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World Religion


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology by Joseph Campbell (Arkana) discusses the primitive roots of mythology, examining them in light of the most recent discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, and psychology.

The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology by Joseph Campbell (Arkana) Part of a series of studies on world mythologies, this volume comprises an exploration of Eastern mythology as it developed into the distinctive religions of Egypt, India, China and Japan.

The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology by Joseph Campbell (Arkana) offers a systematic and fascinating comparison of the themes that underlie the art, worship, and literature of the Western world. The high function of Occidental myth and ritual is to establish a means of relationship--of God to Man and Man to God.

The Masks of God: Creative Mythology by Joseph Campbell (Arkana) comprises the inner story of modern culture, spanning our entire philosophical, spiritual and artistic history since the Dark Ages, and treating modern man's unique position as the creator of his own mythology.

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology by Joseph Campbell (Arkana) Joseph Campbell's monumental "MASK" series aims to cover the subject of myth from its earliest inklings to its development into modern religions. It is remarkable how much primitive mythology remains with us today in our culture. Joseph Campbell offers several provocative interpretations of the origins of many of our cultural ideas, how primitive man viewed nature and what his blossoming awareness of the world both within and without grew.

The universal belief system is formed from our evolutionary psychology much as the three instinctual fears of modern people (fear of dark, fear of snakes, fear of heights) were formed by our biological evolution, from the time when proto-humans dwelt in trees.

Campbell offers a look at how many cultures today exhibit the same reverence and point of view toward mythology that primitive mankind did and how many of these remain. One considers such "beliefs" as animism (found in Native American and African tribes), people with a pipeline to the divine (witness the shaman, priest, witch doctor), the belief in luck, the "evil eye", "Father sun", "Mother moon". Indeed, according to Joseph Campbell, fertility in both people and plants played an important role in the development of such myths.

Much of the suppostion on the part of the author involves the substance of divinity and how we communicate with it/her/him. The scholarship and research involved in this trilogy is simply astounding. A mandatory read for anyone seriously interested in the birth of our deepest ideas

In this wonderful book, the first volume of Campbell's monumental Masks of God series, we are given a look at the earliest myths and beliefs of man, from the cave dwellers to surviving indigenous tribes of today, and how these myths changed and developed over time, influencing later myths. While I might disagree somewhat with the title (since "primitive" is a fairly relative term anyway), I cannot deny that this is a superb and well-researched book and is amongst the greatest of Joseph Campbell's work. Early on, the work goes into the development of animistic world views, followed by some information on the religion of the Neolithic agriculture societies. From this, we are given insight into both the "sacred kings" and the ritual of love-death, both central to agriculture people to this very day. The beliefs of the Polynesians, Native Americans, peoples of the ancient Near East and many other societies were given to show the relationships of these myths. Following this was another section on hunting societies, which explained the role of the shaman in great detail. Again, this ties directly to modern day cultures and peoples, as many cultures both in Siberia and further a field still rely upon Shamanism. From that, we go on to animal masters (a central concept in shamanism), the buffalo dance, bear worship (this can still be seen today amongst the Ainu, Siberians and other Arctic people) and cave paintings. The next section of the book "The Archaeology of Myth" was also particularly interesting, showing various stages of both Paleolithic and Neolithic mythology. Ultimately Campbell closed out the book talking about the functioning of myth and such. Over all, this is a wonderful book and I simply cannot repeat that enough. It shows the development of myth and religion in our earliest ancestors and ultimately how universal the legacy that they left us is. The beliefs of ancient people, both agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers, are still with us today. Shamanism, bear worship, animism, the great serpent, death-rebirth myths. All of these things are universal phenomena, showing up amongst cultures as far a field as the Saami, Arunta, Kikuyu, Karen, Cree and Yanomami. Just think about how the serpent shows up in mythology, from the rainbow serpent of the Koori to Damballah in Voudon to the Aztec's Quetzalcoatl. Or about how the Saami and Ainu have similar bear worship ceremonies. This book shows the common origins of mythology, and I strongly recommend it. I found the chapters of shamanism and the early hunter-gatherers to be particularly interesting, but the whole book is just a great read. And Joseph Campbell is (or rather was) a superb writer, as well as being an expert on comparative mythology, so this book is enjoyable to flip through. If you have an interest in mythology, religion, anthropology, history and/or archaeology, this book is a must. In fact, if you enjoy this book I recommend the remaining books in the "Masks of God" series.

The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology by Joseph Campbell In this second volume of the "Mask" Trilogy, Campbell has moved from the perhistorical to historical. There is and has always been a great divide between the Occident and the Orient on matters of faith and Campbell thinks this has a lot to do with the mythical origins underlying all cultures and religions. Oddly, he begins in Egypt which eventually approached the Occidental viewpoint. But it is in the deserts of that ancient land that we begin with the ideas being set by the changeless seasons and the Nile.

Next a study of Buddhist, Hindu and other Oriental religions is undertaken. Somewhere along the line, East and West diverged on the issue of religious thought. One might say that Oriental belief systems harken back to the primitive in that multiple gods, representing various emotions, objects or ideas, were the norm. This was the way of ancient Greece and Egypt but both societies soon "evolved" toward a semi-monotheism or gave life to sects (ancient Judaism) that adopted the single god notion.

Of the three, this book was the hardest to comprehend, perhaps due to the foreign names. Still, it is a testament to the monumental research and innovative ideas of the author.

is a massive summary, comparison of, and commentary on oriental mythology. It is divided into 3 major parts: Western Oriental mythology, Indian mythology, and the mythologies of the Far East. Campbell's incredible scholarship is very impressive, and rather overwhelming at times. He obviously had a great familiarity with the mythologies and religions of practically all areas of the planet. However, his explanations for general readers of foreign mythologies weren't always clear, as evidenced in this book. Much of this book focuses on developing the idea that Oriental mythologies had one major origin, in the Egypt of the Pharaohs. According to Campbell, traces of the religion and mythologies of the Pharaohs, as well as implements of their material culture, could subsequently be found in every major culture heading eastward, from Persia to India, from China to Japan.

This idea is not exactly clear in the beginning of the work, and the initial chapters about the Pharaohs start with a jerk, leaving some readers wondering "Why start here, so far west?" The idea is stated more and more explicitly as the book progresses, so that by the time we reach the Chinese section, Campbell writes about the "primacy of the West-to-East cultural flow". Later in the same section, Campbell writes "the question of the impact of sentiments and ideas carried from one domain to another, which is basic to our study, is ...well illustrated by the annals of the settlement of Buddhism in China..." Is there really enough evidence to support the idea of a single common mythology that spread from West to East? Is this theory accepted by modern specialists in mythology? A reader who comes to this book independently of a class or other mythology background can only speculate on these questions.

Campbell does a masterful job of laying out similarities across cultures, such as his description of the "archetypal Savior Biography", where he lists the following elements (among others):

  • scion of a royal line

  • miraculously born

  • amid supernatural phenomena

  • of whom an aged holy man prophesies a world-saving message

  • whose childhood deeds proclaim his divine character

  • engages in arduous forest disciplines

which confront him with a supernatural adversary

He points out that this list applies to the Jains, Buddhists, as well as Christians, and, if I read him correctly, presents it as one piece of evidence for linkage between Western and Oriental mythologies.

The lucidity of Campbell's descriptions and summaries of myths vary. Sometimes he quotes stories or myths at great length. But other times, he passes over the details quickly with such statements as "We need not rehearse the legends of his miraculous birth..." in his haste to get to commentary about the stories in question. For newcomers to the topic, this can be somewhat of a disappointment, since the commentaries are difficult to understand if one is not already familiar with the stories, and it is to learn about the stories themselves that some readers pick up this book. The book itself seems to have developed from Campbell's notes. Thus, there is considerable explicit enumeration of points, as well as the occasional sentence fragment. This style of writing requires very active study from a reader who is determined to wrestle the kernel of meaning from Campbell's words.

The one disappointing chapter was the chapter on Tibet, which actually includes only a few paragraphs about the mythology of Tibet. The remainder of the chapter is a brief collection of ideas from Maoist communism, juxtaposed with stories of atrocities during the Chinese takeover of Tibet. While the story of Tibet is indeed extremely lamentable, perhaps these details would better fit in a political description of Tibet in order to make more room for an overview of Tibetan mythology.

The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology by Joseph Campbell Occidental mythology developed into the three major monotheistic religions that dominate the West - Islam, Christianity and in particular, Judaism. The role of the divine in the Western psyche has evolved from the Primitive, flirted with the multi-dimensional gods and goddesses of the East before settling down to a one God belief. (Although one would have question how the idea of a Trinity fits in with that belief.)

The notions of sacrifice and redemption are heard throughout the saga, with many religions, lost sects and heresies sharing a similar prophecy - that a Messiah would come who would lead them to victory. But before this was another belief-the eternal battle between good and evil. Perhaps the hardest idea for Monotheists is the notion of singular God and the presence of evil. This required the invention of yet another divinity - one that is evil.

Campbell traces the origins of Christianity, its strains and morphing theology. Along the was and from an Arian strain of Christianity (which virtually rejected the oneness of a Trinity) arose Islam, a warrior religion that originally worshipped a desert rock. The Kaaba, this rock, is still an object of adoration for Muslims and is circled by pilgrims annually. The ideas of sacrifice and atonement by at first an animal, then a person, had ancient origins - the sacrifice of the one for the many - well before Christian times.

Campbell continually tries to show the parallels between our modern religions and the now-forgotten rituals and beliefs that became universally imbedded in the Occidental mind.

Religion in the West is the story of the battle between immanence (God as present in and suffusing the existence of the world) and transcendence (God as removed from and greater than existence). OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY, Volume III in Campbell's MASKS OF GOD series, tells this story: how Western mythology turned slowly away from polytheism, the transcending of duality, and God's immanence, and toward monotheism, the ontology of duality, and God's transcendence.

Before tackling Christianity, Campbell spends several chapters on its predecessor faiths. We see how Judaism emerges from the scraps of the so-called Jahwist (J), Priestly (P) and Elohim (E) texts, and how the priests who pooled these various tales together created a single mythology for the Hebrew people. Campbell spends a fair clip on the subject of Freud's MOSES AND MONOTHEISM: Did the Great Prophet really exist, and if so, was he Egyptian or Hebrew?

Campbell seems to detour when he takes up the Greek and Roman religions, but we soon realize that it's not as much of a detour as we have fancied. Campbell, following Jane Ellen Harrison's PROLEGOMENA TO THE STUDY OF GREEK RELIGION, argues that Greek mythology began as a group of Goddess-centric mystery cults (of which the Eleusinian, Orphic and Dionysian traditions became the last remaining vestages), and that beginning with Homer, the Greeks edged closer to a monotheistic, paternalistic religion; Zeus' slaughtering of the Titans, the children of the Earth Goddess Gaia, is symbolic of this conquest, and Campbell points out the parallels to the Babylonian God Marduk's slaying of Tiamat, and Yahweh's conquest of the sea-serpent Leviathan. This conquest of the Goddess is driven, Campbell argues, by the rise of the warrior-king - conquerers like Babylon's Hammurabi who used religion to give their invasions the imprimatur of Heaven, necessitating that their faith serve as man's "One True Religion". The Greeks, however, managed to avoid such dogmatism, their religion kept sober by the cool light of reason, bringing a detente between religion and science which has been repeated in few cultures since.

Campbell spends a number of pages on Zoroastrianism. Unlike the Jewish tradition, in which both good and evil flow from God, the prophecies of Zoroaster cast reality as a battle between Ahura Mazda's forces of Light and Angra Mainyu's forces of Darkness - a battle which would end in a single tumultuous war with the triumph of Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster set the stage for the Jewish doomsday cult of the Essenes, and for the foremost apocalyptic prophet of the era: Jesus of Nazareth. We see the message of Christ evolve as it flows through Paul, and then through the councils of the 3rd-5th centuries A.D. Along the way, Campbell delights us with more of his lateral thinking, detailing how the myth of the Disappearing God appears both in the stories of Jesus' resurrection as well as the sudden evaporation of Romulus, the founder of Rome.

In documenting the rise of Christianity, Campbell also shows us all the "heresies" that we lost: the Greek and Roman pantheons; Gnosticism, a "Buddhism for the West", with Christ assuming the role of Shakyamuni; the minor doctrincal differences regarding reincarnation and the bodily existence of Christ that were converted into high crimes. The book finishes with a chapter on Islam, in which Campbell brings the remarkable rise of Mohammed's prophecy to life, and shows how the tradition of immanence nearly lost with the suppression of Gnosticism and the Grecian mystery cults managed to live on in the works of the great poets of Sufism.

While I love the MASKS OF GOD books, and find them a gentle read, the pages upon pages of stone carvings, bas-reliefs and statues can quickly wear down the eyes and the mind. Campbell keeps the pace brisk, but this is still not a book you read in a single sitting. While Freud, Jung and Nietschze make their obligatory appearances, Campbell keeps the psychological theorizing in this volume to a minimum, content to let history tell its own story.

Many Christian authors have accused Campbell of blaming Judaism and Christianity for all the world's ills. But Campbell does the exact opposite: He shows how these religions were part of an inexorable - and, perhaps, inevitable - shift in the religious thinking of the West. This won't satisfy Christian traditionalists bent of proving the "uniqueness" of Christianity, but it will delight students of comparative mythology who seek to understand how religion became a tool of oppression.

The Masks of God: Creative Mythology by Joseph Campbell

After more than a decade of reading and pondering, I have finally finished Campbell's great populist tetralogy on the history, manifestations and uses of the world's myths, both as aids to spirituality and as a tools of power politics. No doubt, I could have read it faster, but my wont was to read a section, then contemplate, often taking side-trips into other texts, either to check out the original, or to catch another perspective, or to read other works by Campbell. (I was reading volume one, for example, when I became aware of the PBS series of conversations between Bill Moyers and Campbell, so I took side-trips into the companion volume to that, into Hero with a Thousand Faces and into Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment. Volume two somehow got me into Campbell's Mythic Image, a very satisfying consideration of mythic representations in art, and into Robert Bly's Iron John.) This volume deals mainly with the mythology of individuation, and with the history of the movement from tribal/sociological mythogenesis to the concept of the individual as his/her own "all in All" interpreter who uses the past as guide, but not as a monolithic revelation or absolutist decree, necessarily. I was most fascinated by the discussions of artistic creation in terms of mythogenesis, moving from the personal and religious letters of Heloise and Abelard, through the Parsival and Grail legends which became art (via Mallory and Wagner, most notably, whose works were both discussed extensively and well, to my delight [and also to my regret that my fellow lover-of-all-things-Arthurian, Andy Raiford, is no longer alive to share my joy in these passages], and on to the contemporary works of James Joyce [all his work] and of Thomas Mann [Magic Mountain, primarily]). There is lots more by Campbell that I want to read, and rooms-full of texts that these volumes have lead me to want to read, ponder, and investigate. It's a good life that has brought me into contact with all that is here, so that I may "participate joyfully in the sorrows of life" to quote a Hindu proverb used as a focal point in another of Campbell's works. Of course, I dog-eared a number of pages and underlined many quotable passages in this volume, just as in the rest of the tetralogy.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Commemorative Edition by Joseph Campbell, with new introduction by Clarissa Pinkola Estes (Princeton University Press) Joseph Campbell's classic cross-cultural study of the hero's journey has inspired millions and opened up new areas of research and exploration. Originally published in 1949, the book hit the New York Times best-seller list in 1988 when it became the subject of The Power of Myth, a PBS television special. Now, this legendary volume, re-released in honor of the 100th anniversary of the author's birth, promises to capture the imagination of a new generation of readers.

The first popular work to combine the spiritual and psychological insights of modern psychoanalysis with the archetypes of world mythology, the book creates a roadmap for navigating the frustrating path of contemporary life. Examining heroic myths in the light of modern psychology, it considers not only the patterns and stages of mythology but also its relevance to our lives today--and to the life of any person seeking a fully realized existence.

Myth, according to Campbell, is the projection of a culture's dreams onto a large screen; Campbell's book, like Star Wars, the film it helped inspire, is an exploration of the big-picture moments from the stage that is our world. Offered for the first time with beautifully restored illustrations and a bibliography of cited works, it provides unparalleled insight into world mythology from diverse cultures. It is a must-have resource for both experienced students of mythology and the explorer just beginning to approach myth as a source of knowledge.

Joseph Campbell was undoubtedly one of the most influential mythologists of the twentieth century. This, his crowning achievement, celebrates the nature of myth, and in particular the nature of the mythological hero. Drawing from sources all over the globe, from primitive stories to complex pantheistic mythologies, and including many religions still extant today, such as Christianity and Buddhism, Campbell explains the archetypal elements of the hero myth, the different forms of the heroic quest, and the purpose of the hero's life work.
As important as this work is, it should be seen as prolog to his four-volume study the Masks of God. Many of the criticisms held out that his hero myth as generic crucible for all myth might sit well with American individualism but in no way embraces the cultural functions of myth. In the Masks of God Campbell addresses this more world- historic and culturally specific functions and styles of myth. Though deeply influenced by analytical psychology, Campbell was no uncritical follower of Jung or Freud, though to deny the cultural discovery of the unconsciousness as a benchmark in Western intellectual history is to be just too parochial in understanding early 20th century intellectual fashions.
Campbell's work is important because of its attempt to resurrect myth--in other words, to restore its credibility in a technological society where science rules all--and to show the important function which myth can play, even in a society as complex as ours. He argues that "whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed" (in Chapter IV of part one, "the keys"). In other words, myth should not be viewed literally, but rather allegorically for the lesson it can teach. Furthermore, Campbell argues that truth manifests itself in many different forms, ranging from a simple fairy-tale to a complex Egyptian ritual. For Campbell, the purpose of myth is to rise above the limits set by science and reasoning, and to provide mankind with a metaphysical form of fulfillment not attainable through modern technology.

Campbell's analysis of the various parts of the hero myth is very enlightening. There are shortcomings, of course (as there necessarily must be), and the archetypes he defines are not universal in nature. Still, he does a remarkable job of showing how myths from all parts of the globe often create essentially the same hero, albeit in different forms and with different attributes dependent on local customs. My only complaint with this book is that I believe Campbell takes the parallels of psychoanalysis and myth too far, especially in Part One of the book. His argument is made good by the many examples of similar myths from distinct parts of the globe, and the use of modern dreams as examples does only little to strengthen this hypothesis.

I believe this work is a necessary part of any study of mythology. It may be dated, true, but that does not entirely discredit it as a strong analysis of the universal hero. I certainly do not regard this work as authoritative on the subject of myth, but I do think Campbell's argument is one worth considering.

There are two main flaws in Campbell's book:

1. The style of the writing is hopelessly scholarly and pedestrian. In its time, no doubt this help to justify the book's claim to be academically respectable. Today it just makes it a very heavy-going read.

2. Campbell himself attaches terrific importance to the validity of Freud and Jung's work when he seeks to explain the elements of "The Hero's Journey". And since the credibility of Freudianism in particular has been seriously undermined over the last 50 years, that inevitably consigns Campbell's work to the outer fringes of valid interpretation of the material he covers.

As interesting as the basic material is, the dry-as-dust style of writing robbed it of most of its sparkle, as far as I was concerned. The highly questionable interpretive/psychoanalytical sections further interrupted the flow - whilst adding nothing of any value.

If I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have bothered with this book. I reckon you'd learn just as much about the basic process of The Hero's Journey by watching all three "Lord of the Rings" films. And it would be a whole lot more fun, to boot.

Originally written by Campbell in the '40s-- in his pre-Bill Moyers days -- and famous as George Lucas' inspiration for "Star Wars," this book will likewise inspire any writer or reader in its well considered assertion that while all stories have already been told, this is *not* a bad thing, since the *retelling* is still necessary. And while our own life's journey must always be ended alone, the travel is undertaken in the company not only of immediate loved ones and primal passion, but of the heroes and heroines -- and myth-cycles -- that have preceded us.

Campbell's unique perspectives examine the world's complex and interwoven mythology, folklore and religion, providing an understanding of the essence and genesis of humanness. Blum allows the listener to focus on the content of Campbell's words. All stories are told in plain narration except the Irish myths, for which Blum attempts a slight brogue without success. Slight pauses, musical interludes, plus announcements help distinguish the sections of the text.

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