Myths to Live By by Joseph Campbell

As I wrote in my unfinished report about Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God, I encountered Joseph Campbell (who I refer to as “the other JC”) in around 1987 after his death and after he had done the famous Powers of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers. Nothing makes me feel more like a water buffalo in a herd than trending with the rest of America after a PBS special.

It wasn’t the Powers of Myth book that came out after the PBS series that grabbed me, or Campbell’s lauded, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” (the book that inspired themes in George Lucas’ Star Wars), but “Myths to Live By,” a little collection of lectures Campbell gave at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York.

These meaty essays opened my ethnocentric California Central Coast blue-collar mind. This was just after I found out that the Grateful Dead were not a scary metal band (their name and skeleton logo had prejudiced me against them) but a mind-expanding, rainbow, tribal celebration of poetry and rhythm. I had recently been introduced to meditation and juicing and food combining, and was thin and light and open and 24, preparing to move to San Francisco.

There is never so much joy for me than when what I’m reading and how I’m living dovetail together and take flight. At that time it was the winning combination of Campbell, Tom Robbins and Fit for Life. There was a lot of visualizing going on, a lot of creating my own reality. There were sage wands for smudging. There were crystals. I tucked an amethyst, a citrine and an aventurine into my bra for at least a year (these crystals are still with me, over 30 years later, on my meditation altar).

This is a book report, but I just had to set down the magical frame of mind the book engendered. Myths to Live By begins with an essay titled, “The Impact of Science on Myth.” For anyone trying to reconcile religion and scientific fact, this essay is a soothing antidote to fevered thought.

In the second essay, “The Emergence of Mankind,” Campbell explores the genesis of myth, which is as an explanation of our own mortality. He also explains the variety of religions and myths, which have so many similar themes and even details between them, is mainly due to the environments they developed in (jungle versus desert, etc.).

The third essay, “The Importance of Rites,” has always stood out to me because of events such as John F Kennedy’s funeral procession and other occasions steeped in gravitas. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it explains why things like the riderless black horse, with the stirrups turned backward, move us; why it is significant that a bride wear white, or any of the other symbolism we participate in in modern times. These symbols talk to a deeper part of us, they speak in images, not words, laws or commandments, and are extremely unifying and powerful.

Jackie Kennedy was a well-educated woman, but when she planned the funeral of her assassinated husband, she was copying the procession of Abraham Lincoln’s body, and probably was not researching mythical texts–there was no time. It is said that she knew that the national memory would recognize and experience the echoes of a previously beloved–and also assassinated–president’s funeral.

So I’ve always wondered, did Lincoln’s funeral planners follow the dictates of myth and ancient symbols? In a few minutes of research I found that a little remembered man, George Harrington, planned Lincolns funeral and all the logistics: from stopping street car service during the procession to who to invite from a list of foreign dignitaries to where the press should sit. He had four days to perform this complex task. I doubt he was researching the mythology of the seven spheres and the soul’s journey. Somehow these symbols are intuitively known to sensitive people.

All of the essays are rich and wonder-filled, but two stand out for me especially: “The Separation of East and West,” and “Zen.” But first some of Campbell’s fascinating background on myth and religion

He writes that James Frazier, who in 1890 wrote the anvil, “The Golden Bough,” that I was never able to budge despite many attempts over the years, believed that science and technology would naturally develop and magic and religion would fade away. Not so fast, James! There’s still ark-loads of religious folk, with death grips on Good Books in one hand and weapons in the other.

Campbell quotes Jung, writing that myths are public dreams and that they are part of the wisdom of the species. Jung believed dreams and myth were a dialog between the conscious and unconscious and kept us from falling back into a primitive mind set. Jung calls the common themes of religions, “the landscape of the soul.”

As far as science and religion, Christians set us back when they rejected the science of the Greeks and closed all the schools, setting back science over 1,000 years. Islam faired better, still continuing to explore science and especially medicine until the Sunna cracked down and declared the Koran the only truth.

I love “The Separation of East and West,” because it discusses in just enough detail the chakras. It is here I learned the Sanskrit for the chakras and each’s accompanying petal number and color and maxim.

Root: Muladhara, 4 petals, crimson

Second: Svadhisthana, 6 petals, vermillion, “her favorite resort”

Third: Manipura, 10 petals, storm cloud color, “city of the shining jewel”

Heart: Anahata, 12 petals, orange-crimson, “not hit”

Throat: Vishuddha, 16 petals, smoky purple, “purification”

Third eye: Ajna, 2 petals, brilliant white, “authority, command”

Crown: Sahasrara, 1,000 petals, diamond colored, “nirvana”

Indian architecture, Campbell writes, is meant to open the third eye whereas Buddhism concentrates on the heart, opening to nature, beauty and what may be beheld with the physical eyes.

In the chapter on war and peace, it is surprising and fascinating to find Campbell arguing that war is our natural state, not peace. All in all, this is a great book to read for perspective on history and religion/spirituality. There is so much inner space to explore, everything is connected, don’t forget to breathe. And a little acid never hurt anybody.

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