Mythic Adventures

Sacred Stories from around the Globe

Archive for the category “Personal Development”

An Urgent Invitation


Earlier today I was the guest preacher at Keeler United Methodist Church, a beautiful old country church just east of St. Joseph, Michigan. The structure is over 170 years old, and as soon as you walk into the sanctuary, your gaze is directed toward Christ in the garden, praying.

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I especially like the fact that the person who is preaching sees another image — one that reminds us to feed his sheep. You might have to look closely to see the picture between the two windows in the back, but it was much more visible for me. It was an honor to preach in such a lovely setting, and the One of whom I spoke seemed very close indeed.


My sermon was entitled, “An Urgent Invitation.” My text was Luke 9:57-62. I talked about what it means to follow Jesus today, and I presented some mental snapshots of what our lives will look like if we’re truly doing that.

Click the link below to listen (25 min).



A Farewell to Students

Commencement 04-30-16 015


As a faculty member, I’ve listened to lots of commencement addresses, but here’s what I wish I could say to my students as they prepare to leave us…

To our graduates:

We congratulate you on finishing a challenging course of study.  We hope that you have learned much and learned it well, and that you will become productive members of your communities and of this nation.  But now, after all that you have learned, there is one question that remains to be answered—and it must be answered by each of you individually:

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you can afford to ignore this question.  If all you’re interested in is making money, be on your way, then, and have joy of it.  If all you want is fame, good luck.  If you really just want to settle down and work at a job and earn a good living, we wish you the best.

But if you want your life to be more than that—more than grubbing for money or fame, more than the routine of going to work day after day after day and then you die—if you want your life to make a difference, so that people will know, long after you’re gone, that you lived, and that your life mattered… if that is your choice… then this is the one question you must not ignore.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

You have completed the courses which we believe to be of the most use to you at this early stage of your career.  You have been given basic information on a number of subjects.  We hope that you have gained proficiency in thinking for yourself about those subjects and in expressing your thought clearly in writing and speaking.  You have learned a great deal about one particular field.  In short, you have been equipped to address certain live issues—issues which are of importance to our society or to some segment of society.  This has all been preparation.  Now the story begins, and the shape that your story takes—the quality of life that you will live—depends primarily on your answer to this question.

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Did you notice, once you cleared away your required courses, how your classes started to become more open-ended, and how you were invited to see, from the inside, the current issues in your field?  Did any of those issues reach out and beckon to you?  Were there any questions or problems which quickened your pulse, or which made you stay behind to talk to your professor or your classmates after the hour was over?  Did you ever hear anything at this school that made you realize—even if only for a moment—that there might be something worthwhile left to do in this old world, and that it might be something for you to do?

For if you have learned only facts… only theories… only skills… then you have missed the most important part of your education.  You needed to learn facts and theories and skills so that you could build on them to wrestle with the problems in your field—for it is those problems to which you will be expected to contribute at least some small part of a solution.

Are you entering the field of education?  The main problem is still a live one: What is the best way to teach a person something?  As an educator, you are going to devote the next years of your life to solving that problem.  Are you committed to it?  Is that the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Some of you are headed for law enforcement. The community in which you are employed could either turn against you or work together with you to maintain peace. It’s up to you how you will approach them. Is that the great problem to you which you will devote your life?

We could list each major course of study and look for the open-ended problems that are just waiting for you to solve them. Is there something in your field that has reached out and claimed you? Something that keeps you awake nights, thinking about it?

Everything up to this moment has merely been a prelude.  Your education was supposed to awaken you to what needs to be done, and to equip you to do it. Over the past few years we have pushed your poor tired brain almost beyond its capacity for this reason: because you are now being entrusted with the great problems of the human race, and we are looking to you to help us solve them.

As a result of the time you spent here, you now know a little about history, about science, about the arts… but can you identify the great problems that are facing your society?  Did you pay attention to what needs doing?  Are you ready to pitch in, ready to make the world a better place in some way?  Are you full of ideas about how you will improve on our past mistakes?

What is the great problem to which you will devote your life?

Answer that… and the path will open before you.

Episode 79 Through the Sea

If Christ is “the Way,” can we say anything in practical terms about where that Way will lead us?  Here is a brief meditation on Psalm 77:19 (NRSV) with that question in mind.  Click on the link below to listen (4:43).

Episode 0079 Through the Sea

Episode 77 The Way

As the Lenten season nears completion, we are ready to move beyond the question, “How can we know the way?”  Click on the link below to listen (4:28).

Episode 0077 The Way

Episode 75 What Do We Want?

From the story of Blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52) comes this question: What do we want Jesus to do for us this Lenten season?  Click on the link below to listen (4:37).

Episode 0075 What We Want

Episode 65 What We Have Learned (Part 26 of Series)

This is the conclusion of the series, How to Have a Mythic Adventure in a Monday-Friday World. To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (8:09):

Episode 0065 Pt 26

First, to experience life as a mythic adventure is to live it as a story. People who are on such an adventure are not trapped in their routines, no matter how thoroughly their schedules may be regimented. Their lives are going somewhere. Macbeth in his madness may declare that life is “a tale/ told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ signifying nothing,” but his own career disproves his words (William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, lines 26-28. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Minneapolis: Amaranth Press, 1975), 1068). Our thoughts and deeds shape us. The events of our lives aim in the direction of that shaping, for good or ill.

Second, it is a certain kind of story: a story about the education of our souls. By the decisions we make in all aspects of our lives, we decide who we are becoming. To have a mythic adventure is to recognize that we are the central character in a story about becoming spiritually mature—or at least about the invitation to become mature. We can, of course, decline the invitation. We may even become knaves or villains. But that choice is what the story is about.

Third, a mythic adventure is a lifetime commitment. We do not become spiritually mature in a matter of days, weeks, or months. What Aristotle says about happiness can be rephrased in terms of the mythic adventure: for as long as we live, new episodes await us with their unique challenges and opportunities for spiritual growth (or backsliding). The adventure goes on for as long as we draw breath. (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book 1, chapters 9-10. In Richard McKeon, ed., The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York: Random House, 1941), 945-948.)

Fourth, to experience life as a mythic adventure is to make constructive use of adversity.  It is to accept our obstacles as learning opportunities. This entails, of course, that we must not ignore our problems. On the contrary, mythic adventurers understand their problems to be signs from God, alerting them to aspects of their character (or of their society) that need special attention. If we have this attitude, we will not be victims no matter how unfairly we may suffer. We will make the best of circumstances and use them to our educational advantage.

Fifth, the mythic adventure is a matter of give-and-take with God. Through all that happens to us, a subtle guidance is offered. We are given clues, but they must be deciphered. Since God’s ways are not our ways, we can plan on making mistakes, as well as being frustrated. This, too, is all part of the learning process.

But it is not for our benefit alone that we have a mythic adventure, and that is the sixth and final point. To have such an adventure is to embark on a quest of spiritual maturation that will ultimately bless those around us, and—if we are especially fortunate—may even bless future generations and bring to fruition the hopes of previous generations.

As I said in chapter one, this is essentially an interpretive problem. The framework I just described has fallen into disuse in modern times. When we tell stories about ourselves in this era, our treatment is usually anecdotal and episodic, not all-embracing. Nor do we tend to examine our lives for clues from Beyond, or form hypotheses about what God might be trying to tell us. If we do think God might be trying to tell us something, we do not engage in trial-and-error reasoning, moving forward decisively while remaining open to disconfirming evidence. Perhaps most importantly, we no longer expect our faith to make us useful to our society, especially when it comes to introducing technical innovations. We have stopped thinking that our work can be a significant part of God’s ongoing adventure.

According to the stories we have surveyed, however, God moves within all the details of our daily lives to invite us to greater maturity, not for our sakes only but to fashion us for service to others. That includes becoming more proficient as biologists, journalists, or salespeople. It means becoming better economists, computer programmers, or nurses. It means improving our competence as lawyers, insurance adjusters, or copy editors.

The challenge for this generation is to recognize that God is vitally interested in the secular world, in the greatest possible detail. According to an old saying, “The devil is in the details.” We are now invited to understand that God is in the details and always has been. We just haven’t known where to look.

This study has shown us. God is in the smallest details of our individual life histories, urging us to gain a wide variety of proficiencies, to overcome our problems, and to make the world a better place as a result. There are no longer dragons to slay, but the obstacles we face in this age are as monstrous as any that the human race has ever confronted. The question is, Will we face our problems with as much courage and faith as the mythic adventurers of yesteryear faced theirs? Will we learn anew the art of having a mythic adventure?

Episode 61 The Meaning of Life (Part 22 of Series)

To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (8:06):

Episode 0061 Pt 22

In the stories we have been surveying, life is viewed as more than an arena for mere enjoyment of pleasure or avoidance of pain. It is a time to make progress in the formation of the soul, a progress which is possible only by surmounting difficulties.

Although Christ teaches his disciples to pray for help in avoiding temptation (Matthew 6:13; Luke 11:4), this does not mean that Christians are to request freedom from adversity. The Epistle of James in the New Testament advises: “Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (The Greek word translated “steadfastness” is hupomenay, which means patient endurance of suffering or a perservering state of mind.) “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4 RSV).

In this passage, the word “perfect” and the phrase “full effect” are English translations of the Greek word teleios. This word was important in ancient Greek thought, thanks especially to the writings of Aristotle (a few hundred years before Christ). It refers to the full realization of an idea or the complete maturation of a thing into what it is supposed to be. What James is saying, then, is that Christians’ struggles can transform them fully into the people God wants them to become.

The same word is used in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. In one section of the sermon, Christ talks about the necessity of loving one’s enemies. He concludes that section of his remarks with these daunting words: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 KJV). The word “perfect” in both phrases is teleios again in the Greek. Christ is telling his followers that their goal should be to become fully matured into the compassionate people God wants them to be. And, as we have seen repeatedly, this happens as heroes take on challenges that transform them.

The ancient Greek poet Hesiod writes: “Badness can be got easily and in shoals: the road to her is smooth, and she lives very near us. But between us and Goodness the gods have placed the sweat of our brows: long and steep is the path that leads to her, and it is rough at the first; but when a man has reached the top, then is she easy to reach, though before that she was hard.” (Hesiod, Works and Days, lines 285-295. In Hugh G. Evelyn-White, trans., Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica, Loeb Classical Library, volume 57 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 25.)

The phrase “sweat of our brows” does not refer merely to the performance of menial tasks, although there is no doubt that Hesiod does have that kind of work in mind. More importantly, it refers to the difficulties which arise in trying to live well. Hesiod believes that he lives in a benighted age, a day when true heroes are gone from the earth. In such a time, it is hard work to live a praiseworthy life. “For now truly is a race of iron,” he writes (as opposed to earlier ages of gold, silver, and bronze), “and men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils” (Ibid., lines 175-180, pp. 13-15).

That last remark, for Hesiod, is what matters. Despite all the troubles humans face, there is some good to be had. But it will not come without hard work.

The subject of Plato’s Republic is whether such hard work pays off in the end. Socrates and his friends consider whether it would be worthwhile to live justly if they were to receive no rewards for being just. By the end of the book they decide that right living is its own reward. On this note, Socrates asks his friends:

And shall we not agree that all things that come from the gods work together for the best for him that is dear to the gods. . . ?

By all means [they reply].

This, then, [he continues] must be ourconviction about the just man, that whether he fall into poverty or disease or any other supposed evil, for him all these things will finally prove good, both in life and in death.  For by the gods assuredly that man will never be neglected who is willing and eager to be righteous, and by the practice of virtue to be likened unto God so far as that is possible for man. (Plato, Republic 10.612e—613b. In Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, eds., The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 837-838.)

Notice, however, that one must be interested in self-improvement in order to appreciate the benefits of adversity. By themselves, problems do not make life better. Suffering is advantageous only if the heroes use their experiences as opportunities to grow into exemplary individuals. As they seize these opportunities, they benefit even from misfortune.

The Apostle Paul, in the New Testament, writes: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 KJV). What Paul says about the Christian life is proclaimed by all of these stories, from a wide variety of religious traditions. The obstacles that the heroes face along the way can speed them toward victory and, more importantly, toward transformation.

But the heroes have to be receptive to such transformation. It is not that all things work together for good for everybody. All things work together for good to them that love God (or rather, to those who are willing to accept adversity as a gift from God and use it to become better people). As one Book of Mormon prophet says in reference to God: “He shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain” (Book of Mormon, II Nephi 2:2 (Kirtland ed: 1:61)). This consecration of the heroes’ afflictions for their spiritual gain is what life is ultimately about, according to these stories.

Episode 60 The Pursuit of Greatness (Part 21 of Series)

To listen to the audio version, please click on the link below (10:13):

Episode 0060 Pt 21

In retrospect, we can see that this transformation is not an afterthought on the part of the storytellers. Rather, all the obstacles the heroes faced were intended for this purpose: to mold them into exemplary individuals.

Heracles is born strong, but he is not born great. Greatness comes only as he performs the Twelve Labors set before him by Eurystheus (Gods and Heroes of the Greeks: The Library of Apollodorus, Michael Simpson, trans. (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), chapter 5). Each task seems impossible, even for a man of superhuman strength. He must kill a lion that cannot be hurt by weapons and a many-headed monster that grows two heads for each one that is cut off. He must clean Augeus’ thousands of stables in a single day. He must bring back the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, even though he does not know where they are to be found. He must drag up into daylight Cerberus, the three-headed dog-guardian of Hades.

As Heracles accomplishes one and then another of these assignments, he grows in stature. Nor could he have become great in any other way. To be born strong means nothing. In Greek mythology, the point is to use such strength in overcoming impossible odds. The Greeks celebrate accomplishments, not mere potential. And accomplishments come about only through hard work.

The hero Theseus understands this early in life (Plutarch’s Lives (2 vols.), trans. John Dryden, ed. A. H. Clough (New York: Random House/Modern Library, 1992), vol. 1, 1-24). He has just come of age and must go to Athens in search of his father, who left his mother before Theseus was born. His mother wants him to cruise to Athens in comfort, but young Theseus refuses. Referring to his cousin Heracles, he points out that one does not become a hero by taking the easy way. Instead, Theseus travels to Athens by foot, using a highway that is known to be full of danger. Along the way, he meets a number of villains and serves them justice. By the time he arrives at Athens, his fame has preceded him.

But Theseus’ ascent toward greatness has just begun. Next he survives an assassination attempt by his stepmother. Then he voluntarily joins a delegation sailing for Crete. For diplomatic reasons, this group of young people must be sacrificed to the Minotaur—a hungry creature who is half-bull and half-man. With the help of Ariadne, daughter of the king of Crete, he navigates the Minotaur’s maze, kills the Minotaur, and leads the other members of the group to safety. Unfortunately, his father kills himself over a mixup in signals. (Theseus is supposed to replace the black flag aboard ship if he returns successful, but he forgets to do so.) Theseus now becomes the leader in Athens and inspires the Athenians to form a commonwealth in which all people can be equal.

As in the case of Heracles, Theseus attains greatness only by taking on tough assignments and handling them with courage and good heart. Theseus becomes wise through his struggles, and the Athenians benefit from his wise leadership.

Moving on to other texts……

After laying on his back on the floor, St. Francis of Asisi commands Brother Bernard to stand on top of him with one foot on his master’s neck and the other on his mouth, firing insults at him. Brother Bernard cannot disobey the order, but he carries it out as “courteously” as possible (Raphael Brown, trans., The Little Flowers of St. Francis (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958), Part 1, Number 3, p. 47). Strange as this behavior may seem to those outside the Franciscan order, St. Francis hopes to gain something from being mistreated in this way by his subordinate. He hopes to be shaped into a humbler person through the experience.

On the other hand, Francis is quite willing to spread the humiliation around when he feels it will be helpful. On one occasion he embarrasses Brother Masseo by commanding him to twirl in place until he is too dizzy to stand (Ibid., Number 11). And then Francis gives him a number of menial tasks in order to test his humility (Ibid., Number 12). We are not to feel sorry for Brother Masseo, however, for he greatly needs the practice. When an angel messenger knocks loudly at the gate of the monastery, the friar lectures him on the correct way to knock. And when the angel knocks loudly a second time, Brother Masseo tells him, “You did not knock the way I told you to do” (Ibid., Number 4, p. 50). Brother Masseo has some lessons to learn, even if it means that he must twirl in place on occasion.

But of all the members of the Franciscan order, Brother Juniper takes the prize for consistent self-deprecation. He loves to be ridiculed, and so he is pleased when he is almost hanged as a result of a misunderstanding (Ibid., Part 3, Number 3). He goes into town naked so that children will mock him, and when his fame travels ahead of him on a trip to Rome, he behaves foolishly so that people will lose their reverence for him (Ibid., Numbers 8-9).

As masochistic as this behavior may seem, the storytellers are trying to show how much Brother Juniper has grown. When he first started out trying to overcome temptation, the hardest thing for him to endure was an insult. These stories illustrate how thoroughly he has “conquered himself” (Ibid., Number 3, p. 226). And he has done this by repeatedly confronting the thing he finds most unbearable.

On one occasion he asks rhetorically: Who wouldn’t carry a basket of manure through town in return for a house full of gold? (He assumes that we would all line up if this opportunity were extended to us.) Then he adds: “Ah, why do we not want to endure a little shame in order to gain eternal life..?” (Ibid., Number 12, pp. 235-236). Heroes in all the world’s religious traditions have had to carry their baskets of manure and endure their shame in order to achieve greatness.

The Buddha tells his disciples to imagine a beauty contest (Jataka, Number 96). Between the winning contestant and the cheering crowd comes a man carrying a pot of oil filled to the brim. Behind him is a swordsman, poised to cut off his head if he spills a single drop. The crowd is shouting about how beautiful the woman is, and the man with the pot has the best view in the house. But if he takes his eyes off the pot for even one second, it will cost him his life. Somehow he must get through the crowd without spilling the oil.

“That would be hard!” the Buddha’s disciples say.

But the Buddha disagrees. It would be easy! Anyone could stay focused on the pot of oil if he had a swordsman breathing down his neck. The hard thing is to keep your thoughts collected at all times, under all circumstances, without a swordsman behind you. And that is what you must do if you want to attain enlightenment.

Episode 59 Journey’s End (Part 20 of Series)

To hear the audio version, please click on the link below (7:32):

Episode 0059 Pt 20

I have had much to say in these pages about adversity, disappointment, and even the loss of everything that the protagonists hold dear. But the world’s religious narratives are not, by and large, tragic. In most cases, the heroes and heroines of these stories are victorious in the end. Victory, however, is not simply a matter of attaining personal goals. In the process of trying to achieve their goals, something more important has happened to them. Those who surmount their problems become greater than they were before, in a variety of ways.

At last, after a long war, Rama faces his enemy Ravana and defeats him, freeing his wife Sita from her prison. Sita, too, must face one more terrible ordeal in order to prove that she remained faithful to Rama during her captivity. Once all of this has been accomplished, Brahma, ruler of the gods, tells Rama the truth about himself: that he is not actually the man Rama but the god Vishnu, born as a man in order to vanquish Ravana (Ramayana, volume 3, book 6, chapter 119).

Now, in retrospect, everything makes sense. His father Dasaratha had to exile him so that he could go to the forest and prepare for his fight with Ravana. Once in the wilderness, his meditations had to be interrupted by demons so that he could gain practice destroying them. The gods could not help him when he was desperate because he had to face Ravana himself. And Sita had to be taken from him so that he would hunt Ravana down and defeat him. Now it all comes back to him, and he sees that there was a plan—his plan—working  itself out all along.

Something more important than military victory has occurred: Rama has advanced in his development. As a result of his struggles, he is an entirely new person—or rather, he is finally aware of who he really is. Although he has achieved his goal of winning back Sita from her captor, what is really important is not his accomplishments but the change that has come over him as a result of what he has accomplished.

The Hebrew scriptures contain many stories and, consequently, many moments of victory. Jacob, the supplanter, becomes Israel, a prince. Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, emerges as a governor in Egypt. The Hebrew slaves are liberated from bondage in Egypt. The land which God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is settled by their descendants. David, for so long a fugitive, becomes king. The people of Judah return from the Babylonian Captivity and rebuild their society under the spiritual direction of the scribes.

But in each of these cases, too, something important has occurred over and above the attainment of the heroes’ goals. In each case, the hero has become a qualitatively different person as a result of his adventures.

After more than five hundred incarnations, the future Buddha attains enlightenment and becomes the Buddha in truth. This is not simply one achievement in one lifetime but rather the culmination of all of his achievements during all of his incarnations. And the result is not simply the attainment of a goal but the transformation of the hero into something greater than he ever was in any of his previous lives.

In the New Testament gospels, Christ rises from the dead and continues to teach his disciples (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21; Acts 1:1-11). Then, on the day of Pentecost, his Spirit empowers them to speak for him with eloquence to people from all parts of the known world (Acts 2). At Pentecost, we see Christs’ disciples as we have never seen them before. No longer mere fishermen, tax collectors, or harlots, they have now advanced to the status of ambassadors for the King of Kings.

In the Book of Mormon, the resurrected Christ arrives to establish his kingdom in America (Book of Mormon, III Nephi 11-26 (Kirtland ed:  5-12)). He teaches the people a new way of life, one that transcends the categories within which they have customarily lived. As a result, their society eventually rids itself of poverty, class divisions, crime, and war (Ibid., IV Nephi 1:1-18 (Kirtland ed: 1:1-21)). People are healed of their bodily illnesses and of all ill-will toward one another. They are no longer Nephites or Lamanites, for they have become one people. They have done far more than achieve a goal; they have advanced to a higher way of life.

Gilgamesh travels to the underworld and learns what he wants to know about mortality. But he does more than that: he becomes wise. Prince Arjuna learns a number of things about Krishna, but he, too, does more than that: he gains the ability to live for Krishna only, putting aside the attempt to enjoy the fruits of his actions.

In each case, something far more important than victory has occurred. The heroes have changed. Indeed, they have changed at such a fundamental level that all aspects of their lives are affected, especially those aspects that are normally considered secular. They do not just feel different; they are different. Nor do they need to go out looking for opportunities to tell anyone about their transformation. The change is obvious.

In retrospect, we can see that this transformation is not an afterthought on the part of the storytellers. Rather, all the obstacles the heroes faced were intended for this purpose: to mold them into exemplary individuals.

Episode 52 A Feathery Influence (Part 13 of How to Have a Mythic Adventure)

Click on the link below to listen to the audio version (8:31):

Episode 0052 How To Pt 13

In the Mesopotamian flood story Atrahasis, the necessity of divine clue-giving (as opposed to outright revelation) is explained as the result of an oath made by one of the gods. Early in the story, the hero and his god communicate directly:

Now there was one Atrahasis

Whose ear was open (to) his god Enki.

He would speak with his god

And his god would speak with him.

(Atrahasis I, vii. In Stephanie Dalley, trans., Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.)

Enki is “the talking god” in Mesopotamian narratives. The rest of the divine assembly can barely tolerate humans. In fact, the other two of the top three gods (the top three being Anu, Enlil, and Enki) soon develop a hatred toward humans, who are too numerous and make too much racket. They try to destroy the human race by spreading a disease among them. For a time they appear to succeed, until the human Atrahasis complains to Enki, and Enki tells Atrahasis how to stop the plague (Atrahasis, I, vii-viii).

Enlil and Anu try again to wipe out the human race, this time by drought. But once again their plans are foiled by Enki, who reveals to Atrahasis how he and his fellow humans can end the drought (Ibid., II, i-ii).

Enlil and Anu have had enough. They make Enki swear an oath that he himself will destroy the human race by flood, and this time he must not divulge their plans to any human being.

Enki is bound by his oath not to communicate with Atrahasis directly, but that does not stop him from trying to communicate indirectly.  Atrahasis weeps and says:

Enki [would speak to me], but he is under oath,

So he will give [instructions] in dreams (Ibid., II, iii)

This, however, is harder work for Atrahasis. “Indicate to me the meaning of the dream,” he pleads (Ibid., III, i). Even though his name means “overly-clever,” Atrahasis doesn’t get the point. (John Gardner and John Maier (with Richard A. Henshaw), Gilgamesh: Translated from the Sin-leqi-unninni Version (New York: First Vintage Books/Random House, 1984), 65, note 40.)

Finally, Enki comes up with an ingenious solution. He speaks to the wall of Atrahasis’s house, telling the wall what it is that he cannot tell Atrahasis. “Wall, listen constantly to me!” Enki commands. “Reed hut, make sure you attend to all my words!” (Atrahasis, III, i). Of course, Atrahasis is on the other side of the wall, but since Enki is not addressing him, the terms of his oath are satisfied. Or perhaps the wall passes the message on to Atrahasis like the whistling of the wind.  This interpretation agrees with the god Anu’s suspicion that Enki “made sure that the [reed hut] disclosed the order.” (W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atrahasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 11-12. The quotation is from Atrahasis, III, vi.)  At any rate, the hero finally gets the message, builds an ark, and is saved from the impending flood.

In the Norse epic The Saga of the Volsungs, the god Odin keeps popping up unexpectedly as an old man who gives counsel. Although Odin is the ruler of this world, his interventions are subtle and, in most cases, anonymous. Sometimes he does not even make a personal appearance but communicates his advice through intermediaries (through animals, for example). But whether in person or secondhand, Odin does little more than give advice. He does not do for the heroes what they must do for themselves, even though, as the greatest of gods, he is capable of helping them.

On the one occasion in which he does intervene directly in a battle, it is not to help but to hinder. Just when Sigmund (one of his favorites) appears victorious in battle, Odin breaks Sigmund’s sword in half. (Jesse L. Byock, trans., The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), chapter 11). After receiving mortal wounds from his enemies, Sigmund dies knowing that Odin himself has decreed his death. He is cheered, however, by the knowledge that his unborn son Sigurd will repair the sword and avenge him (Ibid., chapter 12).

Odin is not so much interested in helping his favorites as in giving them opportunities to achieve greatness. Even in death, Sigmund shows himself to be a true hero in the Norse tradition, and that is what matters.

In most of the world’s religious narratives, however, the advancement of the plot toward the final objective does not depend primarily on divine visitations even if these do occur from time to time. Rather, divine beings play a much more fundamental, albeit more subtle, role within the story itself.

The narrators of these stories recognize a quiet force at work in human affairs. This force acts like a kind of cosmic Author, masterfully weaving peoples’ thoughts and actions into a story—a story that none of the participants totally understand or control. In some narrative traditions the Author may be one or more gods, while in others it is an impersonal influence that overrides the actions of the gods themselves. But whatever attribution is given to it, these narratives reveal an implicit faith that the course of human events is fundamentally right and that, for people of faith at least, things work out the way they are supposed to.

This is what Oedipus realizes just before his death. He has wandered for many years with no place to call home, carrying with him no other hope than Apollo’s promise that he will at last find a resting place. Now he has made his way to the sacred grove of the Furies at Colonus, and he is sure that this is the place. Apollo long ago told him that he would be given signs when he had found his destination, and that promise is about to be fulfilled. But Oedipus no longer needs signs. Praying to the Furies, he says:

I am sure of it now, sure that you guided me

With feathery influence upon this road,

And led me here into your hallowed wood.

(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, Robert Fitzgerald, trans. In David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, eds., The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I (New York: Washington Square Press, 1972), Scene 1, lines 96-98.)

Oedipus is not alone in this respect. It is by a “feathery influence” that the heroes of these stories are guided toward their destinies. Few roadmarks exist, and those which do are hard to read. The heroes are not pushed along with heavy hand. They are influenced—quietly, almost imperceptibly, yet powerfully. Even when no miracles occur, these stories reflect the vast power of the gods (or at least the essential correctness of the structure of the universe) because, simply through the playing out of events, right wins out over wrong.

And this does not occur in spite of the plans and schemes of evil people. It is precisely by means of such obstacles that things turn out the way they are supposed to. Far more powerful than any isolated miracle is this “feathery influence” that makes adversity ultimately useful rather than destructive.

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