Joseph Campbell’s The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension

Campbell-wild-ganderThe Flight of the Wild Gander is a series of essays produced betwen 1944 and 1968 in which Campbell was, he says, “circling, and from many quarters striving to interpret, the mystery of mythology.” The “mystery,” as comes clear as one reads, is that of the origins, dissemination, and meaning of the archetypes of human myth.

The first essay, “The Fairy Tale,” lays the foundation, so to speak, of the whole endeavor. He begins with a focus on the works of the brothers Grimm, who introduced into the mainstream of European thought the ethnographic approach to folklore — folk tales as works in their own right, rather than the raw materials they had been considered by the Romantic poets. He differentiates between myths, legends, tales and fables, and recognizes two bases for their similarities from society to society: first, what he calls the “psychological uniformity” of the human species, and second, their international character.

In “Bios and Mythos,” Campbell presents his argument for the basis of myth in human psychology — the “Elementary Ideas” (which is to say, psychological archetypes) as the basis of those similarities. He cites the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in support of the parallelism of dream and myth — myth, in this view, is the conscious rendering of the images and motifs of our unconscious.

“Primitive Man as Metaphysician” is a fairly (can I say “exhaustively”?) detailed examination of metaphysical symbols and the two modes in which we assign meaning: the “tough-minded” thinker sees those symbols in terms of the mundane world — “facts” have no meaning beyond the concrete; the “tender-minded” thinker, on the other hand, almost automatically looks beyond the mere fact in an effort to discover its relationship to the Unknown — or, perhaps more accurately, as Campbell develops his thesis, the “Unknowable.” Thus, we are presented with the tension between the phenomenal and the transcendant.

In “Mythogenesis,” as we might expect, Campbell examines the origins of myth. He begins with two American Indian legends and ties them to the Updanishads of India and the myths of ancient Greece. It is in this essay that he begins his examination of the history of myth and ties it to the prehistory of human cultures.

A large part of “The Symbol Without Meaning” is devoted to the stages of human civilization, starting with the development of, first, agriculture, and, as a necessary corollary, the transition from mobile, hunter-gatherer societies to cultures based on fixed settlements — agricultural communities — leading to what Campbell terms “hieratic city-states.” He credits the early civilizations of the ancient Middle East with the genesis of this social order, from its origins in the city-states of ancient Sumer (c. 3200 BCE), and proposes a radiation from there to the Nile Valley (c. 2800 BCE), Crete and the Indus Valley (c. 2600 BCE), China (c. 1500 BCE), and finally Middle America (c.1000 BCE). This is a necessary discussion, given Campbell’s devotion to the idea of a fundamental unity of the images of myth and his effort to pin that unity to a unity in human civilization. (Reviewer’s note: In the light of more recent discoveries (these essays were last revised in 1969), this particular argument is on shaky ground: Campbell assigns the first evidence of pottery, for example, to c. 6500 BCE, based on the work of James Mellaart at Çatal Hüyük in Anatolia. However, there is evidence of pottery in China as early as 20,000 BCE. Likewise, the Chinese began cultivating rice as early as 7000-6500 BCE, and millet, in the north, as much as a thousand years earlier. And in 2366 BCE, Zhi became king of China, which presupposes a city-state with a strong central government. It’s equally plausible, for Campbell’s thesis of the fundamental unity of human psychology and the consistency of our imagery, to consider that modern humans are descended from a small group of women who lived in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, based on the evidence of mitochondrial DNA: a single starting point for modern humans and our symbols. And Merritt Ruhlen, in The Origin of Language, has made a persuasive argument that all human languages derive from a single Ursprache, which would tend to support, again, a unity of basic imagery — what is language, after all, but a set of symbols with agreed meanings?)

Campbell goes on from there to consider the impact of the ordered societies that grew out of sedentary cultures on myths and those who carried them — the shamans and magicians, the “wild ganders” of the book’s title. He uses an interesting image — call it a “comparison” — to delineate this divide: gods and demons, the gods representing order and predictability, the demons representing the wild, untamed unconscious mind. This essay is, in all important respects, the core of the book.

The final section, “The Secularization of the Sacred,” continues Campbell’s examination of the tension — or perhaps, by this time, we should be talking about “dissociation” — between the sacred as seen by the “wild gander,” the free spirit, the “tender-minded” thinker, and the sacred as seen by the inhabitants of the hierarchical cities of the agricultural societies, the socially acclimated “tough-minded” thinkers. He introduces the concept of “mythic identification,” the idea that we as individuals are not separate from everything else, but part of it, an idea that finds its most cogent expression in the Eastern religions: he opens with a story by the Indian sage Sri Ramakrishna that describes his realization of this unity. He then contrasts these “religions of identity” with the “religions of relationship,” which rise out of what Campbell terms the “biblical tradition,” in which man is separate from the rest of creation. In essence, this tradition reduces what we can call “mythic history” to an actual history, bringing the Unknowable to the realm of “fact,” with all the risks inherent in bringing mythic “fact” into collision with observed fact.

This discussion is, by necessity, a gloss: Campbell includes a wealth of examples and illustrations from the world’s mythologies and legends. I’m not going to pretend that this is an easy read: the arguments are detailed, the explications exhaustive, and the basic ideas not readily apprehendible to those used to dealing with concrete information: Campbell is, as often as not, dealing with a realm in which words lose their precision. It is, however, both fluent and fascinating: in another time and place, I suspect Joseph Campbell would have been the village storyteller.

(New World Library, 2018)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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