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Entering the Mythscape of Pan’s Labyrinth

Updated: Mar 31



Still from Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Spoiler alert and content warning: This MythBlast discusses details of the film Pan’s Labyrinth, a movie that contains great beauty and graphic violence. Pan’s Labyrinth is rated R.


If I could wave a magic wand and invite Joseph Campbell over for dinner tonight, the instant he walked in the door I would sit him down to watch Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). No pleasantries, no chit-chat, no snacks except popcorn and soda, not until he sees the movie. I can already imagine the look on his face when young Ofelia circles down the spiral stone staircase into the realm of the Underground, when the woodland faun first shudders awake, when Ofelia sets out to complete harrowing fairytale tasks to prove her true identity. 


Set in rural Spain in 1944, Pan’s Labyrinth weaves imagery of wonder with images from history, recreating the early years of Franco’s fascist rule after the Spanish Civil War. The main character, Ofelia, hovers on the brink of adolescence. Her father died in the war, and her mother remarried a cold-blooded captain in Franco’s army who embodies the patriarchal brutality of the regime. Ofelia and her mother, who is pregnant with the stepfather’s child, move to a remote mill where the captain runs a command post dedicated to wiping out “underground” resistance rebels in the forested hills. But the forest holds a mythic Underground as well as a human one.


Ofelia's initiation in Pan's Labyrinth

Near the end of his life, in the companion book to his conversations with Bill Moyers, Campbell mused that movies might function as substitutes for the ritual re-enactments of myth that serve as initiation rites in other cultures, “except that we don’t have the same kind of thinking going into the production of a movie that goes into the production of an initiation ritual” (The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers 102). Maybe that was the case in the 1980s when Campbell and Moyers created The Power of Myth, but Pan’s Labyrinth presents exactly what Campbell describes: a young woman’s passage into adulthood as a mythic initiation into maturity. 


When Ofelia first arrives at the mill, she is an innocent with a free spirit and a fixation on fairy tales. Wearing a green dress, green coat, and green leather shoes, she follows a flying bug into the forest and then down into the Underground, where she meets the faun and undertakes the terrifying tasks that pit her against monsters of many kinds: a giant toad, a cadaverous child-killer with eyes in his hands, and worst of all, her own stepfather. From the toad she learns the power of trickery, from the cadaver she learns to follow her intuition, and from her stepfather she learns who she isn’t: she isn’t him. She is, instead, someone who will bleed and die to protect those who are weaker, rather than hurting them for her own supposed benefit.


Pan’s Labyrinth presents exactly what Campbell describes: a young woman’s passage into adulthood as a mythic initiation into maturity. 

None of these tasks is easy. Initiation never is. But each task teaches Ofelia something vital, something imperative. By learning these lessons in emotionally charged, dangerous situations, she changes forever. She is initiated into a new way of being. In this context, the terms learning, initiation, and transformation are nearly interchangeable. The final scene makes this point by showing the new Ofelia now wearing blood-red: red coat, red shoes, and a dress embroidered with red flowers. Having sacrificed her innocence in her initiation out of virginal, vegetal, unconscious childhood, she steps into her true identity. The cool greenery of leaves blossoms into the brilliant flowers of her authentic, mature, passionate self.


Relocating the sacred toward greater equality

I grew up in a religion that valued purity, obedience, heaven, and men. Women were literally and spiritually subordinate, a word that means “below ordination.” Only men were ordained to religious authority, which meant there were no women in the room when men decided how to run things—from the smallest congregation all the way up to church headquarters—and for guidance, the men consulted scriptures full of overt and covert misogyny.


Pan’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, values dirt, disobedience, earth, and women. For example, Ofelia gets covered in mud in her confrontation with the toad, while the most well-groomed person in the film is the fastidious, hollow-hearted captain. Ofelia learns to follow her intuition and conscience rather than blindly obeying outside forces. Instead of a distant heaven, the movie presents a majestic Underground Realm, an earth-centered image of the divinity beneath the everyday world containing a trinity of Father, Mother, and Holy Daughter. “You are not born of man,” the faun pointedly tells Ofelia (0:23:17), in a clear revision of the sexist Biblical phrase, “son of man.” Pan’s Labyrinth relocates the sacred away from patriarchy, thereby initiating the viewer into a spiritualized, co-creative vision of gender equality.


Ofelia learns to follow her intuition and conscience rather than blindly obeying outside forces.

Joseph Campbell taught at a progressive women’s college for thirty-eight years, from 1934-1972. Year after year, from the Great Depression through World War II, the post-war years, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War, Campbell inspired classrooms full of young women with the transformational possibilities of myth in a time when society hadn’t yet allowed them the right to hold credit cards. “All I can tell you about mythology,” he would say, “is what men have said and have experienced, and now women have to tell us from their point of view what the possibilities of the feminine future are” (Goddesses 263). Many women have accepted that challenge, before and after Campbell issued it, but what gives me even more hope for gender equality is when men imagine into and champion the experience of women, as del Toro does in Pan’s Labyrinth. With empathy and affection, the film portrays complex female characters, exposes the soul-violence of patriarchal oppression, and shows male characters who treat women as honored, beloved equals. 


Pan's Labyrinth and Campbell's four functions of myth

In his interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell said that the artist’s task is “the mythologization of the environment” (The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers 107). For Campbell, that would mean shaping some aspect of the world into a narrative, Spanish fascism under Franco for example, imbuing the narrative with wonder and awe, showing how to cope psychologically with the situation, and pointing to the mystery that lies just behind it. In other words, illustrating Campbell’s four functions of myth. Pan’s Labyrinth accomplishes exactly that. Sociologically, the film reveals the brutality of fascist oppression and the possibility of gender equality. Psychologically, Ofelia develops her intuition and conscience. Cosmologically, an ensouled natural world of beauty and vitality encompasses the built world. Metaphysically, everything springs from the animating source of the Underground Realm, an enchanted font of earth energy that gives rise to all and imbues the world with magic.


The faun embodies an especially poignant image of sacred, animate earth. With woody limbs and curving horns, he serves as an earthen-animal-human shaman-priest, facilitating Ofelia’s initiation. Del Toro plays a similar role, facilitating the initiation viewers experience. 


Everything springs from the animating source of the Underground Realm, an enchanted font of earth energy that gives rise to all and imbues the world with magic.

When the movie ends, my imaginary dinner party would move to the kitchen table. Because I have a magic wand, I might as well invite del Toro over as well. I’d conjure spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce, fresh bread, olive oil for dipping, and wine to wash it all down. For dessert, walnut brownies with a glossy frosting of melted chocolate and butter—anything to keep my guests talking. So much has happened since The Power of Myth and Pan’s Labyrinth were released. I’d love to hear what the creators of these works have to say about our current mythic moment.



MythBlast authored by:


Joanna Gardner, PhD, is a writer, mythologist, and magical realist whose research and teaching focus on creativity, goddesses, and wonder tales. Joanna serves as director of marketing and communications for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and is the lead author of the Foundation's book Goddesses: A Skeleton Key Study Guide. She is also an adjunct professor in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Mythological Studies program, and a co-founder of the Fates and Graces, hosting webinars and workshops for mythic readers and writers. To read Joanna's blog and additional publications, you are most cordially invited to visit her website at joannagardner.com.





A collage on a brown background with cave drawings and stone, that says the First Storytellers

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 3, and Goddesses.

 

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Joseph Campbell speaks at Cooper Union in New York in 1967 on the many images of the divine mystery -- a topic he famously wrote about in his book series, The Masks of God. Host, Brad Olson, offers an introduction and commentary after the talk in this pilot episode of the Pathways podcast.



 

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A casual picture of Joseph Campbell
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