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When Mythology Meets Dance and Sounds

BY Monica Martinez April 10, 2022

I first heard of the 11th-century bronze Shíva Naṭarāja statue in 1991, while watching Power of Myth—the television series that made Campbell famous in Brazil, at least to me and others of my generation. In the book based on the 1988 PBS documentary, chapter VIII (named Masks of Eternity), Bill Moyers mentions it to Campbell, who briefly explains that Shíva’s dance is the dance of the universe, since there is death and rebirth there at the same time in an eternal becoming. 

Not by chance, when I went to India for the first time in 2014, I bought a small replica, which is at the entrance of my house in São Paulo. In this quarter of a century I have immersed myself in the studies of mythology, a wide scenario that was revealed to me when watching the conversations between Campbell and Moyers.

So I was very happy to have the chance to read the book The Ecstasy of Being and come across, in part 1 of the Symbolism and the Dance chapter, the same Shíva image, but with a much more in-depth explanation of it.

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In it, Campbell talks about the tradition of opposites in the world mythological tradition. As it was peculiar to him, in his profound erudition, he moved with the same ease from tarot card 21, The World, to the Indian statuette, passing through the book of Genesis, Plato, and Tiresias, among others. At one point he even joked that you could continue to quote forever (which wouldn’t be a bad idea, coming from him).

But then he lands on the image of Shíva, for him the most eloquent and complete symbol of all opposites. At this point, I picked my little Shíva up and began to read the book’s passage while searching it for Campbell’s findings. Mine was obviously a rather simple replica of the 11th century original, but still there it was, the divine foot planted on the dwarf named Not-Knowing, while the left leg was raised with the foot pointing to the right. For Campbell, the first foot planted in the earth indicated the arrival of the soul in life and the second, raised, its release. Here we come and from here, one day, we take the exit door. 

I looked carefully at the piece’s hand in front of me. Or rather, four hands and two pairs of arms. The right hand, stretched out to the same side, holds a little drum that goes tick-tick-tick, signaling the time that flows in everyday life. On the opposite side, however, the left hand holds a flame that sets fire to the clock’s veil of time and represents Kairos, the sacred time, and also the destruction of the known. The second right hand is flat in front of the god, suggesting, according to Campbell, a “don’t be afraid” gesture. The second left hand, in a position as if it was holding a baby in front of the body, points to the raised foot, suggesting that in the end it is all an illusion or, as Campbell says, “the promise of the release”.

In my modest figurine I can’t tell the difference, but Campbell says that the original Shíva´s bronze wears female earrings in the left ear and male earrings in the right—the usual representation of genders, considering the side of the body, in most traditions. In his hair there is both the crescent moon that symbolizes life and the skull that signifies its end. While everything dances in Shiva´s bronze, Campbell remembers that his face is absolutely inert, showing the immovable point of stillness within—with which, as we know, Campbell was familiar not from dancing, but from athletics in his college years. 

Before moving on in his thoughts towards the dervishes, Campbell recalls that the dancing god is a symbol of the union of time and eternity. I take the figurine in my hands again. I see the dance of flames that regularly spring from the circle that surrounds Shiva and its complex symbolic conjunctions of opposites. And, as a Jungian analyst, I remember Jung and his notion of the coniunctio, the recombining of polarities such as day and night, masculine and feminine. But, also, Jung’s concept of the transcendent function, the manifestation of the energy that arises from the tension of opposites. Neither still nor in motion, so that if we were stuck in one of the polarities, we would miss its totality. However, it is precisely the union of these opposites that gives rise to a third, synthesizing element which gives life to a new perception of reality. And what comes to my mind is that, as Campbell used to say, mythology is the “song of the universe,” the whispered tune underneath the dance. The point where mythology meets both the dance and the music of the spheres.


Discuss this MythBlast with the rest of the JCF community in our dedicated thread in Conversations of a Higher Order.

Monica Martinez is the former Joseph Campbell Foundation Mythological RoundTable® Program South American Coordinator. She is a trained Jungian Psychoanalyst with a private practice in Brazil. On the academic field, she is full professor on the Communication and Culture Graduate Programme at the University of Sorocaba, Brazil, and visiting professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences de l'Information et de la Communication (Celsa) of the Sorbonne Université (France). She holds a PhD in Sciences of Communication (University of São Paulo) and completed her postdoctoral studies at the Methodist University of São Paulo. She has been interested in mythology since the first book of Greek mythology she ordered from a catalog when she was 9 years old.

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The Humbling of Indra (Esingle)

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

In this introduction to Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, Joseph Campbell begins his fascinating overview of the central symbols and myths of the great Asian religions by examining the very basis of myth, and by retelling the ancient Indian tale of how the greatest of the Hindu gods was brought low at the moment of his greatest triumph.

News & Updates

Palm Sunday, April 10, is the day you can see many Christians waving palm branches in imitation of the historical witnesses to Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem.

Also on the tenth is Ramanavami, or Rama’s birthday.

Vaisakhi, April 14, is an important Hindu harvest festival in North India corresponding to the first day of the solar year. Among Sikhs, it is also the anniversary of the Khalsa, the fellowship of the pure where all men adopt the name “Singh” (lion) and women “Kaur” (lioness), a simple expression of equality before the one God.

For Jains, April 14 is Mahavira-jayanti, the birth day of Lord Mahavira, the last Tirthankara of this time cycle.

Christians call this day Holy Thursday, when Christ washed the feet of his disciples, a scene reenacted at parishes big and small around the world. It is also the beginning of the Triduum, three days of liturgical celebration including Good Friday on April 15, reaching its high point in the Easter Vigil (Holy Saturday), April 16.

Saturday April 16, is a busy day in terms of world spiritual expression: For Orthodox Christians of the Eastern rite, it is Lazarus Sunday, named for one of Christ’s more dramatic miracles; Theravāda New Year for affiliated Buddhists; and Hanuman Jayanti, the birthday of Hanuman, the fiercely devoted companion of Rama. Passover (Pesaḥ) also begins on the 16th and, for orthodox Jews, spans the next eight days beginning with the Seder meal on the first and second evenings.

Weekly Quote

The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest.

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Myth Resources

Myth, Magic, and Metaphor : A Journey Into the Heart of Creativity

Myth, Magic & Metaphor takes the reader on a journey into the heart of creativity: the book attempts to awaken the aesthetic sense and the creative muse who lurks within us all. Today, in a cognitive and technical society, people become more and more removed from the instinctive aspect of the psyche.

“My task as author is to enhance the creative spirit through myth and metaphor, to restore the sense of wonder adults experienced as children. My method is multi-sensory, interdisciplinary, and holistic. There are no limitations to what thoughts, ideas, observations, or research could and might be used to stimulate the creative process. The ultimate tool is the human heart (from the French, coeur, meaning courage). The medium is words. Philosophy, art, music, and linguistics are some of the disciplines used as stimulation.”


Featured Work

Ecstasy of Being, The

Joseph Campbell’s collected writings on dance and art, edited and introduced by Nancy Allison, CMA, the founder of Jean Erdman Dance, and including Campbell’s unpublished manuscript “Mythology and Form in the Performing and Visual Arts,” the book he was working on when he died.

Dance was one of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s wide-ranging passions. His wife, Jean Erdman, was a leading figure in modern dance who worked with Martha Graham and had Merce Cunningham in her first company. When Campbell retired from teaching in 1972, he and Erdman formed the Theater of the Open Eye, where for nearly fifteen years they presented a wide array of dance and theater productions, lectures, and performance pieces.

Book Club

“What we need now is not a minor repair, but a major transformation of the world that can only start with the awakening of the individual soul. In Awakening the Soul, Michael Meade addresses the issue of the loss of soul throughout the world and the loss of meaning and truth in modern life. Meade shows how meaning is essential to the human soul and uses ancient stories and compelling insights to describe how soul can be recovered and how people can learn to ‘live in truth.’ Drawing from dramatic episodes in his own life, Meade shows how the soul tries to awaken at critical times, and how an awakened soul is crucial for finding medicine to treat the ailments and alienation of modern life.”

Tyler Lapkin L.Ac. MTCM
Social Media Coordinator
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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