top of page
background 1920x10805.jpg

Search Results

257 items found for ""

  • Rewilding the Waste Land

    Emerging from his castle in search of a quest, the young king Amfortas—shouting his war cry, “Amour!”—sees another knight, a pagan, emerging from the forest. The two immediately level their lances and charge: the pagan knight is killed, but his lance slips, castrating Amfortas. The injury is so grievous that the king’s impotence soon spreads to the land around his castle, creating a Waste Land where nothing will thrive. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers this version of the Grail King legend, as written by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his 13th century poem, Parzifal. Campbell offers some guidance to understanding von Eschenbach’s telling, most notably including the distinction of the second knight’s pagan identity: He was a person from the suburbs of Eden. He was regarded as a nature man, and on the head of his lance was written the word “Grail.” That is to say, nature intends the grail. Spiritual life is the bouquet of natural life, not a supernatural thing imposed upon it. And so the impulses of nature are what give authenticity to life, not obeying rules [that] come from a supernatural authority—that’s the sense of the Grail. (15:20-15:57) Medieval Christians saw spirit and nature as inherently at odds; to triumph over nature was to triumph spiritually. Von Eschenbach’s version of the Grail King legend claims that this division, rather than strengthening the spiritual, has damned both. The king and the land need a savior—although he may not look like a hero, that savior is Parzifal, the compassionate fool, who heals by asking the right question: “What ails thee, Uncle?” This simple act of compassion begins closing that severing wound. “The key to the Grail,” Campbell once wrote, “is compassion, suffering with, feeling another’s sorrow as if it were your own. The one who finds the dynamo of compassion is the one who’s found the Grail” (A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living 53). Authenticity can only come from the realignment of spirit and nature. Campbell often uses the concept of “authenticity” to describe humanity’s balanced and ideal state. Authenticity can only come from the realignment of spirit and nature. Without it, he says, we are left with this “enchantment of sterility”: The Waste Land. “In the Waste Land,” he writes, “life is a fake. People are living in a manner that is not that of their nature; they are living according to a system of rules.” A pall, cast over society as a whole; a spell that needs breaking. The Waste Land, then, is the land of people living inauthentic lives, doing what they think they must do to live, not spontaneously in the affirmation of life, but dutifully, obediently, and even grudgingly, because that is the way people are living. That is what T. S. Eliot saw in the Waste Land of the twentieth century; and that is what Wolfram von Eschenbach—Eliot’s model—saw in the Waste Land of the thirteenth. (The Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth 169-70) In another essay, “Our Notions of God,” Campbell connects this concept to the most fundamental of human experiences, and one at the core of the Grail legend: love. What, we may ask, is an authentic marriage? It is a mystery in which two bodies become one flesh; it is not a negotiation in which two bank accounts merge into one. (Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor 23) Parzifal was written at a time when troubadours of early medieval Europe were beginning to weave an image of courtly love and drive a return to the romantic. This distinction between a marriage of love and compassion—an authentic one—and a marriage of business for convenience, strategy, or material gain, nevertheless resonates today. This type of authentic marriage has been out of reach for most of humanity for nearly all of history, and remains so for many. In the West, “spirit” has long been synonymous with “the Church,” our own limiting wound still in need of healing. The concept of two people marrying for love alone remains a revolutionary one, even centuries later, because it hinges on the wild idea of compassionate and egalitarian partnership. In cultures that are examining their collective view of marriage, things are changing: Young people are waiting longer to get married, but also stay married at a higher rate. Wedding ceremonies themselves have become more secular and more varied, taking place not only in churches but on beaches and backyards. Couples may keep the old traditions that resonate, then add new traditions alongside them, reflecting an organic ebb and flow as they mold their ritual to resemble the life they want to lead together. The secret to rewilding marriage lies in returning it to the lovers. The spiritual and the natural, given space and compassion, are entwining again. Successful marriage is leading innovative lives together, being open, non-programmed. It’s a free fall: how you handle each new thing as it comes along. As a drop of oil on the sea, you must float, using intellect and compassion to ride the waves. (A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living 47) MythBlast authored by: Gabrielle Basha is a writer, illustrator, and educator based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a working associate for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and a member of the executive communications team at the Wikimedia Foundation. In addition to an informal yet life-long study of where pop culture meets folklore, Gabrielle holds a BFA in art history and illustration and an MFA in creative writing, both from Lesley University. This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 5, and Romance of the Grail Latest Podcast In this episode we welcome Chris Vogler. Chris is a Hollywood development executive, screenwriter, author and educator. He is best known for working with Disney and for his screenwriting guide, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. Chris was inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He used Campbell's work to create a 7-page company memo for Hollywood screenwriters, A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces which he later developed into The Writer's Journey. He has since spun off his techniques into worldwide masterclasses. In the conversation, John Bucher of the Joseph Campbell Foundation speaks with Chris about his life, his work, the Hero’s Journey, the art of storytelling, and Joseph Campbell. Listen Here This Week's Highlights "What, we may ask, is an authentic marriage? It is a mystery in which two bodies become one flesh; it is not a negotiation in which two bank accounts merge into one.' -- Joseph Campbell,  Thou Art That, 23 The Goddess Embodied (see more videos) Subscribe to the MythBlast Newsletter

  • Each Enters the Forest on Their Own Terms

    On a journey to a cave in the midst of the Belizean forest, I lost my way. Mesmerized by the lush surroundings, I fell behind the procession. I looked ahead, and no one was in front of me. Alone, my heart started racing in fear. I did not know where I was or how to find my way out. In myth, the forest is an unknown terrain that is both dangerous and transformative. Adventures lead heroines and heroes into the forest, and few leave unchanged. In Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, one could argue that the forest is itself a character in the story. Parzival spends his childhood in the forest, born to a mother who has renounced society. And once Parzival establishes himself as a knight, he returns to the forest in search of his mother, which leads him to the Grail Castle—the adventure that is his destiny. The Grail Castle is hidden in the forest. Others could walk right past it and never know it was there. Thus, one must gain the perception to see that which the forest hides. This magical space presents itself when the seeker is ready. Parzival, proving himself a worthy knight, is granted the ability not only to see the Grail Castle but to cross the threshold into its magical domain. Within its walls, the Holy Grail nourishes all inhabitants with the sustenance they desire. However, Parzival soon realizes that the Grail King is wounded, and so too is the land he presides over. The pinnacle of Parzival's quest is saving the wounded Grail King and the wasteland. When the grande procession brings Parzival to the Grail King, he is moved by the king’s suffering. His intuition tells him to ask about the king’s ailment, but he has been told by his mentor that it is improper to ask such questions. Parzival has to choose between his inner knowing and society’s expectation of him as an honorable knight. Maintaining his societal image wins the debate, and Parzival remains silent. This decision is a grave omission, and the Grail Castle, with all its bounty, disappears. In failing to ask about the Grail King's ailment, Parzival fails his quest. He offends the Grail King, and, more importantly, he betrays his own soul. Because of his neglect to follow his intuition, Parzival is shunned from King Arthur’s court. Eschenbach’s story then shows a connection between one’s societal duty to the community and one’s inner duty to the soul. When one is sacrificed, the other suffers as well. It is as if we lose everything when we lose our own integrity, even our status in society. Parzival is driven solely by societal expectations of him, and thus, he is out of alignment with who he truly is. The Forest Adventurous Failing the quest enrages Parzival, and he expresses his hatred of the cultural systems that have guided him to this moment. Determined to right this wrong, he returns to the forest. In Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, Joseph Campbell refers to Parzival’s return to the forest as the Forest Adventurous (58). This adventure is not merely walking into a wooded area; it is the act of entering a space of not knowing with the openness necessary for personal transformation. Each person enters the forest on their own terms. It is a magical space where Parzival searches within himself for his own answers, not the ones he has been told. Having found societal success, he is now embarking on a spiritual quest, what Campbell calls the “dark woods of the soul” (63). Social opinions and societal norms often compromise and limit the authenticity that drives one's life. The spiritual adventure requires that Parzival determine for himself the driving force in his life. Campbell states that the “forest brings forth our own world” (58). All the things we find therein are of our own making, so “If you hate, hate is going to come to you. If you love, love is going to come to you” (62). The forest reflects Parzival’s inner world. His contempt for the societal ideals that shaped him shows up as other knights whom he engages in combat. Eventually, he realizes that he is fighting his own blood. He is fighting himself. Society taught Parzival some of his greatest strengths: the fearlessness with which he enters a fight, his prioritization of his duty to society above all else, and his refusal to allow desires to consume him. And yet, Parzival lacks the knowledge of when to release these societal ideals for the greater power of his inner authenticity. The Power of Love For Parzival and the Arthurian romances, love binds all things together. It is the life force that animates the world. The forest teaches Parzival to trust this life force. He learns that to heal the land, his actions need to be grounded in love. Parzival spends five years wandering through the forest to earn a second chance to prove himself to the Grail King, a feat he was told was impossible. But, as Campbell tells us, “Through your own integrity, you evoke your destiny, which is a destiny that never existed before” (79). Driven by the force of love, Parzival now knows his purpose, both socially and spiritually, and therefore evokes his destiny without fear. Now that he is ready, figures begin to appear in the forest to guide Parzival back to the Grail Castle. Upon his presentation to the Grail King for a second time, Parzival asks, “What ails thee?” And this seemingly simple question, asked from a source of love, heals the Grail King and the land. It is such a compelling idea—curiosity centered in compassion heals. Eschenbach’s Parzival shows how vital curiosity is to the human endeavor, in our societies and in our own psychology. From a centered space of compassionate listening, asking someone what ails them can be a transformational question. The text seems to tell us that conscious curiosity is capable of healing not only those we love but also the world in which we live. As for my own journey into the Belizean forest, I reunited with my group—eventually. And while I observed a multitude of sites that day, one of the most profound takeaways at the time was to get comfortable with feeling lost. Life’s unknown terrain, the Forest Adventurous, is terrifying and transformative. Getting lost is an essential part of finding our way. Life’s unknown terrain, the Forest Adventurous, is terrifying and transformative. Getting lost is an essential part of finding our way. If the path before us is clear, someone else has paved the path. This is completely counterintuitive to my own sense of stability. I want everything laid out before me, with mile markers corresponding to the map in my hands. But to evoke one’s destiny and feel the heartbeat of the life force—the love that animates all things—I find that not knowing what comes next is essential. Self-discovery outside the bounds of social constructions means we are in uncharted territory, wandering until a path presents itself. Developing the capacity to step into unknown terrain and consciously maintain a space of not knowing is a muscle I continue to stretch and grow. Eventually, the love that binds all things pulls me into its animating force, and another journey begins on the path less traveled. MythBlast authored by: Stephanie Zajchowski, PhD is a mythologist and writer based in Texas. She serves as the Director of Operations for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and is a contributing author of Goddesses: A Skeleton Key Study Guide. Stephanie is also a co-founder of the Fates and Graces, hosting webinars and workshops for mythic readers and writers. Her work focuses on the intersection of mythology, religion, and women’s studies. For more information, visit stephaniezajchowski.com This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 5, and Romance of the Grail Latest Podcast In this episode, originally released in May 2023, JCF's John Bucher speaks with Elise Loehnen. Elise is a writer, editor, and podcast host who lives in Los Angeles. She is the host of Pulling the Thread, a podcast focused on pulling apart the stories we tell about who we are—and then putting those threads back together. Ultimately Elise is a seeker and synthesizer, pulling together wisdom traditions, cultural history, and a deep knowledge of healing modalities to unlock new ways to contextualize who we are and why we’re here. She’s also the author of the upcoming, On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good (May ‘23, Dial Press/PRH). In this conversation, John and Elise discuss consciousness, what it means to be good, and of course...Joseph Campbell. To find out more about Elise visit: https://www.eliseloehnen.com/ Listen Here This Week's Highlights "You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there's a way or path, it is someone else's path; each human being is a unique phenomenon." -- Joseph Campbell,  Pathways to Bliss, xxvi Parzival: A Tale with Many Tellings (see more videos) Subscribe to the MythBlast Newsletter

  • Meditation in a Former Chapel

    On my first day of graduate school I became aware that the auditorium in which we gathered had formerly been a church. Despite efforts to secularize the place, a clear liturgical signature remained: a recessed marble basin for holy water, dry now; a choir loft, this day serving as a station for a PowerPoint projector and a spot light; three marble steps leading to an elevated stage where an altar used to be; and, if memory serves, an emptied tabernacle. God’s house minus God. It reminds me of Joseph Campbell. He loved sacred space. But he very much resisted the idea that any one version of divinity should take up residence in it. In The Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living we meet the professor as he presented himself at Esalen in a series of workshops, drawing upon a lifetime of observations about the nature of the sacred. Cathedrals and stupas were of equal interest to him and he found value in traditions outwardly opposed, even antagonistic to one another. That’s his offense actually. Orthodoxy prefers you do not favorably compare its praxis to some other praxis. Orthodoxy recoils at the camaraderie of faiths and prefers you come after them, guns blazing. Campbell, genial and wise, would never do that. Campbell’s instinct is not to desecrate but rather to expand the temple precinct until it includes the world. This instinct, present from the beginning of his career on some level, found lyrical expression the night he turned his eyes to the heavens and saw Apollo—not the god, the rocket. The moon landing did not change Campbell, it changed us. Campbell merely noticed. Having soared beyond thought into boundless space, circled many times the arid moon, and begun their long return: how welcome a sight, [the astronauts] said, was the beauty of their goal, this planet Earth, “like an oasis in the desert of infinite space!” Now there is a telling image: this earth—the one oasis in all space, an extraordinary kind of sacred grove, as it were, set apart for the rituals of life; and not simply one part or section of this earth, but the entire globe now a sanctuary, a set-apart Blessed Place. (293) When Mohammed cleansed the Ka’bah of idols he was expressing a distrust of all representations of the divine. Campbell’s like that but in reverse. He loves all the images. If you had the good fortune to attend one of Campbell’s public lectures or if you have seen them in video format, you know that he relied heavily on accompanying slides to augment his lectures. Imagery brought his presentations alive but each came with a warning worthy of Mohammed. “Beholding God—God with characteristics—is the final wisp of ignorance,” he wrote. (114) The idea is to disengage from representations, to shun visual shorthand of the ineffable. The idea that one “beholds” God is actually a disaster in Campbell’s thinking. It is the “final barrier” encountered by the kundalini who has reached the sixth cakra. Any god you have been meditating on or have been taught to revere is the god that will be seen here. This is the highest obstacle for the complete yogi… On the brink of illumination, the old ways are very seductive and liable to pull you back. (114) Campbell never claimed to be a mystic. Quite the reverse. He once said that he practiced no austerities and that his only meditation was underlining sentences in books he found interesting. We want to believe him. It is difficult. His approach to the seven cakras in chapter three makes him sound like a mystic or at least a believer on some level. This is more than explication: it is invitation. Specifically, he points us toward a path where “Brahman with characteristics” yields in favor of the higher principle, “Brahman without characteristics.” We find ourselves in the realm of the invisible or, as this month’s MythBlast Series theme would have it, “unseen aid.” There’s a difference. The Catholic Church, finding itself with too much time on its hands after two thousand years, took up the editorial question regarding “seen and unseen” versus “visible and invisible.”  It was decided to change the Creed so that the faithful would no longer testify that God was the creator of all that was “seen and unseen,” a nuanced phrasing which allowed for a sly materialism to find comfort in dogma. “Materialists and rationalists of every age,” said Pope John Paul II in a lively General Audience in 1986, have rejected the possibility of “purely spiritual beings.” The Pope’s bias, and Campbell’s, is toward the truly invisible, the formless archetype or facultates praeformandi, which, as explained by C.G. Jung, is nothing more than a “possibility of representation which is given a priori.” (CW 9 I, para.155)  No, the Pope, the Professor and the Depth Psychologist are fighting for the higher principle. (The Church went with “visible and invisible” and, let it be noted, Vatican emendations are not inexpensive. Congregations threw out  millions of dollars’ worth of hymnals and sacramentaries.) Campbell, on the trail of the reality beyond image, guides us past cakra VII, Sahasrāra, into the realm of the invisible, realizing with Meister Eckhart that “the ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of God for God.” Consciousness at this level requires no tabernacles in which to stow its gear nor icons to explicate its ideas. Joseph Campbell says he identified as Catholic until the age of 25, a point at which he felt he had satisfactorily deciphered the vocabulary and iconography of his childhood faith. What remained in its place? It’s complicated. Once, on his way to a luncheon in Manhattan, he was confronted by a street corner evangelist who asked him if he believed in God. Giving it a moment’s thought, Campbell replied, “I don’t think you have time for my answer.” Campbell had long ago outgrown the solemn orthodoxies of Christianity. Perhaps that is why I am reminded of the former Catholic while seated in a former Catholic chapel, its idols removed, now transparent to transcendence.

  • The Many Faces of the Goddess

    In our physicalist, rationalist, demythologized, deconstructed and utterly modern world there is but little space in our mental field for what is deemed to be spurious, goddess notions. At best, the goddess is an interesting, curio relic within religious history and mythology. Or She may appear in literature as a poetic figure. Or as a side character in a metaverse game. The goddess as an archetype can be proposed (if not also actually disclosed) by experience: through the faithful and skilled observation of our inner experience. There is “archetype as concept” and there is “archetype as true Intuition.” And we can detect from our honed, intuitive faculty that there are many forms and expressions of Her. And, in effect, many goddesses, each one with Her own coherence, integrity, and task. As Campbell writes in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine: As I have said, every one of these goddesses is the whole Goddess, and the others are inflections of her powers. Aphrodite is the divine goddess whose powers are inflected throughout the world as the power of love, of the dynamics of the energy represented by Eros, who is Aphrodite’s child and a major deity of the classical pantheon – in Plato’s Symposium he is the original god of the world. In her one aspect of lust she plays a role in the triad in which Hera also takes a role and Athena another, but she actually could play all the roles herself. As total Goddess, she is the energy that supports the śakti of the whole universe. In later systems, the three Graces come to represent three aspects of her power to send energy into the world, draw energy back to the source, and unite the two powers. (147) The goddesses’ modalities may be bodied forth into the world through their moving from the active unseen in the psyche into our manifest, conscious life. They may be encountered (or even communed with) through the perceptive experience. They are not merely part of a fable narrative. For example, in the ancient Greek myth of Persephone it’s significant that this figure is not just born in the narrative as a fixed “type” but also a “becoming.” That is, the “type” undergoes “transformation.” Or, in Simone de Beauvoir’s words,"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." Persephone’s transformation—moving from a dependent, innocent young maiden and compliant Kórē—is that of an individual so changed through suffering that she becomes an exemplar and guide for those people who undergo a journey towards self-awakening, independence, wholeness, and Individuation. But as we know, the Idea and Presence of the goddess “type” ranges widely beyond Greek mythology. There’s the Indian goddess Kālī who is both the creator and destroyer of worlds. And Madame Pele, the Hawaiian goddess who creates and destroys lands. These goddesses are not mere picture images in the mind. They are part of our lived experience, and so they are an essential part of who we are. Or, better stated in Campbell’s words: In Greece, at Eleusis, the ancient temple of the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone became a classical shrine of enormous influence; the oracle at Delphi, of the Pythoness, equally great. And in India, progressively, the worship of the numerous names and forms of the cosmic goddess Kālī (Black Time) became the leading and most characteristic religion of the land. (xxvi) There is also the macro myth of Isis-Sophia, the wisdom of God. She appears in many ancient traditions. For instance, in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures: “Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8) And as Campbell writes, “Turn to Proverbs and there she comes back as the wisdom goddess Sophia, and she says, ‘When he prepared the heavens, I was there.’ She says it.” (235) And in the Gnostic tradition, Sophia was the hidden wisdom within us awaiting our discovery and call. Isis (Sophia) was in an Egyptian temple (indwelling, as it were) Her statue. She was veiled, but beware: if the uninitiated were to lift Her veil and see Her full disclosure, the invisible guardian of Her presence would instantly strike the intruder dead. There is also the vastly ancient (yet ever-present in the soul) Black Madonna goddess whose integral dark dissolves all discordant elements of the psyche, while simultaneously leading these elements towards balance and wholeness. And in the Sibylline Age, the utterances of the ancient Roman visionary prophetesses guided the rulers and their people. The Sibyls called forth earth spirits—subterranean regions of the psyche—while also finding a compass in the stars. Perhaps in our era, these Sibylline forces may be harnessed and rendered capable of coherent revelations to speak into our troubled times, just as the Maid of Orleans (Joan of Arc) drew on these same forces. The Coptic “Pistis Sophia” manuscript is also said to contain coded revelations from the Eternal Feminine. So throughout the ages, and across many cultures, the goddess Principle and Presence has taken various forms and expressions. The goddess feminine Principle is not just an abstraction, or a transcendental ideal divorced from the lived reality of the psyche. The goddesses (and gods) are alive within all of us. Each goddess has her own discrete identity and task, yet their elements overlap. One or other of the goddesses may become authoritative and take the lead according to the requirements of the context and situation, but as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stated, “The eternal feminine draws us on high.” She has many lives—and many faces—and is always leading us on… and so may we have the wisdom to be led!

  • Tracking the Wild Feminine

    The Goddess, on the other hand, is in everybody, in every place, and is every place; the business of recognizing her there is the business of this mythology. Joseph Campbell, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (232) Our world is deprived of images of the Goddesses. That is not to say they don’t exist, but they are buried, hidden, and disguised in our culture, or they have been misunderstood and polluted. How can we recognize someone if we do not know how She looks or what Her name was? The truth is that outside of specific niche circles, we have little metaphysical representation of the divine feminine nature. We are starving for images of the goddesses that can encompass our whole being as women and so allow us to recognize it in ourselves, others, and the living world. In the West, this is most visible through Christian mythology. As Marie Louise Von Franz states in her book The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Protestantism must accept that it is purely men’s religion. (1) Catholicism offers only the Virgin Mary as an image, which is an incomplete image of the feminine as it only embraces the light aspects of the divine, and excludes many of its core principles. Even beyond the West, the divine feminine is equally scarce. I have lived in Asia for more than half a decade, and have observed how women in the East are also starving for mythology and history in which we are portrayed fully, powerfully, fertile, and robust. One of my Chinese students in the program where I teach has said that women in China live under an invisible veil that keeps them domesticated and living unfulfilling lives. She has described how the culture is deprived of clues and tracks for women to discover, and how hard it is for them to find liberation and belonging within this limiting environment. It’s not only the lack of stories and images that make us feel this loss of representation but also the lack of attention to the tales we have in hand and the tools to interpret them, and the inability to read stories symbolically. In many parts of the world, mythological tales are still considered stories for children, a change that emerged in the seventeenth century, shifting fairy tales from the adult domain to nurseries. Von Franz suggests this has to do with rejecting the irrational, the imaginal, and respecting only rational thinking. Time and again, the masculine, the logos, and intellect suppresses the feminine, the intuitive, and the mystical. Today, fairy tales are accepted for their immense psychological value in academic and clinical circles. However, this knowledge has not reached the mainstream, and many women lack the tools to interpret and value them as cultural medicine. We forget that these tales are journeys of the soul. This leads to a Self that is disorientated and uncertain about one’s place in the world, a Self that feels arid and lost. Starting from this space of emptiness and confusion, I came to find my own medicine in myths and fairy tales. Now, out of my own discoveries, women from over 30 nationalities have taken part in my work, “Women and Mythology.” Women come looking for resources to support their connection with the feminine, to help them define their identity, and even find permission within themselves to step into their full creative powers as women, dismantling their fears and burned-out value system. Through tracking nature mythologies, we begin to rediscover feminine images and to re-learn how to gain insights into our soul’s journey. Joseph Campbell said: (…) All I can tell you about mythology is what men have said and have experienced, and now women have to tell us from their point of view what the possibilities of the feminine future are. And it is a future—it’s as though the lift-off has taken place; there’s no doubt about it.” (Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine, 263) To forge and build the possibilities of this feminine future, we must bring these divine feminine figures and their journeys back into the public consciousness. We must let them live through us. We must confront our dysfunctional and patriarchal ways of being, dismantle the old values deeply embedded into our belief system and create space for new feminine ideas to emerge. This is not only a journey for women. I believe it’s a journey for all genders, but it does start with women. We must do the work, travel the journey, and hold the door open for those who also want to rediscover the feminine within themselves. Clarissa Pinkola Estés suggests that women must heal themselves and the feminine first, and only then can we support others to do the same. (Women Who Run With The Wolves 97) This is not a simplistic journey to take. It’s one with many inner and outer ogres and dragons; however, as Campbell states, the old indigenous mythologies will show us the way. Its myths carry the assortments of images we look for and showcase the inextricable relation between the natural world and the feminine. Through them, we can relate and locate our true nature, reclaim our authentic values, awaken to our creative power, and manifest our integrated self, which is vital, fertile, and creative.

  • Don't Panic

    “I like the cover,” he said. “Don’t Panic. It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.” Douglas Adams, A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy The 2022 Nobel Prize for Physics was just awarded to three physicists (Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger) who worked independently over decades to reach a breakthrough in understanding quantum entanglement. If you are not a physicist (and I really can’t express emphatically enough how much I myself am not a physicist), the extremely simplified gist of their discovery is this: Two separate particles can act identically, even when they’re extremely far apart—disproving what Einstein dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” We’re just not sure how they do it, why they do it, what it means, or how it might be useful. In an interview with the American Institute of Physics following the announcement of his win, Dr. Clauser said, “I confess even to this day that I still don’t understand quantum mechanics, and I’m not even sure I really know how to use it all that well. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that I still don’t understand it.” There’s something about a Nobel Prize-winning physicist saying “I don’t understand” that makes my heart skip: with joy for the curiosity and humility necessary for such perception-altering discoveries, and with deep unease, because the sum of human knowledge is the flicker of a matchstick in a cold, perhaps infinite, darkness. But we humans, being clever little creatures, have a remedy for the terror of the unknown: stories. In Joseph Campbell’s collection of essays Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, he offers a reason as to why myth is comforting: Myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. It gives us a map or picture of the universe and allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature, as when we speak of Father Sky and Mother Earth. It supports and validates a certain social and moral order. The Ten Commandments being given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai is an example of this. Lastly, it helps us pass through and deal with the various stages of life from birth to death. Story—myth, metaphor—isn’t about telling a happier story to make us forget our fear, but about putting our fear in greater context. It’s a comfort to know we’re connected to those who came before, and those who will be here when we’re gone. It isn’t about solving, but being at peace with the unsolved. Myth is often misused, though, by being taken literally. Campbell cautions, “One way to deprive yourself of a religious experience is indeed to expect it. Another is to have a name for it before you have the experience.” (12) Science fiction author and humorist Douglas Adams identified himself as a “radical atheist,” and dedicated the non-writing portion of his life to environmentalism. Adams is best known for his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the many stories he wrote before his untimely death at age 49 are an ode to the absurdity of “life, the universe, and everything.” He remains, to me, the perfect example of someone who was deeply curious yet cheerfully embraced the unknown. He saw that life is finite, and yet dedicated so much of his own to the celebration and preservation of our shared home—including its many mysteries. A posthumous collection of Adams’s essays called The Salmon of Doubt includes his gleeful summary of the situation: “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.” Campbell expands on this idea of transcendence in Thou Art That’s penultimate chapter, Question Period (which is our gift this month, so you can download it for free until the end of October). He has a few ideas on how someone might be able to understand transcendence—to be clear, not that which transcends, since that is by definition ineffable, but the concept of transcendence. “For a start, I would say, study poetry. Learn how to read a poem.” (92) Making our way through a brief existence within a long eternity is, at baseline, absurd. Three physicists who worked independently, passing research forward from one to the next over decades to reach a Nobel Prize, still have more questions than answers. Humanity’s knowledge of our existence is incremental this way. Looking at the whole picture can be dizzying—but what is the “whole,” anyway? Campbell quotes another physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, in saying, “...this life of yours is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is, in a certain sense the whole; only the whole is not so constituted that it can be surveyed in one simple glance. This… is what the Brahmins express in that sacred, mystic formula that is yet really so simple and so clear: Tat tvam asi, that is you.” (13)

  • Merry Christmyth!

    Dark, dark, dark, dark, dark. The solstice will have come and gone by the time you read this, but the darkest time of the year (here in the northern hemisphere) is still the best time to chew through the inevitability of, and the heroic opportunities in, that darkest part of human life: abject failure. As autumn fell and the trees hunkered down to sleep, the world got darker and darker, and darker again – and then darker still. Life can be like that. Sure, there are ritual signposts calendared along the route, warning about the darkness and the despair (multiple harvest festivals, Halloween, candle-crowned Saint Lucia), reminding us that the darkness doesn’t last forever -- if only we persevere. But that doesn’t always help much. The darkness keeps getting darker. Oh, and we’re going to die, too. Let’s toss that on the pile. So, a pretty dark observation about life, right there. What’s fascinating is how the inevitability of failure, just like the inevitability of death, can produce diametrically opposed reactions, like this: “Oh hell, failure and death. Fine. We’re doomed. Give up.” Or “Hey, we could participate joyfully in the sorrows of this world!” You’ve seen both of these. With choices like that in mind, it is helpful to remember that the word “failure” literally means “stumble” rather than “crash and burn.” The darkness stumbles too, it turns out—astronomically. A lot of us take refuge from the winter darkness—or from failure—in wool socks, candles, firelight, and hot cocoa, in hygge or koselig. But even if you’re not Scandahoovian, refuge is available in hot cocoa and perseverance. The sun also rises: at the deepest, darkest time of the year, there’s the promise of light. We like stories like this. Tom Robbins built his entire novel, Jitterbug Perfume, around one hopeful phrase: “lighten up!” Even the philosopher GWF Hegel, in what is surely one of the darkest corners in the history of philosophical discourse (it’s in the essentialities of reflection section in Part II of his Science of Logic), jokes (and I’m paraphrasing) that the opposite of gravity is levity (!), or to lighten up. And, of course, there is that familiar story from the New Testament about a little light coming into the world, conveniently enough, right around Christmas—let’s call it Christmyth—time. The Romans had Sol Invictus and the Saturnalia and, heading into Asia, hiding in plain sight right there in the yin yang symbol, is a bright eye in the darkness of the yin side. A little light in the darkness. Those are the easy stories. Good with eggnog—a way to pregame for the bright lights of the New Year—but for abject, chewy failure and spinning straw into gold, you can’t do better than Parzival. Parzival goes off on a quest for the Holy Grail, finds it on his first attempt, and then screws up everything. He fails to unlock the enchantment of the Grail Castle. All he had to do was ask Amfortas, the wounded Fisher King, “what ails thee, Uncle?” Whoops! Nope. He acts as he was taught to act, restraining himself to the formal and socially proscribed ways of acting, instead of listening to what his heart required. As a result, he not only fails the Grail quest, but—well, then it gets darker still. “He is told, subsequently, that no one who has failed on the first visit will ever have a second chance…” and that’s he’s pretty much damned for all time. That’s a lot to take in… yet Parzival persists: “…he resolves to succeed notwithstanding, and, when he has done so, is told that he has accomplished a miracle, since, through his integrity of character and persistence in resolve, he has caused the Trinity to change its rules.” (Flight of the Wild Gander, 181) Desperate failure, heroic resolve, salvation of the world. Classic stuff. But my mind wanders immediately to a more recent mythological retelling of heroic failure: Luke Skywalker’s. I’m thinking of the moment in StarWars VII when,—spoiler alert!—as a result of his spectacular failure with Ben Solo, and faced with the extinction of the-Jedi-order-the-universe-and-everything, Luke plans to burn it all down and let the universe collapse into a permanent wasteland of Dark Side darkness. At that moment Yoda reappears and lays into him. Luke explains the depths of his failure. Yoda is unimpressed. “The greatest teacher, failure is,” Yoda says. And then, Luke perseveres and saves the world. Failed lately? Feeling all that darkness? Perseverance works. The light’s coming back into the world. Yours, too. Thanks for musing along,

  • Why Is the Magician the Key Principle That Underlies the Twenty-Two Major Arcana?

    Epigraph to Letter I: The Magician from Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism: “Spiritus ubi vult spirat: et vocem ejus audis, sed nescis unde veniat, aut quo vadat: sic est omnis, qui natus est ex spiritu. (John iii, 8) The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit. (John iii, 8) Into this happy night In secret, seen of none. Nor saw I aught, Without other light or guide. Save that which in my heart did burn.” (St. John of the Cross) “Dear Unknown Friend” begins the anonymous author of Meditations on the Tarot in Letter I: The Magician: The words of the Master [the author of the Gospel of John] cited above have served me the key for opening the door to comprehension of the first Major Arcanum of the Tarot, ‘The Magician,’ which is, in turn, the key to all the other Major Arcana. This is why I have put [the above verses] as an epigraph to this Letter. And then I have cited a verse from the ‘Songs of the Soul’ of St. John of the Cross, because it has the virtue of awakening the deeper layers of the soul, which one has to appeal to when the concern is the first Arcanum of the Tarot and, consequently, all the Major Arcana of the Tarot. (3) The unknown author continues: For the Major Arcana of the Tarot are authentic symbols, i.e. they are ‘magic, mental, psychic and moral operations’ awakening new notions, ideas, sentiments and aspirations, which means to say that they require an activity more profound than that of study and intellectual explanation. It is therefore in a state of deep contemplation—and always ever deeper—that they should be approached. And it is the deep and intimate layers of the soul which become active and bear fruit when one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot. Therefore this ‘night,’ of which St. John of the Cross speaks, is necessary, where one withdraws oneself ‘in secret’ and into which one has to immerse oneself each time that one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot. (4) The tarot invites us into the mysteries of the darkness (this ‘night’) and beseeches us to trust the holy dark while resting in its sacredness (‘in secret’) too. This requires the use of our own agency and autonomy—the masterful application of our will-forces—while simultaneously navigating life’s terrain through an archetypal and symbolic eye, utilizing metaphoric language while drawing on and feeling into both a mythic consciousness and a poetic imagination. (Is that all???) Joseph Campbell wrote in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine, One of the goals of initiation in the mystery religions is to introduce the individual, through a spiritual journey, to the grounds of existence, that source of consciousness and energy of which we are all manifestations. So the aim is to guide us to the knowledge of this power, and the cornucopia that is symbolic of the course of our life. (191) The tarot, then, is a form of initiation, the art of learning how matter, energy, and consciousness interweave. Though if it’s a conscious initiation, we need not become totally lost in the darkness. The tarot is a tool to translate unconscious data to the higher mind, and it all begins with the Magician, which is why, according to Meditations on the Tarot, the Magician is Letter I and the Fool is Letter XXI. The Magician is the fundamental precept for engaging all other Major Arcana cards. But why? According to the unknown author, The first Arcanum—the principle underlying all the other twenty-one Major Arcana of the Tarot—is that of the rapport of personal effort and of spiritual reality. It occupies the first place in the series because if one does not understand it (i.e. take hold of it in cognitive and actual practice), one would not know what to do with all the other Arcana. (Meditations on the Tarot, 7) In my younger years I, mistakenly, thought that I could simply engage the initiation process (or archetypes, mythology, or any other topic) through academic reading, verbose discussions of theories, and engaging in abstract thinking. I preferred secondhand knowledge to firsthand experience—and if truth be told, I still often do! But as the unknown author continues, For it is the Magician who is called to reveal the practical method relating to all the Arcana. He is the ‘Arcanum of the Arcana,’ in the sense that he reveals that which it is necessary to know and to will in order to enter the school of spiritual exercises whose totality comprises the game of Tarot, in order to be able to derive some benefit therefrom. (7) This is why the Magician is the ‘Arcanum of the Arcana,’ because no amount of explanation can make a blind person see. Transformation occurs when it’s action oriented. And it must be untrammeled and decisive action, of which the Magician is begging me … you … us. The Magician’s power comes from practice—cognitive and actual—in the physical world, not only through connecting to the astral plane. And the results come from both knowing and willing. Otherwise, we’ll prove Leonardo da Vinci’s words, “the supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance,” to be true. (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci) It’s so easy to get high on the possibility and aspirations of alchemy and magic in theory, but fail to value the grunt work of transmuting the lead to gold within ourselves or a situation. Avoiding the hard work leaves alchemy and magic in the realm of make believe, or just another hypothesis, not an actual theory-in-use, one that informs and directs a theory-of-action. The book is called Meditations on the Tarot for a reason. The text is to be meditated upon, not read, so that a shift in consciousness may occur. In the final analysis, we’re awakened not by nature but by our own efforts. And, unfortunately, the lower mind can easily paralyze the higher mind’s spiritual perception at the expense of any embodied wisdom. If we find a particular esoteric teaching intriguing, the Magician asks us to examine its purpose and usefulness in our own lives instead of blindly taking a third party’s word for it. Carl Jung stated that “magic is a way of living” (The Red Book, 314) and this tarot card is an invitation to become the Magician of your own life. And in doing so, through both knowing and willing, there’s the possibility to integrate all the other twenty-one Major Arcana, so that “as above” really is “so below.”

  • The Star of the Archetypal Imagination

    “Imagination is the star in man, the celestial or supercelestial body.” —Martin Ruland the Younger Arthur Edward Waite, the famed esoteric scholar and mystic who with Pamela Colman Smith created the classic tarot deck, understood very well what he was dealing with. In the same way that C. G. Jung and Joseph Campbell understood the nature of mythic imagery, we are dealing with a “presentation of universal ideas by means of universal types, and it is in the combination of these types—if anywhere—that it presents Secret Doctrine.” (The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, pp. 18–19) One of the most coveted cards in the tarot deck is the Star. It is beautifully described by Waite as a perfect picture of “eternal youth and beauty.” (p. 47) A naked woman, with her left knee bent upon the ground and her right foot resting on the waters of a pond or lake, strikes the eye as deeply symbolic. She pours her elixir of eternal youth upon the two maternal elements of earth and water. The elixir of life runs through both maternal elements as the outpouring of the Star’s indestructible psychic energy. Waite sees in this anima figure an archetypal image of the divine feminine. He points to its further significance in the light of Jewish mysticism where She is “the Great Mother in the Kabalistic Sephira Binah, which is supernal Understanding, who communicates to the Sephiroth that are below in the measure that they can receive her influx.” (47–48) In the Kabalistic tradition, Binah or Understanding is one of the ten sefirot or emanations of the Unending One, Ein Sof.  Along with Chockmah (wisdom) and Da’at (knowledge), Binah exercises the power of discriminating judgment and critical thinking, both necessary to the conscious functioning of the divine intellect. Where Chockmah and Da’at are both lofty and high, Binah is “down to earth”; she is close to the waters of our cultural inheritance and the ebb and flow of everyday life. She purges and nourishes the scorched earth with her vivifying essence as She establishes a harmonious balance of the elemental forces of life. The Sephiric Mother thus pours the emanations of the Unending One into this world through her twin vessels of psychic energy. This twinship of the vessels points to a dialectical pattern of creation. The Great Mother separates two psychic streams of unconscious life in order to unite them again in the cosmic reflection of the waters of the essence. For what the waters reflect is the celestial energy of the Star, which is not just an instance of light in the sky but the very head and source of the Light of creation. The pristine character of this card with the spiritual nakedness of the figure brings us back to the very beginnings of the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden. The Star recalls the archetypal moment in which God, sailing over the unconscious waters, uttered the first Logos of the creation: “Let there be light: and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3) Joseph Campbell also picks up on the creative interaction between light and water in the book of Genesis, for “it is that activation of the water that demarks the world creation.” (Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, 53) As a mythic image, the Star also demonstrates a certain moment of the “activation of the waters” as in the context of the alchemical Opus Magnum. Thus the waters that are activated in this scene correspond to what the alchemists called “our water,” aqua nostra, a mercurial fluid also described as a “fiery water” or aqua ignis. In the activation of these waters we have the character of the alchemical transforming substance of the Great Opus of Creation. As a whole the tarot Star image represents an act of grace in which conscious discrimination and free will combine with the unconscious movement of the archetypal imagination. While the Star shines in the background, the Great Mother divides and channels the supernal stream of archetypal creativity into two gradients of elemental functioning. These separated streams are conjoined in a single dialectical process or logic. The outpouring of the Unending One has been divided in two; it has entered the dichotomous conditions of conscious manifestation: space and time, object and subject. In the fiery light of the Divine Intellect, the sephiric goddess of the understanding pours its logical essence into the cosmic elements of feeling and sensation, both psychic elements of an emotional connection to Nature and her secrets. In view of the true philosophical mysteries of the Star card, you can understand why Waite seems so impatient with “the summary of several tawdry explanations,” which say that the Star is simply “a card of hope.” (The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, p. 47) Such facile readings and interpretations muddle the dialectical waters of association with “loss, theft, privation, abandonment,” as well as “arrogance, haughtiness, impotence.” (p. 81) For all these emotional states or psychic events are experienced by anyone engaged in the process of creation. In order to understand the symbolism of this card, therefore, we must find a dialectical path that entwines the inner contradictions of the image into a single stream of truth—or Logos. This is what the Star is trying to express through purely pictorial means. For in the activation of these waters we find the unifying “cosmic” reflection of the fiery Logos of creation, as Heraclitus of old had already understood it: “This world-order [cosmos] (the same of all) did none of gods or men make, but it always was and shall be: an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.” (The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts. Kirk and Raven, 199, fr. 220) As the Star represents this fiery element of cosmic order in the sky, it is also reflected in the smooth waters of creation. Through the mediation of the anima, we have the activation of the transcendent function—the function that allows us to grow and change psychologically—having thus barely scratched the surface of one of the Major Arcana of the tarot deck.

  • Blowing Up the Binary: Beyond Feminine and Masculine

    These days engaging with myth, for me, can be an invitation to poke at sacred cows. In a month that JCF has dedicated to Campbell’s work on goddesses and what he, and many other mythologists, call the divine feminine, I find myself asking what a divine feminine (or divine masculine, for that matter) actually is. Or why—even if—it should matter to us. What is served when we define qualities of self, soul, or action as gendered? In contemporary Western culture, we are inundated with language and constructs about what are perceived to be inherent differences between female and male, and what we define as feminine and masculine. This binary engulfs us. By way of illustration, I’d like to invite you to look at this cloud of words and note what image pops into your head with each one. Is there gender associated with it? If so, which one? Soft. Caring. Bold. Voluptuous. Direct. Analytical. Rational. Emotional. Nurturing. Silly. Earnest. Ambitious. Light. Strong. Fertile. Discursive. Pierce. Vain. Shrill. Learned. Fierce. Brave. Lead. Heights. Cunning. Embrace. Receive. Depths. Beauty. Power. I’m willing to bet that even if you consciously push back at where you landed with these, most of the connections landed along the lines of feminine being soft, caring, nurturing, silly, light, shrill, embracing, or beautiful. I think that relating archetypal qualities to gender is one of the great failings in the study of mythology to this point, and mythologists and depth psychologists have generally followed this convention and have been an ongoing force in promulgating it. Feminine and masculine energy, strengths, and identities are defined as unique and distinct from one another, and used to justify accepted gender roles in society. Perhaps most obviously, C. G. Jung’s ideas about the anima and animus purport to open the possibility for women and men to hold qualities not defined by their gender. However, he embeds them within a rigid opposition: men carry “anima,” those so-called feminine qualities that their masculine self doesn’t possess; women carry “animus,” those so-called masculine qualities their feminine Self lacks. Additionally, Jung confessed to a deep suspicion about what he identified as his anima, stating that the voice he heard was of “a patient, a talented psychopath who had a strong transference to me,” and continued on to describe his anima as commanding a “deep cunning” and “twisted” his fantasies “into intrigues” that might have “seduced him” into believing he was an artist. (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 221–223) The narratives that support this separation build on one another and further calcify our sense of what masculine and feminine should be until they have been accepted as archetypal truths. Some examples of these narratives include the following: From the perspective of what might be considered historical truth, Joseph Campbell suggests in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Divine Feminine that in the earliest hunter-gatherer cultures, men are the hunters and killers and women are the life-givers, perceiving this as the primal beginnings of mythic understanding of masculine and feminine. (38) Offered as a neurological truth, multiple studies have supported the idea that women’s and men’s brains are inherently and largely different. And assumed biological truth includes decades of scientific assumptions which have asserted that humans have two genders that are fixed and immutable. And these narratives are each wrong. Recent anthropological research has contradicted the traditional hunter-gatherer separation between women and men, and instead has found that the earliest human cultures did not define tasks along gender lines. For example, in “Female Hunters of the Early Americas,” anthropologist Randy Haas writes that, “Analysis of Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene burial practices throughout the Americas situate [this archaeological site] as the earliest and most secure hunter burial in a sample that includes 10 other females in statistical parity with early male hunter burials. The findings are consistent with non-gendered labor practices in which early hunter-gatherer females were big-game hunters.”) In 2021, neuroscientists published results of a metasynthesis of three decades of research, which discovered that brain function differences were not gender driven but were, in fact, much more reflective of place and culture. And, incidentally, those small scale studies that pointed to the differences between female and male brains had created their own cultural narratives, privileging false data to enhance chances of publication. Lead researcher Lise Eliot summarizes the implications of these biases in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, stating, "Sex differences are sexy, but this false impression that there is such a thing as a 'male brain' and a 'female brain' has had wide impact on how we treat boys and girls, men and women.” Finally, DNA research is increasingly clarifying that chromosomes that build gender are both plentiful and nuanced. From an article in Scientific American entitled “Sex Redefined: The Idea of 2 Sexes Is Overly Simplistic: What’s more, new technologies in DNA sequencing and cell biology are revealing that almost everyone is, to varying degrees, a patchwork of genetically distinct cells, some with a sex that might not match that of the rest of their body. Some studies even suggest that the sex of each cell drives its behaviour, through a complicated network of molecular interactions. Even when voices call to push against the hierarchies embedded in these definitions of gender and turn them around, they tend only to challenge their definition, not their existence. One luminous example of this is writer/ecologist/mythographer Sophie Strand’s book The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine. She makes an eloquent case to break past our stereotypes regarding what may be encompassed when defining something or someone as masculine. And in doing so, she evokes everything from Merlin to mycelium. Why does this matter? By embracing this binary, we fail to understand the depth and complexity of what makes humans, of any gender, tick. As mythologists, we are in danger of succumbing to the temptation to define archetypes as narratives that feel comfortable, clean, and well defined, reducing them to stereotypes instead of embracing the superb discomfort of the “both/and” inherent in careful mythological thought. As a culture, we condemn individuals to be marginalized, defining them by roles that serve extant power structures rather than inviting and empowering a deeper comprehension of what they can accomplish and what they may contribute to society. In closing, I’d like to invite you to reread that cloud of words at the beginning of this piece, consciously imagine them containing the gender that didn’t reflexively ring true, and examine how that feels. And then read them again, this time extracting any sense of gender from them. What changes? As Walt Whitman said in Song of Myself, “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

  • The Hanged Man: Patience in Being Stuck

    No one, I imagine, would like to draw the cards of Death, the Devil, the Tower, and the Hanged Man in tarot divination. You do not need to be a connoisseur of symbols to have the blood frozen in your veins at the very idea of these archetypes at work in your life, especially if you came to see a psychic to ask about the possibility of investing in a small business venture or the state of your health. However, the metaphorical meaning of these cards need not have negative connotations. Joseph Campbell says that metaphors are used to point to the experience that lies beyond the field of knowledge but yet lives in all of us. All mythology is one, and myths live deeply buried in the individual. We cannot excavate them, as they belong to the field of Kant's transcendental, but we can reach close enough to the archetypes that live there to try to interpret them through metaphors. Such metaphorical images are represented on tarot cards. But we often make mistakes when interpreting metaphors or symbols. “Metaphors are used to point out past all knowledge to the experience of that which lives in you. If the metaphor is interpreted as a fact it’s misunderstood. “ (Joseph Campbell, Mythos III: The Shaping of the Western Tradition) The metaphor of the Hanged Man is one such yin-yang example that shows that in every evil there is some good, and vice versa. Bend your right leg at the knee from an upright standing position and place the right sole on the inner part of the right leg above the knee; then fold the palms over your hands in a prayer position, and you will get to the yoga position called Ekapada Pranamasana. This asana calms the mind and develops a sense of balance, concentration, focus, and self-awareness. This posture is also known as One Leg Salutation or the Tree (Vrksasana). It is visually comparable to the Hanged Man card from tarot. Le Pendu is the original French name of this card. The position of this figure does not allow for movement but radiates peace and patience in waiting. There is a notion in Islamic culture for being stuck in a certain position while exercising extreme patience and perseverance. The Arabic word Sabur, one of the ninety nine names of Allah, corresponds to the concepts of meditation, endurance, acceptance, and patience. This could be the right description for the metaphor of the Hanged Man. In the 1999 Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate, adapted from the novel El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, a hanged man appears in several places: as an illustrated image, as a man executed by hanging, and yet another hanged man who committed suicide. Pérez-Reverte took this idea from a legend concerning the tarot in Middle Ages Europe, when the Inquisition was under the impression that the major arcana of the tarot were copyrighted by the Devil himself. One should remember the gruesome creativity of capital punishment in the Middle Ages: impaling, crucifixion, burning at the stake, branding, scalping, guillotining, burying alive, flogging, and death by hanging. As recently as three hundred years ago, the favorite pastime of Londoners and Parisians was not binge-watching streaming TV serials but attending public executions. At the time, humans believed that murderers had violated the order of the universe, and therefore punishment was needed to restore that order. Death by hanging is the symbolic act of the restoration of order for those who betrayed it. Whether it involves hanging as suicide or hanging as punishment, the barbarism of the act sends chills down our spine and disgusts us as well as the sensibilities of our age of liberal humanism. “Where is the sport in simple hanging? The terror, the murder. The fun!” exclaims Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek  series (S1:E17 “The Squire of Gothos”) after he was captured by the infantile alien obsessed with the eighteenth-century history of Earth, especially its methods of torture, which were adopted from Europe and transplanted to America’s Wild West. Hollywood Westerns abound with scenes of swaying bodies and the suspense of the hero being rescued from the noose at the last minute. There is a suggestion of the sublime in a body suspended and swaying in the air. Meditative. Stuck. Lingering. The all-patient, forbearing, restrained sensibility of Sabur. All of which makes one wonder, what exactly are we seeing when looking at the card of the Hanged Man? A man hangs upside down, tied by one leg. In the inverted position, the man looks as if he is standing on one leg. In her book Jung and Tarot, Sallie Nichols describes the image of the Hanged Man as a turnip waiting for someone to pull it out of the ground. His hands are tied behind his back. The other leg touches the inner thigh of the opposite leg. He is not dead; there is no expression of pain on his face, only a half-blissed smile. The position cannot be attributed to the act of self-harm. Someone hung him up, but not to exact punishment. Nor is it about torture or revenge, since the Inquisitioner’s methods included hanging weights on other limbs. The Hanged Man of the tarot card is about waiting for something while hanging—hanging out. Or perhaps it is as if he is “hanging” with friends. Awake. Patient. Killing time while in the position of being stuck. The archetype of the image in this position is a metaphor for isolation, surrender, sacrifice, uncertainty, transition, temptation, and renewal. It can also be seen as an inverted cross,  a symbol of the atoning sacrifice. The emphasis of this card is on the necessity of sacrifice in order to achieve goals and maintain freedom. It is important to be able to go through the often upsetting, overwhelming transformations of life that turn us and our world upside down while maintaining composure. Perhaps we cannot change the situation in which we find ourselves, but this is no reason for panic; instead it is an opportunity for growth. Discipline leads to change, and only he who can overcome himself can achieve transformation. While we are waiting, it might be commendable to practice Ekapada Pranamasana or Sabur. The Hanged Man cannot control his own life; he has to wait for someone to pull him down and untie him. If one were to cast tarot cards for years, the year 2020 would draw exactly this card. Everything was suspended, and we waited for better times, trying to develop self-awareness, awareness of others, awareness of disease and dis-ease. The Hanged Man is a representation of the mythology of the pandemic. The man is still alive, he is hanging, he is not very clear about what is happening, but he is waiting for something to pass. It is relatively easy to interpret archetypal situations a posteriori, in hindsight, but we can use archetypes, symbols, and metaphors to connect us with the otherworldly or the transcendent. Psychics claim to approach the transcendent a priori, and in so doing, an image of a trip can mean a trip to the supermarket or a trip around the world. It depends on how we choose to interpret the metaphor. The Hanged Man can be seen as a metaphor for a global pandemic or simply indecision in buying a pair of shoes. In very large or very small ways, we can often find ourselves in a state or situation that archetypically corresponds to the symbolism of the Hanging Man. A good example of the Hanged Man situation is one particular period in Joseph Campbell's life that corresponded with the Great Depression. After he returned from his study trip in Europe, he did not have a job for five years. During this time he hung out with dogs and read. Every day he had two periods of four hours dedicated to reading. ”I just retired to the woods. I went up to Woodstock and just read, and read, and read, and read, for five years. No job, no money.“ (The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, 65) Campbell read for five years! He used the position and the mindset of the Hanged Man for self-improvement, meditating on his life and his passions, and patiently waiting while being stuck. The development of one of the most brilliant minds in philosophy, mythology, and comparative critical thinking in the world took place under the archetypal image of the Hanged Man. Being stuck and being a sport about it is the true meaning of the word Sabur and the metaphor of the Hanged Man.

  • The Hanged Man

    Now this brings in a terrific emphasis on what the tender-minded call violence. But that's what nature is. And every now and then you see something that opens your mind to this. -Joseph Campbell, The Hero's Journey, 21 For our contemplation, the Joseph Campbell Foundation presents the image of the Hanged Man, an image of great potency as an organizing principle for this month’s MythBlast essayists. The Hanged Man, card no. 12 of the major arcana of the tarot, surely is what the “tender-minded call violence,” a depiction of the aftermath of torture, with the victim still dangling. Depending on the deck, the figure is either clearly dead or somehow mystically imbued with inner strength, his wisdom magnified by the ordeal. The Hanged Man in the deck I was given (illustrated by Giovanni Caselli) seems suspended between death and life. One could say the same of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot; the Hanged Man is clearly beatified, and that means he’s won his halo through physical and/or psychic trial and tribulation. “There has been a great deal of high and fancy talk displayed in the interpretations of this card,” Campbell wrote, “and yet its basic reference is both simple and well known. In the south of France and in Italy to this day, to be hung up this way in public is a sign of social disgrace.” (Tarot Revelations, 17) The image, minus the halo, is known in Mediterranean culture, and particularly in Italy, as the pittura infamante or defaming portrait, the ultimate degradation of your defeated enemy. It’s what they did to Mussolini and his mistress. Conversely, the style of execution is often a matter of preference. St. Peter, so the story is told, demanded to be crucified upside down because he was unworthy to die in the same way as his master, Jesus. A Catholic might be flooded with associations to the inverted or Petrine cross suggested by the Hanged Man, which is a prominent symbol of the papacy to this day. Perhaps the card speaks to us of our own painful passage through life, during which consciousness is acquired and expanded through suffering. Jeffrey Kripal thinks that trauma is the trigger of transcendence, quoting Greg Mogenson who went a step further in suggesting that God is a trauma. (Secret Body. Erotic and Esoteric Currents in the History of Religions, p. 331)  Trauma, humiliation, even death itself are the flagstones in the garden of life leading up to the Hanged Man’s terrible denouement. The idea that suffering is the royal road to enlightenment is not unfamiliar to the religious sensibilities of many cultures: from the Sioux warrior who hangs from pectoral hooks while forbidden to show any indication of pain, to Odin’s self-imposed ordeal in which he hung upside down from a tree for nine days in order to gain knowledge. In a deck created by the British surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, the Hanged Man is a symbol of transcendence, at least for this author, as well as for Rhian Sasseen, writing here for the Paris Review: “Carrington’s Hanged Man is one of the loveliest versions I’ve seen, all purple and gold, with its odd message of surrender. The Hanged Man is also a card of crossroads, of biding one’s time; it pictures a man strung up by his heels and hung upside down, as was once done to traitors in Renaissance Italy … In Carrington’s version, the hanged man stares out calmly, a slight smile on his face. It is a card of thresholds, of doorways, of change in the air—but not yet. It is a card of holding off decisions.” (The Paris Review, 4/6/21) What is that “slight smile” on Carrington’s creation? It is more than passive acceptance, but something vibrant; perhaps it’s the very essence of one of Campbell’s favorite coping mechanisms, as described by Nietzsche: My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it. (Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufman, 714). It was in this spirit that I sought out my own tarot reader. We sat outside, as befits a religion without walls, a spiritual practice without a priesthood. “The Hanged Man,” says my reader, “is not about death; it is about pausing, contemplating what has gone before and what may come after.” The pause in the midst of struggle, of course, is the highpoint of the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is held back from battle so that Krishna can unpack the theological questions regarding action and inaction. I am Arjuna to her Krishna. A tarot reading refocuses the experience of the numinous as an intimate exchange between two people. There are no mosques, nor monasteries. In fact, historically, the great faiths have distanced themselves from practices they consider to be born of popular superstition and unworthy of serious consideration. But as Campbell writes, “Their hard line, too, is dissolving, and we are now observing throughout our culture world a resurgence of the sense of the immanence of the occult, within ourselves and within nature. (Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays, 1959-1987, p. 260) I experienced the immanence of the occult under a carob tree in a communal green space in West Hollywood with a young Russian woman who tells me things I want to hear. And why not? They do that in church too. They tell you that this corruptible body is not to be the sum total of our existence, that immortality is ours for the asking. This woman is simply telling me that my anxiety is a choice and I should get past it. Be the Hanged Man. Embrace that amor fati beloved of Campbell. Then you will understand the slight smile on the Hanged Man’s face indicating what Buddha might recognize as the joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.

bottom of page