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Journey Through Myth

Fresco around the niches of the Columbarium depicting scenes from everyday life. C. 50 AD. London, British Museum. Creative Commons.

The journey into the mythic imagination which opens the abyss of the collective unconscious is not some fixed track devoid of reason. It is not a dead end for the creative intellect; it provides stores of food for speculative thinking and metaphysical imagination. The way in which Campbell constantly engages in the philosophical dimension of myth is a testimony to the way the logos of mytho-logy is obviously not an externality to myth, let alone an enemy of the “poetic.” Reason belongs to myth’s inner ring, expressing as it does the fundamental archetypal role Mind plays in the mythopoetic imagination. 

In this regard, Campbell uses the philosophies of India to make a personal confession. When he learned that “the great division between the religious and social patterns of India and West derives from the period of a.d. 1400‒1550” (Asian Journals 165-166), Campbell reflected on his own spiritual journey for 

[…] that is the period in Europe of the Italian Renaissance, with its breakthrough into psychological adulthood from the religious formulae of the Middle Ages, India at that time, overwhelmed by Islam, stressed the folk-religion of bhakti. This was the period of Rāmānanda, Kabīr, Nānak—the founders of modern Hinduism: anti-Sanskrit, anti-brahmin, in a sense. There was a stress on the childlike attitude of refuge in a personal God (kitten-monkey differentiation; yet both remain childlike). Contrast to this the attitude of the vīra [“hero”], rendered in the medieval temples. The stress now is on the Mother and Father images, as found in the approach to Catholicism in its paśu [“herd animal”] formulae. Whereas in the period of the dynasties India’s religion was heroic and that of Europe largely childlike, after A.D. 1400 ‒1550 the contrast was reversed. / This explains to me why all the patterns of Indian life and religion now seem to me to be precisely what I left behind when I broke with the Church, whereas the philosophies of India suggested a bold adulthood even surpassing that of the European-American ideal.(Asian Journals 166)

Campbell underlines a fundamental contrast or order of development between philosophy and institutional religion; a contrast, one could say, between the grown-up culture of the logos and the innocence of the “beautiful soul” in pure mythos. Campbell understands very well that as long as we are in myth, looking up to metaphysical parents, we remain spiritually infantile. Despite the freudening facts of adult life, we remain in the womb of myth forever young. The point of true myth, on the contrary, is to be born out of this sac of inherited ideology. To become a true self we must step into a spiritual adulthood, in the clearing of reason, that has put childish things behind. No longer a spiritual toy or aesthetic play thing, myth becomes instead an existential vehicle of truth—not only the “Truth” of a personal life but the truth of the life which is common to all. As Heraclitus put it with respect to the universality of the logos: “Therefore it is necessary to follow the common; but although the logos is common the many live as though they had a private understanding.” (The Presocratic Philosophers. Ed. Kirk and Raven, 188 fr. 198). This “private understanding” is what we call ideology, the thing that keeps us from growing up in the spirit of truth. For ideology is, by definition, a generator of a false consciousness.

Elsewhere, Campbell is quite explicit about the need to transcend mythic ideology in a movement of true spiritual growth and transformation:

In India, the objective is to be born from the womb of myth, not to remain in it, and the one who has attained to this “second birth” is truly the “twice born,” freed from the pedagogical devices of society, the lures and threats of myth, the local mores, the usual hopes of benefits and rewards.(The Flight of the Wild Gander 38)

Stillborn in the imaginal womb of myth, we remain “pagan,” so to speak, while caught in the spiritual childhood of the herd animal who still needs to “believe.” The fully rebirthed adulthood of the twice-born no longer needs myth as an object of belief; we see through its imaginal garbs and are no longer affected by its “lures and threats,” as Campbell put it. Growing up in the reflective mirror of philosophy we become reborn in the light of reason as the mytho-historic consciousness of the truth. 

Famously, it was Aristotle long ago who pointed to the basic link between philosophy and myth in a mutual state of wonder at being itself:

For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize […] whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom [or a philosopher], for the myth is composed of wonders.(Aristotle, Metaphysics; The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon, p. 692)

Elevated on the seat of philosophic wonder, the full concept of mytho-logy gives form and expression to an intertwining movement of thinking-being, a transcending motion of the conscious spirit that binds logos and mythos into a single chain of being. Far from a desperate retreat of one into the other, it is the mysterious conjunction of both that enthralls us, blowing our minds and lifting our hearts to the life of the infinite! 

Primordial Images are indeed brilliant ciphers that speak in their own chords—provided our ears have been attuned to hear their silent tones—with the willingness to decipher their visual music in so many words. 

To the psychoanalytic ear, the so-called “irrational” factors that appear in myth and manifest dream have long been demonstrated to have “latent” reasons of their own—reasons that are not without Reason in the capital metaphysical sense of the word. In a way, that is the whole point of psychoanalysis: to discover a hidden working order—or logos—in the chaos of the psyche. Its “crazy” psycho Logic.

Rather than reducing human reason to some kind of ridiculous narrow-mindedness as if it were some ideological fantasy among others, depth mythologists like Campbell help us recognize the greater archetypal logos of the psyche in the inner workings of myth and dream. Reason is indeed a sign of the divine spark of the human soul in the unfathomable history of the cosmos, not some oppressive mechanizing procedure or rationalistic creed. In the order of true myth (vera narratio), Reason assumes its proper “equiprimordial” role and archetypal status; it becomes, like the Heraclitean fire of becoming, constitutive of the universal order of the world, the fiery spark of a cosmic consciousness of being and time:

This world-order [cosmos] (the same of all) did none of gods or men make, but it always was and shall be: an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.(The Presocratic Philosophers. Ed. Kirk and Raven, 199 fr. 220)

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