Mythsticks - The Flight of the Wild Gander by Joseph Campbell

5 Mythogenesis

Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux
Campbell begins his fourth chapter, ‘Mythogenesis’, with a tale of the buffalo and their relationship to the Oglala Sioux. He compares the details of this magical story with those of the Greek myth of the goddess Artemis’s hunt of the hapless Acteon. Both cultures separate physical lust from spiritual yearning. As Black Elk said ‘one who is distracted, who is ruled by his senses, and who lives for himself rather than for his people’ will be consumed if he ventures into the spiritual realm.

In the ceremonial lodge of the Sioux, Campbell sees the temple, its central pole symbolic of the world axis, ‘this centre, which in reality is everywhere, is the dwelling place of Wakan Tanka’ — the Great Spirit — according to Black Elk, the keeper of the Oglala’s sacred pipe. Campbell readily compares this eloquent notion to those of Western philosophers, from Bruno to Voltaire, who held that God is ‘an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere’.

Through such comparisons, Campbell pursues his quest — ‘Shall we join our voice to those who write of a great Perennial Philosophy, which, from time out of mind, has been the one, eternally true wisdom of the human race, revealed somehow from on high? ... Or ... on the contrary ... Can the Greeks and the Sioux ... be supposed to have received any part or parts of their mythological heritages from a common source? Or ... shall we simply set aside this whole question of shared motifs ... as unworthy of a scientists’ speculation?’

Joseph Campbell - The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987
Here begins an investigation into the details of number common in mythologies — the 28 days of the moon cycle, which are the 28 ribs of the buffalo, and the 28 supports of the sacred lodge: one for the axis, and 27 as the cube of the sacred number three. These threes recur in mythology — the nine choirs of angels around the throne of the Trinity; the three days of Christ in the tomb — perhaps signifying the trios of nature, such as the three dark days of the moon. (For a deep analysis of numbers common to many cultures see Campbell’s The Mystery Number of the Goddess in The Mythic Dimension.) Campbell winds his thread, tracing his route out of the labyrinth of metaphor that is the subtle poetry of myth.

Campbell compares the preparation of the holy pipe kept by Black Elk — and symbolic of the continued survival of his people — with another ritual, this time from the Vedic tradition of India. He moves into the centre of the mystery: ‘The Great Spirit ... is our Grandfather and Father; the Earth, our Grandmother and Mother. As Father and Mother, they are the producers of all things; as Grandfather and Grandmother, however, beyond our understanding.’ Campbell compares these distinctions to Rudolf Otto’s ‘ineffable and rational’ aspects of God, to the Indian nirguna brahman ‘Absolute without Qualities’ and saguna brahman ‘Absolute with Qualities’ —‘respectively That beyond names, forms, and relationships, and That personified as “God”.’

Pottery bowl from the Banshan Culture Majiawan Village, China (2165-1965 BC),
				featuring a large central swastika
Campbell reaches into prehistory to examine the beliefs of the hunter-gatherer societies that persisted for tens of thousands of years into the teachings of the medicine-men of the Plains Indians. Long ago a dispersal of artefacts and symbols occurred in the world. The left-handed swastika of peace is found in Iraq from as long ago as 4000 BC. A thousand years ago it could be found on jewelry in what is now Oklahoma. It was a common ancient symbol. Artefacts have been discovered that show that commerce took place between Japan and Ecuador some five millennia ago; and between China and Peru around 1016 BC. This allows for the possibility of the transmission of myth and symbol between cultures from a very early date. Campbell keeps looking further in time, back into ‘the very deep well of history and pre-history’. He separates the mythology of the planters from the hunter-gatherers, showing that each has legends that belong to it no matter where the particular speciality is found around the globe.

Detail from the painted gallery in the cave of Lascaux
The hunter-gatherers go back to the very beginning of our species. The Clovis point was fashioned over 37,000 years ago; the Barstow chips and blades about 42,000. The astonishing cave grottoes of Altamira and Lascaux have been dated to a period spanning from about 30,000 to 10,000 BC: ‘The painted animals, living there forever in that darkness beyond the tick of time, are the germinal, deathless herds of the cosmic night, from which those on earth ... proceed and to which they return.’ Just as with the Plains Indians, the evidence of hand-prints shows that these people, from a far prehistory, sacrificed finger joints in the hope of greater powers.

Campbell points to two ‘transforming processes’, and follows Coomaraswamy’s distinctions. Land-taking is the principle whereby a myth accommodate local plants or animals. In Mexico the spirit lives in the maize; in Japan in rice. Acculturation takes motifs from an alien culture and assimilates them. So for example the Cargo Cults of Melanesia devised new rituals in an attempt to induce the gods to bring back the bounty actually dropped by American planes in World War II. These rituals moved quickly to neighbouring peoples, showing how rapid acculturation can be. So it was that the Sioux and the Pawnee assimilated the Cosmic Buffalo when they moved onto the Plains. Both peoples assert that the Cosmic Buffalo stands at the gate through which the animals that they hunt come into the world.

Having followed the thread of the hunting myths, Campbell turns to the psychological base that underlies modern cultures. Human beings do more than simply inherit instincts, we are able to adapt and create different cultures. Modern investigations have shown how simple ancient views were. The four elements expand in modern chemistry to over a hundred. ‘The little tower of Babel, which to some in its day seemed to be threatening God in his heaven, we see now surpassed many times in every major city of the world, and rockets fly where angels once sang.’ No single image has been proved to be innate in humans. Which is to say that the same symbols may be interpreted differently in different cultures.

Campbell cites Darwin’s realization that the difficulty of seeing the universe as the result of blind chance may of itself be conditioned in childhood (Though we moderns certainly seem to have far less difficulty in our pluralistic age, maybe through the Sheldrake effect , whereby a species collectively assimilates the wisdom of the individual). Campbell looks for the common images of various mythologies as if they were the similar bricks in the varying architecture of different cultures. One common event in many cultures throughout history is the ritual transition from childhood to adulthood. These rites of passage vary from violent circumcision to Christian confirmation or the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. Through them childhood is taken away forcibly or renounced. Campbell suggests that a neurotic might be seen as someone who has failed to make this journey.

Through mythology we approach the great mysteries of life. Unlike other animals, we know that we are killing when we kill, and we know that we too will die: ‘The reconciliation of consciousness with the monstrous thing that is life ... is a function served by all primitive and most high-culture mythologies that is of no less weight and consequence than the function of imprinting a sociology.’

Black Elk said that life comes into the world with two faces — one sad, one smiling — like the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy: ‘but it is the same face, laughing or weeping’. The Siouxan sage explained that maybe the laughing face is best for the sad to see, and maybe the weeping face is better for those who ‘feel too good and are too sure of being safe.’

Our feelings are innate — natural — they do not arise from social conditioning. Mythology gives context to the inevitable range of sentiments, and the possibility of transcendence. Campbell again cites Black Elk: ‘It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among these shadows men get lost.’ Aged nine, Black Elk fell ill and had the vision that transformed him into a medicine-man. The vision remained uppermost in his mind for the rest of his long life. Through it he understood that his people would lose their supremacy of the Plains, lose the buffalo and be subjugated: ‘I know it as the story of a mighty vision given to a man too weak to use it; of a holy tree that should have flourished in a people’s heart with flowers and singing birds, and now is withered; and of a people’s dream that died in bloody snow. But if the vision was true and mighty, as I know, it is true and mighty yet; for such things are of the spirit, and it is in the darkness of their eyes that men get lost.’

But Black Elk also envisioned the survival of his people. In his vision he rode to Harney Peak, the central mountain of the Siouxan world: ‘But anywhere is the center of the world.’ Once there: ‘I was seeing in a sacred manner, the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one 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.’

It was not until he was seventeen that Black Elk was able to enact some part of his vision as a ceremonial rite for the Oglala Sioux. ‘A man who has a vision,’ he said, ‘is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see.’ Here is the beginning of rituals, where the personal vision is transformed into a myth, a dream shared by a people, and maintained in consciousness through retelling and ceremony. Here the tender minded draw back the curtain that separates us from the invisible world from which our tiny lives emerge. So it is in the Old Testament, where seers relate their direct experience of God to the Hebrew people, or in the New with Jesus’s experiences, or in the Q’ran with Mohammed’s visions.

The chapter closes with Black Elk’s description of the lucidity of his childhood experience, speaking almost sixty years later: ‘Nothing I have ever seen with my eyes was so clear and bright as what my vision showed me; and no words that I have ever heard with my ears were like the words I heard. I did not have to remember these things; they have remembered themselves all these years. It was as I grew older that the meanings came clearer and clearer out of the pictures and the words; and even now I know that more was shown to me than I can tell.’

September 2004