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Reply To: The 5th Function of Myth?


Hi Mary,

I tend to think of this 5th editorial function of mythology as limiting in focus, which may or may not have something to do with why it didn’t make Campbell’s final cut, so to speak – which is why I appreciate your pivot to the sense of participation mystique. Even though the means of accessing the numinous may vary from one culture to another (e.g. meditation, dreamwork, prayer, the ingestion of teacher plants, etc.), the experience of that state is remarkably consistent across cultures.

The most common doorway into that realm is through ritual. Joseph Campbell speaks of how

A ritual is the enactment of a myth⁠; by participating in the rite one is participating in the myth⁠, opening oneself to the mythic dimension of experience⁠, and consequently activating the accordant structures and principles within one’s own psyche.

(from a yet-to-be-published manuscript)

Stepping into a myth, ego drops away – absolutely essential to experience that participation mystique. Joe continues, expanding on how rituals effect this change:

Rituals of themselves are actually very boring. They go on and on, beyond your secular tolerance. In this way, they break open something in you, and the participation then is with the rite in its proper sense, and not as an entertainment. You are experiencing it as a ritual. And when experienced in this way, something is happening to you in the way of a transformation of your level of consciousness⁠. Without some kind of ritual enactment the whole thing fails to get inside the active aspect of one’s system, unless one happens to be working through actual life problems in terms suggested by mythological considerations.⁠


Participation is key.

When I was 8 years old I attended a performance of a pueblo dance at the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado. The Koshare Indian Dancers are not necessarily indigenous peoples, but are drawn from the ranks of Boy Scout Troop 232 in the Rocky Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

Of course, this was a performance, relatively brief, to accommodate the attention span of the mostly white spectators (this was back in 1965), compared to the length of actual dances. Though the colorful spectacle remains etched in my memory, there was nothing numinous about it – just a re-enactment of what seemed a quaint and slightly bizarre custom (I could not imagine actually joining in those dances myself – struck the eight-year-old me as rather boring and repetitive). This sense was confirmed for the grown-up me when Philip J. Deloria (author of Custer Died for Your Sins) referred to the Indian Koshare Dancers as hobbyists “playing Indian.”

Real rituals are not spectator sports (imagine non-Catholics buying tickets to watch Mass: world of difference between that, and the profound experience of the true believer who actually partakes of the body and blood of Jesus Christ).

But where do rituals come from?

Campbell offers a prescription reminiscent of Mircea Eliade’s description of the archaic world, where every meaningful act participates in the sacred:

The way mythology is integrated into life is by way of ritual. What has to be ritualized is essential to the life of the day. If one is to try to bring a mythological perspective into action in the modern world one has to understand the relationship of what is being done to the essentials of life, not to the superficialities of life. The essentials of life remain the same; they’ve been the same since the Paleolithic caves. Eating, reproduction, being a child, being mature, growing old. To realize that these things one is doing are not personally initiated acts but are functions of a biologically present world within yourself is to live in a very different way from the way one lives if one feels that one is the volitional initiator of everything going on.

(Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, p. 205)

I have had the opportunity to participate in a number of collective rituals, old and new, and have accessed that numinous state, which can be ego-shattering (or, in its more gentle aspects, ego-transcending). Ritual provides a sacred space in which to confront these energies, and myth presents archetypal images we can safely engage in that sacred space

. . . and suddenly here we are, sailing into the mystic.