The Power of Myth, Part 3: The First Storytellers

June 23, 1988

Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell discuss the importance of accepting death as rebirth as in the myth of the buffalo and the story of Christ, rites of passage in primitive societies, the role of mystical Shamans and the decline of ritual in today’s society. Campbell explains how ancient myths were designed to “put the mind in accord with the body, and the way of life in accord with the way nature dictates.” As one example, Campbell explains how myths bring humans to understand and accept birth, growth and death.


The animal envoys of the Unseen Power no longer serve, as in primeval times, to teach and to guide mankind. Bears, lions, elephants, and gazelles are in cages in our zoos. Man is no longer the newcomer in a world of unexplored plains and forests, and our immediate neighbors are not wild beasts, but other human beings contending for goods and space on a planet that is whirling without end around the fireball of a star. Neither in body nor in mind do we inhabit the world of those hunting races of the Paleolithic millennia, to whose lives and lifeways we nevertheless owed the very forms of our bodies and structures of our minds. Memories of their animal envoys still must sleep, somehow, within us, for they wake a little and stir when we venture into wilderness. They wake in terror to thunder. And again they wake with a sense of recognition when we enter any one of those great painted caves. Whatever the inward darkness may have been to which the shamans of those caves descended in their trances, the same must lie within ourselves, nightly visited in sleep.


When we look at the magnificent cave paintings left by our primal ancestors, we realize how the hunters of those early tribes were influenced by their natural surroundings, and by their feelings toward the animals they depended on for food—religious feelings. They told stories to themselves about the animals, and about the supernatural world to which the animals seemed to go when they died. And the hunters performed rituals of atonement to the departed spirits of the animals, hoping to coax them hack to be sacrificed again.

Joseph Campbell devoted his life to the study of these myths and rituals. For him, mythic stories were not simply entertaining tales to be told for amusement around ancient campfires, they were powerful guides to the life of the spirit. Campbell’s odyssey as scholar and teacher led him from the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History, which impressed him as a boy, to cultures all over the world. In his words: “Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the mumbo jumbo of some witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture translations from sonnets of Lao Tzu, or now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Thomas Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale, we’re hearing echoes of the first story.”

In this hour, one of the many I taped with Joseph Campbell during the last two years of his life, we talked about our relationship to the first stories and to the people who told them. Like them, we too perform rituals to enact what we believe about the world beyond this one, and we try to bring our mind into harmony with questions of immortality and our body with its destiny of death.

What do you think our souls owe to ancient myths?


Well, the ancient myths were designed to put the minds, the mental system, into accord with this body system, with this inheritance of the body.


A harmony?


To harmonize. The mind can ramble off in strange ways, and want things that the body does not want. And the myths and rites were means to put the mind in accord with the body, and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.


So in a way these old stories live in us.


They do indeed, and the stages of a human development are the same today as they were in the ancient times. And the problem of a child brought up in a world of discipline, of obedience, and of his dependency on others, has to be transcended when one comes to maturity so that you are living now not in dependency but with self-responsible authority. And the problem of the transition from childhood to maturity, and then from maturity and full capacity to losing those powers and acquiescing in the natural course of (you might say) the autumn-time of life and the passage away—myths are there to help us go with it, accept nature’s way and not hold to something else.


The stories are sort of to me like messages in a bottle from shores someone else has visited first.


Yes, and you’re visiting those shores now.


And these myths tell me how others have made the passage, and how I can make the passage.


And also what the beauties are of the way. I feel this now, moving into my own last years, you know? The myths help me to go with it.


What kind of myth? Give me one that has actually helped you.


Well, the tradition in India, for instance, of actually changing your whole way of dress, even changing your name, as you pass from one stage to another. When I retired from teaching I knew that I had to create a new life, a new way of life, and I changed my manner of thinking about my life just in terms of that notion: moving out of the sphere of achievement into the sphere of enjoyment and appreciation, and relaxing into the wonder of it all.


And then there is that final passage through the dark gate?


Well, that’s no problem at all. The problem in middle life, when the body has reached its climax of power and begins to lose it, is to identify yourself not with the body, which is falling away, but with the consciousness of which it is a vehicle. And when you can do that—and this is something learned from my myths. What am I? Am I the bulb that carries the light, or am I the light of which the bulb is a vehicle? And this body is a vehicle of consciousness. And if you can identify with the consciousness, you can watch this thing go. Like an old car: there goes the fender, there goes this. But it’s expectable, you know? And then, gradually, the whole thing drops off and consciousness rejoins consciousness. I mean, it’s no longer in this particular environment.


And the myths, the stories have brought this consciousness to…?


Well, I live with these myths and they tell me to do this all the time. And this is the problem which can be, then, metaphorically understood as identifying with the Christ in you. And the Christ in you doesn’t die, the Christ in you survives death and resurrects. Or it can be with Shiva: “Shiva hung, I am Shiva.” And this is the great meditation of the yogis in the Himalayas. And one doesn’t have, even, to have a metaphorical image like that if one has a mind that’s willing to just relax and identify itself with that which moves it.


You say that the image of death is the beginning of mythology. What do you mean? How is that?


Well, all I can say to that is that the earliest evidence we have of anything like mythological thinking is associated with grave burials.


And they suggest what? That men, women, saw life, and then they didn’t see it, and they wondered about it?


It must have been. I mean, one has only to, you know, imagine what one’s own experience would be. The person was alive and warm before you, and talking to you. He’s now lying there, getting cold, beginning to rot. Something was there that isn’t there. And where is it? Now, animals have this experience, certainly, of their companions dying and so forth. But there’s no evidence that they’ve had any further thoughts about it. Also, before the time of Neanderthal man—it’s in his period that the first burials appeared of which we have evidence—people were dying and they were just thrown away. But here there’s a concern.


Have you ever visited any of these burial sites?


I’ve been to Le Moustier. That was one of the earliest burial caves that were found.


And you find there what they buried with the dead?


Yes. These grave burials with grave gear—that is to say, weapons and sacrifices round about—certainly suggest the idea of the continued life beyond the visible one. The first one that was discovered, the person was put down resting as though asleep: a young boy with a beautiful hand ax beside him. Now, at the same time, we have evidence of shrines devoted to animals that have been killed. The shrines specifically are in the Alps, in very high caves, and they are of cave bear skulls. And there is one very interesting one with the long bones of the cave bear in the cave bear’s jaw.


What does that say to you?


Burials. My friend has died and he survives. The animals that I’ve killed must also survive. I must make some kind of atonement relationship to them. The indication is of the notion of a plane of being that’s behind the visible plane, and which is somehow supportive of the visible one to which we have to relate. I would say that’s the basic theme of all mythology.


That there is a world?


That there is an invisible plane supporting the visible one. Now, whether it is thought of as a world, or simply as energy, that differs from time and time and place to place.


What we don’t know supports what we do know.


That’s right.

The basic hunting myth, I would say, is of a kind of covenant between the animal world and the human world, where the animal gives its life willingly. They are regarded generally as willing victims, with the understanding that their life—which transcends their physical entity—will be returned to the soil or to the mother through some ritual of restoration. And the principal rituals, for instance, and the principal divinities are associated with the main hunting animal: the animal who is the master animal, and sends the flocks to be killed, you know? To the Indians of the American plains, it was the buffalo. You go to the northwest coast, it’s the salmon. The great festivals have to do with the run of salmon coming in. When you go to South Africa, the eland, the big, magnificent antelope, is the principal animal to the Bushmen, for example.


And the principal animal, the master animal—


Is the one that furnishes the food.


So there grew up between human beings and animals, a bonding, as you say, which required one to be consumed by the other.


That’s the way life is.


Do you think this troubled early man, too?


Absolutely. That’s why you have the rites. Because it did trouble him.


What kind of rites?


Rituals of appeasement to the animals, of thanks to the animal. A very interesting aspect here is the identity of the hunter with the animal.


You mean after the animal has been shot?


After the animal has been killed. The hunter then has to fulfill certain rites in a kind of participation mystique: a mystic participation with the animals whose death he has brought about, and whose meat is to become his life. So that killing is not simply slaughter, at any rate. It’s a ritual act. It’s a recognition of your dependency and of the voluntary giving of this food to you by the animal who has given it. It’s a beautiful thing, and it turns life into a mythological experience.


The hunt becomes what?


It becomes a ritual. The hunt is a ritual.


Expressing a hope of resurrection, that the animal was food and you needed the animal to return.


And some kind of respect for the animal that was killed. That’s the thing that gets me all the time in this hunting ceremonial system.


Respect for the animal.


The respect for the animal. And more than respect—I mean, that animal becomes a messenger of divine power, do you see?


And you wind up as the hunter killing the messenger.


Killing the god.


What does this do? Does it cause guilt, does it cause…?


Guilt is what is wiped out by the myth. It is not a personal act. You are performing the world of nature. For example, in Japan—in Hokkaido, in northern Japan among the Ainu people, whose principal mountain deity is the bear—when it is killed there is a ceremony of feeding the bear a feast of its own flesh, as though he were present. And he is present. He’s served his own meat for dinner. And there’s a conversation between the mountain god, the bear and the people. They say, “If you will give us the privilege of entertaining you again, we’ll give you the privilege of another bear sacrifice.”


If the cave bear were not appeased, the animals wouldn’t appear, and these primitive hunters would starve to death. So they began to perceive some kind of power on which they were dependent, greater than their own.


And that’s the power of the animal master. Now, when we sit down to a meal, we thank God, you know—or our idea of God—for having given us this. These people thanked the animal.


And is this the first evidence we have of an act of worship?




Of power superior to man?




And the animal was superior because the animal provided food.


Well, now, in contrast to our relationship to animals—where we see animals as a lower form of life, and in the Bible we’re told, you know, we’re the masters and so forth—early hunting people don’t have that relationship to the animal. The animal is in many ways superior. He has powers that the human being doesn’t have.


And then certain animals take on a persona, don’t they? The buffalo, the raven, the eagle.


Oh, very strongly. Well, I was up on the northwest coast back in 1932—a wonderful trip—and the Indians along the way were still carving totem poles. The villages had new totem poles, still. And there we saw the ravens and we saw the eagles and we saw the animals that played roles in the myths. And they had the character, the quality, of these animals. It was a very intimate knowledge and friendly, neighborly, relationship to these creatures. And then they killed some of them, you see?


The animal had something to do with the shaping of the myths of those people, just as the buffalo for the Indians of the plains played an enormous role. They are the ones that bring the tobacco gift, the mystical pipe, and all this kind of thing. It comes from a buffalo. And when the animal becomes the giver of ritual and so forth, they do ask the animal for advice, and the animal becomes the model for how to live.


You remember the story of the buffalo’s wife?


That’s a basic legend of the Blackfoot tribe, and is the origin legend of their buffalo dance rituals, by which they invoke the cooperation of the animals in this play of life.

When you realize the size of some of these tribal groups, to feed them required a good deal of meat. And one way of acquiring meat for the winter would be to drive a buffalo herd, to stampede it, over a rock cliff. Well, this story is of a Blackfoot tribe long, long ago, and they couldn’t get the buffalo to go over the cliff. The buffalo would approach the cliff and then turn aside. So it looked as though they weren’t going to have any meat for that winter.


Well, the daughter of one of the houses, getting up early in the morning to draw the water for the family and so forth, looks up. And there, right above the cliff, were the buffalo. And she said, “Oh, if you’d only come over, I’d marry one of you.” And to her surprise, they all began coming over. That was surprise number one. Surprise number two was when one of the old buffaloes, the shaman of the herd, comes and says, “All right, girlie, off we go.” “Oh, no,” she says. “Oh, yes,” he said. “You made your promise. We’ve kept our side of the bargain. Look at all my relatives here, dead. Off we go.”


Well, the family gets up in the morning and they look around, and where’s Minnehaha, you know? The father—and you know how Indians are—he looked around and he said, “She’s run off with a buffalo.” He could see by the footsteps. So he says, “Well, I’m going to get her back.” So he puts on his walking moccasins, bow and arrow and so forth, and goes out over the plains. He’s gone quite a distance when he feels he’d better sit down and rest. And he comes to a place that’s called a buffalo wallow, where the buffalo like to come and roll around, get the lice off, and roll around in the mud. So he sits down there and is thinking what he should do now, when along comes a magpie. Now, that’s a beautiful, flashing bird, and it’s one of those clever birds that has shamanic qualities.


Magical qualities.


Magical. And the man says to him, “Oh, beautiful bird, my daughter ran away with a buffalo. Will you hunt around and see if you can find her out on the plain somewhere?” And the magpie says, “Well, there’s a lovely girl with the buffaloes right now, over there, just a bit away.” “Well,” said the man, “will you go tell her that her daddy’s here, her father’s here at the buffalo wallow?” Magpie flies over and the girl is there among the buffalo. They’re all asleep. I don’t know what she’s doing—knitting or something of the kind. And the magpie comes over close to her and he says, “Your father’s over at the wallow waiting for you.” “Oh,” she says, “this is very terrible. This is dangerous. I mean, these buffalo, they’ll kill us. You tell him to wait. I’ll be over. I’ll try to work this out.”


So her buffalo husband’s behind her, and he wakes up and takes off a horn. He says, “Go to the wallow and get me a drink.” So she takes the horn and goes over, and there’s her father. And he grabs her by the arm and he says, “Come.” She says, “No, no, no. This is real dangerous. The whole herd’s there. They’ll be right after us. I have to work this thing out. Now let me just go back.” So she gets the water and goes back. And he, “Fe, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Indian.” You know, that sort of thing. And she says, “No, nothing of the kind.” And he says, “Yes, indeed.” So he gives a buffalo bellow, and they all get up, and they all do a slow buffalo dance with their tails raised, and they go over and they trample that poor man to death, so that he disappears entirely. He’s just all broken up to pieces; all gone.


The girl’s crying. And her buffalo husband says, “So you’re crying.” “This is my daddy.” He said, “Yeah, but what about us? There are children, our wives, our parents, and you crying about your daddy.” Well, apparently he was a kind of sympathetic, compassionate buffalo. And he said, “Well, I’ll tell you: if you can bring your daddy back to life again, I’ll let you go.” So she turns to the magpie and says, “Peck around a little bit and see if you can find a bit of Daddy.” And the magpie does so, and he comes up finally with a vertebra; just one little bone. And the little girl says, “That’s plenty. Now, we’ll put this down on the ground.” And she puts her blanket over it, and she sings a revivifying song, a magical song with great power. And presently, yes, there’s a man under the blanket. She looks. It’s Daddy all right, but he’s not breathing yet. A few more stanzas of whatever the song was, and he stands up, and the buffalo are amazed. And they say, “Why don’t you do this for us? We’ll teach you now our buffalo dance. And when you will have killed our families, you do this dance and sing this song, and we’ll all be back to life again.”

That’s the basic idea: that, through the ritual, that dimension is struck which transcends temporality and out of which life comes and back into which it goes.


And it goes back to this whole idea of death, burial, and resurrection—not only for human beings, but for—


But for the animals, too.


So the story of the buffalo’s wife was told to confirm the reverence.


That’s right.


What happened when the white man came and slaughtered this animal of reverence?


That was a sacramental violation. I mean, in the eighties, when the buffalo hunt was undertaken, you know, with Kit Carson—


The 1880s, a hundred years ago.


—and Buffalo Bill and so forth. When I was a boy, whenever we went for sleigh rides we had a buffalo robe. Buffalo, buffalo, buffalo robes all over the place. This was the sacred animal to the Indians. These hunters go out with repeating rifles, and then shoot down the whole herd, and leave it there. Take the skin to sell and the body’s left to rot. This is a sacrilege. And it really is a sacrilege.


It turned the buffalo from a thou…


To an it.


The Indians addressed the buffalo as thou.


As a thou.


As an object of reverence.


The Indians addressed life as a thou. I mean, trees and stones, everything else. You can address anything as a thou, and you can feel the change in your psychology as you do it. The ego that sees a thou is not the same ego that sees an it. Your whole psychology changes when you address things as an it. And when you go to war with a people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into its, so that they’re not thous.


That was an incredible moment in the evolution of American society, when the buffalo were slaughtered. That was the final exclamation point behind the destruction of the Indian civilization. Because you were destroying—


Can you imagine what the experience must have been for a people within ten years to lose their environment, to lose their food supply, to lose the central object of their ritual life?


So it is in your belief that it was in this period of hunting man and woman, the time of hunting man, that human beings begin to sense a stirring of the mythic imagination, the wonder of things that they didn’t know?


There is this burst of magnificent art and all the evidence you need of a mythic imagination in full career.


You visited some of the great painted caves in Europe.


Oh yes.


Tell me what you remember when first you looked upon those underground caves.


Well, you didn’t want to leave. Here you come into an enormous chamber, like a great cathedral, with these animals painted. And they’re painted with a life like the life of an ink on silk; the Japanese painting. And, well, you realize: the darkness is inconceivable. We’re there with electric lights. But in a couple of instances, the concierge—the man who was showing us through—turned off the lights and you were never in darker darkness in your life. It’s like a—I don’t know—just a complete knockout of you don’t know where you are, whether you’re looking north, south, east, or west. All orientation is gone and you’re in a darkness that never saw the sun. Then they tum the lights on again, and you see these gloriously painted animals. A bull that will be twenty feet long, and painted so that the haunches will be represented by a swelling in the rock. You know, they take account of the whole thing. It’s incredible.


Do you ever look at these primitive art objects, and think not of the art, but of the man or woman standing there, painting or creating? I find that’s where I speculate.


Oh, this is what hits you when you go into those caves, I can tell you that. What was in their mind when they were doing that? And that’s not an easy thing to do. And how did they get up there? And how did they see anything? And what kind of light did they have? The little flashing torches throwing flickering things on it—to get something of that grace and perfection? And with respect to the problem of beauty: is this beauty intended, or is this something that is the natural expression of a beautiful spirit? You know what I mean? When you hear a bird sing, the beauty of the bird’s song, is this intentional? In what sense is it intentional? But it’s the expression of the bird—the beauty of the bird’s spirit, you might almost say—and I think that way very often about this art. To what degree was the intention of the artist what we would call aesthetic? Or to what degree expressive, you know? And to what degree something that they simply had learned to do that way? It’s a difficult point. When a spider makes a beautiful web, the beauty comes out of the spider’s nature, you know? Its instinctive beauty. And how much of the beauty of our own lives is the beauty of being alive, and how much of it is conscious intention? That’s a big question.


You call them temple caves.




Why temple?


Temple with images and stained glass windows, cathedrals, are a landscape of the soul. You move into a world of spiritual images. That’s what this is. When Jean and I, my wife and I, drove down from Paris to this part of France, we stopped off at Chartres Cathedral. There is a cathedral! When you walk into the cathedral, it’s the mother, womb of your spiritual life. Mother church. All the forms around are significant of spiritual values, and the imagery is in anthropomorphic form: God and Jesus and the saints and all; in human form.


In human form.


Then we went down to Lascaux. The images were in animal form. The form is secondary; the message is what’s important.


And the message of the cave?


The message of the cave is of a relationship of time to eternal powers that is somehow to be experienced in that place. Now, I tell you: when you’re down in those caves it’s a strange transformation of consciousness you have. You feel this is the womb, this is the place from which life comes. And that world up there in the sun with all those—that’s a secondary world. This is primary. I mean, this just overcomes you.


You had that feeling when you were there?


I had it every time.

Now, what were these caves used for? The speculations that are most common of scholars interested in this is that they had to do with the initiation of boys into the hunt. You go in there, it’s dangerous. It’s very dangerous. It’s completely dark. It’s cold and dank. You’re banging your head on projections all the time. And it was a place of fear. And the boys were to overcome all that, and go into the womb of the earth. And the shaman—or whoever it was that would be helping you through—would not be making it easy.


And then there was a release once you got to that vast, torchlit chamber down there. What was the tribe, what was the tradition trying to say to the boy?


That is the womb land from which all the animals come.


I see.


And that the rituals down there have to do with the generation of a situation that will be propitious for the hunt. And the boys were to learn not only to hunt, but how to respect the animals, and what rituals to perform, and how in their own lives no longer to be little boys but to be men. Because those hunts were very, very dangerous hunts, believe me. And these are the original men’s rite sanctuaries where the boys became no longer their mothers’ sons, but their fathers’ sons.


Don’t you wonder what effect this had on a boy?


Well, you can go through it today, actually, in cultures that are still having the initiations with young boys. They give them an ordeal, a terrifying ordeal, that the youngster has to survive. Makes a man of him, you know?


What would happen to me as a child, if I went through one of these rites—as far as we can—


Well, we know what they do in Australia. Now, when a boy gets to be, you know, a little bit ungovernable, one fine day the men come in, and they’re naked except for stripes of white down that has been stuck on their bodies, and stripes with their men’s blood. They used their own blood for gluing this on. And they’re swinging the bull-roarers, which are the voice of the spirits. And they come as spirits. The boy will try to take refuge with his mother. She’ll pretend to try to protect him. The men just take him away. A mother’s no good from then on, you see? He’s no longer a little boy. He’s in the men’s group, and then they put him really through an ordeal. These are the rites, you know, of circumcision, subincision, and so forth.


And the whole purpose is to…?


Turn him into a member of the tribe.


And a hunter.


And a hunter.


Because that was the way of life.


Yeah, but most important is to live according to the needs and values of that tribe. He is initiated in a short period of time into the whole culture context of his people.


So myth relates directly to ceremony and tribal ritual, and the absence of myth can mean the end of ritual.


A ritual is the enactment of a myth. By participating in a ritual, you are participating in a myth.


And what does it mean, do you think, to young boys today that we’re absent these myths?


Well, the confirmation ritual is the counterpart, today, of these rites. As a little Catholic boy you choose your confirmed name, the name you’re going to be confirmed by, and you go up. But instead of having them scarify you, knock your teeth out and all, the bishop gives you a mild slap on the cheek. It’s been reduced to that, and nothing’s happened to you. The Jewish counterpart is the bar mitzvah. And whether it works actually to effect a psychological transformation, I suppose, will depend on the individual case. There was no problem in these old days. The boy came out with a different body, and he’d gone through something.


What about the female? I mean, most of the figures in the temple caves are male. Was this a kind of secret society for males only?


It wasn’t a secret society, it was that the boys had to go through it. Now, we don’t know exactly what happens with the female in this period, because we have very little evidence to tell us. In primary cultures today, the girl becomes a woman with her first menstruation. It happens to her; I mean, nature does it to her. And so she has undergone the transformation. And what is her initiation? Typically it is to sit in a little hut for a certain number of days, and realize what she is.


How does she do that?


She sits there. She’s now a woman. And what is a woman? A woman is a vehicle of life. And life has overtaken her. She is a vehicle, now, of life. A woman’s what it’s all about: the giving of birth and the giving of nourishment. She’s identical with the earth goddess in her powers, and she’s got to realize that about herself. The boy does not have a happening of that kind. He has to be turned into a man, and voluntarily become a servant of something greater than himself. The woman becomes the vehicle of nature, the man becomes the vehicle of the society, and the social order and the social purpose.


So what happens when a society no longer embraces powerful mythology?


What we’ve got on our hands. As I say, if you want to find what it means not to have a society without any rituals, read The New York Times.


And you’d find?


Well, the news of the day.




Young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society. Half the—I imagine that 50% of the crime is by young people in their 20s and early 30s that just behave like barbarians.


Society has provided them no rituals by which they become members.


None. There’s been a reduction, a reduction, a reduction of ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, my God, they’ve translated the mass out of the ritual language into a language that has a lot of domestic associations. So that, I mean, every time now that I read the Latin of the mass, I get that pitch again that it’s supposed to give: a language that throws you out of the field of your domesticity, you know? The altar is turned so that the priest, his back is to you, and with him you address yourself outward like that. Now they’ve turned the altar around, looks like Julia Child giving a demonstration. And it’s all homey and cozy.


And they play a guitar.


They play a guitar. Listen, they’ve forgotten what the function of a ritual is, is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.


So ritual that once conveyed an inner reality is now merely form, and that’s true in the rituals of society, and the personal rituals of marriage and religion.


Well, with respect to ritual, it must be kept alive. And so much of our ritual is dead. It’s extremely interesting to read of the primitive, elementary cultures—how the folktales, the myths, they are transforming all the time in terms of the circumstances of those people. People move from an area where, let’s say, the vegetation is the main support, out into the plains. Most of our plains Indians (in the period of the horse-riding Indians, you know) had originally been of the Mississippian culture along the Mississippi in settled dwelling towns, and agriculturally-based villages. And then they received the horse from the Spaniards, and it makes it possible then to venture out on the plains and handle a great hunt of the buffalo herds, you see. And the mythology transforms from vegetation to buffalo. And you can see the structure of the earlier vegetation mythologies under the mythologies of the Dakota Indians and the Pawnee Indians and the Kiowa and so forth.


You’re saying that the environment shapes the story?


They respond to it. Do you see? But we have a tradition that comes from the first millennium B.C. somewhere else, and we’re handling that. It has not turned over and assimilated the qualities of our culture, and the new things that are possible, and the new vision of the universe. It must be kept alive. The only people that can keep it alive are artists of one kind or another.




That artist is—his function is the mythologization of the environment and the world.


Artists being the poet, the musician, the author, writer.


Exactly. Yes. And I think we’ve had a couple of greats in the recent times. I think of James Joyce as such a revealer of the mysteries of growing up and becoming a human being. And for me, he and Thomas Mann were my principal gurus, you might say, as I was trying to shape my own life. I think in the visual arts there were two men whose work seemed, to me, to handle mythological themes in a marvelous way, and one was Paul Klee, and the other Picasso. These two men really knew what they were doing all the way, I think, and had a great versatility in their revelations.


You mean our artists are the mythmakers of our day?


The mythmakers in earlier days were the counterparts of our artists.


They drew the paintings on the wall.




They performed the rituals.


There’s an old romantic idea in German: das Volk dichtet. That’s that the poetry of the traditional cultures and the ideas come out of the folk. They do not. They come out of an elite experience—the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe. And they speak to the folk and there is an answer from the folk which is then received. There’s an interaction. But the first impulse comes from above, not from below, in the shaping of folk traditions.


So who would have been in these early elementary cultures, as you call them, the equivalent of the poets today?


The shamans. The shaman is the person who has—in his late childhood, early youth; could be male or female—had an overwhelming psychological experience that turns them totally inward. The whole unconscious has opened up and they’ve fallen into it. And it’s been described many, many times. And it occurs all the way from Siberia right through the Americas down to Tierra del Fuego. It’s a kind of schizophrenic crack-up; the shaman experience.


What kind of experience?


Dying and resurrecting. You know, being on the brink of death and coming back. Actually experiencing the death experience. People who have very deep dreams—dream is a great source of the spirit. And then people who, in the woods, have had mystical encounters.


Let me ask—let me try to be specific about it. The shaman becomes some person in a society who is drawn by experience from the normal world into the world of the gifted?


That’s right.


Most of us think of shaman as a magician, but they play a much more important role than simply being a trickster.


Oh, no, they play the role that the priesthood plays in our society.


Ah. These are the first priests?


Well, there’s a major difference as I see it between a shaman and a priest. A priest is a functionary of a social sort. The society worships certain deities in a certain way, and the priest becomes ordained as a functionary to carry on that ritual. And the deity to whom he is devoted is a deity that was there before he came along. The shaman’s powers are symbolized in familiars, deities of his own personal experience. And his authority comes out of a psychological experience, not a social ordination. Do you understand what I mean?


And the one who had this psychological experience, this traumatic experience, this ecstasy, would become the interpreter for others of things not seen?


He would become the interpreter of the heritage of mythological life, you might say; yes.


And ecstasy was a part of it, very often, in the shamanic tradition.


It is ecstasy, there’s no doubt about it.


The trance dance, for example, in the Bushman society.


Now there’s a fantastic example of something. The little Bushman groups. The whole life is one of great, great tension. The male and female sexes are, what we say, in a disciplined way, separate. The men have a certain field of concerns (their weapons and the poisons and the hunt and all that), and the women have a certain field of concern (bringing up the children, the nourishing of the children, and so forth and so on). Only in the dance do the two come together. And they come together this way: the women sit in a circle or a group, and they then become the center around which the men dance. And they control the dance and what goes on with the men through their own singing and beating of the thighs.


What’s the significance of that, that the woman is controlling the dance?


Well, the woman is life, and the man is the servant of life. And during the course of this circling, circling—it’s a very tense style of movement the men have—suddenly one of them will pass out. He’s in trance now, and this is a description of an experience:

When people sing. I dance. I enter the earth. I go in at a place like a place where people drink water. I travel a long way, very far. When I emerge, I am already climbing. I’m climbing threads. I climb one and leave it, then I climb another one. Then I leave it, and I climb another. When you arrive at God’s place, you make yourself small. You come in small to God’s place. You do what you have to do there. Then you return to where everyone is. You come and come and come and finally you enter your body again. All the people who have stayed behind are waiting for you. They fear you. You enter, enter the earth, and you return to enter the skin of your body. And you say aaaiieeee! That is the sound of your return to your body. Then you begin to sing. The untum masters are there around. They take hold of your head and blow about the sides of your face. This is how you manage to be alive again. Friends, if they don’t do that to you, you die. You just die and are dead. Friends, this is what it does, this untum that I do, this untum here that I dance.

This is an actual experience of transit from the earth, through the realm of mythological images, to God, or to the seat of power.


It becomes something of the other mind of us.


It is exactly the other mind. And the way God is imaged—God is transcendent, finally, of anything like a name of God. As the Hindus say: beyond names and forms, beyond nāmarūpa. Beyond names and forms. No tongue has soiled it, no word has reached it.


But Joe, can Westerners grasp this kind of mystical trance theological experience? It does transcend theology. It leaves theology behind. I mean, if you’re locked to the image of God in a culture where science determines your perceptions of reality, how can you experience this ultimate ground that the shamans talk about?


The best example I know in our literature is that beautiful book by John Neihardt called Black Elk Speaks.


Black Elk was?


Black Elk was a young Sioux (or Dakota, as they are often called) boy around nine years old, before the American cavalry had encountered the Sioux. They were the great people of the plains. And this boy became sick; psychologically sick. His family—I’m telling the typical shaman story. The child begins to tremble, and is immobilized, and the family’s terribly concerned about it. And they send for a shaman (who had had the experience in his own youth) to come as a psychoanalyst, you might say, and pull the youngster out of it. But instead of relieving him of the deities, he is adapting him to the deities, and the deities to himself, you might say. It’s a different problem from that of psychoanalysis. I think it was Nietzsche who said, “Be careful, lest in casting out your devil, you cast out the best thing that’s in you.” Here, the deities who have been encountered—the powers, let’s call them—are retained. The connection is retained, it’s not broken. And these men then become the spiritual advisers and gift-givers of their people.


Well, what happened with this young boy—he was about nine years old—was: he had a vision. And the vision is described, and it’s a vision prophetic of the terrible future that his tribe was to have. But it also spoke of the possible positive aspects of it. It was a vision of what he called the hoop of his nation, realizing that it was one of many hoops—which is something that we haven’t all learned well enough yet. And the cooperation of all the hoops of all the nations, and grand processions, and so forth. But more than that, it was an experience of himself as going through the realms of spiritual imagery that were of his culture, and assimilating their import. And it comes to one great statement, which for me is a key statement to the understanding of myth and symbols. He says: “I saw myself on the central mountain of the world, the highest place. And I had a vision, because I was seeing in a sacred manner, of the world.” And the sacred central mountain was Harney Peak in South Dakota. And then he says, “But the central mountain is everywhere.” That is a real mythological realization.




It distinguishes between the local cult image (Harney Peak) and its connotation (the center of the world). The center of the world is the hub of the universe—axis mundi, do you know? The central point, the pole star around which all revolves. The central point of the world is the point where stillness and movement are together. Movement is time, stillness is eternity. Realizing the relationship of the temporal moment to the eternal—not moment, but forever—is the sense of life. Realizing how this moment in your life is actually a moment of eternity. And the experience of the eternal aspect of what you’re doing in the temporal experience is the mythological experience. And he had it. So is the central mountain of the world Jerusalem? Rome? Benares? Lhasa? Mexico City? You know? Mexico City, Jerusalem, is symbolic of a spiritual principle as the center of the world.


So this little Indian was saying, there is a shining point where all lines intersect?


That’s exactly what he said.


He was saying God has no circumference?


God is an intelligible sphere—let’s say a sphere known to the mind, not to the senses—whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. And the center, Bill, is right where you’re sitting, and the other one is right where I’m sitting. And each of us is a manifestation of that mystery.

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