This festival has been going since 1986 in the United States and has grown amazingly each year. It’s now held in the northern Nevada desert called Black Rock Desert. It opens every year on the last Monday of August and goes till the first Monday in September, a holiday in the US (Labor Day). The name comes from a large 40 foot or 12 meter high wooden effigy of a man that is burned on Saturday night each year. Here is an article by Derek Beres writing for the Huffington Post (“Religion Canada” section) about this year’s celebration.
Burning Man Festival: The Ultimate Retreat
The annual ritual known as Burning Man probably had 60,900 meanings for everyone in attendance this year. But my second sojourn to the festival in the desert verified what I recalled from my first: This is the most widespread example that America has at consciously creating a modern mythology. Myths have always had conscious and unconscious elements — the ritual is consciously constructed, but what happens within the container of the construction is anyone’s guess. This is the empty space where magic happens.
To dive further into this idea, I’d like to use Joseph Campbell’s four functions of a mythology to show how beyond a party and getting f’d up in the desert, Burning Man is a mythology in the making, creating a social order relevant to our time, right now, 2012 America.
The Mystical Function
Campbell’s first requirement was that mythology must inspire awe in the universe. Modern America was built on biblical desert mythologies, even if most Americans would want to do anything but live in such an environment today. Standing in the middle of the Playa — the art-driven center of the camp — at 2 a.m., whipping yourself around to find a perfect circumference of lights, mutant vehicles and sound systems the size of midtown Manhattan clubs is, to say the least, awe-inspiring. All mythologies were created by humans; I hope we’re evolved enough to understand that no god rushed down from wherever to “give” a human some special message. Therefore, what really matters is imagination. Burning Man is a safe space to fully explore and share your creative edge. Seeing what 60,000 humans can create in the span of a week, only to be destroyed (explained later), is more mystical to the human mind than reading stories of a man who might have done this or that thousands of years ago.
The Cosmological Function
Campbell’s second function was that a mythology had to explain the shape of the universe. Obviously, we’ve had many different shapes offered to us. The shape of Burning Man is impermanence, a principle deeply entwined with Buddhism. While the entire gathering has been written off as wasteful — it is not cheap to attend; I spent $1,200 for six days — the festival is a living example of what art and life can be when we move beyond the bottom line. Think about this: In the span of two weeks (including build and breakdown), a city is constructed, celebrated and deconstructed. This is the exact representation of the triune deities of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Indian mythology. Creation, destruction and, yes, sustainability; the ritual occurs yearly as an annual reminder of the transience of life, much like the Mexican myths of the corn goddess or the eternal return of Osiris. Theology teaches us the importance of the afterlife, which often serves as a way of not taking responsibility for the life we are living now; think of the anti-global warming furor of the GOP, for one example. When the man burns on Saturday evening, we are reminded not only of very old fire mythologies, designed to represent the impermanence of nature, but that we are part of an extremely long process that did not begin nor end with us. Celebrating the process for what it is defines our cosmological outlook.
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He goes on to describe the other two functions of Campbell’s mythology, the sociological and pedagogical functions. A bit more about this festival to give you some idea of what is is all about. There is a city constructed with streets where people camp. There are different theme camps (now over 700 of them) and art displays, including “mutant vehicles”, the only cars allowed on the site. A mutant vehicle must be so altered as to mask entirely the original body. For example, a VW van that has doll heads and paint stuck to the sides is considered a decorated vehicle but not a mutant vehicle. There are now over 600 approved mutant vehicles. Bicycles are allowed, especially decorated ones and the Green Tortoise Bus Line provides transportation from nearby towns. There is a more complete description of this festival on Wikipedia. If you have ever been to this festival please leave a comment, OK?