Moana and the Ocean

The other day, I was surfing a Buzzfeed article about Moana and came across a delicious little tidbit:

“Moana” means “ocean,” and it’s a nongendered word.

This is a significant detail in the context of the movie. Spoilers below.

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So, here’s the thing: The whole point of the film is that Moana is struggling with the fact that the ocean is calling her. When she’s a baby, the ocean chooses her. She wanders over to the sea, lured by a pretty shell. She reaches for it, and the ocean parts a pathway for her. She follows the trail of shells and meets a column of ocean, who essentially kisses her in the universal symbol of blessing, and gives her the green heart of Tafiti. She drops the heart as she runs back to her father, who is very nervous about the lure of the ocean (although he recognizes that Moana experiences the same call as he does–but this really isn’t a story about father atonement, so don’t get distracted by this detail).

Until she finally heeds the call to adventure, she struggles with the call of the ocean. I wrote about her anthem, “How Far I’ll Go,” in another post. One of the other members of my Doctor Disney trinity, Dori Koehler, wrote this great post about the Call to Adventure and Moana’s message for our country. (Our third is the ever-wonderful Amy Davis. You know, that Amy Davis.)

But think about it this way: if her names mean ocean, that call that she’s struggling with is the call of her Self. So let’s talk about how this film isn’t just about empowerment; it’s about individuation.

Personally, I think that individuation is one of Jung’s best concepts. This is the process by which one becomes a whole in-divid-ual, with a balanced psyche (conscious and unconscious). One of the arguments I get into with older Jungians is whether or not individuation can happen in younger people. One way of interpreting Jung’s theory about individuation suggests that once you achieve it, you’ve achieved nirvana, and you’re done. The way I tend to interpret individuation places emphasis on the process, and brings together the end goal of the process with the hero’s journey of Joseph Campbell. One often overlooked detail about Campbell’s journey is that the hero has to go home and share the boon, and once this is done, the hero goes off on another journey. Stories aren’t written to share with us the next step of the journey. So what if the heroes aren’t just going off into the woods…but rather going on their next journey?

That, to me, is closer to the reality of life. We constantly go from one journey to the next. Each journey builds on the previous to define who we are, adding a facet to our in-divid-uality.

When Campbell writes about what happens to us when we ignore the call to adventure, he’s cautioning us from getting so static that we forget about the journey and forget who we are. That little voice constantly calling us tells us who we are. It’s our heart.

The ocean is calling Moana. The heart of Tafiti is her heart. Her heart is literally calling her home.

Moana’s boon is to restore her people to their Wayfinding tradition. She learns from Maui how to navigate the seas, and she takes her people back on the adventure. As the song of the Wayfinders tells us, they always know home in their heart as they go searching for the next island. The point of her people is to go on the hunt for the islands that Maui raises with his fishhook. To constantly go on questing journeys for the next adventure.

When I sat through the credits of the film, I posted on Facebook the observation that this film out-Campbells Joseph Campbell. Because it does: Campbell may have given us the literary road map of the hero’s journey, but this film takes to that next level: the journey continues. Literally. We continue.

Speaking of heart, I want to give a shout-out to the short film ahead of Moana, called Inner Workings of the Human Body. Do you follow your head? Or your heart?

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Moana

I would be remiss to not write something about Moana. I took my daughter to see this film as a Black Friday celebration. Let’s start with the trailer, then go through some comments, with spoilers of course.

There’s so much to say about this film that I’m still a bit speechless and struggle to gather all of my thoughts in a way that makes sense. The premise of the film is that Maui, trickster god that he is, steals the heart of Tafiti, the Mother Goddess of all life. His reasoning is that if he gives the key to making life to the humans, then they’ll be able to also make life and can prosper. At least he seems like he had some good intentions, right? He’s punished, though. Cast away on a remote island, and separated from his fishhook, which is the magical tool that gives him his god-like power (remember, he’s a demi-god).

As a baby, Moana, the chieftain’s daughter, finds the heart and is clearly blessed by the ocean for something far greater than herself.

What follows is this totally, and perfectly, Campbellian hero’s journey, except that it’s a very feminine journey. Moana isn’t a warrior (one of my peeves about female heroes–do they always have to be a warrior to have a hero’s journey? That’s so lame.), but she’s someone who feels a call to adventure. Her grandmother teaches her to listen to those voices that whisper inside of her, and when her island starts to die, she finally listens to that whisper. Her anthem, “How Far I’ll Go,” ranks up there with “Let It Go” for Great Disney Empowerment Anthems. It’s about hearing the Call, and struggling to get to the point where she’ll heed it. The song is reprised throughout the film at key moments when Moana unlocks another aspect of herself, with the final reprise wrapped into the song, “I Am Moana,” which is the moment when, after failing to confront the volcano god, she gains the courage to finish the journey.

And then there’s Maui. Maui is a trickster. He stole fire, raised islands, and many heroic deeds. When we first meet Maui, he literally acts like HE’S the greatest gift to humanity. His song, “You’re Welcome,” sings like the anthem for any dude who thinks that all women should be subservient and thankful for all the things that the male heroes do. But he’s incredibly lonely and doesn’t know how to be a hero without his fishhook. When Moana tells him that he’s no longer a hero to humanity and that the people are suffering, she uses this ego to convince him to go on the journey with her to restore the heart to Tafiti. What he winds up learning along the way is humility, that he’s not all that (and a hook of tricks).

The restoration of Tafiti’s heart can be read as a message of restoring the feminine, taking care of Mother Earth, having respect for the delicate balance of life…whatever flavor you prefer. In light of the rather tumultuous year that 2016 has been, restoring her heart and Tafiti’s forgiveness of Maui is one of the most beautiful, optimistic messages I’ve encountered recently. Everyone learns a little something about themselves.

Moana returns to her people with the boon of knowing how to be a Wayfinder. She reawakens the ancient spirit of her people, who were career adventurers, not domestic farmers. Maui learns new respect for humans and their relationship with the gods. The gods liked that Maui would raise islands with his hook, because it gave the people new places to explore. This was the natural order of things, which got out of balance because Maui took the heart.

My daughter loved the film. She’s just over 4, so she was most scared by the volcano god (of course). She’s started singing the songs and tells everyone that she’s going to Moana’s island (she’s had a Moana doll for about a month now, and she was really excited about seeing the movie). It resonated with the both of us in a strong way.

All I can say is, “Way to go, Disney!” It’s not a perfect adaptation of Polynesian myths, and I’m sure someone will STILL find something wrong with the depiction of Moana. But it is truly a masterpiece of storytelling and animation (Moana has curly hair and Maui has interactive tattoos). I think this is definitely the right story for the right time, much like Frozen was and continues to be. If you want to look at it mythically, the two films go together: one is about listening to the inner voice (Frozen) and the other is about having the courage to let the voice be the guide (Moana).

I leave you with the music video for the celebrity cover of “How Far I’ll Go.” It’s a little too pop for my taste, but it’s worth giving a listen.

Oh, and one last thing: the music was written by the same people who wrote Hamilton. I haven’t seen/heard Hamilton yet, but now I’m totally convinced to give it a try.

The Hero’s Journey 2.xxx

I was having a mental conversation with myself this morning, contemplating how to teach Joseph Campbell’s writing style to my students. The trajectory of my thoughts led me to the almost-cliché Hero’s Journey. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell images the Journey thusly:

One key point of the Hero’s Journey is that it is a circle. The Hero leaves, the Hero must return. If the Hero fails to return, then someone needs to go in and bring him/her home. The Hero must return and share the boon. Sure, there are exceptions. But that’s a different conversation.

The Journey is also linked with Jung’s process of Individuation. In the process of becoming a whole in-divid-ual, Jung tells us that we need to descend into the unconscious, return, and repeat the process as often as necessary. Jung’s process is associated by “old school” Jungians as aimed for the second half of life, but I don’t buy that for one second.

Hero’s Journey, circular, continuous… Point made? Good. So, here’s where my thoughts were going.

In our current phase of epic literature [“literature” includes film, television, and any other “text” within myth/popular culture], our epics are episodic. Historic epics, such as The Odyssey and Moby-Dick (a nod to my Epic professor, Dennis Slattery), have episodes built into the larger Hero Journey of the character, but are themselves not episodic. By episodic, let’s consider Harry Potter.

Harry has a single journey that spans all seven volumes—to defeat Voldemort and rid the wizarding world of an evil. This single journey’s latent meaning involves breaking his bond with Voldemort, and individuating, moving beyond the Boy Who Lived and to become Harry.

Each volume of the series is itself a complete Hero Journey. In the first book, his Journey is to rescue the Sorcerer’s Stone, the second is to rescue Ginny from the Chamber of Secrets, etc. Each journey brings him ever closer to the ultimate boon battle with Voldemort.

The limitations of words on this blog make the image I’m trying to convey a little difficult, but work with me here. The Little Hero’s Journeys build upon each other and culminate in the Big Hero’s Journey. Kind of like a spiral, with the first story being at the top moving down:

Though I’d prefer to imagine it the other way around, moving from narrow bottom up, but I couldn’t find a suitable image.

This new kind of Epic Hero’s Journey is nicely situated for integrating Campbell’s Monomyth with Jung’s Individuation. It’s a process. With each level, we gain experience and magical helpers that give us the strength to ultimately face that Bad Guy at the end of the game. (A notable exception is Epic Mickey. Again, something for another day.) We can see this Epic Monomyth at play in many different myth outlets these days, of which Harry Potter is only one voice. Others that immediately come to mind include Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, The Hunger Games, and Star Wars.

And seeing the Hero’s Journey in this way makes it a better roadmap for our lives. Imagine what our world would look like if we imagined progress as a spiral and not as a linear evolution?

For your viewing pleasure, I pilfered this from overthinkingit.com (credit due where credit is due):

Are Girls Princesses or Honorary Boys?

First, a couple disclaimers:

One, I have not seen Brave or any of the new Snow White features as of the time of this writing. I intend to see Brave this weekend, but we’ll have to see what this weekend brings.

Two, as a future parent, I’m not disturbed by the Disney Princesses as they appear in film. They all represent a young woman who is trying to figure out who she is based on who she wants to be OR she is raised not knowing she’s a princess at all. What I am disturbed about is the marketing of the Princesses that seems to communicate the glamour of being a princess, overlooking the journey to princess that these characters take.

So, in light of the release of Brave and the popularity of The Hunger Games, there has been a bunch of discussion going around about female heroes again. This is a particularly troublesome character. In order to follow the hero’s journey, as we know it from Joseph Campbell, she has to do particularly un-feminine things, such as shoot arrows and take no interest in dresses or boys. But in so doing, she is essentially being an “honorary boy,” as Roger Ebert described Merida of Brave. While this is all well and good, it still places these female heroes on a fundamentally male path, and communicates to girls that they have to be “honorary boys” if they want to succeed in their quest. Even the recent incarnations of Snow White show her becoming a Joan of Arc-type of militant vigilante against the evil queen. Again, becoming an “honorary boy.” In this category, Katniss from The Hunger Games stands out because she is not trying to exert any kind of independence, per se. She feels the call to duty upon her father’s death to become the breadwinner for the family. She chooses to become a hunter because she’s not yet old enough to work, and the decisions she makes throughout her adventure are in the name of protecting her family as best as she can. I’ll get back to this point in a moment.

But the contrast to this “honorary boy” character is the princess model. As I mentioned above, the Disney princesses as they are portrayed in the films are not what’s problematic about them. Sure, they seem to come across complacent and passive, but to stop the analysis here misses the point of many of these princesses. There are three types of these princesses:

  1. There are those who know they are princesses, and seek to find their own course in life. These are characters such as Ariel, Pocahontas, and Mulan.
  2. There are those who are princesses, but don’t know it because something happened to their parents when they were children and they were raised in a different life. These princesses have an unspoken quest to reclaim their princesshood. Examples include Snow White, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Rapunzel.
  3. And there are those who are not princesses at all, but catch the eye of the prince. By staying true to their own personalities, they are elevated to the level of princesshood. There are several examples in this category, including Cinderella, Tiana, and Belle.

Each princess is asked in the course of her journey to sacrifice something she holds dear in order to complete her quest. This something is ultimately returned at the end of the story. This sacrifice is necessary. Without it, the princess remains tied to the life she knows and loves, like a security blanket. She’s told that she cannot move forward without this sacrifice. In the male hero journey, there’s a sacrifice of home in order to go on a quest. But in the female version of the story, the journey itself is not a necessary component of her mission. It’s the willingness to sacrifice something that starts her quest. If she is launched on a literal journey, she must fulfill her mission without this one item that she identifies with, thus forcing her to dig deep into herself and bring up a part that would likely have remained hidden forever otherwise.

So why does Katniss stand out? Katniss breaks the mold of the girl hero trope. She’s motivated only by her role as protector and breadwinner. She is otherwise a completely ambiguous character. She is neither princess, nor “honorary boy.” She just is. And because the trilogy is told in the first person, we are given a glimpse into her struggle between how she perceives herself and how everyone else expects her to behave. And (small spoiler here) as she caters more and more to the social norm, the less and less grip she has on herself. (end spoiler) See my previous post for further comments about Katniss.

I know a couple of people who are taking on the challenge of identifying just what the female hero’s journey is, because it’s clearly not the same one as the male hero journey. Campbell’s model can still apply, but it gets tricky when you apply this model to a female hero who is not an “honorary boy.” As an example, while one could analyze the journey of Eliza Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice using Campbell’s model, it does feel forced, as though we are trying to fit the puzzle piece into the wrong spot. I’ve long suspected that the female hero’s journey is one of rooting as opposed to one of questing for a boon. Establishing a home. When she’s younger, no girl is thinking along these lines. She is thinking about how quickly she can leave home and become her own woman. Somewhere along the way, however, building her own home becomes important. Perhaps it’s a portable home, or maybe it’s a permanent home. Perhaps it involves are partner and/or children, or perhaps not. Those are secondary elements to the feeling of “planting roots.” Looking through many of the female heroes who have over time influenced our conceptions of women, rooting is the end goal. But finding those heroes in a world filled with “honorary boys” is a challenge.

The Great Debate: Myth Versus Fairy Tale in Joseph Campbell’s The Flight of the Wild Gander

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, I was asked to do the impossible: to define "myth." I had read enough of Joseph Campbell’s works to understand that "myth" in his use of the word is not definable. Further, to define it would destroy the very nature of mythology. Faced with this dilemma, I nonetheless set out to dream up a definition of "myth." My working definition came to me in a dream, one that encompasses myth’s metaphorical nature and its influence on culture, religion and psychology. But I was still faced with one more conflict. My primary research involved analysis of modern children’s and young adult fantasy literature. After reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark essay, "On Fairy-stories," I came to realize that the books I was reading were essentially fairy tales, with strong mythic elements. This lead to an exploration of fairy tales and to my ultimate conclusion being that the distinctions between myth and fairy tale are categorical and distracting from the mission of both forms of storytelling.

In his work, The Flight of the Wild Gander, Joseph Campbell outlines some definitions of myth, legend, folk and fairy tales. In keeping with the trend of his time, he separates myth from fairy tale as sacred text from entertainment. In my research, I exemplified this distinction as metaphor versus simile. The metaphor, like the myth, carries within itself symbolic meaning, whereas the simile, like the fairy tale, draws upon real life comparisons to derive meaning. In other words, myth is and we adapt ourselves around it. Fairy tales, on the other hand, adapt themselves around us.

Campbell recognizes myths as "religious recitations conceived as symbolic of the play of eternity, in time" (Campbell 16). Elsewhere, he is cited as saying that mythology is an "organization of images metaphoric of experience, action, and fulfillment of the human spirit in the field of a given culture at a given time" (Osbon 40). The first definition clearly responds to the research of the 1920s through 1950s mostly from the prominent anthropologists who restricted mythology to the religious sphere. The second definition recognizes mythology from the more practical viewpoint of mythology’s relationship to a culture or society. To restrict mythology by the first definition excludes the vast wealth of practical myths from scholarly study and popular recognition. Because it is my belief that humanity is governed by a composite of myths from all backgrounds, I am inclined to agree with Campbell’s second definition, and have broadly defined mythology as the metaphor that governs the beliefs and behaviors of a group of people when manipulated by cultural mores. These metaphors can be found in various places, not just religions, depending on the needs of a particular culture. The West, specifically Western Europe, the United States and Canada) has allowed its culture to drift away from traditional understandings of mythology, thus forcing a new understanding to achieve the same goals of mythology. I have borrowed these goals from the four primary functions of myth outlined often within Campbell’s works: 1. The Cosmogonic Function, to provide a group of people with a creation myth in which to believe; 2. The Religious Function, which outlines a system of beliefs of a group of people that then helps develop communal cohesion; 3. The Cultural Function, which outlines a system of behaviors to govern the community united under the aforementioned beliefs; and, 4. The Psychological Function, which helps contextualize the individual within his or her role within the community and place within the universe. The failing of traditional myths within the West leaves a void that can be filled by, among other things, popular culture and fairy tales.

Campbell describes fairy tales, used interchangeably with "folk tale," as pastime and as the myths whose meaning has been lost over time. My own definition of a fairy tale is a fantasy story, commonly aimed at children, that serves to both entertain and to model behavior. In his essay, "On Fairy-stories," J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and popularly identified as the father of modern fantasy, gives as much reverence for fairy tales as Campbell does myths. Tolkien’s primary distinction between myth and fairy tale is the inclusion in the latter of the Realm of the Faërie, understood to be the fantastical realm of magic. Because of the inclusion of the Faërie, fairy tales are often discounted by adults, "relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused" (Tolkien 37). Tolkien argues that adults need fairy tales as much as Campbell says we need myths, in order to retain a link with the imagination and with the Faërie. This can be interpreted as being a link to the mythic, only placed within the context of fantasy rather than sacred settings.

Tolkien’s works led to a new understanding of fantasy literature, which has blossomed into new categories: literature of the Faërie, such as The Lord of the Rings, stories wherein mortals from our world travel into the Faërie, such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and more recently stories in which the non-magical world and the Faërie coexist, as in J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter. The stories are absorbed in new, exciting ways that extend far beyond the nursery and well into adulthood: the realm of role-playing video games, live-action and table-top role playing games, and, as in the case of the Harry Potter fan community, creative interactions that include arts and crafts, music, fan-fiction, and lots of costuming. Through these interactions, participants ritualize and concretize the stories with a religious fervor, and it would seem that applies to a fulfillment of the religious function of myth by uniting a group of people under a common set of beliefs and canon. It is not my intention to compare Harry Potter with Jesus, but if the traditional myths are not functioning properly in the West, then it seems to me that the West needs to look elsewhere to find that which the collective psyche is lacking.

This is how I was lead to coin the term, "fairy-myth" for the stories of my research. A story or cultural phenomenon that is clearly on the surface a fairy tale, but that also fulfills the four goals of mythology, cannot be simply disregarded as entertainment. The Western cultures are so hungry for myth that they have grasped for it in these other places. I am limiting my consideration at the moment to fantasy stories because that is the realm I find most personally fascinating, coupled with the collective response to them.

My husband and I recently discussed my concept of the fairy-myth. He said that stories are not religious, and that he seeks "truth" from any religious doctrine above all else. My response was to point out that a central theme of both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings is good versus evil, which is, in a way, a truth. Delivering truth was one of the initial purposes of the scriptures, much of which has lost its meaning. Plenty of Americans grasp onto Christian traditions, but the groups dominating news and politics do not fully embrace the meaning. For example, the Bible calls for tolerance, and various groups preach tolerance except for “unholy” groups such as homosexuals, abortion doctors, Muslims and Democrats. Also, these groups extend their mission and spread the Word, either using mostly negative language to say what is wrong and what not to do, or preachers, Joel Olsteen for example, base their entire sermon on making people feel good about themselves with scripture quotations to support their message without teaching the lessons of the Gospels. The segmenting of the Christian faith represents a collapse of the Ultimate Truth of the Bible, for how can 1,000 different sects each preach a different Ultimate Truth based on the same source text? The death of a system of symbols occurs "when its references to the field of waking consciousness have been refuted and its notices to the seats of motivation are no longer felt" (Campbell 170). The rise of fundamentalism comes from a fear of this symbolic death, and the extremity of the behavior indicates a degree of unconscious doubt in the truth of the symbol.

My own myth is defined by Harry Potter at this stage of my life. When I initially read the first four books, I was attracted to Harry’s student life because I was likewise being young (20) and an undergraduate. The later three books were released after my graduation and I was able to read them during their first print run. These three are more political than the first group, coinciding with my own blossoming political awareness. I do not pretend that everyone will agree with my mythic reading of Harry Potter, nor do I claim that everyone must read the series for the Ultimate Truth. Harry Potter is simply the myth that works best for me at this stage in my life. Perhaps in five to ten years, something else will play a dominant role in my personal myth-making. I believe it is a tendency of the West to seek a unifying theory, or, in this case, a mythology, a byproduct of the Western "divide and conquer" mentality and the Christian mission to spread Word of the Gospels. The diversity offered by potential mythologies caters to the diversity between psychologies.

As a mythologist, Campbell is very concerned with the preservation of a society’s myth, but not in the same manner as anthropologists, ethnologists, and folklorists, who want to preserve a cultural artifact as it is. Campbell, though nostalgic for older myths, is open to the evolution of new myths, understanding that they are likely to evolve as humans evolve. This evolution is a necessary response to the changes brought about by science and technology. "The propositions of science," he writes, "to which we are referred for our morality, knowledge, and wisdom, do not pretend to be true in any final sense, do not pretend to be infallible, or even durable, but are merely working hypotheses, here today and gone tomorrow" (Campbell 190). The implication is to not rely on science for our mythos, despite it being the natural byproduct of human evolution.

With the recent surge of fairy-myths comes an attempt to preserve society’s myths by combining folk and popular culture with philosophy, psychology, and human interactions. The stories give fundamental "truths" in a way that is entertaining and informative. In doing this, they have created an air of religiosity about them in response to shifting sentiments not globally felt towards the established cultural myths and doctrines. The stories are something new, fresh, and invigorating. I disagree with simply passing fairy tales and similar stories off as mere entertainment, because they are the basis of our understanding of our culture and ourselves. Verily, they are new perspectives on an old concept that needed updating anyway.

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimensions of Fairy Tales, Legends, and Symbols. New York: HarperPerennial, 1951.
  • Osbon, Diane K. A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Tolkin, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1986. 3-84.

The Power of Myth: The Hero’s Adventure

I constantly find myself revisiting this episode in the Power of Myth series. It’s one of the best interviews between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, probably because it plays into Campbell’s expertise much better than the other ones. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen it so many times, it just seems this way because it is so familiar to me. So a bunch of us gather in the living room to view and discuss this chapter of PoM. This is essentially part 2 of the Mythopoetic Workshop from last month. The points in italics are from the show.

The hero evolves as the culture evolves. I think this is a forgotten point. Heroes of today are not the same as heroes of 100, 1000, 10000 years ago. Our needs are different. Notice that even the most successful hero remakes (ex: Marvel Heroes, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Star Wars, etc.) update the stories for the current era, and less successful hero remakes (ex: Troy), don’t. This is one of the points I find myself making over and over again these days: Cultural context is important. If you understand the culture, you can understand the heroes. For example, heroes today fight against something that is a little more difficult to identify. This is a result of a culture that is constantly battling against an ideology. We don’t have a clear-cut example of who our enemy is, who or what we should project our collective shadow on to, what actually constitutes as “evil.” Oh sure, we try to give a face to this “evil,” but then we make so many exceptions to the rule, that it is near impossible to keep up with who this silent enemy is. “Terrorism” has no single face behind it. “Recession” neither. The end result is name calling and backstabbing, meanwhile Hollywood and the literary world churns out some potent heroes who are constantly fighting this unknown shadow. It’s no accident that Sauron has no body, that Vader has no human face, or that Voldemort has no body (and the one he does wind up having is a magical homunculus body, not a real one).

Outer space as a whole new realm for the imagination to open into. I agree with this. The birth of true science fiction coincides with the modern era. However, along with the birth of true science fiction comes the idea of the fairy-myth. I don’t recall if I’ve written about this on the blog yet, but this is a term I coined when I was writing my MA thesis to describe stories that are mythic in magnitude, but content-wise more resemble the literary fairy tale, borrowing from Tolkien’s definition of a fairy-story. If outer space is the void, just waiting for our projections, then the fairy land is the realm of the inner imagination. Both story modes work in conjunction to address the complex nature of the modern Western inner life. One mode appeals to some more than the other, and within each mode is a ton of material. Speaking of this complexity, it’s also interesting to note that many of the more potent modern myths come in multiple volumes.

The world is a wasteland and the only way to bring life into it is to bring life into yourself. I agree with this, but only to an extent. While I do think that there is some truth to this – happy people are less likely to want to blow up other people – I do think there that there does need to be some extraverted work with the collective. When a bunch of people get together, no matter how centered they are, the possibility exists that they will fall into group think, for good or for bad. Working in a group of people takes effort, and this effort is just as important as the individual effort. Now, the part about the world being a wasteland. Campbell points out that humans have become the voice of the earth. This gives us the added responsibility of tending to her needs. See the point about the planet below.

You can tell what informs a society by the tallest building in a town. This is one of my favorite points in the entire hour. In a medieval town, the cathedral is, by law, the tallest structure in the entire town. In an Enlightenment town, it’s the political building (capitol, city hall, etc.). Though in some Enlightenment towns, the tallest structure is the bell tower from the university. In the modern world, it’s the skyscrapers, filled with offices and dwellings. So as a civilization we’ve gone from being informed by the church, to politics/reason, to corporations, to the individual at his/her computer. With each progressive era, those buildings get taller and taller, as though to negate any questions of their authority. Indeed, in Austin, Texas, where I spend a lot of my time, this can be seen in the downtown: The oldest building was at first the state capitol building (Austin is a post-Enlightenment city). Then the next tallest is the UT bell tower, which is often lit up to let the city know whether or not the Longhorns won a game. This was later trumped by the Frost Bank building. But now the tallest building is a high-rise loft building. From politics, to education (football?), to corporate finance, to individuals at their computers.

You can’t predict what a myth is going to be. True. Case in point: no one actually expected Star Wars or Harry Potter to be as successful as they are, but the reason for their success is that they gripped a whole bunch of people in the mythic moment. They speak to that unconscious level that myths speak to. The flip side to this point is that you can’t predict what a myth is going to be by recycling the same old formula. I think this is part of why Marvel heroes, Michael Bay movies, and sequels aren’t more successful. A good myth should speak to the psyche in a fresh way, giving new face to the old archetypes (if not creating new archetypes altogether, but this is a point that some in the Jungosphere might argue).

The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be the planet and everybody on it. —“Until that gets going, you don’t have anything.”  This one single statement is usually taken to mean “let’s be green!” What I think Campbell is trying to push at is recognizing the global nature of the world we are currently living in, and working together collectively to transcend national boundaries and concentrate on humanity as a whole organism, rather than on our own cultural egos. Nations are arbitrary, and he highlights this point by looking at a picture of earth taken from the moon (I think). From space, there are no national boundaries. Physically and psychologically, we are essentially the same. The new mythology should bring us together. And I suspect that somewhere someone recognizes this, and finds their shadow triggered by it, which is why the liberal arts and humanities are currently suffering from budget cuts. These subjects emphasize our similarities rather than differences.

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.