Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth

Life has no meaning.
Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life.
It is a waste to be asking the question when
You are the answer.

Campbell’s books on comparative mythology and comparative religion probably influenced my life more than any other. I had thought myths were a bunch of meaningless gibberish, but Campbell explained their deeply-held truths.  (The above quote was not a poem; I just broke it up that way.  Campbell was no poet, and not even a very good writer of prose.  He tends to use a new term on one page and define it several pages later.  You almost have to read his books twice to understand them.  Keeping up with his mind will leave you breathless.)

joseph-campbell_bill_moyersI first became aware of him from a PBS interview by Bill Moyers in an unusual three-part series recorded shortly before Campbell died in October of 1987. They discussed the origins of religions in myths, and almost everything Campbell said was something I wanted to remember. He looked exactly like the retired Sarah Lawrence College professor he was, all tweedy and soft-spoken. He answered Moyers’ questions humorously and with insights I had never heard before. PBS reran the series several times during their annual fundraisers, and I watched every time. Eventually, I found the interview published in a paperback, The Power of Myth, in 1991. It is a good place to begin. I consider the interview to be Bill Moyers crowning achievement, and any increase in public awareness I can add to be a crowning achievement of this blog. He is that important.

Campbell died of esophageal cancer before the interview with Bill Moyers aired.  He knew his fate when the photo above was taken.

We may have been exposed to Campbell tangentially in high school. He was living in California during the Great Depression and was friends with John Steinbeck. He is said to appear as a character in Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, but I disagree. Campbell and Steinbeck both were friends with a scientist collector of biological specimens who became the model for Steinbeck’s main character, Doc, but Campbell is not Doc. A brothel is an important part of Cannery Row, and Campbell may have been a model for one of the customers, but who knows? Steinbeck uses a horde of minor characters.

Campbell, when he was new to the public in the 1980s, already had a solid academic reputation with his four-book Masks of God series on myths that become intertwined with religion:

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology,
The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology,
The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology,
The Masks of God: Creative Mythology.

(Each is independent, and they can be read in any order.  I read them in the order Oriental, Occidental, Primitive, and Creative.  The explanation of the Sumerian Tile in the posting of 10/10/2009 came from the book above on Oriental Mythology.)

We think of myths as wildly imaginative stories, but their reality is irrelevant. Myths are stories, real or not, that survive in cultures because they illustrate a truth believed by that culture. A listener to a myth is free to forget it or pass it on.  The myths that live on were those that illustrated a truth.  Thus, a culture’s myths give insight to their basic beliefs.

For example, most cultures have a myth of creation. The Biblical story is of Yahweh creating man from dust (then woman from man, setting the social hierarchy in cosmic origins). By this story, there is nothing divine in man and we are completely separate from the divine. We exist only by the whim of God.

Other cultures present a very different picture. Often, a primary super-god of some sort is killed, and drops of his (or frequently “her”) blood falls on the ground.  People sprout from this mixture of blood and earth. Thus, all people, even the most downtrodden, are part divine.

I think some of the problems facing Christianity today is that our basic beliefs have changed and no longer fit the Biblical myths. (Remember, truthfulness is irrelevant in discussing a myth. I don’t intend to upset anyone, I kid you not.)

Campbell had also written a seminal book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. There, he points out a reoccurring theme in myths from all over the world is a hero who leaves his society to face great dangers alone. He survives transformed by the experience and returns to his society to teach them what he has learned.

Sound familiar? Jesus leaves his society and spends 40 days in the wilderness. He returns transformed, gathers his apostles, and begins his ministry.



About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
This entry was posted in History, Religion, Writers and Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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