Understanding Myths as Saving Truths

Reading Joseph Campbell on Costs of Misreading Myths

Muhammad Maroof Shah
Srinagar, Publish Date: Feb 8 2018 12:49AM | Updated Date: Feb 8 2018 12:49AM
Understanding Myths as Saving TruthsRepresentational Pic

Utter failure of our education in the schools and the pulpit is evidenced by equation of myth with trith (lie), asserting that the Quran has no myths and laughing at great myths of world’s religions or wisdom traditions – and also calling other religions myths – and not knowing how theology and art are better served by proper understanding of myths. Fundamentalism  is based on gross misreading of some key myths of one’s own and other religions. Many common myths of major scriptures and certain details of Quranic myths in hadith literature have been such a problem of  many modernist scholars and modernist critics of hadith. Much of wisdom literature, such traditional resources as Puranas and in fact every scripture, great art and poetry and such phenomena as  Joyce and Mann abound in mythological themes that can’t be appreciated without deep understanding of myth. Failure to appreciate the point that Imam Hussain has been appropriated as a mythic hero in Islamic tradition has been at the back of so many shallow critiques of rituals and celebrations of Muharram.  A major problem in understanding prophetic traditions on last days or apocalypse (on which also depends ideological or political use of religion, especially in Semitic traditions) is illumined by reading great mythologists. So much polemics on virgin birth, ascension narratives and debate on Dajjal,  Beast of the Earth (Dābbat al-Arḍ)), Mahdi, second coming of Jesus, coming interfaith battles shows how little is understood of deeper realities of myth couched narratives. Religion can’t be understood without understanding mythology it is tied to and world mythologies, like world religions and theologies, illuminate one another.  We find myths all pervasive in religious narratives from the myths of genesis/creation to the story of Fall of Adam and  mysteries surrounding birth and career of prophets and  eschatological descriptions and what we daily experience as dreams. Myths  conceal deep wisdom that needs to be decoded or realized. If we agree with Joseph Campbell, one of the towering mythologists and valuable contributors to modern interpretation of religions and arts, that  “The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature”  myths that express this connection are  crucial for such an enterprise.  For Campbell cultures live by virtue of myths and our task is to relate to the inherited treasure of myths to make life a rapture. There is a bewildering number of myths in world cultures  whose underlying logic or unity  Campbell tried to identify and he found many important insights that the world has ever since treasured.  Here is a peep into his  explorations in the world of myth that we need to consider 

Campbell  wrote: “Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.”  “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”  This recalls AKC’s  statement in his great little classic Hinduism and Buddhism regarding myths as penultimate truths.   This point may be understood in light of Heinrich Zimmer’s saying: "The best things can't be told: the second best are misunderstood." Campbell comments: “The second best are misunderstood

because, as metaphors poetically of that which cannot be told, they are misread

prosaically as referring to tangible facts.” Both fundamentalist advocacy and secularist dismissal of religion is connected to misreading of myths, myths we indeed live by but not as literal truths but as coloured by Imagination. As Campbell notes, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”  And more elaborately : “Mythology is composed by poets out of their insights and realizations. Mythologies are not invented; they are found. You can no more tell us what your dream is going to be tonight than we can invent a myth. Myths come from the mystical region of essential experience.” 


Campbell issues a warning against simplistic reductionist interpretations of myths. “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.”  Campbell explicates four functions of myths and here are the first two: “The first and most essential service of a mythology is this one, of opening the mind and heart to the utter wonder of all being. And the second service, then, is cosmological: of representing the universe and whole spectacle of nature, both as known to the mind and as beheld by the eye, as an epiphany of such kind that when lightning flashes, or a setting sun ignites the sky, or a deer is seen standing alerted, the exclamation "Ah!" may be uttered as a recognition of divinity.” Myths are “epiphanies of the rapture of being” and artist “brings the images of a mythology to manifestation.” What is at stake is seeing things in their divine glory, a task that art performs.  How can one be an artist – and sage – if not educated in myths?

History of warfare between science and theology or between religions and sects or between what Voegelin called Gnostic ideologies and their other are partly a result of misreading myths.  “In the popular nightmare of history, where local mythic images are interpreted, not as metaphors, but as facts, there have been ferocious wars

waged between the parties of such contrary manners of metaphoric representation.” Indeed “Instead of clearing his own heart the zealot tries to clear the world.”  Campbell charges tribal literalism of “misreading metaphors, taking denotation for connotation, the messenger for the message.”

Campbell notes the problem mystics tried to solve: “the popular, unenlightened practice of prosaic reification of metaphoric imagery has been the fundamental method of the most influential exegetes of the whole Judeo-Christian-lslamic mythic complex.” Campbell reminds us forcefully of traditional wisdom in his declaration “ “Heaven and hell are within us, and all the gods are within us. This is the great realization of the Upanishads of India in the ninth Century B.C. All the gods, all the heavens, all the world, are within us.“ His famous statement “Follow your own bliss” should not be understood as call for hedonism but what ancient scriptures asserted and what has always been the task of poets. “Poets are simply those who have made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with their bliss.” 

Some points Campbell invites us to consider: “Apocalypse does not point to a fiery Armageddon but to the fact that our ignorance and our complacency are coming to an end… The exclusivism of there being only one way in which we can be saved, the idea that there is a single religious group that is in sole possession of the truth—that is the world as we know it that must pass away. What is the kingdom? It lies in our realization of the ubiquity of the divine presence in our neighbors, in our enemies, in all of us.”  And “The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, unless he crucifies himself today.”  (What do we expect of our leadership?) “ A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth. And since myth is a projection of the depth wisdom of the psyche, by participating in a ritual, participating in the myth, you are being, as it were, put in accord with that wisdom, which is the wisdom that is inherent within you anyhow.” This answers those libertine Gurus and those rationalists who fail to understand why all religions consider ritual important. Mythology explains why sacrifice is so pervasive a theme in religions. 

Something of some authors/ books should to be read by everyone for helping to know/make ourselves and the world better and add to the quality – real standard – of life. Amongst these must read authors is Joseph Campbell. One sees how is it possible to become or imitate to an extent heroes we have long cherished and moves much closer to seeing the world suffused with radiance. To be myth illiterate is to be uneducated and miseducated and amongst the later must be classified those who want to build heaven on earth and seek to retire Satan prematurely. Extremely important essay by AKC (whom Campbell greatly admired) “Who is Satan and Where is Hell,” and selection of his explorations of myths in various writings should be included as essential reading for every preacher and theologian. These along with a review of Campbell’s work in  Oldmeadow’s Journeys East  and Bateman’s  brief but valuable “ What Did Joseph Campbell Believe”may be read to better appreciate Campbell’s strengths and limitations. But a brief introduction to him on you tube in short duration videos is greatly helpful.