Storytelling and the Mythic Landscape

Throughout human history, religions have communicated their values and moral codes through storytelling. Both oral traditions and literate societies passed their metaphorical teaching stories from generation to generation. These stories illustrated the values of their cultures, gave explanations for how they had come to exist as distinct groups, and often populated the home landscapes of these cultures with mythological beings and histories.

As a whole, such myths had the effect not only of passing along the beliefs of their peoples, but of enchanting their landscapes. Major features of the lands where these people lived—rivers, mountains, geological features— became associated with stories of heroism, discovery, innovation, and lessons learned.

Where I live—North America—the vast majority of us have never lived in an enchanted landscape. Our myths are of far-off places like Palestine, or the British Isles, or Greece. Only the Native peoples have stories that are about this land, and we are generally not privy to them unless we are one of them. Nor would it be appropriate to appropriate (see what I did there?) their stories for our own.

The non-theist Pagan writer Steven Posch is an example of someone who is practicing this craft today. I suggest you check him out!

Some years ago, when I was still going through the motions of pretending to believe in gods, I wrote a series of stories about Sonoma County. I’m looking at them again recently, with an eye to adapting them to fit with Atheopaganism. I did use the Native character Coyote, as an homage of the fact that this trickster character appears in Native stories throughout the west.

I begin my stories with “What if..?” because they are speculative, imagined histories. They are meant for enjoyment and for illustration of their moral lessons, not to be literal instruction about the nature of the world. For that, The Great Story will more than suffice.

I think that as we develop relationships with our local landscapes, is is natural that such stories would occur to us. They’re useful for teaching lessons to children, and they imbue the features of our local terrain with a mythic sacredness that might otherwise not be as deeply felt or communicated.

Here is an example, from my Sonoma Stories.

Coyote Makes Candy

What if this happened, a long time ago, before the Human People came here?

It was just at the time when everything was beginning.  Across the land of Sonoma, everything was there just for the first time. There were Eagle, and Fox, and Salmon and Elk and Hummingbird, and all the other Animal People and Plant People, but there was only one of each.  They had sprung up in Sonoma’s footsteps as she stepped out of the sea, and each was different.

It was beautiful, in the wide valleys along the River, and the People were all happy.  Some flew, others swam.  They found places to live:  in holes, in trees, in pools.  No one ate anything.

But after awhile, it was boring and lonely.  The Animal People and the Plant People thought, what is this?  What must I do?  Is this all there is, just to sit around in all this beauty all day?

Coyote was there, too. He climbed up onto Mt. St. Helena and looked down.  He could see that Unhappiness was being invented.  Being Coyote, he wasn’t bored yet, but he could see how it might happen.  And he had an idea.

He called Bear, and Valley Oak, and Salmon, and they all came to where he sat on the mountaintop.  He had scooped a hollow in the rock up there, and the bare stone was getting hot in the midday sun.

“Friends,” said Coyote, “I am making something.  I need you to bring me what I need, and then I will share it with all of you.”

“What is it?” asked Salmon.

“I am making candy,” said Coyote.

“What is that?” said the Animal People and Oak.

“You put it in your mouth and it makes you feel very good,” said Coyote. “That is called eating.”

Well, this was the first new thing that had happened in a long time, and all the People were excited.  They said they would help Coyote make the candy.

So Coyote sent Bear to find honey, and asked Valley Oak for acorns, and sent Salmon to a clear pool in the River, where she brought back a flashing reflection from the water.

When they brought back these things, Coyote ground the acorns, and put them into the warm hollow in the mountaintop.  Then he crushed in the honeycombs, and the flash of Sun, and stirred these all together.
“Now go down the mountain, and don’t come back until the moon has risen,” said Coyote.

When they were gone, Coyote invited another Animal Person to help him.  Black Widow Spider was living in a crack on top of Mt. St. Helena, and still lives there to this day.  “Grandmother,” said Coyote, “will you help me to make this candy?”

So Grandmother Spider came out and added what she had to the hollow in the mountaintop.  And Coyote put in the shining reflection that Salmon had brought back from the River, and covered the candy up.

“Now we wait,” he said.

Soon the moon rose. Word had gone around about Coyote’s wonderful idea, so when the Moon rose, all the Animal People and Plant People came there, up to the top of Mt. St. Helena.  They all wanted to see what this candy was going to be like.

Coyote stood on top of a rock, and he looked out in the moonlight at all the People gathered there.

“Friends, this is a special candy.  It is very sweet, but it will be bitter, too.  When you come to the hollow for a taste, first look at the candy, and I will show you what to do.”

So Squirrel, who is always in a hurry, stepped up to the hollow, and took away the cover. In the moonlight, the surface of the candy was black and shining.  Squirrel could see an exact copy of herself reflected there…and then the copy stepped up out of the hollow to stand next to her!  Now there were two squirrels.

They weren’t exactly the same, either.

Coyote took some of the candy and rubbed it on the parts of the two Squirrels that were different from each other.  “This will make these parts sweet.  So now you don’t have to be alone, and you can make more Squirrels. We will have children now, and fill the world with our families.”

The Animal People and the Plant People crowded around, excited, and they all brought their mates out of the candy and rubbed their new genitals with it.  This was wonderful!  No more loneliness!

The Moon had almost set when the last of them went back down the mountain, happy with a new mate.

Then Black Widow Spider came out again.  She said, “You didn’t tell them about the other part.”

“Yeah,” said Coyote.  “We needed to get things going around here, and I was afraid they wouldn’t take the candy if I told them.”

“If they had thought about it a little, they would have known.  It wouldn’t have taken long to fill up the whole world.” Spider shifted a little and sighed, and walked over to where the last of the candy lay glimmering in the hollow. She leaned over the edge to see her lover’s face, and when he had climbed, with his handsome shining new legs, to stand beside her, she solemnly rubbed their genitals with the sweetness and bitterness of love and death.

 

Shown: Mt. St. Helena

 

 

 

The Powers of an Atheopagan

They aren’t gods.

They aren’t self-aware, and thus have no agency. They don’t communicate.

They simply are. Irrefutably.

And they are not “worshiped”. They have no egos with which to soak up adulation.

They are here. They are real. They are honored, revered, contemplated with humility and wonder.

They are the Powers of this world.

Earth. Sky. Sun. Moon. River. Ocean. Mountain. Desert. Forest. 

Yes, we Atheopagans can speak to these. We can tip our heads forward to rest upon the cool rock, or plunge shrieking into the cold water or climb to the airy summit, knowing we are small and temporary and they are…well, also temporary, but large, and well out of our time scale. Knowing that in doing these things, we are communing with the vast, the practically eternal, the capital-T Truths of life on Planet Earth. We find revelation in encounters with the Powers: wisdom, humility, poetry, song, art. We become more fully alive.

And we can speak their names, invoke their natures in our circles.

To me, it is far more engaging and meaningful to say “Earth” than it is to say “Gaia”. The latter conjures a humanoid caricature in my mind; an attempt by humans to make like ourselves what is in fact in no way like us. But the former contains multitudes; it is the vast complexity of diverse places, climates, systems, creatures that make up this astounding world, and worthy of honor, reverence, humility, love.

Some non-theist Pagans use the names of gods even though they don’t literally believe in them, and that’s perfectly fine. It just isn’t my way. I’d rather sing to the sinuous, ever-renewing, world-shaping cool of River, shout to the blinding heat of Sun. To invoke the things themselves, and not the containers humans made for them.

The Midwestern Pagan writer Steven Posch takes this approach to the Powers, and I find his writing quite consistent with my own way of looking at the world, as well as thought provoking and entertaining. I encourage Atheopagans to check him out here and here.