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Journey Through Myth,” with Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D.”

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    Mythologist Norland Téllez, Ph.D., is our guest in Conversations of a Higher Order this week to talk about his most recent entry in JCF’s MythBlast series, “Journey Through Myth” (click on link to read). Our discussion is not an interview: it’s your participation that turns this into a “conversation of a higher order.” Please post your comments and questions for Dr. Téllez (and/or anyone else who joins the discussion).

    Dr. Téllez – I’d like to begin by asking for a clarification regarding the term “true myth.” You conclude this week’s MythBlast by speaking of “true myth” as a positive, where

    Reason assumes its proper ‘equiprimordial’ role and archetypal status; it becomes, like the Heraclitean fire of becoming, constitutive of the universal order of the world—the fiery spark of a cosmic consciousness of being and time.”

    But in your essay from last July, “The Ripening Outcast,” you equate “true myth” with “living myth,” in contrast to personal mythology:

    [W]hen myth becomes an explicit object for us, an object called ‘myth,’ it is already dead, having become a historical phenomenon. Living myth is, by definition, a collective manifestation of the archetypal psyche; it is not simply a metaphor for the reflection of my private experience. The latter is “myth” in the sense of fantasy or an aesthetic plaything but not in the sense of an existential commitment to the truth of our lives. Rather than being a specific object in the world, therefore, true myth constitutes our very sense of actual reality. That is why it is so hard to see it, not because it lies buried in some deep cavern of the soul, but because it is so close to us, so familiar, so taken-for-granted — like the very end of our nose that we never see and yet follow religiously!” (Emphasis mine)

    You then reference Campbell’s discussion of Hindu mythology, where you observe “the harshest aspects of true myth come to the surface” – specifically, the caste system (one could include the practice of sati in widows throwing themselves on their dead husband’s funeral pyre). In our related discussion here in COHO, the practice of human sacrifice in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture has also served as an example of those “harshest aspects.”

    Are you using the term “true myth” the same way in both essays? If so, does Reason then occupy an ‘equiprimoridial” role in the living myth of these cultures – especially in light of the passage you cite from Flight of the Wild Gander, where Campbell observes, “In India, the objective is to be born from the womb of myth, not to remain in it”?

    Or, if not, could you explain the distinction?

    I’m not taking issue with your profound point re the role of Reason today – and, I’m confident, neither would Campbell. I can’t help but notice a thematic thread running through your many MythBlast essays (including a willingness to examine many of the “darker” aspects of mythology that are often overlooked by Campbell aficionados, even though Joseph Campbell himself, as your observations confirm, was by no means afraid of the dark); much as I enjoy each individual essay, I believe there is much to be gained from reading all your MythBlast pieces as expressions of a whole.

    Hence, my question – just want to make sure we’re on the same page, so to speak, when it comes to your usage of “true myth.”


      Hello Stephen, as always, a great pleasure to return to our forum,

      I am so glad you picked up on the apparent paradoxicality of the term “true myth” in my various usages of it. And you are right to see in it a connection—indeed, a secret identity —with the primordial notion of Reason. For that is indeed how it stands in my mind: true myth and reason are not only equiprimordial but one and the same thing, an identity in difference. I also thank you for noticing the coherence of my contributions to the mythblast series, which indeed circle around this notion of true myth as their nucleus and circumference.

      You see, I do not contradict the ordinary meaning of the word “myth” which in normal or “natural” language simply means a lie, a falsehood, something entirely made up. Outside esoteric circles, as we know, myth is the opposite of “truth” and “reality”. That is why, to me, the naked term “myth” is indistinguishable from ideology or ideological fantasy as the underlying source of a “false consciousness.”

      Although I’ve been accused of obscurantism, at least I do not deviate from this common usage of the word “myth”—hence you can understand my need to qualify it somehow and to differentiate it from its vulgar coinage and common trade. But the qualifier “true” is more than just an arbitrary quality or cipher; it constitutes, instead, the material ground of its historic actuality—or truth. “True myth” is nothing other than mytho-history in poetic disguise.

      So yes, within the mytho-historic context of the ancient archaic, human sacrifice and similar rites of bloody dismemberment were in their time “living” embodiments of reason. They were the Truth of humanity at that time. Although obscure to us now, they were a necessary stage or cultural womb, as Campbell indicated, from which humanity would be born again on a new plane of reason. This is not a contradiction, any more than the past contradicts the future per se, but a proof of the present infinite dialectical nature of spirit across abysses of time.


      Thank you so much for this, Norland.

      I really love the idea of “the twice born.” I would love to ask people in what ways they might feel “twice-born” whether in religious ways or not. I know I relate to this term and idea in a couple ways that have nothing to do with religion per say. That we are twice born being born from the womb of myth is also a quite fascinating thought to me.

      I only at first glance/reading have a few first thoughts:

      Norland, you write, “The fully rebirthed adulthood of the twice-born no longer needs myth as an object of belief; we see through its imaginal garbs and are no longer affected by its “lures and threats,” as Campbell put it. Growing up in the reflective mirror of philosophy we become reborn in the light of reason as the mytho-historic consciousness of the truth” This rings so true to me; yet, I cannot help but think that sometimes some people want the lures, the beautiful imagery and language, just for the mythic material itself. It might seem like the child who just discovered there is no Easter bunny or Santa Claus, yet still wish they could believe the myth. Many practicing pagans I have known said they did not believe the gods were “actual” and “real” but said that they were representations of energies behind the forms in which they supposedly embodied. So while the God or Goddess was not “real,” to them, the energy behind the form was real. Some pagans I have known have also called themselves atheists, but are animists instead, believing that some sort of life force flows through everything. I have met so many people with so many different ways or reasons for being pagan (and also Catholics for that matter or other religions) that it almost seems that perhaps they simply just want to live the poetic mythic life of lore—the fairies, the elementals of the flora and fauna. There is something sad about the children’s film, “The Last Unicorn,” when we cannot believe that unicorns exist anymore—or maybe as when we are growing past childhood and into adolescence that we cannot believe the things of childhood anymore. Author Robert Dahl said something to the effect that in his view there are two types of people in the world: those that see with the child’s eye and feel the things of childhood and those who don’t. He said that those who don’t are probably bankers and ______.” I cannot remember the rest of the quote and could not find it on the internet yet. Dahl, like Blake, felt that in order to write one must have the eyes of a child. Dahl said to write and to better one’s life one needed some type of “magic” in his or her life.

      So what I am thinking here is the possibility that many people who call themselves pagan or Hindu or Christian or Catholic have actually grown beyond the first birth and the religion they were baptized into and have learned beyond that into a more personalized spirituality (whether or not through their religious framework they were born with the first time) and then when they go beyond it or else abandon it then go back to it that that can also be what is “the second birth.” Yet, they can label themselves a “pagan” and perhaps be in their second birth—and they have their “reasons” for loving it, for being so—so it does then seem to me to go along with what you say about “reason.” That makes sense to me that poetry and reason and that some spirituality and reason can go hand in hand even when most people say they would not, that faiths and miracles and the tall tales of the Bible go against “reason.” I totally enjoy what you write about reason as archetypal, when you so beautifully express , “In the order of true myth (vera narratio), Reason assumes its proper “equiprimordial” role and archetypal status; it becomes, like the Heraclitean fire of becoming, constitutive of the universal order of the world, the fiery spark of a cosmic consciousness of being and time:

      Here I think of the concept of “born again” as in born again Christian—and perhaps there are “born again pagans.” Maybe they feel they have come back to life somehow upon experiencing the harmony with the earth in the earth spiritualities. This so that too, when as you quote Aristotle, when you write, “it was Aristotle long ago who pointed to the basic link between philosophy and myth in a mutual state of wonder at being itself:

      ‘For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize […] whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom [or a philosopher], for the myth is composed of wonders.  (Aristotle, Metaphysics; The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon, p. 692),’”

      it seems also a matter of love of poetry and love of lore (lore is just one letter away from the word love)

      I had some other thoughts but alas I lost them.

      I found the discourse on reason in this context in myth quite helpful and providing great insight. Thank you,



      I have to add here that neo-pagans do not subscribe to human or animal sacrifice and those that do are usually Satanists–and Satanism is not to be confused with paganism or Wicca because to believe in Satan one is first practicing or believing in Satan in a Christian framework and paganism does not embrace a Christian framework yet nor is it anti-thetical. (I decided to add this after reading Norland’s response to Stephen–so that people do not attach the ideal of sacrifice onto my discussion of earth religions and paganism–that is not part of my discussion except to say this here!


      P.S.S. I think perhaps I am far off in left field. Maybe I have strayed from the meaning of the mythblast or its major premises–I wrote what it inspired out of me. It might not be much on the mark–of this I am not sure at all! It did inspire me to think of the things I wrote about it.


      Dear Dr. Norland Tellez,

      Thank you for another formidable Mythblast article. I very much appreciate your analysis of Campbell’s work and highlighting the difference between the institutional religions and spiritual philosophy.  Would it be fair to say that essentially, it’s similar to concretizing a symbol, when we are in the womb of myth, and we become spiritual adults after we learn to dissolve the concretization —  And, it’s Reason- the thinking mind that helps us dissolve the symbol?  In my mind, James’ piece on Joe’s interpretation of the Star of David fits right in. “To dissolve such a concretization as an adult, you need to find what the reference of the symbol is. When that is found, you will have the elucidation.”

      You write,

      “Rather than reducing human reason to some kind of ridiculous narrow-mindedness as if it were some ideological fantasy among others, depth mythologists like Campbell help us recognize the greater archetypal logos of the psyche in the inner workings of myth and dream. Reason is indeed a sign of the divine spark of the human soul in the unfathomable history of the cosmos” —  Yes indeed.

      Additionally, I see Reason as the basis of mythic motifs —  Myths of gods and goddesses, myths of death and resurrection, myths of the hero/heroine’s quest, all arise because of needs and reasons. So, reason is in the making of a myth, reason is in the making of a particular myth, that is, myth of a planetary society vs. myth of a hunter gatherer society, and also in finally comprehending it.

      Also would it be fair to say that the four functions of Mythology grew out of societal need and the contents of the functions depend wholly on Reason.   Take for example the sociological function of the myth which is to justify and account for the existing social order of a given society. Yes indeed, Constitution of a country can’t be written without reason. Here “Reason assumes its proper ‘equiprimordial’ role and archetypal status; it becomes, like the Heraclitean fire of becoming, constitutive of the universal order of the world—the fiery spark of a cosmic consciousness of being and time.”

      Thank you for being the reason for this rational journey.



        Thank you Shaahayda and Marianne,

        Your questions and comments are most welcome. It pleases me to stir your imagination about Reason—which is like Zeus himself, that lightning which steers the world. You both pick up on my intent to “rehabilitate” Reason with the idea of going beyond the straw man caricature which is deployed by all sorts of mythic fundamentalisms.

        Marianne, you mention the example of self-styled “pagans” and asked whether they could be counted as a fair illustration of the state of humanity still-born in the womb of myth. Without pulling any punches, could we make a case for neo-paganism as a genuine possibility for the “twiceborn”? Yet, as you later reflected, despite their claim to paganhood, they still fall short of blood sacrifice or even animal sacrifice, branding such literal practices as “satanic.” But this “satanic” dimension was always indispensable to true pagans—from Homeric heroes to the Twins of the Feathered Serpent. The fact that contemporary pagans must brand themselves as the “good” kind of pagan, the one that dispenses with the sacred spilling of literal sacrificial blood and whose opposite, disavowed shadow is satanism—also tells us that this brand of paganism still understands itself within the mythological framework set by Christianity and the Christian ethos. They are not really “pagan” but unconsciously Christian. And if they be truly pagan then we would view them as Satanists.

        Isn’t it ironic that someone who imagines they have moved “beyond” the Christian god is nonetheless scared to death by Satanism? Stan seems more real to them than God. As the flipside of the secular form of fundamentalism, so-called pagans will believe in Satan sooner than God!

        Perhaps, at best, they might consider themselves to be “Christian” pagans, then they would be closer to the truth, but unfortunately most of this neo-paganism sustains its ideological identity over against the Christian myth and ethos.  They may feel just as threatened by Christianity as they do by Satanism—perhaps more so threatened by official Christianity, while allowing themselves to flirt with “black magic” now and then. I myself have some personal acquaintance with this latter kind of “pagan,” and I don’t see how we can make a case for them being an example of the twiceborn, at least not in the sense Campbell has in mind when he describes someone who is no longer susceptible to the “threats and lures of myth.”
        If you’d like to go a little deeper, this is a matter of mytho-historic reflection. I cannot but agree with Jung when he writes in Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious:

        I am convinced that the growing impoverishment of symbols has a meaning. It is a development that has an inner consistency. Everything that we have not thought about, and that has therefore been deprived of a meaningful connection with our developing consciousness, has got lost. If we now try to cover our nakedness with the gorgeous trappings of the East, as the theosophists do, we would be playing our own history false. A man does not sink down to beggary only to pose afterwards as an Indian potentate. It seems to me that it would be far better stoutly to avow our spiritual poverty, our symbollessness, instead of feigning a legacy to which we are not the legitimate heirs at all. We are, surely, the rightful heirs of Christian symbolism, but somehow we have squandered this heritage. We have let the house our fathers built fall into decay, and now we try to break into Oriental palaces that our fathers never knew. Anyone who has lost the historical symbols and cannot be satisfied with substitutes is certainly in a very difficult position today: before him there yawns the void, and he turns away from it in horror. What is worse, the vacuum gets filled with absurd political and social ideas, which one and all are distinguished by their spiritual bleakness. But if he cannot get along with these pedantic dogmatisms, he sees himself forced to be serious for once with his alleged trust in God, though it usually turns out that his fear of things going wrong if he did so is even more persuasive. This fear is far from unjustified, for where God is closest the danger seems greatest. It is dangerous to avow spiritual poverty, for the poor man has desires, and whoever has desires calls down some fatality on himself. A Swiss proverb puts it drastically: “Behind every rich man stands a devil, and behind every poor man two. / Just as in Christianity the vow of worldly poverty turned the mind away from the riches of this earth, so spiritual poverty seeks to renounce the false riches of the spirit in order to withdraw not only from the sorry remnants—which today call themselves the Protestant church—of a great past, but also from all the allurements of the odorous East; in order, finally, to dwell with itself alone, where, in the cold light of consciousness, the blank barrenness of the world reaches to the very stars. (CW9i ¶28-29)

        Finally, to dwell with itself alone, where, in the flickering light of reason, the blank barrenness of the world reaches beyond the stars, revealing a hidden order in the Mind of God, in the design of the universe. If you read Jung’s text slowly you can see him vacillating between adorning yourself with spiritual riches and being able to accept the vow of spiritual poverty that Christianity proclaims as our spiritual adulthood. You can see that not even Jung himself is this “twiceborn” as he refused to cross to the other side of myth and ideology into the mytho-historic shores of modernity, where reason must dwell with itself alone without the need of mythic alibis or archetypal scapegoats.

        Where Freud had already crossed the Rubicon of modern consciousness, Jung took on the role of a “vanishing mediator” between the Medieval world and modern psychotherapy.
        With respect to this process of authentic spiritual growth, saturating our minds in actual mytho-historic truth, I think Shaahayda put it plainly when she writes:

        “Would it be fair to say that essentially, it’s similar to concretizing a symbol, when we are in the womb of myth, and we become spiritual adults after we learn to dissolve the concretization —  And, it’s Reason- the thinking mind that helps us dissolve the symbol?”

        Yes, very nicely put. We could also say that Reason is the organ that separates and integrates the eternal symbol into the temporality of our lives; it is the process of “eating the God” which requires us to chew and digest this spiritual food before we can swallow. So many people skip this phase of chewing and digesting (analysis and synthesis) and just swallow myth whole, excreting it just as fast, without understanding its meaning. Instead of understanding it, they “act it out”—an act of unconsciousness which keeps the symbol raw and undigestible. The symbol is pure potentiality, an empty universal fixed in the abstract; the minute it enters the flux of temporality, it becomes existentially concrete and its symbolic status is dissolved. To put it in well-known Biblical language, the Word becomes flesh.

        So we could put it in the reverse way and say that reason is the instrument that allows us to make symbols truly concrete, assimilating them into the body and soul of our mortal existence—or Existenz—a process of integration and disintegration which leaves the phase of fetishization and reification behind. Once taken up on the ground of Existenz, the symbol stops being an object to grab, possess, or even “worship”. Rather than “known” the symbol is lived instead. That is the real difference, where a distinction is drawn between making a symbol existentially concrete and reifying it as a fetish . The act of reification and objectification in fact renders the symbol more abstract than concrete. It turns the crux of a unique experience of being into an object for sale as the oldest trade. When the symbol takes on true concretion, it can no longer become a general object of cognition. Instead of an objectification and reification, turning a god into an idol, the symbol becomes the very flesh and fluid of my being—my Existenz—the eye of the self that can never see itself “from the outside” apart from the mirrors and traces of its disappearance and regeneration in time.

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