A Modern-Day Journey

Press: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 2004 - by Phil Kloer

Christopher Vogler recalled the first time he read the book "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" by mythologist Joseph Campbell. "My teeth were falling out of my head and my brain was boiling. He was answering all the questions I had," said Vogler.

Campbell, the guiding light in the world of myth study, went on to influence George Lucas' first "Star Wars" trilogy, while Vogler, one of his many proteges, became a story consultant on myth-drenched movies like "The Lion King."

This weekend at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Atlanta, more than 1,000 followers of Campbell (1904-1987), best known for his 1987 PBS interviews with Bill Moyers, "The Power of Myth," are gathered to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The first Mythic Journeys Conference is an intense immersion in the world of metaphor and legend, an experience that can appeal to both the head and the gut.

"In the common parlance now, myth means something false," said Michael Meade, a storyteller and anthropologist. "But the old meaning of myth is emergent truth."

Poets and professors, seekers and searchers and intellectual gadflies of all species are singing, analyzing, chanting and generally getting a deep-tissue mind-and-soul massage by some big names in various fields: poets Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly; biblical scholar Elaine Pagels; authors Charles de Lint and Joyce Carol Oates; Atlanta actor Tom Key; and art director Alan Lee, who won an Oscar for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."

In the conference's first two days, names were tossed around like confetti at a bridal shower: Freud, Einstein, Descartes, Langston Hughes, Zeus, Yeats, Jung, Tolkein and Oedipus, as well as those you might not expect: Jackie Onassis and Elvis.

The scope ranged from flautist Ulla Suokko singing and playing (on a bass flute the size of a bassoon) the Finnish creation epic "Kalevala," to propaganda expert Sam Keen's PowerPoint presentation on how the United States and the Muslim world have recently been demonizing one another in similar ways.

Workshop titles range from "Parallel Poetics and the Energy of Metaphor" to "Little Red Riding Hood Redux."

More than 100 people gathered in the Hyatt Regency's Regency Ballroom on Thursday night for participatory drumming, banging away joyfully on West African goatskin drums called djembes.

The conference was set up by the Mythic Imagination Institute, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that (like a snake swallowing its own tail) was created solely to organize the conference. On Thursday and Friday, about 150 attendees paid $1,750 each for a more intimate, in-depth "pre-conference" series of seminars. Today and Sunday, about 1,000 people have paid a top price of $275 to attend the two-day regular conference.

Attendees come from all backgrounds and from all over.

"I saw the Bill Moyers interview and got addicted to Campbell," said Tom Watson, a retired attorney from Antioch, Tenn. "It's kind of like it's one thing, but it also seems to cover everything. Religion and philosophy cover the whole gamut of experiences we have."

"I'm so psyched to be here," said Anna Liakis, a free-lance writer and workshop facilitator from Fort Myers, Fla. "I believe in the power of myth to transform the world -- it's very powerful."

The guests and presenters wore Hawaiian shirts, flip-flops, sport coats and ties, long peasant skirts and the occasional kilt. Occasionally the burble of a cellphone would interrupt a dramatic poetry reading, an intrusion of the outside world.

There were unavoidable glitches. Author Marion Woodman was told by her doctor at the last minute not to fly to Atlanta because of a heart condition, so Bly and Meade led a group singalong of an African healing song sent her way. And puzzled attendees who showed up for a speech about Lady Godiva were greeted by a sign saying "Godiva Cancelled Due to Baby" -- lecturer Nor Hall had flown off to be present at the birth of her grandchild.

"The difficulty in an event like this is achieving something truly profound," mused James Flannery, professor of arts and humanities at Emory University, who lent his Irish tenor to a few old ballads.

Articulating just how a conference on myth can change one's life is difficult. "I don't think I'm gonna be sitting there and have a revelation that will change the way I live," said attendee Watson. "But anything that helps you better understand your psyche helps you live better."

Michael Karlin, the conference organizer, offered that "we are creating something -- something that needs to be in the world. We are the protagonists of our own unfolding stories."

Trying to capture the experience she was having, conference creative director Honora Foah quoted a sign that once hung on a friend's office door: "Everything Is About Something Else."

Sometimes at Mythic Journeys, everything is about several somethings. Ancient stories are retold in modern conference rooms, and, with a fanfare of symbols, the literal gets kicked to the curb in favor of the figurative.

Mythic Journeys Conference

Workshops, seminars, performances, storytelling and an artists market. Joyce Carol Oates, Galway Kinnell, Elaine Pagels, Robert Bly and James Hillman are among the more the 140 speakers, performers and participants. Today and Sunday. Tickets: $275; $225 students; $100 for K-12 teachers.

Open to the public without a conference ticket: poetry and conversation with Galway Kinnell and Coleman Banks, 7 tonight, $50. "The Ladder," one-man rock opera by Parker Johnson, 9 tonight, $20.

All events: Hyatt Regency Atlanta, 265 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-832-4127, www.mythicjourneys.org.