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What's In A Name?

There is no doubt that Joseph Campbell’s words sing – and not just his prose, but the titles he chooses as well: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, all have a poetic quality that convey each work’s theme with uncanny precision. Campbell has observed that the title of The Hero with a Thousand Faces came to him  “about two pages before the end of the book”; one has to wonder if his masterpiece would be the consistent bestseller it remains today if he had kept the original title, “How to Read a Myth.” (“An Interview with the Master of Mythology,” The Bloomsbury Review, April/May 1984)

But what of The Flight of the Wild Gander, a collection of essays first published in 1969 that explore the natural, biological, cultural, historical, and psychological underpinnings of mythology? Why that image, which appears in but a single chapter?

Multiple figurines of flying geese have been found from the Mal’ta culture, centered west of Lake Baikal in Siberia, some 22,000 years ago––a motif that subsequently appears in the mythologies of myriad cultures.  Wild geese are migratory birds with no fixed home, flying thousands of miles to follow the sun. In ancient Egypt the goose – associated with Amun, the Sun and Creator God – lays the World Egg. In early China geese were viewed as mediators between heaven and earth, a theme echoed in the Celtic world, where they were considered messengers of the Gods.

Geese also serve as a favorite mount of mythic beings. In Greek mythology Aphrodite is known to ride a goose; some have traced the cycle of Mother Goose nursery rhymes back to Aphrodite in her Mother Goddess aspect.

Shamans in the Altai Mountains ascended in trance to the heavens on the back of a goose. In India Lord Brahmā, the mythic embodiment of the creative principle, rides a wild gander. 

And so did Joseph Campbell, who in the late sixties and early seventies drove a little red VW he called “The Gander.” 

The significance of the gander as a mythic image is best stated by Joseph Campbell’s friend and mentor, Heinrich Zimmer, in Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (a posthumous work edited by Campbell). Zimmer observes that a wandering monk in India is often referred to as Haṃsa (“gander” or “swan”) or Paramahaṃsa (“supreme gander”): 

“The wild gander (haṃsa) strikingly exhibits in its mode of life the twofold nature of all beings. It swims on the surface of the water, but is not bound to it. Withdrawing from the watery realm, it wings into the pure and stainless air, where it is as much at home as in the world below. . . . On the one hand earth-bound, limited in life-strength, in virtues, and in consciousness, but on the other hand a manifestation of the divine essence, which is unlimited, immortal, virtually omniscient and all- powerful, we, like the wild goose, are citizens of the two spheres. We are mortal individuals bearing within ourselves an immortal, supra-individual nucleus. . . . The macrocosmic gander, the Divine Self in the body of the universe, manifests itself through a song.” (Zimmer, 48) 

This is a song we all sing. If you focus on your breath, you’ll hear the sound “ham,” just barely audible, every time you inhale—and the syllable “sa” sounds with every exhale. “Ham-sa, ham-sa,” sings our breath all day, all night, all one’s life, making known the inner presence of this wild gander to all with the ears to hear. 

But the song, like the image of the wild gander, is twofold. Not only does our breath sing “Haṃsa, haṃsa” but also “sa-‘haṃ, sa-‘haṃ.” 

“Sa means ‘this’ and ‘haṃ means ‘I’; the lesson is, ‘This am I.’ I, the human individual of limited consciousness, steeped in delusion, spellbound by Maya, actually and fundamentally am This, or He, namely the Atman or Self, the Highest Being of unlimited consciousness and existence. I am not to be identified with the perishable individual, who accepts as utterly real and fatal the processes and happenings of the psyche and the body. ‘I am He who is free and divine.’ That is the lesson sung to every man by every movement of inhalation and exhalation, asserting the divine nature of Him in whom breath abides.” (Zimmer, 49-50)

Mythic symbols, for Campbell, are more than just words on a page. Embodied in pictures, figurines, a car’s nickname, a book’s title, or even one’s own breath, they serve as touchstones that pitch the mind past the material world, to that which transcends.


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