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All quotes below, unless specified otherwise, are from Campbell during his recorded lectures.
“What is Mythology?” This is a question the powerful mythological scholar Joseph Campbell asks first as he embarks on his lecture, “I find a good way to describe this is to say that, mythology, is other people’s religion. And, that religion, is misunderstood mythology.”
A myth is a formula for a society or an individual, a story they use to describe their place, direction, spirituality, or purpose in this world. Or as defined by the Oxford Dictionary: a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. That definition sounds eerily similar to belief systems, or as above-mentioned, religion, doesn’t it? Well, this leads us back to his first statements: …misunderstood mythology. We’ve heard of nymphs, Zeus, Woden, totem poles, coyote spirits, chariots in the sky, little green men, and the Big Bad Wolf. We could go on for a seriously long time.
Mythology, like religion, aids our minds in existing in this world. Both are primarily psychological tools for us humans. To have so-called healthy minds or at best an inkling of mental stability, it seems to our detriment going around telling ourselves that we have no purpose to our lives, no direction in our daily routines, no connections to anyone or anything other than the people who birthed us, no reasons to live whatsoever. This way of living can cause us to crack up, become unstable, specifically later in life. And before I go any further, this isn’t necessarily suggesting that no one can function without knowing a “meaning” or “purpose” for their existence, or that we in any way have a meaning or purpose instilled in us by some abstract notion, but this is an approach at how we are unique, weird little creatures that have the abilities to imagine, to look forward and backwards in time to an extent, and that just like the body needs food and water to survive, our minds need structure and guidance at times to function in proper manners, or well-rounded manners, or non-destructive capacities unique to each individual or group.
“Frazier describes the myths as made by people who didn’t know enough. He says the old ideas are doomed to die with the new world of scientific discovery. Freud saw these myths as manifestations of the unconscious, stating that myths are public dreams, and dreams are private myths. He understood neuroses as compulsive images out of the psyche, and claimed religion was exactly that.”
Jung saw these mythological images spawning from the vast amount of cultures creating them as assistants to humans. He claimed that we are out of touch with the dynamics of the body and unconscious, and furthered that if we work with these images and motifs, we can learn more about ourselves through myths, because, “they serve man, they create his world for him, but don’t correspond to any facts.” This is in tune with the sciences describing how our senses and perceptions shape our reality, including our stories, social institutions, diet, social do’s and don’ts, all of our knowledge and lack there of, our drives to explore, and our will to reach beyond what we can see and touch. These stories passed down are primarily examples of the psychology of the people from that society and time.
In order to function in a particular environment, whether it be in a classroom in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the desert climates of Palestine, or some distant tribe we’ve never heard of, formulas for how to move from A to B to C emerge in one way or another that cultures adhere to either naturally, or by social force, that allow the society to function. What Campbell eventually comes to understand is that the crisis of the modern world is that we have moved so far into a global consciousness—a global community—that these old mythological structures have broken down, we can no longer keep telling ourselves that the others are the enemy, and pointing out that a singular mythology for any non-isolated group is increasingly impossible. So the pressures have shifted to the individual to follow their own path, to “follow your bliss,” Campbell says, and we must learn to understand what works for us and embrace this mystery of life. Jung, as Campbell mentions, states that the individual no longer has to identify himself with the archetypes of the group, meaning perhaps, that outcasts are more abundant due to the access to so many different cultures around the world, only a click away. At risk of long-windedness, I’ll give an example of that last statement since clarity to these ideas is the key focus, something even Campbell himself would confuse me on, or, I simply didn’t get it.
An archetype, though meaning many things, I’ll define here as a recurring pattern, here being a behavioral pattern, recurring over extended time periods and cultures. By this definition, a man and a woman are archetypes for being parents. Even though sperm and some eggs are needed to create a baby today—or create a weird breakfast—this structure for parenting is changing with our transitioning civilization. Parents do not ‘have’ to be of opposite sexes to raise a child anymore. You do need the same components for the process to take place, but to nurture the child these opposites are not directly related, and a tiny percentage of children will not be brought up in this mother/father archetypal household over years to come. This doesn’t mean that this mother/father archetype will disappear, it’s likely not going anywhere to the masses, only it’s likely lost some ground. Since all we know are these sperm and eggs to create life, or these mother and father figures who carry these components, even if from artificial implanting, maybe this will always be an inherent psyche-stuff for humans, no matter the household. This is relevant to mythology because of our archetypal images, our ideas of hero’s, wise men or women, our brave warriors, these shape our views of ourselves and society, which shape history.
Campbell gives four examples for what mythology does for our lives:
1.) Mythology triggers a sense of awe to relation to being. Giving a sense of rapport with things, a new love, and connection to the world. Bringing about an affirmation of life—a life that is undoubtedly tough and horrendous to consciousness. It gets you to say yes to life.
2.) Presents an image of the cosmos that might be up-to-date, becoming a whole picture. Puts our present situation into relatable terms.
3.) Validates and supports a particular social order.
4.) Psychological bringing of the individual through the crisis of their life.
In relation to older and smaller societies, or the remote tribal societies that still exist, if you didn’t have a role in helping your society that you were born into, you had no proper function in maintaining your society’s existence, and in some instances, they simply got rid of you by whatever means possible. If you didn’t progress into a farmer or hunter by the time you were old enough, whether it be by nine or twelve-years-old, maybe someone would take you out miles away and leave you for dead. Or, kill you right there. Your lack of function in that society’s way of life is a setback to the ones who have functioned before you. In this random particular society’s story, a boy becomes a man by certain timelines, he or she farms land or hunts meat for their tribe, raising a family with a wife or two, prays to the animal gods and goddesses in daily rituals, learns and later tells stories that have been passed down for hundreds of years, stories of honor, death, humility, creation, pride, vengeance, and compassion; stories that can help you mature into an adult as well as lead you into old age, and subsequently death. Campbell tells two small stories about an initiation that aided the maturation of young boys, and another about a dance created that told of the psychological undercurrent of a society’s people.
The Buffalo Dance performed by the Blackfoot tribe took place after the killing of a buffalo, thanking it for giving its life so that they could survive as a people. “This dance was from people whose entire survival was based on killing to survive. Their food was only meat. Their clothes and tools were made from sinew from the beast, their homes wrapped in its hide. They found a way to reconcile their consciousness for the constancy of taking life to survive through this dance. The ideas of no death came about so that as long as you didn’t take the blood, let the blood return to the earth, the animal would live again to continuously supply these people with food.”
Another story is of these initiations that were based around the men in the tribe who would dress up in masks of gods and demons and ransack the children when they became a certain age. They would attack the young boys specifically, and their mothers would pretend to protect them at the beginning of the ritual, eventually letting them be roughed up by the masked men. When the boys subsequently chose to fight back on their own, the men, over time, would allow the boys to win and finally remove their masks. Here, the boys have seen behind the mask, seen that they have become the power behind the mask. They have taken the step into adulthood.
A key difference between mythology and religion is that these stories that help produce an individual who functions in a particular society, these do not have to be factual stories, they can be mere metaphors or philosophical narratives to get a point across. In religion, these stories are told as fact. An example Campbell uses is the Virgin Mary ascending into the heavens, as told in the Bible. Religion demands that this story be taken literally, as fact, making it imperative that you believe a human person sped off into the sky like a spaceship, even against all reason and knowledge. From a mythological standpoint, this story is likely describing a state of mind, or a teaching describing a personal consciousness shift of some sort that a society wanted its people to remember. Religious symbols are interpreted as fact; however, “In mythology, they are emphasized as a-ffect images, the emotional impact of the image is what matters. A mythological image, (a mandala for example) is an energy evoking and directing signal, then you think about the symbol later. When the symbols are proven to not be facts by scholarship, they fall apart.”
There are symbols passed down through time that resonate with our minds, some evoke meaning simply because they’re stories are so widespread, some connect with our minds for reasons unknown. Masonry can invoke awe. The mandala mentioned earlier can do the same. The symbols of the Buddha or the story of the cross, even if not taken literally, can cause certain effects to our minds. Jung would say that there are archetypal structures that we may never know that are collectively unconscious, and that these motifs and mythological images created by all cultures are all varied representations of these unknowable conflicts of energies deep in our minds, but that we should push forward to try and know ourselves more, seek to understand the driving forces that make up the fabric of the unconscious. Although admirable, these things become quite un-testable or falsifiable.
“Man can make-believe he is something. They imitated other animals thousands of years ago. We imitate the plants by burial, a motif of rebirth.” We can be doctors, mailpersons, and carpenters—all these different versions of humans. (Our imagination coming into action here.) “Shamans dressed as animals during rituals, reconciling the societies consciousness to the animals they have to eat and live with. Mythology is coeval with man. In the plant world, half of the myths from the equatorial (tropical) world talk of mankind coming from plants. Then we come to the further understanding of the cosmos, in ancient Sumer, priests suddenly realize that the planets are moving in a mathematical rate through the fixed stars, the first concept of a cosmic order and the notion that the universe must tell man how to live. Kings wearing the horns of the moon and the golden crowns of the sun. Queens wearing the garment of the planet Venus, imitating the planets. Whole courts buried alive in ceremonial attire injunction with the eon that ended, so the court that represented must end too. Moving on from non-literate plant and animal to the literate universe…
“Sooner or later the highest human concern was no longer for divinities, no longer were they abstract symbols of the divine. They were abstract symbols that represented the human psyche. This was the first shift from ‘any plea to supernatural intervention’ to man’s own interior. This brought into the center of our highest concern the old Indian and Buddhist material. In those worlds since about the 8th century BC, namely the Upanishads, they have said that all gods, all hells, demons or divinities, all are counterparts inside our interior consciousness. The illumination from without is no longer; they are from within. Who are the heavenly beings now? They are the personifications of those dynamic driving powers of the mind and body within us. Once was the grandiose religious symbols that shaped culture, these are giving way to a single, global, economic situation which has become terribly serious.”
The troubadours in Arthurian times were an example of a unique moment in history to Campbell. Breaking with the history of marriage being for only economic means, in these societies marriage came to represent the idea of love, love in the biological and spiritual sense. The sense of the Grail is, “out of nature comes the spirit, not something from institutions or hierarchies. The whole troubadour movement was a revolt against the sacramentalisation of marriage not based upon love.” In these times, there begins a movement against calling nature sinful, that someone liking what they see can further blossom into something more than that, that true love begins with the eyes seeing beauty, and if both hearts are humble and prepared then love can flourish. This again, gives power back to the individual, bringing the spiritual and human realm to One Order. “And we have this wonderful, wonderful legend of the great fool, Parzival. Bungling along, hurting people right and left ‘cause he’s so clumsy, no one is seriously hurt, refusing offered marriage of a young woman who is offered to him by his teacher, coming to his own bride who he found and saved for his own destiny, not simply wanting her for her kingdom. …And having fulfilled his life as a husband, a warrior, as a father—going forth to the spiritual life, which was a fulfillment of the physical life, not a substitute for it at all, and coming to the Grail.” He lived the life he struggled for, finding his bliss, only failing when trying to live the life he was told to.
Mythological symbols issue feelings of awe, but also validate particular social orders. Campbell uses an analogy describing the family-life mythology with an example of marsupials: Marsupials are not placental animals, so the newly born marsupial is born but has to crawl up to rest in its mothers’ pouch, attach itself to her nipple that swells in the infants mouth and secures the baby to it, and they grow from there on for a period of time. He calls this the second womb, “a womb with a view.” This is also an example of how mythology works as a second womb for the youth. A function of mythology and family aids in the child’s maturity, working as a womb with a view to mature your consciousness and relate it to its tasks in life. A child is born utterly dependent on its mother, all reflexes in tune to dependency, and as it grows the child is dependent on both parents entirely until about the age of twelve or fourteen, the ages around puberty, and from there on it’s necessary for them to shift into a more self-reliant, self-dependant mode of existence, this not even fully taking place physically until their twenties. This, over time, becomes an excruciatingly difficult process and indeed a life-altering experience to the individual.
For your consideration, having trouble with this from my own experience in the beginning, I’ll give a slightly altered reiteration that a mythology is a system and method for existing, branching into metaphorical stories specific to every individual culture, though currently shifted to the individual, formulas to carry the mind or minds of each society along its life. The rituals, ceremonies, stories, likes and dislikes, food, environmental weather, activities, and sciences are all ingredients specific to whatever cultures’ or individuals’ mythology they soon conjure up, aiding the individual to function definitively in their society for life, keeping in mind that even sixty years ago Campbell was acknowledging that the modern crisis was that these structures were breaking down due to globalization.
“Then comes the dreadful thing where once you learn how to function this way, society doesn’t want you anymore.”
We have to move forward so we can mature to a survival level when we’re young, and move on to a different level with old age. Old age, in the harshest sense, is where we don’t much have a place in society any longer, bringing on what many experience as the nervous breakdown.
“Mythology can find a place for you—such as ‘elders are wise’.” Or we can take our grand-parenting job more seriously. Or take on a new or multiple new hobbies.
“Then the final exit comes about. There is a joke about how once the circus was performing, and there were so many acts and things to see in the tent that no one was making their way out to leave, and someone had the bright idea to take down the exit sign, putting up another sign that read, To the Grand Egress (This Way to the Egress), and people not knowing that this meant exit, they all went there willingly. This is what religion does. And mythology can too.”
So, the people who have broken free from religion, broken free from their guided life course laid before them either willingly or it just never grabbed you to begin with, how do we learn how to die properly? How do we reconcile the consciousness to death without the ‘facts of afterlife?’ Campbell asks these questions—questions that are probably offensive or intrusive at times, but I’ve come to the conclusion that his intentions are respectable. He isn’t telling anyone how to live, in the end, his advice to the world before his death was to “follow your bliss,” find what fulfills you and live that life, and your own story will unfold. “Go into the forest and create your own trail, however, there are inevitabilities. You can still be somewhat prepared for travel.” The empowering of the individual, while recognizing that there are plenty of ideas that have been floating around for some time now that can help guide us along at times, and of course taking a sense of responsibility for your own destiny, is saying yes to life. A person leaving on a journey to find something, to quest out and find their own bliss, becoming an example if anything, and bringing back information to share, this is what Campbell comes to call the Hero’s Journey—a mythology found in cultures dead and alive all over the world. The Hero lives the life they fought for, living a positive life of fulfillment, looking inward to know more about the world and their mind, writing their own story, experiencing things that bring you closer to life.
A myth, although the narrative story may not have taken place in reality, still can carry a truth or truths in it, similar to your favorite fiction novel. Looking deeper into the similarities of cultural myths, asking questions as to why the stories of hero’s, tricksters, and life-altering quests have turned up in so many unique and similar instances throughout time, these questions lead us deeper into our own minds, giving us reference to stories of fulfilling lives we may unconsciously aspire for. The closer we look we see that myths and metaphors can mature us into adults, certain formulas seeming necessary for survival, but at some point we must face certain things we don’t quite understand.
Campbell on more than one occasion spreads Arthur Schopenhauer’s thoughts about compassion. “How is it that a person seeing another in danger, how can they forget the first law of protection—self-preservation—and choose to go beyond the call of duty and forget their own well being to save another? Schopenhauer defined this as an experience of truth. The primary experience is an experience that you and the other are One, and your empirical experience of separateness is merely secondary.”
This may very well be its own version of a myth, but inside it reveals a truth, I think, about how there have always been people trying to help us understand ourselves by merely trying to understand themselves, even centuries after their death.
Campbell is a worthy vehicle.