Source of book: I own this.
This book was a gift from my brother, who has a knack for finding unusual and nerdy books on fascinating topics. Okay, at least topics that we find fascinating. For previous examples, see Trafalgar, Impossible Journeys, On the Map, and Just My Type.
This book is certainly no exception. The basic premise is that the world’s great myths are all variations on a theme, and are rooted in the human psychology. Furthermore, the function of the myth is to aid human psychological development (particularly the transition from child to adult), and assist humans in finding their place in society and in the world as a whole. To this end, Joseph Campbell draws in the stories from literally dozens of cultures worldwide, as well as ideas from Freud and Jung. The scope is pretty staggering, and the sources are well footnoted, so it is reasonably easy to find the original stories for more complete accounts.
The basic elements of the “monomyth” are as follows: the departure of the hero, the initiation into the mystery (and the accompanying trials), the return, and the keys to life that the hero brings with him. Or, as Campbell himself summarizes it:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
After going through these elements in detail, the author turns to what he calls the Cosmogonic Cycle, which is the background story, if you will, of the world the hero inhabits. These account for the birth of the universe (which also parallels the accounts of virgin birth, whether of the hero or the gods, that also permeate mythology), the transformation and roles of the hero, and the end of the world.
Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind,
by Heinrich Friedrich Fuger, c. 1817
I won’t even pretend to give a more detailed summary. This book is nearly 400 pages, densely packed with information and examples. It is well worth the time to read in full.. While it isn’t a course in comparative religion exactly, by definition a lot of the beliefs of various religions are discussed, as the line between religion and mythology is often very fine indeed.
One thing of note in this regard: the book was written in 1949, with a specific Western audience in mind. Thus, the book assumes that the reader is familiar with the Bible and the story of Christ in particular. Campbell therefore makes reference to the Christ story without spelling it out in detail like he does the less familiar mythologies such as Prometheus, Osiris, and Buddha, and of course the more obscure myths of the Native Americans, Africans, and Asians. This was not an issue for me, but I could see it being a bit more difficult for someone outside of the Western tradition. (This is a further example of my axiom that in order to understand Western literature, one should have a good knowledge of the Bible, the Greek and Roman myths, and the Anglo-Norse traditions.) Campbell is clearly intimately familiar with the Bible and with Christian theology, and this gives him the knowledge needed to call out modern Christianity for ignoring the teachings of its founder in favor of tribalism, for example.
It is difficult to overstate the influence that this book has had. It is listed in Time Magazine’s top 100 list of non-fiction books from the 20th Century. George Lucas utilized the monomyth in creating the story behind the original Star Wars trilogy - and the resemblance is apparent. Likewise, a number of Disney movies from the 1990s explicitly drew on the book, according to the writers. (Namely, The Lion King and Aladdin, as the most obvious examples.) Harry Potter too appears to bear the influence of the idea, even though Rowling has never expressly acknowledged a connection. Arthur C. Clarke read the book shortly before writing 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was not aware of the connection at the time, but one of my all-time favorite books from my teen years - and one of the most influential books I have read Watership Down (by Richard Adams), quotes from The Hero With A Thousand Faces in the chapter headings, and utilizes the monomyth in the inventive mythology of the book. In all these cases, one reason that the stories resonate so well is that they indeed draw on the universal myth, which never gets old.
It is indeed striking how similar the myth is, even with the variations. Campbell’s point that it must be somehow embedded in the human psyche is salient. The deeper question of how and why is an interesting one, naturally. For Campbell, the answer is that of a need in the subconscious. For others of a more religious bent, the point has been made that these similarities could well represent a common implanted knowledge of a deeper truth about the universe itself, not merely ourselves.
In the latter camp is C. S. Lewis, who had an extensive knowledge of mythology, and, like Campbell, saw that the stories were indeed similar. Lewis, indeed, believed that mythology contained deep truths, and was thus to be embraced and enjoyed. Lewis also pointed out that the story of Christ was indeed a myth - a myth that was true, but a myth nonetheless.
Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens - at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Orsis, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.
Also to the point, in my opinion, is Lewis’ belief that one must approach the truths of Christianity with the same sense of wonder and imagination.
To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.
Our modern American Evangelical obsession with the Bible as “God’s Little Instruction Book” for everything from gender roles to child rearing (which leads, naturally, to the adoption of cultural norms from the distant past…), and as a textbook for science, history, statecraft, and psychology, (leading to the elevation of the beliefs of the cultures of the ancient past over empirical evidence), rather than as a story of God’s relationship with mankind has and continues to cause tremendous damage to people and to the faith itself.
Lewis understood that Christianity is an adventure to be lived, and that the deeper meanings are more important than the idiosyncratic surface details. Perhaps this is why he was able to look beyond the Ancient Near East creation myth to a deeper truth of our place in the universe, rather than insisting on a literalist approach. Perhaps this is why he treated the supernatural, the afterlife, and the possibility of other worlds with a sense of wonder, rather than with the attitude that “correct” theology has already settled all this. (Also, Lewis' retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, Till we Have Faces, is dynamite.)
One of the other things the similarity of the monomyth throughout the world shows is that we need to be very careful about the claims we make. One of the things that has really bothered me lately is how easily American Christians claim that “only Christianity” teaches such and such. Now, this isn’t quite as offensive as when Christians make claims about what other religions believe, taking the most extreme possible interpretation as the “true” example. (Such as, I don’t know, maybe “All true Muslims believe they must kill the infidels.” Because obviously, they know better what the Koran means to other people than those people themselves. And because, obviously, one couldn’t possibly find similarly offensive things in our own Bible, right? Psalm 137:9 anyone?) One must be careful to fact check before making assertions about what others believe and what other writings and stories contain. This is particularly a danger when one doesn’t actually look outside the bubble of Evangelical writing to get one’s facts.
On the more positive side, one can find, for example, the concept of grace - with the meaning we understand it to have - everywhere as well. Just one example of many is Rabindranath Tagore’s radiant collection of poetry, Gitanjali (reviewed here), which means “Song Offerings,” and contain an amazing set of prayers to the Divine as the poet works out what it means to worship and commune with a loving God. Tagore may not have had the “right” name for the deity, but it was surprising how “orthodox” the theology was. Many of these could be sung in our own churches. I cannot express just how revolutionary this book was to my own thinking. It gave the lie to a number of claims I have heard throughout my life from Evangelicals, and made me reconsider some of the implications.
There are a number of passages in The Hero With A Thousand Faces which were intriguing enough that I wrote down a note. In recalling that this book is 66 years old, it is interesting how much that Campbell wrote seems as if it could have been written in the last few years. In particular, his observations seem prophetic when it comes to the rise of religious fundamentalism in response to a decline in cultural relevance. I’ll note those moments as I get to them.
The first bit that stood out comes near the beginning when Campbell notes (addressing Toynbee’s A Study of History) that the cycle of death and rebirth is a recurring theme in mythology, and that the need for a rebirth isn’t just from Christianity.
[S]chism in the soul, schism in the body social will not be resolved by any scheme of return to the good old days (archaism), or by programs guaranteed to render an ideal projected future (futurism), or even by the most realistic, hardheaded work to weld together again the deteriorating elements. Only birth can conquer death - the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.
Thus the need for rebirth in the monomyth. But also, one might be reminded of the fact that when
Christ came, he needed “new wineskins” for the new wine. The rebirth was not the return to the past of the Kingdom of Israel and the Torah, but the establishment of a new, upside down Kingdom that is not of this world, but inside us. The attempts to return to the past (by the Pharisees in particular) or to establish a utopia were doomed to failure. What was needed was a new birth of something new indeed. I think it is interesting to note that these two temptations plague us - and our religions - today. The desire to go back to the political organizations of the past as well as the old cultural Torah is as strong as ever. Likewise, the quest for a utopia of the ideal has led (in American history in particular) to the formation of bizarre cultic groups from the Oneida Colony to Scientology. And while we do the hard work of reform (which, as Raymond Aron pointed out, is never seductive as revolution) which is always needed, the inner need, the deeper truth, is for a rebirth. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The new wine.
Another passage that stood out was the commonality of the unfathomability of meaning. In a great many of the myth variations, the hero must come face to face with his (divine) father, who is both a potential terror, and also the comfort. The story of Job (which is thoroughly misunderstood by many who prefer to be Job’s comforters) gets an extended play here, where it is compared with other similar approaches in mythology to the problem of evil and our inability to see wide enough to encompass the whole of existence. Campbell notes what should be obvious from the story, but which is so often glossed over: the answer isn’t given, and it isn’t even knowable. Instead, as Campbell puts it, Job’s refusal to take the easy way out and grovel proves him worthy of a higher answer than his friends with their theology and platitudes receive. To Job it is given to “understand how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being.” The one who questions, and who refuses the easy but dishonest answer is granted the greater revelation.
Campbell is probably not, I would guess, particularly religious, but I think he often in this book shows a better view of theology than many a professional theologian. In the middle of the book, when he discusses the apotheosis of the myth, when understanding is reached. Here, Campbell contrasts two parallel results. The first is the ideal, which is embedded in the myth and in all religions: the essence of God is love, and thus love must cast out fear and hate. The second is what happens very often in practice:
Totem, tribal, and aggressively missionizing cults represent only partial solutions of the psychological problem of subduing hate by love; they only partially initiate...The rest of the world, meanwhile (that is to say, by far the greater portion of mankind) is left outside the sphere of his sympathy and protection...Instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world. The laws of the City of God are applied only to his in-group (tribe, church, nation, class, or what not) while the fire of perpetual holy war is hurled (with good conscience, and indeed a sense of pious service) against whatever uncircumcised, barbarian, heathen, “native,” or alien people happens to occupy the position of neighbor.
The world is full of the resultant mutually contending hands: totem-, flag-, and party-worshipers. Even the so-called Christian nations - which are supposed to be following a “World” Redeemer - are better known to history for their colonial barbarity and internecine strife than for any practical display of that unconditional love, synonymous with the effective conquest of ego, ego’s world, and ego’s tribal god, which was taught by their professed supreme Lord: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you. Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.” [The author quotes more of the passage at length.]
The author could be describing both the rise of Fundamentalist Islam in the East and the equally xenophobic and jingoistic American cultural religion. Campbell continues later on:
The good news, which the World Redeemer brings and which so many have been glad to hear, zealous to preach, but reluctant, apparently, to demonstrate, is that God is love, and that he can be, and is to be, loved, and that all without exception are his children. Such comparatively trivial matters as the remaining details of the credo, the techniques of worship, and the devices of episcopal organization (which have so absorbed the interest of Occidental theologians that they are today seriously discussed as the principal questions of religion), are merely pedantic snares, unless kept ancillary to the major teaching. Indeed, where not so kept, they have a regressive effect: they reduce the father image back again to the dimensions of the totem. And this, of course, is what has happened throughout the Christian world. One would think that we had been called upon to decide or to know whom, of all of us, the Father prefers. Whereas, the teaching is much less flattering: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” The World Savior’s cross, in spite of the behavior of its professed priests, is a vastly more democratic symbol than the local flag.
Indeed, it does seem as if the trivial matters have taken over as the “principal questions” of religion, and that keeping the tribe pure and clearing the world of those outside the tribe are the primary preoccupations these days. This is ultimately what the Culture Wars are about: purging or suppressing those who do not exhibit a sufficient degree of purity of doctrine, while we forget that mankind is our neighbor. Again, it takes Campbell, one outside the tribe, to see us for who we are, and this seems even more prescient today than it did 66 years ago.
Also interesting is the document that Campbell chooses to juxtapose with the passage from Luke (which he quotes at greater length than I have duplicated): a letter from Cotton Mather, that Puritan who is (in my opinion) revered for reasons that escape me, considering his evil views on slavery and other issues. In this letter, Mather writes to a John Higginson advising him that a ship is incoming with a group of Quakers on board, led by William Penn. Mather advises taking the passengers captive and selling them into slavery, because they are “heretics and malignants.” Not only, says Mather, can we make a nice tidy profit on the deal, but we can “do for the Lord great good by punishing the wicked,” and the profit to the ministers is an added bonus. Campbell wryly notes that Christians are commanded to teach all nations, not plunder, pillage, and slaughter them if they don’t convert.
This is the dilemma we find ourselves in as religious people. Do we dehumanize the “other,” as when we call brown skinned people rapists and murderers (like a certain candidate who shall not be named, popular with the Religious Right) or compare refugees to poisoned chocolates (as a number of supposedly devout Christians of my acquaintance have recently)? Do we go around spouting conspiracy theories when we lose our influence? Do we make up a phony “War on Christmas” so we can browbeat those who do not share our beliefs into pretending they do? Or do we eschew hate and fear by embracing love? I’m not optimistic about the choice American Evangelicalism is making right now…
Another bit stood out to me in this regard. Myths are full of symbols, metaphors, and figurative representations of the undescribable. So much of truth cannot be reduced to a set of axioms, or a systematic description. Even we lawyers, who deal with written statutes and regulations and a lot of detail still learn the law in significant part through the study of past cases. Stories (even real ones) make the concepts more clear. Likewise, sometimes the best representation of a transcendent truth isn’t a prose description of it, but a symbolic myth. Heck, forget “sometimes.” More often than not, the truth is best known through symbols and metaphor and stories. (Hey, Christ spoke in parables for a reason…)
But we need to be careful to understand that the symbols are not the real thing. They are a metaphor for the real thing. If we get too bogged down in the details of the metaphor, we miss the truth.
Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding...The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent, so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey. “For then alone do we know God truly,” writes Saint Thomas Aquinas, “when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.” Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood. [Emphasis in original.]
Just one example of this that drives me crazy: the use of “Christ and the Church” to mean more than Saint Paul uses it for - to explain how a husband displays sacrificial love (something that in Roman times went only the other way) to “prove” a number of other things about how a “godly” marriage should look. (News flash: I am not God to my wife’s mortal man, in any sense of that metaphor.)
One could also cite the never-ending internecine wars over the true nature of the Eucharist.
Again, Campbell is perceptive - and maybe prophetic - about how symbolism would come to be twisted to “prove” any number of false things.
Here’s another way in which all of mythology and religion tends to look alike: a belief that everything is getting worse and that evil is increasing. I explored this a bit already in my review of The Sense of an Ending, which shows the universal apocalyptic thinking rooted in how we know our own lives will end. Campbell cites a variety of myths about the cycle of the world (whether single or repeating) wherein human nature gets worse and worse until everything is swept away and made new. Of course, as I also noted in regards to The Better Angels of our Nature, whether this is actually true is debatable at best. But the perception of this remains, for a variety of psychological reasons. One that Campbell notes is that after a human reaches his or her “peak,” decline is inevitable, both physical and mental. This sucks, of course, but it is a fact of life. (One can also see the decline in any number of real and imaginary stories, from King David to King Lear to so many of the greats of mythology. Jason may win the golden fleece, but his poor choices later in life lead to tragedy. This psychological sense of doom leads us to believe - often in the teeth of the evidence - that people are worse than they were in the past.
Another fascinating passage in this book addresses the way that mythology gives way to prehistory and then to history. For those who have read the myths and legends of any particular people group, this is perfectly obvious, but sometimes missed. The very first stories concern the activities of the gods. Eventually, humans are created, and the first heroes of the myths appear, somewhere between the gods and the mortals in strength and characteristics. Eventually, the heroes become more recognizably human, until we see the first real history emerge. At this point, the characters are of normal human size, strength, and lifespan - if often above average in intelligence. As Campbell points out, we see this in the book of Genesis too. The two differning creation narratives (Genesis 1 and Genesis 2) are part of a greater tradition of Ancient Near East legends, but have been modified to make specific theological points. Then, as Campbell says, “Metaphysics yields to prehistory, which is dim and vague at first, but becomes gradually precise in detail.” We get the exaggerated lifespans of the first few humans, a number of fantastic (and likely metaphoric) adventures, until we arrive at people who seem recognizable, with everyday human concerns and passions and preoccupations, from food to marriage. One of the problems with mandating the hyper-literalist interpretation of these stories is that a quick comparison with other stories of the time reveals the monomyth and its variations. Thus, an assertion of the necessity of historicity (in detail!) of, say, Job, or Jonah, misses the greater point, and ignores the function of the myth. Or should I say the parable? A story with a greater truth at its heart which makes the question of “fact” irrelevant at best.
The most troubling part of this book, however, was the conclusion. As I said, I do not gather that Campbell is religious. The disturbing part is that even if I disagree with his human-focused conclusion (and I do indeed disagree), I cannot but agree with him about his view of how religion in general (and Christianity in particular) has failed to adapt to a changed world.
Once upon a time, before science and all that came with it, much of the world was in darkness, so to speak. The myth in its variations helped us make sense of the world and our place in it. Because there was much of the world that seemed inexplicable, a single overarching explanation could cover for everything from the physical phenomena to the structure of society to the hope of the afterlife. Science took away one pillar, and our understanding of how hierarchies serve to oppress the individual for the alleged sake of the group (but more often in practice, the sake of the powerful) chipped away at another. Thus, religion can no longer reserve for itself that central place in society where it is the explainer of everything, and the only authority that matters. Instead, religion, if it is to continue, must turn to the human psyche for its domain, if you will. The transformation of the self must be the focus, rather than power over social and political institutions. And this transformation, as Campbell points out, cannot be in the form of ignoring or reversing the modern revolutions, whether of science or of the understanding of human rights. It is this problem that all religions - and Christianity - are currently struggling with, and largely failing.
The conditions of modern life are different, but we still need what the myths provided: a means of coming to full human maturity and wholeness. But because the conditions are different, the cultural trappings of the old ways - that is, a return to the past - cannot answer the call.
Indeed, these conditions themselves are what have rendered the ancient formulae ineffective, misleading, and even pernicious. The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation; hence the patterns of projected aggression which formerly served to co-ordinate the in-group can now only break it into factions. The national idea, with the flag as totem, is today an aggrandizer of the nursery ego, not the annihilator of any infantile situation. Its parody-rituals of the parade ground serve the ends of Holdfast, the tyrant dragon, not the God in whom self-interest is annihilate.
Nor can the great world religions, as at present understood, meet the requirement. For they have become associated with the causes of the factions, as instruments of propaganda and self-congratulation.
This is, in my opinion, the great unspoken problem with American Evangelicalism right now. Rather than being a living example of the God who calls all of us to serve humanity, regardless of tribe, nation, religion, or creed, we seem increasingly intent on associating ourselves with a faction. A particular American tribalism - and all too often, a white nationalism that dehumanizes all those outside of the tribe.
And furthermore, we have become far more interested in self-congratulation than in self-examination. A religion that is just the projected aggression of tribalism has nothing to offer the world, no matter how much propaganda we want to believe. And that is why, ultimately, I believe that American Christianity in general - and Evangelicalism in particular - will indeed die in the next few generations, unless it finds a way to reject the tribalist instinct, the focus on the re-creation of the past, the hyper-literalist approach to our holy book, and the unending obsession with doctrinal purity as an end unto itself.
Campbell closes his book with a challenge. For some, it may seem depressing, as he believes we find our redemption in our moments of despair, rather than our triumphs. But in the upside-down Kingdom, this is actually cause for optimism. As American Evangelicalism continues its slow suicide, there is a call to those of us who find our inspiration in the calling we have received.
The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for the community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.”
Or, as a more ancient prophet once said, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
We’ve had too many years, too many decades, indeed too many centuries of using our religion to promote pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. We have become addicted to self-congratulation even as we have burned our own house down around our ears. It’s time to put up, or shut up. Our younger generations aren’t stupid. If all we really have to offer is more tribalism, literalist application of millennia- or centuries-old cultural standards, contempt for and hostility toward others, and increasingly strident self-congratulation, why expect them to stay in the faith? If we have Christ to offer, I believe we need to exemplify his teachings, and right now, I’m not seeing that over the din of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, sanctified misunderstanding, and self-congratulation.
One of Christ’s laments was that organized religion was all too eager to stone - or at least ignore - the prophets. Not all prophets come from within the tribe. Campbell, even writing 66 years ago, puts his finger on some very uncomfortable truths. If religion remains (as Fundamentalists worldwide insist they must) a force to unify tribes against each other in violent combat, it will fail to capture the minds of those who see humanity in broader terms. If we simply find the most literalist interpretation of the myths of the past - even the true ones - then we will end up doomed to attempt to re-create a past that will never return, and thus pass into irrelevance. On the other hand, if we believe the Kingdom of Heaven transcends all this tribalist and cultural obsession, and seek to build it, I believe that humanity will never outgrow the need to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” The choice of relevance is really little more than that. Which path will we choose? For the organized church, I fear it will be a continued slow suicide. But the choice is also ours individually. Choose wisely…
Note on a couple of criticisms of the book:
First is the lack of a discussion of the role of females. Campbell himself addressed this after the book came out, noting that he does place a few fairy tales with female protagonists in the book as examples. However, the problem is that the vast, vast majority of tales that fit the monomyth pattern involve males. Far more of the “female” stories have a different role to play, namely the warning of the dangers of females venturing out of their sphere. Yeah, sexism was a big problem in ancient times as well as modern. The few females who were allowed true adventures tend to be the exceptions which prove the rule. (The “wise woman” on the other hand, has a definite role in the myth. But the role of protagonist was largely reserved for men. One reason I like more modern versions of the myth, such as, perhaps, the stories of the late Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Catherynne Valente.
The second is that he oversimplifies the differences between cultures. Sure, I imagine a certain focus on his theory of the monomyth would tend to cause that. The question is whether the details are more important than the similarities. I guess one would almost have to be an expert in multiple cultures to be sure. I would say that at least if you count the Greek, Roman, Middle Eastern, and various European traditions (which I am most familiar with), he has a valid point about the similarities. I would have to spend more time in the literature of the less well-known cultures to evaluate that claim. However, what I have heard and read does seem to support the theory of a monomyth. I would also note that there does seem to be broad international appeal for well told movies and books with the monomyth as the backbone of the story. Certainly evidence, at least, of some universality.