“The Power of Myth” by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers reveals how the themes and symbols of ancient narratives continue to bring meaning to birth, death, love, and war. From stories of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome to traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity, a broad array of themes are considered that together identify the universality of human experience across time and culture.
Based on a six-part PBS television series hosted by Bill Moyers, this classic book is especially compelling because of its engaging question-and-answer format, creating an easy, conversational approach to complicated and esoteric topics.
Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) was an American Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College who worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers many aspects of the human experience.
Bill Moyers is an American journalist and political commentator. He served as White House Press Secretary in the Johnson administration from 1965 to 1967. He also worked as a network TV news commentator for ten years.
1) Modern People Can Still Learn A Lot From Myths
In the 21st century where people have virtual reality, autonomous vehicle, and smartphones, myths seem antique and useless, right?
Campbell writes that “Myths are stories of our search through the ages for truth, for meaning, for significance. We all need to understand death and to cope with death, and we all need help in our passages from birth to life and then to death. We need for life to signify, to touch the eternal, to understand the mysterious, to find out who we are” (pg 4).
Myths serve an important role in our lives by teaching us two main lessons: how young people should act in the world and how old people should handle death.
Campbell writes that reading myths teach people to turn inward to understand the message of the symbols. He also advises readers to read other people’s myths, and not just their own religion because people tend to interpret their religion in terms of facts–but if they read other myths, they will begin to understand the message in the story.
Campbell also says that myths are bits of information from ancient times, that have helped support human life, build civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself.
It’s important to note that myths are not lies, but rather metaphorical truths. Myths come from realizations of some kind that then find expression in symbolic form.
The sea often represents the unconscious mind. The whale represents the energy of the unconscious which must be controlled. The serpent eating its own tail represents an image of life, one generation must eat the other to survive. The dragon represents one's greatest fear or enemy. The list goes on.
2) The Hero’s Journey AKA The MonoMyth
Once a person learns about the structure of the hero’s journey, it starts to appear everywhere. Just look at Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker or Hercules. All three felt as if something was lacking in their lives and then go off on a series of adventures. The hero's all get a mentor: Potter has Dumbledore, Luke has Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Hercules has Phil. Each one dies or gets close to dying, but come out stronger than ever before.
Campbell writes that these stories usually happen to characters that are going through puberty and must make the shift from childhood to adulthood. It is essentially a test to make sure the character returns as a wise and responsible adult.
He adds that “In order to found something new, one has to leave the old and go in quest of the seed idea, a germinal idea that will have the potentiality of bringing forth that new thing” (Pg 167).
Myths about the hero’s journey describe the archetypal adventure–the story of a child becoming an adult or awakening the new world that opens at adolescence–to provide people with a model for handling this development.
At the end of Star Wars, Luke has mastered the Force and is now a Jedi. At the end of Harry Potter, Harry has mastered magic and has become a leader. By the end of Hercules, he has found his true strength and has earned a place among the Gods.
3) Reincarnation As A Metaphor
Campbell believes that people live in terms of depth and that their life is much deeper than they realize. “What you are living is but a fractional inkling of what is really within you,” he writes.
However, to get to the next level, people often have to die. Think of Harry Potter, when Voldemort ‘kills’ Harry and then Harry comes back stronger than before. Or in “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” when Gandalf dies and comes back as Gandalf the White.
However, more often than not, the reincarnation is a metaphorical death.
“You don’t have to die, really, physically. All you have to do is die spiritually and be reborn to a larger way of living” (Pg 141).
Think about your own life.
You had to ‘die’ as a child to become an adult. You had to ‘die’ as a High School student to become a college student. Death can take many different forms, but after each one, the person unlocks a new level of consciousness and becomes better equipped to handle themselves in the world.
“The Power of Myth” (1988) is an eye-opening book that reveals how the symbols of mythology are all around us in the fabric of our daily lives. Once you read this book, you’ll look at movies, books, and even plays differently, because you’ll be able to understand the deeper meaning in the story and how it relates to classic myths.
That being said, this book is very interesting, but it teaches a very specific topic that not many people may want to learn about. Some people may just want to watch a movie to see some action and don’t really care about the meaning of reincarnation when the main character dies and comes back to life. The book does, however in my opinion, have an awesome cover that looks great in your library.
Overall, if you’re enjoy art, film, or theater, I’d recommend reading this book. It’s less than 300 pages long and the interview style of it makes reading it a breeze. I’m reading “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” next, so in my next article I’ll report back to see which book provides more value.
Rating: 4/5 Stars
If you’re interested in reading the book, click here or on the image below!
- Book: “The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
- Pages: 293
- For: People that are interested in the symbols found in art, literature and films
- Lesson: Learn the meaning behind classic myths and symbols
If you enjoyed "The Power of Myth" you'll likely reading "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" by Joseph Campbell. Click here or on the image below to get the book!