Joseph Campbell *
From: The Masks Of God: Primitive Mythology
Anyone used to the concept of God the Creator, as that image is rendered in the higher mythologies and religions of the agriculturally based civilizations, will surely be surprised to learn that this figure of whom we have been reading was the creator of man and all the animals.
Another of his tales - just another of the many that are told of his curious adventures - tells of his coming up to the country of the Blackfeet from the south, traveling north, and making the birds and animals as he passed along. He made the mountains, prairies, timber, and the brush first, putting rivers here and there, and waterfalls upon them, putting red paint here and there in the ground - fixing up the world as we see it today. And he covered the plains with grass, so that it might furnish food for the animals. He put trees in the ground, and all kinds of animals on the ground. And when he made the bighorn with its great head and horns, he set it out on the prairie. It did not seem to travel easily on the prairie; so he took it by one of its horns, and led it up into the mountains where he turned it loose; and it shipped about among the rocks, and went up fearful places with ease. So he said, "This is the place that suits you; this is what you are fitted for, the rocks and mountains." And while he was there in the mountains, he made the antelope out of dirt, and turned it loose, to see how it would do. But it ran so fast that it fell over the rocks and hurt itself. Seeing that this would not do, he took the antelope down onto the prairie and turned it loose. It ran away gracefully, and he said, "This is what you are suited for."
Then one day he decided that he would make a woman and a child, and so he formed them both of clay. And after he had molded the clay in human shape he said to it, "You shall be people." Then he covered it up and went away. The next morning, returning, he took the covering off and saw that the clay shapes had changed a little. The second morning there was still more change, and the third still more. The fourth morning he took the covering off, looked at the images, and told them to rise and walk; and they did so. They walked down to the river with their maker, and then he told them that his name was Old Man.
As they were standing by the river, the woman asked Old Man, "How is it? Shall we always live, shall there be no end to it?" And he said, "I have never thought of that. We must decide. I shall take this chip of dried buffalo dung and throw it into the river. If it floats, people will die but in four days become alive again; they will die for only four days. But if it sinks, there will be an end of them." He tossed the chip into the river and it floated. The woman turned and picked up a stone and said, "No, it is not to be like that. I shall throw this stone into the river and if it floats we shall always live, but if it sinks people must die, so that they shall feel pity for each other and feel sorrow for each other." The woman threw the stone into the water and it sank. "There!" said Old Man. "You have chosen. And so that is the way it shall be."
The first people were poor and naked and did not know how to live; but Old Man showed them the roots and berries and told them how to eat them; and he showed them that in a certain month of the year they could peel the bark off certain trees and eat it, and that it would be good. He told them that the animals should be their food. He made all the birds that fly and told the people that their flesh could be eaten. And of a certain plant he would say, "The root of this plant, if gathered in a certain month of the year, is good for a certain sickness." And thus they learned the powers of all the herbs.
Old Man taught the people how to make hunting weapons and to kill and slaughter buffalo, and, since it is not healthful to eat the meat raw, gathered soft, dry, rotten wood and made punk of it, and then got a piece of hard wood and, drilling a hole in it with an arrow point, taught them how to make fire with fire-sticks, and to cook the flesh of the animals and eat it. And then he said to them, "Now, if you are overcome, you may go to sleep and get power. Something will come to you in your dream, and that will help you. Whatever those animals who appear to you in your sleep tell you to do, you must obey them. Be guided by them. If you want help, are alone and traveling, and cry aloud for aid, your prayer will be answered - perhaps by the eagles, or by the buffalo, or by the bears. Whatever animal answers your prayer you must listen." And that was how the first people got through the world, by the power of their dreams.
When Trickster, at the end of his wandering, left the earth, he made a kettle and dish of stone, boiled a meal, and said, "Now, for the last time, I shall eat a meal on earth." He sat on a roc and his seat is visible there to the present day. You can see th imprint of his buttocks, the imprint of his testicles, the imprin of the kettle and the dish. The rock is not far from where th Missouri enters the Mississippi. Then he left, first entering th ocean and then the heavens. He is now under the earth, in charg of the lowest of the four worlds. Bladder is in charge of the second Turtle of the third, and Hare of the world in which we live.
This ambiguous, curiously fascinating figure of the trickster appears to have been the chief mythological character of the paleolithic world of story. A fool, and a cruel, lecherous cheat, an epitome of the principle of disorder, he is nevertheless the culture- bringer also. And he appeared under many guises, both animal and human. Among the North American Plains Indians his usual form was Coyote. Among the woodland tribes of the north and east, he was the Great Hare, the Master Rabbit, some of whose deeds were assimilated by the Negroes of America to an African rabbit- rickster whom we know in the folktales of Br'er Rabbit. The ribes of the Northwest Coast knew him as Raven. Blue Jay is another of his forms. In Europe he is known as Reynard the Fox; but also, on a more serious plane, he appears as the devil. Here is a tale told by the Christianized Yakuts of Siberia:
Satan was the older brother of Christ, but wicked, whereas Christ was good. And when God wished to create the earth he said to Satan: "You boast of being able to do everything and say that you are greater than I; well then, bring up some sand from the bottom of the ocean." Satan dove to the bot- tom, but when he returned to the surface saw that the water had washed the sand out of his hand. He dove twice again, without success, but the fourth time changed himself into a swallow and managed to bring up a little mud on his beak. Christ blessed the morsel, which then became the earth. And the earth was nice and flat and smooth. But Satan, planning to create a world of his own, had deceitfully hidden a por- tion of the mud in his throat. Christ understood the wile and struck him on the back of the neck. Whereupon the mud squirted from his mouth and formed the mountains; whereas originally everything had been as smooth as a plate.
In the carnival customs of Europe this figure survives in the numerous clowns, buffoons, devils, Pulcinellas, and imps who play the roles, precisely, of the clowns in the rites of the Indian Pueblos and give the character of topsy-turvy day to the feast. They represent, from the point of view of the masters of decorum, the chaos principle, the principle of disorder, the force careless of taboos and shattering bounds. But from the point of view of the deeper realms of being from which the energies of life ultimately spring, this principle is not to be despised. Indeed, in a most amazing manner, in the period of the building of the cathedrals of the high Middle Ages - as Dr. Jung has reminded us in his article "On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure" - there were some strange ecclesiastical customs reflecting the grimace of this master of chaos: most notably the festum asinorum, which Nietzsche parodied in his chapter on the "Ass Festival" in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The occasion honored in this whimsical feast was the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, and in the cathedral of Beauvais the girl playing the role of Mary, together with the ass, went right up to the altar, where she stationed herself at the Gospel side, and at the conclusion of each section of the high mass that followed, the whole congregation brayed. An eleventh century codex states that "at the end of the mass, instead of the words Ite missa est ("Go, the mass is ended"), the priest shall bray three times, and instead of the words Deo gratias ("God be thanked"), the congregation shall bray three times."
Dr. Jung's view is that "the trickster is a collective shadow figure, an epitome of all the inferior traits of character in in- dividuals." Such a view, however, is presented from the ground of our later "bounded" style of thought. In the paleolithic sphere from which this figure derives, he was the archetype of the hero, the giver of all great boons - the fire-bringer and the teacher of mankind. The Buriats in the area of Lake Baikal tell of the Great Spirit, Sombol-Burkhan, who, when moving over the waters, saw a water- fowl swimming with its twelve young. "Water-bird," he said, "dive down and bring me earth - black soil in your beak and red clay in your feet." The bird dove, and Sombol-Burkhan scattered first the red clay on the water and then upon it the black soil; after which he thanked the bird. "You shall ever live," he said, "and dive in the water."
This is a more primitive version of the earth-diver theme than the Christianized Yakut tale presented. Relieved of the ethical dualism of god and devil, it shows the creative force in its primary innocence. But the Ostyaks of the Yenisei River area depict the creator still more simply, as a shaman. The Great Shaman Doh - they say - was hovering over the waters with a company of swans, loons, and other water-fowl, finding nowhere to come down and rest, when he asked one of his diving birds to plunge and fetch a bit of earth from the bottom. The bird dove twice before it brought up even a grain; yet the Great Shaman Doh was able to make of this bit of mud an island in the sea.
The hunting tribes of North America attribute the same shaman- istic earth-fashioning deed to their paleolithic hero-trickster. At the time of a great flood we find this ambiguous figure floating on a raft full of animals, bidding them dive to bring up some earth. Three go down but return exhausted; but then some exceedingly powerful swimmer descends - a loon, muskrat, or turtle - and after a long time (in some of the tales even days), he comes floating to the surface, belly up, practically dead, but with a bit of dirt caught in his paw. And then Old Man, Coyote, Raven, or the Great Hare - in whichever character the trickster is represented - removes the bit of mud and, reciting a charm, places it on the surface of the water. The particle increases, growing in four days to the present size of the earth, the animals step ashore, and all begins anew.
It is hardly proper to call such a figure a god, or even to think of him as supernatural. He is a super-shaman. And we find his counterparts in myth and legend throughout the world, wherever shamanism has left its mark: in Oceania and Africa, as well as in Siberia and Europe. In Polynesia, Maui is the trickster. We have already witnessed a couple of his feats.* Br'er Rabbit has taught us something of his African form, where he is also Anansi, the spider. Among the Greeks he was Hermes (Mercury), the shape- bhifter and master of the way to the land of the dead, as well as Prometheus, the fire-bringer. In Germanic myth he appeared as the mischief-maker Loki, whose very character was fire and who, at the time of Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, will be the leader of the hosts of Hel.
We may imagine this trickster-hero in his character as Coyote, standing one evening on the top of a mountain, looking south. And far away he thought he saw a light. Not knowing, at first, what it was, by a process of divination he learned that he was seeing fire; and so, making up his mind to procure this wonder for man- kind, he gathered a company of companions: Fox, Wolf, Antelope - al l the good runners went along. And after traveling a very great way, they all reached the house of the Fire People, to whom they said: "We have come to visit you, to dance, to play and to gamble." And so, in their honor, preparations were made for a dance, to be held that night.
Coyote prepared a headdress for himself, made of pitchy yellow- pine shavings, with long fringes of cedar bark, reaching to the ground. The Fire People danced first, and the fire was very low. Then Coyote and his people began to dance around the flame, and they complained that they could not see. The Fire People made a larger fire, and Coyote complained four times, until finally they let it blaze up high. Coyote's people then pretended to be very hot and went out to cool themselves: they took up positions for running and only Coyote was left inside. He capered about wildly until his headdress caught fire, and then, pretending to be afraid, he asked the Fire People to put it out. They warned him not to dance so close to the blaze. But when he came near the door, he swung the long fringes of his headdress across the fire and ran out. The Fire People pursued him and he gave his headdress to Antelope, who ran and passed it on to the next runner; and so it went in relay. One by one, the Fire People caught up with the animals and killed them, until the only one left was Coyote; and they nearly caught him too, but he ran behind a tree and gave the fire to the tree. Since then, men have been able to draw fire with fire-sticks from the wood of trees.
This version of the great event is from the Thompson River Indians of British Columbia. The Creek Indians of Georgia and Alabama, some three thousand miles away, present their trickster Rabbit in precisely the same adventure, dance and all, cap afire and animal relay,58 while among the Chilcotin, who are considerably north of the Thompson tribes, the hero of the same adventure is Raven, again with the fire-cap, the dance, and the animal relay.59 Still farther north, however, among the Kaska, a primitive Athapascan tribe dwelling on the arctic slopes of the Rocky Moun- tains in the farthest reach of British Columbia, the myth takes another turn.
Fire, these people say, was held in possession, long ago, by Bear, who had a fire-stone, from which he could draw sparks any time he wanted. But the people had no fire; for Bear guarded the fire-stone jealously, always keeping it tied to his belt. One day, in his lodge, he was lying quietly by his fire when a little bird, coming in, approached him. The bear said gruffly, "What do you want?" The little bird replied, "I am nearly frozen. I have come to warm myself." "All right," said the bear, "come in. But while getting warm, come over here and pick my lice."
The guest assented. He began to hop all over the bear, picking his lice and, while doing so, occasionally picked at the string that fastened the fire-stone to Bear's belt. And when the string was picked through, the little bird suddenly snatched the stone and flew away. Now all the animals were outside; for they had arranged for this stealing of the fire. And they were all waiting in a line, one behind the other. Bear chased the bird and caught up just as it reached the first animal of the line, to whom the fire-stone had already been passed. And Bear caught this animal just as it tossed the fire-stone to the next. And so it went, right along the line, until at last the fire was passed to Fox, who scampered up a high mountain. But the bear was so tired by now that he could no longer run. And so Fox, on top of the mountain, broke up the fire-stone and threw a fragment of it to each tribe. That is how the many tribes all over the earth got fire. And that is why there is now fire everywhere, in the rocks and in the woods.60 A glance at the myths of the Andamanese, a race of extremely primitive pygmoid Negritos dwelling in a chain of remote islands in the Bay of Bengal, reveals a number of versions of the same legend, one of the most widespread of which assigns the deed to the kingfisher. The fire, here, was in the possession of the most powerful and important figure of the local pantheon, Biliku - a temperamental, feminine personification of the power of the north- east monsoon, alternately malignant and benign, to whom the fashioning of the earth is attributed. And the ancestors having determined to steal her fire at a time when she was known to be asleep, the kingfisher flew silently into her hut one night and took it. But she woke just as he was making away, and, hurling a pearl shell, cut off his wings and tail. He dove into the sea and swam to a place called Bet-'ra-kudu, where he gave the fire to one of the animals, who passed it on to the bronze-winged dove, and the dove turned it over to all the rest. The kingfisher, as a consequence of his accident, however, became a man, while Biliku, in a rage, withdrew her residence from the earth and has lived, ever since, somewhere in the sky.
The young Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, contrasted the biblical myth of the Fall in the Garden unfavorably with what he took to be the typically Greek heroic and tragic myth of Prome- theus. The whole mythology of the Fall with its concept of dis- obedience to a higher power, its serpent's lying misrepresentation, its seduction, greed, and concupiscence - in short, its constellation of what he termed "feminine affects" - represented for Nietzsche an interpretation of human values that could be termed only con- temptuous and contemptible; whereas in the bold impiety of the Greek Titan - representing man's courageous achievement of his own cultural and spiritual stature in defiance of the jealous gods - he saw an essentially masculine worth.
Since Nietzsche's day we have learned that the fire-theft is not a specifically Indo-European mythological motif; nor the idea of the Fall specifically biblical. However, it is still true that these two represent the poles of the Western World's mythological inherit- ance. The Greek Titan, a sublimation of the image of the self- reliant, shamanistic trickster, who frequently comes off badly at the end of an adventure, is neither condemned in his intransigent defiance of Zeus nor mocked as a fool by the Greek playwright, but offered, rather, as a tragic pattern of man's relationship to the governing powers of the natural universe. Whereas the Bible, in its spirit of priestly piety, recognizing equally the tension between God and man, stands on the side of God and breaks not only man's will but the serpent's too.
Prometheus knows what he has done for mankind, and shouts it in God's teeth. Men, before he taught them, knew no arts but in the dark earth burrowed and housed, like ants in caves. They had no calendar until he taught them to know the rising and setting of the stars. He gave them numbers, the arts of writing, farming and the harnessing of the horse; metallurgy, medicine, divination; yes, and the art, even, of making sacrifice to Zeus. In the bold play of Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, we hear the ring of that great Titan's defiant challenge:
In one round sentence, every god I hate That injures me who never injured him. Deem not that I, to win a smile from Jove, Will spread a maiden smoothness o'er my soul, And importune the foe whom most I hate With womanish upliftings of the hands.
In contrast, however, we admire no less the proud though humble piety of Job, who, when shown the wonder of the power that had dealt with him unjustly, yet made the world, poured ashes on his head. "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee," Job confessed before his God, "therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."
These two traditions are mixed in the inheritance not only of the West but of all civilizations and represent the poles of man's spiritual tension: that of the priestly representation of the power that shaped the universe as a force beyond human criticism or challenge, the power that made the sun and moon, the seas, Leviathan, Behemoth, and the mountains, before whom man's proper attitude is awe; and, on the other hand, that of the in- transigency of the self-sufficient magician, the titan power of the shaman, the builder of Babel, careless of God's wrath, who knows that he is older, greater, and stronger than the gods. For indeed, it is man that has created the gods, whereas the power that created the universe is none other than the will that operates in man him- self and in man alone has achieved the consciousness of its king- dom, power, and glory.
Zeus, it may be recalled, had taken offense when Prometheus had tricked him at the time of the offering of a sacrifice. The Titan, having slain a sacrificial bull, filled the stomach of the beast with meat for himself and his people, wrapping the bones deceptively and attractively in juicy fat; and when he presented these two packaged portions to the king of the gods, bidding him choose the one he desired, Zeus, deceived, took the portion wrapped in fat. Opening which, and finding nothing but bones, Zeus became a god of wrath, and to such an absurd degree that he withheld from mankind the precious gift of fire. Whereupon Prometheus, man's savior, stole it - according to one version, from the workshop of the lame god of fire and metalwork, Hephaistos; but, according to another, from the hearth of Zeus himself, on the summit of Olympus. Prometheus carried with him a hollow stalk of narthex, which he ignited at the blaze, and then, waving the stalk to keep it burning, came running back. Still another version relates that Prometheus plucked his fire from the sun.64 But in any case, Zeus took upon him an extreme revenge. For he caused Hephaistos to nail the boon-bringcr to the highest summit of the Caucasus, drove a pillar through his middle in the way of a stake, and sent an eagle to eat his liver. What is torn away of the liver in the day grows back at night, so that the torture goes on and on. And yet, the punishment, presently, will end; for, as Prometheus knows, there is a prophecy that one day his chains will fall away of themselves and the world-eon of Zeus dissolve.
The prophecy is the same as that of the Eddic Twilight of the Gods, when Loki will lead forth the rugged hosts of Hel: Then shall happen what seems great tidings: the Wolf shall swallow the sun; and this shall seem to men a great harm. Then the other wolf shall seize the moon, and he also shall work great ruin; the stars shall vanish from the heavens. Then shall come to pass these tidings also: all the earth shall tremble so, and the crags, that trees shall be torn up from the earth, and the crags fall to ruin; and all fetters and bonds shall be broken and rent.... The Fenris-Wolf shall ad- vance with gaping mouth, and his lower jaw shall be against the earth, but the upper against heaven, - he would gape yet more if there were room for it; fires blaze forth from his eyes and nostrils. The Midgard Serpent shall blow venom so that he shall sprinkle all the air and water; and he is very terrible, and shall be on one side of the Wolf.... Then shall the Ash of Yggdrasil tremble, and nothing then shall be without fear in heaven or on earth.
The binding of the shamans by the Hactcin, by the gods and their priests, which commenced with the victory of the neolithic over the paleolithic way of life, may perhaps be already terminating - today - in this period of the irreversible transition of society from an agricultural to industrial base, when not the piety of the planter, bowing humbly before the will of the calendar and the gods of rain and sun, but the magic of the laboratory, flying rocket ships where the gods once sat, holds the promise of the boons of the future. "Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest has not heard that God is dead!"
Nietzsche's word was the first pronouncement of the Promethean Titan that is now coming unbound within us - for the next world age. And the priests of the chains of Zeus may well tremble; for the bonds are disintegrating of themselves.