Myths To Live By I


Frazer’s explanation of magic was that because things are associated in the mind they are believed to be associated in fact. Shake a rattle that sounds like falling rain, and rain will presently fall. Celebrate a ritual of sexual intercourse, and the fertility of nature will be furthered. An image in the likeness of an enemy, and given the enemy’s name, can be worked upon, stuck with pins, etc., and the enemy will die. Or a piece of his clothing, lock of hair, fingernail paring, or other element once in contact with his person can be treated with a like result. Frazer’s first law of magic, then, is that “like produces like,” an effect resembles its cause; and his second, that “things which once were in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.” Frazer thought of both magic and religion as addressed finally and essentially to the control of external nature; magic mechanically, by imitative acts, and religion by prayer and sacrifice addressed to the personified powers supposed to control natural forces. He seems to have had no sense at all of their relevance and importance to the inward life, and so was confident that, with the progress and development of science and technology, both magic and religion would ultimately fade away, the ends that they had been thought to serve being better and more surely served by science.

[note: In 1890’s Frazer wrote about entanglement (his second law). Now that’s something! ]


Myths, according to Freud’s view, are of the psychological order of dream. Myths, so to say, are public dreams; dreams are private myths. Both, in his opinion, are symptomatic of repressions of infantile incest wishes, the only essential difference between religion and neurosis being that the former is the more public.


Taken as referring not to any geographical scene, but to a landscape of the soul, that Garden of Eden would have to be within us. Yet our conscious minds are unable to enter it and enjoy there the taste of eternal life, since we have already tasted of the knowledge of good and evil. That, in fact, must then be the knowledge that has thrown us out of the garden, pitched us away from our own center, so that we now judge things in those terms and experience only good and evil instead of eternal life-which, since the enclosed garden is within us, must already be ours, even though unknown to our conscious personalities. That would seem to be the meaning of the myth when read, not as prehistory, but as referring to man’s inward spiritual state.


Atonement: at-one-ment


In the human species, with its great brain requiring many years to mature, on the other hand, the young are again born to soon, and instead of the pouch we have the home, which is again a sort of external second womb.

Now it is during this life stage of the home that all the basic social imprintings are established. They are there associated, however, with an attitude of dependency that has to be left behind before psychological maturity can be attained. The young human being responds to the challenges of its environment by turning to its parents for advice, support, and protection, and before it can be trusted as an adult, this patterning must be altered. Accordingly, one of the first functions of the puberty rites of primitive societies, and indeed of education everywhere, has been always that of switching the response systems of adolescents from dependency to responsibility – which is no easy transformation to achieve. And with the extension of the period of dependency in our own civilization into the middle or even late twenties, the challenge is today more threatening than ever, and our failures are increasingly apparent.

A neurotic might be defined, in this light, as one who has failed to come altogether across the critical threshold of his adult “second birth”. Stimuli that should evoke in him thoughts and acts of responsibility evoke those, instead, of flight to protection, fear of punishment, need for advice, and so on. He has continually to correct the spontaneity of his response patterns and, like a child, will tend to attribute his failures and troubles either to his parents or to that handy parent substitute, the state and the social order by which he is protected and supported. If the first requirement of an adult is that he should take to himself responsibility for his failures, for his life, and for his doing, within the context of the actual conditions of the world in which he dwells, then it is simply an elementary psychological fact that no one will ever develop to this state who is continually thinking of what a great thing he would have been had only the conditions of his life been different: his parents less indifferent to his needs, society less oppressive, or the universe otherwise arranged. The first requirement of any society is that its adult membership should realize and represent the fact that it is they who constitute its life and being. And the first function of the rites of puberty, accordingly, must be to establish in the individual a system of sentiments that will be appropriate to the society in which he is to live, and on which that society itself must depend for its existence.

[note: J. Campbell emphasizes the necessity of rites of puberty/initiation in our modern society, to which I totally agree.  ]

In the modern Western world, moreover, there is an additional complication; for we ask of the adult something still more than that he should accept without personal criticism and judgment the habits and inherited customs of his local social group. We ask and we are expecting, rather, that he should develop what Sigmund Freud has called his “reality function”: that faculty of the independent observant, freely thinking individual who can evaluate without preconceptions the possibilities of his environment and of himself within it, criticizing and creating, not simply reproducing inherited patterns of thought and action, but becoming himself an innovating center, an active, creative center of the life process.

Our ideal for a society, in other words, is not that it should be a perfectly static organization, founded in the age of the ancestors and to remain unchanging through all time. It is rather of a process moving toward a fulfillment of as yet unrealized possibilities and in this living process each is to be an initiating yet cooperating center. We have, consequently, the comparatively complex problem of educating our young of training them not simply to assume uncritically the patterns of the past, but to recognize and cultivate their own creative possibilities; not to remain on some proven level of earlier biology and sociology, but to represent a movement of the species forward. And this, I would say, is in a particular way the special charge of all who are living today as modern Occidentals; for it is this modern Occidental civilization which, since about the middle of the thirteenth century, has been – quite literally – the only innovating civilization in the world.


Source: Joseph Campbell – Myths To Live By


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