“Luna Men Shine in Food Forest”- The Third Conversation with Stephen Gerringer, Community Relations, Joseph Campbell Foundation and Willi Paul, Mythologist, Planetshifter.com
In the Beginning, there is Permaculture Mythology?
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“Here are potential sacred permaculture symbols … that are built upon our love and respect for Nature, our communion as we work together in the soil, and the mystery of the seasons, stars and birth:
- Diversity (Soil)
- Growth (Seeds)
- Harvest (Basket)
- Transformation (Fire + Smoke)
- Stewardship (Compost Pile)
- Localization (Community Well)
What do you see? Feel?
Nature in her various manifestations and integration are here. Could these symbols be seen as Sun-driven, each combining to build the larger Tree of Life? Both the ancient symbols and the above offerings call for an integration of science and spirit….”
”Mother, Sun, and the Compost Pile.” Written by Willi, Edited by Stephen
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The Third Conversation with Stephen & Willi
Willi - My call to see the Community as Hero - and not the individual - received some push-back last year from JCF. Who are your Heroes, living and deceased?
Stephen- I certainly don’t perceive the Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF) as opposed to the concept of Community as Hero – quite the opposite. JCF President Robert Walter has given several presentations in recent years on the emergence of the Collective Hero (which acts together to combine individual strengths and talents – much like the crew of the Starship Enterprise from the Star Trek franchise), in contrast to the more common interpretation of the hero as an individual acting alone.
(Joseph Campbell credits the Torah – specifically the Book of Exodus – with the introduction of the concept of the Collective Hero. In the second volume of The Masks of God, he notes the hero that descends into the underworld of Egypt and emerges through the Red Sea is not just an individual, but Israel – the Chosen People – a powerful mythic image that has played a key role in preserving the identity of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora.)
As for my heroes, they are legion:
Globally, the usual suspects – Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Anwar Sadat, and Vaçlav Havel, among others – all of whom put their lives on the line, facing imprisonment or death, to embrace dialog with and compassion toward traditional enemies. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who took a bullet to the face from the Taliban and earned a Nobel Peace Prize, all for her advocacy of a woman’s right to education, is a recent addition to that pantheon.
Maya Angelou, who used the power of language to transform horrific experiences of rape and racism into poetry that has touched thousands of lives.
Edward Abbey, for his fierce commitment to nature and his way with words (Desert Solitaire and The Monkeywrench Gang remain favorites decades later).
Bill Irwin - clown, comedian, actor – who lives his art, fully embodying Campbell’s maxim to “follow your bliss,” with a knack for inspiring smiles and tears in the same moment.
Miss Jane Goodall (I know she is a Dame of the British Empire, but “Miss” is the first title by which I knew her) – I’m pretty sure she was my first “crush” when I was a young boy in primary school, watching her television documentaries and reading the National Geographic School Bulletin. Jane Goodall’s compassion for all forms of life continues to inspire me.
There are many more, but these are the individuals who first bubbled up in direct response to your question.
Willi - Do you ever feel that your support of Campbell has trapped you in an organizational and intellectual silo?
Stephen - Intriguing choice of imagery. The etymology of “silo” can be traced to a cave or shelter or pit for storing grain; that sense of a storehouse evokes positive associations for me, especially in light of JCF’s primary mission to preserve, protect, and perpetuate Joseph Campbell’s work.
As for feeling “trapped in … an intellectual silo,” can’t say I do. I have the luxury of not being a Ph.D. writing and teaching in a university setting, so I don’t have to worry about the strictures of academic specialization (like Campbell, I am more a “lumper” than a “splitter”). This may be a Willi question more appropriate for those working with myth within academia.
Willi – Who and what is new in mythology these days?
Stephen - Keep your eye on the emerging field of archetypal astrology, which applies mythological and archetypal perspectives to astrology, creating a mythic framework within which to recognize and engage psychological patterns at play in one’s life. Keiron LeGrice, Ph.D. (Rebirth of the Hero), Safron Rossi, Ph.D. (editor of Joseph Campbell’s Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine), and a growing number of mythologists and depth psychologists are active in this field (first pioneered by Richard Tarnas, author of The Passion of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche).
The Lessons of Nature in Mythology, by Rachel S. McCoppin (professor of literature at the University of Minnesota–Crookston), recently crossed my desk. McCoppin explores the relationship between myth and the natural world, something I’d like to see more of.
Note: See my interview with Rachel.
Though not exactly brand new, Kwame Scruggs put his doctorate in mythological studies to use by founding Alchemy, Inc., a nonprofit myth-centered mentoring program that fosters self-reflection, confidence, critical thinking, and purpose among at-risk urban youth. In 2012, Kwame accepted the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, on behalf of Alchemy, from Michelle Obama at the White House. This program deserves to be more widely known; the practical application of mythology to a contemporary problem is making a difference in the lives of young black males.
Willi - You hold a complex, long standing definition of mythology at JCF. What disrupts it?
Stephen - Actually, I don’t believe mythology is defined anywhere on the JCF website. Generally, we defer to Joseph Campbell, who offered a fairly succinct description to Bill Moyers:
“A mythology is a system of images that incorporates a concept of the universe as a divinely energized and energizing ambience within which we live. ... And a myth, then, is a single story or a single element of the whole mythology, and the various stories of the mythology interlock - they interlock to be consistent within this great world image.”
But I can understand your perception of complexity, as there are many ways to discuss myth within that broad framework. Here is just a sampling:
“Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence.” - Rollo May
“Myths are like the beams in a house: not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it.” - Rollo May
“Myths are public dreams.” - Joseph Campbell
“Myths are metaphors.” - Joseph Campbell
“Myth is the penultimate truth, of which all experience is the temporal reflection.” - Ananda K, Coomaraswamy
“Myth, like science, is at once a method and a body of ordered experience.” - William Troy
“Myth is ... art and must be studied as such.” - Richard Chase
“Myth is the central informing power that gives archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to the oracle. Hence the myth IS the archetype.” - Northrop Frye
“Myth has become a reflection on life without need for the literal enactment of the reflection.” - Sophia Heller
“Myths describe the various and sometimes dramatic breakthroughs of the sacred.” - Mircea Eliade
All these definitions, even those seemingly at odds with one another (myth is science and art?), ring true. I wouldn’t characterize JCF as embracing an exclusive definition so much as holding open a space for multiple definitions like those above, and more. After all, the Foundation’s secondary mission is promoting the study of mythology, which neither begins nor ends with Joseph Campbell.
What disrupts this?
In the positive sense, further research that expands our understanding of how cultures engage their mythology; in the negative sense, the assertion of a single definition to the exclusion of all others (e.g., myth is only a primitive attempt to explain natural phenomena, and nothing else).
Willi - Old myth, new myths! Do you think that the 2016 Olympics are a new mythic pool?
Stephen - Could be.
Mythogenesis is an ongoing process; no telling what will emerge from this global gathering. Ideally, the Olympics present a vision of international peace, friendly competition, and a celebration of the human spirit; that vision will have to play out this year against the backdrop of a possible ban of some or all Russian athletes, major political turmoil in the host nation of Brazil, and public health concerns related to the presence of the Zika virus. I’m curious what narrative will unfold from the performance of individual athletes and teams within that context.
Willi - I have been using Google Alerts for mythology news for many years; one gets a lot of corporate push for movies and video games. Hollywood “owns” mythology, it seems: X-files, Star Wars.... “Myth” is seen as a powerful capitalist branding force for big profit. Reactions?
Stephen - I share your concerns, and believe Campbell would have a problem with Hollywood’s formulaic approach. When he first identified the Hero’s Journey schema in myth, Joe didn’t have blockbuster mega-profit films in mind; he was just detailing what he observed.
J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t have to pull out his pocket-Campbell guide to make sure he was following the Hero’s Journey trajectory when writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; this pattern just naturally emerges from a tale well told. But today, it often feels like Hollywood works backwards – starting with the Hero’s Journey, and then slapping together a story to fit the formula.
Alas, the Hero’s Journey is no substitute for talent.
That said, a writer can no more escape this literary pattern than s/he can transcend plot. We find the elements of the Hero’s Journey in stories from Homer’s Odyssey to To Kill a Mockingbird. Several critics have suggested that George R.R. Martin, in his A Song of Fire and Ice novels (on which the Game of Thrones television epic is based), intentionally set out to up-end the Hero’s Journey “dominance” of the fantasy genre – and yet, though Martin certainly provides elegant elaborations and brain-bending twists, his storylines still follow the pattern.
Willi - My bliss is a real force but hard to define to others: actionizing, persistence; part vision, part fear-driven. What is yours like?
Stephen - Joseph Campbell speaks of following one’s bliss as an active, ongoing pursuit (a process, rather than a destination). My bliss begins with the creative imagination: everything we do, from painting a picture to building a bridge to making a peanut butter sandwich, has its source in the imagination – so I spend as much time as possible exploring, understanding, and sharing ways of engaging imagination in shaping the reality we experience.
Along the way I spend a lot of time playing with language and the written word.
Willi – Children are bombarded with entertainment options and text-gorged lives. Life seems to be speeding up with gadgets but failing apart with global environmental injustice and warmongering. What wisdom and programming is JCF providing?
Stephen - JCF promotes the study of mythology – the wisdom stories of humankind, which resonate across cultures and draw attention to our shared humanity. One approach I support is exploring ways to establish connections between teachers who use myth in the classroom, which would allow them to share and draw on one another’s experience.
In education, this change is being driven not by textbook publishers and the administrative hierarchy, but at the grassroots level – by those in the classroom, who are creating their own materials and lesson plans. Many teachers who focus on myth in elementary or secondary schools have been long been doing this on their own, unaware there are thousands like themselves in school districts across the nation.
That’s just one example; our support and encouragement of Alchemy, Inc., is another.
Willi - Mythology is seen by many as a “top-down,” expert-driven field. A few kings and a lot of minions. Your thoughts?
Stephen - I can’t really speak to other people’s perceptions, apart from noting that’s not my experience. My background isn’t that of an “expert” with advanced degrees in mythology, but a junior high teacher of English and Literature (I suspect that makes me one of your minions).
Occasionally I’ve participated in collaborations with luminaries in the field, but far more often I work with colleagues whose names you’ve never heard (or haven’t heard yet). On specific projects I don’t notice “kings” doing the driving; generally, it’s the situation that’s the boss.
Willi - I see JCF colleagues, or “expert actors,” on the History Channel, but are mythologists playing a political role these days? Examples?
I’m not sure what you mean by “expert actor,” or how that relates to politics. Nor am I clear on how a mythologist playing a political role differs from an anthropologist, psychologist, accountant, philosopher, landscaper, geographer, or any other citizen playing a political role. Certainly, filmmakers producing documentaries on mythic subjects are more likely to consult mythologists; legislators and policy-makers, not so much...
Willi – What are some key collaborations between alchemists and mythologists today?
Stephen - Not that many practitioners left literally trying to transmute lead into gold; alchemy is largely seen today as metaphor for the process of spiritual and/or psychological transformation. In that sense there is much overlap between alchemy and what I would call “experiential” mythology (or mythic immersion, to distinguish it from academic study). But that’s rather broad – so no specific collaboration comes to mind.
There is an argument to be made that the “psychedelic shamanism” practiced by Daniel Pinchbeck, Jeremy Narby, and the late Terence McKenna, among others, represents the intersection of mythology with modern-day alchemy – but I suspect that veers off in a direction different from what you had in mind.
Willi - Does the digital world fully support the classic myths?
Stephen - Yes, and no. (I’m expanding my response to myths in general; “classic myths” tends to conjure up the classical Graeco-Roman corpus, a rather narrow sliver of humankind’s mythic lore). Certainly there is greater access to a rich repository of previously obscure material; if I google “salmon myths,” I’ll turn up tales found in a wide range of cultures, from Celtic Ireland to the Haida in the Pacific Northwest.
But that’s not enough.
I’m aware of efforts to do more. The Ethnos Project is one such project, exploring the intersection between indigenous cultures and ICT – information and communication technologies. The digital world continues to evolve.
Willi - My mythological view is that we are in the Chaos Era (i.e. – apocalypse) and that one of my jobs is to help humans build a transition to the Post-Chaos Age. What are you building with and for whom?
Stephen - That imagery certainly resonates. Personally, I am committed to preserving and sharing access to the wisdom traditions of humankind, as well as to mythological tools that help us make sense of ourselves and engage the world around us.
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Stephen Gerringer [ stephen.gerringer at jcf.org ] has been a Working Associate at the Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF) since 2004. A longtime political activist and eventual candidate for legislative office, his career trajectory was interrupted when a major health crisis and subsequent brush with death prompted a deep inward turn. Stephen “dropped out” and, in the best tradition of Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac, spent most of the next decade “on the road,” thumbing his away across the country on his own Hero’s Journey, in quest of self-knowledge and insight.
Stephen did eventually “drop back in,” accepting a position teaching English and Literature in junior high school. In the wake of the tragic events of 9/11/2001, inspired by Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss, and doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors,” Stephen left the classroom to pursue his interest in creativity and the mythic imagination. At JCF his focus includes serving as liaison to the broader mythological community.
Willi Paul [ willipaul1 at gmail.com ] has been active in the sustainability, permaculture, transition, sacred Nature, new alchemy and mythology since the launch of PlanetShifter.com on EarthDay 2009. In 1996 Mr. Paul was instrumental in the design of the emerging online community space in his Master’s Thesis: “The Electronic Charrette.” He was active in many small town design visits with the Minnesota Design Team. Willi earned his permaculture design certification in August 2011 at the Urban Permaculture Institute, San Francisco.
Mr. Paul has been interviewed over 37 times in blogs and journals. See his early cutting-edge article at the Joseph Campbell Foundation and his pioneering videos on YouTube. Willi’s network now includes multiple partner web sites, a 3 Twitter accounts, a G+ site, multiple blog sites, and multiple list serves and e-Community Groups including his New Mythology, Permaculture and Transition Group on LinkedIn, and his popular New Global Mythology group on Depth Psychology Alliance.
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The first two conversations with Stephen and Willi -
Building a New MythCode. Joseph Campbell Foundation’s Stephen Gerringer on the new The Study of Myth Forum & 2112 Symposium. By Willi Paul, planetshifter.com
Joseph Campbell Rising. PlanetShifter.com Magazine Interview with Stephen Gerringer - Community Relations, Joseph Campbell Foundation, by Willi Paul