Perhaps myth first arose out of the answers parents give to their children’s questions. Many of these are unanswerable: Why is water wet? Why is fire hot? Where does everything come from? Who is God? Because people like to tell stories, it makes sense that parents would make up tales, far-fetched, elaborate, but sometimes beautiful, to satisfy this curiosity. The best of these would be passed down from generation to generation to form the body of worldwide myth.
Even so, this explanation does not tell us why myths are so powerful. Why should these stories have continued to be told for thousands of years? What meaning do they have and what role do they play in our lives?
The modern study of myth, and its close cousin, religion, began around the Enlightenment, when polymaths began to compile the traditions of non-Western peoples. They also tried to find common elements in these traditions. Most of their answers today look naïve and simplistic.
The mid-nineteenth-century British author Hargrave Jennings, for example, saw the origins of all the world’s religions in “phallicism,” a worship of the sexual force as well as of the sun and fire. J.G. Frazer, author of The Golden Bough and revered as one of the founders of the discipline of anthropology, said that myths, particularly of the death-and-resurrection variety, were merely recapitulations of the yearly vegetative cycle of growth, death, and renewal (a view known to, and derided by, Plutarch in the first century CE).
In the twentieth century, Émile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, held that religion was nothing more than a primitive abstraction and internalisation of social forces: “Society in general, simply by its effect on men’s minds, undoubtedly has all that is required to arouse the sensation of the divine. A society is to its members what a god is to its faithful.” For the Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, myth and religion expressed a deep layer of the mind that he called the collective unconscious.
All these views are true. There are many sexual motifs in myths and religion. Societies do unite themselves by means of common myths. There are underlying patterns of myth that seem universal, even among peoples who are far-flung and isolated. But these are only partial truths.
One of the most comprehensive – and best-known – discussions of myth appears in the writings of the American scholar Joseph Campbell (1904-87). Campbell’s view, expressed in books such as The Hero with a Thousand Facesand the Masks of God series, and in a famous series of televised interviews with the journalist Bill Moyers entitled The Power of Myth, is probably the most influential of all twentieth-century attempts. In many ways it is also the most wide-ranging and comprehensive.
Unlike his predecessors, who tended to see myth in one-dimensional terms (the product of social pressures, the expression of the collective unconscious, and so on), Campbell acknowledged that myth filled all of these functions. In Creative Mythology, the last volume of his Masks of God series, he writes:
The first function of a mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans [the terrifying and fascinating mystery] of this universe as it is: the second being to render an interpretative total image of the same, as known to contemporary consciousness. Shakespeare’s definition of the function of his art, “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature,” is thus equally a definition of mythology. It is the revelation to waking consciousness of the powers of its own sustaining source.
A third function, however, is the enforcement of a moral order, the shaping of the individual to the requirements of his geographically and historically conditioned social group. [Emphasis here and in other quotes is in the original.]
These sentences summarise the mythological theories up to Campbell’s time, but they do not complete the picture. He goes on: “The fourth, and most vital, most critical function of a mythology… is to foster the centring and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with d) himself (the microcosm), c) his culture (the mesocosm), b) the universe (macrocosm), and a) that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things.” For Campbell, this fostering of individual potential is the most important function of myth. It is also the one to which he devotes the greatest part of his work.
Following C.G. Jung, Campbell closely links dream and myth, emphasising how mythic themes appear in the dreams of ordinary people, even those who have never heard the original tales. Every man is a hero, living out these themes in the trials of daily life. “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light to change.”
This quotation comes from The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 and certainly the most influential of Campbell’s works. Its outline of the hero’s journey, drawing upon myths and lore from around the world, has inspired any number of books and films, including George Lucas’s Star Wars series. Broadly sketched, the journey proceeds thus: A person, usually an ordinary and undistinguished individual, is roused from the routine of his or her daily life by a call. This call may take the form of a dream, an animal, a god, or even a predicament: the journey in Dante’s Divine Comedy begins when the narrator, wakened from a stupor, finds himself in a dark wood from which he must escape.
The hero has free will, however, and may refuse the call. The punishment is an ossification of the self, sometimes symbolised by turning to stone: as Campbell writes, “Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt for looking back, when she had been summoned forth from her city by Jehovah.” In psychological terms this means fixation, which represents “an impotence to put off the infantile ego, with its sphere of emotional relationships.” We can see examples of this all around us: the eternal momma’s boy; the student who cannot leave university, taking degree after degree; the high-school football hero who dwells forever on a few moments of vanished glory on the field.
For those who accept the call, some kind of supernatural aid appears. In the Inferno, Dante, lost in the dark wood, is saved from wolves by a greyhound (a medieval symbol of Christ) and then meets with Vergil, for Dante’s age the greatest poet of classical antiquity. Thus this spirit guide can be masculine or feminine, animal or fairy. Among the American Indians of the Southwest one favourite figure is Spider Woman, and in many Christian myths the Virgin appears as this helper. In the hero’s journey of everyday life, the help may come in a subtler form: the appearance of a teacher or master, or even a book that serves as the perfect guide for this precise juncture.
Armed with this help, the hero is ready to cross the first threshold, the boundary between the known and the unknown, the everyday world and the underworld. The shadowy realms of this underworld are, Campbell tells us, “free fields of the projection of unconscious content.” They can be populated by demons, ogres, or other menacing creatures; the hero may also encounter alluring figures that will tempt him to destruction, like Circe or the Sirens in the Odyssey. If he fails to kill the ogre or master his desire for the voluptuous spectre, he is annihilated.
If he succeeds and goes past this threshold into what Campbell calls “the belly of the whale,” he is annihilated nonetheless. But here the annihilation is the very point of the endeavour. The image of the belly of the whale comes from the biblical book of Jonah, in which the protagonist flees his destiny as a prophet only to be swallowed by a “great fish,” in whose belly he stays for three days. During this time Jonah prays to the Lord and agrees to accept his mission: “I will pay that that I have vowed” (Jonah 2:9). The fish then vomits him up onto dry land.
Death & Resurrection
Campbell, like many commentators, underscores the death-and-resurrection motif in this part of the journey. The prophet dies to his old identity and is reborn with a new one. Quoting the esotericist Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Campbell writes, “No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist.” The same holds true for the most famous death-and-resurrection myth of them all – that of Christ. The Gospels stress that Christ is to go up to Jerusalem for the specific purpose of being crucified so that he may die and rise again. In this myth, Jerusalem, supposedly the spiritual pinnacle of humanity, is the underworld, and the ogres are the priests and scribes and Pilate. Christ is put to death in an excruciating and humiliating way, but after three days he rises again.
Before the hero can be resurrected, however, he usually has to undergo a series of trials in the underworld – tasks to be performed, some monster that must be overcome. In Christian myth, this corresponds to the “harrowing of hell,” in which Christ before his resurrection descends to the nether world and defeats Satan, liberating the righteous souls imprisoned there.
The hero does not always win this conflict, but either way he cannot lose. Even if he dies, he is restored to life in a new and glorified form.
Once the ordeals have been passed, the hero encounters the Goddess. This is not a desirable fate for those who are unprepared. Campbell recalls the Greek myth of Actaeon, a hunter who stumbles upon a glade where he sees the goddess Diana bathing naked. Because this is an accidental encounter, Actaeon must pay the price: Diana changes him into a stag, and he is torn to pieces by his own hounds.
This tale highlights two aspects of this part of the hero’s journey: the need for purification from his flaws (including his desires) and the dual nature of the Goddess. She is beautiful, she is infinitely tender, but she is also baleful. The hero cannot encounter one aspect without the other. Campbell recounts a vision of the nineteenth-century Hindu saint Ramakrishna, in which he sees a beautiful pregnant woman arising from the Ganges. She gives birth, but as soon as she does, she turns into a monster, seizes the baby in her jaws, crushes it, and chews it. The Goddess gives birth to all, but having given birth she will take it back again.
Once the hero faces and accepts this ambiguous and awesome nature of the Goddess, he marries her in a hieros gamos or sacred wedding, signifying the unification of the ambisexual nature that exists in every man and woman.
Having assimilated the force of the Goddess, the hero must undergo atonement with the father. Campbell expresses it thus:
The problem of the hero going to meet the father is to open his soul beyond terror to such a degree that he will be ripe to understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being. The hero transcends life with its particular blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned.
As the quintessential example of this encounter, Campbell cites the book of Job. Job, a “simple and upright man, and fearing God, and avoiding evil,” is nonetheless plunged – for reasons he does not understand – into a maelstrom of suffering in which his fortune, his home, and his children are all annihilated. Most of this book consists of a poetic dialogue between Job, who insists upon his own righteousness, and his so-called comforters, who keep trying to persuade him that he must have done wrong to merit such treatment from the Lord. In the end the Lord himself appears to answer Job “out of the whirlwind,” demanding that he explain the inscrutable workings of the universe: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding” (Job 38:4). Job cannot answer; in the end he can only say, “I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
The book of Job remains to this day perhaps the most profound exploration of theodicy, the question of divine justice. But it is still an enigmatic and perplexing work. Jung, in his Answer to Job, saw the manifestation of the Lord as a kind of appeal to power – divine might makes right – but Campbell, as the passage above suggests, views this issue in a deeper and more nuanced way. There is no answer to this question in any conventional sense. The source of which Campbell speaks gives rise both to justice and injustice, as it says elsewhere in the Bible: “I form the light and create darkness: I make peace and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). The Old Testament God is frequently mocked – as he is by Jung – for being childish and temperamental, but the Hebrew Bible is great in part because it acknowledges the unfathomable truth that good and evil both arise out of the One. Hence, too, the dual benign and maleficent nature of the Goddess.
Having faced and overcome these challenges, the aspirant becomes a master, with the power to move between the worlds of magic and of ordinary life. He then undergoes the process of return. And when he does return, he comes bearing the elixir – the boon that can bring healing to the world.
How the World Works
More could be said about the hero’s journey, as well as many other forms of myth that Campbell explores in his work. But it may be best to move on to some reflections. To begin with, Campbell is in his way a more profound, or at any rate a less ambivalent, thinker than his predecessor Jung. Jung, a conventionally trained psychiatrist, tended to stop short when he had to face the metaphysical implications of his thought. He was willing to say that his archetype of the Self – the psyche in a whole and integrated form – was an image of God, but he was reluctant to move on and say whether God did or did not exist outside of the psyche. Campbell is less equivocal:
The mythological figures that have come down to us… are not only symptoms of the unconscious… but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world – all things and beings – are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.
It would be hard to formulate a clearer or more concise summation of the spiritual teachings of humanity than this. Campbell is telling us these myths do not speak only to our psyches; they are also telling us how the world works.
This consideration brings up a perplexing issue. Because myth has cosmic implications, it must incorporate a vision beyond a person’s own narrow interests if it is to have any genuine meaning. It is easy to see how the hero’s journey corresponds to the trials of different phases of life. But if there is no more, then the journey speaks to the individual only. That is not enough. As the myths tell us, in the end the hero has to bring some boon to society. His journey has to have collective, if not universal, meaning and value.
While Campbell acknowledges this fact, at times it sounds as if he still prizes the individual vision above the collective.
Today, more fortunately, it is everywhere the collective mythology itself that is going to pieces, leaving even the non-individual (sauve qui peut!) to be a light unto himself. It is true that the madhouses are full; psychoanalysts, millionaires. Yet anyone sensible enough to have looked around somewhat outside his fallen church will have seen standing everywhere on the cleared, still clearing, world stage a company of mighty individuals: the great order of those who in the past found, and in the present too are finding, in themselves all the guidance needed.
But in fact Campbell is aware of the problem: “In the fateful, epoch-announcing words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: ‘Dead are all the gods’.” We are in a late phase of Christian civilisation, when the central myth of the faith has lost much of its power and many can no longer believe in it literally. While the passion of Christ mirrors the journey of the hero, it is not so easy to believe that it really happened as recorded. The Gospels offer many problems if taken as straight historical texts, and none of them (or any other surviving Christian text) was written by people who knew Jesus personally. The problem becomes still more acute when we turn to the myth of Genesis.
We are thus thrown back upon ourselves, as Campbell acknowledged: “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognised, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream.” The hero’s journey is not something that contemporary society can undergo collectively, as it did with the old mystery religions. Because of this isolation, “one does not know toward what one moves. One does not know by what one is propelled. The lines of communication between the conscious and unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we are split in two.”
Campbell argues that we will need to unearth a new set of symbols to enact this reintegration. Moreover, “this is not a work that consciousness itself can achieve… The whole thing is being worked out on another level, through what is bound to be a long and very frightening process.”
Up to this point Campbell is right, but in a way he does not go far enough. The best way to see this is by taking another look at the word “myth.” Campbell does not use it as a term of disparagement: he does not, as a rule, say things like “The Genesis story is a mere myth” as opposed to something that is true. In fact “myth” does have this dual meaning. It goes back to the ancient Greeks, from whom we got the word and who frequently used it in a disparaging sense: “Myths [mythoi] deceive, embroidered by elaborate lies,” as the poet Pindar wrote in the early fifth century BCE.
This is a striking fact, and it reflects and influences our usage to this day. Whether employed by Jung or Campbell or anyone else, “myth” is never applied to anything that is believed to be factually true. When the Greeks and Romans started to think of their stories as myths, it meant they had ceased to believe in them. When we regard the Christian myth in the same way, it means the same thing. The modern rediscoverers of myth do not try to persuade us that it tells us how the world works physically, even if they regard it is true psychologically or metaphysically.
Thus the renovation of myth to which Campbell points cannot merely involve another set of symbolic images. We have catalogued the great mythic images of world culture, and we will probably not be able to add much that is new. Instead this symbolic renascence must also encompass a worldview in which we genuinely believe, much as a Christian of the year 1300 believed that the Earth really was the centre of the universe, surrounded by the spheres of the planets and stars. This was not a myth to that individual; it was the way things are.
Our myth today, though few dare call it such, is the scientific worldview. The Big Bang, the limitless expanses of galaxies, the evolution of species – this is how we believe things are in reality. Here we confront a problem. While this grandiose new scientific knowledge has furnished us with an unprecedented degree of technical mastery, it offers no sense of meaningful purpose. Quite the opposite: it seems remorselessly bent on proving the utter futility and triviality of human life. It tramples on any suggestion that anything could possibly exist that is not made of tiny particles moving about in some determinate yet curiously arbitrary pattern.
Hence the split between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the Western psyche. The conscious mind, educated in a precise but narrow framework, can accept this materialistic worldview; many people cannot accept anything else. But the unconscious revolts at the loss of meaning and will not stand for it. Common consequences include anomie and drug addiction as well as pathological greed and a mania for power.
This need for meaning and purpose, and for a connection to a reality that is larger than the sum total of material phenomena, indicates this reality exists. You would never feel thirst if there were no such thing as water. But at the same time we still feel the need to connect this higher reality with the universe that we know from sensory experience. We need a worldview that not only discovers distant galaxies but remind us of what Campbell calls the “ubiquitous power” out of which these galaxies arise. Such a worldview, if it can be found, will command the allegiance of humanity for a long time to come. Those who bring it will be the next generation of heroes. They may not have been born yet.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2d ed., Princeton University Press, 1968.
Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, Viking, 1968.
Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Translated by Karen E. Fields, Free Press, 1995.
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