Jamake Highwater (essay date 22 March 1985)
SOURCE: Highwater, Jamake. “The Myth is the Medium.” Commonweal 112 (22 March 1985): 183, 187-88.
[In the following excerpt, Highwater provides a laudatory assessment of The Way of the Animal Powers, calling the volume a “masterful presentation” of aboriginal folklore and mythology.]
Speaking of his painting, the American artist Arthur Dove said: “We cannot express the light in nature because we have not the sun. We can only express the light we have in ourselves.” It is not by accident that we have invented imagery that overcomes the limitations of language. Common to all of us is the manipulation of truth we call “poetic license.”
Our lives are filled with every conceivable ploy to escape or penetrate the “ordinary.” Even those of us who are most mundane despise our condition, and when we recount the simplest story it inevitably becomes something else: a “tall tale,” or a “fish story.” These terms are efforts to describe the remarkable interaction of imagination and something even more quixotic than imagination: that which many of us innocently call the truth. Clearly, tall tales are not true, and yet, even for naive realists (fundamentalist or scientistic) those who fervently believe in something as obsolescent and undependable as “the truth,” such tales are not counterfeit.
The universal inclination to evoke a reality that is truer than the one before us—even the everyday creation of tall tales—is simply the most commonplace aspect of a profound disposition of the human psyche: the making of myths. Joseph Campbell tells us that “it is a curious characteristic of our unformed species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe.” We are myth makers. We are legenders. Of all the animals we alone are capable of dreaming ourselves into existence.
Campbell's The Way of the Animal Powers is a masterful presentation of the imaginal miracle that lies behind the term “shamanism”—an...
(The entire section is 848 words.)