The Four functions of a living myth and the evening news

In The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, 1968, Joseph Campbell identified four major functions of a “living myth:”

1) ” To awaken and maintain in the individual an experience of awe, humility, and respect in recognition of that ultimate mystery, transcending names and forms.”

CC By-NC-ND-2.0

CC By-NC-ND-2.0

2) “To render a cosmology, an image of the universe.”  Today, Campbell notes, we turn to science for this.

Andromeda galaxy.  Nasa photo, public domain

Andromeda galaxy. Nasa photo, public domain

3) To shape “the individual to the requirements of his geographical and historically conditioned social group “

January from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 15th c., public domain.

January from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, 15th c., public domain.

4)  “to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual…in accord with himself, his culture, the universe, and that awesome ultimate mystery.”

Leshan Giant Buddha, 2010, by Wilson Loo.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Leshan Giant Buddha, 2010, by Wilson Loo. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Forty-five years ago, when conflict during the sixties was rending the social cohesion Americans had forged during WWII, Campbell wrote:  “The rise and fall of civilizations in the long, broad course of history can be seen to have been largely a function of the integrity and cogency of their supporting canons of myth.”

A mythological canon, said Campbell, is a group of symbols that “organize and focus the energies of aspiration.”  When the symbols no longer work for an individual, there is “dissociation from the local social nexus,” and, “if any considerable number of the members of a civilization are in this predicament, a point of no return will have been passed.”

In Creative Mythology, Campbell wrote at length of an earlier period of time when a different mythical canon broke down.  In 12th century Europe, Christianity ceased functioning as a socially cohesive world view.  Enough people stopped believing (even though belief was strictly enforced) that Europe went beyond the point of no return.

Many stories emerged during that era concerning the quest for the grail, which in the earliest written versions, had nothing to do with cup of the last supper, but everything to do with a quest to heal individuals and the land.  In Wolfram Von Eschenback’s Parzival, the grail was called lapis exiles, another name for the philosopher’s stone of alchemy.  The philosopher’s stone turns base metal into gold; the grail heals the wasteland, for that is what a country and culture become where there is a drought of aspiration and meaning.

Scenes from Perceval's quest of the grail, 1385-1390.  Public domain

Scenes from Perceval’s quest of the grail, 1385-1390. Public domain

That is where we are in America today.  In the absence of a shared core of attitudes and beliefs to unify us as a people, we are a nation of warring factions at all levels of culture and government.  For now, the party is over in the land of opportunity.  Even if our politicos won’t admit it, a “considerable number of members of our civilization” know this is true.

Campbell ended Creative Mythology by asking what might feature in a new and vital mythology.  In my opinion, he dithered with his answer, as he sometimes did in his writing.  Twenty years later, he answered the same question when it was posed by Bill Moyers at the end of the Power of Myth series.  This time Campbell suggested that any world view adequate to our times and our future would have, as a mandala, a view of the earth from space.

Earth from space

Neither Campbell nor one else back then knew the full extent of the danger climate change would pose.  Now we know it’s worse than anyone thought, (see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, released Sept. 27).  Our governments are as impotent as the wounded Fisher King of the grail legend when it comes to enacting meaningful change.

Yet as Campbell said, the quest for the grail of healing begins with individual searchers venturing into the forest alone, at the place that seems best to them.  Like Nelson Kanuk, a University of Alaska freshman, whose home in a remote Eskimo village was swallowed by the sea as a result of melting permafrost.  Kanuk sued the state of Alaska for not curbing carbon emissions and his case is now being heard by the Alaska Supreme Court.  Similar suits are pending in 12 other states.  Such headlines echo words I recently quoted by Wendell Berry, who puts his trust in “ordinary people” and said:

We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not.  The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”

We don’t even have to rush out and sue our state governments, for as Campbell suggested, stories and world views spark action and change when a critical mass is reached.  Hopefully, we are at or beyond that point. All we, as individuals, have to do is be still enough to hear what the world is asking of us, and then enter the forest at the place that seems best.

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9 Responses to The Four functions of a living myth and the evening news

  1. rjl2727 says:

    Well now, we wouldn’t let something as trivial as the rapidly deteriorating earth to disturb our quietude and distract us from our pursuit of material comfort and entertainment-fed complacency would we??

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  2. Rosi says:

    Ah, but that patch of sand is surely going to be so crowded. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

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  3. Your words carry much weight today. And Campbell is one of those men that saw things from such a clear perspective. I’ve been searching for that unifying myth my entire life with no success. Sadly, I believe many other countries in the world are fighting the same battle, some appearing to fool themselves more than others. Thanks a lot for sharing today. You have given me much food for thought.

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    • It seems that certain individuals have been able to find a piece of the grail for themselves, regardless of the times. I don’t remember the full story, but I think Campbell’s PhD dissertation proposal was rejected, so he left academia, and for the next 5 years, lived in a converted chicken coop and read books on world mythology day in and day out. Not quite following the advice of his career counselors, but out of that, The Hero With a Thousand Faces was born.

      On the cultural level, however, I think the whole world is sufficiently connected that for better or for worse, all of humanity is going to have to find a new and sustainable world view together or not at all. Somehow I imagine the elements are visible now, but we just don’t see them. Looking with that perspective sometimes makes things very interesting.

      Thanks for visting.

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  4. Excellent post. Who wants to live in a world without myth and yet we spend so much time trying to tear the good ones down.

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    • Not only the good myths (or even bad ones). I’ve said here many times how deeply influenced I was by James Hillman, and one of his constant themes was the cultures war on imagination on all fronts – that literalism was the enemy of soul.

      Just one of many examples he’d cite was our mechanistic view of depression – how it terrifies us as a culture and we rush to medicate it away. Hillman, however, wrote that the experience of depression and a breakdown led him to his own real path. He would always ask, “What is the depression trying to tell you,” as well as point out that depression is a valid response to some of the cities we live in and offices where we work…

      I always enjoyed that moment in the Moyers-Campbell series when Moyers asked how those of us with jobs and mortgages and responsibilities can participate in that imaginal life, and Campbell said simply, find a quiet room where for an hour’s time you can read something you love and allow your imagination to go where it will…

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