Many cultures can look back at a ‘heroic age’ where Gods and men interacted directly. The Homeric Iliad tells of encounters between capricious Gods and sailors on epic journeys. The Egyptians and the Hebrews likewise recounted the meddling of Gods in everyday human events. These are ages in the imagination of a culture when the normal rules do not apply.
When ‘normal’ rules apply and the Gods don’t mess with us directly, people still look to influence events with their help. Especially when society gets too corrupt, we long for the heroes who can work their super powers and set things right. On rare occasions, someone comes along to whom the normal rules don’t apply, like Jesus who came millennia after Zeus stopped sleeping with women. But Jesus’ age of miracles is also now past.
If they no longer care enough to touch us, we should ask ‘why do we need heroes?’ Now that men and women don’t interact directly with God(s), why do we then pray to them? What is this hopeless optimism that enables us to believe?
In other posts, we’ve explored the dynamics of myth in relation to:
- Explanations for what is not yet understood, like the creation myth accounting for life on earth.
- A justification for domination, like a king or emperor claiming ancestral descent from a God in order to shore up his claim to power.
- A mechanism for a community to internalize shared values through stories.
What we still need to explore is the need to have a mythical hero ‘pull strings’ with God to influence current events on our behalf. This faith comes in part from experience. Many of us (myself included) have experienced answers to prayer. Is there something in the expectation of an effect that perhaps impacts the actual outcome?
We’ve all seen believer remain faithful even if things don’t go exactly her way. For the believer, the very expression of intent through prayer impacts the perception of the outcome:
- If the outcome was inevitable, there is submission to God.
- If the outcome goes against our intent or prayer, we look for a lesson because God knows better and he loves us.
- If the outcome is in our favor, we remember it especially well and tell others.
So regardless of the true outcome, it seems that formalizing an intent through prayer gets the issue tracked, and the results are parsed according to the rules of the world view. Thus, religion is reinforced even if someone who never prays gets a similar experience.
There is a fundamental positive belief about the dynamics of faith: we smile at the universe believing it will smile back (eventually). Hope is not rational, but it makes us feel better because we’re not alone in the universe. This triggers more confident action. Belief makes the world go ‘round. From the diminutive turtle hatchling scrambling out of a sandy nest, sniffing for the ocean, to the college student cramming for tomorrow’s critical exam, belief in the movement towards a more agreeable existence is the driving force of life.
Thus, hero myths are a mechanism for internalizing the direction we want to take. They need to come from an age of heroes that is culturally accepted in order to give such talk legitimacy. We’re hopelessly optimistic about good things happening. We assume, of course, that prosperity is possible. However, what happens when things can only get worse when overpopulation restricts cramps our expansionism, when it’s no longer possible to breathe air that is as clean as what our parents had? How do we then pray in a world where prosperity is a zero-sum game? When consuming means being cruel to other life on earth?
Some will get irrational and look towards a prosperous future on Mars, even though that option is generations away. Others simply stop being optimistic. Lack of faith only results in a depressive, lethargic, living death. Others will rationalize prosperity as something internal, as a spiritual journey that doesn’t need stuff. If we don’t check out of life, we must believe in something positive, and mythical heroes are there to help.
— Roy Zuniga