The Antlered Child: Changing Shapes, Changing Souls
Each month, we explore a theme through weekly MythBlasts, curated works, quotations, etc. This month's theme is Metamorphosis.
Change is in the air. Again. As usual.
The climate is changing. The pandemic changes. Technology changes. Our lives change.
Once upon a time, change happened more gradually, or so it seems. Now it feels like the pace of change has accelerated. We don’t seem to have the proper decompression chambers in which to adjust, and more changes are coming whether we choose them or not.
But we still have myth, and creativity, and our ability to create new myths, as Joseph Campbell discusses in Volume 4 of his Masks of God series, Creative Mythology. Creative myth-making, Campbell says,
restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the becoming thing that is nothing at all but life, not as it will be or should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in process, here and now, inside out. (7-8)
In other words, the myths we make give our present-moment lives back to us with the added thrill of adventure. They help us meet and imagine the changes we face.
Continue Reading the Mythblast
One recent example of life-giving creative mythology is Sweet Tooth (2021), a Netflix series set in a world where a new species of animal-human hybrids evolves at the same time as a pandemic sweeps the planet. Sweet Tooth happens in a post-TV, post-internet, post-consumer landscape in which the population of humanity has been vastly reduced. But violent remnants of the old controlling, dominion-prone, fear-based culture still cling to existence in the form of an army of Last Men who hunt the child hybrids. The show focuses on the adventures of a hybrid named Gus who was born with the body of a human but the ears, antler nubs, and senses of a deer. In other words, Gus embodies what shamans experience through trance and dance: the joining of human and animal consciousness. Gus grows up in isolation in a remote forested stretch of what used to be Yellowstone National Park. As Gus grows, so do his antlers, and when the time is right, he sets out on an adventure that carries him away from home.
Not far into his travels, a band of Last Men corner Gus inside a former park visitors’ center. Little Gus, armed with a homemade slingshot, faces off against a Last Man with a high-powered rifle when, in the open doorway behind Gus, a massive buck appears who is clearly there to protect Gus. With antlers too wide to step through the door, the buck’s presence is utterly arresting. The Last Man seems paralyzed by the same astonishment we feel as viewers because we are suddenly in the presence of the sublime: powers beyond our own, dimensions of life to which we had been oblivious, more beauty and love than we had thought possible. In that moment, Gus, completely unaware of the buck, becomes the child of the buck, and of the antlered Celtic god Cernunnos (Campbell 412), and of the antlered human figure on the wall in the Cave of the Trois-Frères. We feel all those antlers ourselves—their bony anchors in our skulls, the pull of their weight in our necks and backs, the instinctive ability to lower the horns and charge. The sacred buck shows us Gus’s strength and destiny: simultaneously peaceful and powerful, an herbivore-warrior who will fight for what he loves. Here, the buck overwhelms his opponent simply through the force of his presence.
Sweet Tooth’s creative myth-making opens other windows onto the sacred as well. In the first episode, Gus learns that rain is “just Mother Nature, washing herself clean.” The show’s Animal Army organizes around the belief that hybrids are a miracle of nature. A character named Dr. Singh sees the divine in Gus thanks to a gift that Singh’s wife gave him, a statue of a Hindu goddess who once appeared as a deer. As an embodiment of sacred nature, Gus’s part-human and part-deer form reminds us of the sacred nature of all animals, human and otherwise. In fact, Gus’s form affirms that we are sacred because of our animal nature, and so is the rest of our extended animal family. Human-animal hybrids remind us that we are in fact animals, and that our souls—our animas, to use the Latin term—are animal souls.
The myth-makers of Sweet Tooth also suggest that our physical shapes and psychological shapes change together, and neither is fixed. Our birthright vitality and consciousness, from which the technological world likes to separate us, remain rooted in the adaptability of our bodies and the organic world. External metamorphosis coincides with internal metamorphosis. What’s more, stasis doesn’t actually exist. The universe, which includes our Earth and ourselves, is ever and always in froth and flux.
Sweet Tooth is a creative myth about creativity, illustrating new ways of being in response to change. We have already been called upon to make many changes. We can rest assured we will need to make more. Sweet Tooth says we can, and also suggests how and why. Another clue comes from Campbell, who reminds us that mythic images “touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion.” (4) We can change creatively and mythically, in order to reclaim and exhilarate our sacred animal lives.
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What do you think of the imagery in Sweet Tooth? How have creative myths helped you navigate change in your life? How has your own mythic creativity helped? Join our Conversations of a Higher Order to share your reflections.
Joanna Gardner, PhD is a writer, mythologist, and magical realist. She is a founder of the Fates and Graces Mythologium, a conference for mythologists and friends of myth. Joanna serves as Senior Editor on the Educational Task Force of the Joseph Campbell Foundation, and as a thought leader with the think tank iRewild, where she works on the Healing Stories initiative. She completed her doctoral degree at Pacifica Graduate Institute in mythological studies with an emphasis in depth psychology. Joanna’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction appear in a variety of venues, available at joannagardner.com/stories.
Nature is prime: it is there at birth; Society is next: it is only a shaper of Nature, and a function, moreover, of what it shapes; whereas Nature is deep and, finally, as inscrutable as Being itself.
The Masks of God 4: Creative Mythology
Creative Mythology is the fourth and final volume of Joseph Campbell’s major work of comparative mythology, The Masks of God. In this installment, the pre-eminent mythologist looks at the European mythology of individualism as it took flower in medieval Europe and spread, through the Renaissance, to influence modernist thought, art, and literature.
“The ancient Greeks called the art of reworking established myths ‘mythopoesis.’ Telling an old story in a new voice and from a fresh perspective makes room for new questions and reveals new meanings. It’s an essential form of myth-making. In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint reimagines the classic Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur from the perspective of Ariadne and her sister, Phaedra. These two women tell a compelling story about monsters, heroes, and the mysterious god Dionysus, and the role they played in this famous story. Ariadne is a wonderful poesis of Greek mythology and a meditation on sisterhood, heroism, fate, and free will today.”
Catherine Svehla, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation
Creative Mythology (Audio: Lecture II.2.5)
Our gift to you this month is audio lecture. Access this download for free until the end of the month.
Joseph Campbell was often asked how a new mythology was going to develop. His answer was that it would have to come from poets, artists, and filmmakers. In this talk, Campbell explores what he called creative mythology — the way in which artists can and do give a sense of the transcendent in a universe apparently empty of meaning.
This lecture was recorded at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin in 1969.
News & Updates
According to tradition and the lunar calendar, Mawlid al-Nabīy, the birthday of the Prophet Muḥammad, is celebrated in most Muslim-majority countries on October 18. Both individual and corporate observances are encouraged and may last until sunset of the following day.
Sometimes called the “Buddhist Lent,” the three-month Rains Retreat for Bhikkus (ordained Buddhists) ends on Pavarana, October 19. The next day, October 20, is reserved for Buddhist laypersons as Kathina, a day to donate new robes to the local monastery. These charitable displays have recently been curtailed by coronavirus restrictions but will be observed in some communities via zoom.
Also on the 20th, Sikhs will bow before a throne on which sits not a person but a book, the Guru Granth Sahib Ji, canonical scriptures of the faith. Treated as an eternal and living guru, the document may not be changed. Not a sentence, not a word, not a letter.
I.3.2.7 - Instrument of Destiny(audio clip source)
Comic book superheroes: the gods of modern mythology(learn more)