Common Misconceptions About Old Mythologies & Religions

There are a lot of misconceptions about mythology that have been filtering into fiction and roleplays these days. Sometimes a writer somewhere takes creative liberties to write a story and people mistakenly believe that what happened in the story is representative of the original myths, or sometimes people tend to impose their own values and ideas about cosmology on deities that operated on a very different worldview. Sometimes people simply fail to realize just how complex mythology and its figures actually were, or make broad assumptions based on spurious evidence. So, here's an examination of some of the various misconceptions that I've seen commonly going around.

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Gods and goddesses associated with the underworld and death sought to kill the living and therefore claim people's souls.

Not only is this not how it usually works, this is just plain silly. Gods and goddesses typically had indefinite lifespans, which means that they had pretty much forever to wait around for the squishy mortals to give up the ghost on their own. Hastening their demises, or throwing a hissy fit when they didn’t die just then wouldn’t make a lot of sense. If anything, mortals were more commonly threatened by deities they personally cheesed off somehow, or by deities whose spats with other deities happened to put mortals in the crossfire.

Now in one instance Hades had someone killed - Asclepius. But in this case, Asclepius had become so skilled at healing that he was able to bring people back from the dead, and had this been allowed to go on the natural order of things would have been completely wrecked, and action had to be taken. But people getting saved from mortal injuries? Not a problem.

Most deities associated with the underworld weren’t depicted as especially or disproportionately antagonistic, either. In fact, underworld deities Osiris, Hel, and Hades were about as laid back as gods could possibly get - they just peacefully ruled over the dead and let the other gods do their thing.

Old-time deities and their areas of influence all fit into neat little archetypal pigeonholes.

Contrary to some people’s view that gods and goddesses all fit into neat boxes as far as their skills were concerned (“this was the goddess of agriculture, that was the god of war…”), real mythologies weren’t so neat and tidy, especially where major deities were concerned. Gods and goddesses frequently had multiple areas of expertise, some of which had no apparent logical connection to each other - and might at times seem contradictory. For example, the Egyptian Hathor is associated with music, motherhood, sex, beauty, and love - but Hathor also has a fierce and bloodthirsty aspect known as Sekhmet, to whom soldiers would pray.

Let’s look at the Greek Hermes. He isn’t just a pilfering messenger god - he’s also a god of commerce and trade, cattle, crossing boundaries, oration and wit, and even sports and athletics, and on top of that, he’s supposed to guide souls to the afterlife. And that isn’t even all.

Also, overlap between deities’ areas of influence was common enough. In the Egyptian pantheon, Hathor, Isis, Taweret, and Bes were all associated with motherhood and childbirth. In the Greek pantheon, Athena and Ares both dealt in war, with Athena presiding over the strategic aspect, while Ares was more about bloodlust and combat itself.

There used to be widespread worship of a supreme goddess.

This one isn’t dead wrong so much as unsubstantiated. The buzz that goes around in some circles is that humankind used to worship and venerate a goddess as their primary deity until a bunch of guys decided it was time to take charge and kick the proverbial queen off the throne - and from then on and to this day, male gods have always been the head honchos.

The trouble is, there is no concrete evidence for this. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see evidence for a major religious belief system headed by a goddess. But the fact is, we just don’t have any conclusive evidence for one.

Inevitably, proponents of such hold up the Woman of Willendorf and the statues similar to her as proof of this widespread goddess religion. But the reality is, we don’t really know what these statues were about. What we do know is that:

And that’s it. Sure, it’s possible they represented a goddess, but there aren’t exactly any records or oral traditions left to us by our Ice Age ancestors to confirm this. Maybe the statues were fertility charms or fetishes used for fertility spells. Maybe the statues were meant to titillate and excite - basically, prehistoric porn. Not saying this had to be the case, of course, but there’s just as much proof for them as there is for that the statues represent a supreme goddess.

There have been cults dedicated to individual goddesses throughout the ages, and some of them may have been particularly female-friendly (Isis’s mystery cult had a rather large female following), but these were invariably goddesses who existed as members of other pantheons, and were not themselves considered supreme goddesses by the majority. (Precisely what the members of Isis’s eventual mystery cult believed about her, we’ll never know - adherents of mystery religions didn’t exactly share their beliefs with outsiders.)

The Norse goddess Sigyn was betrothed to a man named Theoric, whom Loki killed so he could marry her instead.

This comes from Marvel comics, not Norse mythology. Long story short, back in the 60’s the guys at Marvel was a little fuzzy on some of the details of actual Norse mythology (Thor’s hammer was originally referred to as his “uru hammer” because Stan Lee couldn’t remember its actual name), plus the mythology wasn’t clear on a lot of details - like, how did an assfart like Loki end up getting married to a sweet kid like Sigyn? So keeping in line with the complete-and-total buttbucket that was their own take on the Norse trickster, the story of Loki killing her intended husband was come up with.

The details of Loki and Sigyn’s wedding and marriage aren’t actually detailed in Norse mythology. While there are some allusions that he wasn’t the nicest to Sigyn and kind of a pain in the butt, there’s nothing truly concrete - we never really get to see them interact, nor do we get Sigyn’s side of the story.

(And speaking of characters created by Marvel, Hogun, Fandral, Volstagg, Karnilla, Amora, and Skurge were all characters created for the comics.)

The Greek Titans were destructive and bent on the destruction of humanity.

Another misconception popularized by Percy Jackson that has no basis in actual mythology. The Greek Titans have never attempted to destroy humanity. If anything, they were nicer to humans than the Olympians were.

The Titan Kronos ruled during the Earth’s Golden Age - in other words, things were never better than when the Titans were in charge! Furthermore, the Titan Prometheus went out of his way to help humanity by making sure they had fire and good food (and incurred Zeus’s wrath in the process!).

Speaking of Zeus, he was said to have wiped out huge chunks of humanity three times - five, if you count allowing the Trojan and Theban wars to start.

The Titans did fight against the Olympians once - but this was when the Olympians were trying to overthrow and defeat them. They didn’t launch an offensive against the Olympians. Yeah, sure, Kronos did eat his children back in the day, but honestly, when you look at what a pain in the neck Zeus turned out to be, maybe he had the right idea after all...

You might also be interested in:

Things That Show Up In Christianity-Inspired Fiction That Aren't In The Bible
Basic Tips To Create More Believable Sci-Fi & Fantasy Religions & Belief Systems
Human Psychology and its Effect on Myths, Legends, and Superstition
Common Fairy Tale Myths Debunked

External resources/references:

Theoi Greek Mythology Online
Ancient Egypt Online
The Cult of Isis
Wikipedia: Venus Figurines

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