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The Song of the Sirens” with Mythologist Evans Lansing Smith, Ph.D.”

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  • #74415

    Evans Lansing Smith, Ph.D. – writer, professor, world traveler, poet, and mythologist – joins us this week in Conversations of a Higher Order to discuss “The Song of the Sirens,” his current contribution to JCF’s MythBlast essay series (click on link in title to read).

    With a curriculum vitae too extensive to detail here, I’ll just touch on a few highlights of our guest’s career that are bound to be of interest to Campbell aficionados. Dr. Smith is Chair and Core Faculty of the Mythological Studies M.A./Ph.D. Program at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California (home to Joseph Campbell’s personal library of some 3,000 books). He is the author of 13 books (including two volumes of poetry), along with numerous articles on comparative literature, mythology, and even the Grateful Dead. Dr. Smith devoted a decade to editing Joseph Campbell’s Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, and then, with Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D., served as co-editor of Correspondence: 1927-1987, the collection of Campbell’s letters.

    But, before all that, way back in the 1970s, at the very beginning of what was to become a distinguished career, young Lans Smith traveled on tours of Northern France, Kenya, and Egypt with one Joseph Campbell.

    I imagine most of us know the drill by now. I will get the discussion started with a few comments and a question, but it will be your thoughts, reactions, observations and insights that expand this beyond just another interview into a communal exchange of ideas – a true “conversation of a higher order.” Please feel free to join the discussion and engage Dr. Smith directly with your questions and observations.

    So let’s begin:

    Dr. Smith, thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule to come play with us in Conversations of a Higher Order. My head is still spinning from the explosion of the common misperception of the Sirens as seductive mermaids enticing sailors to their doom with an ethereal, erotic song. No matter what translation I’ve read, I realize now that when I’d come to Book 12, I would automatically project that culturally-engrained image onto the passage. As you return us to the actual text, what has been interpreted by some as a morality tale about resisting temptation deepens into something far more profound. I thank you for that.

    I do have one observation, followed by question.

    I can’t help but note that the Sirens are only heard by those who undertake a voyage. If one does not embark on the journey, then there is no risk – and, of course, no adventure, no tale to tell.

    And, as you dispel the default interpretation, I can see why that Siren song is so compelling: encountering that song, astronaut Rusty Schweickart has a metaphysical experience; an indigenous shaman learns not to fear the universe; and Campbell himself suggests therein lies an encounter with the wisdom that surpasses all understanding.

    Where, then, lies the danger? What is the risk to hearing that song?

    I return to Circe’s warning, that those who hear the Sirens’ song will never find home. Brave Ulysses must be lashed to the mast, his sailors’ ears plugged with beeswax, his men warned to ignore his entreaties to free him to follow that song. It would seem the danger isn’t so much hearing the song as pursuing it once it’s heard.

    Is this an experience only for the rare soul – the shaman, the epic hero, the astronaut floating in space? Must we plug our ears with beeswax and bend our backs to the oars – or is this an opportunity within our reach? If so, to what mast must we be bound to be saved? Who are our oarsmen, to see us past this compelling peril?

    Asking for a friend . . .

    #74424

    Dr. Smith,

    You are welcome for the link! No, I am not familiar with Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” but I will be sure to listen to it now that you have recommended it–thank you so much!

    –Marianne

    #74423

    Evans and Robert, and All,

    Thank you for sharing the whale song. In some shamanic traditions, the whale’s sound carries ancient records of knowledge of life (back to prehistoric) on earth. The frequencies of their sounds can tap into the mind of the Great Spirit to tell the secrets of the ages or else what you might want to know about yourself, since the whale medicine can teach us to also find our own sound and frequencies. What sounds do we humans share in common?: laughter, crying, yelling out…but we do not have our own whale song per say or we do not all have a howl, and while we do have a collection of music from music history, we do not have just one song that we all sing in uni-verse. If we did, I wonder what it would be? Would it be a piece by Beethoven or something by the Beatles or perhaps a blending of the two or of the entire reservoir?!

    And thank you Evans and Robert and all who mention the belly of the whale where a challenge and rebirth takes place within what I see now as a sort of concert hall and echo chamber!

    I once saw a whale  in the Pacific ocean while fishing with my dad in the Hawaiian seas. It was so beautiful to see it surface and dive.  It is so wonderful to see the “depths” surface in this way. That entire trip (vacation) was my initiation into my teenage years, my rite of passage. There were many spectacles, and so it was spectacular! Writers, artists, musicians, historians, shamans, any kind of record keepers such as dream keepers/journalists, etc. all love Whale. In a sense I can see where every totem animal carries its sound strongly or uniquely enough to lend us our ears to hear our own voices and our own calls and responses/answers, like the howl of the wolf or the hoot of the owl, yet Whale is specifically known to carry various frequencies to life as we know (or do not know) it.

    ~ Marianne

    #74422

    Hi Stephen,

    Now it is letting my type be seen! The first few times I tried to respond to your beautifully compelling questions, this site would not let the type be seen. Now it is working again–

    Stephen, the questions you write at the end of your post are lovely:

    Where, then, lies the danger? What is the risk to hearing that song?

    I return to Circe’s warning, that those who hear the Sirens’ song will never find home. Brave Ulysses must be lashed to the mast, his sailors’ ears plugged with beeswax, his men warned to ignore his entreaties to free him to follow that song. It would seem the danger isn’t so much hearing the song as pursuing it once it’s heard.

    Is this an experience only for the rare soul – the shaman, the epic hero, the astronaut floating in space? Must we plug our ears with beeswax and bend our backs to the oars – or is this an opportunity within our reach? If so, to what mast must we be bound to be saved? Who are our oarsmen, to see us past this compelling peril?

    It sounds like a good intro to a very good book. I love this poetic thread.

    Thank you, All, so nice to hear people’s voices!

    ~Marianne

    #74421

    Dr. Smith,

    I am listening to Tim Buckley’s “Song of the Siren” now on You Tube, and find it to be a beautiful adaptation to the song. Thank you for sharing it.

    ~Marianne

    #74420

    Hi Everyone,

    I am responding here to my own post about the shamanic/mystical attributions given to Whale, which was # 5118 and to Robert’s (R3’s) response post # 5040.

    I mentioned that Whale is said to hold the records of life on this earth. Meanwhile, the ocean it lives in is often called the Ancient Mother of us all. So I responded again here just to post another “whale song” (or dolphin song?–dolphin is the breath, and the breath produces voice/song) I enjoy so much called “Ancient Mother” by Robert Gass. At the end of the song, there are also some whale (dolphin) song sounds. I have posted it before on the Facebook site I used to go to (I do prefer this forum!) and I might have posted it in this forum before too yet I do not recall whether I did so or not.

    ANCIENT MOTHER ~ Robert Gass

    Enjoy, en/joy, in joy,

    Marianne

    #74419

    Thank you, Marianne,

    I like the way Lans answers my questions, which circles back to Joseph Campbell’s own rejection of the way of renunciation (leaving life behind and withdrawing from the mundane world in favor of navel-gazing –where the Siren’s song takes us when we hear it and pursue it exclusively).

    . . . as opposed to Joe’s approach – drawing on Krishna’s revelation to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, Nietzsche’s amor fati, and the “bodhisattva formula” within Mahayana Buddhism – of “saying yea to life!” – and joyfully participating in this world of sorrows.

    Seems the myth advises us one way to successfully navigate that passage is to lash oneself to the mast – the World Axis, or Still Point round which all revolves … which strikes me as a subtle thread tying together all these wonderful MythBlast essays from so many different authors.

    #74418

    Thank you Stephen for this further information on this topic. I am going to come back and revisit this asap. For now, head is swimming!  –in Eastern philosophies and aesthetics–so much to say in this topic on aesthetics, and about the contemplated naval! Thank you! Also aesthetics in regards to Shaahayda’s quote of Campbell’s passage in her post above which I will also revisit. I would love to dig into it right now, but I have to get back to work for now today!

    ~ Marianne

    #74417

    Interesting that for the early Christian commentators the mast was analogous to the Cross, and Odysseus to Jesus in his resistance to and rejection of the song of the sirens, which for them, as for the Gnostics, represented the lure of the flesh, from which the soul must liberate itself, in order to return to the homeland of the spirit, symbolized by Ithaca. For the Pythagoreans, of course, it was just the opposite: the sirens offered the hope of spiritual transcendence.

    What a wonderful round of posts! Thank everyone so much for participating!

    #74416

    We would like to extend our thanks to Evans Lansing Smith, Ph.D. for spending time with us in Conversations of Higher Order.

    Dr. Smith, thank you for giving so generously of your time – far more than the single week we expected! Though, of course you may feel free to stick around and participate as much or as little as you would like, we do understand you have other commitments you must attend to; however, don’t be surprised if the conversation continues on without you as participants continue to explore these subjects.

    We look forward to doing more of the same with your next MythBlast essay.

     

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