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The Sinister Redhead

The Flight of the Wild Gander

by Joseph Campbell
Viking, 248 pp., $7.50

Freud and Jung so upgraded mythology that it is now widely regarded as a treasure-house of esoteric revelation, from which the initiated can extract profound truths about human behavior.

With his four-volume study, The Masks of God, and with The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell has already established himself as a master of mythological exegesis. Moreover, he has long been associated with the “Eranos” symposia at Ascona, where certain scholars annually forgather to discuss topics generally related to the work of C. G. Jung: Campbell himself is the editor of the English editions of the “Eranos Yearbooks.” This Eranos project has been much concerned with Jung’s theory of the existence of certain archetypal ideas, deep-rooted in the human mind, which find expression in myth.

The purpose that underlies the work of Campbell, and of other scholars associated with him, is legitimate and can be readily appreciated. The comparative study of religion has amassed a vast quantity of mythological data which demands interpretation. The material is drawn from all over the world and back into the remote past—in fact, some prehistorians now find mythologies presented in paleolithic cave art. In this material, bizarre and often repulsive as much of it is, certain common motifs and patterns can be discerned, suggesting that myth reflects abiding human aspirations and needs. Hence the urge to seek in comparative mythology for insights into the lower reaches of the human psyche—in fact, to find those Jungian archetypes that, allegedly, explain so much that is enigmatic or irrational in man.

In Campbell’s view the function of mythology can be understood only when “one abandons the historical method of tracing secondary origins and adopts the biological view (characteristic of the medical art of psychoanalysis), which considers the primary organism itself, this universal carrier and fashioner of history, the human body.” However, this “biological view” is to be acquired by means that do not seem so scientific as the term “biological” suggests. Campbell quotes Freud and Jung as endorsing his assumption that “dream and vision have been, everywhere and forever, the chief creative and shaping powers of myth,” but, aside from such quotations, he has little to say about the biological basis of myth. Nevertheless, this assumption explains the curious title of his new book: The Flight of the Wild Gander refers to shamanistic trance. By such means, together with yoga and Zen praxis, Campbell believes that an experience of disengagement “from cosmic references” and a “sense of existence” may be achieved—“a moment of unevaluated, unimpeded, lyric life—antecedent to both thought and feeling.” Such experience for Campbell is the summum bonum, and to its description and achievement his studies are apparently consecrated.

In this book, as in his other works, Campbell displays immense learning, drawing evidence to support his case from virtually every branch of human knowledge. However, when one considers more closely many of his tacit assumptions and illustrations, one begins to doubt the rigor of his methodology and the truth of his conclusions. For example, he tends to speak about myth, without qualification, as the repository of mankind’s deepest intuitions. But there are many kinds of myth, some banal in inspiration and content. Thus many myths are etiological, representing nothing more than primitive attempts to explain the origins of things. The explanation of the wearing of clothes in the Yahwist myth of the Creation and Fall of Man in Genesis 2-3, for example, has no profound esoteric meaning, while the Pandora myth seems to have been the product of the misogyny of the Greek poet Hesiod. Any evaluation of the ancient Egyptian cosmogonic myth must reckon with the mundane interests of the various priesthoods that composed them. Moreover, the ritual origin of many myths is a factor of genuine importance in their interpretation.

The comparative study of the phenomenology of religion, including myth, is certainly a legitimate discipline, and Campbell shows himself to be a skillful practitioner of it. But it has many dangers if one does not refer closely to the historical context of the examples cited as evidence of the larger phenomenological pattern. Thus to group Osiris with Tammuz and Dionysus as “divinities symbolic of a resurrection beyond death,” who were “identified with the moon bull, who was both the child and the consort of the cosmic goddess,” is to ignore all of the many different, complicated problems in our knowledge of the origin and nature of these deities. Specialists in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek religion would certainly repudiate the assumptions and implications of Campbell’s statements here (pp. 134-6), or demand drastic qualifications.

Professor Campbell is essentially a humanist, and perhaps one of the most revealing of his statements in this book is that “Pelagianism today is the only brand of Christianity with any possibility of an Occidental future.” But Pelagianism was condemned by orthodox Christianity as heresy, and here lies the rub. Like many other people today disillusioned with the materialism of Western society, Joseph Campbell shows an animus toward the Christianity that molded European culture. For him “the claims of the Church and its book to supernatural authorship have been destroyed absolutely and forever,” and so he seeks for illumination in the visions of shaman and yogi and in the “creative researches and wonderful daring of our scientists today,” although, as I have said, there is little use of strictly scientific sources in his book.

Professor Gaster’s enormous book is the work of a historian of religions who appreciates the necessity of comparative reference in interpreting the data of his subject. His earlier major work, Thespis, which dealt with the ritual origins of drama, established his reputation as a distinguished specialist in Comparative Religion, while his translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls displayed his philological gifts. It is perhaps revealing that Campbell makes no reference in his book on myth to the work of Gaster, and the present reviewer has found no mention of Campbell in the voluminous notes of Gaster’s book. Gaster is essentially a scholar, concerned with the careful investigation and exposition of his subject. He is sensitive to nuances of meaning, which reflects his mental and emotional involvement, but his larger aim is to provide reliable information.

In his Preface, Gaster explains the origins of his undertaking. He had been invited by his publishers to prepare an updated edition of Sir James G. Frazer’s Folklore of the Old Testament along the lines of his previous version of The Golden Bough. But he soon realized that Frazer’s work needed more than updating to make it an adequate account of ancient Hebrew folklore. Consequently, except for having incorporated a few passages of Frazer’s pioneering work, Gaster has written a completely new book which will not only supersede Frazer’s, but will doubtless be for years to come the standard reference work on the subject.

Professor Gaster’s book may perhaps be best described as a treasury of curious and illuminating information about 350 different passages of the Old Testament. He has selected these passages because they contain ideas and describe customs that require elucidation. The passages concerned are not, unfortunately, listed in the Table of Contents or Index; instead the themes, grouped under various headings, are listed in the Contents. Thus, under “Adam and Eve” are listed “Man formed from earth and clay”; “Man animated by divine breath”; “Man made in the image of God.” The reader is enticed to look up such curiosities as “The Land of Nod,” “The pillar of salt,” “The sinister redhead,” “Lilith,” “Tears fertilize.” Under “The sinister redhead,” for example, he will learn that the statement in Genesis 25:25 that Esau was ruddy, as well as hairy, had deeper implications than are apparent today. Quoting from the folklore of many peoples, Gaster shows that the mention of Esau’s ruddiness was intended to indicate his evil nature, and, therefore, why Jacob was preferred to him.

The scholarship that has gone to clarify enigmatic passages is amazing. This kind of comparative reference to other religions tells us much about ancient Hebrew faith and practice, and further demonstrates the value of Comparative Religion for the study of the Bible. One more instance might be cited. In Genesis 32:1-2 there occurs a strange statement which has defeated the exegesis of Old Testament scholars. According to the Revised Standard Version, it reads:

Jacob went on his way and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said: “This is God’s army!” So he called the name of that place “Mahanaim.”

This passage is inexplicable in its context, but Gaster cites as parallels numerous examples of the so-called “Phantom Host,” believed to ride across the heavens in stormy, weather, which occur in the folklore of many peoples, including Palestinian Arabs.

Unlike Campbell, Gaster distinguishes among various forms of myth. He shows how myth has been used as propaganda in the story of Esther, and he gives many illustrations of the political use of myth, notably the cursing of Canaan in Genesis 9:20-27 because his father Ham had looked upon Noah’s nakedness. As an instance of etiological myth, he cites the curious episode of Jacob’s maiming by a mysterious adversary who touches his ischiac nerve. The episode is mentioned in Genesis 32:32 as explaining why Israelites abstained from eating the ischiac nerve of animals.

Gaster agrees with Campbell in setting a high value on myth as a significant aspect of man’s mental activity. According to him, “Myth, or mythopoeia, is an independent and autonomous faculty of the mind which may operate at any time and in any age, alongside of intellection and speculation.” And he asserts that “Myth, as an expression of existential experience, is thus the natural language of Religion. It is, in fact, what transmutes historical data into religious truth.” He cites, as confirmatory examples, the Exodus in Jewish religious thought and the Crucifixion of Jesus in Christianity. Such an evaluation of myth is indeed justified; but only if it be carefully noted that there are many kinds of myth, and that some are the products of jejune or secular motives. Gaster was doubtless aware of this when he gave examples of myths of etiological or political inspiration. But the Exodus and the Crucifixion of Jesus, which he cites as examples of myth as “expressions of existential experience,” wherein historical data have been transmuted into religious truth, raise another question. For the evolution of each of these myths involved processes that were unique.

It is therefore strange that after this brief reference to the significance of the Exodus in the Preface, Gaster does not deal with the Passover in his book. For the Biblical account of the Passover, which is the cultic festival par excellence of Judaism, is one of the clearest examples of an historicized myth. Both parts of the Passover festival, the ritual eating of the sacrificed lamb and the use of unleavened bread, clearly had different ritual origins in the primitive past of Israel. In the account of the institution of the Passover in Exodus 12:1ff., however, the origin of the two customs is explained by what happened on the historic night of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. And it has been the annual keeping of the Passover that has made the myth of the Exodus the supreme “existential experience” of Israel through all the vicissitudes of the nation’s long history. Such a myth is demonstrably unique in its origin, its presentation, and its power; its character can be understood only through its history and in its Jewish context.

The mythos of the Crucifixion has an even more complicated history, which cannot be explained by psychoanalysis or depth-psychology. It must suffice here to say on this subject that the historical event, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth for sedition, was one of many such executions carried out by the Roman authorities in first-century Judaea. To the Jewish followers of Jesus, the execution was a martyrdom for Israel suffered by its Messiah, who would soon return with supernatural power to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” It was Paul of Tarsus who reinterpreted the tragic event in a complex terminology drawn from the Jewish sacrificial cultus and Graeco-Roman religious thought. This new interpretation was inspired by Paul’s own spiritual experience; by means of it he succeeded in presenting Jesus as the divine savior of mankind in a manner that appealed to Gentiles but was anathema to the Jews.

Historically, Paul’s interpretation survived to provide the foundations of Catholic Christianity, owing to the extinction of the original Jewish Christianity in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Thus the mythos of the Crucifixion as the means of mankind’s salvation was established. Its subsequent influence was due to two convergent factors: its own intrinsic ability to answer the spiritual needs of many peoples, and the efficient organization of the Church in propagating and maintaining it.

I have given here two instances of the genesis and evolution of powerful “myths” in order to stress the necessity of studying each important myth in its historical setting. The task is often slow and complicated; and many writers such as Joseph Campbell prefer to seize upon those features of any myth that seem to confirm their more congenial theories of mythology. For it is doubtless exciting to believe that one has the key that will unlock the “esoteric truths” that are believed to be veiled in the myths of mankind.

One can be sympathetic with such aspirations, but one cannot really approve of the methods used to achieve them. The popularity which Campbell’s books have enjoyed is symptomatic of a widespread longing in Western society for some new spiritual enlightenment that the established faiths cannot provide. If the foundations of a new humanism are, however, being gradually laid by the study of Comparative Religion, it is nevertheless a field of research in which hasty and misleading generalizations may too easily be made. Only by the patient and careful investigation of the religions of mankind, and by the sympathetic presentation of its results in the schools and universities will an adequate popular understanding of the spiritual aspirations and fears of our race be achieved.

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