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Book Review-The Power of Myth

It’s not exaggeration to say that Joseph Campbell is a legend when it comes to mythology.  The book, The Power of Myth, comes from a series of interviews that Campbell did with Bill Moyers while Campbell was in his eighties.  The legendary journalist that Bill Moyers is, he so carefully prepared for the conversation you could easily believe that Moyers had been a student of Campbell’s for years and that you were sitting in on a disciple being educated by a master after having been apart for a time.

The Teacher

Campbell had been a university professor for decades.  As the book opens, a vignette of his classroom exposes you to the copious reading assignments that his classes carried, until you discover that the reading assignments were for life – not for his classes.  His goal wasn’t for you to learn everything during his tutelage.  Instead, he left for you a path to guide continuous learning over a lifetime – something he deeply valued.

We’re then transported to Campbell’s graduation and the five years he couldn’t find work due to the Great Depression following the stock market crash.  You discover that he camped in Woodstock, NY in a place without running water, all the time reading, studying, and learning.  It’s impossible to describe the grace and ease with which Campbell navigated the myths of various cultures and was able to draw out both similarities and differences.  It’s no wonder, given that one of his earlier works was The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which I’ve still not managed to read yet).  In it, he does this comparison of both similarities and differences.

Put Out the Fire

The Experience of Being Alive

Unlike others who’ve focused their lenses towards finding the meaning of life, Campbell insisted that his goal was to expose and engage in the experience of being alive.  The shift is from an academic answer to an unknowable question to the practicality of how to live life abundantly given what we know today.  Seeing that science and religion weren’t at odds but rather twins that help us to understand life better, he was focused on experience – despite being a prolific and powerful academic.

Mythology, he explains, is “the song of the universe.”  It’s the echoes that happen in different cultures across the planet with no way to communicate with one another.  The patterns emerge of the reluctant hero, their mentor, the trials, and the setbacks, before the eventual return to society.  The hero brings with them an elixir that resolves some thing that had grabbed their society.  Their struggle – and sacrifice – wasn’t for glory but rather to serve others.

In the modern, and particularly Western, world, we’ve separated ourselves from our connection with others and with nature.  Robert Putnam explains the erosion of social capital in Bowling Alone, while Sherry Turkle beams in the message of connected and disconnected at the same time through Alone Together.  To be alive, we must be connected with nature and others – a fire that is flickering out in our rushed and disconnected world.


We land quickly in a place where all the world religions begin to harmonize around caring for others.  We see echoes of the work of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind as we learn to work together.  We skip past Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene through the competitions architected by Robert Axelrod designed to demonstrate The Evolution of Cooperation.  Ultimately, we arrive at the Give and Take of Adam Grant and ask the question, Does Altruism Exist?  Campbell’s answer is yes.  Through religions, myths, marriage, and rituals, we give ourselves up to the broader idea and let go of our selfish ego.  Francis Fukuyama explains in Trust how our societies relate differently to individuality and trust.  These are the same messages that Campbell offers.

He places the need to follow one’s bliss besides the need to connect with and submit to others – at least some others.  He explains how marriage, both in the arranged sense and the more modern, loving sense, is a commitment to one another more than the grip of amore.  He even dances around the idea that one can be in a marriage – committed relationship – and be in physical attraction to someone else but falls short of saying anything so scandalous as adultery or polyamory.  (See Anatomy of Love for more on polyamory and Daring to Trust on marriage or love as a commitment.)

The Meaning of Sin

Moyers would guide the conversation back to Christianity and the relationship of myths to Christianity knowing that this would interest his audience.  Campbell explains how Hell might be the place without God – that Hell may be defined by its lack of God.  He doesn’t discuss the fact that sin – from a biblical-linguistic perspective – is separation from God.  (See Growth Has No Boundaries.)  However, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that Hell is that eternal separation being based on the initial separation of sin.

Campbell can acknowledge that there are four inconsistent tellings of Jesus’ life and problems with the biblical stories – like where the wives for Adam’s sons originated from – and makes observations that Jesus is supposed to provide everlasting life – as would the fruit of the second forbidden tree in Eden.

Intending to be a Man

Campbell makes the point that rituals are more important for boys than girls.  In many cultures, when the girl has her first menses, she becomes a woman.  Boys, however, need something to mark the change.  He also makes the point, however, that even baby birds know when they can fly, and so, too, should boys who don’t have a ritual to move them forward.

Acquiescing to Death

Moyers put to Campbell a question about understanding death – to which he quickly responded that you don’t understand it, you acquiesce to it.  You accept it as a part of life.  It’s not something to be overcome but rather something that should be accepted.  Death is clearly a key thing that people need to understand.  The Worm at the Core and The Denial of Death both explain the power that death holds over us – even when we don’t realize it.

No More Out Groups

We’re supposed to have compassion and concern for those that are a part of our group.  When God says, “Thou Shall Not Kill,” he doesn’t mean those with the competing religion on the other side of some river.  He means your people – his people.  Campbell makes the point that there should be no other or “out” group on the planet any longer.  He reveres Buddhist monks, and in particular the Dalai Lama, for their ability to be compassionate to everyone – to remove anger from their hearts.  The Dalai Lama’s perspective is slightly different, having written that even anger can be non-afflictive.  (See Destructive Emotions, A Force for Good, and Emotional Awareness for more.)

Head and Heart

The other dimension woven throughout is the connection between logic and reason to emotions.  Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis speaks of the emotional elephant and the rational rider.  (Also see Switch.)  He explains that it’s emotions that are in control, and reason is just deluding itself.  Campbell has a similar sentiment speaking of the power of ritual and myth to engage us and to help us escape the mundane, material world that we live in.

However, in the end, Campbell makes the point that, in the ideal situation our reason and our emotions would have a relationship with one another – each listening to the other at times.  We sometimes lean into intuition and emotion and other times allow our runaway emotions to be soothed by the calm voice of rationality.

Since Campbell is no longer with us to lead us through understanding of myths, we’re left only with this story – one of his stories – to discover The Power of Myth.

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