Naas Ferreira: The blockbuster film, Avatar, has grossed more than 2.7 billion dollars worldwide making it the most successful film of all time.
Avatara: a manifestation, or the incarnation, of the Divine on earth – particularly the Hindu god Vishnu in a human form like Krishna or Rama. (see Georg Feuerstein: The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. 1997:44).
Was its success due to the stunning visual effects and was the 3-D technology the inspiration for millions to see it more than once? The famous film reviewer Roger Ebert’s recent article in Newsweek (May 10, 2010) “Why I hate 3-D (and You Should Too)” lists nine reasons why he is opposed to 3-D as a way of life in the movies. He says that in the hands of a master filmmaker like James Cameron 3-D works but in the hands of Hollywood executives who want to jump on the technology bandwagon it is a disaster.
The achievement of Avatar to capture the imagination of millions of people around the world is much more complex than mere technology. The answer lies in the obliteration of the Judeo-Christian mythology by scientific materialism and modernism in the West and the subsequent void it left behind. Ken Wilber in Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, (1981, 1996, pg vii.) gives reasons for the destruction of the western mythology:
“No doubt about it, modernity by and large has thoroughly rejected religion: modernity does not accept traditional mythic religion in its governing and political bodies, does not accept mythic-religious explanations for scientific facts and truths, and does not accept specific mythic-religious tenets in public discourse and public morality.”
Science is incapable in providing the human psyche with a sense of meaning or an interiority. Traditionalists have retreated into their safe religious enclaves to turn their backs on the world. And yet, they have to live in a modern or even postmodern world where their religious dogma cannot survive the scrutiny of reason.
This is why psychoanalyst Rollo May in The Cry for Myth (1991:9) believes “there is an urgency in the need for myth in our day. Many problems of our society, including cults and drug addiction, can be traced to the lack of myths which will give us as individuals the inner security we need in order to live adequately in our day.”
Roger Welsh in The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition (2007:58), agrees: “Throughout human history, myths have provided guidelines for the conduct of life. Only in our own time have so many cultures lacked a coherent myth – a grand, unifying story of the cosmos. Indeed, this lack of meaningful myth may underlie much of the fragmentation and alienation that haunts our lives and our future may well depend on our ability to create a new, life affirming myth that gives coherence and common meaning to our modern world.”
Joseph Campbell in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” (2006:388) takes it further: “The problem of mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great co-ordinating mythologies which now are known as lies. Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group – none in the world; all is in the individual. But there the meaning is absolutely unconscious. One does not know toward what one moves.”
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy in their second controversial book on the mythic image of Jesus, Jesus and the Goddess: The secret teachings of the original Christians (2002:118) take us back to the origins of myths by the ancients: “For the ancients, myths were symbolic language with which they could explore spiritual ideas that continued to be relevant throughout the whole process of initiation. Decoding the allegorical meaning of a myth is not, therefore, about explaining the myth away, but about taking it to new levels.”
Their argument in Jesus and the Goddess and The Jesus mysteries: Was the original Jesus a pagan god?(1999) is that the Gnostics of the first century of the current era sourced pagan mythologies to create the mythical figure of Jesus as a way to Enlightenment. This flies into the face of the church’s claim that Jesus was a historical person as well as the Son of God. That is just the problem most modern and postmodern people in the West have with the Judeo-Christian historical claims. But if Jesus and the whole Bible are taken as myths no one needs “to explain the myths away”, but can take the myths to new levels.
Campbell emphasised the functions of myth and had something to say about it in most of his books. Stephen Gerringer wrote an article on the Joseph Campbell Foundation website called “Movies: The Medium for Myth?” summarised the four functions as follows:
1. The Metaphorical (or Mystical) Function – “to evoke in the individual a sense of grateful, affirmative awe before the monstrous mystery that is existence.”
2. The Cosmological Function – “to present an image of the cosmos, of the universe round about, that will maintain and elicit this experience of awe.”
3. The Sociological Function – “to validate and maintain a certain sociological system: a shared set of right and wrongs, proprieties, on which one’s particular unit depends for its existence.”
4. The Psychological (or Pedagogical) Function – “to carry the individual through the stages of one’s life, from birth through maturity though senility to death.”
In his research into the primitive, oriental, occidental and creative mythologies Joseph Campbell discovered that most myths have a hero going on a journey to search for a boon to return it to the tribe, nation or the world. Like most stories the hero’s journey has a beginning, middle and an end. In The hero with a thousand face (2008:28, 29) Campbell divides the journey into three parts: The first section of separation or departure has five stations:
1. The Call to Adventure, or the signs of the vocation of the hero
2. Refusal of the Call, or the folly of the flight from the god
3. Supernatural Aid, the unsuspected assistance that comes to one who has undertaken his proper adventure
4. The Crossing of the Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale, or the passage into the realm of night
The second section of the trials and victories of initiation has another six stages:
1. The Road Trial, or the dangerous aspects of the gods
2. The Meeting with the Goddess, (Magna Mater), or the bliss of infancy regained
3. Woman as the Temptress, the realization and agony of Oedipus
4. Atonement with the Father
5. Apotheosis (or the elevation to divine status)
6. The Ultimate Boon
The third section or The return and reintegration with society concludes with six stations:
1. Refusal of the Return, or the world denied
2. The Magic Flight, or the escape of Prometheus
3. Rescue from Without
4. The Crossing of the Threshold, or the return to the world of common day
5. The Master of the Two Worlds
6. Freedom to Live, the nature and function of the ultimate boon.
Christopher Vogler, a script consultant, analysed thousands of film scripts and identified the hero’s journey similar to Campbell’s structure in movies. In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers, Third Edition (2007:29,30) Vogler says the following about the hero:
“In psychological terms, the archetype of the hero represents what Freud called the ego – that part of the personality that separates from the mother, that considers itself distinct from the rest of the human race. Ultimately, a Hero is one who is able to transcend the bounds and illusions of the ego, but at first, Heroes are all ego; the I, the one, that personal identity who thinks it is separate from the rest of the group. The journey of many Heroes is the story of that separation from the family or tribe, equivalent to a child’s sense of separation from the mother. The Hero archetype represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness.”
Finding the True Self means losing or sacrificing the ego to find the boon (one’s soul or awakening) and return with the new knowledge to inform the group. Adding to the understanding of the hero as ego and eventually becoming one with everything, Roger Walsh in The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition (2007:39) quotes Robert DeRopp’s “The Master Game”: “What people really need and demand from life is not wealth, comfort or esteem, but games worth playing. Seek, above all, for a game worth playing… Having found the game, play it with intensity – play as if your life and sanity depended on it (they do depend on it)”. The Master Game is the quest for enlightenment, salvation, or awakening. It is not a game about mastering the outer world but the inner world of one’s own mind and consciousness or the “ecstatic realization that this nature is inseparable from the Divine.”
One can say that myth is a narrative structure of meaning and that humans created myths to help them make sense of existence and explain the meaning it has given to life. Joyce and River Higginbotham in ChristoPaganism: An inclusive path (2009) found in their research into how people understand myths that there is growth in the care the self gives: “If the self’s moral span expands from caring only about itself to caring about all creatures, then how does this process impact the story it adopts about how the world works?” (2009:143).
They found that the self can develop through six different relationships with myths (2009:143-147): They called the first relationship the Mythic Tangible. The self learns about its identity in the family, the group or country and learns about the world through the senses. The myths explain why things happen and the powerful forces behind those events. If you do good you will be rewarded, if not bad things will happen. The self experiences everything concretely and the self cares only about itself.
The second is called Mythic Literal. On this level the self notices that behind all the sacred tangible things lies a story that tells it these things are sacred. The story is emphasised. The self studies the story and feels it can never fathom them depths of the myth. Since the deity gave the myth the law must be followed exactly as ordered. The self is now part of a group and it cares now for only those who strictly adhere to the letter of the myth.
On the third level, Mythic Rational, the self discovers that the literal interpretation of the myth cannot hold up to rational scrutiny. The self then discovers that behind the myth lies a purpose that becomes the focus of this level. It realises that certain universal truths in the myths applies to everyone, not just its own group.
Mythic Global: Once the self discovers the universality of the myths it is able to hold multiple perspectives and can see the why the lower levels believe or act as they do. The person may study world religions and discover that all myths are telling the story.
When the self moves to the next level, the Mythic Archetype, the story becomes less important and the underlying patterns gains prominence and the self “may identify spiritual realms where beings or elements of consciousness exist. It may form relationships with these spiritual realms or beings” (2009:146). The self moves outside the mythic structure and approaches the beings directly. It becomes difficult to express the experiences on this level into words. Furthermore, it not only feels like one is part of the creative, but becomes the creative patterning.
The final relationship with is the Mythic Avatar when the self gives up in speaking in terms of archetypal concepts. “Here the self realizes that myth is a vehicle whose purpose is not to describe something external to people (such as God, angels, ethical rules, and so on), but to stimulate internal transformation by directing people’s attention to some truth about themselves or reality” (2009:147). They want to help people transform consciously into realising their true nature in the Divine.
This is where films and Avatar come in: Film seems to have taken over the role of the religion in the creation of myths for the new era. Robert K. Johnston in “Reel Spirituality: theology and film in dialogue, (2007:137) tells a story illustrating this shift:
Garrison Keillor once remarked: ‘If you can’t go to church and, for at least a moment, be given transcendence; if you can’t go to church and pass briefly from this life into the next; then I can’t see why anyone should go. Just a brief moment of transcendence causes you to come out of church a changed person.’ Commenting on this observation, Ken Gire writes, ‘I have experienced what Garrison Keillor described more in movie theatres than I have in churches. Why? I can’t say for sure … movies don’t always tell the truth, don’t always enlighten, don’t always inspire. What they do on a fairly consistent basis is give you an experience of transcendence. They let you lose yourself in somebody else’s story.’”
No one can deny the power of film in a society that hungers for moral guidance that organised religion seems to have lost. Johnston (2007:13, 26) reminds the reader about the power of film and its role in society:
Movies function as a primary source and meaning for people throughout the world. Along with the church, the synagogue, the mosque, and the temple, they often provide people stories through which they can understand their lives. …. There are, of course, place of worship that are vibrant and meaningful. But people both within the church and outside it recognise that movies are also providing primary stories around which we shape our lives. …Presenting aspects of our daily lives both intimate and profound [real and imagined], movies exercise our moral and religious imagination.
(Movies) remain in the twenty-first century our primary storytelling medium, interpreting reality for us and acting as a type of cultural glue. Given its importance as a means of cultural communication, the cinema has become a significant contemporary language in need of understanding and explication.
The best genre vehicle to convey modern mythology is speculative fiction (science fiction, horror and fantasy). The horror genre has turned into nasty splatter-torture-misogynistic nonsense like Saw, Hotel, etc. With science fiction the filmmakers can create new worlds with new symbols that can leave the audience in awe to stop the constant mind-chatter – the first function of myth. It is easier to use symbols and metaphors in science fiction to communicate with the viewer’s True Self than an ordinary drama.
In Avatar the viewer - through Jake – moves in wonder through the world of the film. James Cameron created a believable and awe-inspiring world of Pandora, a moon with an Earthlike environment that orbits a gas-giant planet called Polyphemus in the Alpha-Centaury-A system, 4.4 light years from Earth. Its low gravity results in tall inhabitants called the Na’vi. The atmosphere is toxic to humans and to function on Pandora scientists developed a hybrid being – a Na’vi mixed with human DNA called an avatar – to use as a vehicle for human consciousness. This is the second function of myth – the cosmology.
The hero, Jake Sully, a former marine, is a paraplegic who has to take the place of his scientist dead twin brother as the “driver” of the avatar. One can take Campbell’s structure and follow Jake’s development step by step; his meeting with the goddess, his initiation into the Na’vi culture, the rescue by the beautiful Neytiri and their eventual sexual liaison. The Na’vi’s social structure (the third function) is tribal and when Jake and Neytiri break the custom of their rejection of an arranged marriage, a new social order is on the way. It would seem that the Na’vi have a pre-rational mindset while the humans have a rational one. When Jake was rejected by Neytiri after the first human attack, he used reason to capture the Banshee of all Banshees to impress the tribe.
At the end the Omaticaya Clan moved from a mythic literal to a mythic rational and Jake from a mythic rational to a mythic global mindset. With the fourth function of myth psychology comes into play with the rite of passage in dominating and riding a winged creature called a Banshee to assume his rightful place in the clan community.
Cameron has been criticised for using a white male to rescue an indigenous people from destruction. That is also part of the mythical structure – the rescue from without, but more importantly, when one grows into a relationship with myth or level of consciousness one needs input from outside your comfort zone. And besides Jake was also rescued by Neytiri, a Na’vi and after his ego-death by Eyowa herself.
The central theme of Avatar lies in the name. Avatar: a manifestation, or the incarnation, of the Divine on earth – particularly the Hindu god Vishnu in a human form like Krishna or Rama. Jake inhabits the hybrid creature or avatar from his crippled body. At the end when Jake, the human/ego, dies to become a true Na’vi the myth is completed. This is what we’re all called to become, but only through our intimate relationship with Gaia on Earth or Eyowa of Pandora.
Our journey through myths took us full circle: Postmodern westerners need a new myth that has a cosmology and a society that is mythic global and mythic archetypal. This will give people that mystical or non-ordinary states of consciousness experiences they long for but without psychedelic drugs and a Soulcraft to take us from the womb to the tomb. “Avatar” can answer most of these demands and can be of service to individuals in the creation of their own myths.
That is the reason why “Avatar” is such a box-office success.