Joseph Campbell on “Creative Mythology”: Progress Report

Myths are metaphors that we use to describe the, uh, indescribable — the origins of the universe, reasons for our morality, mysteries about God,  and how we fit into the big picture. Societies run on stories. They reflect a deep truth, but are usually not literally factual.

I started reading Creative Mythology* about 3 weeks ago and am barely a third of the way through it. It’s turning into a course. I have to read slowly, underline, highlight, take notes, backtrack. Just when I think I can skip over a long section about, say, the meaning of boars throughout Western Civilization, I stumble upon a brilliant passage that provides insight into everything before. Oh! Out comes my yellow highlighter.

The first three volumes (Oriental, Occidental, and Primitive) deal with the mythologies of coherent societies — the common faith of the village, so to speak.** Creative deals with the rise of the individual within societies where the institutions are breaking down. When orthodoxy fails, it is the noble heart (and the artist) who have the courage to break away from tradition and act with the confidence of their own experience.

This new path began in the 12th century when the troubadours began to sing the stories of amor — or romantic love. Falling in love is an experience to be trusted — no matter what society or church has to say about it. The aim of amor is not marriage, not carnal intercourse (eros), not symbolic dissolution of the world, not an analogy to the divine, not community of mankind (agape). The aim of amor is straight-ahead experience — pow! — opening yourself up to life here on earth, to the “sad, sweet, bitter-sweet, poignant melody of being, through love’s own anguish and love’s own joy.”

This idea of trusting your own experience of life is important to me. When I tell the stories of the strong women in my family history (as I write my personal mythology), I think I’m tapping into a lineage of women who trusted their own experience. I never get the impression that they were very bound by orthodoxy. They saw with their own two eyes, they had their aha! moments and they acted. They weren’t too worried about heaven or hell, but they insisted on living life their way.

*Volume IV of the Masks of God series, by Joseph Campbell (1968)
**I have them, but have only dabbled around their edges.

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7 Responses to Joseph Campbell on “Creative Mythology”: Progress Report

  1. How great is love if you don’t share it?

  2. @Ellen, yes, *amor* is completely about sharing love between 2 people — think Lancelot & Guenevere, Romeo & Juliet — not slutty but not approved of; sanctified by each other in their secret love nest :). (I don’t make this stuff up… I’m only studying the book.)

  3. But any love, anything that gives you that “pow”, isn’t meant just for you. It doesn’t feel complete until you share it. I mean, it’s great, you feel great, but in the end, what good is it unless you’ve shared it. Like, say, in a blog.

  4. charles ashman says:

    if you can’t bottle it, you can’t share it…it’s just for you, enjoy it!!

  5. @Ellen, u mean share it outside the duo? His point is that for most of history, who u love has been decided insitutionally, so that daring to trust your own experience was the first glimmer of modernity among traditional societies. (The same-sex marriage controversy shows this is still a living issue.) Sharing your pow! experience can result in severe punishment or other tragic ending… See West Side Story … Or someone discharged from military for being gay. Experience and how society judges u for it are separate.

  6. oops, I didn’t think you were talking love between two people. Nevermind:/ It was late.
    Not sure what I was thinking, but had a more general love for all in mind, I guess.

  7. Ha-ha, my mind is being turned inside out by these concepts too.

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