52 pages 1 hour read

Joseph Campbell

The Power of Myth

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, published in 1988, is a nonfiction companion to a six-episode PBS documentary series by the same name. The main text of the book is a transcript of an extensive conversation between comparative mythology expert Joseph Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers. Using mythological stories, psychoanalytic theories, and personal anecdotes, Campbell and Moyers examine how world mythologies illuminate the mysteries of human life through shared symbols as well as the usefulness of myths in the modern world. Published near the end of Campbell’s life, The Power of Myth and its companion documentary sparked a resurgence of interest in his work in comparative mythology. This guide follows the Anchor Books first-edition paperback published in July 1991.

Summary

The book divides Campbell and Moyers’s conversation into eight chapters that each have a central theme. The men begin by discussing how myth and ritual have been lost in the modern era, leaving the American cultural landscape full of apathy, superficiality, and violence. Using Star Wars and a letter attributed to Chief Seattle as examples, they argue that new myths for the modern era will have to view humanity through a global and ecological lens. Campbell defines the two main functions of myth as pondering life’s mysteries and offering guidance through life’s stages.

The men move into a conversation about universal mythological symbols, incorporating multiple creation myths and Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. Exploring myths as metaphors, the men dissect stories such as the Garden of Eden, the ascension of Jesus, and the Hindu tale of Indra. They note the important motif of affirming the necessity of death for the experience of life. The men then explore the earliest mythologies from both agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies, examining how these myths viewed divinity and where they sought wisdom. Campbell describes the concept of an animal master and rituals that alleviate the guilt of killing revered animals. He tells stories of shamans as mythological interpreters, and he explores the loss of sacred spaces and spiritual awareness in the West.

Campbell and Moyers next focus on rituals and stories of sacrifice and the belief that death is necessary to bring about new life. Campbell states that, in previous epochs, sacrifice was celebrated rather than feared. Sacrifice expresses compassion and the recognition one’s connections to another, which, Campbell argues, opens a person to the transcendent realm. Campbell explains the structure of the hero’s journey, employing the lives of Jesus, the Buddha, and Moses to exemplify the similarities among mythic quest stories. Using Star Wars as an example, Campbell asserts that hero myths are still relevant today, although modern people have difficulty seeing how heroes relate to their lives. Campbell highlights the importance of opening the self to personal adventure while also maintaining a degree of harmony with society.

Campbell delves into the mythologies of Mother Goddess cultures, exploring the ways female images of divinity impact perspectives and values. He tells stories of virgin births—as of Jesus and Buddha—and the belief that women bring enlightenment into the world. He details how Mother Goddess cultures were eventually conquered, but feminine and androgynous figures remained important in mythology. Campbell next concentrates a large part of the conversation on 12th-century troubadour love poetry, offering the romance of Tristan and Isolde as an example. This body of literature depicts a spiritual experience of love that transcends the expectations of society. He notes that while this celebration of individual desire eventually transformed all aspects of life, there remained an emphasis on harmony with the values of society, as seen in Grail stories. Throughout, Campbell discusses rituals surrounding the relationship of marriage.

Campbell and Moyers finish by returning to several key topics and themes. They focus on the need for modern readers to understand myths as symbolic. Focusing on their literal meaning can hinder the reader’s spiritual transformation. The men explain the prominence of circle, wheel, and ring symbols, which represent the self, the cycles of life, and totality. Campbell distinguishes between peak experiences and epiphanies but argues that both can bring the individual to an understanding of the harmony of the world. Campbell ends by discussing the sound symbol “AUM” and how speaking this word can connect the individual to the unspeakable transcendent.

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