So…what’s with the reference to pagan gods?

I have often wondered at all the pagan symbols and mythological references in “Christian” literature.  This is most prevalent in medieval literature. Yet somehow medieval writes could incorporated pagan themes and ideas into Christian concepts without losing or breaking the integrity of their faith.  To the modern Christian this seems strange and inconsistent, but to the medievalists it was simply how spiritual things were best explained.  They saw that the pagans were searching for something greater than what this banal life could rationalize.  They created stories of origin, full of mystery and deities to give meaning to life.  C. S. Lewis calls this type of searching original myth.  Original myths are ultimately seeking truth. However, in the searching, the pagans only found inferior forms and became confused by their own ignorance.  So though they were seeking truth they did not find it.  Lewis believed that True Myth, which is the story that tells the Truth, is incarnate in the Christian Myth.  In other words, any truth that is disclosed in the original myths is found in the True Myth, Christianity.  Christianity is the myth that all the pagan religions were trying to understand. Therefore, it does not seem so strange then that a Christian writer could and would use pagan deities to explain aspects of Christian faith.

You can see how with this understanding of myth, Dante or Milton’s use of the pagan deities  or concepts in their writings makes sense.  They are using the themes and values that are personified in the myths to strengthen in a tangible way the abstract concepts that are inherent in the Christian Myth.  Dante’s use of the pagan deities gives greater understanding to the complexity of the human nature as it is seen from a divine perspective.

So the next you’re reading look for the myths and the references to classical literature and see how the pagan myths strengthen the argument and give definition to abstract ideas.


13 thoughts on “So…what’s with the reference to pagan gods?

  1. But why is the Christian Myth the “true” one and all the other myths wrong? Don’t you think that all myths are important? That all myths have something to tell us about being human? Otherwise we wouldn’t have kept them and they wouldn’t still resonate today.

    1. Perhaps I should have clarified…the discussion of myth and True Myth are part of a larger more complex issue that has many presuppositions in it.Some of those presuppositions are that there is Truth, Truth can be known, and that Truth is embodied in the Incarnation of Christ (to farther understand this point, I would suggest reading “God in the Dock” by C. S. Lewis). Also, I am using the term myth in its literary form, which is to say myth is a type of story. So Christianity is the True Story.
      So to answer your first question: The myths of old cry out for a deity that will understand the plight of mankind; John 1 states that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and and Word was God…and the Word became flesh.” The Word is Christ and He came lived died and rose again. He understands man and He came to save man. No other story can make that claim. Christianity is the True Story and all others fall short. (Read “Till We Have Faces” by C. S. Lewis)
      The other myths are important because they do show aspects of humanity. The Iliad and Odyssey and the Aeneid are excellence examples of myths that show the nature of man, they reveal the importance to duty and sacrifice, and they also prove that man is not the measure of all things and that there is divine will (granted the Greeks and Romans did not completely understand this concept they at least acknowledged that it exists).
      So when Christian writers like Milton, Dante and even C. S. Lewis start using pagan myths in their writing, they are building on the foundations of previous knowledge to help their readers adjust and grow in understanding. They are starting with familiar concepts of the myths, since most people were more familiar with them then we are today, and using the device of literary allusion, they give strength and depth to their literature. We can understand the strength of virtue in the character of Penelope, the power of destiny in Aeneas, or the nobility of supplication in Priam when he begs for the body of his son, so when these characters or actions are referenced in a Christian context we can see God’s truth in virtue, divine will, and nobility.
      Just because a myth is important does not make that myth immediately true. You can learn a lot from a lie and even more from mistakes. Classical myths are important because they are the foundation to our literature.

      1. Jake, it is the “True Myth” to them because they are Christian writers. That faith believes they are right and everyone else in the world for the entire span of history has had it wrong. This is their belief and they are entitled to it. But you must understand this was written from that perspective.

        If looked at through that view point it is an interesting theory/article.

        Rachael, thought you’d like to know; you have a typo: (Read “Till We Have Faces” by S. C. Lewis) it’s C.S. Lewis

      2. Thanks Gwen, my position on this topic does require the presupposition of Christianity being true and I appreciate your willingness to at least consider this perspective if only as literary criticism. (Also, I have made the correction with the author’s name…just got a little mixed up there =)

    2. Jake,

      I don’t like to respond to comments with a long quote and nothing else, but C. S. Lewis said it well in Mere Christianity. What he says here about “other religions” would apply mutatis mutandis to myths:

      I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic- there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.


  2. COMMENTARY, ACTS 17:23, ROM. 1:23, COL. 2:9

    The ancients worshiped what they did not know:
    Corruptible men and beasts and creeping things
    Enthroned in splendor, deathless. From below,
    They scaled the sky with such imaginings,
    But for that trip they needed stronger wings.
    The glimpses filled their hearts with holy dread;
    They could not see the way the King of kings
    Joined all the scattered hints into one Head:
    Atropos, who snips thread after thread;
    Poseidon, master of the raging sea;
    Hera of the hearth and marriage bed;
    Live-giving power of Persephone;
    Aphrodite’s beauty; Ares’ might;
    Zeus’s thunder; and Apollo’s light.

  3. The Celts had a grand old time with the fusing of pagan with Christian beliefs in the early medieval period. A lot of stories involve pagan heroes and former god-figures interacting with saints or using Christian language. A lot of scholars support the argument that this is simply because the scribes were Christian monks trying to rid the common folk of their false beliefs, but the peculiar fusing of Celtic and Christian beliefs might also be partly attributed to the willingness of the Irish people to accept Christianity without leaving the pagan aspects of the culture completely in the dust. They saw very little problem with allowing the two belief systems to interact, not as equals, but as reinvented literature. The pagan beliefs became subservient to Christianity, but they did not give up their culture or history in the process.

    1. Well said, Melissa. And I’d add that this “peculiar fusing” isn’t entirely peculiar to the Celts. Since the Christian faith has no privileged place, race, tongue, or culture, wherever it enters a culture it can take (and historically, with a few unfortunate exceptions, has taken) a pretty generous look at that culture, and in its myths expect to find not a few echoes of the true one.

  4. Rachel, I think your post accurately summarizes Lewis’s view of pagan myth: “Original myths are ultimately seeking truth. However, in the searching, the pagans only found inferior forms . . .” I think Lewis was too sanguine about the ancient Gentiles though. As St Paul said, they weren’t just (or even ultimately) seeking truth, but also suppressing it. That isn’t the whole of Paul’s thought about ancient pagan culture — Don rightly mentioned Acts 17 in this connection, where Paul showed considerable respect for the Athenians and some knowledge of their literature — but I think it’s fair to say Lewis took a more favorable view than Paul about the pagans’ intentions in writing myths.

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