Joseph Campbell Rising. PlanetShifter.com Magazine Interview with Stephen Gerringer - Community Relations, Joseph Campbell Foundation, by Willi Paul
"Yes, I believe I understand how alchemy can work in the sound and visual arts; what’s just as clear is that today’s technology has definitely upped the ante."
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Who was Joseph Campbell?
"For the symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are the spontaneous productions of the Psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source."
Over one hundred years ago, on March 26th in 1904, Joseph John Campbell was born in White Plains, NY. Joe, as he came to be known, was the first child of a middle-class, Roman Catholic couple, Charles and Josephine Campbell.
Joe's earliest years were largely unremarkable; but then, when he was seven years old, his father took him and his younger brother, Charlie, to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. The evening was a high-point in Joe's life; for, although the cowboys were clearly the show's stars, as Joe would later write, he "became fascinated, seized, obsessed, by the figure of a naked American Indian with his ear to the ground, a bow and arrow in his hand, and a look of special knowledge in his eyes.”
It was Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher whose writings would later greatly influence Campbell, who observed that …the experiences and illuminations of childhood and early youth become in later life the types, standards and patterns of all subsequent knowledge and experience, or as it were, the categories according to which all later things are classified—not always consciously, however. And so it is that in our childhood years the foundation is laid of our later view of the world, and there with as well of its superficiality or depth: it will be in later years unfolded and fulfilled, not essentially changed.
And so it was with young Joseph Campbell. Even as he actively practiced (until well into his twenties) the faith of his forbears, he became consumed with Native American culture; and his worldview was arguably shaped by the dynamic tension between these two mythological perspectives. On the one hand, he was immersed in the rituals, symbols, and rich traditions of his Irish Catholic heritage; on the other, he was obsessed with primitive (or, as he later preferred, "primal") people's direct experience of what he came to describe as "the continuously created dynamic display of an absolutely transcendent, yet universally immanent, mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which is the ground at once of the whole spectacle and of oneself." (Historical Atlas , I.1, p. 8)
By the age of ten, Joe had read every book on American Indians in the children's section of his local library and was admitted to the adult stacks, where he eventually read the entire multi-volume Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He worked on wampum belts, started his own "tribe" (named the "Lenni-Lenape" after the Delaware tribe who had originally inhabited the New York metropolitan area), and frequented the American Museum of Natural History, where he became fascinated with totem poles and masks, thus beginning a lifelong exploration of that museum's vast collection.
After spending much of his thirteenth year recuperating from a respiratory illness, Joe briefly attended Iona, a private school in Westchester NY, before his mother enrolled him at Canterbury, a Catholic residential school in New Milford CT. His high school years were rich and rewarding, though marked by a major tragedy: in 1919, the Campbell home was consumed by a fire that killed his grandmother and destroyed all of the family's possessions.
Joe graduated from Canterbury in 1921, and the following September, entered Dartmouth College; but he was soon disillusioned with the social scene and disappointed by a lack of academic rigor, so he transferred to Columbia University, where he excelled: while specializing in medieval literature, he played in a jazz band, and became a star runner. In 1924, while on a steamship journey to Europe with his family, Joe met and befriended Jiddu Krishnamurti, the young messiah-elect of the Theosophical Society, thus beginning a friendship that would be renewed intermittently over the next five years.
After earning a B.A. from Columbia (1925), and receiving an M.A. (1927) for his work in Arthurian Studies, Joe was awarded a Proudfit Traveling Fellowship to continue his studies at the University of Paris (1927-28). Then, after he had received and rejected an offer to teach at his high school alma mater, his Fellowship was renewed, and he traveled to Germany to resume his studies at the University of Munich (1928-29).
It was during this period in Europe that Joe was first exposed to those modernist masters—notably, the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, Pablo Picasso and Paul Klee, James Joyce and Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung—whose art and insights would greatly influence his own work. These encounters would eventually lead him to theorize that all myths are the creative products of the human psyche, that artists are a culture's mythmakers, and that mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind's universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities.
When Joe returned from Europe late in August of 1929, he was at a crossroad, unable to decide what to do with his life. With the onset of the Great Depression, he found himself with no hope of obtaining a teaching job; and so he spent most of the next two years reconnecting with his family, reading, renewing old acquaintances, and writing copious entries in his journal. Then, late in 1931, after exploring and rejecting the possibility of a doctoral program or teaching job at Columbia, he decided, like countless young men before and since, to "hit the road," to undertake a cross-country journey in which he hoped to experience "the soul of America" and, in the process, perhaps discover the purpose of his life. In January of 1932, when he was leaving Los Angeles, where he had been studying Russian in order to read War and Peace in the vernacular, he pondered his future in this journal entry:
"I begin to think that I have a genius for working like an ox over totally irrelevant subjects. … I am filled with an excruciating sense of never having gotten anywhere—but when I sit down and try to discover where it is I want to get, I'm at a loss. … The thought of growing into a professor gives me the creeps. A lifetime to be spent trying to kid myself and my pupils into believing that the thing that we are looking for is in books! I don't know where it is—but I feel just now pretty sure that it isn't in books. — It isn't in travel. — It isn't in California. — It isn't in New York. … Where is it? And what is it, after all?"
Thus one real result of my Los Angeles stay was the elimination of Anthropology from the running. I suddenly realized that all of my primitive and American Indian excitement might easily be incorporated in a literary career. — I am convinced now that no field but that of English literature would have permitted me the almost unlimited roaming about from this to that which I have been enjoying. A science would buckle me down—and would probably yield no more important fruit than literature may yield me! — If I want to justify my existence, and continue to be obsessed with the notion that I've got to do something for humanity — well, teaching ought to quell that obsession — and if I can ever get around to an intelligent view of matters, intelligent criticism of contemporary values ought to be useful to the world. This gets back again to Krishna's dictum: The best way to help mankind is through the perfection of yourself.
His travels next carried him north to San Francisco, then back south to Pacific Grove, where he spent the better part of a year in the company of Carol and John Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Ricketts. During this time, he wrestled with his writing, discovered the poems of Robinson Jeffers, first read Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, and wrote to some seventy colleges and universities in an unsuccessful attempt to secure employment. Finally, he was offered a teaching position at the Canterbury School. He returned to the East Coast, where he endured an unhappy year as a Canterbury housemaster, the one bright moment being when he sold his first short story ("Strictly Platonic") to Liberty magazine. Then, in 1933, he moved to a cottage without running water on Maverick Road in Woodstock NY, where he spent a year reading and writing. In 1934, he was offered and accepted a position in the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College, a post he would retain for thirty-eight years.
In 1938 he married one of his students, Jean Erdman, who would become a major presence in the emerging field of modern dance, first, as a star dancer in Martha Graham's fledgling troupe, and later, as dancer/choreographer of her own company.
Even as he continued his teaching career, Joe's life continued to unfold serendipitously. In 1940, he was introduced to Swami Nikhilananda, who enlisted his help in producing a new translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (published, 1942). Subsequently, Nikhilananda introduced Joe to the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, who introduced him to a member of the editorial board at the Bollingen Foundation. Bollingen, which had been founded by Paul and Mary Mellon to "develop scholarship and research in the liberal arts and sciences and other fields of cultural endeavor generally," was embarking upon an ambitious publishing project, the Bollingen Series. Joe was invited to contribute an "Introduction and Commentary" to the first Bollingen publication, Where the Two Came to their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, text and paintings recorded by Maud Oakes, given by Jeff King (Bollingen Series, I: 1943).
When Zimmer died unexpectedly in 1943 at the age of fifty-two, his widow, Christiana, and Mary Mellon asked Joe to oversee the publication of his unfinished works. Joe would eventually edit and complete four volumes from Zimmer's posthumous papers: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (Bollingen Series VI: 1946), The King and the Corpse (Bollingen Series XI: 1948), Philosophies of India (Bollingen Series XXVI: 1951), and a two-volume opus, The Art of Indian Asia (Bollingen Series XXXIX: 1955).
Joe, meanwhile, followed his initial Bollingen contribution with a "Folkloristic Commentary" to Grimm's Fairy Tales (1944); he also co-authored (with Henry Morton Robinson) A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), the first major study of James Joyce's notoriously complex novel.
His first, full-length, solo authorial endeavor, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series XVII: 1949), was published to acclaim and brought him the first of numerous awards and honors—the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contributions to Creative Literature. In this study of the myth of the hero, Campbell posits the existence of a Monomyth (a word he borrowed from James Joyce), a universal pattern that is the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture. While outlining the basic stages of this mythic cycle, he also explores common variations in the hero's journey, which, he argues, is an operative metaphor, not only for an individual, but for a culture as well. The Hero would prove to have a major influence on generations of creative artists—from the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s to contemporary film-makers today—and would, in time, come to be acclaimed as a classic.
Joe would eventually author dozens of articles and numerous other books, including The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (Vol. 1: 1959), Oriental Mythology (Vol. 2: 1962), Occidental Mythology (Vol. 3: 1964), and Creative Mythology (Vol. 4: 1968); The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (1969); Myths to Live By (1972); The Mythic Image (1974); The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (1986); and five books in his four-volume, multi-part, unfinished Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1983-87).
He was also a prolific editor. Over the years, he edited The Portable Arabian Nights (1952) and was general editor of the series Man and Myth (1953-1954), which included major works by Maya Deren (Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti, 1953), Carl Kerenyi (The Gods of the Greeks, 1954), and Alan Watts (Myth and Ritual in Christianity, 1954). He also edited The Portable Jung (1972), as well as six volumes of Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (Bollingen Series XXX): Spirit and Nature (1954), The Mysteries (1955), Man and Time (1957), Spiritual Disciplines (1960), Man and Transformation (1964), and The Mystic Vision (1969).
But his many publications notwithstanding, it was arguably as a public speaker that Joe had his greatest popular impact. From the time of his first public lecture in 1940—a talk at the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center entitled "Sri Ramakrishna's Message to the West"—it was apparent that he was an erudite but accessible lecturer, a gifted storyteller, and a witty raconteur. In the ensuing years, he was asked more and more often to speak at different venues on various topics. In 1956, he was invited to speak at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute; working without notes, he delivered two straight days of lectures. His talks were so well-received, he was invited back annually for the next seventeen years. In the mid-1950s, he also undertook a series of public lectures at the Cooper Union in New York City; these talks drew an ever-larger, increasingly diverse audience, and soon became a regular event.
Joe first lectured at Esalen Institute in 1965. Each year thereafter, he returned to Big Sur to share his latest thoughts, insights, and stories. And as the years passed, he came to look forward more and more to his annual sojourns to the place he called "paradise on the Pacific Coast." Although he retired from teaching at Sarah Lawrence in 1972 to devote himself to his writing, he continued to undertake two month-long lecture tours each year.
In 1985, Joe was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal of Honor in Literature. At the award ceremony, James Hillman remarked, "No one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness."
Joseph Campbell died unexpectedly in 1987 after a brief struggle with cancer. In 1988, millions were introduced to his ideas by the broadcast on PBS of Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, six hours of an electrifying conversation that the two men had videotaped over the course of several years. When he died, Newsweek magazine noted that "Campbell has become one of the rarest of intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture."
In his later years, Joe was fond of recalling on how Schopenhauer, in his essay On the Apparent Intention in the Fate of the Individual, wrote of the curious feeling one can have, of there being an author somewhere writing the novel of our lives, in such a way that through events that seem to us to be chance happenings there is actually a plot unfolding of which we have no knowledge.
Looking back over Joe's life, one cannot help but feel that it proves the truth Schopenhauer's observation.
"The alchemical process is a physical ritual that projects an inner state onto physical elements."
Do you understand what some writers and artists are calling "new mythologies"? What inspirational sources are in their tool kit?
“The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this earth as of one harmonious being?” - Joseph Campbell Joseph Campbell often pointed out that Western culture is in a mythological free fall. Literal interpretations of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic tradition do not universally match the individual’s experience of today: to use another Campbellism, the science of 2000 B.C. does not belong in the world of 2000 A.D. We have no current universal myth that rings true in our experience, so the individual – and the culture-at-large – is adrift on a sea of conflicting beliefs and mythological images. This spiritual chaos is reflected in cultural turmoil and existential angst: violent crimes, drugs, rampant materialism, superficial values, instant gratification, constant overstimulation, and on and on. Hungry ghosts are loose in the land, though just what they hunger for, no one can quite say.
Into this void steps the artist.
If the culture is to change its guiding image, then the image-makers, the artists - particularly those with their finger on the pulse of popular culture, the musician-poets, the novelists, the filmmakers, etc. - will play a leading role, their work both reflecting and shaping the public imagination far more than politicians who see ahead only to the next election or businessmen focused on the bottom line.
Joseph Campbell’s wife, the noted dancer/choreographer Jean Erdman, once remarked, “The way of the mystic and the way of the artist are related, but the mystic lacks a craft.” Joseph believed artists fill the role today once reserved for mystics, seers, and shamans. Like the mystic, an artist brings her or his most inward truth to consciousness. The artist is a master of metaphorical language and the use of symbolism, which are the prime components of myth. In Campbell’s words, “it’s the work of poets and artists to know what the world-image of today is, and to render it as the old seers did theirs” – particularly in terms of the relevance of that image to our inner life.
Is Joseph Campbell's work and vision supporting the new myths?
Absolutely! In Campbell’s final lecture, delivered to students at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, he proclaimed, “In my writing and my thinking and my work I’ve thought of myself as addressing artists and poets and writers. The rest of the world can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned.”
Of course, Joseph Campbell didn’t believe we can predict the form a new mythology will take, anymore than we can predict what we will dream tonight; nevertheless, he felt certain a new mythology will inevitably emerge out of the morass, noting that “I can see no reason why anyone should suppose that in the future the same motifs already heard will not be sounding still – in new relationships indeed, but ever the same motifs.” His work explores these themes and makes them accessible, but leaves it to the artists (and to individual seekers) to re-imagine the way these relationships play out in the contemporary world.
What can we expect from an emerging mythology? It should provide a lens through which we perceive the universe, and ourselves. Though differing in details, any new mythology would express the motifs basic to previous mythologies, interpreting them in ways that match our experience of the universe (no hairy thunderer hurling lightning bolts from the peak of Olympus or Sinai – just doesn’t jive with “the facts” as we know them).
Perhaps most significant, an emerging “universal” mythology would not necessarily be perceived as “myth,” but simply as what is. All earlier mythologies as they developed were recognized as part of the warp and woof of their culture – the “what is,” who we are, and how we (and everything) came to be. One culture might recognize another culture’s myths as myth, but rarely perceives its own as such.
There are many candidates on the horizon, but as to what the final form might be of a coming mythology, no one can say. The one thing Joseph Campbell seemed certain of, though, is that any emerging mythology will need to reflect a vision of the world as one Whole. Earth, when seen from space, has no dotted lines. It’s a delicate, fragile system we all share – the air I breathe does not stop at the border. That means we will need to surrender our exclusivity – no more “in-groups” and “out-groups” – we’re all in this together.
Clearly, given the current political and religious climate, we have our work cut out for us.
Can you offer us some symbols, songs or stories that speak in mythological terms for the Sustainability Age?
Many come to mind, particularly pre-Columbian myths of the Americas, though the same themes appear in African tales and the song-lines from the Dreamtime of Australia’s First Peoples.
In the Lakota tale of White Buffalo Calf Woman, the people are starving for lack of game. Two scouts sent out onto the plains looking for food see a large white buffalo approaching; as the animal nears, it morphs into a beautiful Indian maiden in white buckskin. One of the scouts, his heart filled with lust, seeks instant gratification of his desires (an apt metaphor for today’s consumer culture?). The licentious lad reaches out to embrace the girl. A dark cloud envelops them; when the cloud lifts, bleached bones are all that remain of the youth.
The other young brave assumes a reverential posture. White Buffalo Calf Woman instructs him to announce to his people that she will return in four days with a gift for his people and a message from the buffalo nation. The people are to prepare by constructing a large circular meeting lodge to receive her, designed to her specifications.
When White Buffalo Calf Woman returns she unwraps the bundle she carries, which contains the Sacred Pipe of the Lakota. She instructs the people how to hold the pipe, how to light it, how to offer the smoke to Grandfather Sky, Grandmother Earth, and the four directions, and then reveals the essence of the mystery embodied in the pipe:
“With this holy pipe you will walk like a living prayer. With your feet resting upon the earth and the pipe stem reaching into the sky, your body forms a living bridge between the Sacred Beneath and the Sacred Above. Wakan Tanka smiles upon us, because now we are as One: Earth, Sky, all living things, the two-legged, the four-legged, the winged ones, the trees, the grasses. Together with the people, they are all related, one family. The pipe holds them all together. Its stone represents the buffalo, but also the flesh and blood of the red man. The buffalo represents the universe and the four directions, because he stands on four legs, for the four ages of man. The wooden stem stands for all that grows on the earth. Twelve feathers hanging from where the stem joins the bowl are from the spotted eagle, the Great Spirit's messenger. Engraved on the bowl are seven circles of various sizes. They stand for the seven ceremonies you will practice with this pipe, and for the seven sacred campfires of our Lakota nation."
White Buffalo Calf Woman shows them how to grow and cook corn, what to do with the wild turnip, and how to use every part of the buffalo – meat for food, skins for clothes and tipis, sinews for thread, and bones for tools, and teaches the people the seven sacred ceremonies of the Lakota. As she departs, she rolls in the dust and turns into a black buffalo, then with a second roll becomes a brown buffalo, then one that is red, and finally the most sacred, a white buffalo calf. The moment the people lose sight of her in the distance, a great herd of buffalo appear on the horizon.
The Sacred Pipe of White Buffalo Calf Woman still exists, a living symbol of an ensouled world, keepsake of a sustainable culture.
Is sustainability like a religion?
It certainly can be, but also strikes me as plain common sense.
Still, I can see how critics like political pundit Patrick Buchanan and Senator James Inhofe dismiss it as no more than a fringe belief promoted by fanatical adherents of a Goddess-worshipping cult, a policy that that must be rejected on the grounds of separation of church and state.
Joseph Campbell might describe that as a literal reading of a mythic image.
True, a potent mythological image that speaks to sustainability has been resurrected by biologists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulies (first wife of Carl Sagan, a respected research scientist in her own right). Studying the biology and geology of Earth as a series of integrated, interdependent systems working in harmony and following the pattern of a self-regulating organism, they term their theory “the Gaia hypothesis.” This doesn’t mean they “worship” the ancient Goddess Gaia, but there is a resonance between the ancient conception of Earth as a living Goddess and what we are discovering about the interdependence of life and the mechanisms that regulate the planet. Of course, scientific foundations, academic institutions, and government agencies aren’t in the habit of awarding grants to study the role of ancient goddesses in the contemporary universe, even if a metaphor; investigating the workings of “dynamic systems,” on the other hand, just seems to cry out for funding.
But one needn’t have a vested interest in mythology, or any spiritual belief system, to find value in these fields.
What bands or authors stir your imagination these days?
I would be camped out in a Grateful Dead parking lot if Jerry Garcia were alive – and I still keep track of drummer Mickey Hart’s post-Dead incarnations, musical and otherwise (Planet Drum, the Global Drum Project, Rhythm Devils, etc.). Beyond that, I return to jazz and blues standards – Stan Getz, Stephane Grapelli, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, B.B. King.
I read a lot of nonfiction. I look forward to more from David Abram (“The Spell of the Sensuous”) and Lewis Hyde (“Trickster Makes This World”), and I’m currently reading “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality” (Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jethá – intriguing premise, but the jury’s still out on that one). Of course, I will never exhaust Carl Jung’s Collected Works, and am deeply immersed in his recently published “Red Book” – a very personal and ultimately successful approach to staying sane inside insanity.
In fiction, I relish the playful creativity of Neil Gaiman (“American Gods”; “Anansi Boys”) and the craftsmanship of Michael Chabon (“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”; “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union”). Cormac McCarthy’s crisp writing and twisted imagination bleaches my brain (“Blood Meridian”; “No Country for Old Men”; “The Road”). And recently I’ve discovered Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset (“Kristin Lavransdatter,” a medieval trilogy) and Icelandic author Halldór Laxness (“Independent People”), both winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature (I’m a quarter of the way through “Independent People,” and am beginning to believe it is the best-written book I have ever read).
Are shaman born or created these days? Any examples?
Shamans are neither born nor created: they are Called.
A shaman mediates between consensus reality and the spirit world on behalf of his or her people (a female shaman is technically a shamanka, but that term has yet to find its place in English). The shaman travels to the Otherworld in trance facilitated by what Mircea Eliade terms “archaic techniques of ecstasy” - drumming, dancing, fasting, ingestion of visionary plants (mushrooms, ayahuasca, peyote, ibogaine, cannabis, etc.), and such. In the Spirit World shamans learn to heal the sick, foresee the future, influence the weather and the movement of game animals, and can even cause illness. The shaman’s Calling is a double-edged sword – shamans are respected, but feared, and often live a little apart from the people they serve. Though the word is Siberian in origin, Eliade designates the ecstatic, inward experience of the shaman a “primary phenomenon” ubiquitous in primal cultures, regardless of where and when they are found.
In most primal societies no one decides to be a shaman when they grow up. The shaman’s Call manifests in early adolescence as an illness that triggers a deep psychotic break with consensus reality, often indistinguishable from a schizophrenic episode. This “shamanic crisis” is truly dangerous – not all survive. Another similar yet distinct way the Call sounds appears in North American indigenous cultures where every male is expected to undertake a vision quest during adolescence; a potential shaman is recognized by the nature of the visions he experiences (e.g., perhaps an animal guide identified with shamans in the tribe’s mythology)..
But the shamanic crisis is only the first step. Some refuse the Call. Those who do embark on the path are apprenticed to a shaman and receive intense training, often lasting many years.
Certainly shamans can be found today among the Secoya in the Amazon, the Bwiti of Gabon, the aboriginal peoples of Australia, and other indigenous populations. But there’s an argument to be made that shamanism cannot exist apart from primal cultures.
Yet the human brain has changed little the last 12,000 to 15,000 years, and the same patterns that gave birth to shamanism remain in play. It’s true that modern society is hardly conducive to the shamanic experience: an adolescent in New York experiencing a break with reality is generally diagnosed as schizophrenic and treated with drugs to suppress the visions, and often even institutionalized. In more “primitive” societies he or she is supported and honored; the psychotic episode is allowed to play itself out, with the result that the individual becomes a respected, contributing member of society.
(Christina Grof, a student of Joseph Campbell at Sarah Lawrence, turned to him for support years later when she found herself overwhelmed with visions and psychic experiences, suffering from an apparent mental breakdown that almost led to her institutionalization; Campbell identified her experience as a “kundalini awakening” common to Eastern cultures and placed her in touch with a colleague, psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, who not only helped but eventually married Christina. Together the Grofs were able to persuade the editors of the DSM-IV – the diagnostic bible of modern psychiatry – to include a distinction between mental illness and spiritual awakening. Change comes slowly and the shamanic crisis is still regularly misidentified, but the field of psychology is at least beginning to recognize it as a valid experience.)
So are there legitimate shamans active in the First World today, despite the absence of a traditional tribal path?
Well, I don’t believe one can decide to become a shaman the way one chooses a vocation: policeman, nurse, construction worker, business executive, or shaman. Nor does simply drinking ayahuasca or ingesting ibogaine a shaman make … but I have met those who clearly heard the Call, usually as a result of what Joseph Campbell terms a Wasteland experience – a “long, dark night of the Soul” - and have dedicated themselves to this discipline.
It’s not an easy path. Whether traditional or contemporary, a shaman is someone who has experienced a deep inward turn, and as a result has developed the tools to move back and forth between this plane of existence and the Spirit World, mediating between the two on an individual’s or a community’s behalf.
Despite the temptation to think of this exclusively in metaphorical terms, from what I have witnessed it is a very real, profound experience. In fact, while pondering this question I touched bases with Keya Hutchens, a good friend who is a shaman based in Minnesota – though she hesitates to call herself that these days, given the “new age” baggage attached to the term. Calm, nurturing, and grounded today, her experience echoes these observations.
Joseph Campbell notes that the difference between a shaman and a priest is that the priest is the agent of a collective order, conveying an established mythological tradition that has descended from others; the shaman, on the other hand, speaks with the authority of his or her own experience. Absent an authentic, living mythology – much like today – the shaman’s image can serve as a metaphor for each individual’s journey to discover her/his personal mythology, grounded in the experience of one’s own inner world, and how that perception is reflected in the world we all share.
For those who wish to explore shamanism further, I recommend anthropologist Jeremy Narby’s “The Cosmic Serpent” and the essay anthology, “Shamans Through Time: 500 Years on the Path to Knowledge” (which Narby edited with Francis Huxley), as well as Daniel Pinchbeck’s “Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism.”
Is alchemy a process that intrigues you? Do you actively use it?
Actively – yes, albeit more in metaphorical and psychological terms these days.
At one point, a few decades back, while crashing with several other people in bohemian digs (two small, single-story Spanish bungalows sharing a common patio, on a street otherwise populated by clapboard Victorian homes), a friend and I determined to convert one of the garages into an alchemical laboratory (another case of reading the myth a mite literal …). However, we were never quite able to pull together all the equipment we needed – the kiln, the alchemical retort, the necessary chemicals, etc. Turned out to be a good thing – we probably would either have blown up the garage or been suspected of operating a meth lab.
Friends at the time assumed our focus was on the end product – physically creating gold – but my understanding of alchemy is that it’s the work that transforms – the alchemical opus. It’s all about doing the work, not increasing the bank account. The alchemical process is, in essence, a physical ritual that allows one to project an inner state onto physical elements; the dissolution, separation, recombination, and transformation of these materials mirrors one’s inner spiritual dynamics, as well as one’s relationship to the cosmos as a whole. Through this transformation of the psyche the alchemist embodies the wisdom inscribed on the legendary Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegustus – “As Above, so Below; As Below, so Above” – in harmony with the holographic structure of the universe, wherein the Whole is contained in each of its Parts.
Of course, that’s way too simplistic. One can write volumes about alchemy, and many have. The writings of alchemists from Gerhard Dorn to Paracelsus can be obscure, vague, and difficult to fathom for the uninitiated - but we live in a time when there is a wealth of resources available to guide us through this material. Patrick Harpur’s “The Philosopher’s Secret Fire” is a good place to start (or, for the more playful, Harpur’s novel, “Mercurius, or the Marriage of Heaven & Earth”). Also of value is “Alchemical Psychology: Old Recipes for Living in a New World,” by Thom F. Cavelli. The lengthy chapter on “Phoenix Fire” in Joseph Campbell’s “Creative Mythology” (Volume IV of his “Masks of God” series) offers several epiphanies, and then Jung’s “Psychology & Alchemy,” “Alchemical Studies,” and “Mysterium Coniunctionis” (Volumes 13, 14, & 15, respectively, of his Collected Works), are the Mother Lode. The slender Chinese volume, “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” translated by Richard Wilhelm (known for his edition of the I Ching), with extended commentary by Jung, offers a portal onto parallel processes from a different cultural perspective.
Do you understand how alchemy can work in the sound and visual arts? Any examples to share?
At the risk of sounding like an aging hippie (too late, I know), the live Grateful Dead experience springs to mind – something they never really were able to achieve in the studio. (It doesn’t seem coincidence that the company the Dead housed and funded to invent the technology that built their musical instruments and created their sound system is called Alembic – a name taken from the alchemical retort in which the distillation process takes place … but then the name of the band itself expresses a traditional mythic motif).
Committed Deadheads and the Grateful Dead used light and sound to evoke a truly transformative experience – a perspective Joseph Campbell and I both share (I was present in the audience at the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland when Joe and his wife Jean Erdman sat onstage near the band). Keep in mind more than a few concertgoers entered entheogen-induced altered states during shows (Campbell, who never used mind-altering substances - apart from Glen Livet Scotch - compared the event to the ancient Eleusinian mystery rites, where an apparently ergot-laced beverage induced collective trances in participants viewing a ritualized passion play illustrating a descent into the Underworld).
In the process of a show the Grateful Dead induced experiences congruent with the operations and states of the alchemical process: e.g., heat, marked by wild Dionysian dance revelry; the nigredo - songs plumbing the darkest depths of the human soul; the albedo – shining light on those dark depths … and so on. Over the course of four hours or so those present would have their psyches stretched, pulled apart, stirred, shaken, and put back together, ending with what alchemists describe as the “descent of the Spirit” as love suffused everyone’s being … or not.
It was definitely a subjective experience, and by no means universal – but still, a surprisingly consistent pattern for the many.
That taught me that Art is not something to be viewed at arm’s length and analyzed, but has to be experienced - felt in my gut, in my heart, and in my soul. Much static art, hanging on the wall, has the power to do this – Rauschenberg, Rothko, Picasso, Pollock, and Klee have that effect on me - but there is an emotional immediacy to sound and movement that breaks past ego barriers … so yes, I believe I understand how alchemy can work in the sound and visual arts; what’s just as clear is that today’s technology has definitely upped the ante.
Can permaculture be defined in alchemic or mythological terms or processes?
Yes – I think of the Emerald Tablet, cited above: permaculture requires we be cognizant of the relationship of All Beings in nature – plants, animals, humans, rocks, water, earth – to one another, and to the Whole. In terms of mythology, honoring the needs and requirements of all elements of our environment, and how we shape our surroundings and are shaped by them, is key to multiple mythologies on all continents and in all times.
Are you seeing any shifts away from traditional religion to a more Nature-based view?
I truly hope so. Rather than repeat myself, I’ll refer to my earlier remarks about sustainability. Those in favor of the status quo – where it’s Man’s duty to subdue Nature (and I use “Man” instead of “Humanity” to emphasize the patriarchal perspective) - certainly believe the Nature-based view is a growing threat. And small wonder - maybe it’s just the company I keep, but most people I know have gravitated away from traditional dogma to a spirituality grounded in Nature. Over the course of my lifetime the trend is unmistakable.
This isn’t exclusive to pagan, Earth-oriented faiths. In my hometown of Modesto – the red state/red meat part of California – I belong to a rare CSA cooperative (Community-Shared Agriculture), established by a couple trained through World Hunger Relief, a Christian organization – definitely a step in the right direction.
What organizations do you support – that support your growth?
The Esalen Institute is at the forefront – not just because of their organic garden and farm next to the ocean, the luxurious massages, and the soothing hot springs perched on the side of the cliff above the Big Sur surf. Esalen is a place to learn, to teach, and to be healed. It strikes me as a clearinghouse of sorts, where I come in contact with a wide variety of very awake people following more-or-less parallel paths. Just this past spring, spending a week as part of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s Mythological ToolBox Playshop, I found myself sharing a hot tub with a younger man there to examine Esalen’s water reclamation program, an older gentleman from Eastern Europe practicing somatic healing, and two women – an Episcopalian priest and a Jewish rabbi – in residence for discussions with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars and clerics seeking ways to bypass governments and foster a grassroots approach to peace in the Middle East. Conversation in such settings proves sparkling and transcendent, the information exchange as valuable as time spent in workshop sessions. There I am drawn to step outside myself, expand beyond my own interests, and am inspired by the passions of others.
The Lantern Projects is a charitable organization I wholeheartedly endorse. Donors are able to designate dollar amounts allotted to specific projects, and know exactly how many desks they are purchasing for a classroom in Ghana, or HIV testing kits in Tanzania, safety visors for landmine removal in Kosovo, iron-top stoves that burn less wood for communities in Guatemala, and so on. I have control over how my money is spent and know who I am helping.
And then, no surprise, there is the Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF) – the organization created by his family and charged with preserving, protecting, and perpetuating Campbell’s work, ensuring his mythic vision remains available and accessible to the public. It’s a labor of love (no one can be in it for the money – there’s a reason it’s called “nonprofit”). JCF’s role isn’t to “interpret” Joseph Campbell’s words – that’s between Joe and each individual – our task is to hold the space.
Part of Joseph Campbell’s appeal is that he doesn’t tell us what to do, but opens the door to clues hidden in myth that enable each to find one’s own way – but what one makes of that is up to the individual.
Can you give us your top three global issues that need to be repaired and how you would tackle them?
One is the damage to our planet and the exhaustion of our natural resources (though calling Nature’s bounty “resources” could be read as implying ownership, which is not my intent). We have leveled forests, hollowed out mountains, exterminated countless species, poisoned the water and the air, and upset the balance of Nature … and we are reaping the inevitable.
I have faith in the Earth’s ability to heal herself, though if we do nothing I doubt restoration will proceed on a human timescale; even if we manage to cooperate and coordinate a worldwide response, I’m afraid global warming and the accompanying climate change are here for the long term. We might mitigate the worst of it, but we’ve reached a tipping point. Whether we want to or not, humans will have to adapt, or fade away. Absent an environment conducive to human life, all other concerns are moot.
Another global issue is hunger and disease. We have the wealth and resources to feed the planet and alleviate much suffering, but that also requires unity of purpose and concerted action. It’s difficult enough in the United States to arrive at a consensus to provide medical care to our own.
And the third issue is human conflict and violence – from suicide bombings in Iraq to drone missile attacks in Pakistan, narco-terrorism in Mexico, and crime in the streets of the United States. I also count religious hatred, racial prejudice, and even hostile partisanship in politics – anything that smacks of what Martin Buber referred to as an “I – It” relationship, or what Joseph Campbell called the “in-group” vs. the “out-group.” Buber notes that what we need is to see in “the Other” not an “It,” but a “Thou.”
And therein lies a clue to what’s required to tackle all three of these problems – a change in the collective image of humanity - each of us stepping outside oneself, outside “my” narrow concerns, and seeing the Other as a Thou, whether that Other is someone of another race, another faith, or someone with no resources and an empty belly. We also need see the Thou not just in people, but in Nature: in an animal, a lake, a forest, the sea, or Earth herself. We need to expand our horizons.
We do this by developing compassion. I’m afraid I don’t have a ten point program for how to foster compassion on the planet, but I believe it begins with changing my own perceptions.
But how do we change the perceptions of others?
First, through living one’s own compassion – recognizing myself in the suffering of others, alleviating my suffering through easing theirs. Given time and commitment, compassion proves contagious.
Second, the domininant myth, while still embraced by millions, does not ring true in the experience of many other millions. But we all live our lives in a mythic context, ensconced in story – so we reach others by telling a better story, one that better reflects the world around us.
We do this by turning to the ancient myths, the encapsulated wisdom of generations past, and calling forth the images that ring true in our experience. This is where the artists step into the role of seer and shaman, weaving these elements together to form a new story, one with a different ending.
New mythologies on the horizon?
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Stephen Gerringer Bio –
Stephen Gerringer is a member of the leadership team that steers the Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF). A longtime political activist and occasional candidate for legislative office, his career trajectory was interrupted when a major health crisis and subsequent brush with death prompted a deep inward turn. Stephen “dropped out” and, in the best tradition of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac, spent most of the next decade “on the road,” thumbing his way across the country on his own Hero’s Journey, in quest of self-knowledge and insight.
Stephen did eventually “drop back in,” accepting a position teaching English and Literature in junior high school. Over time, though, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss, and doors will open where you would not have thought there’d be doors,” he resigned to pursue writing full time.
As the primary author of JCF’s “Practical Campbell” essay series, which explores the relevance of mythological themes to everyday life, he has written articles on subjects ranging from dreams, virgin births, tricksters, and ritual regicide, to shamanism, oracles, sacred plants in vision quests, and the relationship between mythology and nature. Currently, Stephen is editing a book for JCF drawn from obscure and difficult-to-find interviews given by Joseph Campbell the last thirty years of his life.