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The Power of Story to Enrapt and Entrap

Actaeon devoured by his dogs while Diana looks on. (Metope from Temple E at Selinus. Ca. 540 BCE. © Scala / Art Resource. Used with permission.)

What is it that brought you to Joseph Campbell? 

I remember distinctly what it was for me: In the early 1990s, I stumbled upon The Power of Myth docu-series on television. I don’t know what compelled me to watch; I hadn’t really watched much on PBS prior to this moment, but I was immediately captivated by the conversation Joe was having with Bill Moyers. Captivated is almost an understatement: my mind was lit up! My body was abuzz with excitement and energy! Everything in me said: THIS IS WHAT I’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR! I didn’t even know I was seeking something in my life, but I certainly knew I’d found something important. I felt it throughout my entire being. 

Joe awakened in me the power of story. His storytelling about story enraptured me. I had to know more. I purchased the series on VHS and added The Hero With A Thousand Faces to my library. I devoured every word and added more of his books to my shelves. Though my career was in entertainment and marketing, the power of story, the idea that story could change lives, never left me. It certainly changed my own life, and the fact that The Power of Myth is still considered one of the most popular shows in PBS’ history leads me to believe it has changed the lives of countless others. For stories not only reveal who we are individually and in our collective manifestations, they also inform us as to how we move through the stages of our lives, how to live dynamically in a dynamic world. 


Sometimes, however, our stories are not empowering. We can become ensnared by a dark tale and we see the effects in the headlines every day. The news of late has been particularly disturbing, with a spate of mass shootings occurring across the country. It is a difficult subject, but one we must not turn away from if we are to find a way to resolve the complex social challenges we face. As mythologists, we must look at the mythological roots, the stories from our past and present that can give us some context for our pathos. Here I begin that conversation with a look at that dark aspect of our collective story: the growing number of mass shootings in America. 

Many of the recent shootings have been carried out by young men, and many initial news reports indicate that they have had been exposed to certain extreme ideologies that lead to their actions. In mythological terms, the myth of Actaeon and Artemis came to my mind. In The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, in a chapter entitled “The Imprints of Experience,” Joe describes the Actaeon myth, in which “a hunter, a vigorous youth is in the prime of his manhood,” when stalking a deer comes upon the goddess Diana bathing with her naked nymphs (Primitive Mythology, 62). The goddess, seeing Actaeon watching her, notes he was “not spiritually prepared for such a supernormal image,” so she transforms him into a stag. His own hunting dogs pick up his scent, chase him down and tear him to bits.

Joe explains that in the Freudian reading, “this mythical episode represents the prurient anxiety of the small boy discovering Mother.” However, he goes on to say that in “a more sophisticated, ‘sublimated’ vein of reference,” Diana is the manifestation of the Goddess of the World, that ineffable unknown which is too awesome to comprehend: she is “the mystery of life.” In this context, the goddess Diana is the Other that does not allow objectifying. He who looks upon Her in such a manner is destroyed by his own tame-become-wild instincts, represented by his hunting dogs.

In the myth, Actaeon is described as both hunter and hunted, an apt description of the men perpetrating mass shootings. They destroy many lives and yet they themselves are also destroyed by their inability to hold the paradoxes and the tensions within our contemporary world mythology. In our collective story, as we grow into a global culture, we are being called upon to confront and accept the Other within our own psyches and in our outer lives. We could say that these men are refusing the call. In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joe explains this refusal thus: “The divinity itself became his terror; for, obviously if one is oneself one’s god, then God himself, the will of God, the power that would destroy one’s egocentric system, becomes a monster" (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 49).

I offer no simple prescriptions for a solution to this growing problem in our culture, only the beginning of a mythological lens through which to perceive it. I encourage your thoughts and responses, for dialogue is a necessary way forward.

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