The Myth Lab: Myth and Permaculture

Activist, Permaculture promoter, and myth maker, Willi Paul, will be presenting his Myth Lab, “Mythic Roundtable: Tools and Inspiration for Creating New Myths” from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Jan. 22 at the Granada Book Store, 1224 State St., Santa Barbara.

I was curious about his method of combining myth with his passion for permaculture. I sent him a couple of questions and he was kind enough to respond. Here is our correspondence:

Question – I hear the word “myth” used more and more frequently. As a term is popularized, it becomes a victim of its own success. Even in Classical Greece, the term had multiple meanings. When you use the term “myth” please clarify what you mean by it and if that meaning is consistent throughout your work?

Willi Paul – Myth is a new, universal story that is generated by issues / crisis of our times like climate change, species extinction and drought. Classic myths support with general structures and motifs like hero, journey and initiation. My myths deal with new community types like the permaculture and Transition movements. But my myth also includes bliss, an alchemic power to see past the hype and empower solutions. I believe that creative mythology, as described by Joe Campbell, is the right overall framework for individuals in these times.

Question – The mythic motif of death and resurrection or rebirth is founded in agricultural/vegetative mythologies (e.g. Aphrodite/Adonis, Jesus the Christ, Ishtar/Tammuz, Inanna/Damuzi, etc). What mythic motifs, if any, are you seeing emerging from the permaculture phenomenon?

Willi Paul – I prefer to use symbols rather than motifs as these are more powerful connections.

Shovel – turning, renewal
Cob bench – community
Pond – water birth, diversity
Sun flower – Nature Steward
Moon – magic, Nature wisdom
Bees – togetherness, eco-business
Lightning – ecoAlchemy – transmutation
Cob feet – dance, new Nature rituals
Broken concrete – reuse – recycling
Butterflies – metamorphosis, freedom

(for more on Willi Paul’s perspective click here: Permaculture Symbols)

Secondly, new archetypes work with new symbols now:

A. Permaculture & Nature Archetype: A love to preserve unique landscapes for future generations. Mistrust of greedy, short-term land and energy developers
Symbols: Tree of Life, Permaculture logo, Yosemite, Seeds, Amazon Rain Forest, US Gulf Coast

B. Permaculture & Nature Archetype: Our hope is to build sustainable systems in our local neighborhoods and towns. Fear of food and fuel shortages; fights for resources between neighbors and governments
Symbols: Crude oil on rails, GMO; Convergence and sharing expo events; neighborhood plans and new rituals

C. Permaculture & Nature Archetype: A deep love for freedom to own fire arms; fear of guns and killing.
Symbols: AK-47, US Flag, Scenes from mass shootings, vigils, pawn shops

D. Permaculture & Nature Archetype: Fear that global warming will destroy all life on Earth. Mistrust of business and goal of short-term profits
Symbols: Rising coastal tides, melting polar ice, coal fired power plants.

E. Permaculture & Nature Archetype: Mistrust of energy privatization and corrupt safety practices. Love of the system and blind faith in corporate responsibility
Symbols: BP, PG&E, Duke Energy

(for more on Willi Paul’s comments on this click here: Permaculture, Carl Jung and the New Archetypes)

Question – I believe humans are hard-wired for story. There is much distress in some groups that Hollywood is dying. It is possible that form of storytelling is in decline, but I doubt if humans will ever be storyless. Please detail your experience in using story to explain, enlist, and engage in expanding permaculture awareness.

Willi Paul – The best place to start in your journey to new stories is Texting Joseph Campbell – Five Methods to Design New Stories & Myths eBook #18:

The Five methods that I have invented to date are:
1. Building a Mythology Generator for the Sustainability Age
2. Mapping Future Myths for the Transition –
Workshop & Video, First Study of Myth Symposium, Pacifica Graduate Institute
3. Myth Lab
4. SCORE: sounds symbols myths
5. Mythic Engine

Thank you Willi Paul for you input on this important issue.  Your creative integration of myth making and permaculture promotion are truly inspiring.

The Monomyth – aka Hero’s Journey

Interest in Joseph Campbell’s work continues to grow.  In a highly compressed whirlwind trip of world mythologies, Campbell shows us that many commonalities exist in our human family through a breathtaking sampler of mythological narratives across an expanse of time and location in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  That is not to say that differences are absent.  Rather, he attempts, through this work, to balance the extreme and extremist focus on the differences that appear to be the dominant view now for centuries, if not millennia.

Campbell quoting James Joyce says: “The monomyth is an everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique way.”  That is to say, fundamentally, there is one narrative.  However, this form demands of us that we live our unique narrative out.  We cannot live someone else’s narrative.  Campbell was insistent that we enter the woods alone where it is thickest and where no path exists.

The monomyth is the journey each of us is on.  “Myth commonly is an allegory or metaphor of the agony of self-completion through the mastery and assimilation of conflicting opposites.  The process is described in the typical symbolic terms of encounters, perils, feats, and trials [in myths].”  This comment was made in The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer (edited by Joseph Campbell) before Campbell put to pen the monomyth.  Myths are metaphors to assist us in the confusing business of living life.

The common understanding of myth is as a story.  The content of myth as stories is important but there is something behind the content of the story: mythic form ( Dennis Patrick Slattery on The Relevance of Myth in our Lives). Slattery asked himself: “What kind of energy field gathers itself to coagulate or constellate that has this particular type of plot?  It’s not that myth as story is wrong; it is just insufficient.  There is something behind the narrative that each of us is living out.  To merely discuss the plot of our lives is to sidestep the form.”  The Universal emerges through unique local and individual expression.

For writers who use the Hero’s Journey as structure to guide them in their writing, the greater truth of the monomyth may be overlooked.  There are those who try to capitalize on the form saying things like there are 510+ stages of the hero’s journey. There are in fact uncounted stages of this journey as each of us “inflects in particular ways” the reiteration of unchanging principles.  Do not be taken in by jargon.  There is something very basic to the human condition here.  Jargon muddies these waters when clarity is desired.  Also, I suggest you do not dismiss the form because it appears simple.  Do not confuse simple with simplistic (and simple often does not mean easy).  The potency of the underlying truth is not diminished by the simplicity of the structure.  Another common error is to think of the form as if it were a formula.  If the writer does this, the story most likely will feel formulaic to the audience.

The story you writers tell (and the story that each of us must live) is uniquely our own.  If we do not follow the call, the story that only each of us uniquely has the capacity to live will go unlived; a vacuum will have been created because that gap cannot be filled by any other.  The everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique ways is simultaneously a grueling demand to rise to the challenges that are presented to us and a gift, elixir, joy, and experience of the wonder of Life.

The Hero’s Journey – Descent

The Descent of Inanna: Primary characters:

Inanna – Goddess of Love, aka Queen of Heaven or Great Above
Ereshkigal – Goddess of the Underworld or the Great Below
Enki – God of Wisdom
Ninshubur – faithful companion to Inanna
Dumuzi – shepherd and King
Neti – guardian of the seven gates
Anunnaki – judges of the underworld

Back Story

Through trickery, Inanna takes from Enki the gifts of the me, the arts pertaining to kingship, priesthood, warcraft, speechcraft, lovemaking, agriculture, and the trades or techne necessary for commerce and community.  Enki allows her to keep the me when he sees she has added to it.

The journey to the Great Below is implicitly connected to the rejection of her lover, Dumuzi and his misuse of the me which Inanna has bestowed on him. She departs for the Great Below to restore balance.


She adorns herself with her queenly robes, jewels, and divine decrees (me) that she fastens at her belt.  She readies herself to enter the “land of no return,” the nether world of death and darkness, governed by her enemy and sister goddess, Ereshkigal.  In fear that her sister might put her to death, Inanna instructs Ninshubur, her messenger, to go to heaven and send out a cry for her in the assembly hall of the gods if after three days she should have failed to return.

There are seven gates through which Inanna must pass. Ereshkigal instructs Neti to open the seven gates to the queen of heaven, but to abide by the custom and remove at each portal a part of her clothing.

“Come, Inanna, enter.”

Upon her entering the first gate,
The shugurra, the “crown of the plain” of her head, was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the second gate,
The rod of lapis lazuli was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the third gate,
The small lapis lazuli stones of her neck were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fourth gate,
The sparkling stones of her breast were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the fifth gate,
The gold ring of her hand was removed
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the sixth gate,
The breastplate of her breast was removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Upon her entering the seventh gate
All the garments of ladyship of her body were removed.
“What, pray, is this?”
“Extraordinarily, O Inanna, have the decrees of the nether world been perfected,
O Inanna, do not question the rites of the nether world.”

Naked, she was brought before the throne. She bowed low. The seven judges of the nether world, the Anunnaki, sat before the throne of Ereshkigal, and they fastened their eyes upon Inanna; ­the eyes of death.

At their word, the word which tortures the spirit,
The sick woman was turned into a corpse,
The corpse was hung from a stake.

Descent to the Great Below

Descent to the Great Below

The Commentary

The story of the Descent of Inanna exemplifies, in a poetically vivid way, the “descent” of the Hero’s Journey as presented by Christopher Vogler  (click for description).  Imagine being stripped of everything you have; of everything you know about yourself; of every artifact that represents your life as you know it.  This is what Inanna experiences in her descent.  This is what rites of passage successfully do to the initiate.  One phase of life is radically cut away.

If Joseph Campbell is correct and the Hero’s Journey parallels the structure of rites of passage, this portion of the journey is where the hero enters into a womb-like environment to be reborn symbolically; or in rites of passage, the initiate faces a similar descent so as to be reborn psychologically.

The descent is a deepening of the problem of the first threshold and the question is still in balance: Can the ego put itself to death? Inanna arrives naked before the throne of Ereshkigal and the seven judges, the Anunnaki; they fasten their eyes upon her and she is turned into a corpse which is hung upon a stake. She loses everything and is left dead; a naked corpse hanging on a meat hook. That is descent.

Another well known descent is Dante’s Inferno


Often, if a meaningful story is well constructed and well told, the hero goes through this process in the course of the narrative intertwined with the plot and theme.  If you use the Hero’s Journey as a tool to structure your story, a comprehensive understanding of what is meant by “descent” will inform and enrich your characters and their actions as they descend in their story.  Stories such as Descent of Inanna and Dante’s Inferno provide a rich resource to assist you in this endeavor.

Post Script

Inanna’s story does not end here.  To finish the story see Descent of Inanna or The Harps that Once…: Sumerian Poetry in Translation.

The Hero’s Journey – Initiation

Initiation is a primary component of Joseph Campbell’s schema of the Hero’s Journey (click for description). He has said that the schema he developed is a magnification of the Separation – Initiation – and Return typically employed in rites of passage. (Christopher Vogler’s two parts, “descent” and “initiation,” are equivalent to Campbell’s one, “initiation.”)

To overlook the significance of “initiation” may be to defuse the potency of the schema. According to the dictionary, “to initiate” is “to formally admit to a group; to begin.” But, Campbell and modern anthropologists see more deeply into the lived experience of these rites.

Some of the common rites of passage would include: birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and burial. Studies by anthropologists inform us that often rites are formal and can be quite severe. The ritual has to do with recognition of a new role; the process of throwing off the old one and coming out in the new. This is a recognition by both the initiate and the community. Through the initiation process the mind of the initiate is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.

by funkydoodledonkey – Xhosa boys are shown wearing the white clay painted on their bodies that signifies transition to manhood. Around the teen years, Xhosa males traditionally are initiated into adulthood. The initiation includes a period of separation from family, during which older men mentor the younger ones. Still widely observed in rural areas, the initiation ends with the rite of circumcision.

Commonly, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is what comes to mind when the subject of rites of passage is discussed. An example of another passage is that of childhood to adolescence. In “Peter Pan,” Wendy leaves the childhood of the nursery for the adolescence of a room of her own; not for adulthood.

For the most part, the purposes and actual effects of rites of passage in any given society are to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The various passages are nothing less than the mystery of transfiguration. The result of initiation is no less spectacular than the mystery that takes place within the chrysalis. Initiation is also the chiropractic that aligns the initiate and the community to the transformation.

In a culture such as that found in the West, where rituals and rites are often barren or totally absent, the depth of the initiation process is easily undervalued or misunderstood. If you, as a writer, decide to take advantage of the structure of story available though the Hero’s Journey, your story will be on firmer ground should you harness the significance implied in “initiation.” Some basic attitude, attachment, or life pattern of your hero will be eradicated forever. In mythology, often the hero experiences some sort of dying to the world he/she has known and comes back as one reborn; that is, replicating the extreme transformation exhibited in the successful rite of passage.

The Hero’s Journey – An Overview

Here is a primitive diagram of the Hero’s Journey. Basically, it follows Aristotle’s story design of Beginning, Middle, and End.

For writers, this structure also mirrors the 3-Act play, where both the “Descent” and the “Initiation” make up the middle act.

The Ordinary World isn’t necessarily “ordinary”.  What is meant by the term “ordinary” is the day-to-day world the Hero finds him/her-self in.  The “ordinary” world can, in fact, be quite fantastic.  The “ordinary world” of Stars War (Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope ) with interstellar travel is not “ordinary” in our typical understanding of the word.  Do not be misled by this nomenclature.

The Ordinary World is in contrast to the World of the Adventure or Quest otherwise known as the Special World.  The extent of the contrast is determined by the needs of the story and skill of the writer.

Typically, in the Ordinary World, the community is experiencing a threat or, in some manner, life has become out of balance. The Ordinary World is the launch pad: commonly this is where the Hero is first introduced in the story.  Frequently the Ordinary World is static but unstable. The situation may be known, but is now escalating or becoming radically unstable.

The Hero’s Journey is a quest to restore balance to the village; hence the Departure or Separation.

Then come the Trials and Tribulations of the Special World.  The boon is not easily accessed or readily offered. The Hero has to work for it in the Descent and Initiation.

However, the story does not end at this point.  What is the benefit if he/she cannot restore balance to the village?  Therefore, the Hero must Return.  There are forces at work here that challenge the Hero’s Return.  The Hero leaves the Special World and returns to the Ordinary World to bring the boon back to the community that he/she has gained. The story is in a crescendo to the climax in the Return with a brief denouement displaying, or at least implying, that order has been restored.

For detailed discussion on The Hero’s Journey, mythology and writing see The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. For examples of the Hero’s Journey in film, see Stuart Voytilla’s Myth & the Movies.