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According to Campbell, a mythology serves four primary functions. Though not the only functions a mythology can perform, these four are essential to any active, living mythology. From their first appearance fully formulated in print, in 1964’s Occidental Mythology, in lecture after lecture and book after book these four functions provide a framework for understanding Joseph Campbell’s mythological perspective: 

  • The mystical (or metaphysical) function inspires in the individual a sense of awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe.

  • The cosmological function presents an image of the universe that links local knowledge and individual experience to that mystery dimension.


  • The sociological function validates, supports, and imprints on the individual the norms of that society.

  • The psychological (or pedagogical) function serves to guide each individual through the stages of life, within the context of that culture.

“These are the functions of the mythology, and, if they are successful, you get a sense of everything—yourself, your society, the universe, and the mystery beyond—as one great unit.” (Pathways to Bliss 55)


Not every myth will address all four functions––but Campbell emphasizes any mythology as a whole that fails to do so has lost its vitality.



“There are four basic functions of a traditional mythology of this sort. The first must be to open the mind of everybody in the society to that mystery dimension that cannot be analyzed, cannot be talked about but can only be experienced as out there and in here at once.” (Myths of Light 5)


Campbell calls this “the most distinctive” of the functions, associating it with religious scholar Rudolf Otto’s identification of the numinous as the profound emotional experience at the heart of all religion. A proper mythology renders an experience of awe before the mystery of being, which is the mystery of one’s own being as well. Without that, there is no mythology.

However, this is not head knowledge that can be taught. Talking about it won’t produce this reaction; rather, it is the images and symbols of a living myth that elicit and evoke this experience. Campbell explains such symbols can’t be invented, but are “found” by seers (the poets and creative artists of their time) who have had the experience themselves.



One of the functions of mythology is to present an image of the cosmos in such a way that it becomes the carrier of this mystical realization, so that wherever you look it’s as though you are looking at an icon, a holy picture, and the walls of space and time open out into the deep dimension of mystery, which is a dimension within ourselves, as well as out there. (Goddesses 107)


This metaphorical image of the universe will not be the same everywhere or every when. In the horizon-bound societies where a mythology grows up, everyone is immersed in the same social and visual reality; the cosmology then has to correspond to the actual experience, knowledge, and mentality of members of that culture.

Hence the worldview of an early hunter-gatherer differs dramatically from the mythologies of planting peoples, and both subsequently yield before the cosmic order that emerged in ancient Sumer c. 3500 BC, where priestly observers first charted the mathematically determined movement of planets and stars through the heavens.

Joseph Campbell emphasizes that, in a living mythology, the factual world that supplies the images of myth is the factual world here present. Myth cannot be exported into another land or another time––and yet, our scriptures are from a distant period and place. Therefore, in studying those scriptures, we are continually thinking about the sources of the images over there and have, in the process, misplaced the message. An active mythology transmutes the world in which we live into a sacred icon. This world becomes transparent to transcendence, and with that so do we.

A vital, living mythology also presents an image of the universe in keeping with the science of the day. Campbell has often observed there is no conflict between science and mythology, but there IS a conflict between the science of 2000 BC and that of 2000 AD. Scientific revolutions in geology, biology, astronomy, and quantum physics have blown up the three-layered image of the cosmos presented in the Bible (“heaven above, earth below, and the waters beneath the earth”), though that archaic worldview remains a tenet of Judeo-Christian-Islamic theologies..


This disconnect between dogma and the existing universe––from the billions of galaxies in outer space viewed through the James Webb space telescope, to the myriad muons, mesons, pions, gluons, and countless other particles flashing into and out of existence billions of times a second at the quantum level––reflects the petrification of modern society’s mythological traditions.


Through this third function, mythology reinforces the moral order by shaping the person to the demands of a specific geographically and historically conditioned social group. (Thou Art That 5)


Here is where we see the greatest variation from place to place and group to group. One mythology may support a matrifocal society, while another enforces patriarchy; there can be a whole mythology for polygamy, another for monogamy. All are appropriate, within the context of that particular society: what is proper to a nomadic hunting tribe may be improper to an agricultural society, and vice versa. 

In primal cultures this function is met in elaborate coming of age rituals, where, over the course of several days, initiates undergo difficult and painful ordeals. These can take the form of scarification, tattooing, circumcision, subincision and such, serving as a marker that joins the physical body to the larger, more enduring cultural body of which the individual member is but an organ; at the same time, one’s mind and feelings are imprinted with a correlated mythology which conveys that culture’s heritage, along with the dos and don’ts of that society.

The rigid social castes and the practice of suttee in India, or the Ten Commandments and the moral order they enforce as revealed by Yahweh to Moses atop Mt. Sinai in the Judeo-Christian tradition, are prime examples of this function. The social order in traditional cultures is regarded as fixed and divinely ordained, impermeable to change.

Today, cultures previously separated by distance and geography are in collision; there are no more bounded horizons within which a specific moral order holds sway. Laws are legislated, rather than divinely given; the social order and needs of society are changing so fast that what was a virtue yesterday may be a vice today, and vice versa. 


As a result, Campbell makes the observation that the sociological function of mythology is, for the moment, moot.

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Then the fourth function of mythology—and this is the one where you suddenly feel the lack of myth today—is the pedagogical, the guiding of individuals in a harmonious way through the inevitable crises of a lifetime. That’s the main one. (The Hero’s Journey 195) 


Campbell finds this the most constant of the four functions across cultures. Every human, regardless of one’s race, culture, creed, class, or era, follows the same life trajectory. Each of us is born of woman, experiences growth, childhood, adolescence, marriage (even remaining single or celibate, one still has to come to terms with that dynamic), aging, and death.

Every culture has had rites of passage and associated myths that help guide individuals through these inevitables, with those stages experienced in terms of that particular society, of the cosmos as understood by that social group, and of “the monstrous mystery of being.”

Alas, no shared mythology supplies such culture-wide guidance and support today, though traces linger (e.g., the bar mitzvah in Jewish tradition, or the confirmation ceremony in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox communions).



When a tradition, such as ours, is failing to get its message across — when its mythology is no longer fully functional — terrible things can begin to happen. The mythic structure of the society no longer supports the psychological development of the individual. (Myths of Light 68)


Joseph Campbell was often asked whether a new myth is coming, but he wasn’t terribly optimistic in the short term. Recall his definition of mythology as “an organization of symbolic images and narratives metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and fulfillment in a given society at a given time.” A functioning, living mythology is grounded in a set of shared experiences by those within a bounded horizon.

Given the permeable membranes between cultures today, there are no more rigid boundaries. A market collapse in New York is immediately felt in London, Tokyo, Peking, and Rome, and the Internet reaches everywhere, as does Hollywood. There is only one vast geographical setting left able to serve as the womb of a new mythology: Earth itself.

But we’re not there yet, if we ever will be. 


In the meantime, Campbell acknowledges that the second and third functions are currently the domain of science and law, rather than mythology. However, the first and fourth functions remain relevant to our lives today; even in the absence of an active, culture-wide mythology, the individual is able to find sustenance and support in myth:

These practical and scientific and sociological processes are riding along, evolving on their own, whether you like it or not. The basic psychological problems of youth, maturity, age, and death—and the mystical problem of the universe—these, however, remain essentially unchanged. Consequently, it is largely from the psychological standpoint that one can reinterpret, reexperience, and reuse the great mythical traditions that science and the conditions of modern life have rendered useless, uncoupled as they are from their cosmological and sociological reference points. (Pathways to Bliss 25)


The first function Campbell sees as the calling of artists the poets and painters, musicians, writers, dancers, filmmakers, and others whom he identifies as the seers and shamans of our day. Creative individuals who convey an experience of transcendence and awe through their art.


You’ve got to live on myths of the olden days! The elementary ideas are constant, they remain, they remain, they remain. The problem is the inflection. How are the myths represented? And the function of the artist is to present these eternal mysteries in terms of a contemporary context of life. (The Hero’s Journey, 246)


And how does one engage the fourth function of mythology today? 


The relationship of myths to cosmology and sociology has got to wait for man to become used to the new world that he is in. The world is different today from what it was fifty years ago. But the inward life of man is exactly the same. So if you put aside for a while the myth of the origin of the world—scientists will tell you what that is, anyway—and go back to the myth of what is the human quest, what are its stages of realization, what are the trials of the transition from childhood to maturity and what does maturity mean, the story is there, as it is in all the religions. (Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, 139)


You can learn more about that quest in Pathways to Bliss and Joseph Campbell’s classic opus, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

For more on the four functions of mythology, check out the links to the Campbell works referenced in the text above.

About Stephen Gerringer

Stephen Gerringer is the editor of Myth and Meaning by Joseph Campbell, and the author of Myth and Modern Living: A Joseph Campbell Compendium. He currently serves as Community Coordinator for the Joseph Campbell Foundation.

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