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Mythic Journeys conference, Atlanta, Georgia, 2004.

The Mythic Journeys conference, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Joseph Campbell’s birth, was held in Atlanta, Georgia, from 3rd to 6th June 2004. There were over a hundred presenters, psychologists, mythologists, writers, artists, musicians and others. They included James Hillman, Jean Shinoda Bolen, Sam Keen, Ginette Paris, Matthew Fox, Phil Cousineau, Michael Meade, Sobonfu Somé, Peter Beagle, Charles de Lint, Jane Yolen, as well as those mentioned in more detail below, and many others too numerous to mention. Nor Hall and Marion Woodman had planned to attend, but had to cancel at the last moment. John and Caitlin Matthews were also among the presenters. Because I know them and their work so well, I did not go to any of their events.

The full program is still on the website at www.mythicjourneys.org as is the preliminary notice for the 2006 conference, and various articles of interest.

The first two days (described as a “pre-conference”, but identical in format to the second two days) were limited to two hundred and fifty people, with a large conference fee, but in fact ran to just over half that number. From the point of view of those attending, it was an opportunity to meet presenters in small formal sessions and informally at mealtimes — meals were included in this part — and in the evenings. From the point of view of the organisers, it was a chance to raise more money without making the larger gathering expensive. There were somewhere over a thousand participants at the second two days.

The first event, on Wednesday evening,  was an art exhibition at the deFoor Gallery in Atlanta. I was delighted to find at the entrance to the gallery some of the goddess banners by Lydia Ruyle, and there was also a display in the main conference venue. I have known of Lydia’s work for many years, and seen many photos of her banners (which can be viewed at www.LydiaRuyle.com), but this was the first time I had seen them in the flesh, or, rather, in the cloth. I was taken by the traditional Huichol art, but the Australian aboriginal work has never spoken to me. Mayumi Oda’s goddesses are always fun, and often more than fun — I spent several minutes gazing at a large Black Tara. There were works by well-known fantasy artists such as Alan Lee and both Brian and Wendy Froud. Helena Nelson-Reed’s work based on shamanic themes also appealed to me.

The conference began on Thursday morning with a plenary session. This started out with a traditional blessing or prayer giving thanks to many aspects of the world and universe, in both Mohawk and English, by Chief Jake Swamp, of the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy. I was surprised to find that on this and another occasion the blessing was applauded, which did not seem to me appropriate as this was a prayer and not a presentation. Then there was an introduction by Michael Karlin, the inspirer and organiser of the conference. That was followed by a talk by James Hillman. He, and many of the speakers, related myth and the present world situation, and were very much opposed to the Iraq war, a view shared by most of those attending. And then the first of the tellings of a “Big Story”. This time it was the creation story from the Finnish Kalevala, told by a Finnish flute player, Ulla Suoko.  This arrangement, of a short introduction followed by a story, began every day.

These large sessions were the only times we were all together, and, even then there were often other options. As a result, different participants could have very different views of the conference. I stayed mostly with writers and storytellers, with some excursions elsewhere; one of my friends who could not get to the conference would have been almost entirely with the psychologists and those with a special interest in Campbell, had she been present. Even though I was very selective, there were many interesting workshops I missed because they clashed with even more interesting ones; for instance, I could not go to Aging as Metamorphosis, Artist as Shaman, Breaking the Round Table, Violence in Fairy Tales, Tikkun Olam — Healing the World,  and Snow White, Blood Red— Women in Fairy Tales,  nor to most of the readings by writers I admire nor to Shelley Rabinovitch’s workshop on modern paganism.

The first workshop I attended was by William Doty, entitled Orpheus, Shamanic Singer (the talk was published in issue 71 of Spring magazine). He showed images of, and related to, Orpheus (including the start of the film Black Orpheus), talked about the myth and its interpretation, and the use of the theme in poetry. Orpheus is famed for music so beautiful that trees moved to listen to him (Doty read Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem A Tree Speaks of Orpheus). I recalled a storytelling retreat where we worked on the ancient Welsh poem of The Battle of the Trees, in which the enchanter Gwydion called trees to fight for him. Many of us at that event found that the trees were angry at being forced to fight, a great contrast with Orpheus’ power. Something else that came to my mind in that workshop was the song Black Muddy River, sung so beautifully by Norma Waterson. This song was originally one of the Grateful Dead’s songs. They were certainly shamanic performers (and knew it), and it occurred to me that the river could be one of the rivers of Hades, and that the “I” of the song could even be Orpheus. Indeed, the writer of the lyrics of this song (and many others of the Grateful Dead’s songs) was Robert Hunter, a poet who has also published a translation of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, so such resonances could well have been in his mind when he wrote the song.

The next session was the first of the “Big Conversations”. The one that I attended was with James Hillman, Wendy Doniger (who has written many books on mythology in general and Hinduism in particular), and Huston Smith, the distinguished writer on religions of the world.

Then to a workshop on Crossing Borders in Myth and Art, with several fantasy writers I like, especially Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, but also Midori Snyder, Terri Windling, and others including the Native American writer and storyteller Carolyn Dunn and William Todd-Jones, whose name was not known to me but whose work is world-famous, as his puppets have been seen in many films. Ellen suggested to me that I would probably like WisCon (www.wiscon.info) , a convention devoted to feminist science fiction, and I hope to attend it another year. Many of the presenters are active in the Interstitial Arts Foundation (website www.interstitialarts.org), which is devoted to art made in the interstices between genres and categories, art that crosses borders and refuses to be constrained by category labels. They talked about the difficulties encountered by a writer whose work does not fit into a conventional genre. There was surprising little mention of crossing gender boundaries, though Ellen Kushner did comment that her newly reissued novel Swordspoint (and its sequel by her and Delia Sherman, The Fall of the Kings) could be regarded as fantasy, as historical (in another world with similarities to and difference from this one), or as a queer novel. My friend Jan Henning’s account of transgender issues and ‘slash’ fiction seems very relevant here; it can be found by clicking here. I was delighted to learn that Jan won the Mithril award for her online slash story which discusses the ‘deSauronification’ of  orcs after the conclusion of the wars.

In the evening was the Campbell Celebration Banquet. Small tables allowed easy conversation, and at the end of the meal there were reminiscences of Campbell from several of those who knew him.

The next day, after the plenary session (and early morning wake-up activities ranging from dream-sharing to mythic movement and yoga, none of which I attended) I went to a session on Drawing Down the Myth, with a large number of presenters (because it was originally designed for three groups) who discussed their uses of myth and how their creative impulses related to and were coloured by myth and folktales.

In the early afternoon to a session on Metamorphosis. The presenters were Mickey Lemle, who has made many films on spiritual subjects, and three academics, Wendy Doniger, William Doty, and Alan Dundes. This soon got into an academic discussion, “What is Myth?”, “Is this a myth or just a literary fiction?”, and so on. Great fun for some observers, but not particularly illuminating.

I am currently writing a new version of the story of Adam and Eve. Because of this I decided to hear Rabbi Yossi New, a Lubavitcher Hassidic rabbi from Atlanta. His topic was listed as From the Garden of Eden to Noah’s Ark; the Metamorphosis of Sin, but interestingly the word ‘sin’ was mentioned only once. He raised various technical issues (“What was the forbidden fruit?”, “Was the fruit only forbidden for a period of time?), but the main account was fascinating . He holds that the spark of the divine is in everything, and that there are two ways of revealing the divine, by transcending the world or by transforming it. The former is the easy choice, the latter an adult choice. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree (which he referred to as “The Tree of Knowledge — Good and Evil”, which I am told is a more accurate translation than the usual … Knowledge of Good and Evil, and he claimed this implied that the tree, like the world, contained both good and evil in it) they were making the choice to transform the world. Their expulsion from Eden was not a punishment, but simply a necessity to enable them to attempt this task.

We were now into Friday evening, when the bigger conference started. It began with a poetry reading by Robert Bly and Coleman Barks, with musical support. As usual, they read poems by Rumi and Hafiz, as well as modern poets. Once again I was reminded that, while Rumi appeals to my mind, the mystical writer who touches my heart is the eighteenth-century Bengali devotee of Kali, Ramprasad. I wish there were a good and easily available translation of his works, and that someone like Barks could gain for him the attention he deserves. The only current translation I had read (which I like, though I am told it is not particularly accurate) is by Lex Hixon (Mother of the Universe, Quest Books, 1994) (see my review); however, Nathan and Seeley’s well-received earlier Grace and Mercy in Her Wild Hair was reissued in 199 by Holm Press, and Rachel Fell McDermott’s Singing to the Goddess (Oxford University press 2001) looks like a fascinating collection of the works of Ramprasad and others.  I also found that the presentation by Bly and Barks, though intended to help the poems sink deeply into one’s soul, in fact drew my attention more to the performers than the poems. I also realised just how good some of the poems by my own friends are, such as Asphodel Long and her book  Athene Revisited, Writers’ Workshop 1999 and 2004)) and Joe Winter (Guest and Host, Anvil Press 2003, At Rimbik, Writers’ Workshop 2003, and others).

On Saturday morning I went to a session of Native American Storytelling by Gayle Ross and Carolyn Dunn. In addition to the stories, there was a brief discussion about their use outside their own cultures. Carolyn Dunn said “It’s OK to sing the songs, but you’ve got to sing them right, as they call the spirits.” The same would apply to stories, some of them are only to be told at particular times, and this must be respected. I think it was Gayle in this session who said “The more variety there is in a story the more important it is.” Another Native American storyteller, Joseph Bruchac, says in his book Our Stories Remember (Fulcrum Publishing 2003), which looks at American Indian history, culture and values through storytelling, that those professional storytellers who use Native stories have a responsibility to obtain permission first, and to give something back. he says “Let your heart and your honor show you the way.” Gayle said “There is no Native American religion — just a way to be”, and that attempting to include specifics of Native American practices by outsiders was just a form of “spiritual manifest destiny”. Gayle agreed with me when I said that the seemed to be no reason why Europeans should use the Lakota phrase “Mitakuye oyasin”, but that we could learn the lesson in those words, that we are all related (animals, plants, rocks, and in fact everything), and use our own words. My own circle at home, which celebrates the seasonal festivals by a mythic drama running through the year, seems to me not a religion, just a way to be and what one does at specific times, and in fact Chief Jake Swamp, when I met him some years ago, said, after I had described our practice, that it was somewhat like his own Native American approach.

A session on Cross-Cultural Endings: Why Do We Have These Stories revealed one of the weaknesses of the Campbellian approach. By ‘endings’ was meant stories of the end of the world, and the conclusion was that such stories , despite the title, were not cross-cultural, but were only rarely found, most notably in Christian apocalyptic stories and in the Norse tales of Ragnarok.

Guy Gavriel Kay writes some fine historical novels set in worlds like ours but slightly different. This allows him freedom from historical facts while remaining true to the feelings of the times. I was most recently rereading The Lions of Al-Rassan, based on the Spanish reconquista, because I had always claimed that the high period of the Moors in Spain was one of the most tolerant era in history, and had just read a lovely book about that period, The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal.  Kay (whose other novels include A Song for Arbonne, paralleling the crusade against the Cathars, and his most recent The Last Light of the Sun about England in the ninth and tenth centuries) was discussing with C. W. Sullivan, an expert on Celtic myth, the interplay between The New Faith and the Old Beliefs. This was about the how old pagan religions had portions of their beliefs, practices and sites taken over by Christianity, whereas other parts of their beliefs and practices were demonised.

Body as Landscape, the Human as Nature again turned out to be more a session of telling stories than a discussion. It was about how the landscapes we inhabit affect us, about how the stories of the land interweave with our personal stories.

The final workshop I attended was by Ellen Kushner. She read extracts from her recently republished novel Thomas the Rhymer and sang parts of the ballad on which her book is based and other related ballads. The two great British ballads of an encounter with the Otherworld are Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin. She commented that several fantasy writers have written versions of Tam Lin, but that Thomas (also known as True Thomas) has rarely been written about. She suggested that this might be precisely because he was in a sense their patron. It only occurs to me now that both the first and the last workshop I attended were about journeys to the Otherworld, their prohibitions and gifts, and the effects on the traveller who returns. The two journeys and their consequences were very different, but the theme is one that Campbell wrote much about. Indeed, the whole conference and its results on the participants can be thought of as a Hero’s Journey in Campbell’s sense.

As in many conferences nowadays, a portable labyrinth on canvas had been (brought by Spirit n2 Matter) both for individual use and for workshops. This was the standard seven-circuit labyrinth, but was particularly attractive with the edges of the paths being wavy rather than circular, and with different parts having different colours. It was created by the visionary artist Theresa Herrera.

The vendors’ hall had a large book display, of books by many but not all of the presenters. I bought quite a few, of course, and was pleased to be able to get them signed by their authors. The artwork and other items for sale were of very varied quality, some really nice pieces but some that were the usual tat found at too many gatherings. The stage at the vendors’ hall had performers on all the time, which was a good occasion to catch people one did not know without committing oneself to sitting and listening.    

There were many musical performances. One of the major concerts was by Janis Ian. I did not hear her, as I chose to listen to Heather Dale (Web site www.HeatherDale.com). I had caught some songs of hers on the stage in the vendors’ hall, and was immediately taken by them, so wanted to hear a longer session. She writes her own songs, mostly on Arthurian themes with a very original way of looking at them.

A very witty and enjoyable group, who were on too late for me to hear much of them, was Three Weird Sisters (www.threeweirdsisters.com). But my favourite group was Emerald Rose (see review).

Atlanta airport has an art display in the international area. Coincidentally (or synchronistically) this was a selection of puppets from many cultures, shadow puppets, marionettes, and others. A fitting end to a valuable few days.

The conference was the child of Michael Karlin, together with many midwives, all of whom we thank. In a follow-up email, Michael said:

“If you feel, like we do, that the language of myth can help individuals and societies come together in peaceful dialogue — if you know that a good story can save the world — please join us.

We are a non-profit gang of infidels, orthodox free-thinkers, Catholics, Jews, Pagans, Buddhists, and others, who wish to God that people would relax their grip on the Truth, with a capital “T” and get on with a wider view.

We are dying; we are all quite literally dying of smallness, exclusivity, moral certainty, self-righteousness, fundamentalism, and bigotry. It’s time to give everybody’s story a chance.”

Oh, and the title of this piece.  I saw it in the window of an Atlanta optician’s, but it seemed an ideal slogan for the conference.

Pentacle 11, Samhain 2004
© Daniel Cohen

 

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