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.

Re-Visioning Dionysus: A Modern Spin on a Ancient Diety

l recently rediscovered my youthful love for Greek mythology. It came on suddenly while I was lecturing on Hellenic Greek culture for my community college students, and was reminded of the many legacies of Greek civilization and how they inspired all areas of literature, art, and philosophy to some extent in subsequent generations. The textbook I am using, which released its 6th edition early in 2008, stresses the follies of corrupted absolute power for the downfall of most ancient civilizations, especially Egypt, Greece and Rome. The book’s latent claim is that through a study of the humanities, one can understand the dangers of hubris and how it cannot be successfully sustained. The gods played archetypal central roles in maintaining the boundaries between human and Olympian power. For example, one Hellenic ideal was to balance Apollo with Dionysus, or order with chaos. In Greek literature, this dichotomy is demonstrated by the consequences a character suffers if he or she operates under the guise of hubris and absolute power in decision-making, or Apollo, and how he or she will be put back into one’s place by Dionysus. Unfortunately, the death of theater at the end of the Hellenic era also brought a sort of death of Dionysus. He is still around, but has had to take on a new guise, forcing us in American society to learn a new way of experiencing the archetype.

To understand Dionysus as a god, it helps to first understand his three births as a god. In the first, he is taken from Semele by Zeus to protect him from Hera’s wrath after Semele is killed by Zeus’s divine presence. This birth is a mortal birth and ties Dionysus to the mortal tension of humanity. From Semele, the infant is placed in Zeus’s thigh to bring him to full gestation. When he is ready, he emerges from Zeus’ thigh, a divine birth. Walter Otto remarks that this “is the reason why he is, in a great and complete sense, a god—the god of duality, as the myth of his birth expresses it so beautifully and truly. As a true god he symbolizes an entire world whose spirit reappears in ever new forms and unites in an eternal unity the sublime with the simple, the human with the animal, the vegetative and the elemental” (Otto 202). During his childhood, he is dismembered, cut up, stirred into a stew and fed to the gods. He is rescued by Athena and reconstructed, an alchemical birth. Unlike the other gods, Dionysus is a transcendent deity, with ties not only to the human realm and the divine realm, but to another realm entirety that transcends human conception and divinity. The alchemical realm is one of mystery, due to the nature of the transformation that takes place–one rarely resembles its original state after the process is complete.

As a god, he is identified as the god of wine, festival, and theater, all of which induce uncivilized behavior within individuals, removing their sense of self-control and inciting chaotic behavior in Dionysian followers. Because of the frenzied behavior not conducive to Hellenic culture, Dionysus was honored and confined within the theater and any festivals surrounding it, such as the Dionysia in which new tragedies were performed. Dionysus is a primal god, connected with the uncivilized aspects of human behavior. There have not been too many incarnations of this archetype in modern times. He is associated with Christ and similar messianic figures. Joseph Campbell notes that in Orphic cults, the “ever-dying, ever-living god, who is the reality of all beings” is recognized as “the god whose symbol is the vine … known as Dionysus-Orpheus-Bacchus” (25-6). This recognition ties Dionysus to the earth and his presence in the plants. His death and resurrection is linked to the passing of the seasons and rites and sacrifices to this god were meant to encourage the crops to grow. This purpose for Dionysus faded when the Greek civilization started to prefer the Olympian deities under Zeus over the chthonic deities of the earth, especially Dionysus and Demeter.

One way to understand Dionysus, according to Ginette Paris, is to realize that he is not simply an actor in theater, but that he is the mask and the theater in and of themselves (49). That he cannot be confined to a polis shrine is a testament to the primal nature in this god: one needs to let one’s hair down, one has to drink or somehow release one’s sorrows or connect with one’s primal nature. The flip side is one weighted down by looming depression or a disconnect between mind and body.

The disconnect between mind and body is the fundamental basis between the argument of Apollo versus Dionysus. This is further relevant to Hellenic life and its quest for beauty and balanced harmony in all aspects of life, as demonstrated in the remaining artistic canon. This line of thought pits the two gods, Apollo and Dionysus, against each other:

In Apollo all of the splendor of the Olympic converges and confronts the realms of eternal becoming and eternal passing. Apollo and Dionysus, the intoxicated leader of the choral dance of the terrestrial sphere—that would give the total world dimension. In this union the Dionysiac earthly duality would be elevated into a new and higher duality, the eternal contrast between the restless, whirling life and a still, far-seeing spirit. (Otto 208)

Dionysus, as stated, is the god of wine who often induces his followers into a frenzied state, especially women, who often tore animals apart in their blindness. This should not be confused with hysteria, which is a medical condition. Apollo, by contrast, is the god of truth and wisdom, and his oracle at Delphi was held in a high, unquestioning regard, though open to human misinterpretations. The ideal balanced life would allow both gods equal footing in an individual’s life and in the greater society. If one is given more dominance over the other, then the resulting imbalance creates an unhealthy environment. For example, too much Dionysus leads to anarchy and nothing can be accomplished, and an unhealthy society quickly develops. Similarly, too much Apollo disconnects one from an earthy connection and roots a person in an ethereal quest for an intangible ideology. I suggest that the Western world is so tipped towards Apollo, that we have become an “air” society, and a reconnection with Dionysus would literally bring us back down to earth.

Looking at Apollo and Dionysus as archetypes, we get another perspective of their significance. Apollo is the rigid control of the psyche and Dionysus is the lack thereof. Apollo can be viewed as ego and Dionysus as id, or the shadow, the unconscious counterpart or opposition to the ego. Of course, there are those for whom Dionysus is ego and Apollo is the shadow. Jung would suggest that part of the individuation process includes striking a balance between both energies because, otherwise, one becomes rooted in neurosis, psychosis, and pathology. To own one’s shadow is the process by which one reconciles these two forces. For example, allowing Dionysus to drive one into a bit of frenzy from time to time, and taking a break from Apollo. The consequences of not doing this can be tragic. Dionysus will not be denied and can surface when least expected, causing something uncharacteristic to occur. Similarly, owning an Apollonian shadow involves introducing order and reason into one’s life. A healthy balance is resembled by a successful working professional who hosts a backyard barbecue regularly.

Since American society is Apollonian and this is a paper on Dionysus, I would like to now compare some ancient, Classical manifestations of Dionysus with some modern. The image of Dionysus has changed, but he still finds a way to leak into the mainstream.

Euripides’ play, The Bacchae, sets Dionysus against Theban king, Pentheus, who represents an Apollonian character. Dionysus comes to Thebes and induces his usual frenzy and chaos. Pentheus, as king, wants to rid the polis of the unruly god and restore control and calm. To do this would mean cutting short the festival going on in Dionysus’ honor, but Pentheus is determined, especially after learning that his own mother has joined the ranks of the Maenads, or frenzied women who follow Dionysus. Since Dionysus is not going to have that, he confronts Pentheus in disguise and convinces him to visit the Maenads in disguise and see for himself what is really occurring amongst them. The Maenads realize Pentheus is not a woman, and thus unworthy of their ranks, but in their frenzy they fail to recognize who he is. They tear him to pieces. After being freed from Dionysus’ spell, Pentheus’ mother realizes her part in killing her son and is exiled. The overall theme of the play stresses that it is a fatal mistake to try to suppress Dionysus.

Just before Thanksgiving 2008, the drama department of the community college I teach at staged a production of The Bacchae. It was directed and adapted by an adjunct faculty "artist in residence," but it was otherwise a student production. What started out as an excellent version of the play became a comic play at the end, when the image manager would interrupt the scene to inform the audience that which parts of the play have been lost over time, such as Agave’s lament. The production effectively made The Bacchae into a tragic farce, with all of the tension lost.

Catharsis is “a purification of whatever is ‘filthy’ or ‘polluted’ in the pathos, the tragic act” (Else 98). This cleansing action, as described in Aristotle’s Poetics, is one of evoking feelings of fear and pity for the character (Aristotle 40). A successful tragedy will have a character that experiences a terrible situation, often an act of fate out of control, yet the audience feels sympathy for the outcome. Part of a successful staging is the spectacle, the extent to which one’s experience is enhanced, not detracted from catharsis. One cannot be expected to sympathize with Agave if one is being told that her part is missing, even if the purpose of such a discourse is as a teaching tool.

In contrast to the tragedy, comedy is, according to Aristotle, “ an imitation of persons who are inferior; not, however, going all the way to full villainy, but imitating the ugly, of which the ludicrous is one part” (23). Not only does comedy imitate the ugliness, but the beauty as well, in order to draw attention to them. Comedy highlights aspects of one’s character, physically or personality, that the audience would recognize. In some cases, the emphasis helps identify a well-known character. In others, it ensures that the audience will be aware of the trait. The Frogs does both. Aristophanes plays up the pompousness of Euripides and Aeschylus while also raising awareness of the looming end of the Hellenic age.

Dionysus’ role in The Frogs, is that of a judge for the perfect tragedian, choosing between Euripides and Aeschylus. Sophocles is recognized as immensely popular and successful, so he is not considered, which may influenced by Aristophanes’ own opinion of him as a lower poet than the other two. Whoever won was permitted to return to Athens with Dionysus. This is demonstrated by a verbal tennis match, with each delivering lines from his work and lambasting the other. Dionysus decides by weighing the lyric and chooses Aeschylus.

At the time of Aristophanes’ play, tragedy was a dying form. The tragic playwrights following Euripides were either unable or unwilling to create genuine, good plays. The glory of Athens was in decline, and through Dionysus, “[he] seeks to bring back good writing to Athens, and with it the public wisdom which, as Aristophanes maintains against Sokrates, will always be found in the highest poetry” (Arrowsmith et al., 474). While it is not possible to actually resurrect the dead, the hope Aristophanes instills of resurrecting the glory and splendor of the Hellenic period, offers another type of catharsis: one that releasing the audience from is own emotional vacuum. The audience is cleaned through h the release of the filth that is associated with the bad news and downtrodden society.

Dionysus is integral with catharsis because through the chaos he invites, one can release emotions that otherwise have to remain contained. Frenzy is well-noted to be the opposition to productivity, which, in an Apollonian environment, is held to a higher esteem than creativity. Indeed, the creative spirit caught in the Hellenic age and in tragedy fell silent after a slow decline at the end of the era and remained in this manner until the Renaissance, with a few exceptions along the way in Medieval literature.

Ginette Paris in the Dionysus chapter of her book, Pagan Grace, stresses a need for celebrations to Dionysus and suggests that there are not enough in modern, monotheistic society. Maybe this seeming lack is due to the extreme nature of Dionysian celebration. I can think of three sanctioned holidays: New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras, and Halloween. New Year’s is a one night celebration, full of parties, drinking, and sometimes a feast. It is a restrained event, focused on counting down until midnight, not absolute frenzy.

Halloween, similarly, is a one night event, except many people prepare for weeks. For children, Halloween involves finding and dressing in the perfect costume and seeking candy from neighbors and businesses. For them, Dionysus is found in the masks, but especially in the candy. For adults, Halloween is a night of misbehaving in or out of costume. Adult Halloween parties include candy, alcohol, and other vices. People who attend these parties are allowed one night of frenzy with the comfort of anonymity.

Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, on the other hand refers to the last Tuesday before the Lent season, a period of fasting and austerity leading to the Easter celebration. Traditionally, it is the last day before the season of abstinence that one may eat animal fats, such as butter or lard. This festival has grown, in some places, to a month-long celebration of costume (masks), parades, drinking (vine) and lots of people behaving badly (frenzy). The festivities of Mardi Gras are among the few sanctioned by the Church to allow people the opportunity to lose control without consequences, except for those outlined by the community’s law.

After a month of preparation for a single event, is there still energy for continued Dionysia? According to Paris’ position, not only is there no energy, but there is no other sanctioned environment to honor Dionysus. I offer that there is one such place that is overlooked to its nature, as noted by several critics, as a commercial, consumerist, environment: Disneyland and the other Disney theme parks. If a tribute to Dionysus includes excess and letting one’s hair down, then Disneyland represents daily doses of Dionysus. No alcohol is served in the Magic Kingdom, but similar excesses, such as candy, can be attributed to Dionysus. The Disneyland experience from start to finish is one of the most extreme theatrical experiences, and one fabricated for people to experience happiness. The park is cut off from the outside world, not affected by news of war, recession, or unemployment. The food is all Disney themed, especially the Mickey Mouse-shaped desserts, and outside corporate influences are limited. Dionysus is invoked in the ongoing celebrations: the parades, the cheering fans, and the overall happiness of the place. Some families prepare for years for their pilgrimage to Disneyland, and others go regularly.

A fictional personification of Dionysus can be found in Willy Wonka from Roald Dahl’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like Dionysus, Wonka was chased away from public view and isolated himself in his chocolate factory. His presence was still felt through his chocolate, but he was otherwise a private, isolated figure. Wonka decides to return to the public and opens up his chocolate factory for a select few, who can be "initiated" into some of the secrets of his chocolate factory. The world as a whole launches into a Dionysian-frenzy trying to find the Golden Ticket that would let them into the inner circle. Chocolate does not generate the same reaction as wine, but it nonetheless does inspire people to launch into another state. Some people react amorously, which is the realm of Aphrodite, but others, notably small children, become hyper and excited under the sugary influence, and thus enter a Dionysian state of mind.

Two historical periods represented by Dionysus are the Sixties Counterculture, known for its excesses in San Francisco, and the Club Kids phenomenon in Eighties New York. Both are marked with abuses of various substances, especially psychedelics and other drugs that not only put one into another state of mind, but also altered perceptions and experiences. In both cases, the participants were trying to avoid the rigor and control of the established society and live entirely by the rules of Dionysus. Many were young teenagers or in their early to mid twenties, and some were trapped in the puer stage of development and never wanted to grow up. Drugs provided an excuse to put off the responsibilities of adulthood, or Apollo, for a little while longer. Some were able to recover and start a new life, and others were forever stuck the cycle of addiction.

Dionysus does have a presence in modern life, even if it is not the one expected. He is no longer worshipped as a god of the vine, to whom one must sacrifice in order for the crops to go, nor is he simply the god of the theater. Those conceptions of Dionysus passed with the Ancient world. Sadly, so did the wealth of source material. Only a relatively small number of plays, stories, other texts, and works of art at extant. The rest have been lost with time or human destruction. The legacy of Dionysus lives on, however, as an archetype of excessive behavior and lack of control. Historically, this has been demonstrated through cultural movements that prefer the life of hedonism to the life of stoicism. Within popular culture, Dionysian energies surface in unlikely places that would not typically be associated with the god.

It is the task of modern mythological studies, I suggest, to recognize these changes. It is easy to conclude that myth, God, or any similar sacred or divine presence is dead in the modern, Western post-Scientific Revolution world, because the polytheistic gods of yore are no longer worshipped. But then, those gods are those of another era and fulfilled different cultural needs. The archetypal approach keeps the myths alive, but almost to the point of idealizing these myths to the exclusion of the myths currently floating around culture. Recognizing the myths, such as Dionysus in Disneyland, allows one to recognize the mythic quality of a facet of culture that could easily be overlooked. The Hellenic playwrights did something similar, personifying Dionysus as a character in their plays, which lowers him from a level of divinity to a level of human understanding. As the story of Semele’s death and Dionysus’s birth demonstrates, it is not possible to know the gods fully, because their divine radiance is too powerful for humans. They can only be understood through human constructs, which vary and change from person to person.

Works cited

  • Aristophanes. “The Frogs.” Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Birds, The Clouds, The Frogs, Lysistrata. Trans. William Arrowsmith, Richmond Lattimore, and Douglas Parker. New York: Meridian, 1994.
  • Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Gerald Else. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1967.
  • Arrowsmith, William. Notes. “The Frogs.” Four Plays by Aristophanes: The Birds, The Clouds, The Frogs, Lysistrata. by Aristophanes. New York: Meridian, 1994.
  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Compass, 1968.
  • Else, Gerald. Notes. Poetics. By Aristotle. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1967.
  • Euripides. The Bacchae. Trans. C.K. Williams. New York: Noonday P, 1990.
  • Otto, Walter F. Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1995.
  • Paris, Ginette. Pagan Grace: Dionysus, Hermes, and Goddess Memory in Daily Life. Putnam: Spring, 1990.

The Moon in Mythology

(This post is a response to Randy’s July Myth Café prompt.)

When I was younger than I am now, I worked with a bunch of ladies that always celebrated the full moon by drinking red wine and hanging out illegally in the public park after dark. I went along once, and we were asked to leave by the police, and one of the ladies lost her keys in the dark. It was kind of fun, really. So, this was followed by an exploration on the relationship between women and the moon: modern women menstruate in accordance to the lunar cycle; ancient matriarchal societies (so they say) operated under some semblance of a lunar calendar; the moon represents fertility (it gets fat, then it’s not, like pregnancy); the moon is linked with snakes (who shed their skins) and thus represents rebirth; and etc. so on and so forth. In truth, I’ve never really considered my personal relationship to the moon. Being more of a morning person than a night owl, I tend to ignore moon cycles, until there are noticeable changes in some around the time of the full moon.

There was this one occasion, which trumps all moon events I’ve encountered so far. We were driving in Arizona late at night, leaving Phoenix on our way to Tucson, and there was a lit up building on the horizon. It was so huge that I thought it either was a stadium or one of those inflatable-looking football practice fields. As we got closer to where this building should be, I had the realization that it was actually the moon rising over the Arizona desert. It was one of those moments when you can’t take a good picture with your cell phone, but you really wish you had been able to take the picture…

…and it wasn’t a Space Station, thankfully.

So, to write this post, I decided to set out to find a moon myth. Now, you say “moon myth,” and I say… “Tomorrowland!” but that’s the space I seem to permanently live in these days. A series on the “Tomorrowland” segment of the Disneyland television show in 1956(?) explored what our first voyage to the moon would look like, complete with recreations of a space flight and lunar landing. Of course, they got a few things wrong, such as what the moon would actually look like, but it is nonetheless fascinating to watch (this series is captured on the Tomorrowland collection of the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs). I can only imagine what it was like to watch the lunar landing on television. This event is one of the most crucial in modern American history, because a) it gave us a real view of what the globe really looks like and b) it vastly altered our relationship to our cultural myths. Following 1969, science fiction stories exploded and Westerns started fading into the sunset. This isn’t a happy accident. Thanks to the footage of the “earth rise,” our little blue planet seemed small compared to the vast expanse of outer space, a new frontier to be conquered, civilized, tamed. Sure, there is science fiction dating back to the 1800s (I recommend here that you go to YouTube and pull up La Voyage dans la Lune right now to look at an early example of a science fiction film, one you will recognize even if you haven’t already seen it), but the realm of the fantastic (science fiction or otherwise) became a mythic proving ground after World War II). How interesting then, on the eve of the end of the NASA program, that we have not made it back to the moon. Are we giving up on the outer space wasteland or are we choosing to adhere to the science fiction fantasy of the “inner reaches of outer space?”

But the moon is nonetheless an orb in the sky, whether we actually go back to it or not. I took the challenge to find a moon myth that is not tied to American popular culture. Of course, I drifted immediately to warewolves, but I can’t discuss those without discussing Twilight, and I’d rather not go there right now. This leaves the need to look a little further into the past. Looking at Greece, Egypt, etc., is too easy. And then I remembered that there is a moon myth in the Humanities textbook I use to teach, Gloria Fiero’s The Humanistic Tradition. The story is Native American – credit is given to the Northwest Coast – and it’s called “Raven and the Moon”:

One day Raven learnt that an old fisherman, living alone with his daughter on an island far to the north, had a box containing a bright light called the moon. He felt that he must get hold of this wonderful thing, so he changed himself into a leaf growing on a bush near to the old fisherman’s home. When the fisherman’s daughter came to pick berries from the wild fruit patch, she pulled at the twig on which the leaf stood and it fell down and entered into her body. In time a child was born, a dark-complexioned boy with a long, hooked nose, almost like a bird’s bill. As soon as the child could crawl, he began to cry for the moon. He would knock at the box and keep calling, “Moon, moon, shining moon.” At first nobody paid any attention, but as the child became more vocal and knocked harder at the box, the old fisherman said to his daughter, “Well, perhaps we should give the boy the ball of light to play with.” The girl opened the box and took out another box, and then another, from inside that. All the boxes were beautifully painted and carved, and inside the tenth there was a net of nettle thread. She loosened this and opened the lid of the innermost box. Suddenly light filled the lodge, and they saw the moon inside the box; bright, round like a ball, shining white. The mother threw it towards her baby son and he caught and held it so firmly they thought he was content. But after a few days he began to fuss and cry again. His grandfather felt sorry for him and asked the mother to explain what the child was trying to say. So his mother listened very carefully and explained that he wanted to look out at the sky and see the stars in the dark sky, but that the roof board over the smoke hole prevented him from doing so. So the old man said, “Open the smoke hole.” No sooner had she opened the hole than the child changed himself back into the Raven. With the moon in his bill he flew off. After a moment he landed on a mountain top and then threw the moon into the sky where it remains, still circling in the heavens where Raven threw it. (Chapter 18, copied from the e-book)

Ravens are night creatures, and birds that I tend to associate either with Edgar Allan Poe or with The Crow. The raven is often the counter to a white bird, such as a dove. How interesting that this raven should want to play with the moon as if it were a ball, and to do so, he had to become human. Divine pregnancies are very interesting in myths. They just happen, and sometimes in the most creative ways possible – being poked with a stick. Freud would have fun with that one.

As I was formatting this passage, I was reminded of another story from the same textbook, this one coming from the Vishnu Purana (Hindu):

… [Krishna], observing the clear sky, bright with the autumnal moon, and the air perfumed with the fragrance of the wild water-lily, in whose buds the clusteringbees were murmuring their songs, felt inclined to join with the milkmaids [Gopis] in sport….

Then Madhava [Krishna], coming amongst them, conciliated some with soft speeches, some with gentle looks; and some he took by the hand: and the illustrious deity sported with them in the stations of the dance. As each of the milkmaids, however, attempted to keep in one place, close to the side of Krishna, the circle of the dance could not be constructed; and he, therefore, took each by the hand, and when their eyelids were shut by the effects of such touch, the circle was formed.

Then proceeded the dance, to the music of their clashing bracelets, and songs that celebrated, in suitable strain, the charms of the autumnal season. Krishna sang of  the moon of autumn—a mine of gentle radiance; but the nymphs repeated the praises of Krishna alone. At times, one of them, wearied by the revolving dance, threw her arms, ornamented with tinkling bracelets, round the neck of the destroyer of Madhu [Krishna]; another, skilled in the art of singing his praises, embraced him. The drops of perspiration from the arms of Hari [Krishna] were like fertilizing rain, which produced a crop of down upon the temples of the milkmaids. Krishna sang the strain that was appropriate to the dance. The milkmaids repeatedly exclaimed “Bravo, Krishna!” to his song. When leading, they followed him; when returning they encountered him; and whether he went forwards or backwards, they ever attended on his steps. Whilst frolicking thus, they considered every instant without him a myriad of years; and prohibited (in vain) by husbands, fathers, brothers, they went forth at night to sport with Krishna, the object of their affection.

Thus, the illimitable being, the benevolent remover of all imperfections, assumed the character of a youth among the females of the herdsmen of [the district of] Vraja; pervading their natures and that of their lords by his own essence, all-diffusive like the wind. For even as the elements of ether, fire, earth, water, and air are comprehended in all creatures, so also is he everywhere present, and in all … (Chapter 14, copied from the e-book)

The celebration of the moon is thus a festive occasion, and there certainly is a Greek version of this story somewhere replacing Krishna with Dionysos. Which leads me to wonder what it is about the “autumn” moon that is so inviting of celebration? Dancing and singing of the autumn moon leads me to think about Halloween, but perhaps that is another post for another occasion.

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.

The Importance of Cultural Context

After my last inspired post, I went semi-consciously offline for awhile – literally and figuratively. I’ve spent the last couple weeks delving into the core research for three dissertation chapters, and have come to the conclusion that too much reading is not conducive to either writing or blogging. But every now and then a question pops up that I feel a need to address, in large part because it ties in so nicely with my dissertation. That said, I’m really looking forward to being able to someday not blog about my dissertation…

Today’s thought was inspired by a post over at Mythic Musings. The author posed the relevant question, Is mythology dangerous? This particular question was raised in response to the author’s exploration of the Pandora and Eve myths. Both of these stories suggest that women are to blame for the hardships of the world, and suggestions have been made by many mythologists that myths such as these are used as tools of oppression, leading to the argument that mythology shouldn’t be taken literally. A very, very valid point.

But I think there’s more to the argument than that. The mythological studies scholarship holds that myth is inspired by something greater than humans. Indeed, the early myth-makers were the great poets, seers, priests, etc., of a particular society. Yet, the scholarship does not hold that modern myth-makers are likewise inspired; rather, they command a really good use of their myth tools (language, music, images, etc.). This disconnect is a matter of perception. Once upon a time, the priests and poets (etc.) were revered by their people as being the voice of the deity. However, in this new-fangled structure of civilization, we’ve separated the deity from the everyday and placed a lot of responsibility upon the individual for their talents. Yet the end result is the same.

It all boils down to cultural context. What I mean by this is that mythologists should take culture into account. On one level, there is the culture that gave birth to the myth. For example, with Eve and Pandora, both emerged from early civilizations that saw women as both inferior and potentially as a danger to men. Myths such as these furthered the cultural mores. And there is the other level: modern mythologists are reading these old myths from their own cultural framework. Thus, it is very easy in our pro-feminist western world to read the myths of Eve and Pandora as “repressive.” As a woman, sure, I don’t appreciate being blamed for all of the ills in the world. But I hesitate to call ancient Greece and the ancient Hebrew world “repressive” in the Feminist sense. Different, definitely.

Myths are some of the best artifacts of a culture we have, because they give us a view into the psychology of the culture. We can glean more from myths and legends than we can, in many cases, from material remains.

The real danger comes when myths are taken out of their context and used to control. For example, ancient Greek myths are ancient Greek myths. They are not modern American (or whatever your home culture is) myths, and should not be used in the same way (and herein, for anyone paying attention, lies my distaste for the works of James Hillman). This is when mythology turns into propaganda, and this is when readers of myth get disillusioned and discouraged (as is happening in America today), or the cultural shadow threatens to destroy a society (as happened in Nazi Germany).

In my own research, also known as “the Scottish Paper on Disneyland,” I’ve had to reconcile the fact that Disneyland is a Cold War era myth, and this has completely reshaped my reading of the lands. It is nonetheless American, and it has been constantly updated such that the Cold War myths are slowly being altered to the new era or are being phased out (and I’m leaving California Adventure out of this consideration). The values that are expressed through Cold War myths are still relevant today, which is why Disneyland is still a potent myth-motif for today’s world; though, the love and praise for America that Walt Disney bled into Disneyland has become less important, which – I will say it honestly – is a damn shame.

Someday, post-doc, I’d love to travel to Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai to compare their Disneylands. I have a suspicion that the removal of the American mythos from the park compromises the potency of the experience. Eventually (i.e., as a graduation present), I’ll make it to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, but knowing that this was designed as Disneyland, part deux, I suspect that I’ll find the richness of the myth alive and well in Florida. After all, Ridley Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers series is based in Disney World, not Disneyland.

The Myth(s) of Tangaroa

In honor of the first birthday of my kitten, I thought it would be interesting to explore the myths of his namesake. One would think that – for a mythologist – this would be an easy task. Apparently, my myth collections gloss over Polynesian mythology. In these collections, Tangaroa is reduced to a player in the creation or the trickster’s (Maui) father. Not really anything telling about who he is. What he does, however, is clear: he is the God of the Sea. So I had to turn to the web.

Rather than begin at the beginning, I’ll start with the birth of Tangaroa. His parents are Rangi (Father Sky) and Papa (Mother Earth), and Tangaroa was one of many of their children. Rangi and Papa emerged from the darkness of the void, but before they fully knew what do do with light, their children remained in darkness while they enjoyed the light. The children contemplated how to bring about night and day, so they too could have some light. While Tumatuenga, the god of war, suggested killing their parents, Tane (or Tane Mahuta), the god of the forest, suggested separating them. They all did what they could to separate their parents, but ultimately Tane succeeded why pushing Rangi away from Papa.

Rangi was so distraught that he cried and cried, forming the oceans. Tawhiri, the storm god, chose to join his father in the sky. He was opposed to the entire venture of separating their parents in the first place, so from above, he lashed down on Tane’s forest until they were all uprooted. Tawhiri then turned his wrath on Tangaroa, who avoided him by plunging into the depths of the ocean. Tangaroa’s own children, however, were confused by his sudden departure. Some of them, the fish, followed him to the seas; the others, lizards and reptiles, stayed among the rocks and trees. Noticing this, Tangaroa became very angry, and it is said that he (as the sea) is slowly eating the land to erode it in the hopes of one day being reunited with his lost family. To further enhance his conflict with Tane, one of his favorite tricks is to take wood from Tane’s forest and build sinking canoes.

Some versions of the Tangaroa stories give Tangaroa credit creating the cosmos and humans. In these stories, Tangaroa is the creator and hatches from the cosmic egg. After he hatches, he begins creating the world. He uses half of the egg shell to create the sky, and laid the other half below to create the ground. Noticing that he had no other tools to create with, he cut his own flesh to create soil, uses his backbone to create mountains, and his inner organs to make the clouds. All parts of his body were used in the creation. Once the world was created, he then started to create life. All of the other gods were within him, so he called the forth. Along with Tu, the craftsman god, Tangaroa makes trees and animals. They then create Til and Hina, the first humans, and convince them to procreate. “Tangaroa saw that everything he had created had a shell, just as he had had one in the beginning. They sky was the shell that contained the sun, the moon, and the stars. The Earth too was a shell; it was an enormous container for all the rocks, rivers, and lakes, and for all the plants that grew on the surface and the animals that walked on it. Even human beings had their shells; the wombs of women were the shells from which new life was born” (Hooper 338).

The myth that actually inspired the kitten’s name comes from Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room (the Maori connection was just a happy accident).

If you get to the Tiki Room early enough, there is an audio-animatronic preshow among the figures outside. Here, the gods surrounds a spring, and in the moments just before letting us into the Tiki Room, while we’re calmly enjoying our Dole Whip, they all introduce themselves. Tangaroa, in a James Earl Jones-esque voice, says, “I AM Tangaroa, father of all gods and goddesses. Here in this land of enchantment, I appear before you as a mighty tree. Stand back! Oh Mystic Powers, hear my call! From my limbs, let new life fall!” And birds and plants fall from his limbs to the chiming of bells.

Suffice it to say, my Kitten embodies both the creator and the sea.

And for some levity. I guess this is from one of this online quiz thingies:


Myths & Legends: Stories Gods Heroes Monsters by Philip Hooper and Philip Wilkinson, retrieved from Google Books