joseph campbell.

sacred ash treeOne of my favorite classes in college was folklore. The professor was a little scary but brilliant; she made some members of the class cry, referred to the class as a “magic circle” (it would be broken if one of us were absent, despite having a reasonable excuse like a death in the family or illness), but she had an incredible breadth of knowledge about the oral tradition and imparted it to us. We read creation myths from all over the world, discussed Jung’s archetypes, and began to understand how the oral tradition had influenced literature from The Bible to Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. And it was through this class that I discovered the work of Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who studied myth’s relation to philosophy and religion and wrote about the heroic journey’s relevance to modern life. His insight into the work of Thomas Mann and James Joyce, two of my favorite writers, also appealed to me. I don’t agree with all of Campbell’s views (some argue that he was anti-Semitic, though I haven’t found this in my own readings and have little knowledge of his personal life), but I’ve found his work to be consistently provocative and insightful. I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Power Of Myth in its entirety, and here are a few interesting passages. I miss you members of the “magic circle” and hope this finds you well. xo-m

“This idea of the supernatural as being something over and above the natural is a killing idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned the world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing a thing they truly wanted to because the supernatural laws required them to live as directed by their clergy. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been put upon them as inescapable laws. This is a killer. The twelfth-century troubadour poetry of courtly love was a protest against this supernaturally justified violation of life’s joy in truth. So too the Tristan legend and at least one of the great versions of the legend of the Grail, that of Wolfram von Eschenbach. The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life; it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. There was something of this spirit in the medieval cult of the Virgin, out of which all the beautiful thirteenth-century French cathedrals arose.
However, our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself the manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.

I find this idea particularly interesting, that Satan was kicked out of heaven because he loved God too much to bow to man, not because of an inherently evil nature.
“… Yes, that’s the basic Muslim idea about Satan being God’s greatest lover. There are a number of ways of thinking about Satan, but this is based on the question, 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 would not bow to man because of his love for God- he could bow 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.”

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves. Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”


4 thoughts on “joseph campbell.

  1. Miss you too, M — I moved recently and had the chance to look through that hu-ginormous binder…classic. Love Campbell — read Myths of Light next!!

  2. i cannot watch LOTR or star wars or read any piece of literature without thinking about the things i learned from that class

  3. i pick a fight every time someone says, “that movie was a rip off of (insert disney movie here).” i have to respond, “do you even KNOW what came before that?! and don’t say the BIBLE.”

    and she definitely was scary but brilliant. i would’ve taken another class with her in a heartbeat.

  4. me too! She’s one of those professors whose class has really stuck with me, and I think about the class material a lot whenever I’m reading. so glad we took that class!

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