Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mythology and Consciousness

Upon the completion of The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph Campbell considers his 12 years of research in comparative mythology as confirmation, “of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony” (v), with “worldwide distribution” of such themes as, “fire theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero…appearing everywhere in new combinations…"(3). Commenting further on this phenomenon of common themes across cultures, which are locally expressed in endless variations, he suggests that, “No human society has yet been found in which such mythological motifs have not been rehearsed in liturgies; interpreted by seers, poets, theologians, or philosophers; presented in art; magnified in song; and ecstatically experienced in life empowering visions….Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation, communicated to its heroes [and prophets], and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk" (3-4). 

We, in the 21st century can appreciate, value and turn to myths and stories to inform and edify us; yet, they can also have negative ramifications when those local myths and stories are understood as literal and true.  Such myths form both the basis for rituals and traditions of hope and comfort, as well as ideologies to be imposed on others who are seen as unworthy, lost and "less than."  Don't we have many historic, as well as current examples of marginalizing, committing violence against, and even killing those who do not conform to the laws and doctrines of a particular faith, book or tradition.

Campbell reminds us that these stories and “revelations” have inspired many “who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition,... [yet] rationally scrutinize and disqualify the sacraments of others....." If we were to look objectively, as he has, at the various traditions and mythologies of the world, we would see that these common themes and images are ubiquitous, and have developed “according to local need…” (4). All over the world, as the ground of belief and values, Campbell finds that humanity has "chosen, not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination—preferring even to make a hell for themselves and their neighbors, in the name of some violent god...." (4). At this stage in humanity’s development, Campbell calls for an imagination of a “broader, deeper kind than anything envisioned anywhere in the past…” (Power of Myth).

What, then, could be an approach apropos to our ever-expanding, global consciousness? At this stage in humanity’s development, Campbell calls for an imagination of a “broader, deeper kind than anything envisioned anywhere in the past…”(Power of Myth). It would seem that it is now be possible to embrace and embody the ambiguity, inclusiveness and paradox which is everywhere reflected in the universe, nature and human experience. James Joyce, an inspiration for Campbell, articulates this possibility in Finnegan's Wake: "utterly impossible as are all these events, they are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all are ever likely to be" (v). We can only ponder what shape that imagination would take.  

Would it be a kind of “spiritual science,” an approach which both affirms the subjective, intuitive, human soul experience of life, and, at the same time, integrates the objective approach?  This approach would require standing outside one’s own soul self, and simply beholding. James Joyce clearly defined this experience in his theory of aesthetics, which does not require an intellectual analysis of art or beauty and, but, rather a holding two or more things as possibly true and relevant to our own individuality, as well as in a wider sense applicable in other contexts.

Campbell laments that there is currently no mythology which fits the times. Things are changing too rapidly for a relevant mythology to develop. He also believes that any future mythology would have to be about the earth. This may seem obvious, but wouldn't it also involve humanity on the earth? It is, after all, humanity that is the "voice of the earth" and, at the same time, continues to endanger the earth, squander its resources and marginalize, enslave and endanger others for its resources. Still, it is only humanity that can create a world worth living in, speaking for, and, ultimately dying for.

Clearly we are not at a stage of consciousness en masse.  Only an earth-threatening crises could force us to move in another direction. Campbell makes reference to Black Elk, a Lakota holy man, one of the last of North American indigenous peoples who had lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. He told his story in the mid 1930’s to John Neihardt, who was writing an epic of the West. In Black Elk Speaks: “I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it….It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit” (Neihardt, 1).

As a young boy, Black Elk had a vision in which he said, “saw more than I can tell and I understand more than I saw, for I was seeing in a sacred manner” (50). He spoke of seeing the “sacred hoop” of his people, of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father, and I saw that it was holy” (Neihardt 43).

The life Black Elk knew was rapidly and tragically transforming, as the West was “settled” forcing Indian peoples onto reservations, with all the grief, loss and confusion that ending a way of life entails.  Black Elk laments that in his old age he felt the loss and the betrayal of his early vision with the slaughter at Wounded Knee:" I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, you see me now an old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead" (Neihardt 270).

In an introduction to the 1989 edition of Black Elk Speaks, Vine DeLoria, also an Oglala Lakota (Sioux), noted:

    If the old camp circle, the sacred hoop of the Lakota, and the old days have been rudely 
    shattered by the machines of the scientific era, and if they can be no more in the
    traditional sense, the universality of the images and dreams must testify to the 
    emergence of a new sacred hoop, a new circle of intense community….” (Neihardt i)

Although DeLoria seems to be referring to the community of Lakota peoples, this intense community could also be thought of as global in nature, whose members understand and experience life as something, “far more fluid, more sophisticated than the separate visions of the local traditions, wherein those mythologies themselves will be known to be but the masks of a larger….'timeless schema' that is not schema" (The Masks of Gods, 59). The consciousness that could create such a community  must be both subjective and objective, taking  Black Elk’s imagination of the hoop of the nation and DeLoria’s  "new circle" as a possible reality and not just a metaphor. In this way, a new mythologies will hold the treasure of  from the past, respecting the local and specific traditions equally with the universal ones. We will not have to live by the stories/myths, but live with them and allow them to live in us.

It is clear that Campbell’s research and insights went down into the foundation of myths, way down into the "deep, deep well of the past," not only to their cultural/geographic roots, but to their biological, psychological and even prehistoric origins. It seems that wired into our psyche and physiognomy is our ability to both create and respond to images, symbols and stories which are metaphors for our experience of being alive. It would also seem that we have arrived, at least theoretically, at a point in the evolution of consciousness (if we would take time from our everyday lives, which are fraught with the relentless distractions of pop culture, technology and media) where we are able to acknowledge the value of the legacy of mythology as the “schema” while engaging our individual, conscious striving and intention not toward living by some elaborate schema or narrow interpretation of one or another book, but rather, in a simple recognition of our and others’ worth as human beings participating in life to support, affirm and validate all that is truly human, good, beautiful and true (i.e. the eternal) In this way we can live as Campbell suggests, “decently without rancor or revenge” on God's green earth, in this time  and space, in the here and now.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. 1959. New York: Viking
Press, Inc.1959.

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. DVD. Mystic Fire Video, 2001.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala
Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt
.1932. New York: Williams Morrow Company,


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