“The Power of Myth,” by Joseph Campbell (Author), Bill Moyers (Collaborator)

“The symbols of mythology and legend are all around  us, embedded in the fabric of our daily lives, and  the Moyers-Campbell dialogues are a welcome guide  to recognizing and understanding their meanings.”  — Cincinnati Post.

Power of Myth Angel

Power of Myth Cover

Quotes from “The Power of Myth”:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

“I always feel uncomfortable when people speak about ordinary mortals because I’ve never met an ordinary man, woman or child.”

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

“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.”

“The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply.”

“Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.”

Power of Myth-Follow Your Bliss

Discussion Questions:

Power of Myth-Tiresias
Tiresias strikes two snakes with a stick, and is transformed into a woman by Hera. Engraving by Johann Ulrich Kraus c. 1690. Taken from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii (The Metamorphoses of Ovid).

1. Myths reveal spiritual truths about the world. Marriage demands a shift in our spiritual identity and view of the self: “[Marriage is] a purely mythological image signifying the sacrifice of the visible entity for a transcendent good” (p.7).

Summarize Campbell’s critiques of modern-day marriages and how they differ from true “spiritual” marriages.

  • transcend — to travel beyond a boundary (physical, psychological, spiritual, etc.)
Power of Myth Theseus
Roman Mosiac: Theseus & Minotauros.  Pompeii, Italy
Power of Myth-The Heros
The Heroes, Watercolor by William Russel Flint, 1912.

2. Campbell explains that modern life is “demythologized” (p.11), lacking the rituals that connect us to our human condition. Lacking rituals that connect the individual to the culture, people are left to their own devices to make sense of the world, often placing the individual interpretation of life against that of the society. “America,” states Campbell, “has no ethos” (p.10). Instead of stories that convey “the wisdom of life” (p.11), we have lawyers and professionals who focus on specialized issues, but are often ignoring the greater reality.

What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology?

  • Rollo May — a 20th century American existentialist psychologist
  • Ethos — “the understood, unwritten rules by which people live” (p.10)
  • Alexander de Tocqueville — A French political thinker and historian who visited America and commented on the roles of individuals and their nations
  • Heinrich Zimmer — a 20th century art historian who explored the differences between Western and Indian art
Power of Myth Mechanical Icarus
Mechanical Icarus

3. Campbell and Moyers discuss the impact of films as potential replacements for myths.Campbell questions whether films can replace mythology because the screen-writers often lack mythological understanding. When they do, such as George Lucas in creating Star Wars, the mythological heroes and archetypes can be revealed effectively to a modern audience that lacks the references.

Why is it that films affect us? Why may the experience be more moving in a theatre as opposed to streaming it at home? Why does a film actor assume the “condition of a god” in a movie theatre but only “celebrity”status on television?

  • Douglas Fairbanks — an early 20th century silent film actor who portrayed swaggering, sword-wielding heroes, such as Robin Hood, Don Juan, and assorted pirates
  • Pablo Picasso — 20th century Spanish painter who invented the art form known as cubism (in avant garde art form that depicts images as broken pieces depicting its subject from a variety of viewpoints)
  • Faust — a protagonist in many 16th-19th century German stories who sells his soul to the devil
  • Mephistopheles —an alternate identity for Satan, chief of the demons, developed in Renaissance literature

    Power of Myth-Mephistoles
    Mephistopheles (demon or devil).  Mr. Shitana’s attire and manner achieved a “Mephistophelian effect.”  Cards on the Table, by Agatha Christie (1936).

4. Campbell explores the symbolism on the reverse of the dollar bill and how it reflected the Age of Reason (sometimes called The Age of Enlightenment) from which the nation was born. Take one out of your wallet and examine it.

Are the symbols on the reverse side of the dollar bill mythological?

Power of Myth-First Great Seal

  • Deist — one who follows Deism, the belief in God through reason and knowledge, not through revelation or holy books; Deism often promotes the concept of the “Divine Clock Winder,” suggesting that God created the universe, but is now sitting back and watching the creatures of creation live on their own terms; many of the Founding Fathers were Deists
  • Angelus — a prayer in the Catholic Church that recites “Ave, Maria” (“Hail, Mary”) three times in its chorus
  • manifest — “to manifest” means “to show, understand, demonstrate, or embody something clearly”; therefore, a manifestation is the object that contains this knowledge or reality

5. Campbell describes the differences between our society and the mythological cultures, suggesting that our world view projected from the Bible is out of date with the realities of the modern world discovered through reason. Myths can transcend time and place, but cultural dogma cannot. The world has changed enormously in the past 3,000 years, but the Western religions are locked in the past. The letter from Chief Seattle illustrates the difference in world view between modern societies and the mythological mind set: “This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth.”

How do we live without myths? Why does Campbell say that America is moving too quickly to become mythologized? What are the four functions of mythology? Which of these four still operate in America today?

  • Paleolithic moral order — “Paleolithic” means “Stone Age,” reflecting the hinters/gatherers and earlyagricultural societies that used myths to communicate natural truths
  • Chief Seattle — a Suquamish Indian chief near Puget Sound who delivered a stunning speech after he signed the Nisqually Treaty in 1846; the subsequent war led to the death and internment of the Native Americans in that region by the U.S. government

Power of Myth-Chief Seattle

6. Campbell explains that all humans live through the same stages of life and they recognize universal images (archetypes), such as the serpent and the bird. Myths help us to see the God inside the Man; that universal truths exist inside our subconscious brains (dreams) that are interpreted in terms of the individual experience. Individual dreams tend to reflect the public mythology; when they don’t, only a hero can bring these two views into accord.

Why do myths reflect what we know inside is true? Why does Campbell call myth “the public dream”?

Theodore Roethke — a 20th century American poet

  • Christ — an ancient Indo-European term meaning “the anointed one” or “covered in oil”; related words include “grime,” “grease,” and “cream”
  • Shiva — the Hindu god of destruction and part of the Hindu Triad: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva
  • Sigmund Freud — a 19th/20th century Austrian neurologist who established psychoanalysis (the study of the interplay between the conscious and subconscious levels of the human brain)
  • Carl Jung — a 20th century Swiss psychiatrist, pioneer of dream analysis, and the founder of analytical psychology (the study of the forces and motivations of human behavior)
Power of Myth-Divine Dance of Shiva
The Divine Dance of Shiva

7. Campbell discusses how myths need to be read metaphorically, not literally. Myths are written in poetry, not prose, which is intended to allow the reader access to the unknown — that which escapes the confines of language. Campbell examines a few important Christian concepts through the mythological perspective, which existed during the first few centuries of Christianity, specifically with the Gnostics.

What is a metaphor and how does it operate in religion?

  • Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich, or also Freiherr von Hardenberg) — an 18th century Romantic author and philosopher who sought to describe the process by which man can establish harmony with Nature
  • Gospel of Thomas — one of many Christian Apocryphal texts that were excluded from the Bible when it was assembled by Pope Damasus at the Roman Council in 382 CE; these Apocrypa were often rejected by Roman bishops because they revealed Jesus more as man than God, as well as a mystic whose teachings were more in accord with mythology and the concepts of the sacred feminine
  • Gnosticism — Gnostics were early Christians who believed in “gnosis,” or the awareness of God through personal experience, as well as a dualistic divinity (light and dark divine forces in conflict with each other); they were persecuted and discredited by the early Roman Church
  • purgatory — a state/place between heaven and hell where the soul is purged of its sins in order to ascend into heaven; a main setting of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso); there is no mention of purgatory in the Bible, and the Catholic Church recently has backed away from this concept
Power of Myth-Noah's Ark
Noah’s Ark, by T. Poulakis after engraving of J. Sadeler (17th century).

8. Campbell discusses the Santa Claus myth and how it operates to form relationships between parents and children. But the adult world ponders evil as well as good, so myths provide spiritual guidance for us to accept the dualities of life — both the bad with the good. We contribute and receive good and evil by participating in the game of life. Therefore, we must come to understand how our world of dualities operates, and to learn to avoid judging the world based on our bias of one duality over another. Myths teach us that. Campbell relates some tales from the Hindu “Rig Veda” and “The Upanishads,” high spiritual works.

What is the metaphor of Santa Clause? Why do myths teach us to not judge against evil?

  • Thanatos — The Greek personification of death (Roman Mors). He was the son of Night and the brother of Sleep, and his presence was fearsome. The Romans depicted him as a cherub. Freud’s theory of the Death instinct hypothesized that humans have two primal drives in opposition: Eros (lust, desire for pleasure) and Thanatos (the drive to end the struggle of life and to pass quietly into the grave).

Power of Myth-Upanishads

Power of Myth-Thanatos
Thanatos, Hypnos, Hermes, and the body of Sarpedon, Athenian red-figure calyx krater (a handled vase-like container), circa 6th B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art

9. Campbell describes his experiences inside ancient temple caves that depict mythological rites on the walls and ceilings. Acting as today’s cathedrals do, the cave places the participant inside another world from which to contemplate the mysteries of life. Girls are initiated into these mysteries by Nature herself, bringing the first menstruation, but boys must voluntarily be initiated into manhood through their societies. This is demonstrated by the stories of Australian aboriginal rites of manhood.

How are men and women initiated into adulthood differently? Why was there “no chance of relapsing back to boyhood” after participating in the aboriginal ritual?

  • William Wordsworth — A prominent English Romantic poet (1770-1850) who initiated the Romantic Age with his publication of Lyrical Ballads, poems that promoted the beauty and power of Nature
  • Bushmen — hunter/gatherer tribes from southern Africa
  • Samurai — feudal military noblemen from pre-industrial Japan; the name means “those who serve in close attendance to nobility”; they wielded the katana, the Japanese long sword
  • Martin Buber — An Austrian-born Jewish philosopher (1878-1965) famous for his essay Ich und Du (I and Thou) that examines the means of connecting with that which is different from us
  • “I,” “Thou,” and “It” — Buber’s philosophical construct that explains that the self (the “I”) is always understood in relation to the other, and that our relationship with the other must be understood either as an extension of the self (“I-Thou”) or as separate from the self (“I-It”)

10. Joseph Campbell was raised Catholic in New York City, and he witnessed many procedural changes to the rituals in his lifetime. In the past, rituals helped people to grow and develop into responsible members of their societies and their environments, but now these rituals have been reduced to catch phrases and symbolic spectacles that do not thrust the recipient into a new mindset, unless they choose to go there voluntarily. In short, Campbell argues that today’s Western rituals are a lot of show, but offer little substance, because they have been “dumbed down” and sterilized.

Why does Campbell criticize the Catholic Church for changing the delivery of the Mass from Latin to English in the mid-20th century? Why does Campbell claim that many of our rituals are now “dead”?

Power of Myth-Wheel of Life
Buddhist Painting: Wheel of Life

Joseph Campbell’s Influence on Star Wars:

Power of Myth Hero's Journey

For fun:

My Sweet Lord.  George Harrison wrote this song to serve as his accolade to the Hindu god Krishna as well as a call to abandon religious sectarianism as evidenced by his deliberate blending of the Hebrew word “hallelujah” with chants of “Hare Krishna” and Vedic prayer.

About the Author:

Power of Myth-Author Image

Joseph John Campbell was an American mythology professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion.

Average rating for all of his books on Amazon: 4.3 · 201,349 ratings · 5,158 reviews

  • The Power of Myth 
  • The Hero With a Thousand Faces The Hero With a Thousand Faces
  • Myths to Live By
  • Primitive Mythology (The Ma… Primitive Mythology (The Masks of God, #1)
  • The Hero’s Adventure: Power… The Hero’s Adventure: Power of Myth 1
  • Oriental Mythology (The Mas… Oriental Mythology (The Masks of God, #2)
  • Pathways to Bliss: Mytholog… Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation
  • A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living
  • Occidental Mythology (The M… Occidental Mythology (The Masks of God, #3)
  • Creative Mythology (The Mas… Creative Mythology (The Masks of God, #4)

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