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Author Topic: Joseph Campbell & Heathen Mythology  (Read 9875 times)
Mark C.
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« Topic Start: June 14, 2011, 05:16:40 am »

I have found the work of Joseph Campbell to be massively useful in making sense of the Norse myths. His view of mythology may not the same view as the heathens of the past (who undoubtedly took it more literally), but I think his approach reveals the underlying beauty, wisdom and value of heathen mythology in this modern scientific age. It shows it is every bit as valid and useful to us today as it ever was.

Reading his work and listening to him speak has helped me to look at myth as symbolism, and thinking about them in that way has lead to personally useful insights about myself and the world as I interact with it.

Without this way of reading myths, I don’t think heathenry would be of any interest to me as the mythology would be nothing more than old tales from a unscientific age that can be proved untrue i.e. the world is not surrounded by a sea serpent and the sky is not held up by four dwarfs. However, when I follow Campbell’s advice and read the myths as metaphor, I see them as being profound and undeniably true. As Campbell said:
 
“Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

Here is a 30 year old, 25 minute long video called “Myths to Live by” that I feel outlines the basics of his thinking very well. The final line of the video will also find much agreement from those who find ourselves drawn to a heathen mythology and worldview.

<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UXosAPD6TI" target="_blank">http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UXosAPD6TI</a>

I hope those who have not seen this before find it of value.

Mark C.
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”But when [religion] gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” - Joseph Campbell

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Juniperberry
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« Reply #1: June 14, 2011, 03:05:13 pm »

 

That was interesting, Mark. I've always like Joseph Campbell. Smiley

I had to watch it in two parts- today and yesterday- but I realized during the virgin myth explanation that heathenry doesn't have one. Well, not one that was recorded anyway. I suppose according to Campbell that Odin would be the hero, as he made the quest to the lower planes to receive the runes and spiritual knowledge.

I did like what he said at the end about not seeking eternal life elsewhere but living the best in the here and now. Definitely a heathen-y thing to say. Smiley
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« Reply #2: June 14, 2011, 10:00:23 pm »



That was a really good video, I think it'd be good for a lot of people to watch, not just the Asatru and Heathenry crowd...
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« Reply #3: June 14, 2011, 10:39:14 pm »

I have found the work of Joseph Campbell to be massively useful in making sense of the Norse myths. His view of mythology may not the same view as the heathens of the past (who undoubtedly took it more literally), but I think his approach reveals the underlying beauty, wisdom and value of heathen mythology in this modern scientific age. It shows it is every bit as valid and useful to us today as it ever was.

I'm not a big fan of Campbell. Yes, he does have some insights but the whole "mono-myth" thing they are based on just doesn't work for me.
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« Reply #4: June 14, 2011, 11:54:21 pm »

I'm not a big fan of Campbell. Yes, he does have some insights but the whole "mono-myth" thing they are based on just doesn't work for me.

I, too, don't like the universal approach. I'm also not a big fan of Jungian archetypes. He did have a few other interesting ideas about mythology that weren't along those lines that I appreciated, but I agree he tended to overlook those myths that don't fit into his narrative. Hence mentioning the absence of a virgin birth in Norse mythology (his statement was that all the myths the world over had this theme, but maybe I misheard him).
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« Reply #5: June 15, 2011, 12:46:20 am »

I, too, don't like the universal approach. I'm also not a big fan of Jungian archetypes. He did have a few other interesting ideas about mythology that weren't along those lines that I appreciated, but I agree he tended to overlook those myths that don't fit into his narrative. Hence mentioning the absence of a virgin birth in Norse mythology (his statement was that all the myths the world over had this theme, but maybe I misheard him).

I don't remember him saying all mythologies have a virgin birth, just that it was a recurring theme in a lot of them. At least that's what I got from it.
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« Reply #6: June 15, 2011, 06:54:35 am »

I'm not a big fan of Campbell. Yes, he does have some insights but the whole "mono-myth" thing they are based on just doesn't work for me.

I agree.   There simply can't be one uber-myth for all cultures and peoples.
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« Reply #7: June 15, 2011, 07:04:37 am »

I agree.   There simply can't be one uber-myth for all cultures and peoples.

Maybe not an uber-myth, but I'm open to a grandfather-myth... or myths...

Like how before Moses came around the Jews were polytheists and made up the Yahwist sect of the Canaanite religion believing that YHWH was one of the 70 sons of El, but that's just one theory that's out there.
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Mark C.
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« Reply #8: June 15, 2011, 09:16:24 am »

I agree he tended to overlook those myths that don't fit into his narrative. Hence mentioning the absence of a virgin birth in Norse mythology (his statement was that all the myths the world over had this theme, but maybe I misheard him).

I'm not a big fan of Campbell. Yes, he does have some insights but the whole "mono-myth" thing they are based on just doesn't work for me.

There simply can't be one uber-myth for all cultures and peoples.

That’s not how I read his work. While it may not come across in the video, I have found him to be quite clear on the distinction between universal ideas and “folk ideas”.

There are some issues that apply to all of humanity and hence you would except to see those issues addressed in all mythologies i.e. the process of birth and death, the origins on the universe, man’s place in it, etc.

However, Campbell is also clear that there are “folk ideas” that only apply to a given group of people. For example, the mythology of northern Europe presents a seasonal change and environment that would not be applicable to the Middle East, for example, where the climate is very different. You simply don’t see the likes of Ullr and Skadi in places were there is no snow and ice.

I therefore think it’s an oversimplification of Campbell’s work to say he is saying all myths are the same or that he overlooks differences. What would be more actuate would be to say he states there are common elements based on the fundamental nature of the human condition that are found in all mythologies. But that’s not the same as saying all mythologies are the same. These commonalties are always coloured by the environment and societies in which the wider mythology originates.

Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is regarded by many as his seminal work. It’s essentially the same heroic journey (also found today in things like Star Wars and Harry Potter, which may explain why those tales resonate with such large numbers of people?) but the common pattern does not distract from the fact that all the heroes have their own faces too. It’s not the “The Hero with One Face” after all.

When explaining the commonalties, Campbell obviously focuses on the commonalities. I don’t think it’s fair to say he ignores the differences though. They would be the folk ideas he discusses in his books and interviews, and he is also quite clear that there are different kinds of mythologies too i.e. ones that teach us to live in the world (for example Heathenry) and ones that teach us to transcend the world (for example Buddhism). He also makes the case in other interviews with the same interviewer that western mythologies are more suited to western culture i.e. western mythologies have a sense of making your own individual path through the world; whereas eastern ones tend emphasise travelling an established path. I don’t see him saying all mythologies are alike.

He also states that in the global age there is no overarching mythology that would work for the whole of humanity, but maybe there is the need for one. Because the decisions we make these days don’t just affect the immediate community but can have global reaches he argues that the older mythologies are out of date in some instances. Personally I feel we just need to acknowledge that on many key issues all the religions and mythologies are in agreement, and where they differ it should be accepted that it’s OK to be different because culture and environment are also different. Campbell’s work helps with that and gets us beyond the “convert or condemn” attitude that comes along with “one true way” thinking. There are many ways to experience the “divine” and we should not mistake the stained glass window though which the sun shines for the sun itself.

I therefore don’t see the claim that Campbell says all myths are the same in his work at all. Simply that there are some important commonalties based on a common human condition.

I certainly don’t see all mythologies as being the same. Sure I can see some important commonalities, but it is the mythology of northern Europe that resonates with me and that I feel provides the best “myths to live by”. Why? Well because they do contain the common issues that affect all human beings, but they are better reflected in the culture, environment and landscape in which I live.

If I were to have been born and raised somewhere else, in a different culture and environment –the plains of Africa or the permenetly frozen Artic – then it would undoubtedly not be the right mythology for me. It’s not right or wrong objectively, but right or wrong culturally or personally. I think Campbell’s work captures that brilliantly and I don’t see any attempt to make things all the same in his work. Quite the opposite in fact through the acceptance that, “Every religion is true one way or another.”

Mark.
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« Reply #9: June 15, 2011, 06:44:24 pm »

Hence mentioning the absence of a virgin birth in Norse mythology (his statement was that all the myths the world over had this theme, but maybe I misheard him).
Yes, he says, "This is a motif that occurs in all mythologies of the world." He goes on the say the virgin birth "is symbolic of the birth of the spiritual life, the spiritual being, from the body of animal man."

But is it that simple that the Norse mythology has no virgin myth? Could we be overlooking something? Audhumla, a lactating cow, mind you, licks man out of the ice, ice she licks for nourishment. Then Buri "begot" a son, Borr. How? Then Borr married and had a son... Odin.

Is there something in this? You could say this "is just a part of the creation myth." But the myth mentions that Borr married someone. Why not mention that Buri did? And Buri didn't just mysteriously "beget" man, be begot the father of Odin.

What does this mean? Anyone following me?
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« Reply #10: June 15, 2011, 06:48:44 pm »

There are some issues that apply to all of humanity and hence you would except to see those issues addressed in all mythologies i.e. the process of birth and death, the origins on the universe, man’s place in it, etc.
Altogether a fine defense, Mark. Smiley

I totally understand why some people take issue with Campbell, but I tend to agree with you that they are often a useful lens for looking at myths.

I have the book The Power of Myth, based on these interviews with Bill Moyer. I haven't read all of it, however. But there's a book of the interviews if anyone is interested.
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"She who stands on tiptoe / doesn't stand firm. / She who rushes ahead / doesn't go far. / She who tries to shine / dims her own light. / She who defines herself / can't know who she really is. / She who has power over others / can't empower herself. / She who clings to her work / will create nothing that endures. / If you want to accord with the Tao, / just do your job, then let go." ~ Tao Te Ching, chp. 24

"Silent and thoughtful a prince's son should be / and bold in fighting; / cheerful and merry every man should be / until he waits for death." ~ Havamal, stanza 15
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« Reply #11: June 15, 2011, 07:09:43 pm »

The final line of the video will also find much agreement from those who find ourselves drawn to a heathen mythology and worldview.
Ah, yes. Smiley Just finished the video. Not even the last line, but the last 4 or 5 minutes are the best!
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"She who stands on tiptoe / doesn't stand firm. / She who rushes ahead / doesn't go far. / She who tries to shine / dims her own light. / She who defines herself / can't know who she really is. / She who has power over others / can't empower herself. / She who clings to her work / will create nothing that endures. / If you want to accord with the Tao, / just do your job, then let go." ~ Tao Te Ching, chp. 24

"Silent and thoughtful a prince's son should be / and bold in fighting; / cheerful and merry every man should be / until he waits for death." ~ Havamal, stanza 15
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« Reply #12: June 17, 2011, 11:42:58 am »

Ah, yes. Smiley Just finished the video. Not even the last line, but the last 4 or 5 minutes are the best!

Agreed!  Cheesy

I also have Campbell's The Power of Myth, but I haven't finished reading it. I'm going to have to learn to finish one book before I start another one....

I'm not sure I agree with all of his theories, but I do find it fascinating to view things through that lens and I think we can learn a lot from his work. I like to think there are universal themes or ideas that can be found in all mythologies that provide us with some common ground. I also like the thought of folk ideas that arise from a culture's unique climate and circumstances.
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« Reply #13: June 17, 2011, 09:06:10 pm »

That’s not how I read his work. While it may not come across in the video, I have found him to be quite clear on the distinction between universal ideas and “folk ideas”.

There are some issues that apply to all of humanity and hence you would except to see those issues addressed in all mythologies i.e. the process of birth and death, the origins on the universe, man’s place in it, etc.


Which is why I suppose some aspects of it sit wrong with me? It can come across as though gods or religion are an answer to a human condition, formed from the human experience and psyche, rather than as real and individual gods interacting with Man.

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« Reply #14: June 18, 2011, 12:11:41 pm »

Which is why I suppose some aspects of it sit wrong with me? It can come across as though gods or religion are an answer to a human condition, formed from the human experience and psyche, rather than as real and individual gods interacting with Man.
Some people do think this, although I don't know if Campbell is one of them. Which came first--man or god? I go back and forth on this myself... I can't wrap my head around a god creating humans specifically. I guess because I just have to ask... why bother? But questions like that don't seem to come to satisfactory answers; I don't think there's any way to know. So I just "believe," instead of thinking too hard about the origins of the gods and hurting my brain. Tongue
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"She who stands on tiptoe / doesn't stand firm. / She who rushes ahead / doesn't go far. / She who tries to shine / dims her own light. / She who defines herself / can't know who she really is. / She who has power over others / can't empower herself. / She who clings to her work / will create nothing that endures. / If you want to accord with the Tao, / just do your job, then let go." ~ Tao Te Ching, chp. 24

"Silent and thoughtful a prince's son should be / and bold in fighting; / cheerful and merry every man should be / until he waits for death." ~ Havamal, stanza 15

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