The Power of Myth is the accompanying book to what originally aired as a series of television interviews between the journalist Bill Moyers and the mythologist Joseph Campbell. In witty, conversational tone- drawing from sources as diverse as Native American Indians, Christianity, Buddhism, Aborigines, African Bushmen, Ancient Greece, the Upanishads to Dante to Nietzsche and James Joyce (amongst many others)- the book charts the evolving nature of myth and its relevance for the world today.
The history of myth is the history of humanity, linking us to our common heritage, our ancestors and each other. Myths, Campbell posits, help us make sense of the world around us. They are as vital for us today as they were for early hunting societies. The conditions of life have changed, but the yearning for transcendence is woven into the human heart and myths are our way of mapping that transcendence.
Campbell postulates that the symbols and metaphors of religious language that once stood for a certain people at a certain time in history need not be rejected (in their literal isolation) by our latest epistemological knowledge, but transformed and renewed with meaning. They must speak to you, today, as they spoke to earlier generations (“Of what use, Gabriel, your message to Mary, unless you can now bring that same message to me!”). We are to understand the connotation, not the denotation; this, Campbell states, in what was once the role of the shaman or the priest, is the task of writers and poets and artists of today.
An appropriate understanding of myth bridges the current ontological abyss that in popular parlance stands between science and mythology. It is almost de rigueur among educated people to believe that science and mythology are incompatible, as incongruous an alloy as fire and water. Campbell reminds us that, correctly understood, there is no conflict. As was known in the pre-modern world, both Logos and Mythos were understood to be complementary modes of thought- each had its specific competence.
Myths chime to inwardly flowing winds. They are embodied and implicit. They exist like derelict temples, awaiting renewal to their former glory through the rich layering and composite understanding of metaphor. Something primordial stirs within when we hear a mythological tale, a quiescent, fossilised knowledge that we recognise (‘re-cognise’) to be profoundly ‘true’, ‘truths’ our minds have forgotten but our bodies remember.
The word ‘myth’ is muddied with misuse. This misunderstanding has lead to a degradation of its value and teeters on the brink of a total forgetting, and thus a wholehearted rejection-nothing less than a fiction, a lie. The belief that rational, ‘scientific’ enquiry alone yields the only knowledge worth regarding, or that myth is nothing more than fanciful yearning, is equivalent to believing that intonation is not an important part of speech, or that fire is nothing more than the oxidation of combustable gasses, or the allegory of Plato’s cave- simply a report of Ancient Greek real estate.
With his prodigious erudition, Campbell argues that myth delivers us to an implicit understanding that rationality alone cannot reach- as the deftly contorted bird dives to greater depths than the lumpen winged- and puts us in the correct spiritual or psychological posture for right action as we pass through the inevitable stages of life.
In early Biblical exegesis it would have been unheard of to read the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of the universe. Analogical thinking was the known way of comprehending scripture (it wasn’t necessarily a consciously deliberate way of reading, rather the known and natural way of approaching such language). But since the scientific revolution and the mechanical philosophies of the 17th century we’ve read these same texts with the empirical precision we’d bring to bear on something as factual and utilitarian as an instruction manual for a dish washer. It’s worth noting that the Greek root of analogy (analogous) means “proportionate.” We have lost that sense of proportion.
There are profound dimensions of experience – wonder, awe, enchantment, sublimity, love, sorrow, grief, faith (a handful of grain from an infinite harvest) – dimensions that exist at levels of such complexity, and that are so prodigious in hermeneutical nuance, and that require from us such manifold means of reflection, that to reduce them to purely rational terms would be to our colossal impoverishment: we do not read poetry as though it were an inferior form of prose.
To be privy to this magnificent series of conversations is to be sitting around a fire pit listening in rapt attention to the first storytellers intoning ‘mankind’s one great story’, the ‘songs of the universe’; to listen to Campbell is to hear the thunderous clatter of the shaman’s dancing feet as he moves between worlds, summoning the rains to fall on the parched earth of our deconsecrated times.