Myth more important than history

Recently I’ve been enjoying the Power of Myth TV Series released by PBS in 1988. The series has six episodes, each featuring an hour long discussion between host Bill Moyers and famed American ‘mythologist’ Joseph Campbell, collected over several years prior to Campbells death in 1987.

Here he speaks on a topic dear to Free Range:

During the Power of Myth the conversations are focussed around the traditional roles of mythology and ritual in human societies – topics ranging freely around subjects like Star Wars, animal sacrifice, catholicism and cannibalism. At the core of the series is Campbells understanding of the essential traditional roles of myth:

  • Justifying the existing social order
  • A record of observable cosmological information – an early instance of science
  • General guidance through life
  • Creating appreciation for the essential mysteriousness of life

He suggests the last two functions are needs not adequately provided in contemporary urban society, largely because rational scientific thought easily dismisses mythology as absurd. Therefore he has based his career, as a teacher and writer of mythologies, around the motivation that  ‘the most necessary form of societal change is teaching people how to live again.’ Whatever you think of this, he’s a wonderful generator of quotes, to give you a few:

“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.”

“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”

“We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”

“The person who takes a job in order to live – that is to say, for the money – has turned himself into a slave.”

“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”

“Man should not be in the service of society, society should be in the service of man. When man is in the service of society, you have a monster state, and that’s what is threatening the world at this minute. …Certainly Star Wars has a valid mythological perspective. It shows the state as a machine and asks, “Is the machine going to crush humanity or serve humanity?” Humanity comes not from the machine but from the heart. What I see in Star Wars is the same problem that Faust gives us: Mephistopheles, the machine man, can provide us with all the means, and is thus likely to determine the aims of life as well. But of course the characteristic of Faust, which makes him eligible to be saved, is that he seeks aims that are not those of the machine. Now, when Luke Skywalker unmasks his father, he is taking off the machine role that the father has played. The father was the uniform. That is power, the state role.”

One fundamental discussion he has with Moyers is about where responsibility lies in contemporary society for the communication of myth. He contrasts the traditional myth-delivering Shaman with a contemporary Priest who is ordained into an existing body of knowledge and teaches from this. He describes the Shaman as a figure experiencing a schizoid-type breakdown and given powerful access to their unconscious, whereas the Priest represents a contemporary institution that often seeks to maintain a status quo (for example through alleviating guilt). Instead he suggests artists, a necessarily ‘elite’ educated group, have the responsibility of re-interpreting traditional myth into contemporary figures – something that I would suggest is conspicuous in good art be it film, music or gallery art.

What do you think about this? Does our society lack this mythic awareness as urgently as Campbell argues? Are many of our so-called problems caused by this absence? Or does Campbells thinking suggest a nostalgic view of human nature and society? Perhaps more interestingly, do any myths have this type of life guiding power for you?