The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Divine Paradox - Part I - Which came first, Deity or Story?

A Deity is more than a character in a mythological story. However, we cannot know the nature of Deity without portraying the same as a character and weaving a story around him/her/it. This is the Divine Paradox.

In my bid to criticize a recent retelling of my favourite epic, and trying to analyse the origin and functions of idolatry, I came upon this gem from a TV Tropes page:
In the old polytheistic days, gods weren't characters in anthologies, they were everyday gods that you'd pray to when you needed something, or just as part of your daily ritual. So when you'd hear "Zeus," your first thought would be "king of gods, god of hospitality, law, civilization," not "Depraved Bisexual who'll do Anything That Moves in Whatever Shape He Likes." Similarly, "Hera" would inspire "goddess and protectress of women, home, family, and domestic life" not "Clingy Jealous Goddess in Sheep's Clothing." However, because now all that we have left of these gods are the storiesthey left behind (and what stories!), we tend to picture pretty much all gods as caricatures of their original selves.

Admittedly, I had only briefly thought about mythology from this angle (see irreverence of the MCU). But this paragraph blew my mind. Indeed, the closest parallel that I can find to these gods are physical quantities, which have a specific definition of their own, but can only be understood in terms of their relationship with other physical quantities and constants; their behaviour being described by laws and equations.

Not convinced? Try defining time (or the rest of the big 7).

So obsessed was I with the phrase "gods weren't characters in anthologies", that I asked myself, which came first - the story or the character?

This question was deep and unsettling to me, since it came with the realization that I had (so far) implicitly and unquestionably believed that the "story came first" - a very grave error on my part.

As for the question itself, I studied the entire paragraph in some depth, and came up with an allegorical solution that is based off a quote from Abraham Lincoln, with a side order of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. My allegory has the following postulates:
  1. Mr. Lincoln likens the character of a person to a tree, and the reputation of that person to the shadow of the tree. I take the allegory further by taking note of a third element in this equation viz. circumstance, here represented by the lighting conditions, the surface on which the shadow is cast, the acuteness of the observer of said shadow, etc.
  2. I also posit that the character of a person is fundamentally imperceptible i.e. we cannot see the tree - only its shadow, and must approximate its shape and size by observing the shadow under various circumstances.
  3. Any person has only partial control over her character - she may want to be an orange tree, but can't simply become one if she is born a peach tree. She also has partial control over her circumstances, because people aren't trees.

    Postulate II is true of physical quantities: we may not 'know' time itself, merely measure the time elapsed between two phenomena. It has also been explained thusly in the particular case of humans:
    • In a very real sense, we don't perceive anything but shadows. You think you see other people, but that's just Electromagnetic waves stimulating your retina. What you hear is just molecular vibrations. What you feel is just pressure picked up by your nerves. Humans do not have one single sense thatdirectly perceives how we interpret the data we receive from the environment. In other words, You Cannot Grasp the True Form of everything around you, and what you see is just an illusion created by the brain trying to make sense out of everything.
      • Also the fact that we're all living slightly in the past. All signals take some time, an incredibly small amount of time, but still, for the brain to interpret after they're received, and even take time to reach the observer.
      • More significantly, it would take a very long time to perceive all the tiles in your bathroom in the level of detail you believe you see them in. Your eye looks at one or two in detail then perceives the whole wall in low quality and your brain just assumes that those vaguely tile-like blobs look the same as the tiles you saw in detail. Most optical illusions exploit weaknesses in this step.

    So, how does it answer our original question? My answer is simply this: the character does indeed come first. Especially when the character is a God or some such entity. (S)he is conceived by the writer/prophet in a certain way, and said writer/prophet tries to describe said character using a story.

    However, writers/prophets are human, as are their audiences. It is possible that the character was incompletely conceived. Or that the story has multiple authors. Or the audiences favour an Alternate Character Interpretation, and will create and propagate fanfiction to that effect.

    Enter the fourth dimension (to recap, the 3 dimensions are Character, Story/Reputation and Circumstance) of Fandom. Fanatics aka fans aren't just observers, they are emotionally invested observers (remember, hatred, envy and sundry malice are also emotions).  Fans are the ultimate authority over what is considered canon. And most importantly, fans have standards i.e. they will restrain all fanfiction and character development within certain limits so as to avoid Canon Defilement.

    But Fandoms are mortal. The original fandoms of Norse and Hellenic Myths have been extinct for years. So who decides canon now?

    So in effect, even though the character comes first, the only way for us to know of the character is through stories. But characters and stories and fandoms are all dynamic things, and therefore we can never know either the character or the story… or can we?

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