Thursday, April 24, 2014

P is for The Power of Myth

   If a person is lucky, they will, once or twice in their life, come across a book they can truly say changed their life.  For myself, The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers.

     As a child I loved Greek mythology. There was something so real and alive about those characters, not just the Gods themselves, but the heroes like Perseus, and the seemingly ordinary folks like Bauccis and Philemon who have the deities cross their paths. Later I read Norse and Celtic mythology as well.   In high school I began to study comparative religions, and found much that was appealing there as well.

Meanwhile I was becoming more and more discontented with the theology I had grown up with. But I had been taught to believe the others were wrong, and in the case of mythology dead.  So I wandered about in a limbo, not sure how to give spiritual structure to my life.

Then I watched, and read, The Power of Myth.

I wasn't entirely unacquainted with Joseph Campbell. I had read parts of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and heard it referred to in some of my classed. I knew the book had been a foundation for George Lucas when he created Star Wars as well.  But I saw it more as literary theory. I didn't see clues to living in what I read.

The Power of Myth was different.  The book was actually edited from transcripts of a 6 part series of interviews that Bill Moyers conducted with Joseph Campbell for PBS. (The very idea of two people just sitting around talking about mythology for 6 hours seems amazing now, even for PBS, which dumped Bill Moyers most recent show last year, but that's how the world has changed.) The TV show is well worth watching if you have the time, just to see two of the most intelligent men of our time converse.

The most important takeaway was that myth (myth being the sacred writing of every religion but one's own) was not about what to belief so much as it was about how to live.

This was in the pre-DVD era, and I wasn't even in possession of a VCR as yet, so I went out and bought the book immediately.  I have worn thru several copies since, including the one above that I carry in my work bag, for when I'm short on inspiration.

Mr Campbell talked about heroes, and how their lives and quests follow similar paths, and how we can learn from their journeys.

He talked about how people make the mistake of following the letter of stories instead of their deeper meanings.

He talked about how people have an innate need for myth stories and for rites of passages, and that if they aren't presented with them, they will create them for themselves. (The great appeal of Star Wars, was that it provided a myth cycle in a way that appealed to young people, and was easily accessible to them.)

But instead of going on about what he said, let me share a few quotes:
      "Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told."

     "This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a        room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what       was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your          friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t           know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can         simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you           might be, This is the place of creative incubation. At first you               may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred             place and use it, something eventually will happen."

    He could also be very funny:  
        "I have bought this wonderful machine--a computer.  Now I am          rather an authority on gods, so I identified the machine--it                     seems to me to be an Old Testament god with a lot of rules and           no mercy." 

The Power of Myth opened doors for me, both to the other works of Joseph Campbell and to others who were inspired by his work. If any one work can be said to have changed my life, this is it.  I recomend it to everyone...

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