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Reply To: The Fires of Love-Death, with Mythologist Norland Téllez


Thank you so much, Norland!

“Lighter” is a term that clearly falls short here – but what you have shared allows forum participants to learn more about your background, personal as well as professional, and affords an opportunity to ease into the material you cover.

Joseph Campbell did not like to dwell on his personal history and resisted writing a memoir, believing that one’s body of work matters more than one’s biography (ironically, in his lengthy, detailed Introduction to The Portable Jung he spends considerable time discussing aspects of Jung’s life that played a role in his personal and professional development); it took the concerted efforts of multiple friends to persuade Campbell to agree to participate in the documentary The Hero’s Journey: A Biographical Portrait.

My sense is very different – I believe one’s background and experiences inform one’s work, especially in the creative sphere. One needn’t know the intimate details of Picasso’s complicated relationships with Dora Maar, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and other lovers to appreciate his work, but such awareness does add a layer or two to one’s understanding.

Your experiences remind me of what a privileged life I’ve led as a white male born a U.S. citizen – and underscore that your essays are more than just abstract attempts to understand and interpret humankind’s distant and difficult past past, but have immediate relevance for our present.

Forgive the rambling that will follow. Your MythBlast triggers all sorts of thoughts and impressions; rather than spending another week or two organizing that into some cohesive whole, I’m just going to spill all sorts of observations out across the page.

Turning to your most recent work, “The Fires of Love-Death,” you state

Setting aside our spontaneous anachronistic horror at such gruesome spectacles, we would have to recognize that, at some basic level, these collective rituals worked. That is, they performed the vital existential function they were meant to perform. But what was that function?”

You note that Campbell observes

“the link between sacrificial rites and the real feeling of communitas that binds the existence of a people or tribe. There is little doubt that a fundamental root of our sense of transcendence lies in the archetypal experience of the ‘living spirit’ in communitarian union.”

I’ll admit I much prefer the sense of communion that arises from the Christian mass – which still involves eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a sacrificed god, but only in the abstract (transubstantiation notwithstanding).

However, I can’t help but wonder about the example you cite from Primitive Mythology, where, at the culmination of the puberty rite of the Marind-anim on New Guinea, all the lads who have come of age have their first sexual experience in a very public ritual setting with a girl playing the role of a female dema (a mythological being) who, along with the last adolescent male in line for her favors, is crushed to death in sexual embrace. (Paul Wirtz, whom Campbell cites, uses the term “orgy” to describe this practice, essentially  projecting modern libertine attitudes onto the event; Dr. J. Van Baal, in his 1966 volume Dema, prefers the Marind term otiv-bombari to describe ritual couplings – this ceremony isn’t the only example, though others don’t end with death – as it’s not a frenzied orgy but an institutionalized ritual stretching many days, with prescribed actions before and during intercourse for both initiates and the chosen female to follow that correspond to an associated myth – which is not to deny this is an ordeal for females even in ceremonies that don’t end with human sacrifice).

This ritual brings together sexuality and death. More than just a means of organizing society into a communitas, I can’t help but think of the subject of your December MythBlast (“In the Stillness of Love’s Madness”), where you point to the primordial twin impulses of libido (the self-generative life-force) and todestrieb (the death death drive) within the psyche:

In their native soil of possibility and pure potentiality, the archetypes of the collective unconscious are the nocturnal creatures of nightmarish fantasy, hidden deep in the dark primeval forests of cosmic matter and its universal unconsciousness. This is why archetypes, when properly understood, do not become fixed objects of empirical cognition. They are accessible only to a peculiar ‘dark mode”’ of consciousness — an existential hermeneutic of myth which takes place near the threshold of being and nonbeing in the ‘noumenality’ of time.”

Acknowledged or not, these unconscious forces have the power to compel our actions: are not these the forces underlying the violent and bloody human sacrifices you reference in the current MythBlast and in “Sacrificial Origins”, your January essay?

If I understand you, such sacrificial acts serve as a means of containing and channeling these archetypal energies. In the discussion in these forums following your December piece, you quote René Girard, who posits these acts as a form of scapegoating:

The victim is not a substitute for some particularly endangered individual, nor is it offered up to some individual of particularly bloodthirsty temperament. Rather, it is a substitute for all the members of the community, offered up by the members themselves. The sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence; it prompts the entire community to choose victims outside itself. The elements of dissension scattered throughout the community are drawn to the person of the sacrificial victim and eliminated, at least temporarily, by its sacrifice. (Violence and the Sacred 8)

And, in our January discussion of “Sacrificial Origins,” you also reference Wolfgang Giegerich’s description of sublation, applying it to the process that brings us from the sacrifice of humans standing in for gods – practiced by our ancestors on a massive scale – to the foot of the Cross, where one human conceived of as god is symbolically sacrificed over and over again:

Clearly we can see how it has performed the three-fold function of sublation. The literal killing and anthropophagic rite is canceled in its literalism. At the same time, the image of the crucified God rescues the primordial sense of the sacrificial act. And finally, through its ‘negative interiorization’ (Giegerich) it places its anthropological meaning at a higher level of development.”

And yet, these archetypal energies of libido and todestrieb (or “love-death”) still course through our psyche, individual and collective.

Six million Jews sacrificed in the death camps during World War II – speaking of scapegoating – along with millions of Roma (aka “gypsies”), Slavs, communists, trade unionists, homosexuals, and others; nearly two million Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s,;at least half a million Tutsis in Rwanda; the slaughter of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Uighurs in China; the atrocities of your youth in Nicaragua – all have me doubting we have truly escaped the echoes of eons past.

Sublation and sublimation may have a practical effect, but I can’t help but wonder if these aren’t a bit like squeezing part of a balloon: might be smaller on one end, but the balloon then bulges out somewhere else. The reasons and justifications vary, but sacrificing fellow humans seems very much with us still. We may be more enlightened in some arenas, but collectively are just as unconscious as ever of this part of our nature. Despite the efforts of many to make the unconscious conscious, this doesn’t seem anywhere about to change.

Frankly, in the discussions in these forums of your last three MythBlasts, what I’m most drawn to is your appeal to Art:

It is indeed an experimental mode of knowledge which brings the mind of the artist to the Primal Matter, or in Michelangelo’s language, the marble block that hides within it the design of transcendence. . . .

Now, to the second question: does everyone or the public at large have any use for this type of knowledge? Absolutely they do. There is a multi-million dollar industry whose sole purpose is to create fictions and thus transmit, albeit in an unconscious manner, the mythic knowledge of the transcendent One. . . .

Nevertheless, in the archetypal forms of myth and art, as in the entertainment industry and the culture at large, this special ‘knowledge’ remains unconscious, and thus in a peculiar epistemological state to say the least. Early on, psychoanalysis faced criticism for the audacity of the paradox involved in the notion of ‘unconscious knowledge.’ But so it is. In the collective mind of the culture at large, this ‘knowledge’ or gnosis remains hidden, in exactly the way Michelangelo understood it, waiting to be released from the Primal Matter of the Stone—hence the ‘practical’ need for the Artist  in society as the one who ‘knows’ consciously how to set it free!”

[NOTE: for those who have not viewed these discussions, the ellipses have left so much out – I’m just stitching together a few highlights here]

followed a little later by your reply to Marianne:

It is a general insight about Art that it functions as a kind of mirror of society and the historical epoch in which it was created. Of course, this ‘leadership’ of Art remains mostly unconscious and it requires a further step to bring what the artist has formulated in aesthetic terms back into the conceptual element of the understanding to become part of our conscious life.

That last is the part I’m unclear about: apart from plastering a moral onto every sculpture and at the end of every movie, how does the artist bridge that gap between the aesthetic creation and our conscious life? Are we talking about didactic art, designed to convey specific values or inspire action (the “socialist realism’ of Soviet art or the novels of Ayn Rand perhaps the clumsiest examples, which smack of propaganda)?

Or are we talking about art that mirrors, and yet transcends, the human condition?

I think of Picasso’s Guernica, born of the brutal Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. Looking back on that moment, it’s clear which side captured the artist’s heart – but long after the details of that local conflict are forgotten his work endures, evoking an experience in the viewer of the loss and heartache, death and destruction of War itself, rather than this war.

Clearly, Guernica did not end violent wars; art does not have the power to end “man’s inhumanity to man,” any more than it has the power to end death – but it does have the power to help one transcend death.

Once more I turn to an observation of Campbell’s I cited in one of our previous MythBlast conversations:

There’s that wonderful picture of Death playing the violin to the artist, by a Swiss painter named Böcklin. The artist is there with the palette and brush, and Death is playing the violin. That means that the eyes should be open to something of more cosmic import than simply the vicissitudes and excitements of your own petty life. Hearing the song that is beyond that of your own individual life cycle is the thing that opens you to wisdom. You can hear it in your life, interpreting it, reading it, not in terms of the calamities or boons of your individual existence, but as a message of what life is.⁠”

“Mythic Reflections: an interview with Joseph Campbell,” by Tom Collins,

Please forgive me for taking such big bites! I hope I don’t come across as taking issue with your points, which is not my intention. I do, though, want to draw attention to the through-line in your essays, and how they resonate with one another: taken together, they present a multi-dimensional picture, a Whole that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.