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The Power of Myth (thoughts)

January 25, 2008

Joseph CampbellRecently, I completed by reread of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. It was interesting to go back, because in high school I verged on worship of Campbell. At the time, religion and mythology fascinated me, so to find a whole body of work by such an obviously intelligent person focused on comparative mythology felt like hitting the lottery. I lived in San Antonio, and about once every couple of months, my mom would take me to the downtown central library (no, I didn’t have a license…I’ve always been young for my grade, and then I didn’t want to potentially kill people with tons of fast-moving metal…yes, I eventually got over that) and I would stock up (the limit was fifty books per patron). There was always at least one Campbell in the pile!

I read this one, which is the book version of an interview-style PBS series Campbell did sometime in the late eighties/early nineties (do you sense some laziness here?) for the first time just after high school graduation. I’d already read his more in-depth works, so it was kind of nice to relax and enjoy the lighter approach to his scholarship! Upon rereading, (and the copy I bookmooched is the awesome oversized one with a ton of pictures) the same chapter remained me favourite, but it seemed kind of superficial. Of course, that’s probably because I haven’t read his heavier works lately!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book is divided into eight chapters: “Myth and the Modern World,” “The Journey Inward,” “The First Storytellers,” “Sacrifice and Bliss,” “The Hero’s Adventure,” “The Gift of the Goddess,” “Tales of Love and Marriage,” and “Masks of Eternity.” These are rough guidelines, that directed the subjects Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer (his interviewer) discussed in each segment of the PBS series. Within each subject, Campbell jumps around a bit, incorporating his extensive knowledge of world religions with his experience as an older man. In so doing, he offers advice for how people, especially young people, might incorporate mythological lessons into their lives.

I enjoyed both aspects. Of course, it was fun to hear all the different myths and watch Campbell tie their various themes together, but the most valuable part was when Campbell became more personal. I especially appreciated his discussion of marriage, which he describes as very different from a love affair, a life-long committment to join yourself with another person into a new thing: a couple. I know that makes it sound creepy and codependent, but it’s not. It’s just an (admittedly) idealistic account that I think is very helpful to someone like myself, growing up in today’s society.

Which brings me back to my very favourite chapter: “Tales of Love and Marriage.” The title itself gives away the game. :)Power of Myth It was neat to read descriptions of love, and lovers, from various centuries and countries. I’ll share with you my favourite story from this part of the book:

Why was Satan thrown into hell? The standard story is that, when God created the angels, he told them to bow to none but himself. Then he created man, whom he regarded as a higher form than the angels, and he asked the angels to serve man. And Satan would not bow to man.
Now, this is interpreted in the Christian tradition, as I recall from my boyhood instruction, as being the egotism of Satan. He would not bow to man. But in the Persian story, he could not bow to man because of his love for God-he could now only to God. God had changed his signals, do you see? But Satan had so committed himself to the first set of signals that he could not violate those, and in his-I don’t know if Satan has a heart or not-but in his mind, he could not bow to anyone but God, whom he loved. And then God says, “Get out of my sight.”
Now, the worst of the pains of hell, insofar as hell has been described, is the absence of the Beloved, which is God. So how does Satan sustain the situation in hell? By the memory of the echo of God’s voice, when God said, “Go to hell.” that is a great sign of love.

I don’t really have too much else to say. I think this would be a good general introduction to Campbell, as long as you keep in mind that he’s usually much more rigirous in his scholarship. As for me, I want to go reread the Masks of God series.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2008 8:43 am

    Oh, thank you, Eva! I have wanted to read this book for a very, very long time. But frankly, I’ve been afraid to. I was so sure it was going to be so far above my head that I would just be frustrated and want to give up. Sounds like maybe I really could it.

  2. January 26, 2008 7:01 pm

    I believe I read this book in a high school class; it’s very long ago and fuzzy in my mind. That quote you shared was fascinating. I’d like to read it all again, myself.

  3. January 26, 2008 11:14 pm

    Debi, I think you could do it! The interview style works really well. :)

    Jeane, what a neat high school class! My high school teachers wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it, since some parents from the Bible Belt would’ve been sure to raise a fuss.

  4. January 27, 2008 1:27 am

    Despite my love of mythology, I’ve yet to read any Joseph Campbell. This one really does sound like a good introduction.

  5. January 27, 2008 10:54 pm

    Nymeth, I think you’d enjoy it!

  6. Myrthe permalink
    January 31, 2008 1:49 am

    Until recently, this book had been lying around our apartment for quite some time as my boyfriend was reading it. Eventually he had to give it back to his friend who had to return it to the library or to someone else, I’m not sure which. I did flip through the book, looking at the pictures, but I didn’t read it. I was kind of apprehensive about taking it on. Maybe I should have.

  7. January 31, 2008 1:20 pm

    Myrthe, weren’t the pictures fun? Maybe you can get it back one of these days!

  8. not to scale permalink
    January 31, 2008 9:00 pm

    i found your blog googling “magnesium sulphate” and have been wandering through your entertaining reviews, you might be interested in

    We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love, as in many of his books, Robert A. Johnson draws on myths to explore the psychological underpinnings of romantic love. Beginning with the classic myth of Tristan and Iseult, Mr. Johnson delves into the romantic love relationship. Is romantic love all that we make it up to be? In this book, Mr. Johnson offers excellent insights about the role of the psyche in creating an ideal romantic picture.

    excerpts here http://www.spiritsite.com/writing/robjoh/index.shtml

  9. flywheel permalink
    June 27, 2008 10:54 am

    What an interesting site. I just found you when I was looking for a “public domain” photo of Uncle Joe. I absolutely revere Joseph Campbell. I believe he was an absolute Giant in American Letters.

    I would recommend to anyone interested to rent or buy the videos or DVD of The Power of Myth, because there is an exchange between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell that won’t quite show up on the printed page. There is a place where Bill and Joe are talking about the death experience and as it moves to Joe’s impending (or expected) death they exchange a look that simply breaks my heart.

    Buy the book too, so that you can mark special places to re-read. That is my personal recommendation.

    This series of interviews turned me on to so very much of what I now study, believe and do my best to live.

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