"Power of Myth" Appreciation Thread

This my very well evolve into a Great Debate, but I’ll put it here because it is a TV show/book.

I don’t usually watch PBS, but this is one of the few times where I can tolerate pledge drives, and I even tempted to pledge some money.

I’m watching the Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, called “The Power of Myth”. This has got to be one of the most important interviews for anyone who even has a slight interest in spirituality and/or religion. Even if you don’t agree with most of it, it at least causes you to think, and that is always a good thing.

Joseph Campbell, in my opinion, was dead on in his assesment of different religions and mythologies. They are not only important, but essential for the mind in order to fully appreciate spirituality and religion. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that placing emphasis on the metaphor and symbolism of your religion rather than literal truth is the right and proper way to practice one’s faith (I wanted to add at least one slightly controversial statement to stimulate discussion :)).

I think this program is important for atheists as well. Far too often I hear atheists wonder at the reason why anyone would beleive in something that that is perceived to not exist. This interview gives you some idea as to why.

In a nutshell, the reason why is because people in general need metaphor and symbolism in order to relate to external situations and internal conflicts. Religion and spirituality offer that, and ideally also gives one a feeling of the “divine” or a spiritual high if you will. Jospeh Campbell also relates that when you understand that deity is metaphor for the self(Tat Tvam Asi), religions start to make sense. This concept is further explained in his book “Thou Art That”.

Is anyone else watching this right now?

Joseph Campbell was great. His knowledge was encyclopedic and he was able to relate many divergent things to make his point.

The Power of Myth isn’t on in Dallas right now, but earlier this year I donated to PBS just so I could get the 2 DVD set of The Power of Myth.

This series inspired one of my mottos:
A priest is to classical music as a shaman is to jazz.

  • Ed.

We did a thread on this a few weeks back. Basically, I thought Power of Myth was crap, and every anthropologist I encounter says the same thing. Campbell was a crackpot, who desperately tried to put together things from disperse sources even if it was like putting a round peg in a square hole. He tried to taint a real science (anthropology) with a pseudoscience (psychology). Towards the end of his life he understood that the academic community didn’t care for his work, so he tried to find a new audience by appealing to the public as a self-help guru. “Think you’re actually important by comparing yourself to an ancient hero! Raise your self-esteem by seeing your morning commute through a tunnel as a journey into the whale!”


Psychology is a pseudoscience?

I like Campbell, and lkisten to his tapes in my car, but I disagree with his Freudian interpretation of mythology. Take him with more than a grain of salt, but listen to the myths he recalls, and pay attention to the parallels he draws. And the man could write.

What killed me was the first time I heard his voice on tape. The Hereo with a Thousand Faces on Audio Renaissance wasn’t a straightforward reading of his book, but parts of his book read by a deep-voiced professional reader interspersed with tapes of Campbell’s lectures. When it first switched from the narrator to Campbell, I almost drove off the road – I swear he sounded like Ed Wynn!I kept visualizing The Mad Hatter lecturing me about myths.

Not on its own, but I don’t think psychology is as vigorously scientific as anthropology, and thus I think it’s dangerous to try to mix them as Campbell did.


Campbell was actually a follower of Jungian psychology, I believe.


He may have been a Jungian, but he quotes Freud with reverence.

I agree that you must take Campbell with a grain of salt, but The Power of Myth series and book are super-entertaining for anyone with a passing interest in religion and mythology. I watched it when the series first aired, and it totally opened up a new world for me. Bill Moyers is a great interviewer IMHO, and Joseph Campbells’ retelling of myths across cultures is so fun to listen to. And as a Star Wars fan, I couldn’t help but love the setting and focus on Luke Skywalker as Hero.

I also love Bill Moyer’s series “Genesis: A Living Conversation”. Here’s the website: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/genesis

Other books you might want to read:

Clarissa Pinkola Estes Women Who Run with Wolves
Joseph Campbell Hero with a Thousand Faces
Bullfinch’s Mythology
Edith Hamilton Mythology
Bruno Bettelheim The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales

I think you dismiss him too easily. And what exactly is wrong with relating metaphors to your everday life?

My decades-old memory is that Campbell’s worldview was widely discredited as being anti-Semitic. I have no cite, just a firm recollection, and maybe that’s been changed over the years. Anyone know the current status of this nasty lttle charge?

Campbell is the last person I would think of as being an Anti-Semite. I have heard this nasty little rumor, though, and as I recall it is today considered baseless by most thinking people. I have a few books at home with some relevant cites, and I will post them later.

I was quite surprised to hear this charge, as well. and whether true or not, it doesn’t affect my feelings about his writings on myth.
Nevertheless, IIRC, there was an article on this by Martin Gardner in the magazine The Skeptical Inquirer within the past year or so.
He also had some scary stuff to say about Bruno Bettelheim.

I’ve heard this before as well. I’ll have to search out the article - thanks for pointing me to it.

I still think Uses of Enchantment is a good read if you’re interested in fairy tales, though I like the Estes book better (probably because of the female “I am Woman” focus.) :wink:

I think my own problem with Campbell is that he focuses too much on metaphor/sympbolism, and not enough on history. The historical context of a myth is every bit as important as the metaphorical messages it suggests. Read Geoffery Ashe’s studies of Arthurian mythology, for example, and you find a great mix of historical and mythological study, woven together to give the whole greater meaning.

Campbell has a great knowledge of various myths, and he’s fun to read, but he often seems to ignore the historical context in favor of his focus on metaphor and symbol. While this method gives his books more popular appeal (who, other than me, likes mucking around with all that history anyway?), it makes his conclusions almost meaningless in the end. To me, without knowledge and examination of the historical context of myth, the study of it is weak. I’ve enjoyed reading Campbell in the past, but he seems to me to be less serious than some of the other mythologians I read. His knowledge is broad (covering many subjects), but not particularly deep in any one area.

I recommend Campbell as a good introduction to the field of mythology, because of his “mythology lite” methods, but he is not the end-all, beat-all of mythological study. Not by a long shot.

This is also a great book, by the way. Slightly new-agey in its conclusions (not that I mind that, really, but others might not dig it), but a generally good study. Following Campbell’s model of a broad study, it does delve into a few elements of the “Wild Woman” archetype somewhat deeply. Another good introductory mythology book, since it covers so many traditions. Its focus on the feminine makes it tend to appeal more to women, though I enjoyed it quite a bit myself.

If a person’s self-esteem is so bad he has to compare himself to Gilgamesh just to get out of bed in the morning, I think therapy would be a wiser use of his time than reading Joseph Campbell, who was not a psychiatrist and really shouldn’t be giving out that kind of self-help advice without being qualified.


That is pretty obvious. What is not so obvious is why relating metaphor to everday life is wrong? Examples:

I’m running a race and I think of myself as a deer in order to push myself faster.

I’m stuck in traffic and I think of myself as part of the giant bloodstream of the city in order to make my experience a little more bearable.

I’m on the Straightdope and I think of myself as a participating in a great marble forum for the exchange of ideas, thereby causing me to treat everyone who posts with at least some modicum of respect.

I’m debating with you, UnoMondo, and I think of you as the forge by which which the steel of my knowledge is being tempered, thereby removing any ill-will from this debate. :smiley:

I don’t think any of these metaphor applications mean I need therapy.

I don’t think he wrote any self-help books, though I could be wrong. Could you give me an example of one?

All the books I’ve read thus far are from the standpoint of attempting to explain why people find religion and spirituality appealing. Needless to say, you won’t find hard science here, but neither will you find hard science in historical or theological studies either. Shall we dismiss those fields as well?

Well, look at The Power of Myth. It’s organised as an interview with Campbell as if he was some sort of guru who has big answers for the world. Moyer is a yes-man who doesn’t inspire any critical thought about Campbell for the entire book. Campbell is constantly talking about how people can feel better about themselves by applying mythic insight. How is this any better than nonsense like The Celestine Prophecy? Campbell needs to restrict what he’s saying to the material, and not how his field of study can empower power. People may argue that he was just trying to present these concepts to the public in an accessible manner that avoids the dry boredom of academic writing, but this is IMHO the wrong way to go about it.