I must have been ten or eleven the year I received two of Arthur Cotterell’s mythology encyclopedias for Christmas, Norse Mythology and Classical Mythology. I delved into them and read them cover to cover more than once, but I was more interested in the Greco-Roman legends in Classical Mythology than I was in the stories in Norse Mythology. That interest has flipped, and Norse mythology is a lot more interesting to me now than it was when I was a kid.
I think much of my interest in Classical Mythology stemmed from the fact that it taught me words like “phallus” and had a lot of pictures of nude paintings. There were fewer nudes in Norse Mythology, and while I was somewhat ignorant about my fascination with nudity probably coming from puberty (otherwise known as that irritating thing that meant I needed to wear bras), I wasn’t immune to its effects. There’s a lot of sex in most mythologies, but it was so blatant in the Greco-Roman legends, what with Zeus impregnating every other woman while in the form of some animal and carrying unsuspecting young men off to Mount Olympus to be his cupbearers/lovers. It was scandalous and titillating for a homeschooled kid who was too embarrassed to ask many questions about sex. And all the paintings and statues from the Renaissance had so many naked people, and I was totally allowed to look at it because it was art. (My parents have no objection to nudity in and of itself, and were happy to answer questions about sex, but I managed to pick up the “sex is bad” vibe from the conservative homeschool community that we were part of and was extremely uncomfortable about the subject for years).
Norse Mythology, on the other hand, was downright conservative. Most of the paintings and statues featured in the book had clothed people. I neglected a lot of the book because there weren’t enough nudes, and the sex wasn’t quite as dramatic-sounding. But my interests in it now aren’t purely academic, and it’s funny how I’m drawn more to both Norse and Celtic mythology when those were topics that didn’t really strike my fancy when I was a kid devouring mythology books about Persephone and Hercules and Odysseus. (Though it’s not like I was approaching Greco-Roman mythology with the idea of practicing Hellenistic religion…and now here I am researching Brighid and Loki and thinking about possible pantheons).
Mythology’s an odd thing for me at times – as a child I read mythology mostly like any story but with the vague understanding that people once believed in these obviously fictional constructions. Yet I couldn’t see that the same reading could be possible for the Bible because I was taught to view it as absolute truth. But much of it leans far more towards mythology than history: there are rivers turned to blood, a talking serpent who imparts both wisdom and doom, terrifying angels that look nothing like the descriptions we see today, and a pantheon of a Three-Part God pitted against an adversarial god of evil and his minions. Yet I remember taking Balaam’s talking donkey completely seriously while thinking the Minotaur was an absurd but an interesting story.
Now it’s easier to see these as foundational stories which provide people of a specific culture and religion with a background of who they are and what’s important to them. Myths don’t need to have literally happened for them to be true in that sense. The myths provide a knowledge of the gods and their characters, a history of sorts for the people, and a sense what direction they’re “meant” to take in life.
They can also be entertaining stories. I love the way we continue transforming mythology in new retellings. I devoured American Gods as quickly as possible, and years ago found myself connecting a bit more with Norse mythology through Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Eight Days of Luke. I’ve read a lot of versions of the Arthurian myths, and of course I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Now I need to actually go read the Mabinogion and get through Hero with a Thousand Faces, among others, but the mythologies of our past are the mythologies of our present as well. We continue to add to the stories, and to reach out to the gods in new ways.