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To the The Female God of the Labyrinth,” with Joanna Gardner, Ph.D.”

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    Writer, mythologist, and magical realist Joanna Gardner, Ph.D., is our guest in Conversations of a Higher Order this week for a discussion of “To the The Female God of the Labyrinth,” her most recent contribution to JCF’s MythBlast essay series.

    At the end of her essay, Dr. Gardener posed the question, “What labyrinths have you walked, literally or metaphorically, and what surprises have you found in the center? How has Ariadne’s thread guided you?”

    Please feel free to share your response. Also welcome are any thoughts, reactions, insights you may have, which are what make this exchange a true “conversation of a higher order.” Join the discussion and engage Dr. Gardner directly with your questions and observations.

    So let’s begin.

    Joanna, I am touched by your willingness to trust readers with this account of such a vulnerable, traumatic moment in your life – and I marvel at how skillfully you weave your personal experience together with the mythic imagery that provided a through-line to follow in a time of crisis.

    I take the opportunity to walk a physical labyrinth wherever I find one – sometimes in a park, sometimes in a church, and on one occasion a labyrinth I stumbled across hiking in the forest. I am slow and deliberate when I do so, treating this act as a centering ritual. Two of the most powerful such experiences for me, however, have been walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, in San Francisco, and similarly walking one laid out with a totem pole at the center at Camp Winnarainbow, a camp for children established by Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm Community on Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, California. Perhaps the common factor is that in each case so many have traced that path with their steps inward, and back out again, as part of a personal spiritual experience.

    As for metaphorical labyrinths, I have walked a few of those as well – particularly several decades ago, at a time I was deeply mired in the Wasteland, facing death (weeks away at best, according to my physician and an endocrinologist). Instead of slaying the Minotaur, I surrendered to the experience and took a deep inward turn, and found myself, or rather, my shadow self – a stunted, half-formed version of who I could be – at the center of the Labyrinth. In this instance the sword the Lady of the Labyrinth provided was discernment – lacking until then – which allowed me to recognize how I had sabotaged and injured myself, enabling me to embrace and absorb that malformed being.

    The next few years were all about making my way out of those dark passages and back into the light – and the Ariadne thread I found at the center, which I followed to find my way out, came courtesy Joseph Campbell – specifically The Hero with a Thousand Faces, supplemented with other works of his (there weren’t that many available then), counseling, and sitting meditation with a local Zen group.

    In an interview about Heinrich Zimmer, Joseph Campbell observed

    If you live with the myths in your mind, you will find yourself always in mythological situations. They cover everything that can happen to you. And that enables you to interpret the myth in relation to life, as well as life in relation to myth.” (“Elders and Guides,” Parabola, Vol. V No. 1, February 1980)

    Your essay presents a poignant example of exactly that. But for those unfamiliar with that dynamic, who approach mythology as something to be studied rather than experienced (a category I fell into until I got lost in my own labyrinthine psyche), can you offer some practical guidance on how to go about that?

    I suspect a clue can be found in the quote from Goddesses at the the top of your essay . . .

    #74213

    Stephen, thank you so much for sharing your labyrinth walks. I’m glad you received the Lady’s sword of discernment! Reading your story let me vicariously experience the feeling of discernment as well, and the feeling of coming back from the brink. Sharing stories like this can be immensely healing for both the teller and the listener.

    I love the Campbell quote from Parabola that you cited, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. Mythic images and day-to-day images do mirror each other. It’s only natural, really, because day-to-day images inspire myths at least as much as images from dreams, visions, and imagination do.

    Regarding practical advice for living “with the myths in your mind,” as Campbell says, I think the first step is to get to know some myths. You don’t need an encylopedic knowledge of mythology — although if that sounds fun, go for it! But you do need some awareness of mythic images in order to be able to connect them with the day-to-day.

    The second step is, in the course of daily life, to find occasions to zoom the camera of your consciousness back, so to speak. Survey your situation with a wider lens. This can provide a sense of psychological spaciousness that’s very helpful for matching mythic images with life images. It’s like the children’s game Memory (which reminds me of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the muses! but that’s another story). In the game, there’s a deck of cards that contains 2 of each kind of card. You place all the cards face down on the table. When it’s your turn, you flip one card over to see its image, then another card hoping for a match. If you match, you keep the cards. If you don’t match, the cards get turned back over. As the game proceeds, you begin to start remembering where you saw each image, and you begin matching cards. In a similar way, life situations can remind you of images and metaphors you’ve seen in myth, then you just have to remember where to find the myth in your memory and turn its card over.

    Finally, it helps to allow the dividing line between the literal world and the imaginal world to soften. Let images be real, let reality be images, and let both of them be metaphor and poetry. This, I think is the “poetic understanding” that Campbell refers to in Goddesses quote. Poetry, myth, and mytho-poetry occur just outside and all around the every-day — again, zooming the camera of consciousness back to take in a bigger picture. It also reminds me of what Alan Watts calls “floodlight consciousness,” versus the more typical “spotlight consciousness” of focus and concentration. A floodlight view of reality and myth can illuminate the many connections between the two realms.

    Thanks again for sharing your story, Stephen. I’m looking forward to reading more reflections about labyrinths and walking them!

    #74212

    First time I have responded here in Conversations, so I will try to be respectful of its norms, chief of which, I imagine, is an undefended heart.

    Your Ariadne delivers really practical miracles. Can’t get more practical than a spool of thread which will show both the way in and the way out of the Cretan death trap. I understand your Ariadne as science personified as she guides the skilled hands of the surgeons toward your husband’s relentlessly hungry minotaur with an inerrancy bordering on the miraculous. Is it a problem with our society that we no longer turn to Ariadne with an open heart? I find that many people today are rejecting the Ariadnes. Entering into the labyrinth of a global virus (can you tell I’m tired of writing the word “pandemic?”), unburdened by experience, unburdened by the acquired knowledge of centuries, unburdened by Ariadne’s freely given gift.

    #74211

    The idea of “zooming back the camera of our consciousness” is powerful image.  In my experience, if I cut my finger my immediate reaction is usually, “I’m cut!”  But it actually isn’t ME that is injured…  It is just my finger.  I am not my finger.  I could have that finger removed completely, and I’d still be me.  But when I cut my finger, my mind yells “I am hurt” because I’m zoomed way in on the injury.  If I take a few deep breaths and zoom out, it is apparent that I am not hurt.  In fact, except for the little bit of blood on my finger, I’m perfectly fine.  The more control I have over the ability to zoom, the more I’m able to physically handle.  I think our bodies naturally do this to some degree when they go into shock with major injuries. To be able to reach a similar state consciously can be a valuable tool for the not-so-serious hurts.

    The same goes with thoughts and emotions.  If I hear something I don’t like and say “I’m offended!”, I often find that I can zoom out a bit and see that I am actually just feeling weird about something I heard.  I am experiencing an emotion that I call offense, but I am not offended.  I just am.  However, if I’m zoomed way in on my emotions, then they fill the whole screen and it absolutely seems like my offense is all there is… that I am offended and there is nothing else to be seen.  But knowing about that zoom lens is powerful.  I can just kick it out a bit and watch the feeling of offense rise and fall, and realize that I can be the watcher of my experiences, depending on how far back I zoom.  Once I am able to see things more clearly from my zoomed-out stance, I can then work on why I cut my finger (not paying attention to chopping carrots) and why I felt offended (because I have a strong aversion to ________(fill in the blank)), and work to fix those aspects of life that return unpleasant results at their root.  That zoom lens is a very powerful tool, if I remember to use it.

    I know this comment doesn’t really jive with the labyrinth theme, but I really loved that statement about the zoom lens of consciousness…

    Lovely article, and interesting conversation.  Be well!

    #74210

    Hi John, I love your interpretation of Ariadne and her connection to science, and then of course to the rejection of science. That reading cleverly collapses the rejection of science and divinity into the same gesture, and shows how both rejections involve the rejection of miracles as well. I think the thing about opening our hearts to Ariadne and to the labyrinth is that then we can sense how she opens her heart to us. Thank you for your willingness to join the conversation!

    #74209

    Hi Jordan, you articulate the zoom lens of consciousness so eloquently! To extend the idea another step, we can also zoom out on “positive” sensations and emotions. I find that it doesn’t diminish their enjoyment, but rather it seems to create space to hold more of everything — lightly and with compassion for self and others. And of course it allows mythic themes and images to reveal themselves. I’m glad you connected with the zoom image!

    #74208

    This isn’t a question so much as a passing comment on the figure of Ariadne.

    Roughly a decade ago I presented a lecture at the Gaia festival on the love of Dionysus and Ariadne. The deeper I delved into that imagery, the more I found their myth to be a bottomless well; I did my best to capture and convey a bit of the magic, but nothing I shared about Ariadne came close to Florentine author Roberto Calasso, whom I discovered the following year. He elegantly draws together so many conflicting accounts to embrace the paradox contained in her image:

    Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths, and in this they differ from the characters we find in novels, who can never go beyond the single gesture. But in each of these lives and deaths all the others are present, and we can hear their echo. Only when we become aware of a sudden consistency between incompatibles can we say we have crossed the threshold of myth. Abandoned in Naxos, Ariadne was shot dead by Artemis’s arrow; Dionysus ordered the killing and stood watching, motionless. Or: Ariadne hung herself in Naxos, after being left by Theseus. Or: pregnant by Theseus and shipwrecked on Naxos, she died there in childbirth. Or: Dionysus came to Ariadne in Naxos, together with his band of followers; they celebrated a divine marriage, after which she rose into the sky, where we still see her today amid the northern constellations. Or: Dionysus came to Ariadne in Naxos, after which she followed him around on his adventures, sharing his bed and fighting with his soldiers; when Dionysus attacked Perseus in the country near Argos, Ariadne went with him, armed to fight amid the ranks of the crazed Bacchants, until Perseus shook the deadly face of Medusa in front of her and Ariadne was turned to stone. And there she stayed, a stone in the field.

    No other woman, or goddess, had so many deaths as Ariadne. That stone in Argos, that constellation in the sky, that hanging corpse, that death by childbirth, that girl with an arrow through her breast: Ariadne was all this.

    Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

    This passage resonates on so many levels. The Female God of the Labyrinth is more than just a silly, lovestruck princess, to be abandoned on the beach once one’s monster is slain. Theseus may have completed his task, sparing Athens its human tribute, but he missed the boat (pun intended) when he let Ariadne miss the boat . . .

    #74207

    What a wonderful quote, and what a wonderful way to evoke the mystery of Ariadne, which transcends any individual plotline. One thing this collection of plotlines suggests is that she who is Most Holy on Crete suffers and is silenced as a result of contact with the mainland’s sacred powers. It’s a dynamic that continues to play out to this day.

    #74206

    Dear Joanna: I just read your powerful story about your husband’s ordeal, which you by his side, did to. The weave you create is miraculous. You ARE Ariadne weaving the two universes into a gripping wholeness. What I like most about your story is how you underscore that myths are present all the time if we have the eyes and ears to sense their engulfing presence. Some years ago, when I was very ill from a bacteria infection that required more than one surgery, then a complete redo of an earlier hip replacement, I realized in healing that I had to write about it from a mythological perspective, which I did. No question that it helped me in my return to the ordinary, which I cherish now more than ever.

    One final point–In Reading The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric, by John Scheid and Jesper Svenbro, that ancients traced the origin of story to the spider’s webbing and built narratives off of this structure–plots not being linear but more in the form of a webbing. So Ariadne may well be, along with Athena, the grand weaver, the figure that returns us to the origin of stories themselves.

    Just to share that. Thank you for a beautiful story and I pray that your husband continues to enjoy good heath, and you with him

    Dennis Patrick Slattery

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