Joseph Campbell says humans, homo sapiens, have created myths since there were humans, about 250,000 years. We create myths out of our hopes and fears but also our necessity to carry on the species. What Campbell notes is how similar human myths are regardless of who creates them or when. Campbell (1904-1987), who was reared a Catholic, was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College where he concentrated on comparative myths and religions. He is best known to most of us as the guru to movie producer George Lucas during the Star Wars saga where the audience easily accepted the myths of good and evil because they resonated with every culture.
In 1972 a few years before his work on Star Wars, Campbell wrote his book Myths to Live By that I have recently enjoyed but struggled with; it sounds benign but is not for casual diversion. However, the ordeal of the mental expedition is worth the exertion.
One can take hints from Campbell’s long-time employer, Sarah Lawrence College that is a small liberal arts institution whose motto is “Wisdom with understanding” and whose mascot is the mythical gryphon. Campbell, the recognized authority on mythology, and Sarah Lawrence formed a long-standing symbiotic relationship. Campbell’s central thesis is that myths are both universal and essential to civilization. He posits we should investigate and understand our culture’s myths and we fail to do so at our peril. Campbell cautions that when we falsely believe our myths are facts, we lose the benefits of the myths and can transform them into detriments.
Campbell examines the myths of numerous societies and concludes:
“Now the peoples of all the great civilizations everywhere have been prone to interpret their own symbolic figures literally, and so to regard themselves as favored in a special way, in direct contact with the Absolute.”
Campbell analyzes several of the world’s religions and states while they may be able to view other religions sympathetically, each thinks of their own as superior and often regard the gods of other religions as no gods at all but as devils and those who worship them as “godless”. On the other hand, for centuries adherents in Mecca, Rome and Jerusalem as well as Peking and India see themselves as “the chosen ones” directly connected with the Kingdom of Light or of God.
Then Campbell puts things in modern, scientific and historical perspective:
“However, today such claims can no longer be taken seriously by anyone with even a kindergarten education.”
See p.10 of Myths to Live By.
Then Campbell does not dismiss myths or the religions based on them. Instead, he warns of the destabilizing forces in societies who do not understand their social orders are a product of their myths and that they lose contact with the morals engendered by their myths to the society’s detriment. As Campbell says:
“For since it has always been on myths that the moral orders of societies have been founded, the myths canonized as religion, and since the impact of science on myths results – apparently inevitably – in moral disequilibration, … (it is imperative that) we do not misrepresent and disqualify their necessity – …”
Well, Gentle Reader, I have already confessed the angst Campbell’s thoughts have caused me. The passing of Joseph Campbell reminds me of that marvelous description of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby:
“…[H]is mind would never again romp like the mind of God.”
Or, as Campbell might have said, “Any of the gods”.
As I struggle with Campbell’s encyclopedic knowledge of life and how myth is essential to it, I conclude as Campbell teaches, we need our myths and we need to recognize them as such.