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The Antlered Child,” with Mythologist Joanna Gardner, Ph.D.”

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    Writer, mythologist, and magical realist Joanna Gardner, Ph.D., is our guest this week in Conversations of a Higher Order for a discussion of her MythBlast essay, “The Antlered Child: Changing Shapes, Changing Souls.”

    At the end of her article, Dr. Gardner asks, “What do you think of the imagery in Sweet Tooth? How have creative myths helped you navigate change in your life? How has your own mythic creativity helped?”

    Please feel free to share your response. Also welcome are any thoughts, reactions, insights you may have – join the discussion and engage Dr. Gardner directly with your questions and observations.

    Joanna, I confess I have yet to see Sweet Tooth (fortunately, it’s running on one of the streaming platforms I subscribe to, so I intend to remedy that lapse before your essay appears). I did a little googling, however, and learned this program is based on a limited series comic book published from 2009 to 2013. I also see the producers are Susan Downey and Robert Downey, Jr., the creative team that a year ago presented a reimagined Perry Mason (which I loved), with an origin story much darker than the black-and-white television series some six decades ago (interesting that the rebooted Perry Mason is such intense noir, much darker than the original, while the televised version of Sweet Tooth is generally considered brighter than the original comic book series).

    Though I have yet to see it, I am intrigued by your description of the imagery of Sweet Tooth – in particular, your association of the hybrid figures with the roughly 13,000 year old antlered figure painted on the cave wall of Les Trois Frères. For reference, here is a sketch of this Being, drawn by noted anthropologist, archaeologist, and Jesuit priest, Abbé Henri Breuil, as it appears in Joseph Campbell’s  “The Way of the Animal Powers” (Part 1 of Volume I of his Historical Atlas of World Mythology):

    Paleolithic shaman as animal-human hybrid

    In Primitive Mythology (Volume I of The Masks of God), Campbell labels this figure “Paleolithic Shaman”; in the Atlas he refers to this image as the Sorcerer of Les Trois Frères. It appears to have the ears of a stag, eyes of an owl, beard and legs of a human, tail of a wolf or horse, paws and torso and perhaps sexual organ of a lion – and, significantly, this being is dancing, as do several similar figures identified as from the same period, such as the Dancer of Le Gabillou, c. 17,000 – 12,000 years ago), also from France along the Dordogne – pictured here in an artist’s rendering by José-Manuel Benito (I love the  dancing!)

    Dancer of Gabillou

    Not only do these figures seem to refer to a common myth widely known, or a related ritual, but these paleolithic caves would appear to be a three-dimensional representation of the “Imaginal” realm, a la Henri Corbin (the comic book as well as the television series would seem to serve the same purpose for Sweet Tooth).

    In my own life similar images are a hallmark of my dreams (I have accumulated roughly a thousand-plus nocturnal dramas in multiple dream journals the past three decades). The shift is subtle: I might be talking to you, then realize I’m actually talking to your mother – or wait, it’s the dog! – but the feeling-tone indicates a similar constellation of transformational creative energies.

    I do have a question for you, considering Sweet Tooth so clearly fits into the genre of magical realism. There are times today when, for good or ill, it feels as if magical thinking has become the new norm: from “happy happy joy joy” practitioners of what might be called “wishcraft,” to the tortured fantasies of QAnon adherents, a sizable segment of the population seems to inhabit a post-factual world.

    How would you characterize the difference, if any, between magical realism, and magical thinking?


      Stephen, thank you so much for bringing in these images. I think you are absolutely right that these Paleolithic images of dancing animal figures represent residents of the imaginal realm. They also function as access points between the every-day and imaginal worlds: the images exist physically in here-and-now reality, and at the same time they grant us entry into the more-than-real by way of our imagination.

      And thank you for pointing out their dancing! That kinetic energy also underscores their dual aspect. The figures are not literally dancing, and yet they give us the imaginal experience of animal rhythm and movement. And don’t they convey some of the true, actual vitality and energy of real animals? Imaginal images employ literal falsehoods to portray adjacent truths. (There’s a wonderful scene in Sweet Tooth Episode 2 when Gus hears music for the first time and can’t help but dance. Highly recommended!)

      You also raise a fascinating question about magical realism and magical thinking. The distinction, for me, lies in the terms “realism” and “thinking.” Magical realism apprehends reality by means of awe, amazement, and wonder, while magical thinking involves errors of logic and fact. Magical realism is an experience of the sacred through artistic imagery. Magical thinking, on the other hand, is a defense against reality, often involving denial and delusion, as you quite rightly point out. Magical realism can be a very vulnerable position to take, in its openness to experience. Magical thinking is often brittle and embattled. While freely confess that I am not immune to magical thinking, my aspirations lie in the camp of magical realism.

      Sweet Tooth is very interesting as an example of magical realism. I think the show’s primary genre is science fiction, positing a “what-if” scenario in a future where scientific work has resulted in an unexpected situation. But in moments like the buck’s arrival behind Gus, the fictive world opens out beyond itself, exactly the way magical realism can do. I also feel that the show renders its magical moments in particularly generous and open-hearted ways, which I appreciate very much.

      At least that’s how I see it. Very curious to hear others’ views on Sweet Tooth and any of these topics!


      What a wonderful essay to read just crossing the threshold into Fall! Thank you Joanna!
      And I agree Stephen, love those images  of those antlered and horned beings dancing on cave walls and dancing on in our mythic imagination!  Motion in stillness. A snapshot evoking movement and energy.

      Joanna you write: The figures are not literally dancing, and yet they give us the imaginal experience of animal rhythm and movement. And don’t they convey some of the true, actual vitality and energy of real animals?


      It is true those images do exactly that.

      Whenever a deer comes into my awareness, I definitely feel magical realism at play.
      The presence and energy of the animal draws my attention a slight fraction before I see it.
      There is this sense of a being from elsewhere crossing into the threshold of my clearing and my awareness.
      I’ve seen deer before but this year has been special…a fawn overnighting in the grass. It’s humbling.
      And it pulls me out of myself away from the chatter and worries in my mind. It’s as if Nature gently, but firmly turns my head and she says “Look, Behold…experience.” And there’s a deer in my yard.
      I have just started watching “Sweet Tooth,” but I want to wait before commenting.
      I am hoping others are coming to this conversation too! And maybe they have also started watching that series.
      Have to say again truly appreciate and enjoy the books, shows and links shared here at CoHo. It’s been delightful!
      In short every day I’m in Nature has the Full Potential of Magical Realism!

      And I love dancing in the Imaginal Realm!

      Thank You Stephen and Joanna!


        What a gift, to be able to share your yard with a fawn! I love your description of that moment of awareness-before-awareness when you encounter a deer. It reminds me of a wonderful book by Graham Harvey you might find interesting, called Animism: Respecting the Living World. Meanwhile I hope you enjoy Sweet Tooth – I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


        Thank you for the book recommendation Joanna! Sounds fantastic! Thanks to these JCF boards, I’m in the midst of savoring “The Spell of the Sensuous.” So I will look forward to another book within this realm!

        As for “Sweet Tooth,” one of my favorite aspects are Gus’s ears. I know this is indirectly related to the topic but I love his ears…and they do bring a kind of emotive realism into play.

        It reminds me of Avatar in that way…also again the ears…the expressions…and in that case the cat tails too.
        I think it’s because I’ve had cats and also dogs, and love horses…and love watching  visiting  does and fawns as well. so much character and emotion is expressed through those ears.
        So with Gus too…one feels his sadness as his ears go down or as they flick up when the little actor smiles. The young actor is delightful!

        And on a deeper level, I completely agree about the “generous and open hearted way” of bringing in the “Magical Realism.”

        I loved the Stag standing behind the door born out of the mist like an ancient Gaelic or Native legend.

        Sweet Tooth reminds me of Charles Delint books (though known for urban fantasy some of his books strayed farther into the misty woods of the old country and deeper into the woods and plains of North America and Canada)

        And then there’s that darker element which has a touch of Dean Koontz…

        But instead of a dog being the counter point of Light. Gus is that counterpoint.

        He struggles goes through all the classic paths of stepping out into ones own adventure…with doubts, hopes, friends, guides and dangers along the way.

        To me it feels as though something more is at work than Gus currently realizes…seeing the deer run with him through the forest again another breath of that magical realism making itself known. There is a feeling to me of a “becoming,” something waiting to be noticed. Waiting for him. His existence feels symbolic of something larger than himself.

        And to be fair there are other characters and other “counter points of light,” in this story: crossroads all coming together to make a larger legend.
        Found myself crying a few times…love the friendship between Gus and Jeppard…and Wendy and her “Mom.”
        These moments bring the light back in.
        And there is also something beautifully “healing,” in some of the other dream sequences even if there is an edge as well. And other revelations on other primary characters are unfolding. But will leave it there.

        And back to the figures in the caves…also evokes images of those wonderful Gaelic/British Spirits: Cernunnos and Hern. Those two are wonderfully compelling and fun!
        And aspects of the same imaginal and nature energy and imagery! Love it!

        The fascinating element of  “magical realism,” just from observing or experiencing nature is how certain moments lend themselves to that “realm.” And the reason it works is because of how Natural it seems…

        Anyone that has walked in a fog knows…the way the mists shift around with the air currents.

        The way animals come into focus when one is quiet…deer, birds, the piercing scree of a red tail. Coyotes singing to the moon at night.
        The arresting color of a forest in green or autumn mantle. The sudden silence of rustling leaves.

        A meteor streaking across the heavens. It’s hard not to imagine something more at play something calling out reaching a human longing within…

        Thank you for the essay Joanna!




          I love Gus’s ears too! They’re so expressive and convincing, and so simultaneously human and deer. I think you’re absolutely right that the show gives us the feeling of that “something more” at work / at play than we can see on the surface, or that any of the characters realizes. I love how you phrased it – a feeling of “becoming.” And fun, as you point out! If that’s not magical, then I don’t know what is. :))

          Dennis Slattery

            Thank you Joanna and others who have responded to and let us know of this show, which Sandy and I will watch soon.

            To your provocative distinction, Joanna, between Magical Realism, often seen in the fiction of Marquez, and Magical Thinking, I sense a move and a counter move in our contemporary culture, laden, nay saturated with magical thinking. As so often with psyche, one trend evokes a counter move, so I wonder if this Netflix film is a response to the distortions created by magical thinking in the culture? Any thoughts much appreciated.

            And now a short story. Where we live in the Texas Hill Country, there is a herd of about 17 wild goats, big goats with large horns, some so big they could not enter our living room through the front door! Well, one of them took up residence by our garage for some 6 weeks. She looked big in the belly, so we consulted our vet; he said that when one of these animals is pregnant, they separate from the herd. So we named her Hannah, or at least Sandy did, and we took many pictures of her. Sandy talked to her every day, from a distance, and when she did Hannah stopped chewing her cud and listened to her. This prompted Sandy to begin writing her first short story, ever, for our grandchildren. So she began to tell the story of Hannah and mailed it to our grandchildren, whose mom read them her installments. I found Sandy’s sudden urge to open that part of her creative self to writing a story of Hannah.

            Then one day, Hannah did not appear. We have never seen her since. And we felt such a loss of her presence. That was about 7 weeks ago. So, I tell the story to augment your image of the ancient deer in the cave of France. The sheer presence of Hannah elicited in Sandy a desire to create a narrative around this beautiful expectant mother.

            And, I know you have all heard it, but such is the power of myth and mythopoetic consciousness in our deepest urges to create stories from our experiences.

            See what you evoked, Joanna!? Wonderful



              Dennis, what a wonderful story about Sandy’s friendship with Hannah! It really is amazing what our cousins in the animal family can awaken — that sense of kinship, that surge of renewed vitality, that quickening of creativity. It’s easy to imagine Hannah now tending to her new kid, remembering her home by your garage and the companionship she found there.

              I think you’re right that an impulse toward truth-telling can be a response to the blatant falsehoods of magical thinking. It can be an urgent feeling, too, of needing to correct someone who is trapped in a delusion. Perhaps because of the tragedy that occurs all to easily when the delusion grows so strong that those in its grip will defend it with physical force. Sweet Tooth offers images of that phenomenon as well. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the show!


                Wonderful story, Dennis, right on the beam of Joanna’s wonderful evocation of the archetypal background of such an image.

                The show really plays with an interesting juxtaposition, as far as I’ve gotten, completely unexplained between a certain apocalyptic breakdown of the human world and this “response” from Nature, as it were, seeking to reintegrate the human back into its animal soul; the hybrids seem to be a kind of response by Nature to the human crisis—very much in keeping with the operation of a kind of ‘transcendent function’ creating a third “synthesis” between the human and the natural.

                But as far as it relates to a possible counter-movement to magical thinking, I am not too sure that Netflix would be the place where this counter-movement could happen. It’s like trying to be anti-facebook by logging in and using it to disseminate truth, etc… This is a kind of contradictio in adjecto. For in the realm of entertainment, just as in art, the medium is the message.

                I would like to ‘deconstruct’ a little the dichotomy between “magical thinking” and “truth-telling” given what we know about the nature of truth: that truth has the structure of a myth. Art is the only place where magical thinking belongs and remains the medium of wish fantasies and their fulfillment. On the page, where the artist writes, it also creates a world, exactly as a form of “magical thinking.”

                It is of course the travesty of our self-help industry that it pushes the standard ideological belief that you can take the logic of myth and apply it literally to the real world.  There lies the perversity we are talking about which is better named the delusion of “positive thinking” rather than “magical”, as positive thinking today also likes to use all kinds of pseudo-scientific garbles and misappropriations to clothe its spiritual and logical bleakness.

                The book to read in this connection, one I highly recommend over others, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s BRIGHTSIDED: HOW POSITIVE THINKING IS UNDERMINING AMERICA where she tells the story from a very personal angle, as  cancer survivor, of how she became inundated with the fierce propagandistic waves of the positivistic creed—with less than “positive” results for her mental health and intellectual integrity. I was so delighted to discover Barbara and her take on positivism that I even wrote a short blog about it if you want to check out some passages.

                And there is no doubt that that we are today inundated with this ideology, whose historic trajectory Barbara traces to a kind of compensatory reaction of the 19th century to the austere Calvinism of the founding pilgrims, the intense spiritual pessimism with which this country got started.

                Dennis Slattery

                  I was informed by both Joanna’s response to my Hannah story and Norland’s references to Ehrenreich’s Brightsided.

                  What a time in history to see the variations on a theme called Reality today. In reading the new graphic version of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (2021), I see that he referenced Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay and subsequent book, The Power of the Powerless (1978). I took the short route and read several pages of the essay on-line. In his critique of the Soviet Propoganda machine, he hones in on the qualities of ideology; it takes one only a few minutes to draw comparisons with our current dodging of a shared reality, a shared mythos. “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. . . . It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo.”I hear Norland’s critique haunting Havel’s description. I also hear Joanna’s distinction echoing here as well.

                  Is it a great lie we are suffering from; ok, but it is also a great cover-up that, perhaps Brightsided is a conveyor of.

                  Thank you both; so enjoyed learning from your observations and insights. Norland, I read your blog; what a world you entered when you showed up to the San Diego dreamland. My warmth to you both.


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