity of Baldur, the trickery of Loki, who is so like the tricksters Spider and Coyote in African and American Indian traditions. These stories were easily remembered and passed on in preliterate culture, and, when written down, became the basis for everything literary that happened from then on, from Homer to Joyce, for example, or Kafka, or anyone who turns to fable and parable. In some ways the best modern narrative work in short stories or novels functions as myth, offering us ways to read and interpret our lives through Gatsby or the brothers Karamazov.

Nonbelievers say that humans have created the gods, or God, in their own image, and that is certainly true of the gods who serve as patrons of wine, war, sex, wisdom, and so forth. Monotheism...

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About the Author

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.