The power of myth

Bill Moyers’ 1988 Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth PBS series changed my life. I was 23, three years in New York, in love, independent, and just beginning to harness my creative energies. I had forgone college to play in rock and roll bands, which was often exhilarating, but my mind and spirit hungered for knowledge. The more I saw of humanity — and I saw a lot from stages all over the world — the more curious I got.

In the series, Campbell, a longtime literature professor at Sarah Lawrence and a dynamic presence, explains to Moyers how unconnected world cultures — the Egyptians, the Mayans, the Celts, et al, — simultaneously created strikingly similar stories to make sense of life. He discusses his theory of the journey of an archetypal hero who shares these mythologies: creation stories, flood stories, mother stories, resurrection stories, saints and gods and demigods, tales linking all humanity. He called it the “monomyth.” With Moyers’ help, Campbell would bring the word “archetype” into the modern popular lexicon.

For me, it was like a lightning bolt, sending me down winding, endlessly fascinating paths that led to writers like Carl Jung, Elaine Pagels, James Joyce, Schopenhauer, and Thomas Mann. The Power of Myth inspired me to seek out knowledge — even ideas contrary to and critical of Campbell’s — and sharpened what I already knew.

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I bought the accompanying books with money made bartending at King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut in the East Village. I engaged in conversations about The Power of Myth with my patrons. A fellow fan who worked at a midtown hotel told of how Van Morrison was so excited by the show that he called the front desk and demanded someone, anyone, come to his room to watch it with him. A detractor who’d attended Sarah Lawrence informed me Campbell was a fascist and an anti-Semite, which of course upset me.

“That ‘follow your bliss’ shit is a crock,” she said. “It’s Reaganomics!”

I didn’t turn my back on his scholarship, but upon following up on these charges I found similar — if somewhat less harsh — criticisms of his politics, which significantly tempered my admiration for the man himself.

By that time, the man himself was dead. You wouldn’t know it from the video, but Moyers had captured Campbell just before the scholar’s esophageal cancer killed him. This reminder of the grim reaper made me even hungrier for knowledge about world myths, and their influence on the culture I was only just beginning to navigate.

I was particularly fascinated to discover Campbell’s 1949 classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces had deeply influenced George Lucas’s Star Wars franchise. (as well as Richard Adams’ Watership Down, various Neil Gaiman works, the Matrix, and on and on). Those films’ mythologies had resonated in me more than any religion I’d been exposed to, rooting deep in my subconscious, resonating in my core. I hadn’t intellectually understood why they’d meant so much. The Power of Myth brightened the corners.

Just prior to heading down The Power of Myth rabbithole, the band in which I played bass had gigged near the Isle de Saint Maries de la Mer in France, and we’d visited the chapel there. Our punky, cynical saxophone player had some kind of mystical experience he later laughed off as “hangover talking.” But he didn’t fool me. He’d been touched by something ineffable.

Through connections made through The Power of Myth, I discovered the history of this place, and its connection to Gnosticism, to stories told, renounced, hidden, and then told again in new disguises. In a world of so much exhausting, breakneck change, I was discovering something that actually seemed immortal, for good and for ill.

The ensuing decades have seen quite the technological revolution. The power of myth, however, of story, and its ability to captivate even in the face of science, has never been greater. Few things seem as certain as that.


Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.

There is one comment

  1. Jonah Calinawan

    What an inspiring article. I especially liked the part where you talk about the cynical saxophone player, and that you weren’t fooled by the way he belittled his experience with the numinous. We have to find a way as a society to respect those experiences again. As Joseph Campbell said in those interviews, we really need a new mythology that addresses the need for meaning in one’s life–something that includes all people in the world and not just the in-group you were born in.

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