Attacks on identity are not just hate crimes, they are war crimes. They are assaults on the most basic sense of self whether the target is a person, culture or religion. These types of attacks are designed to undermine legitimacy with objectives that range from oppression to obliteration. They are among the most heinous of attacks.
But sometimes these wars storm quietly. Sometimes they rage for centuries, using imagery and innuendo to suppress ideas and populations, but happen so subtly and infrequently that we catch only glimpses of battle. Salvos of marketing and advertising lay the groundwork for cultural hegemons to marginalize and eradicate people, societies and even faiths.Then they turn to politics, spinning to wipe away evidence and reframe the aftermath as a great work for a better future or a common good. It all happens with rhetoric and magniloquence, because in this kind of warfare words are weapons, and they matter a great deal.
We have been cautioned by many faiths, avatars and gods that words have deep power. In Odin’s discovery of the runes, he comments during his self-sacrifice, “From a word to a word I was led to a word, from a deed to another deed.” (The Poetic Edda, c.1200 CE) The apostle John affirms to Christians that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (The Gospel of John 1:1) Words organize intent and expose new gateways into the mind and the spirit, and while we often take them for granted, they are the basic tool of ritual work, the basic tool of change and the basic tool of control. They are also the foot soldiers that both convey and condemn identity.Science gives us some insight into how words become more important than even the actual, physical objects that they represent. Recently Edminston & Lupyan (2015) conducted a series of experiments to examine how words and ideas co-inform us about our environment. They argue, as an example, that the idea of “it’s snowing” or “snow” can be activated by different cues like the word “snow,” the crunch of snow underfoot, witnessing flurries or a snow-dusted sidewalk. Our brains can identify “snow” many different ways and by any one of these cues. However, the question is whether there is something unique to the word “snow” that is different from the evidence of it. In other words, do we have a mental representation of “snow” — from the word itself –– that is more powerful than, for example, witnessing the event that is called “snowing,” or even holding some in your hand.
What they hypothesize is that our category labels are more important than other sources of information – like watching those flurries — to activate and access our conceptual knowledge of the thing we’re experiencing. That is to say, verbal labels are more important to triggering our knowledge of topics than other modes of experiencing a phenomenon.
A different example of what they are getting at is the word “dog.” That word evokes more knowledge of canines than hearing, say, some barking by those animals. The label “dog” is more important for accessing our information than the sound of barking. And, thus, we are more adept – faster as measured in their experiments — when we use the word “dog” rather than when we hear a bark, or perhaps even see a dog.
Now that idea of “dog” that we access in our mind from the word may be general. It’s not a corgi or a basset hound or a retriever, it is the general idea of dog. We might think of those breeds collectively as the category of “dog.” It doesn’t evoke a specific one. It’s a generalization from which we can pull specifics if we choose. However, it does open a deep cognitive path that allows us to access all our information on the object, as well as our prejudices. It demonstrates the extraordinary power – even magic — of words. Those words — and the act of labeling — bypasses the circuitry of the object (i.e., the dog) and goes directly to our idea of “dog,” and in doing so reinforces all those cognitions and predispositions we have about the object: we like dogs, we hate dogs, “who’s a good dog?”
Why this is important is that this new understanding of these psychological pathways has direct implications for our understanding of human perception. These findings suggest that, while we may perceive information with our senses, the labels we use will always frame our awareness of that information. Words buoy our prejudices and, through them, frame our views of others and things whether they be culture or identity-based. And that could have more serious implications about how our implicit biases tint not only our mental impressions but also how we understand the people and world around us.
Understanding a word means an automatic instigation of our mental construct that it represents for us in its fullest form. Words buttress our personal architecture of the universe around us, the good and the bad, and using them strategically can bless or malign our representations of our inner world that becomes the reality around us.
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A few days ago, I was visiting the temple of Diana of the Wood in the town of Nemi, Italy. It is a stunning and sacred place; Diana’s presence is immanent and palpable. The temple – now ruins – is on the north shore of the lake for which the town is named. The lake itself is volcanic, surrounded by the crater walls and filled only by rainwater. Wind will cause it to shimmer, but it has no real waves; there are long moments where it becomes absolutely still, reflecting the surrounding woods and crater. Even today, it lives up to its Roman name, Speculum Dianae, the Mirror of Diana.We were visiting the lakeside museum that exhibits the remains of famous Roman ships used by emperor Caligula to cool off when he visited Lake Nemi during the hot Roman summers. He was a devotee of Isis, but also venerated Diana Nemorensis (Diana of the Wood). Why he built the ships as floating palaces (complete with heated baths, mosaics, and plumbing, galleys and sleeping quarters) is unknown, and apparently the subject of much debate. My husband concluded that Caligula was no fool; all you have to do is look around. The area is idyllic and under the watchful patronage of Diana.
And then it happened. While we were exiting the museum, a German-speaking traveler standing close to me spoke to her family member, and I overheard, “Nemi See ist in der Mythologie von Rom erwähnt…. In den kurze Geschichten über die Göttin Diana.” (Lake Nemi is mentioned in Roman mythology. Short stories about the goddess Diana).
So there it was. Just like the word “dog” discussed earlier, the word “mythology” triggered abstractions that were trying to overtake and degrade the magical experience of place. “Mythology” was trying to make it “fake.” And, “short stories” reinforced the abstraction of simple-mindedness; as though there was a puerile, even naïve, element to them. For a moment, the place became mundane and the stories — the parables of Diana — lost their theism. The lake had become a place in literature like the Marabar Caves or Elsinore.
This traveler reduced — most likely inadvertently, but echoing centuries of cultural reinterpretation — the Roman religion to fables learned in high school. It brought into relief how language has slowly been used to relegate Pagan and polytheistic beliefs from religious discourse to adolescent literature. Thus those gods become undeserving of veneration because they evoke fiction, not religion.
Now, I’m neither a classicist nor a Roman theologian. The closest I got to those areas academically were Latin classes. But I do know that Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes and Bulfinch’s Mythology were both required reading in high school as introductions to ancient belief. And I distinctly remember that we approached these texts as fiction. As Merriam-Webster puts it, myth is “an idea or story that is believed by many people but that is not true… a story that was told in an ancient culture to explain a practice, belief, or natural occurrence. Looking at the full definitions offered by that dictionary, we can see that myth seems to have nothing to do with religion.
From the same source we see that examples of this usage include, “Contrary to popular myth, no monster lives in this lake.” The language underscores the fictional aspect of the story and undermines the identity of believer for those who may hold those stories as sacred. We are — at best — being encouraged to understand the stories as false.
Members of our broader society would be scandalized if we used the same language in reference to the stories or central figures of monotheistic faiths such as Jesus of Nazareth or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). We are taught that Moses and the prophets of Judaism are historical persons. The Gospels are not myths, neither is the Quran nor the Torah. As Mircea Eliade noted, “The earliest Christian theologians took the word in the sense that had become current some centuries earlier in the Greco-Roman world, i.e., ‘fable, fiction, lie,’” (p. 162) and that the myth is “a false account portraying truth,” whereas the narrative — like Biblical stories — are accounts of “descriptive of events which took place or might have taken place.’”If we visit Wikipedia and search for “Christian Mythology,” we do not get Christian doctrine. Instead, we are given a long list of beliefs that are apocryphal to Christianity, and we certainly don’t see the image on the right hand side of the page denoting the section as “part of a series on” Christianity, Islam or really any of the modern major faiths. For Islamic mythology, Wikipedia informs us that, “This section improperly uses one or more religious texts as primary sources without referring to secondary sources that critically analyze them.” Norse Religion, on the other hand, is described as part of the “Norse Anthropology” portal. Type in Paganism, and you get a pictures of Venus and comments about antiquity. Type in “NeoPaganism” and you get an underdeveloped “Part of a series on” with one link. We are not only underrepresented there, but the language in Wikipedia diminishes us and our beliefs.
Now I am completely aware that Wikipedia is built on contributions, but the editors and contributors are mimicking the longstanding semantic favoritism toward the major faith traditions. It is the use of language to segregate that which is acceptably believable and part of religion from that which is dramatized and belonging to literature. It highlights the institutionalized bias toward monotheism and marginalizes Pagans and Polytheists as aberrant or antiquated or ill-informed or even immature.
My mistake at Nemi was silence. I had an opportunity to reframe “mythology.” I could have answered, for example, “But they are important stories. Many people still find strength in them.” But I didn’t. The unintentional attack on identity and faith did not get a response. In fact, I didn’t realize the scope of what had happened until I spent some time sitting by the lake shore almost an hour later. But we can respond. And we should.
Doing so is an act of reparation and affirmation. We can knit together the story of our identity as both new and ancient faiths. Through the tiniest of steps, we can re-frame a word at a time to a person at a time. And we can unlink associations that have undermined religious identity even in societies that favor no religion. We need some courage, but we’ve never lacked that. We need to take advantage of that moment of opportunity and share of the responsibility. We can each be weavers of language to knit new meanings to old words that will slowly but unfailingly becomes the tapestry of our identity while restoring unity with and honoring our ancestors.
It’s not about anything remotely related to evangelism; that’s not within our traditions. But it is about giving voice to identity. It’s about honoring our ancestors, and the importance of Pagan and polytheistic beliefs in the present day and in the present moment. It is about unifying the past and the present, and demanding that belief and identity not be casualties of linguistic wars.
At that moment in Nemi, I lost two opportunities. One opportunity was to educate about identity and the other to start re-knitting the association of “mythology” from fable to faith. But I’ll work on doing better.
Ubi concordia, ibi victoria. Where there is unity, there is victory.
Edmiston, P. & Lupyan, G. (2015). What makes words special? Words as unmotivated cues. Cognition, 143, 93-100.
Eliade, M. (1963). Myth and Reality” Harper & Row: New York.