Thou Art That
Let me begin by explaining the history of my impulse to place
metaphor at the center of our exploration of Western spirituality.
When the first volume of my Historical Atlas of World Mythology,
The Way of the Animal Powers came out, the publishers sent me on a
publicity tour. This is the worst kind of all possible tours because you
move unwillingly to those disc jockeys and newspaper people, themselves
unwilling to read the book they are supposed to talk to you about, in
order to give it public visibility.
The first question I would be asked was always, "What is a
myth?" That is a fine beginning for an intelligent conversation. In
one city, however, I walked into a broadcasting station for a live
half-hour program where the interviewer was a young, smart-looking man
who immediately warned me, "I'm tough, I put it right to you. I've
The red light went on and he began argumentatively, "The word
‘myth,’ means ‘a lie.’ Myth is a lie."
So I replied with my definition of myth. "No, myth is not a lie.
A whole mythology is an organization of symbolic images and narratives,
metaphorical of the possibilities of human experience and the
fulfillment of a given culture at a given time."
"It’s a lie," he countered.
"It’s a metaphor."
"It’s a lie."
This went on for about twenty minutes. Around four or five minutes
before the end of the program, I realized that this interviewer did not
really know what a metaphor was. I decided to treat him as he was
"No," I said, "I tell you it's metaphorical. You give
me an example of a metaphor."
He replied, "You give me an example."
I resisted, "No, I'm asking the question this time." I had
not taught school for thirty years for nothing. "And I want you to
give me an example of a metaphor."
The interviewer was utterly baffled and even went so far as to say,
"Let’s get in touch with some school teacher." Finally, with
something like a minute and a half to go, he rose to the occasion and
said, "I'll try. My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs
like a deer. There's a metaphor."
As the last seconds of the interview ticked off, I replied,
"That is not the metaphor. The metaphor is: John is a
He shot back, "That's a lie."
"No," I said, "That is a metaphor."
And the show ended. What does that incident suggest about our common
understanding of metaphor?
It made me reflect that half the people in the world think that the
metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the
other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have
people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors
as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because
they think religious metaphors are lies.
What Myths Do
I view traditional mythologies as serving four functions. The first
function is that of reconciling consciousness to the preconditions of
its own existence – that is, of aligning waking consciousness to the mysterium
tremendum of this universe, as it is.
The primitive mythologies – including most of the archaic
mythologies – are concerned with helping people to assent or say yes
to that. They do it, however, in the most monstrous way, by enacting
rituals of horrendous murder right in front of onlookers' eyes with the
whole community participating in it. If one cannot affirm that, one is
not affirming life, for that is what life is. There came then in human
history a moment when consciousness refused to accept this
interpretation and there arose a system of mythologies concerned with
helping people to remove themselves, to place themselves at a distance
from this conception of basic experience.
The Zoroastrian religion appeared, presenting the notion that the
world was originally good – harmless, so to say – and that an evil
principle moved in to precipitate a fall. Out of that fall came this
unfortunate, unhappy, unintended situation known as the human condition.
By following the doctrine of Zoroaster, by participating in a good work,
persons associate themselves with the forces of restoration, eliminating
the infection of evil and moving on toward the good again.
Essentially, this is the mythology, in broad terms, found in the
biblical tradition: the idea of a good creation and a subsequent fall.
Instead of blaming the fall on an evil principle antecedent to man, the
biblical tradition blamed it on man himself. The work of redemption
restores the good situation and, this completed, will bring about the
end of the world as we know it – that is, the world of conflict and
contest, that universe of life eating life.
Whether one thinks of the mythology in terms of the affirmation of
the world as it is, the negation of the world as it is, or the
restoration of the world to what it ought to be, the first function of
mythology is to arouse in the mind a sense of awe before this situation
through one of three ways of participating in it: by moving out, moving
in, or effecting a correction.
This I would regard as the essentially religious function of
mythology -- that is, the mystical function, which represents the
discovery and recognition of the dimension of the mystery of being.
The second function of a traditional mythology is interpretive, to
present a consistent image of the order of the cosmos. At about 3200
B.C. the concept of a cosmic order came into being, along with the
notion that society and men and women should participate in that cosmic
order because it is, in fact, the basic order of one's life.
Earlier than this, in primitive societies, the focus of awe was not
on a cosmic order but on the extraordinary appearance of the animal that
acts differently from others of its species, or on a certain species of
animal that seems to be particularly clever and bright, or on some
striking aspect of the landscape. Such exceptional things predominate in
the primitive world mythologies. In the period of the high
civilizations, however, one comes to the experience of a great
mysterious tremendum that manifests itself so impersonally that
one cannot even pray to it, one can only be in awe of it.
The gods themselves are simply agents of that great high mystery, the
secret of which is found in mathematics. This can still be observed in
our sciences, in which the mathematics of time and space are regarded as
the veil through which the great mystery, the tremendum, shows itself.
The science, in all of the traditional mythologies, reflected that of
its time. It is not surprising that the Bible reflects the cosmology of
the third millennium B.C. Those who do not understand the metaphor, the
language of religious revelation, find themselves up against the images
that they accept or contest as facts.
One of the most stunning experiences of this century occurred in 1968
on a great venture around the moon. On Christmas Eve, the first verses
of Genesis were read by astronauts, three men flying around the moon.
The incongruity was that they were several thousand miles beyond the
highest heaven conceived of at the time when the Book of Genesis was
written, when such science as there was held the concept of a flat
earth. There they were, in one moment remarking on how dry the moon was,
and in the next, reading of how the waters above and the waters beneath
had been walled off.
One of the most marvelous moments of that contemporary experience was
described in stately imagery that just did not fit. The moment deserved
a more appropriate religious text. Yet it came to us with all the awe of
something wise, something resonant of our origins, even though it really
was not. The old metaphors were taken as factual accounts of creation.
Modern cosmology had left that whole little kindergarten image of the
universe far, far behind, but, as an illustration of popular
misconception, the metaphors of the Bible, which were not intended as
fact, were spoken by men who believed that they were to millions who
also believed that these metaphors were factual.
The third function of a traditional mythology is to validate and
support a specific moral order, that order of the society out of which
that mythology arose. All mythologies come to us in the field of a
certain specific culture and must speak to us through the language and
symbols of that culture. In traditional mythologies, the notion is
really that the moral order is organically related to or somehow of a
piece with the cosmic order.
Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth....Joseph Campbell
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