Joseph Campbell and my Mythopoetic Workshop

Yesterday, I lead a roundtable for a local study group The Hubs and I have been participating in for awhile now. The group started as a study of the Manly P. Hall book, The Secret Teaching of All Ages, but when the book ran out, it was time to find something else to do. The idea of a Joseph Campbell discussion came up, and, knowing that I could lead a fairly introductory discussion in my sleep, I volunteered to lead it. But only talking about JC gets boring for me if I’m in a position that isn’t meant to criticize Campbell and mythological studies scholarship – that’s what my dissertation is for – so I invented a Mythopoetic Workshop to go along with the discussion to help people identify their inner hero and explore their inner hero’s journey.

Being a Jungian at heart, I really enjoy dreamwork and active imagination, but I’m always looking for something new. On April Fool’s this year, an astrologer friend of mine conducted an experiment in “astropoesis” with me. The idea is that she looks at my birthchart, guides me through some of the key players of my chart, and gives me a chance to write a brief story about them. It comes from Greek tradition that believed that your birthchart is a compass, guiding your metaphorical ship home to port. The story aspect comes from something active imagination-like, which is an exercise in free writing with your unconscious. But it is through the symbolism of the story – my personal myth – that the meaning becomes apparent. This exercise was one of the most profound I’ve done in a long time and I’d recommend anyone so inclined to try it.

But I don’t know enough about astrology to guide people through a workshop of astropoesis. So I needed a second inspiration. While undergoing my Pacifica coursework, we were assigned a book with a very interesting concept. The book is Italio Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies. It’s about a bunch of travellers who wind up at the same tavern for the night, and they all set out to tell their stories. The rub is that they are not allowed to actually tell their stories; they have to use the imagery of the tarot. Each person builds off of one card from the previous story, until all 78 cards are spread and everyone’s journey is brought together into a single unified moment. It’s a beautiful concept. And to make it even cooler, they don’t necessarily know the 14 or so layers of the tarot’s meaning. The stories are told from the imagery alone.

This study group is perfect for that kind of tarot interaction. Some members are fairly familiar with the symbolism of the cards, some only with specific decks, and some, like me, haven’t gotten beyond the images.

So to find the inner hero, I encouraged everyone as they were shuffling their deck (everyone should be operating with a full deck for this exercise, no haha intended) to ask themselves, “what does my inner hero look like?” Then, to lay a 3-card spread. a 3-card spread is a nice and easy tarot spread that is good for quick answers to questions. The idea is that the questioner poses his/her question, then 3 cards are placed on the table. The first card is the history/past of the question, the second is the present, and the third is the future/possible solution of the question. To work with the inner hero, I asked everyone to read the cards as a beginning, middle, and end. Where does the hero come from? Where is the hero going? What does the hero look like? But not to write the hero’s journey yet, the hero’s specific task. Rather, give the hero an identity. We discussed this one at length. Several people saw something come up that they were not otherwise expecting, be it a complete opposing personality to who they actually are or a great revelation about a role that they have been unconsciously moving into recently but had not quite realized that it was happening yet.

The next step is to move from having an image of the hero to writing a hero’s journey. This one, space permitting, is a 12-card circular spread that follows the hero’s journey:

  • home – where the hero is starting from.
  • call to adventure – what task is being posed to the hero
  • reluctant hero – what holds the hero back
  • supernatural aid/herald – what propels the hero forward
  • crossing the threshold – how the hero crosses into the Other World
  • belly of the whale – what does the Other World look like
  • allies and enemies – who helps the hero over the course of the journey
  • ordeal – what is the major trial/boon guardian
  • boon – what is the hero rescuing/going after
  • flight – how does the hero get home
  • rebirth/return – how does the hero get home
  • elixir – how does the hero apply the boon

This particular exercise does require some creative liberties, which is where the potential for a larger story rests. We didn’t discuss individual stories in too much detail but two things came out of the exercise: a starter for some larger work (I encouraged everyone to revisit the story later and flush it out), but also some inner work tools that people can use at another time (and many of them said they wanted to do it again later). This exercise, because of the nature of the tarot cards, is very open to individual projection, so it is possible to do this many times over the course of a few weeks and reveal some deeply rooter inner stuff. The looseness of the interpretation allows for the individual to go in the directions he/she needs to go, and it allows for someone to call on an expert if something comes up and they just don’t know what to do with it.

It is an exercise I hope to do again. I made the mistake of using my Hello Kitty tarot deck, which is based on the Rider-Waite deck, but is too cute for this kind of work. There is absolutely no conflict anywhere in the deck, so it required me to go into some really deep creative space.

Overall, this was a good experiment, and one that is worth repeating. If any reader gives this a try, let me know how it works out.

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