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The Power of the Personal: Flight of the Wild Gander

BY Dennis Patrick Slattery February 14, 2021

Two herons and a goose. Unknown artist, Edo period (1615 – 1868) Japan. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives, used via Smithsonian. CC 0.

Anytime I read, and especially reread, Joseph Campbell’s books, I feel like I am in a personal conversation with a priest or a confessor, one who understands the need for the transcendent in our lives and is prepared to point me in the right direction. I think this feeling emerges because Campbell’s storytelling gene is a part of all of his utterances, but especially when he works a concept by morphing it into a narrative. 

In this collection of essays he states his purpose as shaman and guide: “to lift the veil, so to say, of that Goddess of the ancient temple of Sais,” who affirmed for all time, “no one has lifted my veil.” (xi) This metaphor is one of the constants of Campbell’s own heroic writer’s journey: to enter that terrain where the veil thinly separates the phenomenal world from the treasures of the mythic structures that support it. Bird and Goddess, flight and veil, oscillate and communicate throughout the essays. The wild gander is a rich metaphor for “Hindu master yogis,” who in their trance states, go beyond all boundaries of thought and are best known as “hamsas and paramhamsas: “’wild ganders’ and “’supreme wild ganders.’” (The Flight of the Wild Gander: Selected Essays 1944-1968, 134) This, and other comments like it, brought me years ago to write a piece on “Joseph Campbell: Irish Mystic.”

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Such an image serves as a still point in a rotating circle of themes, but the one I find most captivating is that of “brahmanatman, the ultimate transcendent yet immanent ground of all being” which makes possible the yogi “passing from the sphere of waking consciousness. . .to the unconditioned, nondual state ‘between two thoughts,’ where the subject-object polarity is completely transcended. . .” (135) 

The mythic motif Campbell spirals back to repeatedly is the quest for the crack, the gap, the thin membrane that allows him to glimpse and discern the symbolic, transcendent nature of the world winking back at us with not a little seduction, through the mask of the sensate realms of the human- and world-body in their fragility and mystery. Such is one of the many masks of gods that reveal the yearned-for archetypal compost of myth. 

Following Campbell’s thought like one starving for nutrients, would track the thin line of bread crumbs that if followed with humility and curiosity, leads one to the realm of mystery, while feeding one’s soul in the process. One of his favorite nutritious repasts consisted of the belief that myths allow us to move as if in a transport vehicle from the sensate order to one where we become transparent to transcendence. The veil lifts ever-so-slightly in this moment of meaning, but not before having the rich human experience, of which the residue or after-burn is meaning-making. 

I have sensed, as have other lovers of Campbell’s work, that his rich mythodology is syncretistic, gathering and clustering, then ultimately clarifying the connective tissue between disciplines to uncover the vast complexity of the human and world psyche on their arc towards unity. He is both hunter and gatherer, spanning centuries of development in human evolution. 

Which persuades us to glance with double vision at both myth and history, one inside the other, one connecting and transforming the other. We might, in Campbellian fashion, play with our own metaphor here at the end. Here is my image: the invisible lining of a jacket or coat is what I would call history’s inner myth; it gives shape and contour to the outer sleeve, which is history itself. Yes, the sleeve can be turned inside-out to reveal the hidden myth, and that is part of Campbell’s mode of excavation: he turns the sleeve inside-out in order to explore the mystery shaping history. Ok, not quite a veil, but certainly another form of fabric-ation. 

Nor can myths be divorced from the inventions and discoveries of the time in which they surface. Indeed, I sense in Campbell that myths survive by accommodating such discoveries, especially those of science. This discipline has knocked down the walls “from around all mythologies—every single one of them—by the findings and works of modern scientific discovery.” (81) 

And then the wild gander takes flight once again to accommodate the new mythic template. Let it not land too quickly. 

Discuss this MythBlast with the author, Dennis Patrick Slattery, in our forums: Visit Conversations of a Higher Order and join the conversation. 

Yours, Dennis Patrick Slattery Dennis-Patrick-SlatteryDennis Patrick Slattery, PhD, is an Emeritus Core Faculty member at Pacifica Graduate Institute. where he has taught for the past 25 of his 45 years in the classroom. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of 27 books. He has also published 200 articles in newspapers, magazines, journals, book collections and on-line journals. His books include The Idiot: Dostoevsky’s Fantastic Prince, The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of Flesh, with Glen Slater he co-edited Varieties of Mythic Experience: Essays on Religion, Psyche and Culture, and with Jennifer Selig he co-edited Reimagining Education: Essays on Reviving the Soul of Learning. He has authored Harvesting Darkness: Essays on Film, Literature and CultureThe Beauty Between Words: Selected Poetry of Dennis Patrick Slattery and Chris Paris; Simon’s Crossing, a novel co-authored with Charles Asher; Feathered Ladder: Selected Poems of Dennis Patrick Slattery and Brian LandisRiting Myth, Mythic Writing: Plotting Your Personal Story; and Creases in Culture: Essays Toward a Poetics of Depth. More recently he has published Our Daily Breach: Exploring Your Personal Myth Through Herman Melville’s Moby-DickA Pilgrimage Beyond Belief: Spiritual Journeys through Christian and Buddhist Monasteries of the American West; with Evans Lansing Smith he has co-edited Correspondence; with Craig Deininger he has coauthored Leaves from the World Tree: Selected Poems of Craig Deininger and Dennis Patrick Slattery; and with Jennifer Leigh Selig and Deborah Ann Quibell he has co-authored Deep Creativity: Seven Ways to Spark Your Creative Spirit. For the past 9 years he has been taking painting lessons in both acrylic and water color mediums. He offers Riting Retreats exploring one’s personal myth in the United States, Canada, Ireland and Europe. April 16-19, 2020, Dennis will be leading a workshop entitled Questing for Our Personal Myth in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For more information, visit

Monthly Gift

Bios & Mythos (Esingle)

Our gift to you this month is an exciting e-single from The Flight of the Wild Gander. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

Written two years after his seminal Hero with a Thousand Faces, “Bios & Mythos” takes what was, for Campbell, a unique view of myth. In deference to Róheim, who defined myth as a mechanism for satisfying the universal human desire to return to the infant’s safety with its mother, Campbell invokes what was to become one of his favorite images for the function of myth: that of the marsupial pouch, the second womb. Here, more than elsewhere in his work, Campbell emphasizes myth as an intermediary aid that the individual can outgrow.

News & Updates

Nirvana Day (Nehan-e, February 15) not only observes the physical death of the Buddha but reverences his last teaching on the Dharma and his subsequent entrance into Nirvana.

Shrove Tuesday, February 16, aka “Fat Tuesday” and even more pleasantly as Mardi Gras derives from “shrive,” an archaic verb meaning to confess as to a priest.

The festival of Vasanta Panchami, February 16, honors Saraswati and anticipates by forty days the coming of spring.

With Ash Wednesday, February 17, the days of Mardi Gras are left behind.

Featured Audio

Featured Video

Myth Resources

The Mirror of the Gods: How the Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods

By the end of the 15th century, the remains of the ancient gods littered the landscape of Western Europe. Christianity had erased the religions of ancient Greece and Rome and most Europeans believed the destruction of classical art was God’s judgment on the pagan deities. How, then, did European artists during the next three centuries create such monumental works as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Raphael’s Parnassus?
In The Mirror of the Gods, Malcolm Bull tells the revolutionary story of how the great artists of Western Europe–from Botticelli and Leonardo to Titian and Rubens–revived the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. Each chapter focuses on a different deity and sheds dazzling new light on such familiar figures as Venus, Hercules, and Bacchus. Bull draws on hundreds of illustrations to illuminate the ancient myths through the eyes of Renaissance and Baroque artists, not as they appear in classical literature. When the wealthy and powerful princes of Christian Europe began to identify with the pagan gods, myth became the artist’s medium for telling the story of his own time. The Mirror of the Gods is the fascinating and extraordinary story of how Renaissance artists combined mythological imagery and artistic virtuosity to change the course of western art.
The Mirror of the Gods profoundly deepens our understanding of some of the greatest and most subversive artwork in European history. This delightfully told, lavishly illustrated, and extraordinary book amply rewards our ongoing fascination with classical myth and Renaissance art.

Weekly Quote

And just as in the past each civilization was the vehicle of its own mythology, developing in character as its myth became progressively interpreted, analyzed, and elucidated by its leading minds, so in this modern world––where the application of science to the fields of practical life has now dissolved all cultural horizons, so that no separate civilization can ever develop again––each individual is the center of a mythology of his own, of which his own intelligible character is the Incarnate God, so to say, whom his empirically questing consciousness is to find. The aphorism of Delphi, ‘Know thyself,’ is the motto.

Featured Work

Flight of the Wild Gander, The

In these essays – contemporary with his years at Sarah Lawrence and with his legendary Cooper Union lectures – Campbell explores the origins of myth, from the Grimms’ fairy tales to Native American legends. He explains how the symbolic content of myth is linked to universal human experience and how the myths and experiences change over time. Included is the famed essay “Mythogenesis,” which traces the rise and decline of a Native American legend.

Book Club

Introducing our book club pic for February: Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Imagination.

“To what extent do we see the mythological brilliance of Joseph Campbell expressed in his stories, and to what extent did storytelling contribute to his success as a mythologist?…”

– William Linn II, Ph.D.

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