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MythBlast | Four Mysteries of Initiation in Pathways To Bliss

BY Neora Myrow May 6, 2019

My first memories of Joseph Campbell are through my dad’s love for him. Dad played Campbell’s lectures on cassette tapes on long, sun drenched drives to visit our family’s patriarch in the desert. Ironically, what I remember was how Campbell’s storytelling made no sense. He’d jump from the myth of Theseus to a fairy tale about a princess and a frog to existential ideas about sacrifice. My young mind couldn’t find the thread.

While Campbell and Dad seemed to be “in on” the secret meaning behind the patterns of connection that held the world together, I didn’t understand.  Campbell told so many different kinds of stories, in so many genres, to talk about words whose meanings I couldn’t fathom.

What does a kid know about “love,” “death,” and “transcendence?” What I did know was that this knowing that Campbell had and my Dad treasured…it was the thing that I should be after too.

Whatever that knowing was, I imagined it was what it meant to be “Enlightened.”  And this word was what my strange name, ‘Neora,’ in an ancient language, meant. I understood “Enlightenment” as a goal, as the Buddha moment.  As if Enlightenment were a miracle that just happened to a person vs. the continuous epiphanies that characterize the dynamic process of becoming. As if that process of becoming were One story, rather than a series of iterative stages each with unique and discrete knowings. In other words, initiations, into the mysteries of Life/Death.

These initiations and the mysteries they open up are in fact plural, multiple, iterative, just like Campbell’s storytelling. This is the pattern.

As an adult, as a story analyst, I returned to Campbell and finally saw that secret pattern emerge as a total story, in his monomyth. Campbell’s hero’s journey taught me to look at what stories do and how they do what they do, in the form of an Aristotelian three act structure. What a revelation.

Stories, when they function mythologically, “INITIATE.” I’ve spent a lifetime defining this word with Campbell’s help.

Myth serves an initiatory function in that it provides “a framework for personal growth and transformation.” In Pathways to Blisss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, Campbell names this as his constant motif resounding through his work over time. Simply put: when we read myth, even the myth of our life story, in terms of initiation, we see the framework of our development. This is also a working definition for “enlightenment.”

Here is where I find it helpful to think of initiation simply as a movement from one way of knowing, into another way of knowing; it is developmental. From young to old. From naïve to wise. From unknowing to knowing. From unrelated (to the mysteries)  to related (to the mysteries).

The key is, initiation isn’t a general thing. It is always utterly specific.

We find the specificity of these initiatory mysteries in Campbell’s description in Pathways To Bliss, in the chapter, “Self as Hero,” pages 116–119. Campbell’s monomyth telescopes the four types of initiation required in our journey of becoming.

Although we find the total pattern of these four initiations in big culture stories from Parizval to Ulysses, the way we live these initiations is as discrete chapters or stages in our development.

The pattern is less linear and more iterative.

We remember these stages as a time when we were in a particular kind of developmental challenge. The metaphors of these initiations break down into this taxonomy:

  1. Hieros Gamos: Mother. The mystery of feminine power, of relatedness to feminine metaphors of consciousness and ways of knowing.
  2. Atonement with the Father: Father. The mystery of the masculine, of power, of legacy, of continuity.
  3. Apotheosis: Where you realize you are what you are seeking. The mystery of the Self.
  4. Prometheus/Fire Theft: The mystery of stealing something from the underworld or the gods. Here there is no reconciling with the underworld. Bringing back this knowing causes a violent reaction from the depths.
Approaching the Grail Castle (Gustave Doré, illustrator, Idylls of the King, engraving, England, 1877. Public domain)
Approaching the Grail Castle (Gustave Doré, illustrator, Idylls of the King, engraving, England, 1877. Public domain)

You can relate to the metaphors in these mysteries by asking yourself: What initiation am I going through in the story that I am living out, right now? What, in the trouble that is front page news for me, am I being asked to relate to in a new way? What kind of knowing, wisdom, lesson, learning, am I coming into by way of this experience?

Undoubtedly, one of these four metaphoric frames will help you to characterize the mystery and name the initiation you are in. You will also discover that the mystery of life/death is in fact mysteries. And to tell this story, you, like Campbell, will need multiple genres, stories within stories, and a “zeal” for the sense making that happens when we share stories about our becoming. As Campbell says

What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco.

But there’s also the possibility of bliss. (Pathways to Bliss, p. 133.)

My dad likely would have called such a becoming “enlightenment.”

My word for this becoming is “wise.”

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