I am fascinated by mythology, archetypes and all sorts of symbolism that attempts to describe or tell about the worlds we live in. Yes, I said worlds, as in plural, because we do live in more than one world.
We have live in the outer-world of gross material objects, circumstance and situations. And we live in the inner-world of thoughts, emotions and feelings.
Mythology, in my view, is way to describe the interconnection between the two. And one of the best programs/books that helped with the translation of this cryptic description was “The Power of Myth.”
Over the next few posts (on Friday) I’m going to recap the book the best I can. I have found the information in this book to be extremely helpful in understanding myself and helping my clients understand themselves and their relation to the Universe.
“The Power of Myth” is based on the interviews between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers that became a famous television series. It deals with the universality and evolution of myths in the history of the human race and the place of myths in modern society. Campbell blends accounts of his own upbringing and experience with stories from many cultures and civilizations to present the reader with his most compelling thesis that modern society is going through a transition from the old mythologies and traditions to a new way of thinking in which a global mythology will emerge.
Campbell draws on material he has gathered from over forty years of teaching comparative mythology. His lifelong quest for legends and myths of different people’s and cultures started when, as a boy undergoing religious instruction in the Roman Catholic faith, he realized that the mythology of American Plains Indians corresponded with those of the Christian tradition.
Later he studied the sacred Hindu writings of the Upanishads and the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail and in doing so, he developed the concept of the universality of all mythologies and legends, constituting the fundamental spiritual beliefs of mankind. In the transcripts of the discussions that are the basis for this book, he traces the origins and development of different religions and how they relate to the mythologies of the different emerging social cultures.
The subject matter and development of ideas does not follow a formal systematic scheme. Instead Campbell presents his ideas as a cornucopia of glittering poetic images with Bill Moyers summarizing and clarifying the topics that disappear and reappear in the discussion, rather like musical themes in an orchestral work.
The scope of the work encompasses Campbell’s previously published books and includes creation myths, the Goddess religions of the Oriental world, the transformation of mythologies as cultures develop, the universal myths of hero legends and the historical basis for the contemporary Christian religion. Identical themes and symbols from Christian beliefs and Hindu and Buddhist traditions lead to the juxtaposition of images of the crucifixion of Christ and the Oriental deity, Bodhisattva, from whose fingertips the ambrosia of compassion drips down to the lowest depths of Hell.
The chapter entitled “the Masks of Eternity” outlines the universal concepts of God and Eternity as found in the Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions. In all of these philosophies there is the idea that the deity is within each individual and that this internal being also embodies eternity. This concept, which Campbell calls “the Christ within,” along with his personal philosophy of “follow your Bliss!” and the necessity for the emergence of a global mythology, constitute the major conclusions of the book.
Chapter I, Myth and the Modern World Summary and Analysis
Some of the material in this chapter comes from Campbell’s previously published books, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” and “The Masks of God.” The main theme of the book is the universality of myths that occur throughout the history of mankind, no matter which epoch or whichever culture or society is considered.
Myths are the body of stories and legends that a people perceive as being an integral part of their culture. Before the invention of writing, these stories and legends were handed down from generation to generation in the form of rituals and oral traditions. The reappearance of certain themes, time and again, in different mythologies, leads to the realization that these themes portray universal and eternal truths about mankind.
Campbell defines the function of a mythology as the provision of a cultural framework for a society or people to educate their young, and to provide them with a means of coping with their passage through the different stages of life from birth to death. In a general sense myths include religion as well and the development of religion is an intrinsic part of a society’s culture.
A mythology is inevitably bound to the society and time in which it occurs and cannot be divorced from this culture and environment. This is true even though Western society previously learned from, and was informed by, the mythology of other cultures by including the study of Greek and Roman writings as part of its heritage.
The record of the history of the development of a culture and society is embodied in its mythology. For example, the Bible describes the evolution of the Judeo-Christian concept of God from the time when the Jews were in Babylon and the god they worshiped corresponded to a local tribal god, to when the concept became that of a world savior as a result of the Hebrews becoming a major force in the East Mediterranean region.
The geographic context of a specific mythology also plays a role in its evolution. The physical scope of Biblical mythology was limited to the general area of the Middle East but in other parts of the world, Chinese and Aztec religions and cultures emerged as separate and distinct belief systems. When different cultures expand their spheres of influence they eventually come into contact with each other, and the outcome of the collision, be it conquest, subjugation, or amalgamation, will be evident in the resultant mythology.
The form and function of mythology in the modern world is the main topic of this chapter and to illustrate his ideas, Campbell recounts aspects of his own earlier life. Without specifically stating it, the assumption is made that the modern world under consideration is that of Campbell’s world–the Christian-based, urbanized culture of North America, the so-called Modern Western Society.
Campbell describes his own upbringing as a Roman Catholic and his early fascination with the myths and stories of the American Indians. He recalls the excitement he felt when he realized that the motifs of creation, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, which the nuns were teaching him at his school, also occurred in American Indian myths. This was the beginning of his lifelong interest in comparative mythology. Later on in life he found the same universal themes in Hinduism and in the medieval Arthurian legends.
The discussion considers the role of myth and ritual in contemporary society. Contemporary rituals are carried out to mark special events in private lives, such as an individual’s marriage or enlistment in a branch of the armed forces and, on public occasions such as the inauguration of civil and national leaders. In the Introduction to the book, Moyers recalls Campbell’s description of the solemn state funeral after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as an “illustration of the high service of ritual to a society,” and where Campbell identifies the ritualized occasion as fulfilling a great social necessity.
In general, however, Campbell and Moyers, reach the conclusion that there is a lack of effective mythology and ritual in modern American society. They find nothing that compares with the powerful puberty rituals of primitive societies. They claim that the exclusion of classical studies from the modern educational syllabus has led to a lack of awareness of the mythological foundations of western society’s heritage. This, combined with an increased materialism and emphasis on technology, has led to modern youth in New York, becoming alienated from the main stream of society and inventing their own morality, initiations and gangs.
It is of course true that the ancient rites of passage, such as circumcision, are no longer practiced in American society, but the consideration of their replacement by the Jewish celebration of Bar Mitzvah or college graduation ceremonies could, and perhaps should, be made. Likewise, as a form of ritualized warfare, the weekly college and professional football games serve to provide a socially acceptable outlet for controlled aggression. The community support for local teams certainly functions to give individuals a sense of belonging to a larger social group. It is disappointing that Campbell and Moyers do not even consider these social pageants and trends as possible components in a new emerging set of myths and rituals.
Marriage, as an example of a paramount modern social institution, becomes the next subject of discussion. Campbell differentiates between marriage and love affairs and imparts some very lofty ideals to marriage, in contrast to love affairs, that he categorically states inevitably end in disappointment. True marriage, in Campbell’s opinion, embodies a spiritual identity and invokes the image of an incarnate God. In doing so he appears to limit the discussion to Christian marriages and to preclude the possibility that love affairs might lead to marriage.
Campbell and Moyers agree, somewhat surprisingly, that the main objective of marriage is not the birth of children and the raising of families. They discard the concept of perpetuation of the human species as being the primary function of marriage and relegate this to a first stage. This first stage is followed by a second one where the offspring have departed into the world and only the couple is left. Campbell invokes the image of marriage as being an ordeal in which the ego is sacrificed to a relationship in which two have become one. This, he states, is a mythological image that embodies the sacrifice of the visible for a transcendent good. Campbell labels this stage of marriage as the alchemical stage.
On the subject of the ritual of marriage, Campbell and Moyers complain that it has lost its force and has become a mere remnant of the original; they contend that the ritual that once conveyed an inner reality is now merely form. That this is part of a general secularization of religious sacraments is not discussed, neither do they acknowledge the modern fashion for individuals to design and enact their own nuptials independently from the inflexible liturgy of the established churches.
The interviews between Campbell and Moyers are recorded at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. Campbell and Lucas became friends when Lucas publicly acknowledged the influence Campbell’s writings had on the development of his hugely successful film “Star Wars.” Campbell expresses great enthusiasm for this film; a film that he says conforms to classical mythological legends. So it is not surprising that there are many references to the characters from “Star Wars” throughout the book. In a similar fashion, John Wayne is identified as a modern myth and Campbell recalls Douglas Fairbanks as having been a boyhood hero.
At the beginning of this chapter, and in other parts of the book, Campbell states that modern society lacks the stability it previously derived from being educated in the mythology and legends of the Greek and Roman classics. Campbell and Moyers agree that there is no effective mythology in modern society by which individuals can relate to their role in the world. However, this opinion seems to contradict the phenomenon of the large numbers of films being viewed by the general public.
The contemporary film industry has many examples, in addition to “Star Wars,” of films that incorporate the retelling of tales from the life of Moses, of Christ and of Greek and Roman heroes. In addition to these cinematic epics, there are films in the speculative fiction genre such as “Star Wars,” and the classical Cowboy Western tales depicting the hero figure in defense of the community against powerful and evil villains. Thus, in spite of Campbell’s and Moyers’ contention, it could be argued that the ancient myths and their modern counterparts are alive and well in modern society.
On the other hand, it may be that the problem Campbell and Moyers are addressing is the paradigm shift in religious beliefs that is becoming more evident each day as the established churches continue to lose their relevance in modern western society.
An analysis of the national symbols of the United States is used by Campbell to illustrate the ability for myths to incorporate the beliefs of a whole society and to provide the mythology to unify a nation. More recently, when the image of the earth, taken from the lunar landings, was published, it led to the universal realization that human beings must identify with the entire planet.
This concept of the emergence of a new mythology based on global aspects of life is reiterated several times by Campbell. The fact remains, as he himself admits, that this new philosophy has not yet fully developed and it is not clear whether or not an effective global mythology will emerge from the concept of Gaia, the Earth Mother.
The use of mythology is one of the many tools I use during The Warriors Quest and has worked very effectively.
OK…I’d like to hear your thoughts so far in the comments below.
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