The Power of Myth


The Power of MythWith Bill Moyers, ed. by Sue Flowers, New York: Anchor Books, 1988.

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell is an extraordinary book because it’s not a book. It’s a typescript of radio dialogues, which makes for the liveliness of the content. I recommend it to everyone who lacks time to read more of the great scholar, or who is a bit at pains with reading highly academic diction.

This book can be savored word for word, it can be read aloud, it can be read at night, as bedtime lecture, and it will always give a fascinating read. I read it in one night, as it was such a fascinating lecture. Bill Moyers is a very present interviewer and he surely had a liking for interviewing ‘the Great Campbell;’ his sympathy for him is not to be overlooked, and was most conducive to bringing about an invaluable document of the deeper thoughts of the great scholar. Campbell initiates the discourse with a general thought on modern science and its strong focus upon specialism.

Now, the person who isn’t a specialist, but a generalist like myself, sees something over here that he has learned from one specialist, something over there that he has learned from another specialist—and neither of them has considered the problem of why this occurs here and also there./11

Campbell illustrates a variety of material he presented in Occidental Mythology, perhaps because the content is more controversial, and also because it bears a direct link to our own culture. He expresses some deep truths that form part of his mythological vision in a more convincing manner than in the former book, for example as to the Christian ideal of brotherhood, and how it was applied in practice:

Now brotherhood in most of the myths I know of is confined to a bounded community. In bounded communities, aggression is projected outward. For example, the ten commandments say, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Then the next chapter says, ‘Go into Canaan and kill everybody in it’. That is a bounded field. The myths of participation and love pertain only to the in-group, the the out-group is totally other. This is the sense of the world ‘gentile’—the person is not of the same order./28

Campbell leaves no doubt that this myth indeed tells us an important story about present times, and that it has forged some of our controversial values. They were essentially forged through that in-group versus out-group thinking that goes back to our Biblical past:

The Hebrews were absolutely ruthless with respect to their neighbors. (…) That is to say, love and compassion are reserved for the in-group, and aggression and abuse are projected outward on others. Compassion is to be reserved for members of your own group. The out-group is to be treated in a way described there in Deuteronomy. Of course, in biblical times, when the Hebrews came in, they really wiped out the Goddess. The term for the Canaanite goddess that’s used in the Old Testament is ‘the Abomination’. Apparently, throughout the period represented in the Book of Kings, for example, there was a back and forth between the two cults. Many of the Hebrew kings were condemned in the Old Testament for having worshiped on the mountaintops. Those mountains were symbols of the Goddess. And there was a very strong accent against the Goddess in the Hebrew, which you do not find the Indo-European mythologies. Here you have Zeus marrying the Goddess, and then the two play together. So it’s an extreme case that we have in the Bible, and our own Western subjugation of the female is a function of biblical thinking./215, 216

It seems that since those early times of patriarchy, humanity is entangled in one tight knot of violence, and it is our major trinity of religions that have helped this knot to be so tight. It is not one of these religions, but all three of them, Judaism, Christianity and Islam that are sworn into this kind of thinking. By contract, Eastern culture and religion offer a counterpoint here, and Campbell puts it eloquently when he says:

Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us. This is the great realization of the Upanishads of India in the ninth century B.C. All the gods, all the heavens, all the worlds, are within us. They are magnified dreams, and dreams are manifestations in image form of the energies of the body in conflict with each other. That is what myth is. Myth is a manifestation in symbolic images, in metaphorical images, of the energies of the organs of the body in conflict with each other. This organ wants this, that organ wants that./46

When we realize that the devil we see in the out-group is but our own shadow, we are little inclined to go out and kill all scapegoats in the form of ethnic, racial or sexual minorities. Here we are again in the midst of Occidental Mythology when Moyers asks Campbell about the Christian story where the serpent is the seducer. And Campbell to reply:

That amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to man. This identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus of life with sin, is the twist hat has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall./54

Campbell’s reply is highly interesting for it amounts to saying that the biblical tradition really is founded on an anti-life attitude, on an opposition to nature, and as a result, an opposition of man toward woman. When Moyers asked Campbell if he had found this idea of woman being a sinner, in other mythologies, Campbell replied:

No, I don’t know of it elsewhere. … The serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god, actually, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening, is just a visitor./54

Campbell’s answer is in alignment with the oldest of traditions, that all affirm the serpent to be the god of the gods, the ultimate spiritual force of the universe. This is also the teaching of the old Chinese sages and of most of the native peoples around the world. But to depict Yahweh as a visitor is an idea I have not found elsewhere. Campbell implicitly says that what Eisler called the ‘truncation of civilization’ through the reversal of the symbolism after the cultural turndown of matriarchy, has not really taken place, at least not on the level of the unconscious, and in mythology.

Campbell suggests that what he called the counterplayer to patriarchy, the Serpent-Goddess, is still active on the level of the unconscious, and probably also on the level of the collective unconscious, relegating the ‘New God’ to the status of a visitor. But Moyers investigates further and Campbell retraces the historical facts:

There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The principal divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess, and associated with the Goddess is the serpent. This is the symbol of the mystery of life. The male-god-oriented group rejected it. In other words, there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden./55

It could not be clearer, and the principal consequence of this rejection of the Goddess is in Campbell’s view an implicit rejection of the unitary principle in nature, the unity of all living as we find it so highly acclaimed and worshipped in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Campbell explains that we deal here with a true shift in consciousness from the consciousness of identity to the consciousness of participation in duality. As the dialogue develops, it becomes more focused and more general, and eventually turns to asking what myth is about, what mythology does, and what it should do. Campbell asserts that the ancients myths were designed to harmonize body and mind, and to bring man in touch with nature, and the nature in himself. Another question asked was who rules whom in a democracy?

Campbell makes it clear that the rule of the majority does not regulate our values, but only our day-to-day politics, because ‘in thinking …, the majority is always wrong.’ This is an important insight as there are many young people today who simply over-adapt to society because of their fear to be different from the herd. Instead of living their own life, and their own love, they ask what the majority does and thinks, thereby annihilating their self-power—or soul power—and exposing themselves to being ultimately shunned by the good citizens that make out the majority.

These young people would certainly benefit from reading Campbell’s books, so much the more as our media remain silent about these issues. Campbell, taking the Star Wars plot as a popular example, voices his deepest concerns at what could be called the Darth Vader reality of modern culture:

Darth Vader has not developed his own humanity. He’s a robot. He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself but in terms of an imposed system. This is the threat to our lives that we all face today. Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? How do you relate to the system so that you are not compulsively serving it? It doesn’t help to try to change it to accord with your system of thought. The momentum of history behind it is too great for anything really significant to evolve from that kind of action. The thing to do is to learn to live in your period of history as a human being. That’s something else, and it can be done./178

And from here, Campbell goes on to show how the ‘schizophrenic crack’ comes about in so many of our young people today because they are filled with the ignorant recipes of popular culture instead of being resourced by their own soul reality:

If the person insists on a certain program, and doesn’t listen to the demands of his own heart, he’s going to risk a schizophrenic crackup. Such a person has put himself off center. He has aligned himself with a program for life, and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all. The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to their neighbors to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are that they should be living for./181

And global international consumer culture does all it can to heat up that collective psychosis, to fire up the cultural demons, the many shadows it creates through discarding more and more behavior forms out of its official and politically correct paradigm of living, thereby creating miles of prison space for all those that are not exactly walking on-the-line.

A paranoid, schizoid culture cannot establish real values and valid rules because it has no real and valid self-image, and its public opinion largely consists of modern myths, even though most of these myths are ‘scientifically corroborated.’ In a society where more than seventy percent of all scientists work for the military and where more than eighty percent are governmentally funded, it is absolutely no problem to get a scientific backup for the latest top-notch genocide technology.

Despite all, Campbell passionately encourages young people to go their own way, instead of sacrificing their own authentic vision to the emotional addictions of their parents. Campbell’s message is encouraging for all of us because it’s positive, and because it’s human in a time where inhumanity seems to get the overhand, and he shows us that we have to find our strength inside because we all have extraordinary gifts and resources:

I don’t think there is any such thing as an ordinary mortal. Everybody has his own possibility of rapture in the experience of life. All he has to do is recognize it and then cultivate it and get going with it. I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman, or child./205

When Campbell voiced his opinion that he found the idea of God as Absolute Order ‘simply ridiculous,’ the discussion took a very interesting turn. Moyers asks if the courage to love, in the troubadour tradition of the Middle Ages, became the courage to affirm one’s own experience against tradition and why that was important for evolution of Western thought? Truly, an intelligent question. Campbell replies:

It was important in that it gave the West this accent on the individual, that one should have faith in his experience and not simply mouth terms handed down to him by others. It stresses the validity of the individual’s experience of what humanity is, what life is, what values are, against the monolithic system. The monolithic system is the machine system: every machine works like every other machine that’s come out of the same shop./234

I think here we have got to an angular point in our tradition in that it is not a monolithic system, because love, human love and desire, is a transformational lever not only for individual growth, but also for society at large. Campbell affirms:

The best part of the Western tradition has included a recognition of and respect for the individual as a living entity. The function of the society is to cultivate the individual. It is not the function of the individual to support society./239

The idea is paramount in the history of Western individualism and here we encounter what the wisdom tradition has called The Holy Grail. What is that about? Campbell explains:

The Grail becomes symbolic of an authentic life that is lived in terms of its own volition, in terms of its own impulse system, that carries itself between the pairs of opposites of good and evil, light and dark./245

The individual love quest is always a manifestation of the larger desire to become an individual, to gain true autonomy, to be self-reliant and powerful, and this quest can never be respectable, to paraphrase Krishnamurti. Campbell notes:

Insofar as love expresses itself, it is not expressing itself in terms of the socially approved manners of life. That’s why it is all so secret. Love has nothing to do with social order./254

When we recognize that love is on a different level than social order, we can realize our love, and will realize it not on the lines of social order and majoritarian approval, but based upon our own soul values.

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