Walton Stanley takes a big bite of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in tracing the mythology of pre-eternity to the site of the first city on Earth and the hubris of its king. He gives us the context for the examination of myth at the Minnesota Men’s Conference. He gives us something to shudder over. And finally he gives us a hint of one way forward together. Step by step, he gives us a great deal to think about and a window into the mind of one of the original participants of the conference, now a teacher of men’s work. -mg
The grapes of our ruin were planted centuries
Before Caedmon ever praised the Milky Way
~ Robert Bly, So Be It Amen
Why Myth Matters
The Minnesota Men’s Conference is descended from two great thinkers and teachers of mythology, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. Robert Bly has, many times, acknowledged the teaching he received from the great comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s work identifies the universal patterns in myths across cultures. His identification of the Hero’s Journey as the pattern for the initiatory process links directly to Robert’s work on male initiation that was the spark that generated this conference. The other great thinker on mythology is Carl Jung, who was the teacher of James Hillman who in turn taught at this conference many times. In a sense, we at the Minnesota Men’s Conference are the descendants of these two great mythologist grandfathers and their brilliant students.
Over the years, much work has been done at the conference around where the individual finds himself in a myth. We ask people to “feed the story,” or to talk about his “door to the story.” These discussions are always lively, interesting, and, speaking for myself, often helpful, but it is important to remember that myths also function on a societal level. We see this in the stories we tell. They are flavored and informed by the culture from which they arose, and the cultures which form around a mythology are shaped and determined by the ambit of that myth. In a sense, our myths provide the circle of light in the darkness, like that of the storyteller’s camp fire, and beyond that circle, our cultures are blind. In much the way that our ability to conceive of an idea is dependent on having the words in one’s language to support that idea, so too, the ability to perceive is shaped by the myths that underlie our cultures, often much of the language is derived directly from the myths. Think of how many words we have that come from myth, such as “Achilles heel,” “herculean labor,” “mania,” “fury,” “the Midas touch,” “cereal,” “tantalize,” “hermetic,” and many more.
Over the years, we have, at this conference, largely focused on myths that come out of one indigenous culture or another, African, Native American, even the European stories we tell, hearken back to an indigenous Indo-European past that probably extends back to the Neolithic. We do this out of a sense that something is wrong with the mythology under which we currently live. The idea from which this conference sprung was that male initiation had been lost, and that, as a result, men were not being fully developed. That’s what Robert Bly’s books Iron John and, the lesser known, The Sibling Society are, to a large degree, about.
If, something of great value has been lost, the thing to do is to backtrack and follow one’s own trail in hopes of recovering it. So, if we’ve lost something from our mythology, at what point did we lose it? What turn did our shared mythology take that led us down the wrong path? It seems that there are some myths or at least some ideas that surround us in modernity that are unconscious and, as such, go largely unquestioned.
Part of my work in backtracking has led me to the historical point at which people were moving into cities, walling themselves off from the world around them, and moving from hunting and gathering to large-scale, mono-crop, grain-based agriculture. These events first occurred in a way that has been sustained to this day, in the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers about 5,000 years ago.
Among other innovations these people came up with is the first known instance of writing (cuneiform) and with it, the recording of their own stories, the myths of their culture. Perhaps the world’s oldest written story comes out of this culture; the Sumerian/Babylonian story of the king and hero, Gilgamesh. (The sources of the stories are Sumerian, but the recorded epic with which we are most familiar is a Babylonian redaction of the Sumerian source stories. It was the Babylonians who pulled the Gilgamesh stories into a narrative whole.)
In working with the Gilgamesh story, I have come across some of the paradigms, ideas, and myths of civilization that emanated from humans moving into cities. What makes these important is that we are the inheritors of that same civilization. Our alphabet, is derived and descended from theirs, our mythologies are likewise derived and descended from theirs. Sumerian examples include a heavenly father who dwells in a celestial realm, man being created out of clay, a primordial world called “Edin,” and a great flood that wiped out all of life except for that of one family who was told to build a great boat, a great ark, and to bring with them two of each animal species: male and female, to re-populate the world. The patriarch of that family and the ark builder was named Utnapishtim, (Ut-na-pish-tim) later shortened in a retelling of the story by a neighboring tribe to “Noah.”
There are many striking images and themes in the Gilgamesh story, but there are also some parts of the myth that veer sharply from the indigenous myths we have worked with over the years at the Minnesota Men’s Conference. It is the mythological breaks from indigenous sensibility in the Gilgamesh story that, essentially set us on the path to modernity, and which are at the root of the environmental crisis and the unsustainable ways in which we live today. These are the myths that underlie civilization, that make large-scale exploitation of the Earth predictable.
The Felling of the Sacred Tree
There is one key mythic divergence from indigenous sensibility in the story that leads to some consequences with which we are still dealing. That mythic break is the felling of the great world tree (the Axis Mundi).
I will not recap the whole story, but Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with the idea of killing the guardian of The Great Cedar, a being named Humbaba. And likewise, with cutting down the tree itself, the throne dais of the Gods.
The Great Tree, appears in many myths. It often is represented as a vertical connection between the underworld, where its roots reside in perpetual darkness, through its trunk in this world, and up to the crown of the tree in the celestial, spiritual realm. In some myths there is a serpent in the roots, an eagle in the crown, and a squirrel or some other mammal on the trunk that carries insults back and forth between the other two.
The Great Tree functions as the Axis Mundi, the center point around which the cosmos turns. I have found no other story or mythology in which The Great Tree, the Axis Mundi is cut down. In Norse myth, at the time of the great conflict of the Gods, The Great Tree shakes and all life on Earth is wiped out, but the tree is not cut down and certainly not cut down by a human hero.
Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba
So, what happens to a society that cuts down its own great tree, its own Axis Mundi? Yeats describes such a world in his poem: The Second Coming.
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
~ W.B. Yeats
Once you have desecrated and felled The Great Tree, everything is fair game. The world is open for pure exploitation. “The centre cannot hold” because the axis is gone. By slaying the guardian of The Great Tree, and taking it away, and so desecrating the forest of God, closed to humans, and by walling himself off in a city, man sets himself apart from the world. Nature, wilderness, wildness, become concepts because we are apart from and superior to them. Some may take pity on nature and work to preserve it from ourselves, but still, it is a thing apart and of all the beings in the cosmos, the one who is not “natural” who is exceptional, is us. We imagine that we live, in some way, apart from nature, and have a sense of entitlement and immunity from what we do to the world. We are free to turn the world into our own habitat. We humans are animals of the plains and the savannahs. We climb trees poorly when compared to other primates, we walk upright bipedally, which is an advantage in navigating over prairie grass, but bipedalism is of little advantage in the forest. As creatures of the plains, we have deforested the world and turned it into our fields, the savannah of our evolutionary origins. This can only be done by a culture that has taken the hubristic step of cutting down and carrying away the Axis Mundi.
The Experience of Time
Another result of the loss of the mythical central axis is the development of a concept of linear time and, subsequently, of progress. Many of the ways of humans’ perception of the world around them changed with the advent of civilization. Just as domesticated animals have a very different energy and sensibility than their wild ancestors (most have changed physiologically as well), civilized humans have a very different set of notions than our indigenous ancestors. One of the things that changed when we moved into agricultural civilization was our sense of time. We now see time in a linear progression moving along a “timeline” from past to present and on into future. I contend that this is a fairly recent notion and that our indigenous ancestors did not see time in the same way. Before civilization, it is likely that the human conception of time was as a set of recurring cycles. There are indigenous cultures whose stories have no beginning or end. There are indigenous cultures in which the words for “father,” “son,” “grandson,” and “grandfather” cycle so that, for example, the same word might be used for son and great-grandfather, because the generations are viewed as a cycle. The same family genius continues to be passed cyclically through the generations.
In the cyclical view, we see times of creative outpouring and of withdrawn contemplation, times of expansion and contraction, times of fat and times of lean, and also periods in between the extremes. and many other such cycles, but we always know that, wherever we are, the cycle will continue to turn and we will be at another point in the cycle soon enough.
Lamassu, the protector
With civilization, however, we see cyclic time break and extend into a line. The annual cycles are numbered sequentially. Perhaps because, in the cities, we walled ourselves off from the rest of the world, our connection to its cycles became less clear. What happens in almost all of the early cities, regardless of the culture in which they appear (Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Incan, Mayan), is that the city-dwellers establish a priestly caste that engages in celestial observation, astronomy, astrology, and calendrical timekeeping. Some of this activity might have been driven by a need for agricultural seasonal predictions or the need for a labor force requiring more coordination than is required for smaller bands of people living as foragers. The great calendars were a kind of farmer’s almanac for these grain growers, but it is not as if indigenous people were or are unaware of seasons, solstices, equinoxes, rainy seasons, and so forth. They are very aware of these patterns. Some of this civilized obsession with astronomy is, I believe, caused by a lack of connection to the spirits in the world closer to us. When humans lived in small bands in the woods, on the plains and savannahs, the sprits and the energies in the land, the waters, the minerals, were apparent, but when we moved into walled cities for protection, we cut ourselves off from the spirits in the land and trees, in the rocks, and waters. All we were left with was the stars, so we projected spiritual forces onto them and the Gods (or God) suddenly dwelt exclusively in “Heaven.”
In the city, we also became more immune to the effects of wind and weather. Our urban, walled, indoor environment stayed pretty much the same throughout the seasons and, overall, our connection to the cycles was weakened. With our calendars and with rapid population growth from one generation to the next, attributable to agriculture and resource extraction, and with the city changing and expanding before our eyes, we began to see time as a progression into the future and we began to sense that the future would be an improvement on the present. In short, time and humanity would “progress” through hierarchically and temporally structured labor.
Well, what does this really mean? When we envision progress what do we imagine for ourselves. Typically, we imagine a world of endless plenty for humans: a secure and plentiful food supply, lots of interesting things to do, a world free of disease, humans safe from predation, ultimately we see a world free of human mortality. In our utopian science fiction the future is often one in which we go about adventuring, but are essentially god-like in our ability to control the forces of the universe around us. We can heal any illness, food is never a problem, and our force fields make us immune to attack from without. There is always some kind of wise, benevolent, leadership structure (think Star Fleet Command) that cares for us and provides for our every need. In short the idea of progress is an idea of human immortality. We can figure out a way to beat “nature” in every way and we can live in a paradise of our own making forever. The very word “nature” is a giveaway to this kind of thinking. Name one thing that exists outside of “nature.” Why do we have a concept of “nature” if there is nothing outside of it? Because we have come to hold ourselves outside of “nature.”
It is only through the conceit of breaking cyclical time into linear time that we can maintain the myth of progress. It is only through a trick of the mind, through human exceptionalism, through separating ourselves from the rest of being which then becomes “nature” or “wilderness” eventually even “outdoors,” that we can maintain the illusion of “progress.” Just a few more inventions, a little more technology, and we will be immortal.
The Myth of Progress
The myth of progress has produced a lot of technology and it has produced a world-wide civilization that currently holds seven billion people and will soon hold eleven billion by 2100. It is also reaching the limits of what the planetary systems of detoxification, regeneration, and climate stability can handle and we are, in all likelihood, rapidly progressing right into a collapse of the whole system and an ecocide and mass extinction driven by human activity.
Our ability to change, to adapt, to soften the impact of the collapse of civilization and the environment, is dependent upon our being able to change our ideas of human exceptionalism, our ability to redevelop the initiatory experience (including conscious knowledge of the bargain that the initiated man or woman makes with mortality).
In the Gilgamesh story, we see the first example of mankind attempting to break free of mortality. Gilgamesh’s dark, hairy, and wild brother, Enkidu, is killed by the Gods for the hubristic sins committed by him and Gilgamesh (the Gods decide to have one of them die and they choose the wild brother). Gilgamesh goes into deep mourning and grief. He has his friend’s body laid out on a couch and weeps over the body for many days until he sees a worm crawl out of his dead friend’s nose. This nauseating image causes Gilgamesh to realize that he too is mortal. That death and decay is his fate as well. So, he immediately takes up a plan to find a way to beat death, to gain immortality.
Gilgamesh becomes the first in a string of heroes who attempt to defeat death. The Gilgamesh story is a pre-cursor to the Prince Gautama/Buddha story (of 2,500 years ago). The Buddha sees a corpse and sets out to find enlightenment (a way out of the cycle of birth and death). Again, we see the breaking of the cyclical. Mythology in the Middle East and Mediterranean features a string of beautiful young men who reject the embrace of the Goddess and who, tragically, attempt to avoid or overcome death (Dummuzi, Thammuz, Adonis, Dionysius, and Orpheus). The latest of these being the near contemporaries Mithra, and Christ who are both figures of defeating death through resurrection.
If a young man is striving to remove himself from the cycle of death. If he becomes an eater of food who does not in turn feed something else (which is, essentially, what Gilgamesh and a number of these hero figures who came after him are doing), then we have a rejection of male initiation. Our obsession with progress, is a symptom of uninitiated behavior. Thirty-two years ago, Robert Bly started the Minnesota Men’s conference as the result of his perception that male initiation had been lost somewhere in society. Robert’s work on the Iron John story was an attempt to point to what was missing. When I first heard the Gilgamesh story, it struck me that this rejection of or refusal of male initiation happened at the earliest point in human civilization and that, as inheritors of that civilization, we are trapped in uninitiated thinking and we have been since the earliest cities arose on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. In contrast with Prometheus, et al who did pay the ultimate price for bringing fire to our ancestors.
* * *
If systemic problems stem from a mythological error, might the solution not also be mythological? Might a mythological correction be in order? How do we break, what William Stafford calls “a pattern that others have made”?
I have five suggestions for practices we can start.
Break the notion of human exceptionalism
Like every other animal and being, humans are wonderful and the world would be a poorer place without us, but we are no more or less important than any other form of being. One of the things that has been practiced at this conference from the start is a reverence for non-human being. You and I are neither separate from nor superior to the rest of the cosmos. In fact, our bodies, our skin is quite permeable and, in reality, no real boundary between where you end and the rest of creation begins can be established. What is poisoning the sea is poisoning us. What is killing the bees and the butterflies is killing us. We don’t get to live outside of the rest of being.
Practice remembrance through the oral tradition and memory
One of the practices that drives our sense of separation is literacy. With the advent of the foundational civilization came abstract written language and the practice of reading and writing fed the objectifying and abstract parts of our bifurcated brains. As a practice, work, at least sometimes, in the oral tradition.. Learn some poems by heart, learn to tell a story from memory. Don’t write down ritual instructions, learn them. Learn and teach a skill (fire starting, tracking, how to tan a hide, handwork, music), without relying on writing. Try it as a practice to help build the part of your brain that is connected to all being.
Give up the ideas of linear time, progress, and perfectibility
As our teacher, Martín Prechtel once said at this very conference: “The world isn’t supposed to work. It’s supposed to continue!” This is difficult for people like me, who see themselves as “progressives.” We are in love with the idea of a just society, of fairness, of healing, of righting past wrongs. I am not saying that we should stop working for justice and peace, for healing of the forests and waters, of people and other animals. I am saying that we need to realize that these struggles will perpetually recur. That it is a human trait to struggle against our own fear, greed, and violence; and that these are the sources of injustice, of imperialism, of exploitation of the land and the forests, the seas, and of other people. The larger struggle is within ourselves.
Virtually every attempt to create a perfect society, a just society, a pure society has ended in the creation of a charnel house (The Protestant Reformation, The American Revolution [which had the effect of perpetuating institutional slavery and accelerating genocide] The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, the Islamic Revolution), all of these attempts at perfecting society resulted in a bloodbath. We must beware of our own Puritan impulses and practice an active welcoming of the imperfect, but survivable (especially when it comes to your own comfort). The best we can do is to pass the struggle on to another generation. The struggle is life itself. To win the ultimate victory and end the struggle is to “stop time’s unfolding.” And as William Stafford reminds us, “…Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding…”
Agree to die and to decay—
Initiation is, at its core, the making of a deal with the “Lords and Ladies of Death.” (Martín Prechtel) Initiated men and women agree to die and to feed something larger than themselves. In return, they are granted a chance at the destiny their souls were given before they were born. If a man does not agree to die, he can never achieve his soul’s mission. Here’s a secret: whether or not we agree, we are going to die, so you and I might as well make the deal and secure the blessing of the Goddess.
Seek to re-grow the Great Tree
Civilization replaced a cyclical flow running through the underworld, middle world, and celestial world with a human hierarchy based on the accumulation and hoarding of material goods. This original flow is the Great Tree, axis of the world that we find in almost all mythologies and across many cultures. While humans have literally deforested the planet (essentially ripping out our own lungs)wherever civilization has touched it, this literal deforestation is made possible by the psychic one. To re-grow the trees, we must first re-grow the Great Tree. To do so, humans must enter into ritual space that acknowledges and re-establishes the connection between all of the spiritual realms, including and especially the great, funereal and life-giving underworld, depths. This work is connected to “depth psychology,“ but it must go beyond the personal. We must acknowledge the world at all levels as animate and, in essence, through dedicated ritual work, re-animate the world, the underworld, and the celestial world; and reconnect the flow of energies between them for ourselves.
Om Yggdrasil, The World Tree by Frølich
When the tree is cut, humans turned with longing, for the celestial. Our religion (re-ligare, the impulse to reconnect) was directed toward the celestial, but the old ancestral was not visible down in the roots, and was forgotten. So, while there is a need to re-grow the Great Tree, doing so is not merely a path to “Heaven” the spiritual-celestial realm, but also a path to the dark, underworld, ancestral consciousness that is so rich.
Much of Bly’s work has been in this area. Robert once said “Everyone is talking about enlightenment. Maybe what we actually need is endarkenment.”
* * *
In the thirty-two years of this conference, we have taken steps in all of these practices. The Minnesota Men’s Conference is founded on Robert Bly’s work on the loss of male initiation in modern society and on the importance of myth. In thirty-two years of working in that field, we see more clearly than ever what the loss of initiation and what the mythic errors of civilization mean. We see how critical it is to rebuild the initiated view and, we have learned a bit about ways that we can move toward initiated consciousness.
Change the myth, change the world.
~ Walton Stanley
This is the first time I have put some of these ideas out into the world. I will be interested to see any reactions. -ws
Maureen Gallery Kovacs translation of Gilgamesh:
John Gardener and John Maier translation of Gilgamesh
Robert Bly http://www.robertbly.com/b_prose.html
The Sibling Society
William Butler Yeats’ poem The Second Coming http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43290
William Stafford’s poems http://www.williamstafford.org/spoems/
A Ritual to Read to Each Other http://www.williamstafford.org/spoems/pages/ritual.html
The Way It Is