[a reflection on part 3 of the 1988 documentary, Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth] From the dawn of our human ancestry, we have felt a profound connection to the animals that sustained our existence through the primordial cycles of hunting and gathering. The great bears, lions, gazelles and mighty elephants were not just sources of food and clothing, but embodied spiritual powers that guided us in understanding the sacred mysteries of life and death. In those primal times, the creatures of the earth served as envoys from the Unseen realms, teaching us to revere the regenerative forces that allowed our tribes to flourish and survive.

As we evolved capacities for symbolic thinking and language, the first stirrings of what we now call myths and rituals began to emerge. On the walls of sacred cavern temples across the ancient world, our ancestors left behind their visionary expressions through hauntingly powerful paintings and carvings. Stunning depictions of stalking lions, stampeding bison, and majestic stags adorn these underground cathedrals in remarkable naturalistic detail. These were no mere decorations, but reflections of our species’ first attempts to grapple with life’s biggest questions through symbolic representation.

For those minds just awakening to self-awareness, the inescapable reality of death must have been as terrifying as it was mysterious. Burial sites found with ceremonial grave goods and animal remains provide early evidence that we sensed some form of existence beyond this physical plane. The corpses of those who had lived among us one day and slipped into eternal stillness the next planted seeds of mythic imagination to explain this incomprehensible transformation.

Out of this primal uncertainty about our origins and eventual destinies grew the first mythologies – compelling narratives that aimed to harmonize our souls with the indelible patterns of nature’s cycles we witnessed all around us. Animals, which gave their lives so that we could eat, took on sacred significance and appeared as totem guides in the visions of our shamanic elders during their trances and journeys.

Tales emerged of a primordial covenant between humankind and the beings we hunted, in which animals sacrifice themselves willingly through ritual observances that ensure the regeneration of their life force into the soil. The great bison or bear thus became archetypal symbols of spiritual mysteries, with their seasonal migratory patterns and the miraculous propagation of their herds symbolic of death and resurrection made manifest.

Our tribal mythos taught us to participate in these unending natural rhythms through ceremonial rituals of gratitude, atonement and invocation, whether marking the run of salmon-spawning or a bonded community of hunter-gatherers circling the great buffalo kill. Young men fasted in kiva spaces, underwent harrowing tests of courage, and opened their minds to the counsel of divine intermediaries in winged or horned guise during their visionary entrance into manhood’s realm of responsibilities. Feminine mysteries of menarche, fertility and birth were no less spiritually revered.

Shamanic custodians of these primordial truths embedded within our ancestral myths transcended bodily death through miracles of divine rapport. Mastering trance disciplines that brought them experientially to the brink of bodily dissolution, they could narrate for us the soul’s voyage beyond material existence to the source of life’s regenerative ground. Their ecstatic utterances became maps for ceremonial rituals that kept us attuned to nature’s cadences and our roles as participants in the grander cosmic choreographies.

These ancient foundations of our spiritual heritage kept us rooted and aligned, giving sacred senses of meaning and belonging. While our shamans may have been specially gifted visionaries, their teachings held relevance for all precisely because they illuminated the shared mortal condition that was our common touchstone, the very interface between our temporal existence and intimations of eternity.

Those ancestral myths and rituals were not merely fanciful creations, but reflected a profound attunement to the patterns and cycles that sustained all life on this earth. They emerged from visionary seers who could part the veil between the seen and unseen realms – those rare shamanic adepts who underwent terrifying psychological experiences akin to bodily death, only to be reborn with extraordinary capacities to guide their people.

The shamans’ visions revealed an underlying unity amid the apparent separations of material existence. The central mountain they perceived was not merely the specific peak localized to a particular geography, but symbolized the axis mundi – that unifying locus where movement and stillness, time and eternity intersect. Their utterances taught that this sacred center is everywhere, for it resides within the divine spark animating all creation.

With such metaphysical keys, the rituals could unlock portals into dimensions of being that transcended our mortal perceptions yet mirrored the very cycles playing out in the physical world around us. The seemingly separate realms were ultimately unified from the perspective of those enlightened shamanic ambassadors. As the buffalo dance and return from the hunt ceremony so powerfully enacted, death was truly a returning, a rejoining with primordial source from whence all springs.

As our species spread across continents and adapted to radically different environments over millennia, the particular mythic symbols and rituals diversified amazingly while still reflecting those universal truths about the human condition. The ways our ancestors engaged with mysteries of life, death, and regeneration may have shifted as coastal tribes bonded with the cosmic choreographies of spawning salmon rather than migratory buffalo herds, yet the sacred roots remained.

Eventually, our spiritual traditions calcified into institutionalized dogmas, priestly codes, and rote observances divorced from their transcendent wellsprings. The symbolic potencies became hollow shells, draining mythology of its unifying, vitalizing essences. Rituals lost their function as metaphysical disciplines and devolved into empty folkways.

Tragically, for many modern societies, the mythic teachings that could reveal the eternal within the temporal have nearly disappeared or been displaced by soulless material pursuits. The guiding stories that balanced human occupation between the requirements of spiritual and physical nourishment have been severed. Secular outlooks deny any resonant mysteries beyond surface appearances, promoting individuality entirely divorced from reciprocal obligations to the holistic offleh of life. Consumerist appetites run rampant beyond all sustainable limits.

What guidance does our age yet have to awaken our species from such spiritual amnesia? We must look to the mythmakers of our era – those soothsayers, bards and artisans of the creative imagination who can reanimate potent symbols that realign us with the harmonic orders both within and beyond our subjective frames. Visionary voices like Black Elk and James Joyce beckon us to shed our material blinders and reattune our senses.

The masterworks of other gifted mythopoets, whether in written word, eldering oral traditions, sculpted forms, danced movement, or masterful canvases, offer enduring alchemical images to reinvoke the holistic matrices that religion once honored, however clumsily. They reflect shaman-like callings to reconcile our alienated souls with sacred reciprocities of being.

The compelling narratives, paintings, dances, and rituals birthed by our contemporary mythmakers may seem stylistically different from those preserved on prehistorical cave walls. Yet they flow from that very same initiatory wellspring – the confrontation with mortal boundaries and the drive to symbolically interpret our place within the grander cosmic schemes.

But we need not rely solely on consecrated artists and storytellers to rediscover our spiritual bearings. Each of us contains an inborn capacity to enter that holistic, mythic mode of apprehending reality, simply by looking through the keyhole of present awareness with conscious reverence.

Every natural landscape we witness, each face we encounter, becomes a symbolic script to read for its deeper resonances when viewed by an attending mythic imagination. The sunrise, the night’s dream, the bloom and decay of a flower – all reveal parables about the interplay of eternity and ephemerality, essence and form, creator and created. Each subtle shift of light, color, and texture hints at metamorphosing patterns of being.

When we cultivate the mythic perspectives modeled by our shamanic forebears, the entire cosmos begins to disclose itself as a breathtaking choreography of sacred symbols and teachings. The boundaries between mundane and divine, material and supernatural, dissolve into a unified way of seeing and being. We rediscover ourselves as participants in grand living mythologies no longer relegated to dusty texts or archaic rituals, but animated all around and within us at every moment.

With opened eyes, we may recognize the quotidian routines of waking, bathing, eating, and sleeping as ceremonial rites ushering our souls through perpetual cycles of death and rebirth. The foods we consume become sacramental offerings from our planetary alma mater, to be received with blessings that honor the great givers of sustenance. Each encounter with another living being, whether deemed human, animal, plant, or seemingly inanimate object, is revealed as a symbolic interchange with a relational field of meaning and possibility.

As we attune our vision to the timeless principles underlying apparent forms, the shared unconscious archetypes and primordial figured begin to reveal themselves amidst the unique motifs of our personal experiences and circumstances. Illness may manifest as an initiated death and symbolic dismemberment, with healing represented by a restoring of holistic unity. Romantic intimacies can mirror the hierogamic rites of the heavens, while child’s play encodes the Hero’s Journey writ small.

The mythic mode of perception is ultimately a remembering – an anamnesis of dimensions of being we have unconsciously turned away from in our singular pursuits and materialistic assumptions. It is a reawakening to the poetic ontological sensibilities of our ancestral shamans who could flow between visible and invisible worlds with grace and primal reciprocity. To adopt this way of being is to embrace the greatest mysteries through lives enacted as ceremonial poetry-in-motion.

Yet for all its profound implications, the mythic consciousness is also wonderfully playful, evoking the awe of a child newly born into an alive universe brimming with syncretic meaning and magic. It prompts us to approach each felt experience, each performance of daily ritual, as an opportunity to participate in renaissance – the continual rebirth of our souls through authentic presence.

Through mythic vision, we realize our role as celebrants in the great cosmic liturgy of all creation. Our most ordinary activities become extraordinary when imbued with ceremonial intention and focused sentience. Preparing and consuming a meal can be a high mass consecrating our bodily temples and communing with the vast biospheric congregations. The most modest work duties become ritualized blessings to strengthen the fibers weaving together all domains of manifestation.

Ultimately, the mythic consciousness reintroduces us in full to the paradoxical wholeness at the heart of the universe’s radical diversity. It is a healing antidote to the alienation and imbalances born from forgetting our symbiotic relationships with seen and unseen dimensions of being. With it, we once again become fully inhabited as spiritual creatures, choreographers in step with eternal cadences. Our human stories merge into humanity’s grand Mythopoeia – the great Song of the Souler realigning us as celebrants of life’s unending regenerative mysteries.


In ancient times, animals served as spiritual envoys that guided early humans in developing myths and rituals centered around the hunting cycles that sustained life. Cave paintings from the Paleolithic era provide some of the earliest evidence that humans contemplated mortality and an afterlife, depicting reverence for the animals they killed and ate. Hunting myths spoke of a covenant where animals willingly sacrificed themselves with the understanding that rituals would return their life force to the earth. Myths helped explain natural phenomena and provided guidance on respecting the regenerative cycle of nature. Rites of passage like cave initiations allowed young boys to overcome fears and learn to become responsible, reverent hunters, while girls underwent transformative rituals upon menarche to embrace their roles as life-bearers. Shamans acted as early spiritual guides, gaining visionary insights through experiences akin to death and resurrection. Campbell argues that when societies lose touch with such mythology and rituals, social dysfunction and lack of guidance ensues, as mythological principles actually originate from gifted visionaries and artists tapped into universal truths about the human journey and our role in the greater mystery.

Key Points

1. In ancient times, animals like bears, lions, and elephants served as envoys and guides for early humans to understand the spiritual world. Their myths and rituals revolved around hunting and revering the animals they killed for food.

2. Cave paintings from the Paleolithic era, such as those found in Lascaux, were among the first evidence of mythological thinking by early humans. These paintings suggest they contemplated mortality and believed in an afterlife.

3. Hunting myths depict a covenant between animals and humans, where animals willingly sacrifice themselves with the understanding their life force will be returned to the earth through rituals. The principal animal hunted held great spiritual significance.

4. Myths helped early humans explain natural phenomena like the sun’s movement, changing seasons, and the origin of creation. They provided guidance on respecting the cycle of life and nature.

5. Rituals like cave initiations for young boys allowed them to overcome fears and learn to become responsible hunters who revered the animals. For girls, menarche was a transformative initiation into womanhood.

6. Shamans were the earliest spiritual guides and interpreters of mythological realms, gaining insights through visionary experiences akin to death and resurrection.

7. When societies lose touch with mythology and rituals, social dysfunction and lack of guidance ensues, as evident in modern times according to Campbell.

8. Myths originate from gifted visionaries and artists who can tap into universal truths and mythological principles, not simply from common folklore.

The central theme is how primal myths, shamanic rituals, and reverence for nature’s cycle provided an profound framework for early humans to understand the cosmos, the soul’s journey, and one’s role in the greater mystery of life.