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The Festival of the Passing Forms

Full Moon over Wukoki. Wupatki National Monument, National Parks Service. Public Domain.

Over the coming year, we at the JCF MythBlast Series intend to explore Joseph Campbell’s great work, the four-volume series The Masks of God. The first quarter of 2021 will focus on The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology and some related Campbell texts; the second quarter will focus on Volume 2, Oriental Mythology, and so on to Volume 3, Occidental Mythology and Volume 4, Creative Mythology.

The title of Campbell’s Masks of God series is itself immediately engaging. We all want to know what is behind the mask; we want to lift the veil and peer behind the often prosaic, yet uncannily enigmatic façade of life. And if you live somewhere long enough, and pay attention closely enough, you can’t help but discover at least a few of the many rich layers of history submerged (sometimes literally) just below the surface of your daily peregrinations. There is a sense of the immemorial always within reach, and I never fail to be touched by the whispering echoes of ancient voices that spoke, sang, laughed, wept, hoped, and shouted more than a millennium ago in and around the city of Flagstaff, AZ where I live.

The earliest habitation of the Southwestern United States dates to before 11,000 BP — an astonishingly ancient date, and these early humans were presumably hunters. (Perhaps even more astonishingly, on December 1, 2020, Smithsonian Magazine ran a story about the discovery of tens of thousands of painted images, dating to around 12,000 BP, along eight miles of cliff walls in the Amazon rainforest.) Eventually, the inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau developed a genius for masonry and agriculture, created impressive architecture and grew crops of maize, beans, squash, and even cotton, by virtue of imagining ingenious irrigation systems that mitigated the harsh growing conditions of the arid climate.

Even though the community was permanently abandoned by the early 1200’s C.E., there is something ineffable that remains, some … experience … one may have standing in the reconstructed ball court or peering through a window of a partially collapsed wall at Wupatki. Roaming around such places, a murky pre-history tickles the imagination, and it comes alive with images of families, young men and women, leaders, story tellers, the elderly, all going about their daily lives, their routines, work, and recreations. I imagine that they, like ourselves, hardly gave a thought to the inevitability that one day life as they knew it would end; that their people would disappear, and that what they saw and heard and felt and believed would, in some unimaginably distant time, become the subject of abstract conjecture. Because they were pre-literate, leaving no history, memoire, or cultural criticism, their fate has been consigned to the realm of speculation based on climate data and autochthonous remnants of the excavated communal trash heap.

Of course, it’s wrong to say that sometime after the beginning of the 13th century the people who created Wupatki mysteriously disappeared. I’m sure their emigration was no mystery to them, and in fact, they continue to live on in their descendants: thirteen different Native American communities consider Wupatki to be a sacred site, have a significant oral tradition regarding the area, and claim ancestral ties to the site.

A lack of a written history should not bamboozle one into believing that the inhabitants of ancient sites like Wupatki were unsophisticated, crude people living in a disorganized, undeveloped society. In fact, they seemed to engage in a sophisticated trade economy. Scarlet Macaw remains have been found on site, and there is also evidence that they traded with other groups from the Pacific Ocean to the Lower Mississippi and Gulf Coast regions. These were smart, cosmopolitan, adventurous, and creative people, and I think that their fundamental concerns about life must have been very similar to our own. However, we don’t often recognize our commonality because we simply don’t reflect upon the antiquity of the ideas (agriculture, wheels, levers, varieties of fire) we live with every day. If we can see these ancients as ourselves, we bring the idea of them “to life as our own,” Campbell writes, “in the way…of wonder — sympathetic, instructive delight; not judging morally, but participating with our own awakened humanity in the festival of the passing forms.” (The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, 25)

Contrary to our will or our desire we are, in the first quarter of the 21st Century, often left to wonder what life means and how we should live; our estrangement from the world, from each other, and from ourselves — not to mention our history — has become too deep, and too often malignantly cruel. We’re not separate from the world and we don’t, Alan Watts has said, come into this world, we come out of it. The Earth influences us the same way children are influenced by their parents. How then are we to live, and what is life’s point? Mythologies try to provide answers, but read too literally they only serve to deepen the estrangement.

Joseph Campbell often remarked that what we’re really looking for is the experience of being alive. That’s no small thing; it’s not always a simple or pleasant task, because it means saying yes to absolutely all of life. The experience of being alive transcends meanings and purposes, it concentrates the mind and triggers the imagination—the architect of most human behavior, and it connects us to our world, each other, the present, future and the past; who we are, who we will become, and who we have been, as well as to those ancient peoples who inhabit the “dark backward and abysm” of time. If there must be a point to life, then let it be simply this: to participate with one’s full humanity in the festival of passing forms, while somehow continuing to be aware that one of those passing forms is oneself.

Thanks for reading.

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