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The Antlered Child: Changing Shapes, Changing Souls


Christian Convery, 11, as Gus, a hybrid child who is part-deer, part-human. Promotional image for Sweet Tooth (2021) from Netflix.

Change is in the air. Again. As usual. 


The climate is changing. The pandemic changes. Technology changes. Our lives change.


Once upon a time, change happened more gradually, or so it seems. Now it feels like the pace of change has accelerated. We don’t seem to have the proper decompression chambers in which to adjust, and more changes are coming whether we choose them or not.


But we still have myth, and creativity, and our ability to create new myths, as Joseph Campbell discusses in Volume 4 of his Masks of God series, Creative Mythology. Creative myth-making, Campbell says, 


restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the becoming thing that is nothing at all but life, not as it will be or should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in process, here and now, inside out. (7-8) 


In other words, the myths we make give our present-moment lives back to us with the added thrill of adventure. They help us meet and imagine the changes we face.


One recent example of life-giving creative mythology is Sweet Tooth (2021), a Netflix series set in a world where a new species of animal-human hybrids evolves at the same time as a pandemic sweeps the planet. Sweet Tooth happens in a post-TV, post-internet, post-consumer landscape in which the population of humanity has been vastly reduced. But violent remnants of the old controlling, dominion-prone, fear-based culture still cling to existence in the form of an army of Last Men who hunt the child hybrids. The show focuses on the adventures of a hybrid named Gus who was born with the body of a human but the ears, antler nubs, and senses of a deer. In other words, Gus embodies what shamans experience through trance and dance: the joining of human and animal consciousness. Gus grows up in isolation in a remote forested stretch of what used to be Yellowstone National Park. As Gus grows, so do his antlers, and when the time is right, he sets out on an adventure that carries him away from home.


Not far into his travels, a band of Last Men corner Gus inside a former park visitors’ center. Little Gus, armed with a homemade slingshot, faces off against a Last Man with a high-powered rifle when, in the open doorway behind Gus, a massive buck appears who is clearly there to protect Gus. With antlers too wide to step through the door, the buck’s presence is utterly arresting. The Last Man seems paralyzed by the same astonishment we feel as viewers because we are suddenly in the presence of the sublime: powers beyond our own, dimensions of life to which we had been oblivious, more beauty and love than we had thought possible. In that moment, Gus, completely unaware of the buck, becomes the child of the buck, and of the antlered Celtic god Cernunnos (Campbell 412), and of the antlered human figure on the wall in the Cave of the Trois-Frères. We feel all those antlers ourselves—their bony anchors in our skulls, the pull of their weight in our necks and backs, the instinctive ability to lower the horns and charge. The sacred buck shows us Gus’s strength and destiny: simultaneously peaceful and powerful, an herbivore-warrior who will fight for what he loves. Here, the buck overwhelms his opponent simply through the force of his presence.


Sweet Tooth’s creative myth-making opens other windows onto the sacred as well. In the first episode, Gus learns that rain is “just Mother Nature, washing herself clean.” The show’s Animal Army organizes around the belief that hybrids are a miracle of nature. A character named Dr. Singh sees the divine in Gus thanks to a gift that Singh’s wife gave him, a statue of a Hindu goddess who once appeared as a deer. As an embodiment of sacred nature, Gus’s part-human and part-deer form reminds us of the sacred nature of all animals, human and otherwise. In fact, Gus’s form affirms that we are sacred because of our animal nature, and so is the rest of our extended animal family. Human-animal hybrids remind us that we are in fact animals, and that our souls—our animas, to use the Latin term—are animal souls.

 

The myth-makers of Sweet Tooth also suggest that our physical shapes and psychological shapes change together, and neither is fixed. Our birthright vitality and consciousness, from which the technological world likes to separate us, remain rooted in the adaptability of our bodies and the organic world. External metamorphosis coincides with internal metamorphosis. What’s more, stasis doesn’t actually exist. The universe, which includes our Earth and ourselves, is ever and always in froth and flux.


Sweet Tooth is a creative myth about creativity, illustrating new ways of being in response to change. We have already been called upon to make many changes. We can rest assured we will need to make more. Sweet Tooth says we can, and also suggests how and why. Another clue comes from Campbell, who reminds us that mythic images “touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion.” (4) We can change creatively and mythically, in order to reclaim and exhilarate our sacred animal lives.

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