The Power of Myth: Why It's More Important than Ever

Jul 3, 2020 / The Twelve Mysteries / Joseph Campbell

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With the unmasking of systemic racism in our society, not just in policing, but in employment, housing, academia, and the list continue to grow every day, I keep thinking of a line in Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth book:

“We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet.”

We need a mythology of inclusion rather than exclusion. Unfortunately, mythology has always worked by excluding others.

This article goes into why that is and how an individual might change the mythology that he lives by. Consider this post a book review focused on mythology as applied to the systemic racism that is evident today.

The Power of Myth Book

In 1988, journalist Bill Moyers introduced Joseph Campbell and his work on mythology to millions of TV viewers with the release of a 6-episode interview series, The Power of Myth. To this day, it remains one of the most popular series on American public television.

Campbell was a professor for 40 years, and he specialized in comparative mythology, the study of mythologies around the world with the aim of identifying common themes and motifs shared by cultures and groups of people.

Campbell wrote many books about mythology, including the celebrated The Hero of A Thousand Faces—a book that became a story template for Hollywood movies after George Lucas’ success with Star Wars. If you’ve ever wondered, “Where should I start with Joseph Campbell?” then the Power of Myth book is a good place to start.

Most of the book reviews you’ll find on the net focus on Campbell’s “follow your bliss” mantra. This brainpickings article is great. Also check out my article, How To Follow Your Bliss. What is not quoted as much is his statements on mythology in the context of the modern world. I want to focus on that in this article. It is important during this time of despair and upheaval.

What is Mythology?

Myths are stories about gods and their deeds. You might be interested: Is there room for Mythology in the 21st Century. They explain the beginning of the world, dictate what is right or wrong, and explain what happens after death. Myths psychologically support us through all life stages from cradle to grave. A group of myths created by one culture or group of people is referred to as a mythology. Think of mythology as a system of beliefs.

Using this definition, it is clear that Christianity is a mythology. For instance, the Bible tells the story of how God created the world in seven days. The 10 Commandments is an example of what is right or wrong. Finally, the Book of Revelations describes what happens after death. All the world’s religions are mythologies.

Myths Are Clues

To Joseph Campbell, myths are not just stories of right and wrong. Instead, myths are clues that point to the experience of what it feels to be really alive.

CAMPBELL: We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.

MOYERS: How do you get that experience?

CAMPBELL: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts–but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive.

The Dark Side of Mythology

Despite the life-affirming nature of mythology, it has a dark side that is not acknowledged:

“Every mythology has grown up in a certain society in a bounded field…For example, the ten commandments say, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Then the next chapter says, ‘Go into Canaan and kill everybody in it.’ That is a bounded field. The myths of participation and love pertain only to the in-group, and the out-group is totally other.”

Mythologies worked in the past because the world was small. Mythology was a way for a tribe to stick together and survive by demonizing a nearby tribe. What constituted the “world” may only have been what we might call a city, a country, or maybe a geographic region. It was all very local.

In the modern age, groups of people still act this way. For example, some white people perpetuate the mythology (or may unconsciously believe as part of their shadow) that they are the chosen people and the only in-group. Obviously, there are many types of in-groups based on race, nationality, religious community, financial status, even political party. However, I focus on race in this article due to current events. Also, it is not a one-sided affair. For example, black people and other people of color may also hold a system of beliefs about white people.

What is ironic is what Campbell says next as I briefly quoted in the introduction:

“We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet. A model for that is the United States. Here were thirteen different little colony nations that decided to act in the mutual interest, without disregarding the individual interests of any one of them.”

Clearly, there is work to do.  Based on recent events, the United States is not working for many groups of people. We need a new mythology.

What Will the New Mythology Look Like?

Campbell had this idea in the book:

“And the only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody in it. That’s my main thought for what the future myth is going to be.

And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with–the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos. That’s what the myths have all talked about, and what this one’s got to talk about. But the society that it’s got to talk about is the society of the planet. And until that gets going, you don’t have anything.”

It’s been 158 years since slavery ended, 66 years since desegregation ended, and 32 years since this Power of Myth interview happened, and we still don’t have anything.

What Can You Do to Bring About a New Mythology?

Changing laws to protect black people and other minorities from discrimination is needed. Progress has been made on this front. We have to thank the brave men and women who protested, marched, and forced change through the courts. However, if the underlying mythology remains the same, nothing will change. 

In addition to donating and marching, what can you and I do as individuals? Here’s what the book says on this subject:

“We have today to learn to get back into accord with the wisdom of nature and realize again our brotherhood with the animals and with the water and the sea….If you will think of ourselves as coming out of the earth, rather than having been thrown in here from somewhere else, you see that we are the earth, we are the consciousness of the earth. These are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth.”

I don’t know where the new mythology will come from. It could come from the world’s largest religions of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam or it might not.

Maybe the Climate Change Activists Are Onto Something

The previous quote brings up climate change, doesn’t it? The new mythology will have to incorporate humankind’s stewardship of the planet.

According to the New York Times article I read recently, climate change will disproportionately affect black people who tend to be in the lower-income bracket in the United States. Climate change is a race issue as well. Maybe the Climate change folks are onto something with their activism.

What is the Mythology That You Live By?

This is Campbell’s question and something that I think about often. It is time to incorporate everybody and not just the in-group I was raised into.

What about you? Does any of the mythology discussion above resonate? What would you do?

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