Joseph Campbell
Myths-Dreams-Symbols
The Mythic World of Joseph Campbell
Topic

Thou Art That
a collection of essays and lectures
symbols and metaphors

Thou Art That is a compilation of previously uncollected essays and lectures by Joseph Campbell that focus on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Here Campbell explores common religious symbols, reexamining and reinterpreting them in the context of his remarkable knowledge of world mythology. According to Campbell, society often confuses the literal and metaphorical interpretations of religious stories and symbols.

In this collection, he eloquently reestablishes these metaphors as a means to enhance spiritual understanding and mystical revelation. With characteristic verve, he ranges from rich storytelling to insightful comparative scholarship. Included is editor Eugene Kennedy's classic interview with Campbell in The New York Times Magazine, which brought the scholar to the public's attention for the first time.

From 'The Power of Myth':
The Function of Myth
Myth and Dreams
The Hero's Adventure in Myth
Metaphor and Transcendence
God and Metaphor
The Importance of Myth
Gaia-Nature as Divinity

Joseph Campbell, 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 studied law."

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 treating me.

"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 deer."

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


List of Articles:
The Function of Myth
Myth and Dreams
The Hero's Adventure in Myth
Metaphor and Transcendence
God and Metaphor
The Importance of Myth
Gaia-Nature as Divinity


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