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What’s In A Name?

BY Stephen Gerringer February 7, 2021

There is no doubt that Joseph Campbell’s words sing – and not just his prose, but the titles he chooses as well: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Masks of God, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, all have a poetic quality that convey each work’s theme with uncanny precision. Campbell has observed that the title of The Hero with a Thousand Faces came to him  “about two pages before the end of the book”; one has to wonder if his masterpiece would be the consistent bestseller it remains today if he had kept the original title, “How to Read a Myth.” (“An Interview with the Master of Mythology,” The Bloomsbury Review, April/May 1984)

But what of The Flight of the Wild Gander, a collection of essays first published in 1969 that explore the natural, biological, cultural, historical, and psychological underpinnings of mythology? Why that image, which appears in but a single chapter?

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Multiple figurines of flying geese have been found from the Mal’ta culture, centered west of Lake Baikal in Siberia, some 22,000 years ago––a motif that subsequently appears in the mythologies of myriad cultures.  Wild geese are migratory birds with no fixed home, flying thousands of miles to follow the sun. In ancient Egypt the goose – associated with Amun, the Sun and Creator God – lays the World Egg. In early China geese were viewed as mediators between heaven and earth, a theme echoed in the Celtic world, where they were considered messengers of the Gods.

Terracotta statuette of Aphrodite Aphrodite riding on a goose, 3rd century BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich. Photo by Marcus Cyron,licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Geese also serve as a favorite mount of mythic beings. In Greek mythology Aphrodite is known to ride a goose; some have traced the cycle of Mother Goose nursery rhymes back to Aphrodite in her Mother Goddess aspect.

Shamans in the Altai Mountains ascended in trance to the heavens on the back of a goose. In India Lord Brahmā, the mythic embodiment of the creative principle, rides a wild gander. 

And so did Joseph Campbell, who in the late sixties and early seventies drove a little red VW he called “The Gander.” 

The significance of the gander as a mythic image is best stated by Joseph Campbell’s friend and mentor, Heinrich Zimmer, in Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (a posthumous work edited by Campbell). Zimmer observes that a wandering monk in India is often referred to as Haṃsa (“gander” or “swan”) or Paramahaṃsa (“supreme gander”): 

“The wild gander (haṃsa) strikingly exhibits in its mode of life the twofold nature of all beings. It swims on the surface of the water, but is not bound to it. Withdrawing from the watery realm, it wings into the pure and stainless air, where it is as much at home as in the world below. . . . 

On the one hand earth-bound, limited in life-strength, in virtues, and in consciousness, but on the other hand a manifestation of the divine essence, which is unlimited, immortal, virtually omniscient and all- powerful, we, like the wild goose, are citizens of the two spheres. We are mortal individuals bearing

within ourselves an immortal, supra-individual nucleus. . . . The macrocosmic gander, the Divine Self in the body of the universe, manifests itself through a song.”

(Zimmer, 48) 

By Anonymous, 19th century – McGill Digital Library, CC BY-SA 4.0, and Wikimedia Commons

This is a song we all sing. If you focus on your breath, you’ll hear the sound “ham,” just barely audible, every time you inhale—and the syllable “sa” sounds with every exhale. “Ham-sa, ham-sa,” sings our breath all day, all night, all one’s life, making known the inner presence of this wild gander to all with the ears to hear. 

But the song, like the image of the wild gander, is twofold. Not only does our breath sing “Haṃsa, haṃsa” but also “sa-‘haṃ, sa-‘haṃ.” 

“Sa means ‘this’ and ‘haṃ means ‘I’; the lesson is, ‘This am I.’ I, the human individual of limited consciousness, steeped in delusion, spellbound by Maya, actually and fundamentally am This, or He, namely the Atman or Self, the Highest Being of unlimited consciousness and existence. I am not to be identified with the perishable individual, who accepts as utterly real and fatal the processes and happenings of the psyche and the body. ‘I am He who is free and divine.’ That is the lesson sung to every man by every movement of inhalation and exhalation, asserting the divine nature of Him in whom breath abides.”

(Zimmer, 49-50)

Mythic symbols, for Campbell, are more than just words on a page. Embodied in pictures, figurines, a car’s nickname, a book’s title, or even one’s own breath, they serve as touchstones that pitch the mind past the material world, to that which transcends.

Gander paperweight (a gift from Jean Erdman on completing The Flight of the Wild Gander) from Working Art: Joseph Campbell at His Desk, a reconstruction of Joseph Campbell’s work space for an art installation at the Carl Cherry Center in Monterey, April 2012 (Photo by Stephen Gerringer).


Discuss this MythBlast with the author, Stephen Gerringer, in our forums: visit Conversations of a Higher Order and join the conversation.


Yours, Stephen Gerringer Stephen GerringerStephen Gerringer has been a Working Associate at the Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF) since 2004. His post-college career trajectory interrupted when a major health crisis prompted a deep inward turn, Stephen “dropped out” and spent most of the next decade on the road, thumbing his away across the country on his own hero quest. Stephen did eventually “drop back in,” accepting a position teaching English and Literature in junior high school. In addition to authoring the Practical Campbell essay series, Stephen is currently editing a volume compiled from little known print and audio interviews with Joseph Campbell from the last fifteen years of his life.

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

In many east Asian countries, the Year of The Ox begins February 12. In China, Vietnam, and Korea, it is calculated to be year 4719.

Thailand celebrates its own New Year (Losar, February 12). By their calendar, it is the year 2148.

Featured Audio

Weekly Quote

‘All life,’ said the Buddha, ‘is sorrowful’; and so, indeed, it is. Life consuming life: that is the essence of its being, which is forever a becoming. ‘The world,’ said the Buddha, ‘is an ever-burning fire.’ And so it is. And that is what one has to affirm, with a yea! a dance! a knowing, solemn, stately dance of the mystic bliss beyond pain that is at the heart of every mythic rite.

-- Joseph Campbell

Featured Video

Campbell in Culture

Reflections on Campbell from Art Institute Chicago

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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