Thoughts on myth, spirit, and our times
An Interview With Joseph Campbell, by Tom Collins
One of the articles in The New Story (IC#12)
Originally published in Winter 1985/86 on page 52
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute
Joseph Campbell is perhaps the world’s foremost scholar of mythology. Among his many books are The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Masks Of God, Myths To Live By, and his current multi-volume Historical Atlas Of World Mythology. Interviewer Tom Collins is a Los Angeles based writer and editor whose works include Steven Spielberg, Creator of E.T. (Dillon Press, 1983).
Tom: What does myth do for us? Why is it so important?
Joseph: It puts you in touch with a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut. The ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing transcends all categories of knowledge and thought. Yet that which transcends all talk is the very essence of your own being, so you’re resting on it and you know it. The function of mythological symbols is to give you a sense of "Aha! Yes. I know what it is, it’s myself." This is what it’s all about, and then you feel a kind of centering, centering, centering all the time. And whatever you do can be discussed in relationship to this ground of truth. Though to talk about it as truth is a little bit deceptive because when we think of truth we think of something that can be conceptualized. It goes past that.
Tom: Heinrich Zimmer said "The best truths cannot be spoken. . . "
Joseph: "And the second best are misunderstood."
Tom: Then you added something to that.
Joseph: The third best is the usual conversation – science, history, sociology.
Tom: Why do people confuse these?
Joseph: Because the imagery that has to be used in order to tell what can’t be told, symbolic imagery, is then understood or interpreted not symbolically but factually, empirically. It’s a natural thing, but that’s the whole problem with Western religion. All of the symbols are interpreted as if they were historical references. They’re not. And if they are, then so what?
Tom: Let’s go carefully here. What are you calling a symbol?
Joseph: I’m calling a symbol a sign that points past itself to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder. What you’re learning in myth is about yourself as part of the being of the world. If it talks not about you, finally, but about something out there, then it’s short. There’s that wonderful phase I got from Karlfried Graf Durkheim, "transparency to the transcendent." If a deity blocks off transcendency, cuts you short of it by stopping at himself, he turns you into a worshipper and a devotee, and he hasn’t opened the mystery of your own being.
Tom: You once called that the pathology of theology.
Joseph: That’s what I would call it.
Tom: Walter Huston Clark says the church is like a vaccination against the real thing.
Joseph: Jung says religion is a defense against the experience of god. I say our religions are.
Tom: What do you do, then, if the experience is not to be found in religion?
Joseph: You find it in mysticism and get in touch with mystics who read these symbolic forms symbolically. Mystics are people who are not theologians; theologians are people who interpret the vocabulary of scripture as if it were referring to supernatural facts.
There are plenty of mystics in the Christian tradition, only we don’t hear much about them. But now and again you run into it. Meister Eckhart is such a person. Thomas Merton had it. Dante had it. Dionysus the Areopagyte had it. John of the Cross breaks through every now and again and then comes slopping back again. He flashes back and forth.
I think Joyce is full of it. And Thomas Mann had it in his writing, though it isn’t as far out as Joyce. It’s strange how after Mann’s death it disappears and you don’t get it any more.
Tom: To quote your own words again, "A myth is the dynamic of life. You may or may not know it, and the myth you may be respectfully worshipping on Sunday may not be the one that’s really working in your heart and the one that’s out there in the view of your religious instructors."
Joseph: Yes. I would say that’s a proper statement, and I would say it again.
Tom: How do you unite those two dynamics?
Joseph: By placing the emphasis on your own inward dynamic and then filtering out of the inheritance of traditions those aspects that support you in your own inward life. This means not being tied to this, that, or another tradition, but letting the general comparison . . . See, I’m very much for comparative studies of mythology. I think one of the problems today is that society has moved into a multicultural relationship that renders archaic these culture-bounded mythological systems – like the Christian, the Jewish, the Hindu.
By getting to know your own impulse system and its images and the things you really are living for, and then to get support for – you might say – universalizing and grounding this personal mythology, you can find support in the other mythologies of mankind.
Tom: What are the purposes of myth?
Joseph: There are four of them. One’s mystical. One’s cosmological: the whole universe as we now understand it becomes, as it were, a revelation of the mystery dimension. The third is sociological, taking care of the society that exists. But we don’t know what this society is, it’s changed so fast. Good God! In the past 40 years there have been such transformations in mores that it’s impossible to talk about them. Finally, there’s the pedagogical one of guiding an individual through the inevitables of a lifetime. But even that’s become impossible because we don’t know what the inevitables of a lifetime are any more. They change from moment to moment.
Formerly, there were only a limited number of careers open to a male, and for the female it was normal to be a mother or a nun or something like that. Now, the panorama of possibilities and possible lives and how they change from decade to decade has made it impossible to mythologize. The individual is just going in raw. It’s like open field running in football – there are no rules. You have to watch everything all the way down the line. All you can learn is what your own inward life is and try to stay loyal to that.
Tom: How do you learn that?
Joseph: I don’t know. Some people learn it early; some never learn it.
Tom: What kind of a mythology do we have today? What kind should we have?
Joseph: I won’t say what kind of mythology we have because I don’t think we have a generally functioning mythology. I would say that in terms of the sociological aspects of mythology, and perhaps this is a sentimental impossibility, we should see the total, global, society as the community of interest.
Tom: I thought myths were always tied to a specific group or place.
Joseph: That’s right. But when you can fly from New York to Tokyo in a day, you can no longer say that’s an incredible span of consciousness to include as one unit. The total globe is the society. And in fact, economically that is so.
Tom: I think it’s interesting that some people have started to combine ancient wisdom with modern insights – people like Jean Houston, Michael Harner, Joan Halifax, and Elizabeth Cogburn.
Joseph: If it makes sense, what it would seem to me to suggest is that a harmonization of our lives with the order of nature is what’s required.
Tom: Many of these people are also interested in the creation of rituals. What role does ritual play in mythology?
Joseph: A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And through the enactment it brings to mind the implications of the life act that you are engaged in. Now, people ask me, what rituals can we have today? My answer is, what are you doing? What is important in your life? What is important, they say, is having dinner with their friends. That is a ritual.
This is the sense of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. A cocktail party is a ritual. It is a religious function in that way, and those people are engaged in a human relationship thing. This is the Chinese idea, the Confucian idea, that human relationships are the way you experience the Tao. Realize what you’re doing when you’re giving a cocktail party. You are performing a social ritual. You are conducting it when you sit down to eat a meal, you are consuming a life.
When you’re eating something, this is something quite special to do. And you ought to have that thought when you eat a carrot as well as when you eat an animal, it seems to me. But you don’t know what you’re doing unless you think about it. That’s what a ritual does. It give you an occasion to realize what you’re doing so that you’re participating in the inevitable energy of life in its exchanges. That’s what rituals are for; you do things with intention, and not just in the animal way, ravenously, without knowing what you’re doing.
This is true also of sex. People who just engage in sex as a fun game, as something exciting like that, don’t realize what they’re doing. Then you don’t have the sacramentalization. And the whole reason marriage is a sacrament is that it lets you know what the hell is correct and what isn’t, and what’s going on here. A male and female coming together with the possibility of another life coming out of it – that’s a big act.
Tom: What does the term "transcendent" mean, in von Durckheim’s phrase, "transparent to the transcendent"?
Joseph: The simple meaning of the term is that which goes beyond all concepts and conceptualization, or that which lies beyond all conceptualization.
Tom: Where does this experience come from?
Joseph: Your life is your experience of transcendent energies because you don’t know where your life comes from, but you can experience them. We’re experiencing them right here, just by sitting on them and having them bubble up.
Tom: Are you using "transcendent" as another term for God?
Joseph: If you want to personify it. Brahman is the Sanskrit way of talking about it. Manitou is the Algonquin way, Orinda is the Iroquois, Owacan is the Sioux.
Joseph: Jahweh is personified. He is it.
Tom: We can’t speak the name, though, because he is beyond ….
Joseph: Well, it ought to be, but we know all about him, or he’s told us all about himself and how we ought to behave. The basic mythological concept is transcendent of personification. Personification is a concession to human consciousness so that you can talk about these things.
Tom: Do you mean that if the infinite reveals itself to you, your little mind responds by saying "God spoke to me" because it can only grasp what happened in its limited terms?
Joseph: That’s right.
Tom: I gather you’re not terribly fond of the Bible.
Joseph: Not at all! It’s the most over-advertised book in the world. It’s very pretentious to claim it to be the word of God, or accept it as such and perpetuate this tribal mythology, justifying all kinds of violence to people who are not members of the tribe.
The thing I see about the Bible that’s unfortunate is that it’s a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that’s presented in the Bible isn’t even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It’s pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can’t break loose and move into a modern theology.
One of the great promises of mythology is, with what social group do you identify? How about the planet? To say that the members of this particular social group are the elite of God’s world is a good way to keep that group together, but look at the consequences! I think that what might be called the sanctified chauvinism of the Bible is one of the curses of the planet today.
Tom: There’s a lot of interesting material in the Old Testament, isn’t there? For instance, it says that God created everything except the water.
Joseph: You’ve put your finger on it. The water I is the goddess. You see, what happens in the Old Testament is that the masculine principle remains personified and the female principle is reduced to an element. The first verse says when God created, the breath of God brooded over the waters. And the water is the goddess.
Tom: I assume you don’t believe in an actual, literal seven days of creation.
Joseph: Of course not. That has nothing to do with the actual evolutionary story as we now get it.
Tom: How do you reconcile these two accounts?
Joseph: Why should one bother to, any more than you would try to reconcile the Navajo story?
Tom: I remember hearing a wonderful lecture by the late Louis Leakey in which he insisted that there was no conflict between the Genesis account of creation and what he had discovered.
Joseph: Well, it is in conflict because he didn’t read it carefully enough. There are two Biblical accounts, one in the first chapter and one in the second, and they’re quite contrary to each other.
It’s about time we stopped feeling that we have to believe in the Bible. I’d just as soon try to work out the Navajo thing, where they come up through four worlds. One is red, one yellow . . .
Tom: But if you throw out the Bible as history, don’t you also throw it out as a moral imperative?
Joseph: Yes. I don’t think the Bible is anybody’s moral imperative, unless you want to be a traditional Jew. That’s what the Bible tells you.
Tom: Doesn’t it tell you how to be a good person?
Tom: Lots of people think so.
Joseph: Just read the thing. Maybe it gives you a few hints, but the Bible also tells you to kill everyone in Canaan, right down to the mice.
Tom: What was the passage you quoted to justify their exclusivity ideas?
Joseph: "There is no God in all the world but in Israel." That leaves everybody out except the Jews. This is one of the most chauvinistic views of morality.
One of the great texts is in Exodus, when the Jews are told to kill the lambs and put the blood on their doorsteps so the angel of death won’t kill any of their children, but will kill the first children of the Egyptians. And the night before they leave, they’re to invite their Egyptian friends to lend them their jewels and so on. Then the next night, they run off with the jewels, and the text says, so they fleeced the Egyptians. No, so they despoiled the Egyptians. You call this good ethics?
Tom: What’s the background of something like Cain and Abel?
Joseph: There’s a very amusing Sumerian dialogue that appeared about 1500 years earlier than the Cain and Abel story. It’s about a herder and an agriculturalist competing for the favor of the goddess. The goddess chooses to prefer the agriculturalist and his offering. Well, the Jews come into this area, and they’re not agriculturalists, they’re herders. And they don’t have a goddess, they have a god. So they turn the whole thing upside down, and make God favor the herder against the agriculturalist.
The interesting thing is that throughout the Old Testament, it’s the younger brother who overturns the older brother in God’s favor. It happens time and time again. This is simply a function of the fact that the Jews come in as younger brothers. They come in as barbaric Bedouins from the desert, into highly sophisticated agricultural areas, and they’re declaring that although the others are the elders – as Cain was, the founder of cities and all that – they are God’s favorite. It’s just another form of sanctified chauvinism. You understand the view of exclusive religion, don’t you – "You worship God in your way, I’ll worship God in his."
Tom: I gather there were a number of East-West conflicts in the early church. I find Pellagius a fascinating figure, for example.
Joseph: Pellagius in the fourth century was either a Welshman or an Irishman, I think. He upheld the individualistic Western tradition against what I would call the tribalism of the East, and was considered a heretic. He stated the main points against the doctrines of which St. Augustine, his contemporary, was the champion. One was the doctrine of original sin. Pellagius said, you cannot inherit another’s sin. Therefore, Adam’s sin is not inherited by anybody.
Tom: The sins of the father are not visited upon the son?
Joseph: That is all Eastern philosophy, not European. Another thing Pellagius said is that you cannot be saved by another’s act. That takes care of Jesus on the cross and knocks the whole thing out. Of course that was rejected. Pellagius was defending a doctrine of individual responsibility. I don’t know where it comes from, but certainly it was typical, I would say, of European as opposed to Eastern points of view. You were an individual, not merely the member of a group.
Tom: That sounds like the line in the King Arthur legend . . .
Joseph: "Each knight entered the forest at a point he had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no way or path." That’s from The Quest of the Sangral, 1215 or so in France.
Tom: How do they expect to find their way then?
Joseph: By questing.
Tom: And that’s what we all do in life?
Joseph: Yes. Otherwise, you’d follow someone else’s path, follow the well-tried ways. No one in the world was ever you before, with your particular gifts and abilities and possibilities. It’s a shame to waste those by doing what someone else has done.
Tom: You once said that no human society has been found where mythological motifs are not to be found and celebrated – "magnified in song and ecstatically experienced in light and power and vision." What about ours?
Joseph: What has happened in ours is that on the official level the accent is on economics and practical politics, and there has been a systematic elimination of the spiritual dimension. But it exists in our poets and our arts. It does. You can find it here. It’s in a recessive condition, but otherwise people wouldn’t have any spiritual life at all.
Tom: Isn’t it alive in some phases of the ecology movement as well?
Joseph: Yes. And this interest now in the American Indian lore, isn’t this interesting? The brutalized, rejected people – they’ve got the message that this country is waiting for.
There’s an awful saying of Spengler that I ran into in a book of his, Jahre der Entscheidung, Year of Decision, which is the years we live in now. He said, "As for America, it’s a congeries of dollar trappers, no past, no future." When I read that back in the 30s I took it badly. I thought it was an insult. But what is anybody interested in? And then Lenin says, "When we get ready to hang the capitalists, they’ll compete to sell us the rope." And that’s what we’re doing. Nobody’s thinking of what their culture represents. They’re wondering whether the farmer in the Midwest will vote for you because you sold their wheat to the Russians, or what not. It’s a terrible lack of anything but economic concerns that we’re facing. That is old age and death; that is the end. That’s as I see it. I have nothing but negative judgments in respect to that.
And look at what people are reading in the papers. You get into the subways and people are all reading the same thing – this murder, that murder. This rape, this divorce. What topics to be mentating on! This journalistic accent in our lives is murder. Murder.
Tom: You don’t see the struggle ending? There’s no kind of world order that could bring that about?
Joseph: It would have to be a world order, but then there would be struggle within it, just as there is struggle within our United States order. No revolution has ever taken me in. I’ve known too many revolutionaries.
Tom: If the only myths that exist then are the ones that everyone believes in – Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism – can’t people create a new one that would meet today’s needs?
Joseph: No, because myths don’t come into being like that. You have to wait for them to appear. But I don’t believe anything of that kind will happen because there are too many points of view floating around the world. All myths so far have been within bounded horizons, and people have to be in accord with their life dynamics, their life experiences.
Tom: The ancient Greeks were surrounded by the presence of gods and statues and reminders of gods.
Joseph: But that doesn’t work any more. Christianity isn’t moving people’s lives today. What’s moving people’s lives is the stock market and the baseball scores. What are people excited about? It’s a totally materialistic level that has taken over the world. There isn’t even an ideal that anybody’s fighting for.
(Additional comments from Tom Collins.)
My turn. I’d like to add my comments to those of Joseph Campbell with regard to the Bible. My intention in including his comments was not to disparage the traditions based on the Bible relative to other major traditions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism. From my point of view, the sacred literature of all these traditions is written in the language of the Empire Era, and is deeply entangled with warlord consciousness. If we are to move forward, we need to look at these texts with clear eyes, able to see tribal chauvinism, male chauvinism, militarism, etc., for what they are. Only then will we be able to translate the wisdom they do have into a fresh language appropriate to the Planetary Era.