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.

© 2010 – 2011, Daniel Deardorff. All rights reserved.

About Daniel Deardorff

Daniel Deardorff is a "Singer" in the old sense of the word, which involves being a musician, a storyteller, and a maker of ritual. He has been a composer and a performing artist for more than four decades. As an independent scholar of myth Deardorff's emphasis is on associativity and the performative aspects of mythic expression. He is the author of The Other Within: The Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture, & Psyche. He is also the founder of The Mythsinger Foundation and the Mythsinger Consortium an online community devoted to myth, ritual, and the mythopoeic arts.
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2 Responses to Archegestic Resonance, Rites of Passage, and the Dancing Ground of Radical Uncertainty

  1. Ben Dennis says:

    Kudo’s for a profound piece!

    Can you elaborate on the relationship you make with peripéteia and epistrophé?

    The implication is intriguing. I have some sense of the Hindu notion of a revolving cosmos, Blakes “The Second Coming,” and the mythic departure from the linear that is implied by epistrophé.

    I am also deeply interested in the peripéteia (reversals?) that occur as the image driven mythic-gesture is played out in life (I would also like to see more of what you mean by peripéteia in this context).

    In this article, I am fascinated with how these two notions are connected. It suggests that the cosmos, once one departs from our culture’s more linear sensibility, rightly encompasses an anti-structured and possibly helical reality that a myopic and reductionist worldview is simply ill prepared to entertain. More importantly, one quickly realizes that an evidentiary and purely logical understanding is soon so limited that it can be characterized as much by what it leaves out as what it apprehends. “Softening of the boundaries” opens fissures in the psyche through which all manner of “images” may enter to disrupt a neatly packaged reality. I suspect that this is, in part, what you are after.

    Again, kudo’s for a profound piece.

  2. Thank you Ben,
    This kind of writing is, as we’ve discussed very risky; the notion at the heart of it a great slippery fish that the net of words may imply but never capture. The risk then is that one may seem to say nothing intelligible at all—so again thank you.
    I am striving to retain notions of embodiment, as with gestic referring to dance, so the peripéteia indicates a leap: “Leaps of thought can be defined as peripeteias or vicissitudes. A peripeteia is an interweaving of events which causes an action to develop in unexpected ways or to conclude in a way which is opposite to how it began.” [Eugenio Barba, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology: The Secret Art of the Performer (London: Routledge, 1991) p. 56.] What I am most interested in is that crucial moment at the center of the initiatory process, the turning point in the soul’s encounter with its own hierophany.

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