The Power of Myth: Summary & Review

the power of myth book cover

The Power of Myth records the interview of Joseph Campbel, popular mythologist, ans shows us how myths build civilizations, shape cultures and capture our imaginations.

Bullet Summary

  • Civilizations are founded on myths
  • Our current society doesn’t have any myths
  • Many great cultural phenomena such as Star Wars are all based on myths

The Power of Myth Summary

Campbell says that much of our life must be mythologized to hold power over people.

Think of something as simple as the robe the judges wear.
If the judge was simply a role, he could wear a suit.
But instead he wears a magisterial black robe to to ritualize and mythologize his position and power.

Chapter 1: MYTH AND THE MODERN WORLD

Campbell says that myths are the clues that human life can have spiritual potentialities.

Myths are also a way to put you in touch with the experience of being alive, and the realization of being something more than simple flesh and blood.

Religions are myths, but to realize that you should read other religions, because there’s a tendency to see our own religion as containing facts.

Sometimes normal people, when they become models for other people’s lives, become mythologized.
It happens mostly with actors in movies (TV creates more celebrities and less myth, another reason not to watch TV as we’ve already seen in The Brain That Changes Itself)

Chapter 2: THE JOURNEY INWARD

Campbell says that we have the same body, organs and mind of the Cro-Magnon man thirty thousand years ago.

And the same inclination towards myths and stories (I don’t fully agree with that, but read more on evolution in The Moral Animal).

For example, he says, that the myth of the eagle and the snake is a common recurring theme in cultures very far apart.

Campbell says that civiilzations are grounded in myth.
In the Middle Ages, for example, it was grounded on Christian myths and the cathedral was the center of that civilization, with the caste protecting the cathedral.

Then Campbell says that the absence of ecstatic religious experience and the denial of transcendence in our society has pushed many towards the use of drugs.
The drugs become the way for that kind of experience that religion used to provide.

Chapter 3: THE FIRST STORYTELLERS

Chapter three of The Power of Myth stood out to me for two concepts.

One is that if you identify yourself with consciousness you don’t fear death and your body decaying (also read: how to leverage mortality).

You can watch your body functions go away one by one without a worry because your body is a vehicle of consciousness, which will keep existing no matter the body.

The second one is that myths serve as rite of passages.

So for example the sometimes cruel looking rite of passage of boys into adulthood make sure that the boy is really an adult when he comes back.

And you don’t have any modern day men who at forty-five are still obeying to their fathers and then going into psychoanalysis to have the analyst to that job for him.

My Note:
I disagree here.
This idea that old societies produced stronger men and that “rite of passages” make men stronger is a BS that I have already addressed in “The Rational Male“, “Tribe” and “The Way of Men“.

And if you wondered who today’s myth-makers are… They are the artists.

Chapter 4: SACRIFICE AND BLISS

Chapter four talks about sacrifices and the tendency different cultures have of making myths out of the landscape they live in.

And of course, today we don’t have those sacred places anymore.

I found it interesting that Campbell says you can recognize a society by looking at its tallest building.

First, it used to be the temple, then the city hall took that place, and now it’s skyscraper with office spaces taking care of the affairs of both temple and political buildings.
That’s the history of western civilization, Campbell says.

Campbell also reflects on the fact that Christianity is built on the Fall of Man from the Garden, which leads us to see nature as corrupt. That type of myth corrupts every spontaneous act as sinful.

The Fall from the Garden of Eden leads us to see nature as corrupt. That myth corrupts the whole world for us.
Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to.

You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity.

Chapter 5: THE HERO’S ADVENTURE

The hero differs from the leader in that he saves people or supports an ideal and sacrifice himself for something.

That’s the morality of it. And what he sacrificed himself for doesn’t cancel his heroic deed.

Campbell says that a society needs a hero so to pull people together against the tendencies of separation.

Then Campbell goes into a breathtaking analysis of George Lucas’ Star Wars.
Dart Vader has such a shapeless face because he hasn’t developed his humanity. He’s a bureaucrat living not on his own volition but on terms of an imposed system.
For all the details of the analysis I invite you to get the book.

Campbell also uses the mythical image of the dragon to talk about the fear we all have to follow our own paths. When we don’t follow our path, we are under the dragon’s spell.

You gotta slay the dragon, and follow your own bliss, wherever that will lead you (more on the importance of following your passions read Grit and for the fear blocking us all read Linchpin).

Chapter 6: THE GIFT OF THE GODDESS

In chapter six of The Power of Myth Campbell talks about the father figure and the mother figure.

Myths are all about finding the father first of all because, well.. The mother is right there, you’re born from there and she’s there to nurse you.

Chapter 7:  TALES OF LOVE AND MARRIAGE

Campbell explains how “love” the way we intend it today in the West was actually born in the twelfth century with the Troubadour literature.

Before love was simply Eros and sexual attraction.
It was more impersonal.

The troubadour poetry was the first to shatter that notion, also going against the church which back then was for arranged marriages.

Chapter 8: MASKS OF ETERNITY

Campbell and Moyers talk a bit about Jesus here.

They say Jesus today would not be a Christian and probably would be a monk more in touch with the spiritual side of life (also read: The Power of Now).

I particularly liked when he refers to Jesus saying to Peter to “put back thy sword”.
But the sword has not been put back in the sheath ever since.

Campbell than explains a touchingly philosophical way of looking at life taken from Schopenhauer.

the power of myth book cover

Bullet Wisdom

  • The difference between the hero of the myth and the modern celebrity is that the celebrity lives for himself while the hero redeems society.

CONS

There is this feeling, very common in certain authors, that “things are bad today” and, guess what, “they were way better before”. .

For example, Campbell says that today’s world as no mythology anymore and that’s one of the reasons today’s world is not as good.
He says:

Well, as I said, all you have to do is read the newspaper. It’s a mess.

Of course, it’s not a mess and I won’t even start with why it’s plainly silly looking at the newspapers to get a snapshot of how things are (read: Fooled by Randomness“).

Review

The Power of Myth is an ethereal and philosophical book.

It’s not the most typical type book you will find on this website. But hat doesn’t mean it’s any less powerful.

Quite the opposite, indeed.

Some of the most influential cultural products are myths.

And they end up having concrete effects on people’s thoughts and behavior.

Definitely do explore The Power of Myths if you’re into artistic endeavors or want to create a new cult with super engaged followers.

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