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Reply To: Standing on the lord of the abyss? No.


I too see no contradiction here, Drew, at least not from Campbell. Explaining the biological origins of myth is like explaining the biological origins of instincts – that instincts and myth (and everything we experience through our senses) arise from the biological fact that we have a body is not the same as “rationally explaining the mystery of who or what we are.”

The flaw is in mistaking myth for that mystery itself, rather than, like our flesh and blood, a manifestation of that mystery.

The energies that move the body are the energies that move the imagination. These energies, then, are the source of mythological imagery; in a mythological organization of symbols, the conflicts between the different organic impulses within the body are resolved and harmonized. You might say a mythology is a formula for the harmonization of the energies of life.

— Campbell, interviewed by Joan Marler, in The Yoga Journal, Nov./Dec. 1987 (emphasis mine)

“Mythology is a formula for the harmonization of the energies of life” – that’s my favorite answer to the question “What is myth?” (For example, myths and rites of initiation that mark the coming of age are one example of how mythology places the individual in a given society in accord with nature and the world around them – that’s a function of myth which is very different from making every individual in that society into a mystic.)

Not that difficult to understand, even on the most mundane level: my stomach has one impulse to action, my genitals another – and there are times when the two are very much in conflict. But the argument isn’t just between the reproductive system and the digestive tract, for we also have the brain entering into the fray, and the heart, and even more abstract “organs.”

This thought can be troubling to those who can’t fathom heart or stomach or any organ as more than a machine, or who see nature itself as composed of only inert, soulless matter – which is not how we experience either the world around us, or the world within. When Campbell speaks of the “organs of the body” he isn’t describing cuts of meat on the butcher’s slab, but the miracle and mystery of the organizing principle of life. There is a distinct resonance between organ and organization here . . .

Individual cells grouped together form an organ, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts – and these organs and related bodily processes working in concert also form a whole greater than the sum of its parts, a synergy we call the individual (and this metaphor can be extended from individuals to a society, and indeed to humanity as a whole).

The coordination and organization of the billions of individual impulses within the human body that, taken together, add up to a human life is a mystery, one which we continue to explore from a variety of different angles, from biology and psychology to philosophy and theology – all of which can’t help but overlap and/or bump into one another at times.

Mythology both reflects this elusive organizing principle, and serves as guide when consciousness is at odds with one or another of the elements of our being.

I think Carl Jung’s term ‘archetypes of the unconscious’ is fundamental and appropriate here. The archetypes of myth are manifestations of the nature of man in accord with the nature of the universe. Interpose, before these, ideas derived from man’s limited knowledge of the world, and we have then a system of rational thought. In dream the rational mind becomes aware of impulses of the larger nature, of which it is itself but one organ. Impose the will of that one organ upon the whole, and the imposition has to be by violence.

— Joseph Campbell, in conversation with Costis Ballos in Greece.

Note that Campbell refers to the rational mind as one of the “organs” whose impulses are at odds with those of other organs of the body. Mind – and even imagination – can fit the metaphorical usage of the term.

If my head is exclusively running the show, then heart is neglected – and if belly is in charge, or phallus always gets its way, ignoring cautions of head and heart, then the whole is imperiled. Of course no one “organ,” no one system, is supreme: one just has to fall in love, for example, to realize how little control conscious rational intention exerts

… and then, even sex addicts have to stop and order a pizza now and then.

But describing how myths work, like explaining how digestion works, is not “using reasoning to explain the mystery of who we are.” If anything, it enhances the awe of that mystery. By that measure, understanding that water boils at 212º F and freezes at 32º F would be a similar “contradiction” using reason to explain the mystery: one is free to ignore that “riding the temporal wave of grasping at ever-changing effects rather than living OF the unchanging, ungrasping light of your being,” but taking that literally could lead to blisters or frostbite.