Thoughts on Associative Mythology (Series)

“The Territory”

Benjamin Dennis, PhD

This is the first in a short series on Associative Mythology. Coming out of a combination of many years of study of myth, poetry, performance, and ritual, as well as the experience he has gained teaching his Living Myth, Living World series, Daniel Deardorff’s Associative Mythology brings together the very best of Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly, James Hillman, and a host of scholars, story tellers, and poets into a genuinely mythic way of being. I hope you will enjoy this journey…

Contemporary times seem to demand we anesthetize our souls in the face of the soulless cacophony of modern day life. The noise of the I-Generation threatens to overwhelm the song of the robin with such force its absence goes unnoticed leaving a deafening silence where once there was music. With heads furiously bent over myopic devices, the souls eyes and ears are diverted from the living world and stark attention is brought to the warning implied in what David Abrams notes in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous; that all cultures realize when they obtain an alphabet (in this case maybe an iPod), theirs is the unique gift of language (100). A fallacy, then, wends its way into the collective soul: If mankind is the only creature with language, then the rest of the world must go silent and the dying voices of the Amazon are only so much background noise as the world “slouches toward Bethlehem” (The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats 216).

Myth, story, oral tradition, and more poke a grubby thumb into that “I” and causes a sometimes painful ripple (hopefully) in the LED-driven gorgon-deviced narrow-mindedness of our world. Associative Mythology interrupts the “Slouch,” the inexorable march of the singular, giving pause to the mono-life so often lived in reaction to the soulless cacophony. We clutch for meaning, sift evening television for tiny bits of nourishment, throw meaning-weights in the gym for a moment’s memory of a lived life, and yet, deep inside, we know there is something terribly wrong. In myth, for it still lives, we open our ears and our hearts, and let the twinkling of the stars be heard again, to speak to us, inform us, and to enliven our wooden minds once more with the mystery of the whole world! Association? This is it! To let living myth inside our bones and bring sustenance to our marrow once more.

“Associative Mythology” is an approach, a process, a way of seeing the world that imagines the ‘livingness’ of myth and story as a vital aspect of not just mythic inquiry, but of living life mythically. The livingness of myth is revealed in the genuineness of life as we know it, as we find it mysteriously flourishing, and as it brings vitality to lived life.”There is a thread you follow. It goes among things that change. But it doesn’t change” Associative Mythology is not an allegorical construct; rather, it confronts the so-called “I-world” with the recognition that the “thread” does truly exist and we can see it in the living myth of the living world. And as Stafford completes the poem, “You don’t ever let go of the thread” (Stafford, The Way It Is 42).

My task as a mythologist is to enter into a conversation (logos) with the images before me. Often these images and symbols are very well hidden, and often near unrecognizable. Yet, they are always there—this is what thinkers and poets like Jung, Freud, Blake, Bly and others point to. When Telemachus’ hears the story of Menelaus’s return from the Trojan War, there is a ritual of logos occurring. It is a story that mirrors Odysseus’s journey that gives the son an opportunity to embody his father’s journey—and therefore a ritual return for all of us. The ritual of return is important for Telemachus to be able to welcome his father home just as it is important for each of us to be welcomed home, and to welcome home our own fathers. It is clear in Homer the notion that immortality is found in the image and in the oral tradition. In this way, Associative Mythology is the embodiment of Homeric Immortality. Feeding the stories with our own stories as Daniel Deardorff suggests, we keep the myths alive, and as well the myths keep the stories of our daily life vital; immortality is gained. There is an ongoing relationship between the Siren’s and the Furies, and the Muses are alive in us every day.

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vantage, 1997.

Stafford, William. “The Way It Is,” The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems by WilliamStafford. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Grey Wolf P, 1998. 42.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.” The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart:A Poetry Anthology. Eds. Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade. New York: Harper Collins, 1992. 216.


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Interview with Martin Shaw

In late January 2012 I asked a few questions of Dr. Martin Shaw regarding Daniel Deardorff’s approach, Associative Mythology. His gracious response resulted in the following insights to this fresh approach to myth:

What is Associative Mythology from your understanding?

 Put as simply as possible – I view associative mythology as a departure from exclusively comparing one myth to another, and expanding into a much wider framework – poetry, biology, theatre, animal-lore, anecdote, the arts, ritual. It has a greater sense of the holistic, and the swiftness of its moves brings a kind of linguistic or oral wildness into the frame. From the point of view of a working storyteller, this is something that arises naturally when working with a group of students on their own reactions to a story. They all enter [at] different points with a collision of angles but are all held within the muscle of the wider story. Associative mythology in this sense allows polyphony as well as harmony. That is very important. It is a container for paradox.

 Associative mythology for me is move away from the mono, even the mono-myth. I imagine it as an eco-system. Within the valley of story exist clusters of oak trees, thin but lively streams, brightly splashed jungle birds. It is a mythography – meaning that the story cannot be apprehended entirely from one angle—if you only speak of the oak, then what about those birds? Associative mythology could be experienced in a dance, or mountain vigil, or an essay completed in the small hours. It is tricky because it is not a discipline of assurance or platitudes, it places story as primary, as being, rather than relegated entirely to allegory or illustration. It trails rather than traps.

 And here is a bit more from the end of my new Parzival book…. I am laying out five foundational stones to mythtelling….

 From the Comparative to the Associative

 “For the story to enter the room, wildness enters too. The old woman inside the teller holds the bones and the study and the structure together, whilst some raggedy girl waltzes onto the tongue and floods that skeleton with the vital organs it needs, so that the story can get up and dance. There may be a linguistic wobble here and there, it certainly won’t always be a slick delivery, but that’s not to worry. The story is only partially for the human community anyway, we should keep our heads turned in both directions – to edify the thick fingered woods and the gush-blood in a lion’s veins. Words from a teller’s mouth can be like the first wandering steps of a fluffy chick or the confident swoops of a bald eagle’s wing – both have their charm to the living world.

This way of telling opens the associative road for everyone present. It stops the story being too hobbled by historical reference and it becomes far more luminous. We are not peering into some other culture at some other time, but letting the story do its work with us here today. If a story is obviously deeply ingrained in a very different culture’s references then it may be wise to leave it alone. Feed it, honour it, learn from it, but don’t try to tell it yet. I am not encouraging a ransacking of sacred stories.

Many anthropological studies focus on the repetitive value of storytelling in oral cultures – this is a hangover from Frazer’s The Golden Bough and agricultural based renditions of stories aligned to seasonal ritual and stability. However, it doesn’t take long in the company of hunter gatherer tellers (and yes, there are still a few around) to see how a story can bend, stretch, condense and leap, depending on the mood of story, teller and environment. There is far greater unpredictability.

These roads take us from the comparative to the associative – by that I mean we have stepped out of just a dualistic comparison of images in myths to a varied eruption of information that arises from the condition of our souls, the arching history of art, the crafty intelligence of the wren. Myth no longer lives in academic translations but abides in a multiplicity of association. To make the move from harmony to polyphony.”

How do you Associative Mythology working in the world today?

We live, whether we like it or not, in an environment of overstimulation and odd amalgamations of influences coming together. This IS the era of the Bricoleur. However, much of what we experience has little nourishment in it, little soul. Associative mythology honours these times – not a Zeus time, a Goddess time, but a Trickster moment, by also making rapid openings between discipline[s]. In this it also relates to the ghazal form in Islamic poetry, but it returns the sacred to the spirit of this era. Much of what I just described is a kind of hysteria, but underneath all rapid, brilliant associations [lays] Hermes. So, we see the mood of the time we are in, and we seek to re-instigate a sacrality to that mood.

In what way is your work influenced by your understanding of Associative Mythology?

It’s utterly influenced by it, its what I work out of everyday. Anything else would be a falsehood. It is not a pure, or entirely academic tradition, or a recreation of a white robed Bardic thing. It’s funkier than that. Some Honorable prophets of it for me are: William Blake, Marie Louise Von-Franz, Ted Hughes, Patti Smith, [and] John Coltrane.

Thank you Martin, this is a brilliant peek into a juicy new world. We look forward to your new Parzival Book.


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The Dog and the Paraclete

20120315-123221.jpg“There is no greater suffering than the suffering of meaningless wounds.” I’ve said these words hundreds of times. The meaning making capacities of myth and ritual lead us out of passivity and victimhood. I have devoted myself to this premise of making meaning. Lately as I take stock of the variety of ways that people ascribe meaning to their lives I’ve begun to reconsider. What if a life with meaning is misleading, one more form of mass-civilization’s great delusion? And so it is with some surprise that I find myself struck by an unaccustomed thought—”It’s possible that the pursuit of meaning and worth is nothing more than a conceit.”
After all, animals, plants, and minerals appear to be unbothered by such questions. And for themselves the gods seem untroubled by any lack of meaning or worth; that is, until they turn their attention to humans—even some animals and trees seem to notice our confusion. If the gods and the earthly creatures wish to awaken us to a wider and wilder purpose, then perhaps our desire for self made meaning is simply the result of human ingratitude and ignorance. Foxes and cedar trees don’t have to decide how to live; the world grants them their place and their way. For most humans place and way are not clear, let alone granted. The complexities of modern circumstance tend to obscure the presence of a given place and way.
Yet somehow some of us suspect that a rightful place and a proper way belong to us, and so we ask, and seek, and choose. Making choices, and seeking justification for those choices, have become full time preoccupations for the people of modernity. The atavistic notion that one could simply “be”—like foxes and cedar trees—is at best naïve, and at worst a kind of exploitative program of denial.
Part of our dilemma is that human choice is never made in a vacuum. Every life is woven into a collective, a pantheon, an ecosystem, a culture. Our choices affect others and the choices of others affect us—much more so than we can know.
Considering this inescapable interrelatedness, we should turn, not to the best thinking of individuals, but to the best thinking of culture. Such collective thought, when it has matured, is called myth, and it is the myths, of the worlds indigenous oral traditions, that speak to us most deeply of our place and way in the world, of living with meaning and worth. Contrary to the ideologies of individualism and ambition, the implication of so many old stories is that we cannot perform the great tasks of life in isolation, that we need help, and that there is something which wants to help us.

The old Greek word paraclete, paraklesos, means intercessor, comforter, advocate, and it has the sense of something called or summoned. The etymology of the word paraclete is literally “called to one’s side.” In Christian theology the paraclete is The Holy Ghost and/or Christ; this correlation is so pervasive that my spellcheck wants a capitol “P,” every time I type it in. So paraclete with a small “p” is a subtle move toward a broader meaning. I envision a sense of the paraclete like that of Henry Corbin where “the Paraclete is the ‘Spirit of Truth’ that is the unveiler—discloser—of what is hidden.” (p. iviii The Voyage and the Messenger foreword by Jacob Needleman) The word “discloser” is apt because the message sought for here is a “mythic disclosure”(Hatab) which informs us of truths which cannot be explained. Hence, the paraclete can well be imagined as the “not-I”—as in Juan Ramon Jeménez’s great poem—the not-I is the one “walking beside me whom I do not see.” In the oldest sense, then, the paraclete is the genius, the daimon, the guardian angel—it speaks to us of Mystery, often through the gestures of the living world.

There is an old story in which a man is changed into dog. The man wastes no time resenting this transformation, but sets about straight away to be the best dog he can be. He becomes so good that his fame spreads and people often seek the loan of the dog from its master. This situation could be the end of the story, but, as so often happens in the old stories, a message arrives.
The idea that the living world is interested in helping us find our place and way, requires a kind readiness to receive the messages from the world. Many things have to go just right for this to happen.
In the story it goes like this. There is a village being preyed on my a rogue bear. The people finding no way to protect themselves go to the master seeking the loan of the good dog. So they take the dog giving him a clean place to sleep, clean water, and good meat. Thus when the bear comes the dog does his part. Not only chasing the bear away from the village but relentlessly pursuing the bear through the forest and high up into the mountains. As the chase nears the summit the bear turns rearing up on hind legs, the dog stops and the bear speaks. “You are not a dog! You are a human being! And in order to become the man you were meant to be you must do as I say!”
It turns out that this bear has been deliberately plaguing the village in the hopes of meeting the good dog and so the bear would have the opportunity to deliver its message.
The paraclete is always connected with the image of the wounded-healer. This is because the healing we need can only come from that which is similarly wounded. The question of meaning now becomes a question of sensibility; how prepared are we to hear the voice or read the signs? How deeply have we looked into our own wounds?

How many times do such messages pass by undelivered? In the story the dog hears and heeds the messenger, but for us this seldom happens. The arrival of the messenger, the paraclete, may not be so dramatic as a standing bear—a gust of wind, a fallen leaf, a feather—the gestures of the living world may speak to us at any moment saying, “in order to become the person you were meant to be you must do as I say!”
In the phrase “living world,” it should be made emphatically clear, that we are not simply referring to the natural world; what is intended is a world alive because of its inherent connection and communion with the Otherworld.
How do we make ourselves ready and prepared to receive the intercessional message of the paraclete? We have to know many stories so that the myth-making syntax of the living world can reach our hearts. The images in the myths, according to Robert Bly, “are meant to unfold slowly in our bodies”; this “unfolding” is a visceral process which I have called biomythic informance—as I have suggested elsewhere, human beings are biologically prepared to respond to the mythic image. In this way one is not gathering data or information for analysis, its more a kind of gnosis—a way of knowing, as Lao Tzu advocated, with “not-knowing.” The use of biomythic informance depends on a cultivated familiarity with the conditions of radical uncertainty.

So, after all, is it possible that the pursuit of meaning and worth is nothing more than human conceit? Insofar as one conceives that validation and confirmation are derived strictly from the human world, then such a conception is surely a conceit—that is to say hubris. Instead of aiming to invent ourselves, or raise ourselves in order to earn the approval of our betters, the story suggests that the message of the paraclete can only arrive when one departs from the ordinary life and risks a certain kind of sacrifice.

In the end meaningfulness is not the result of belief, or conception, it is nothing so heady as that. It turns out that our inventions of meaning do not ultimately satisfy. The meaning that lasts is more visceral, it sings in the blood, and echoes in the bones, there is no rational thinking involved. When the deep song, the duende, of mythos moves though our body we do not ask “what does this mean,” we simply enter the dance, and the dance is the meaning.


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What follows is an excerpt from a new book – for release in 2013. I will begin by just giving a very simple description of my notion of the word mythtelling rather than storytelling. It is less about genres – folklore, myth, legend – and more about a wider, holistic, not-entirely human perception of community.


I use the word mythtelling rather than storytelling sometimes to indicate that many stories are more than folklore – more than the intelligence of the village figuring their place out in the world. Mythtelling has a wider context, that the stories may come from a rock, cloud or deity. It’s not meant as a form of pretension, but to highlight this less anthropocentric emphasis.

The first road maps of England used to include detailed sketches and information about forests, lakes, rivers and mountains. They were not just negligible blurs between service stations. I would hope that mythtelling restates that attention within story. That we are not entirely caught up in the twin-lane highway drama of the human characters, but keep an eye for the lucid twinkles of ravens eye, or the bright sap on the crust of a rowan trees bark. To mention it constantly would make it self-conscious, but it will come up occasionally as a gentle re-orientation.

A Protean Era

With the revival of the storytelling tradition and a simultaneous focus on the bio-regional, it seems appropriate to recognise that local story can be just as nourishing as a plate of fresh vegetables from the garden or a haunch of venison from a nearby forest. It is a form of soul food. This book is about that very thing. Just as the farmers market is growing happily against the onslaught of the supermarket and allotments have waiting lists for the first time in a generation, I am suggesting that the vitality of localised myth can be just as crucial to the health of our own inner-ecosystem. In this next section I will move between both the gains involved in this immediate knowledge, and acknowledging the wider pantheon of story that is now readily available. It may be a frustration that I will not promote one entirely over the other, but I hope as we go my thoughts will become clear.

Story orientates: and not just to the immediate, geographical landscape but to wider, eternal concerns: concerns of the soul. It’s for this reason we sense the resonance of a Russian epic right down in the gut, that we laugh out loud at the bawdy intelligence of a Wolverine tale from Labrador, despite having been raised in an different time and space. I would call that nomadic recognition – past the cultural flavours and directly to the energy that lives behind it. It’s the power of truly vital image; we are shot clean of everyday reference and abide in its almost electrical refreshment, that, for a moment, hangs above specific fields of cultural association. However, for most there has not always been such a wide field of reference. Many human groups throughout history, have, for the most part, enjoyed a geographically specific relationship to the stories they tell. Of course a certain amount of cultural diffusion can be present, but is often waywardly pulled into the local over time. This generation spanning, steady telling I would call slow ground. It’s a localised cosmos that roots you steady in it. It confirms you, your thinking, your rituals and your tribe, establishes place, and reveals with a slow drip drip drip, the mythic energies you stand upon.

This slow ground is becoming rapidly fragmented in what many call a Protean age. Proteus is a shape-shifting god of the sea – mutable, able to swiftly change position. With the ludicrously intense barrage of information that we daily face, a kind of mimic of the nomadic leap becomes far more common parley than this slow ground. We multi-task to the last, digesting intestinal-wrecking amounts of stress in the bargain. The TV show, jerkily cutting from camera to camera, illustrates this malaise in a way we all understand. It seems to be revealing some great restlessness of spirit, way down inside.

The Other Place

The cardiologist Pim van Lommel has spent the last twenty years studying patients who have survived cardiac arrests and had near death experiences. In these moments before total death – maybe five or ten minutes – there is nothing happening within the brain that can create these frequent reports of out of body experience, a life review – every single thought and action you ever committed, including how it impacted others, visitations from dead relatives, tunnels of light. At this point, the patient is clinically dead.

His studies have convinced him that consciousness – the element that can provide this phenomena – is not actually localised to the brain or body. It actually exists in a place beyond normal time and space, and we are receivers rather than the sole guardians of that consciousness.

Storytellers, mystics, ecstatics of all varieties, have long insisted on a place outside of normal time and space – what some call eternity, in my tradition The Other World. As I studied Lommel’s findings I started to wonder if nomadic recognition is a result of a story actually showing us that, at its deepest depth, its consciousness is not local. The slow ground is the societal and personal material we bring to it through our life experience, but its nomadic sense is that its true origination point is not in this world but the Other.

In language I have used in other books, the nomadic is forest consciousness – liminal, experiental, un-shackled, and the slow ground village consciousness – grounded, collectively approved, handed down. Initiation is the business of creating a life that stands at a constantly shifting crossroads between the two – to choose one entirely over the other is failed initiation.

The Commons of the Imagination

A major factor of nomadic recognition within storytelling – this experience of possibly unknown but somehow emotionally recognised image – is then the move back to slow ground to root it in the discipline of crafting and telling the story. The performative. It re-finds its ground by the labour of telling – it grows roots. It cannot entirely replace the origination point of the story, but stories are living beings, origination points are a birthing but not an ending of it. Slowly the story becomes settled visually in the inner-landscape of the teller and the listeners. That inner-landscape will not be the same for everyone. Although the experience can very deep, we are seeing different locations, geographies, visual triggers. The image-net is wider. James Hillman talks about “the return to Greece” not as a physical journey to the Mediterranean but as a revival of pantheistic consciousness. That is the trade for learning of these stories.

They have entered a cross-culture commons of the imagination. They abide not in a particular gully or narrow mountain range (except for a very few listeners) but have ended up in the wide, rainbow’ed vista of collective information. From this commons many apprentice storytellers wander excitedly through, gathering a bulb of Hungarian folklore here, a herb or two from Tibet over there. My own pockets have bulged on occasion.

Of course, this all seems like a snapshot of so much that is wrong with modern life. That the specific and vital becomes the generic and jumbled.

As Tom Waits says; “a song needs an address”. We en-soul something by naming it, a detail anchors it in more than a floating intelligence. By taking the original localised references out of the story have we somehow robbed it of its soul? Yes and no – I cannot go along with that entirely.

I would suggest that what is needed within this collective information is a greater connection to one’s own roots. I would do away with the rainbowed, new age picture of everything as one, and more the image of a sea port, or desert meeting place, or crossroads inn, where cultures and travellers swap stories, recipes, opinions, songs – and all leave deepened by the exchange but also confirmed in their own ground.

My concern within myth is that the collective commons is overwhelming the local – we end up with storyteller’s floating several feet above their own ground, constantly enthralled with the exotic, wider picture.

Anthropologist’s correctly point out that we miss much local nuance in this wider embracing. How do we grasp the role of the duck in a Seneca love story? Or approach any real knowledge of ritual colours in a Dagara folk tale? Only through a possibly dry academic approach can we get near an appraisal. Well true enough, on one level. If the story is entirely conceptually bound to that tribe or place. But what if it also has a travelling spirit? A spirit that is bound up in the telling of the story, there in the room, more than being entirely anchored in a historical context. That it is a kind of animal.

As we live through a period where all ideas around culture and community change radically, could it be that these stories are floating far from their original homes because we desperately need their information?, that their story is still unfolding? The wind that carries them is just as much a part of the cosmos as an oak tree. Many of us will have experienced a strange recognition of something very deep whilst staring at a photograph of Geronimo, or the intensity of Mirabai’s poetry. It may be wise to claim them as spirit-relatives for awhile.

There is damage in all of this it’s clear. It’s a complex situation, but I believe caution is needed when myth is described as only rooted in history, culture and geography. Myth on a deep level really isn’t all about history, rather a truly animistic present. But we also may relate to a sense of numbness when presented with yet another anthropological marvel of folk tales from some far off place. The sheer velocity of availability dulls the mind. Sometimes, as the poet Olav Hauge reminds us, we just need a sip of water, not the whole ocean.

In all of this scope – of firebird feathers, and Tuvan blades, of African genies and the hooves of Mongolian steeds riding briskly through a star-lit desert – it can be easy to get a little dismissive of the local. Surely nothing of note happened right here? And sometimes that can seem to be the case. We look around at inner-cites, or remote stretches of Lincolnshire fields and think the old stories, if there ever were any, have long fled. But nowhere is bereft of story, if we have some patience and an enquiring spirit. This book is about finding some slow ground for those nomadic leaps to land upon.

I sometimes think of the old East Anglian tale of “The Peddler of Swaffham”: a story of a man’s long journey across half the country because of a dream of fortune, only to find that that the very dream-gold is buried in his back yard. Journeys are good, voyages better, but I write this in the hope we do not neglect the gold that is in our very backyard.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012

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Healing Identity & the Survival of Asynchrony

Kokopelli2The brooding effort of the beginning, the surprise that abruptly cuts across it, the meaning-bestowing understanding that links the unintended back into the plot by assigning it its proper place, are elements playing into the style of the whole continuity of the cosmic course, the cosmic “permanence,” which is “continuous creation.”
—Heinrich Zimmer

The effect of a sound cultural heart in a healthy social body is that the body’s very joints become a source of strength and revitalization, especially the joints that connect our capacities for creative play with our need for meaning—for purpose, identity, and ideals.
—Jeanne Campbell Reesman

The promised life—anticipated, planned, or expected life—cannot account for “the surprise that abruptly cuts across it.” All events in the continuity of promise make a life of synchrony; the unforeseen may be welcomed as fortuitous, or be experienced as thwarting and wounding. Events of disruption, disconnection, and failure, are the asynchronies of life. Such disjunctions may also present potential associative leaps, in Reesman’s terms—“the joints that connect our capacities for creative play with our need for meaning”:

What seems defining in the creative individual is the capacity to exploit, or profit from, an apparent misfit or lack of smooth connection… Individuals who avoid asynchrony…are unlikely to become creative people; those who experience asynchrony at all points may be overwhelmed.
—Howard Gardner

Creativity, like Creation, is equal parts order and chaos, synchrony and asynchrony. We live in the “chaosmos” and as with the chaosmos, identity is also a production of “continuous creation,” as in any creative effort the unexpected, unplanned, unintended, unprecedented, and accidental must be recognized as invaluable and intrinsic to the creative process. Zimmer’s “cosmic permanence, which is continuous creation,” maybe understood in David Bohm terms as “the implicate order,” or more verbosely as “the ever enfolding unfolding totality of reality.”  Just as the “abrupt cuts” cannot be foreseen, so the vast totality cannot be known explicitly, precisely because it is never fixed and “ever unfolding.” For the rational mind all this ambiguity is just too messy, so we generate tidy apprehensible conceptual constructs of what is real to the intellect, but the soul is not satisfied with these incomplete explications; the soul requires a subtle and nuanced language of implication.

The deep identity runs across a spectrum from the communal to the individual—that is, to be part of a larger whole and to be self assertively contained. Being polarized to one end or the other has its attendant vulnerabilities. The deep identity is a story. For the personal identity the story says who, what, when, and where “I” am going; for the communal the story tells us who, what, when and where “we” are going. Pick any religion or social movement and you will find a fine example of a communal identity story.

There is a mistaken assumption made in modernity that so-called “primitive” people have only a group or tribal sense of identity, that there is no emphasis on the unique individual; this is absolutely wrong, in fact I would argue that in an indigenous society  individuality is valued much more than it is in the modern world.

Of course there are numerous examples of peoples who have survived oppression, defeat, and diaspora by virtue of a continuous and collective performance of identity. The Yaqui people have been defeated time and time again and yet, as Richard Schechner says “the Yaquis have prevailed over diaspora by performing their identity as Yaquis.”  Through the performance of identity such devastating asynchronies are not merely endured, but are received as the meaning bestowing cut.

Here, rather than group-identity, we look to the individual who, suffers overwhelming obstacles, yet remains unconquered in spirit, heart, and mind. Where others have broken-down or been driven to self destruction William Blake stands as a fitting exemplar of this life affirming capacity.

Unable to afford an exhibit in one of the fashionable London galleries, Blake exhibited his own version of the illustrations in his brother’s hosiery shop. The show was virtually ignored, except for some cruel reviews, one of which referred to Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement…”
—Mike Booth

Many people escape confinement or exile hidden under cloak of tolerated lunacy, yet this does not ameliorate the alienation and shame. How then does one survive? As Gardner has already told us: “Individuals who avoid asynchrony…are unlikely to become creative people; those who experience asynchrony at all points may be overwhelmed.”  There is a critical balance between the opportunity to create meaning, and the security of social acceptance. Clearly, by virtue of his mythopoeic brilliance, Blake was not overwhelmed.

The worst suffering is the suffering of arbitrary and meaningless wounds. A rite of passage is a mythopoeic navigation through a lived ordeal, and as should be clear, the ordeals of life are experienced as “asynchrony”—an abrupt, often painful, discontinuity in one’s anticipated life. Without the informance of the mythopoeic intelligence such inevitable asynchronies will be experienced as merely cruel and therefore meaningless. The sought for “meaning-bestowing understanding” arises most potently in the mythopoeic performance of identity, conveyed implicitly through the language of dance, song, story, ritual, image—all the arts.

Current approaches to the study and understanding of myth and mythopoeics are largely undertaken through the disciplines of anthropology and psychology, these comparative and empiric approaches fall short when confronted with the vast associative leaps made by a thinker such as William Blake. And yet again these rational approaches fall short in the face of indigenous ways of knowing. In the rational context the asynchronous events of life, the various crises of modernity may very well be an overly literal misapprehension of the sacred language of the living world.

We have in the West a few fine examples of creative individuals who have resisted the colonization of their psyche by cultivating their own meaning making capacities. Such creative freedom resembles the fluid consciousness inherent to the oral traditions:

Indigenous perspectives are presented without explicit comment—in accordance with the oral tradition of letting the listener…make meaning from someone’s words and stories without direction from the storyteller.
—Jo-ann  Archibald

If one succumbs to the dictates of the way things are “supposed” to be, one will surely miss such subtle disclosures of inexplicable meaning. Making meaning is a way of making ourselves whole, that is healing. However, there is healing and there is the fantasy of healing. The fantasy says that when we are truly healed everything will be back the way it’s supposed to be. As an example take the idea of returning to our indigenous roots, this is a move toward wholeness, however many teachers tell their students that they must learn the ways of their original people, of their ancestors, of where they come from. I think in many cases this is a fantasy and not the actual healing. What if many untold generations ago our ancestors rejected the old ways? What if our people were exiled so long ago that we cannot trace the path to our homeland? What if our people were shattered and scattered beyond recollection? Being healed is not the same as being fixed or repaired. As D. H. Lawrence wrote

I am not a mechanism,
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly,
that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul…

The soul’s healing, sought for here, is the task of taking up the story of whatever has happened to us with courage, devotion, and imagination, and making it mean something, and doing so by how we choose to live.

There has to be a wholeness that can include my very incompleteness. I cannot go back where I came from, and yet I belong to a time and a place, I live on ancient ground in a mythos where William Blake, Black Elk, and Lao Tzu stand side by side as elders and guides to the meaning of my life. The survival of life’s extreme asynchronies is dependent on the capacity to make personal meaning from our own wounds, and communal meaning from the wounds we share. The gift of the “meaning bestowing cut” is, as it has always been, the touch of the gods bequeathing the mark of destiny:

I understand the Angels now
Who envy our lives here
And all the great mistakes we make
And all the things we fear,
For we are guided by our wounds
As surely as the stars…
If you want to read your destiny
It is written
In your scars.*


Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil (New Jersey: Bollingen, Princeton University Press, 1956) p. 262.

Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Trickster Lives: Culture and Myth in American Fiction (Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2001) p. 63.

Howard Gardner, Creating Minds: An Anotomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi (New York: BasicBooks, HarperCollins, 1993) p. 381.

David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1980)

Richard Schechner, “Waehma: Space, Time, Identity, and Theatre at New Pascua, Arizona,” The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and  Performance (London: Routledge, 1993) p. 103.

Mike Booth “Madman, Journeyman, Genius, Prophet…” online, accessed 3/1/2011

Jo-ann  Archibald, Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit (Vancouver: UBCPress, 2008) p. 17 .

Daniel Deardorff “Burning Windows,” The Heart Has Three Rivers Music CD 1995


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METAPHOR: Golden Bears Leap from The Jaws of Children

What follows is an excerpt from the upcoming “A Branch From The Lightning Tree: Ecstatic Myth and the Grace in Wildness” (White Cloud Press, Spring 2011). So, onwards…

I want to deepen this idea of a crossroads, by how it relates both to initiatory practice and the relationship between speech and literature. It would be useful to get a sense of where the ideas in this book place themselves, situated both in oral myth-telling and the page.

The philosopher Jaques Derrida maintained that for over 3,000 years of Western philosophy, philosophers have claimed logocentrism–that the voice is the center, from Plato to Aristotle, to Rosseau, Hegel and Husseri. So languages are made to be spoken. Writing serves only as a support to speech. This idea would regard speech as exterior to thought, and writing as exterior to speech. There is a clear and distinct sense of hierarchy—a regression from mind to voice to letter.

From the perspective of logocentrism, presence is implicit in the communication of speech, but for writing, absence is the defining characteristic. So with speech, the listener and speaker are both present in time, and present to the succession of words from the mouth. The image of letters on a page, wrapped in an envelope, and sent to a distant figure, illustrates the concept of absence.

So writing becomes marginalized, quite opposed to Derrida’s notion that the development of modern language actually derives from an interplay of speech and writing, therefore one cannot claim primacy over the other.

Like keen-eye Trickster, Derrida also disrupts this old oppositional thinking by locating what he calls “undecidables.” Specifically concepts or words that cannot be brought into a binary logic. They unsettle. A phrase like Pharmakon, which means both poison and remedy. An “undecidable” within the context of a wilderness rite- of-passage would be contact with a spirit—rarely conforming to a hegemonic form—something neither male or female, a disruption to normality. Indeterminacy–it indicates no precision, clarity, or easy definition. Initiatory process indicates that it is only in the surrender to this difficult awareness that any real vision can ultimately arise (hence the severing from certainty that takes place). Initiation places you in the slippery crucible of paradox. With time this evolves, and insights emerge, but not without the profound drop into this contrary Underworld. You are neither Village or Forest, but some other, subtle thing. The world turned upside down. It’s a hard thing to talk about.

This book’s position is one of intense interplay, a shuttling between. Speech is occurring within the writing and writing is occurring within the speech. Many insights have come from telling a story orally, which is in turn influenced by years at the desk. What arrives seems to have a liminal touch, a betwixt and between. For the book to work within what Derrida—and Heidegger before him—refers to as “the metaphysics of presence” (the old position), the crossroads motif cannot exist, no matter how nebulous.

Interestingly, the logocentric is a position many oral storytellers would support, being central to their craft. I disagree. Where I do speak up is in the call for the spontaneous within an oral telling, the wild intelligence that arrives in the moment—but that does not belittle writing or its influence, just a script used inappropriately.

Like Trickster, Derrida is not interested in eradicating what came before, but in helping to engender some new constellation. He also draws from the past—writing about literary texts— while using such a contrary linguistic style it appears that the sentences are breaking down and reconfiguring in front of your eyes.

By working with host texts, Derrida actually requires the oppositions of past literature to find the instabilities that open the ground of uncertainty. Think again of Trickster: “The god of the roads (Trickster) needs the more settled territories before his traveling means very much. If everyone travels, the result is not the apotheosis of trickster but another form of his demise,” explains Lewis Hyde.19 This is an ancient ritual arrangement, the trammelling of boundaries to ensure that vitality tickles the status quo and life continues to grow. Trickster is nothing without something to rub up against.

As Derrida shakes the foundations of both structuralism and phenomenology, there is a loyalty to some wild spirit of investiga- tion that is both troubling and refreshing. As an old oak collapses, at the same moment a green shoot leaps from the earth. Speech and writing always hold the energies of history, influence, and repetition among them. Derrida is in the business of hints and diffusion, traditional attributes of the Underworld journey, rather than brightly lit sound bites. Still, when the young initiates are led from the village, they are blindfolded, spun round, turned up side down–they are now in submission to a fiercer dynamic. This is all in the nature of rupture. Derrida is being true to his work.

So how does metaphor assist this Road of Voice? Through approaching the old stories in this book it becomes clear just how crucial the role of metaphor is. Metaphor is the great leap, the generous offering of many possibilities contained in one image. So what is underneath metaphor in speech and writing?

Paul Ricouer claims that metaphor has a unique structure but two functions: it exists either in the realm of rhetoric—as an aide to persuasion, or tragedy—to establish a poetic sentiment. The poetic is not attempting to offer proof but representation, while metaphor in service to rhetoric becomes caught up in the configuration of rhetoric-proof-persuasion. When metaphor dwells in poetry the triad is poiesis-mimesis-catharsis.

Within this book it appears that the function of metaphor oscillates between the two—rhetoric as the voice of village, poetry as the voice of the forest. To place undue emphasis on either creates an unrealistic perception of the whole. Of course, an element of persuasion exists—if only to suggest that poetry can hold deeper reflections than just the literal. In that light, the two streams Ricouer offers are mutually supportive of each other.

The writer Hugo Ball regarded language as so entrenched in the rhetoric of politics and warfare he claimed that the binding force of syntax must be entirely broken so a poetry beyond words could be born. He says,“one relinquishes, lock, stock, and barrel the language which journalism has polluted and made impossible. You withdraw into the inmost alchemy of the word. Then let the word be sacrificed as well, so as to preserve for poetry its last and holiest domain.”11 While I admire the intensity of his position, Ball’s argument indicates too severe a break from “village” thought and mode of expression. The role of initiates as they wander into physical landscape or the obtuse terrain of poetry is to add and challenge the existing pantheon of village expression, not deny it completely.

George Steiner, in ‘After Babel‘, makes an explicit link between language and the erotic: Eros and language mesh at every point … are there affinities between pathological erotic compulsions and the search, obsessive in certain poets and logicians, for a “private language,” for a linguistic system unique to the needs and perceptions of the user?12

I am not seeking a specifically private language. However, I would suggest that with the use of metaphor, especially utilizing Ricouer’s association (just illustrated) with poetry, I hope to encourage the imagination, and where can the erotic begin except with imagination? Words of bite, substance, and imagination have a tremendously erotic undertow wherever we are lucky enough to find them.

Martin Shaw 2011 copyright White Cloud Press



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Archegestic Resonance, Rites of Passage, and the Dancing Ground of Radical Uncertainty

The biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen investigated instinctual responses to particular “stimuli”; response behaviors arising neurologically from, what he termed “innate releasing mechanisms.” As a simple example, we know that human infants are biologically prepared to learn language. The stimuli provided in the vocalizations of the mother; with sufficient stimulus the infant is flooded with a desire to respond in kind (Dissanayake). The stimuli, or “sign” triggers the “innate releasing mechanism” (Tinbergen).

Joseph Campbell was very interested in Tinbergen’s ideas. Campbell saw the “mythic image” as a sort of super stimuli.

The performing bees, birds, fish, or quadrupeds are moved spontaneously from centers of memory antecedent to their own lives. Through each, the species speaks. And since in human traditional rites spontaneous collective responses to formalized displays occur, the earliest creators of the myths and rites of primitive mankind may not have been individuals at all, but the genes of the species. And since in human traditional rites also a certain psychological readiness to respond to specific sign stimuli is to be remarked–particularly among primitives–the earliest individual creators of myths and rites must not have been merely freely inventive fantasists, but inward-gazing, inward-listening seers (shamans), responding to some inner voice or movement of the species.
—Joseph Campbell

The “inner movement of the species” urges the “actions” and “enactments” of response to the mythic image. Before this discussion can move forward, it is necessary to emphasize the centrality of the term “image”; which must not be confused or conflated with symbols, signs, or concepts. These re-present something which is not present, whereas the image presents itself as itself. The mythic image is multivocal; that is, it speaks, sings, and resonates with multiple and contrary associations. Victor Turner recognized the potency of the deep-image calling them “dominant symbols”:

I discovered that what I called dominant or pivotal symbols …were not only possessors of multiple meanings but also had the property of polarization…. It is interesting to me that a dominant [bipolar] symbol—every ritual system has several of them—should replicate in its structural and semantic make-up what are coming to be seen as key neurological features of the brain and central nervous system.
—Victor Turner

Every ritual system has them! What is being suggested here is that the mythic, or deep image, by virtue of its multivocal resonance triggers a biomythic response in the individual. The motivational power of such an image lies in it’s correspondence with something usually termed “archetypal.”

The term archetype is insufficient, for just as designation impedes discernment, the “type” impedes connection to the arche. The arche in archetype refers to the archai, these are defined variously as “universal principles,” or “original forms,” or “fundamental essences,” and finally as “primordial forces that animate creation.” Universal? Yes, but principles? No. Original? Of course, but forms? Certainly not. Fundamental essences? Please. Primordial forces that animate? Very good.
The notion of archegestic energies or resonance arose during the writing of The Other Within. It seemed to me that the types had become more and more fixed, and that the action or dance of the arche was obscured by the literalized form. Hence, I needed a verb to describe the turning—the epistrophés and peripéteias—between us and the formlessness of the archai. As James Hillman has it:

By attempting the congruities between the imagination of the individual human soul with the imaginal patterns that myths call Gods, an archetypal therapy attempts … an epistrophé of the entire civilization to its root sources, its archai. This reversion begins where the Gods are fallen, where depth psychology has always worked with its eye attentive to the ugly.
—James Hillman

The peripéteia or epistrophé is the crucial moment in the initiatory process, when the initiand turns from the old life and encounters the primordial forces of the archai, as the ancient Taoist sages said of this moment, here one sees their face before they had a face.

To recreate rites of passage without the use of the deep mythic image is a betrayal of the soul’s request to receive an authentic and authoritative ritual of transformation.

From the perspective of associative mythology both the narratives of myth and the enactments of ritual are productions of the mythopoeic intelligence. In this view the efficacy of myth and ritual depend on a certain intimate disclosure of something archegestic. In such a biomythic moment the individual experiences a softening of boundaries: “the root of the ceremonial rites of all human societies, from the most primitive to the most exalted, are an elaboration of the neurobiological need of all living things to escape the limiting boundaries of the self” (Andrew Newberg).
Archegestic action in myth and ritual—including all the arts—is restorative in the sense of Eliade’s idea of “the recapitulation of the archetypal gesture.” That is by our participation in the time of first things we tap that energy and through our actions we are renewed and so renew the world—the ever unfolding enfolding dance of creation. In this understanding myth and ritual sing, by a creative participation in originary events, essential to the ongoing life of all things.
The archegestic action of deep images in the story told, in the myth as sung, bring the participants—the teller and the hearer—into the living presence of the originary time. We do not go back in time, but awaken to the presence of the past. In the Birth of Taliesin, when the initiand Gwion Bach takes the three drops of wisdom he becomes instantly aware of past, present, and future; this is the archegestic moment. Mythic time is a spiral, in every direction events intersect. Like the resonating strings of a great harp, the strings present the interval between oppositions. We enter the temple, the tempo of mythic time by passing between the demonic guardians of the threshold. The threshold is uncertain, radically so, there is no other way in. After all, if one is not on the dancing ground of radical uncertainty, one is not really on the ground.


Ellen Dissanayake, “Antecedents of the Temporal Arts in Early Mother-Infant Interaction,” The Origins of Music eds. Nils L. Wallin, Bjiorn Merker, and Steven Brown, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000)

Nikolaas Tinbergen, The Study of Instinct (New York: Oxford UP, 1969)

Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology (New York: Penguin Arkana, 1968) p. 672

Victor Turner, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Publications, 1987) pp. 174-75.

James Hillman, The Thought of the Heart & the Soul of the World (Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc. 1981, 1982) pp. 58-59.

Andrew Newberg, M.D., Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief (New York: Ballantine, 2001) p. 85.

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The Mythopoeic Intelligence

“Anthropologists, who spend their lives immersed in cultures different from their own, have called attention to the parochialism of the Western view of intelligence. Some cultures do not even have a concept called intelligence, and others define intelligence in terms and traits Westerners might consider odd.”
—Howard Gardner

“The ability to tell myths is necessary in order to learn how to ‘think’ …the mythmaker himself is one who ‘thinks well.’”
—Ufaina (Native Colombian People)

“Storytellers make an assumption that historians rarely do, namely that human beings are not rational, that they cannot be understood in terms of “objective” analysis, and that their deepest and most significant experiences are lived on a level that is largely invisible, a shadowy region where the mind and the body move in and out of each other in an infinite number of elusive combinations, and that can only be evoked through allusion, feeling tone… and “resonance.”
—Morris Berman

Mythopoeic means, quite simply: of or pertaining to the making of myths; causing, producing, or giving rise to myths. It might seem simpler to say “the myth-making intelligence,” but we would lose the connection to ‘poesis,’ and the vantage of James Hillman’s “poetic basis of mind.” Here, Hillman’s idea is amended to say that the basis of mind, more than merely poetic, is mythopoeic. The mythopoeic intelligence is a meta intelligence that works synaesthetically; it is not constrained by literal, or linear thinking—it is associative, “coordinating widely disparate, boundary-spanning
information and competing perspectives.” (see Sara Nora Ross). Beyond information as knowledge, the meta-intelligence brings “wisdom”—as Howard Gardner remarks in his seminal work on the multiple intelligences Frames of Mind: “Wisdom or synthesis offers by its very nature the widest view… considerable common sense and originality… coupled with a seasoned metaphorizing or analogizing capacity.”

More than a cognitive process this associative capacity draws on the whole person—the brain, the entire nervous system, all the senses, the emotions, as well as the body’s visceral senses of stereognosis and proprioception—the broadest notion of “mind” all woven together by the imagination:

“Imagination is Reality. Far from being just one of our cognitive powers, valid in the field of art, scientific discovery and the like, it is our whole power, the total functioning interplay of our capacities… Life itself, insofar as it is informed by imagination, is now poiesis—a work of art.”
—Robert Avens

Most importantly a life of mythopoeic art involves the untamed associativity of bricolage:

1. a construction made of whatever materials are at hand; something created from a variety of available things.
2. (in literature) a piece created from diverse resources.
3. (in art) a piece of makeshift handiwork.
4. the use of multiple, diverse research methods.

The mythopoeic basis of mind resembles a magpie’s nest: the nest is a large domed structure usually found in a tree or bush with thorns. The nest is made of sticks, twigs, roots and straw plastered with mud. They are well-known for their habit of stealing and hoarding bright shiny objects and using them in their nests. The image is a nest filled with mismatched and unexpected things woven together in a new and lunatic creation. This bricolage is precisely how the mythopoeic intelligence apprehends the world. In Berman’s words: “an infinite number of elusive combinations, and that can only be evoked through allusion, feeling tone… and ‘resonance.'”

To cultivate the image laden syntax of the mythopoeic intelligence we have to shed the constraints—blinders and harness—of the consensus “reality/sanity” world view. Of course this is much easier said than done. Human beings are a kind of animal that require bonds to place and community. When such bonds are severed we inevitably experience feelings of alienation and exile. But they do fail because we’ve made the great error of mooring our lifelines to affiliations, affectations, ambitions, and achievements—these cannot anchor us to the rhythms of the living world because they are abstract concepts, and concepts unlike images are not alive. We have lost our relatedness to the world around us because we no longer trust it. To renew the old bonds we need the sense of imagination—an imagination bolstered by a well developed associative alacrity. To “think well,” as the Ufaina say, our hearts must be filled with mythopoeic images from many stories; the more stories we store up the better our thinking and the more efficacious our thoughts and actions will be.

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The Girl Who Married Coyote

“The world as it existed for the first man still exists. It taunts us & breaks into our dreams. Coyote_dance.jpgThe poet dares to face it without hope & to create from pure desire, from pure love, the world as it existed before man. The primal world, not yet hardened into the mold of law. …A return to the beginning. A struggle to shape the world through the power of the creative moment, the flash of light that overthrows the darkness & is itself a greater darkness.”
—Jerome Rothenberg

“The task of a bricoleur is to take the leftovers from the day and to shape them into new figures within a new setting. The dream serves two principles, love and death. The bricoleur, who is in the service of the death instinct, “scavenges and forages for day residues, removing more and more empirical trash … out of life”; the love instinct fuses and shapes the junk into a material for soul-making.”
—Robert Avens

The story of The Girl Who Married Coyote presents the essential dilemma of being born into a world of unexpected circumstance: the girl is the child of a poor family, the prospects for her future seem unfavorable. She is unpopular, unpromising, and uninteresting; and therefore freed of social expectation. Following her own inclinations she moves toward the margins, the hidden, the lost and neglected. She becomes a bricoleur.
By following the practice of her heart and art her circumstances change: she gains recognition. She evades the danger of being seduced away from her sources into the approval of an elevated status, by her sheer devotion to her art. Now the divine world, in the form of Lord Coyote, takes full notice of the girl and engages her in a dance.

It is this dance with the first beloved, the dance with the divine, that we most long for. The old stories offer us a portal into that dance. Here, we move from the passivity of entertainment to the ritual enactment of efficacy.

Last Sunday, Oct. 17, 2010 a group of 16 people gathered at the Duvall Coffee House for a day of myth and ritual. My friend Phil Bennett did the leg work of promoting the event and collaborators Michael Scott Brooks and John Hulburd assisted me in leading the journey. The text on the flyer read as follows:

The critical balance of reciprocity between the human world and the Otherworld has been lost. So much of what we long to receive and what we long to give remains unfulfilled. Burdened to the breaking-point with misplaced expectations, our human relationships are overwhelmed with blame and disappointment. The “apparent” reasons are, at best, misleading; the underlying truth is simple—human beings are not gods.
Yet the proportions of our disappointment are equaled only by the grandeur of our magical, mythic, and holy longings.
Rather than turn upward to the great and grand, The Girl Who Married Coyote asks us to go down, to the small, neglected, and unwanted, into the gap, the contradiction, between what we expect from the human community and what we actually long for from the divine.

When the essential relationship between this world and the Otherworld become confused all forms of relationship are threatened.
It is not an easy thing to face untangling human expectations and divine longings. As Friedrich Hölderlin tolds us:

Oh friend, we arrived too late. The divine energies
Are still alive, but isolated above us, in the archetypal world.

Hölderlin saw that the human world was turning away from a direct engagement with the Otherworld, but the good news he gave us is this:

They keep on going there, and, apparently, don’t bother if Humans live or not… that is a heavenly mercy.

So the old gods of the living world are not dead and gone. It’s up to us then, to re-initiate the wild dance steps of reciprocity.
Whether we say they live in the Otherworld or in the human unconscious we should know that “the divine energies”— however remote and removed from the steady life—are beings of great power. It would serve us well to clear the path to right relations with those energies. Truly we long for such, but we become entangled in our expectations and dis-appointments.
And so I am deeply grateful for the beauty and ferocity of all the participants who brought so much intention and willingness to our gathering. I look forward to the next time we make soul and restore culture.

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