MythBlast | Practical Campbell Essay: Spirit Wind
Editor’s Note: This month, we are celebrating the breath of spring in the air in the Northern Hemisphere. In this Practical Campbell essay, Stephen Gerringer follows a single mythic image, letting it take him wherever the wind blows, originally published in 2007. Practical Campbell essays search for areas where we can follow Joseph Campbell’s insights off the page and into the real world. Though many of the essays explore decidedly esoteric topics, from ritual regicide to the mythology of breath, all speak to how the mythic imagination mediates the mysterious and the mundane in the world around us.
The wind is air, the highest holy power of the universe, Brahman, the life-force of the world; for the wind persists in its blowing when all the other powers of the body of the universe have temporarily ceased to exist …
Heinrich Zimmer, Myths & Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, ed. Joseph Campbell, p. 171
One might live a celibate life, forego the comforts of family and home, maybe even survive a few days without food and water—but I have yet to meet anyone who can pass an hour without taking a breath. Earth’s atmosphere provides the context for all life. The air we breathe is the same air our fellow creatures breathe. Even the plants and trees mirror this dance, breathing out as we breathe in.
Nothing is more common to the diverse indigenous cultures of the earth than a recognition of the air, the wind, and the breath, as aspects of a singularly sacred power. By virtue of its pervading presence, its utter invisibility, and its manifest influence on all manner of visible phenomena, the air, for oral peoples, is the archetype of all that is ineffable, unknowable, yet undeniably real and efficacious.
David Abrams, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, p. 226,
Air, Wind, and Breath are subtle expressions of a universal archetype common not just to pre-literate cultures, but a source of exquisite imagery found in all mythologies, mystical traditions, and metaphysical systems.
Joseph Campbell associates such mythological archetypes with the Indian concept of mårga:
Mårga comes from a root that has to do with an animal trail; it means “the path.” By this, Indians mean the path by which the particular aspect of a symbol leads you to personal illumination; it is the path to enlightenment.
Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, ed. David Kudler, p. 96
Is all in the imagination, or do mythological images reference real experiences, available and accessible to real people in the real world?
We’ll explore this question by taking a cue from Campbell’s description of mårga—pick up the traces of a single universal motif at its source in collective human experience, and follow its trail through a variety of languages, cultures, and mythological systems, to see if this path might indeed point to personal illumination.
Where does our journey begin?
With a deep breath …