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Why Myth?

Updated: May 17

View of Earth taken by astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. during his Mercury Atlas 6 (MA-6) spaceflight. Photo credit: NASA

BILL MOYERS TO JOSEPH CAMPBELL: “Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?” 

CAMPBELL TO MOYERS: “My first response would be, ‘Go on, live your life, it’s a good life. You don’t need mythology.’ I don’t believe in being interested in a subject just because it’s said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, mythology will catch you. And so, what can it do for you if it does catch you?”  

When I heard Joseph Campbell say these words in Part II of PBS’ The Power of Myth, I knew exactly what he was talking about, and I’m guessing that many of our readers do, too. Everyone I have met on the myth journey has come to it by a different path,  and has been “caught” by it in a different way. Some had heard the siren call of Skywalker Ranch where Campbell attained Delphic status as a master interpreter of the world’s one great story, the Hero’s Adventure. For them, Campbell studies had a single purpose: to unlock the secret of big budget action adventure moving pictures. For anyone with a screenplay in their Prius the answer to “why myth” is self-evident. 

Others, just as devoted to Campbell, took the “hero’s journey” as the key to individuation; these were mysteries of the spirit, not of the story conference.

Or mythology may “catch you” as a lover of classic literature; it may alert you to a new level of spirituality missing in your relationship; bring you to an understanding of what is transient and what is eternal; or leave you on a street corner without any socks, a card-carrying mystic. Or, as in my case, myth may “catch you” in its most kinetic form, myth as ritual. 

It was ritual that “caught me.”

Like Campbell, I came to myth through the theological complexity of Roman Catholicism. He explains the process better than I can:

“I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. Now, one of the great advantages of being brought up a Roman Catholic is that you’re taught to take myth seriously and to let it operate on your life and to live in terms of these mythic motifs. I was brought up in terms of the seasonal relationships to the cycle of Christ’s coming into the world, teaching in the world, dying, resurrecting, and returning to heaven. The ceremonies all through the year keep you in mind of the eternal core of all that changes in time (The Power of Myth, 12). 

Which partially explains my most outrageous breach of social norms back in Broomall, Pennsylvania, circa 1962. On a day when John Glenn was circling the planet 160 miles overhead, I, too, was making a little orbit in the cul de sac named, synchronistically enough, Glen Circle, circumambulating the neighborhood in a religious procession of my own devising.

Why? There is no why. I was “caught,” and here’s how it happened. 

My parents had transferred me to Catholic school. I never saw it coming. One day, I was a reasonably popular kid in a public kindergarten swapping my slinky for a Davy Crocket cap and the next thing I knew it was all holy water and rosaries.

I still managed to meet with my old friends, usually after school in the late afternoons before the lightning bugs came out, before moms called us home. That’s when we compared notes and I learned that my Protestant pals were being subjected to a relentless form of civic paganism in a place without crucifixes on the wall in classrooms where teachers made no reference to God or gods, saints or apostles. No sin. No heaven. No prayers.  It sounded both awful and attractive at the same time. 

But after a few years, I learned to appreciate the cultural richness in my tradition and I wanted to share it the way I had always shared with my friends, only this time it would not be a Mickey Mantle baseball card still smelling of the bubble gum it originally came with. This time, I would be sharing a ritual practice apparently unknown to these deprived Protestants.  I would demonstrate the principles of putting on a procession.

The elements of a good Catholic procession are few. Most important is finding two kids bored enough to want be candleholders. There should be two, for symmetry and to help focus the attention on Mary who would be represented by a statue borrowed from the mantle of our fireplace. I would carry Mary.  

Catholics sing when processing. Not well, mind you. But apparently that’s not the point.  We sing songs relevant to the ritual act itself, the readings of the day, or in response to special parish events. I could only think of one song that the girls (one my sister, the other her friend Ellen) and I might know in common: “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes…” 

Except for my choice of hymnody, there was nothing remarkable about our little trinity solemnly marching along the sidewalks of Broomall but rituals are not supposed to be remarkable. As Campbell points out, “Rituals themselves are actually very boring. They go on and on, beyond your secular tolerance” (The Power of Myth, 29).

In a bad way, that’s what happened. Ellen’s Dad had apparently been taken “beyond secular tolerance,” when he saw his only daughter participating in objectionable papist rites. He rushed from his little brick house and grabbed Ellen rudely by the arm. Her candle self-extinguished on the median strip where it fell. My sister just stared in wonder. I blew out her candle.

“You are never to play with those children again!” I heard the outraged father shout. 

I was as mystified as my sister, and I can thank my mother and Joseph Campbell for explaining it all to me.

MOM: You see, Johnny… Some folks don’t believe it proper to pay respects to statues. 

JOSEPH CAMPBELL (sixty years afterward and not in person) “… in India it is believed that, in response to the consecrating formulae, deities will descend graciously to infuse their divine substance into the temple images” (The Masks of God, Vol. 1:Primitive  Mythology, 44). 

Exactly! Somewhere in my teeming nine-year-old brain, I expected the “real” Mary to somehow inhabit the statue since I had gone to so much trouble to do it homage. That is a true ritualist in the making.

There was another cosmological issue at play that February of 1962. Mary herself was the issue. And, again, Mom and Joe explained it to me. Mom claimed that some people don’t feel comfortable paying too much attention to Mary. In fact, Catholics are sometimes accused of worshiping the Virgin as if she were some kind of goddess.

Joseph Campbell’s far more disturbing view suggests that Mary is indeed a pagan derivative, an iteration of the original goddess, the Goddess of Many Names. She is Annapurna, from the Indian subcontinent; the Egyptian Isis; the Babylonian Ishtar, and the Sumerian Inanna, all “archaic prefigurements” of the BVM, the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

Why myth? Because it raises me high above the doctrinal fray and elevates me to a perspective where the transcultural oneness of humankind is as obvious as if I were looking down from a Mercury spacecraft 160 miles above Broomhall, Pennsylvania in 1962.

Collage of the moon, a pegasus and red and white flowers, on a red background with The Message of the Myth Episode 2 next to it.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 2, and Myth and Meaning.


Latest Podcast

In this bonus episode of Pathways, Joseph Campbell answers questions from his lecture on the symbolism of Christianity, Buddhism, European Paganism, and the Arthurian Romances.


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell
"Going back at least nine thousand years to the early agriculture of the Near East and Old Europe, we have a tradition of the power of the Goddess and of her child who dies and is resurrected - namely it is we who come from her, go back to her, and rest well in her. This tradition was carried through the cults of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and down into the Classical world, before finally delivering the message into Christian teaching."


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