Joseph Campbell: MYTHS TO LIVE BY

img_1658This book was first published in 1972 (copyright 1972 also). I’m still amazed that I must say 40 years ago or more when I talk of the 70’s!  When I think about the material and topics covered by Joseph Campbell — in general and in this book specifically — I often wonder what happened?  Here we have a professor who speaks not just of comparative mythology for the sake of comparing and contrasting, but rather synthesizes it in order to demonstrate that all myths have a basic character — this, of course, includes religion. He shows how many societies all over the world created virgin births for their deities, and how the landscape that created an agricultural, hunting, etc…, society brought forth different mythologies that would serve to create a reciprocal relationship between people and their particular environment. Joseph Campbell shatters all our fragile — infantile — notions of God, and the superiority of the Catholic religion.

If, however, you can open to understand the world and spirituality beyond how an eleven year old might look at it all, you will welcome the sound of broken glass. As Joseph Campbell states — often if you watch any of the Bill Moyers interviews (Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth), — it is all about metaphor. Once you go and literalize everything you have gone and painted yourself into a corner. And so it turns out that reading Joseph Campbell can bring you back to your center — not to another time that was better than ours where all people were obedient to a myth they did not quite understand. Campbell is always careful to point out that we must create our own myths to live by and not simply go back and use a myth that is no longer relevant.

The amazing part is that myth is revealing.  It reveals the work of the psyche:

“For it is simply a fact — as I believe we have all now got to concede — that mythologies and their deities are productions and projections of the psyche. What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man’s imagination?” (253)

The fact that myth is produced from our own psychic structure, does not mean, however, that we may start making things up in order to unleash our desires on the world. We cannot quit being responsible, declare religion to be made up, and go out and rob from our neighbors. Saying that myth comes from the psyche is not exactly saying that it is all made up; it is rather, stating that the psyche is universal — no one would argue with that — and that it is pointing to something — arguments on the point of pointing to something go on all the time. Is it pointing back to ourselves in a narcissistic and feeble expression of our desire to be God? I do not believe so, and certainly, Campbell did not believe his studies of comparative mythologies led to the narcissist within us.

Campbell defines mythologies as “poetic expressions,” of “transcendental seeing” (31).  I have a cousin who wrote to me saying he was trying to understand spirituality through poetry. Exactly. The poets, the mystics, the saints, etc…. They see something beyond the literal. Is it just a fanciful expression of their imagination? Is the brain set up to make us all feel better about death? Given how we constantly run from our human condition as if we were going to escape it, I would say no.

When I read Mary Oliver (From her poem, For Example):

“So, even if the effort may come to nothing,                                                                                             you have to do something”

or Naomi Shibab Nye (From her poem, Kindness):

“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,                                                                you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”

I read expressions of my own experience of being in this world. It is a spiritual insight that is already there, but unvoiced until the poet somehow puts it into language.

The casting off, as it were, of old myths, does not mean we go to war with the world. In fact, it means the opposite. The old myths, particularly those of the three dominant religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, can only result in blind obedience and war (something we still see today), when belief rests on a literal reading of words. A literal reading, I believe, is in fact an abuse of language because it takes a word and uses it wrongly. Words are approximations.

Joseph Campbell treats Eastern and Western Perennial Philosophy as mythologies: The Buddha and Christ stories are structured similarly. This revelation should not make any one say, I told you so it’s all the same. The very fact that it is the same is something that ought to astound us. We are the same. Our basic structure is the same. My God, I am the same as my neighbor — my neighbor being all those who currently live anywhere. Why now, is that bad? Some might conclude that we have created God, but what I think we have done is we have found God to be present within ourselves. With God truly present within us, it is hard to turn away from life as it is and wait for someone to fix it. As Campbell writes:

“On our planet itself all dividing horizons have been shattered. We can no longer hold our loves at home and project our aggressions elsewhere; for on this spaceship Earth there is no ‘elsewhere’ any more. And no mythology that continues to speak or to teach of ‘elsewheres’ and ‘outsiders’ meets the requirement of this hour” (266).

Amazing! Still today we face those who love the false horizons. We are baffled by those who do not understand how we are all in relationship with one another, and who maintain their myth is not a myth, but real, as in literally so. As a result, many cling to their God as being someone/thing out there who will save a few people — at some point. If we could see that we are all the same, with the same structure, and imagination, perhaps then we would not want to build walls or kill ourselves. But, economics and politics are not vehicles for transcendence, as Campbell points out:

“The most exalting fascination that has ever, up to now, inspired human thought and life, however, was that which seized the priestly watches of the night skies of Mesopotamia about 3500 B.C.: the perception of a cosmic order, mathematically definable, with which the structure of society should be brought to accord. For it was then that the hieratically ordered city-state came into being, which stands at the source, and for millenniums stood as the model, of all higher, literate civilization whatsoever. Not economics, in other words, but celestial mathematics were what inspired religious forms, the arts, literatures, sciences, moral and social orders which in that period elevated mankind to the tasks of civilized life — again fooling us out of our limits, to achievements infinitely beyond any aims that mere economics, or even politics, could ever have inspired” (243).

It seems to me that today, we risk losing ourselves in economics and politics. And, the risk is no longer that we believe money can buy happiness; now it seems the greater risk is believing that money can buy better air quality and potable water — essentially, that money can buy us more time and a safe place to continue living while the Earth miraculously heals itself. As if the Earth and our living are separate things!



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