Myth and Sexuality

Myth and Sexuality

The Body as Body

by Jamake Highwater

Jamake Highwater is the author of more than twenty -five major books, both fiction and nonfiction, which have been translated into ten languages. He has contributed highly original and influential work in a great variety of fields and media, and is recognized as a leading writer on theatre, literature, mythology, architecture, landscape design, public art, photography, dance and music. Much of his work deals with Native American culture. He has promoted an awareness of the often neglected mythologies and rituals which he finds at the heart of all cultures. He was a close friend and disciple of Joseph Campbell.

In Myth and Sexuality (Penguin Books, 1990), Highwater carries the study of myth and its effects into a key aspect of life: sexuality. He shows how sexuality exists not as a fixed and final form of human behavior, but rather as an infinite human potential

The following is a reprint of the concluding chapter of Myth and Sexuality, entitled “Body as Body,” in which he develops some of the thinking he originally offered in Dance: Rituals of Experience (Princeton Books, 1992/94).

We wish to thank Mr. Highwater and Meridien for their support and cooperation.

“Plato’s image of the cave on whose wall are cast the shadows we mistake for reality is a popular one today. There is a heady promise in various intellectual fields of escape from the conditions of knowledge. With this promise an impossible kind of freedom is being proposed, freedom from necessity of any kind. (But] the cave is the body social mediated by the image of the other body. . . Indeed the illusion of escape may well be a new kind of confinement.” (Douglas, 1982)

At every turn, our religious and secular mythologies imprison us.

As physicist Werner Heisenberg has observed, “Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is a part of the interplay between nature and ourselves; it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning. This was a possibility Descartes could not have thought, but it makes the sharp separation between the world and I impossible.”

It is equally impossible to set society and sex against one another, as if they were separate abstractions. We must recognize that sex is highly socialized and that each culture designates various practices as appropriate or inappropriate, moral or immoral, normal or abnormal. Without this recognition we continue to construct boundaries that have no basis in nature. “Yet all the time we like to indulge in the fantasy that our sexuality is the most basic, the most natural thing about us, and that the relations between men and women are laid down for all eternity . . . by the dictates of our inborn ‘nature.’” (Weeks)

It bears repeating Michel Foucault’s renowned observation that sexuality is no more or less than a historical construct. Its meaning and expression are no wider or more extensive than its specific social and historical manifestations, and explaining its forms and variations cannot be accomplished without examining and explaining the context in which they were formed. As we have seen, that context includes the value structure implicit in the mythology that underlies and informs the structures of societies.

Our bodies are the cosmos, for our mythologies about our place in the cosmos are inevitably transformed into anatomical metaphors. The study of the human body and how it is perceived at different times and places reveals an important element of cultural symbolism which has strong implications in relation to sexuality. “Any culture is a series of related structures which comprise social forms, values, cosmology, the whole of knowledge and through which all experience is mediated,” Mary Douglas writes (1966). This series of related social structures manifests itself as actions called rituals. “The rituals enact the form of social relations and in giving these relations visible expression they enable people to know their own society. The rituals work upon the body politic through the symbolic medium of the physical body.” Rituals are the embodiment of the whole of a society’s knowledge—constructive or destructive. Ritual is mind transformed into body.

The act of sex is not “natural,” for it has been socialized into a variety of cultural rituals. Many creatures take part in mating rites, but in human societies such rituals have become elaborate choreography. Animal sex may be a biological act, but the human invention called eroticism is an act of the imagination. Therefore, the way the body has been envisioned and evaluated by various cultures and eras is a history of the sexual messages transmitted by social myths and the rituals based upon such myths.

Ruth St. Denis in Radha. Photo: Otto Sarony, New York, 1908, Courtesy Lou Freauf

The body is the cave on whose wall are cast the shadows we mistake for reality. We are Plato’s creatures, forever bound in a cave so that even our heads cannot move. Behind us is a fire, and the shadows of a world we cannot see are cast upon the wall before us. We cannot escape our bonds. We can never look back at the reality that we imagine exists beyond our view. We must believe in the shadows for we have no access to the reality they reflect. We can neither imagine nor speak of that reality because it is beyond our experience and outside our communicative capacities. The poet William Blake believed that the body is Plato’s cave and, therefore, he insisted rather sadly, “the body is the grave of the soul.” But for dancers, like the legendary American Ruth St. Denis, the body is indistinct from the soul.

That assertion leads to a myth of my own which has greatly shaped my thinking.

I have been watching dancers ever since my childhood, when I often visited the studio of Ruth St. Denis in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. At 80, Miss Ruth was no longer teaching or performing in public and had delegated the administration of her school to a young assistant. But now and again, I was fortunate enough to be present on those rare evenings when Miss Ruth came down the stairs from her apartment over the studio. What a spectacular experience that was! Her tall, lithe figure crowned by a great mass of white hair defied her advanced age. Her physical presence was so overwhelming at close quarters that she seemed more specter than person. Her body was more than body, and her smallest gesture was unexplainably expressive, magnetic, magical. I had no idea what her movement meant, but I had absolutely no doubt that it was meaningful. It seemed to me, as a youth, that through Ruth St. Denis I experienced the ritual heart of all that is implied by both eroticism and spirituality.

What is it about a great dancer that transforms the body into spirit, that changes ordinary gesture into powerful ritual? How can something as illusive and nonliteral as dancing contain a potential for expression that verges on religiosity?

Since my youthful encounters with Ruth St. Denis, I have never ceased to be intrigued by those questions. This perplexity about the body is not unique to me. As we have seen, our whole society is mystified by the human body. And of all the arts, none confuses us as much as dancing, for it emerges directly and wholly from the core of our greatly discredited physical selves. Undoubtedly, part of our discomfort and perplexity with dancing comes from the fact that we live in a culture in which the body has a terrible reputation. The abhorrence of the flesh and its association with paganism and evil have resulted in the castigation of the body, even in these libertine times when the attainment of sexual pleasure has become a political obligation.

The dominant religions of the West officially banned the ritual use of dance as early as the eighth century. For all other peoples of the world, such a situation would be unthinkable. For them, dance is an implicit part of religion. The body is a spiritual messenger, and dancing is indistinct from praying.

The Navajo Indian song-dance for rain is the prayer of a whole people for the regeneration of their spiritual bodies, which permits them to be transformed into the rain for which they pray. Wind is the precursor of the rain, and before the ceremonial dancers can become the rain they must first become the wind. The great prayer which accomplishes this mythic transformation is a complex fusion of dance, song, and music. It recreates the world through a process of ritual which is built upon physical actions that take the shape of a mythology made visible. Such rituals are products of hundreds of generations, a slow, selective process by which certain actions are retained through careful repetition. These rites are indistinct from the world view of the people who perform them. It is the body as an expressive organism which provides the impulse and force of ritual.

It is little wonder that tribal people have retained a strong conviction about the power of their bodies, while we of the West gradually have become so out of touch with our physical selves that in the 1960s and 1970s it was necessary to rediscover our bodies through “consciousness raising” therapies and courses in body language and sexual communication. The recovery of the dignity of our bodies has also seen the reinvention of ecclesiastical dancing, and thus dancers have once again become, in the words of Martha Graham, “the acrobats of God”—a spiritual role they have persistently held in almost every civilization.

For many of us the reemergence of the body as an organ of expression is confounding. Why does something as apparently useless and primitive as body language possess such power? It took many journeys into the heartland of remote nations before I could begin to answer that question. While body movement is unquestionably pleasant to the eye, its real power is more profound than its visual niceties. The body communicates. Yawning is an obvious example of its contagion; so is the desire to stretch when we see someone else stretching. Because of this inherent “infectiousness” of movement, which makes onlookers feel in their own bodies the exertion they see in others, the body is able kinesthetically to convey the most intangible and metaphysical experiences, impressions, feelings, and ideas.

What I discovered among the ritual dancers of Asia, Africa, South America, and Indian America is that the body is capable of communicating in its own secret language. The most important mythology of our time proclaims that the body is the body. And dancers like Ruth St. Denis understand something that escapes the rest of us. The body is an organ of expression. It is not simply an embarrassing and utilitarian network of limbs. It is neither male nor female. It is not a weapon nor a mechanism of sin. It is not simply the machinery of procreation, digestion, and other functional activities. It is an organ of expression—perhaps the most vivid facility for the expression of strongly and immediately felt ideas, needs, and feelings.

For ritual dancers, the body is the spiritual body—an organism in which motion makes visible the sacred forms of life itself. Our bodies live through motion. And thus motion is one of the most important and pervasive means by which we can celebrate living. Our sexuality is part of the life we celebrate. The human distinction between sensuality, eroticism and the pornographic obsession of genital-focused sex is the same distinction found between commonplace movement and rarified dance. Sex is the shadow on the wall of the cave. Eroticism is the fire itself—that unseen fire that creates the shadows we mistake for reality.

The idea that spirituality can be associated with the body is extremely remote from our belief in the Augustinian and Cartesian dichotomy of mind and body, spirit and flesh. But, as Denis de Rougemont has said, “we who dwell in the Western world are destined to become more and more aware of the illusions on which we subsist.” Until recently it was inconceivable that there could be any relationship between spiritual and physical realities. To most of us, bodily behavior, whether play, dance, or nonreproductive sex, was profoundly misunderstood as an activity that was both pointless and profane. Even today, there are many people who look upon these activities as passionate but pointless wastes of energy. This is especially true of the attitude toward dancing of people who are out of touch with their own bodies. I recall my foster father’s comment at the close of a dance performance: “If those people would just apply all that sweat and effort to hard work, they could really accomplish something.” After all, he asked, what does a dance accomplish? What does play accomplish? And, from the view of those who understand sexuality as inseparable from procreation, what does nonreproductive sex accomplish?

The questions themselves offer almost insurmountable problems. But, as we have seen, there are as many answers to these questions as there are mythologies that guide the diverse lives of peoples and cultures. What dance achieves, what play and sex achieve are the same things that poetry achieves. They transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Through the sensual and metaphoric transformation of a reality composed of shadows they are able, at least momentarily, to allude to the fire. The sensuality that we identify with eroticism is the kinesthetic expression of the spiritual body as opposed to the genital assertion of the body which we understand as “natural.” Again, as Denis de Rougemont insists, the spiritual body exists “wherever passion is dreamed of as an ideal instead of being feared like a malignant fever; wherever its fatal character is welcomed, invoked, or imagined as a magnificent and desirable disaster instead of as simply a disaster. It lives upon the lives of people who think that love is their fate…that it is stronger and more real than happiness, society, or morality.”

Love changes biology into a metaphor of the spiritual body in much the way that poetry changes ordinary words into forms that allow meanings that words normally cannot mean. The most curious thing about any human gesture is its power of insinuation, born of the ability of the body to overcome its inherent materiality.

That is precisely what Ruth St. Denis did for me many years ago when she turned the descent of a stairway into a memorable experience. She was in such control of her body, she lived so deeply within her body that she was capable of investing a simple action with the kind of magic that is seen in ritual, with the kind of eroticism that is discovered at the core of romantic love, with the force of metaphor that finds its voice in poetry.

Perhaps the endless transformation of our bodies into visions of the cosmos will find its current resolution in that most ancient mythology of all: the one that was doubtlessly among the first cultural possessions of human beings when they were newly evolved upon the earth. Perhaps we will be done at long last with our obsession with the “wickedness of the body” and the endless ritualization of transgression. For centuries we have comfortably lived with the brain’s insolent recreation of itself as mind. Perhaps we can finally begin to live with the more ancient mythology that envisions the fragile, vulnerable, and utterly perishable body as indistinct from soul.

The physicist Niels Bohr has told us: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag came face-to-face with Bohr’s concept in a hospital in the American Southwest where he has worked for many years as a physician and psychiatrist. One day, while making his morning rounds, he encountered an old man. “I didn’t know that he was a Pueblo priest and clan chief,” Dr. Hammerschlag explains. “I only saw an old man. He asked me, “Where did you learn to heal?’”

Dr. Hammerschlag rattled off the details of his medical education, internship, and certification. The old Indian smiled. “Yes,” he said, “but do you know how to dance? You must be able to dance if you are to heal people.”

At first Hammerschlag was confounded. But over the years he gradually came to understand the great value of what that old Indian taught him. The poet W. B. Yeats also understood that mordant metaphor of dance, for it was Yeats who asked that most simplistic of all questions about the human body: “Who can tell the dancer from the dance?”

For Yeats, as for the Pueblo priest, the body is indistinct from the spirit.


(See original publication for more extensive bibliography)

Douglas, Mary, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Ark Paperbacks, 1984.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Vol. I: Introduction (1978); Vol. II: The Use of Pleasure (1985); Vol. III: The Care of the Self (1986). New York: Pantheon Books.

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge. Edited by Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1980.

De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1940.

Weeks, Jeffrey, “Questions of Identity” in The Cultural Construction of Sexuality, edited by Pat Caplan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1987.

From MYTH & SEXUALITY by Jamake Highwater. Copyright © The Native Land Foundation, 1990. Meridien edition copyright © 1990. Reprint by arrangement with Meridien, an imprint of Dutton Signet, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.