More notes from the Wasteland

Joseph Campbell considered the Wasteland and the quest for the Grail that heals it to be a core myth for our time.  During “The Power of Myth” series at the end of his life,  Campbell said the Wasteland results from a worldview that divides matter and spirit.  Referring to the Fisher King’s wound he said:

“the Christian separation of matter and spirit…has really castrated nature. And the European mind, the European life, has been, as it were, emasculated by this separation. The true spirituality, which would have come from the union of matter and spirit, has been killed.” (1)

Generations of western thinkers, culminating in Descartes, built upon the split Campbell cites to elaborate a mechanistic view of nature that made the world ripe for human exploitation.  Results of this world view are visible everywhere, both in the headlines and in the landscape around us.  This part of California, for instance, still bears the scars of hydraulic mining 150 years after the gold rush.

Hydraulic mining along the Yuba river.

Hydraulic mining along the Yuba river.

Deliberate exploitation isn’t always the culprit.  We think of Native Americans as attuned with nature, but even they made mistakes.  From AD 900-1150, such a large concentration of Pueblo people lived in Chaco Canyon, NM that they cut an estimated million trees from the surrounding Colorado Plateau.  The resulting erosion, loss of game habitat, and flooding is thought to be one reason why they abandoned the site.  The surrounding landscape, once forest, has been desert ever since.

Pueblo Bonito ruins, Chaco Canyon.  Photo courtesy of Scott Haefner,

Pueblo Bonito ruins, Chaco Canyon. Photo courtesy of Scott Haefner,

Now that humans have the power to disrupt the environment on a global scale, the question of whether the harm is deliberate or inadvertent may be moot, but serious differences still lie at the heart of competing world views.  Campbell touched on this issue in Creative Mythology, the last book of The Masks of God, a four volume study of world mythology that he wrote between 1962 and 1968.  In this series, he ascribed four functions to myth (2)

  1. The Metaphysical Function: Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being
  2. The Cosmological Function: Explaining the shape of the universe
  3. The Sociological Function: Validate and support the existing social order
  4. The Pedagogical Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life

The Grail story resonates on all of these levels, but since I want to consider the Wasteland myth in light of our current environmental crisis, the third and fourth functions have the greatest relevance here.

Campbell points out that humans are born too soon, “absolutely helpless,” and unlike most other animals, learn how to survive from a social group.  Our earliest myths derive from the hunter/gatherer era, “hardly greater than large families, of which every adult member was in possession of the entire cultural heritage.”  

These earliest myths “served a fostering, educative function, bearing the unfinished nature product to full, harmonious unfoldment as an adult specifically adapted for survival in a certain specific environment, as a fully participating member of a specific social group; and apart from that group he would neither have come to maturity nor have been able to survive.”  There was room for diversity, but no one who threatened the group was tolerated.

The next strata of myth emerged when humans settled into agricultural communities, beginning around 7500 B.C..  Villages grew into towns and then into cities and “it was precisely at this point of space and time, in the Near East, and specifically Sumer, c. 3500-3000 B.C., that the evidence first appears among the ruins…first, of a disciplined social order imposed from above by force, and next, of deliberate expeditions of military conquest against neighbors…campaigns of systematic conquest and subjugation.”  The principle here, said Campbell, was “greed for more than one’s share.”

Imposed social orders are not inherently bad, says Campbell.  Despite romantic fantasies of the noble savage, few people really want to live in caves or give up such boons as advanced medicine, arts, spirituality, and transportation, to say nothing of indoor plumbing.  Like conventions in writing, music, or painting, cultural conventions may spark creativity when they are new and later stifle it as they atrophy.

“The Waste Land, let us say then, is any world in which…force and not love, indoctrination not education, authority not experience, prevail in the ordering of lives, and where the myths and rites enforced and received are consequently unrelated to the actual inward realizations, needs, and potentialities of those upon whom they are impressed.”

This was the situation when the European Grail myth emerged; the first written version was composed in the 12th century by Cretien de Troyes at the very time the inquisition began.  The Grail legend served as a counterpoint to the institutional church; the tale can be read as the map of a quest for personal realization, safely couched in a story of ladies and knights.  In the earliest versions, the Grail was not the cup of the last supper but a stone or a large stone dish, which like the philosopher’s stone of alchemy, granted the heart’s deepest desire.

Even at our remove from the middle ages when the stories emerged, the Grail remains one of our living myths, at least if you pay attention to popular fiction and movies.  Think of The Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and even Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Pythons on the quest: at the lair of the Killer Bunny

Pythons on the quest: at the lair of the Killer Bunny

As much as the population of the middle ages, we are, in the words of 19th century poet, Matthew Arnold, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born.”  The Grail continues to speak to such eras, especially one in which the Wasteland is not just the metaphor of an inner desert, but a world in which that desert is visible around us.

The Grail remains a shining image, never quite clear, but unforgettable, of the kind of life and world we seek among the confusion of possible futures.  At the end of “The Power of Myth” series, Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell what the myth of the future might be.

“You can’t predict a myth anymore than you can predict what you’re going to dream tonight,” Campbell replied (3).  “Dreams and myths come from the same place.”  Then he went on to say, “The only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be one that is talking about the entire planet.”

Earth from space

“You don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This may be the symbol of the mythology to come. That’s going to be the country we are celebrating.” – Joseph Campbell, 1987″

Next:  Some people who are already question for the Grail.

Notes from the Wasteland

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Photo by David Mark, public domain.

Talk of drought in California isn’t uncommon.  Normally it means lower levels in reservoirs and thinner snowpacks in the Sierras.  Bad news for skiers, and boaters, and farmers, perhaps, and an earlier start to the fire season, but’s it’s January, and for those who don’t ski, or boat, or farm, it’s easy to ignore until summer. But this time it’s different. This year it simply will not rain.

Even in “dry” winters, you see warnings that river currents are cold and swift.  This year the river’s so low there is no visible current.  Half of the local lawns are brown, and those that are green invite visits from the “water patrols” the districts threaten to form.  They say the reservoir from which we get our drinking water is at 17%; that image isn’t easy to forget.

A year ago, I posted a report from the National Intelligence Council.  Every four years, the NIC, representing every US intelligence agency, collaborates on a summary of the world situation to give the incoming president.  They post the report online for anyone to read.  After the last presidential election, the NIC gave the administration a report called Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds:

Click for the text of the whole report

I discussed the report in detail in a post in December, 2012, but it’s worth reviewing one of the four “Megatrends” the report identified.  The CIA, the NSA, the FBI, and the 13 other agencies that compiled the report do not waste time debating climate change; they accept it as a given and factor it into predictions, saying that by 2030:

Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle-class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so.

What gives you pause is their conclusion:

We are not necessarily headed into a world of scarcities, but policymakers and their private sector partners will need to be proactive to avoid such a future.

At this time, if we have to depend on our “policymakers and their private sector partners” to be proactive, we’re screwed, but there are different ways to look at our situation.  As usual, I try to relate literal “truth” to archetypal patterns, and in this case, the obvious mythic story is that of the Wasteland.

The story relates how Camelot fell apart.  How the rift between Arthur and his queen threw the land into ruin.  How the ailing king sent his knights in search of the Holy Grail, the one thing that could restore the barren world.  Those who reached the Grail Castle found another mysterious king inside, wounded through the testicles, in constant pain but unable to die.  His only relief by day was to float in a boat on a lake near the castle.  For this reason, he was known as “The Fisher King.”  He could only be healed by the right knight arriving at the castle to ask the right question.

Antecedents to the story are ancient and predate the Arthurian tales, perhaps by thousands of years.  In writing his poem, The Waste Land (1922), T.S. Eliot relied on an anthropological study, From Ritual to Romance by Jessie Weston, who in turn, drew on The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazier’s study of sacred kingship.

In the mythic cycle Frazier explored, the earthly king was “married” to the Goddess of the Land.  His potency and the earth’s fertility were one.  When he became old and infirm or impotent, the health of the land suffered.  He was ritually killed and a new king selected.  We find echoes of this in Arthur’s estrangement from Guinevere, though of course by then, the era when monarchs submitted to sacrifice was past.

We aren’t ruled by kings anymore, but if we consider “governments” alongside the word, “impotent,” and if we ignore what Viagra can fix, we find these meanings: “weak; ineffective, powerless or helpless; having no self-control.”

Yet the news isn’t all bad, and that is a theme I plan to explore in a series of posts exploring the Wasteland.  For one thing, the Grail hides there and nowhere else.  For another, the old stories never suggest that rulers can save us.  Renewal comes from the outsider, the dummling, the fool, Parsifal the rustic youth, or a carpenter from Nazareth.  

There are literally thousands of people today, already in or ready to enter the metaphorical forest on a quest for better ways to live.  I plan to discuss a few of their stories here.

“Arming the Grail Knights” by Edward Burne-Jones, tapestry, 1890’s, public domain

Yule ~ The Beginner’s Guide To The Wheel Of The Year

Just in time for the solstice, here is another of Lily Wight’s wonderful “Wheel of the Year” posts, with beautiful illustrations and commentary on the Celtic and Nordic stories surrounding this ancient holiday. Enjoy her post and enjoy the return of light!

Lily Wight

Updated 18/12/2014

     There are four Solar Quarter Days (two equinoxes and two solstices) on The Wheel of The Year calendar.  Yule or The Winter Solstice is celebrated during a twelve day period from December into January.

     Yule commemorates the demise and rebirth of the sun’s powers because The Wheel continues to turn and daylight hours begin to lengthen again beyond The Shortest Day.

     The name “Yule” is thought to derive from the Old Norse ” jólnar”  – a collective term for the gods or “Yule Ones”.   Jólfaðr (Yule Father – interchangeable with All-Father) is one of many names attributed to Odin.  In Old Norse poetry names and terms for Odin are frequently synonymous with celebration and feasting.  Odin The Gift-Giver is undoubtedly the origin of our Santa Claus.

     The Midwinter period between the last harvest (Samhain)…

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Samhain ~ The Beginner’s Guide To The Wheel Of The Year

Here is another of Lily Wight’s fine articles on the Celtic Wheel of the Year. This one discusses Samhain, a time of ending and beginning, when the veil between the worlds was especially thin. This is key information for those who love Celtic mythology as well as providing fun background for those who love Halloween.

Lily Wight

     Updated 23/10/2014

     Samhain – pronounced “sow – inn” and known presently as Halloween – is celebrated from sunset to sunset on 31st October to 1st November.  It is the most important Fire Festival or Sabbat on the ancient Wheel of The Year calendar.

     “Samhain” has been variously translated as “first frost” or “Summer’s end”:  opposing suggestions with the same meaning.  It is the name for November in ancient and modern Gaelic.

     Samhain lies between The Autumn Equinox and The Winter Solstice.  It marks the death of the year and the end of the annual agricultural cycle.  Many ancient cultures throughout The Western Hemisphere regarded Samhain as their New Year’s Eve.

     Samhain is the third and final harvest on The Wheel of The Year calendar.  After Lughnasadh (grain and cereals) and Modron (fruit and vegetables) herding…

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The Four functions of a living myth and the evening news

In The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, 1968, Joseph Campbell identified four major functions of a “living myth:”

1) ” To awaken and maintain in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect in recognition of that ultimate mystery, transcending names and forms.”

CC By-NC-ND-2.0

CC By-NC-ND-2.0

2) “To render a cosmology, an image of the universe.”  Today, Campbell notes, we turn to science for this.

Andromeda galaxy.  Nasa photo, public domain

Andromeda galaxy. Nasa photo, public domain

3) To shape “the individual to the requirements of his geographical and historically conditioned social group “

January from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 15th c., public domain.

January from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 15th c., public domain.

4)  “to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual…in accord with himself, his culture, the universe, and that awesome ultimate mystery.”

Leshan Giant Buddha, 2010, by Wilson Loo.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Leshan Giant Buddha, 2010, by Wilson Loo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Forty-five years ago, when conflict during the sixties was rending the social cohesion Americans had forged during WWII, Campbell wrote:  “The rise and fall of civilizations in the long, broad course of history can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth.”

A mythological canon, said Campbell, is a group of symbols that “organize and focus the energies of aspiration.”  When the symbols no longer work for an individual, there is “dissociation from the local social nexus,” and, “if any considerable number of the members of a civilization are in this predicament, a point of no return will have been passed.”

In Creative Mythology, Campbell wrote at length of an earlier period of time when a different mythical canon broke down.  In 12th century Europe, Christianity ceased functioning as a socially cohesive world view.  Enough people stopped believing (even though belief was strictly enforced) that Europe went beyond the point of no return.

Many stories emerged during that era concerning the quest for the grail, which in the earliest written versions, had nothing to do with cup of the last supper, but everything to do with a quest to heal individuals and the land.  In Wolfram Von Eschenback’s Parzival, the grail was called lapis exiles, another name for the philosopher’s stone of alchemy.  The philosopher’s stone turns base metal into gold; the grail heals the wasteland, for that is what a country and culture become where there is a drought of aspiration and meaning.

Scenes from Perceval's quest of the grail, 1385-1390.  Public domain

Scenes from Perceval’s quest of the grail, 1385-1390. Public domain

That is where we are in America today.  In the absence of a shared core of attitudes and beliefs to unify us as a people, we are a nation of warring factions at all levels of culture and government.  For now, the party is over in the land of opportunity.  Even if our politicos won’t admit it, a “considerable number of members of our civilization” know this is true.

Campbell ended Creative Mythology by asking what might feature in a new and vital mythology.  In my opinion, he dithered with his answer, as he sometimes did in his writing.  Twenty years later, he answered the same question when it was posed by Bill Moyers at the end of the Power of Myth series.  This time Campbell suggested that any world view adequate to our times and our future would have, as a mandala, a view of the earth from space.

Earth from space

Neither Campbell nor one else back then knew the full extent of the danger climate change would pose.  Now we know it’s worse than anyone thought, (see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released Sept. 27).  Our governments are as impotent as the wounded Fisher King of the grail legend when it comes to enacting meaningful change.

Yet as Campbell said, the quest for the grail of healing begins with individual searchers venturing into the forest alone, at the place that seems best to them.  Like Nelson Kanuk, a University of Alaska freshman, whose home in a remote Eskimo village was swallowed by the sea as a result of melting permafrost.  Kanuk sued the state of Alaska for not curbing carbon emissions and his case is now being heard by the Alaska Supreme Court.  Similar suits are pending in 12 other states.  Such headlines echo words I recently quoted by Wendell Berry, who puts his trust in “ordinary people” and said:

We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not.  The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”

We don’t even have to rush out and sue our state governments, for as Campbell suggested, stories and world views spark action and change when a critical mass is reached.  Hopefully, we are at or beyond that point. All we, as individuals, have to do is be still enough to hear what the world is asking of us, and then enter the forest at the place that seems best.

Two views of the hero myth

In a recent post, I discussed heroes and anti-heroes in spy movies and westerns.  This is the followup post I promised, but I’m going to leave the realm of popular heroes – those of fiction, entertainment, sports, and all who wear masks and tights.  I’m going to discuss the heroes of myth, especially the “monomyth” as Joseph Campbell summarized it in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Here is a graphic that makes the elements of this type of story clearer:


I can’t think of heroes without remembering James Hillman, (1926-2011), the father of archetypal psychology and one of the most creative thinkers of our time.  The two differing views of the mythic hero announced in the title of this post are Hillman’s own.  He never shied away from ambiguity; “I don’t have answers, I have questions,” he said.

James Hillman

James Hillman

Hillman often railed at the negative effects he saw flowing from the hero archetype, which he saw as ego enshrined as narrow self-interest, both individually and collectively.  For Hillman, the “heroic ego” was often a source of evil and mischief.  Noting that heroes slay dragons, and earlier generations of Jungians wrote of dragons as “the mother,” Hillman claimed that heroes like Hercules in Greek mythology were emblematic of the modern world’s subjugation of women, “the feminine,” and “mother nature.”  On another occasion he said, “Killing the dragon in the hero myth is nothing less than killing the imagination.”

Yet a recently published collection of Hillman’s work (Mythic Figures, 2012) includes a chapter on Joseph Campbell, compiled from talks he gave in 2004 in which he spoke at length of the positive hero.  He put his earlier negative comments in context:

“A mistake in my attacks on the hero has been to locate this archetypal figure within our secular history after the gods had all been banished.  When the gods have fled or were declared dead, the hero serves only the secular ego.  The force that prompts action, kills dragons, and leads progress becomes the Western ‘strong ego’ – capitalist entrepreneur, colonial ruler, property developer, a tough guy with heroic ambitions on the road to success.”

When Hillman used terms like “soul” and “the gods,” his concern was religious, but not in the way of the literal truths of most organized religions.  For Hillman, such literalism was the enemy of soul.  He spoke only and always of the truth of the psyche because it precedes every other kind of truth:  “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all.” (Revisioning Psychology, 1977).

This understanding of the true hero in service to a Power greater ego prompted Hillman to revise his understanding of the “Father/Dragon/Ogre/King” the hero slays:

“A civilization requires the Ogre to be slain.  Who is the Ogre?  The reactionary aspect of the senex who promotes fear, poverty, and imprisonment; who tempts the young and devours them to increase his own importance.  The Ogre is the paranoid King who must have an enemy.  He is the deceitful, suspicious, illegitimate King whose Nobles of the Court [have] committed themselves to the enclosed asylum of security where they nourish their world-devouring megalomania.”

St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1458

St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1458

I think we know what he meant in 2004 by speaking of “paranoid kings” whose nobles live in “the enclosed asylum of security.”  It has only gotten worse. How desperate the Ogre is to quash any budding heroes was revealed in a piece on August 19 on, “School Has Become too Hostile to Boys,” by Christina Hoff Summers.  Three seven year old boys, in Virginia, Maryland, and Colorado, were recently suspended from school for the following acts:

  1. Using a pencil to “shoot” a “bad guy.”
  2. Nibbling a pop-tart into the shape of a gun.
  3. Throwing an imaginary hand grenade at “bad guys” in order to “save the world.”

The rationale for these suspensions were “zero tolerance for firearms” policies.  Punishing pop-tart weapons in a culture that went on a gun buying binge in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings seems too ludicrous to believe unless you see it from Hillman’s perspective – another step in the dragon’s war on imagination, in this case, the male imagination, the perspective from which most of our current hero myths derive.  Along with banning snack food guns, such schools have renamed “tug of war” games as “tug of peace,” and halted dodge ball as too violent.

Fortunately, as Christina Hoff notes, such efforts to “re-engineer imagination” are doomed to fail – all they will do is “send a clear and unmistakable message to millions of schoolboys: You are not welcome in school.”

In We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, 1993, Hillman made clear his belief that pathology lies in cultures as well as individuals, and we deprive the world of something when we take our rage and our grief exclusively to the therapist.  Hillman never shied away from critiques of the world at large.  Depression is “an appropriate response” to the world we live in, he said.

Yet stronger than the Ogre, said Hillman, is the myth of the Hero – not this or that particular hero, but the heroic pattern itself that Joseph Campbell restored for our times, which renews culture “by revivifying the archetypal imagination displayed by peoples the world over…The panoply of materials that Campbell catalogued shows that the hero wears a thousand faces and cannot be reduced to the modern ego.  Especially important in recognizing him is recognizing the heroic liberating function of myth – that it speaks truth to power, even the Ogre’s power.”

We know from history and the nightly news how much suffering the decay of empires involve as paranoid kings strive desperately to hold on to power.  We also have the examples of James Hillman and Joseph Campbell, who spent their lives pointing toward soul, psyche, and the language of myth and imagination.  That is where we must look to find the larger truth – the hero brings the gift of renewal as surely as spring returns after the darkest time of the year.

Your Own Damn Life: an interview with Michael Meade in The Sun

Michael Meade is an author, storyteller, and a passionate advocate of soul values in a world that increasingly ignores them; I’ve written about Meade or mentioned him in half a dozen posts.

In The Water of Life (revised, 2006) he shares his discovery that stories can be a matter of life and death.  As a teen in New York, when confronted by gang members from a rival neighborhood, Meade didn’t just lie his way out of serious injury or worse – he storied his way out, with an elaborate made-up tale that won over the assailants long enough for him to make his escape.  Readers of my recent posts will recognize a thriving trickster in Meade when he was just a kid!

I recently found an interview between Michael Meade and John Malkin in the The Sun that is as timely today, or more so, than in November, 2011, when it was published.  In the interview, “Your Own Damn Life,” Meade quotes an African proverb, “When death finds you, may it find you alive.”  Alive, he goes on to say, “means living your own damn life, not the life that your parents wanted, or the life some cultural group or political party wanted, but the life that your own soul wants to live.”

In the past, meaningful stories could guide soul evolution, but now, with the culture and the natural world both in crisis, Meade points to our lack of coherent, guiding tales.  A culture falls apart, he says, when youthful imagination and energy are stunted and when the traditional wisdom of elders is forgotten.  At one extreme, “You’re not supposed to be worrying about the end of the world as a teenager; you’re supposed to be bringing your dream to it. The world seems old and troubled now, and the young are no longer allowed to be as young as they should be.”  At the other extreme, we have a lot of “olders” but not many wise “elders.”

When traditional stories collapse, Meade says, the guiding and healing stories must come from within.  “That means going to the core of your own life and finding the story seeded within.”  Meade has tried to facilitate such explorations through his writings and talks, which first became known in the 80’s when he, James Hillman, and Robert Bly hosted a series of men’s conferences.

Meade continues to teach, write, and offer a variety of community services through the non-profit Mosaic Foundation he founded in Seattle where he lives.  If you’ve read this far, you will find Meade’s interview in The Sun and the Mosaic page hightly rewarding and likely sources for new ideas.


The North Wind’s Gift: a trickster tale from Italy

If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you read the preceding post, Notes on Trickster stories, which provides a background and context for this article.  Both posts were inspired by “The North Wind’s Gift,” a tale from Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales, 1956.  The story came to my attention in Allan Chinen’s discussion of tricksters and appealed because of its relative simplicity and relevance to our own times.

Italian Folktales

Here’s a synopsis of the story:

Once there was a farmer named Geppone who toiled in his fields every day of the year but could barely feed his wife and three children.  The North Wind blew at harvest time and ruined his crops.  Finally Geppone had enough and set out to find the North Wind and demand justice.  He reached the North Wind’s castle.  “Every year you ruin my crops,” he said.  “Because of you, my family is starving to death.”

“What can I do?” the North Wind asked.

“I leave that up to you,” Geppone replied.

The North Wind’s heart went out to the little farmer.  He brought out a box.  “This is a magical box which will give you food when you open it, but tell no one else about the magic or you’ll lose it.”

Geppone thanked the Wind and set out for home.  On the way, he opened the box.  Instantly a table appeared, piled with food.  When he got home, Geppone opened the box again and treated his family to a feast.  He told his wife not to tell anyone, and especially to say nothing to the priest, who was their landlord and a greedy man.

The next day, the priest spoke to Geppone’s wife and wrung the story out of her.  He summoned Geppone and  demanded the box on pain of eviction, offering seeds in return, which proved to be worthless.  As bad off as he was before, the farmer returned to the North Wind’s castle to ask for another boon.

At first, the North Wind refused, saying, “You ignored my warning.  Why should I help you again?”  Geppone pleaded, and reminded the Wind that he was still the cause of the family’s ruin.

“Very well,” said the North Wind at last.  He gave Geppone a magnificent gold box, but said, “Open this only when you are starving.”

On his way home, Geppone stopped and opened the new box.  This time a ruffian with a club jumped out and began to beat the farmer, who struggled to close the lid.  When he did, the ruffian vanished.  Geppone limped home, sore and bruised.  When his wife and children clamored to try the golden box, Geppone left the room.  This time two ruffians jumped out and began to beat the family.  Geppone slipped back into the room, closed the box, and the assailants vanished.

“This is what you must do,” he said to his wife.  “Tell the priest I brought home an even finer box, but say nothing else.”

Geppone’s wife understood and did as her husband instructed.  When the priest called the farmer and demanded the golden box, Geppone feigned reluctance, but at last agreed to trade it for the original box.  The priest rubbed his hands.  The bishop was due to join him for Mass the next day; a feast would be just the thing to win the approval of his superior.

The next day, after Mass, the priest, the bishop, and their retinue gathered for supper.  When the priest opened the box, six ruffians jumped out and beat the clerics.  Geppone, who was waiting at the window, took his time in closing the box to save them.

No one objected when he carried this second box home.  The priest never bothered Geppone again.  The farmer was careful to guard the North Wind’s gifts, and his family lived in ease and comfort for the rest of their days.

You can read the story as it appears in Italian Folktales here:  The North Wind’s Gift


It’s clear at the start of the story that we’re in a post-heroic fairytale world.  Geppone is not out to slay a dragon, rescue a princess, or win a kingdom – he just wants to survive.

Allan Chinen speaks of the different life stages that different fairytales address.  While the majority center on young people venturing into the world,  “middle-tales” like this have older protagonists with different kinds of problems.  From a Jungian perspective, Chinen notes that tricksters usually don’t show up in our dreams when we’re 18 and planning to take the world by storm – they visit us when we’re 40, with a mortgage, a couple of kids, and a car that needs an engine overhaul.

Geppone works from dawn until dark but can barely make ends meet.  His wife doesn’t listen to him, and the landlord threatens eviction.  This setup makes his story seem contemporary – if we’re not in this situation ourselves, one of our neighbors probably is.

We get the feeling Geppone has been down on his luck and taking it on the chin for a while.  Something finally awakens within him and spurs him to action.  As a result, he meets the North Wind, a wild spirit who will become his guardian and mentor and teach him the wiles of the trickster.

The North Wind is invoked in the Song of Solomon, in Aesop, and in Greek and Norwegian folklore.  He shows up in George McDonald’s novel, On the Back of the North Wind, in the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, and in Pokemon.  The North Wind is also associated with thunder gods like Zeus and Odin.  It’s not surprising that he is a shadowy trickster in Italy, where invaders and winter both arrive from the north.

Almost every successful fairytale character wins the help of a guiding spirit, and the North Wind’s help is just what Geppone needs.  It prompts him first to stand up for himself and ask for what he needs and then to learn enough strategy to overcome his oppressive priest and landlord.  To Jungians, fairytale allies like helpful animals, fairy godmothers, and nature spirits represent parts of the unconscious mind that are older and wiser than ego, which gets us into trouble in the first place.

What this means in practical terms is a vast subject, beyond the scope of a few blog posts.  Jung would suggest to patients who were comfortable in a religious tradition to return to it for guidance.  Much of Jung’s work aimed at helping people estranged from existing traditions who still needed to tap inner sources of wisdom.

In the “Power of Myth,” Bill Moyers asked Joseph Campbell where ordinary (i.e., busy) people might look to experience the wisdom of myth.  Campbell suggested we take 30 minutes or an hour a day in a quiet place where we can read what inspires us and perhaps keep a journal.

Just like this story, the psyche is home to ruffians and riches, and the old stories are not to be taken literally.  James Hillman, a prominent Jungian thinker, always insisted that literalism is the greatest enemy of inner wisdom.  So how does trickster wisdom manifest  in our world right now?  I don’t think we have to look very far.

A world that’s increasingly dysfunctional serves as a magnet for trickster energy, for good as well as for ill.  A Facebook friend mentioned that he once loaned out a book on trickster mythology and never got it back.  That fits the myths of trickster gods like Hermes who are also patrons of thieves.  Hermes may be the supreme image of the trickster.  As fluid as the metal which bears his Roman name, Mercury, he was the messenger between gods and humans who also conducted souls to the afterlife.  Patron of travelers, herdsmen, poets, orators, athletes, and inventors, his herald’s staff, the caduceus, is the symbol of healing to this day.

I find myself watching for positive manifestations of trickster energy, which usually turn up under the radar of corporate and government organizations which carry a vested interest in the status quo.  When you look, quite a few individuals and groups are trying out new solutions.  I’ll post at least one example in the near future.

In the meantime I would love to hear where you find trickster energy in yourself and in those around you.