Shopping Cart

No products in the cart.

Reply To: THERE and BACK AGAIN,” with MythBlast author Stephen Gerringer”



I confess I’m not clear on what it is you see as a contradiction. You observe

Black Elk’s view to me, represents the And/Both balance. He has his vision there and it’s the center of the world, but it’s not the only center. “

I could not agree more, but neither could Campbell – this is exactly  his point. That’s why, when discussing Black Elk’s vision in his Power of Myth interviews with Moyers, he relates it to another metaphor from a different culture that uses similar imagery (which, as Robert notes, is from the 12th century “The Book of the Twenty Four Philosophers”):

There is a definition of God which has been repeated by many philosophers. God is an intelligible sphere – a sphere known to the mind, not the senses – whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. And the center, Bill, is right where you’re sitting. And the other one is right where I’m sitting. And each of us is a manifestation of that mystery. That’s a nice sort of mythological realization that sort of gives you a sense of who and what you are.

. . . What you have here is what might be translated into raw individualism, you see, if you didn’t realize that the center was also right there facing you in the other person. This is the mythological way of being an individual. You are the central mountain, and the central mountain is everywhere.”

That’s the same “Both/And” vision as Black Elk, as you describe it – “He has his vision there and it’s the center of the world, but it’s not the only center.”

Joseph Campbell is not taking issue with Black Elk – he’s not saying Harney Peak isn’t sacred, for it is, nor that the Oglala Sioux should not experience it as such and make it central to their worship; his problem is with those traditions that read myths and visions literally: the sacred mountain of the world is Mt. Sinai, and only Mt Sinai (or, say, only the Mount of Olives), and not Harney Peak, not Mt. Olympus, not Mt. Kailash.

That should be no surprise – the only “sin” from Campbell’s perspective is reading a myth literally, which is common primarily among the Levantine religions (specifically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – though there are branches of each, generally considered heresies by the dominant orthodox traditions, that do embrace a symbolic understanding).

Read a myth literally, and you are relating to it as if it is history, or a newspaper report – a literal fact – and not mythology.

So, depending on one’s tradition, the center of the world might be Jerusalem or Rome or Mecca or Benares or Bodh Gaya – religious centers and places of worship – but, in the Jewish and and Islamic traditions, for example, there is only one center of the world (Jerusalem or Mecca, respectively), which is so exclusive that to disagree has, at points in the past, merited death; in the Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, Bodh Gaya, while sacred, is not the only center of the world, which is understood to be at Bodh Gaya, and everywhere.

Campbell describes Black Elk’s vision as “a real mythological realization.” He illustrates that same mythological realization elsewhere, in a discussion of Hinduism, with this brief tale:

A certain Hindu ascetic who lay down to rest beside the holy Ganges placed his feet up on a Śiva-symbol (a ‘liṅgam-yonī,’ a combined phallus and vulva, symbolizing the union of the God with his Spouse). A passing priest observed the man reposing thus and rebuked him. ‘How can you dare to profane this symbol of God by resting your feet on it?’ demanded the priest. The ascetic replied, ‘Good sir, I am sorry; but will you kindly take my feet and place them where there is no such sacred liṅgam?’ The priest seized the ankles of the ascetic and lifted them to the right, but when he set them down a phallus sprang from the ground and they rested as before. He moved them again; another phallus received them. ‘Ah, I see!’ said the priest, humbled; and he made obeisance to the reposing saint and went his way.”

(The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 144)

Campbell emphasizes this is a fairly consistent reading of myth across cultures throughout history (one that can even be found within the Levantine faiths, if one looks closely – e.g. God as “All in all” in I Corinthians 10:28).

Like Black Elk, maybe you and Joe really are on the same page.