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voyageur, Orolaunum

The role of mythology

Over on the Gaulish Reconstructionist Forum, Eyðimörk asked, "What role does mythology play for you, and what mythology would that be?"

I think it was Scaevola who said that there are three ways of apprehending the gods: that of poets, that of philosophers, and that of the state. For us, we can add two more – that of Christian monks, and that of sculptors and mosaicists.

For my own part, I think I resemble Eyðimörk in making use of mythology (which includes both the way of pagan poets and the way of Christian monks) chiefly for ideas as to how given gods may be connected. Like Endovelicon, I wish that actual Gaulish or Celtiberian myths had survived (the Celtic interpretation of Ogmios/Hercules given in Lucian comes close). In the absence of this, we do have a lot of Gallo-Roman visual material, and even the occasional pre-Roman figuration.

The earliest representations of Gallic deities are in some ways the most arresting. Like Tarvos Trigaranus and Esus, or the figures around the Gundestrup cauldron, they are practically crying out for interpretation. The objects we see around the gods and the juxtaposition of deities, have obvious mythic significance ... which we just can't grasp. Certainly not for sure. In the south, Jupiter holds a wheel: what does he do with it? In the east, he rides a horse surmounting an anguipedal giant: what victory has he won, and how; and why is it worth commemorating? Nantosuelta holds a beehive or a shrine or a dollhouse: what is it, and what does it mean? In all these, and so many other instances, we long for answers that only mythology can give us, but that mythology is now lost.

For that reason, I generally prefer to focus on a slightly later period, where deities have generally been placed in various kinds of relation to the classical pantheon. This last, though of course complex and multi-layered, is at least a known quantity, which we can apprehend through Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, pseudo-Apollodorus, Ovid and many other sources.

I love Irish mythology, and I have read the Mabinogion many times, but I doubt more and more whether they preserve much that can shed light on the Gaul of several centuries earlier. The only hypothesis from insular mythology I'm currently testing in my mind, is whether Lludd and Lleuelys preserve, with Nuada and Lugh, a memory of a special shared kingship between Mars and Mercury.

In itself, mythology certainly cannot give us a full and authentic knowledge of the gods. Rather, it seems best for stirring the soul and attuning the psyche to receive the providential gifts of the gods. And mythology is by no means the only way to do this; to my mind, philosophy, prayer, and pilgrimage are equally stimulating in this direction. And I sincerely feel that working at living a good life deserves equal mention here: I never feel closer to the gods than when brimming with love for my girlfriend, or teaching my classes well.