Is there room for mythology in the 21st century

May 28, 2019 / The Twelve Mysteries / mythology / Joseph Campbell

man with his back turned looking at three mysterious points of light representing suns
Three Suns. Toned Cyanotype Print, 2011. Two print sizes. © Jonah Calinawan

Joseph Campbell tells us that mythology had four functions:

  • cosmological
  • social
  • eliciting a sense of awe
  • psychological

The cosmological function explains how the universe was created. In Greek mythology for example, out of the void (referred to as Chaos) came the universe and everything in it—including all the gods and deities. In Christian mythology, God created the universe in seven days with his command, “let there be light.”

The second function of mythology sets down rules on what is right or wrong. The most famous example from Christian mythology is the 10 commandments received by Moses in Mount Sinai.

The third function is to evoke a sense of awe, an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like. I always think of this function in terms of miracles: the burning bush, Jonah’s whale, Elijah’s spaceship. Jesus’ life story evokes a whole string of awe, from his birth right through to his resurrection.

The last function of mythology is to psychologically support individuals as we go through all the life stages: from birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, and death. Considering that you and everyone you know will eventually die is a frightening thing to think about. Of all the living things in the planet, only human beings have the consciousness to be aware of this unescapable event. And so in every mythology, there is always an explanation for what happens after death.

Is there room for Mythology in the 21st century?

In the olden days, all four functions of mythology were needed, but not any longer. As Joseph Campbell points out in his many books:

Science took over the cosmological function.

Each country’s secular laws and justice system took over the second function.

But what about the third and fourth function?

One might argue that art, in its many forms, could replace the third function. One just has to look at a Rothko painting to be convinced that art can inspire awe. If not painting, then music. Listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or a Bach cantata can elicit this awe. If art is not your thing, then architecture. That’s why the churches were built in that way–to elicit awe to everyone who enters.

However, nothing has been invented yet, that could replace the fourth function of mythology.

And that is why mythology will continue to have a place in the human heart.


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