Practical Campbell Essay: Here Be Dragons

Date of Publication: September 25, 2006

Author: Stephen Gerringer

On Old World maps ancient cartographers marked unknown waters with the sign of the dragon – but do these dragons denote danger, or opportunity? In this Practical Campbell essay, Stephen Gerringer pursues dragon and serpent across myth, history, and, finally, into the abyss of the individual psyche.

Joseph Campbell sees myth as a language of sorts, a picture-language of the soul . Myth, like art, presents images that convey what Campbell refers to as a “feeling-tone,” thus evoking experiences and responses far beyond a limited, literal dictionary definition, offering glimpses of that which lies beneath the reality we experience.

Symbols can be interpreted and explained, but those explanations come after the fact (true for this essay as well). The immediate impact of a myth, especially when enacted in ritual, bypasses intellect; it’s felt in the heart and in the gut, not in the head. The difference between the impact of a mythic image and its secondary theological interpretation, no matter how relevant, matches the gap between getting a joke and having it explained.

Every myth contains multiple layers of embedded, often conflicting ideas and concepts, which is why these images and metaphors are so valuable — they add depth and dimension to flat, linear language. Certainly the literalness of an engineer’s vocabulary is welcome when hammering nails into wood or measuring angles for a bridge’s truss — but the rich, complex, often paradoxical picture-language of poetry speaks louder on questions of life and love and substance and soul.

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