Joseph Campbell’s framework for comparative mythology

We are often asked: what is Mythological studies? and why do we study it? Many mistake what we do as the simple learning of stories, but that is a very superficial approach. Mythological studies actually relates to several traditional academic disciplines, and we can use it as a skeleton key that can be applied to help unlock information within a range of subjects including: art, literature, history, theology, sociology, anthropology, psychology and philosophy. It is worth remembering that mythology is the basis of culture, and it permeates into our lives both consciously and subconsciously and helps shape what we think and feel.

Joseph Campbell, one of the most prolific mythologists, defined four functions of myth and through these explained why myth is so relevant and important to us[i].

The first function of myth is that it can provide us with a sense of awe, a way in which we can experience the world and its mysterious wonders.

Myth provides both a lens through which we can view art and literature, and acts a source of inspiration which we can create from. The knowledge of myth can be applied to art, literature and poetry as a mode of interpretation, and conversely myth becomes the framework of cultural archetypes and symbols which can be used to convey meaning when we create art. Elements such as numbers, shapes, directions and colors all have symbolic properties that vary from culture to culture, and yet we can miss the significance of them if the base myths are unknown to us.

The second function of myth is that it gives us a key to understanding the cosmological dimension; it orders the shape of the universe for us.

Myth provides a way to understand the universe and the way in which it is ordered by individual cultures. It can tell us how and why the world was formed and how the mountains, seas, lakes, planets and constellations came to be. Most importantly myth explains the parts of the world we cannot see, the spiritual world. Whether it is the giant turtle who carries the world on its back, or the unseen dimensions of heaven and hell, myth gives us access to the parts of the universe we cannot see or experience through other means.

The third function is to support the social orders and morals that lie within a cultural structure; it relates the taboos and customs and expectations of behavior within a society.

Mythology can also be a way to define social roles by modeling both our family and relationship structures. On a larger scale, it provides a hierarchical framework for a society: who fulfills what roles and who has what power. Myth can also be used to establish the origin and purpose of certain rituals and initiations. In addition, it provides a way to infer good and bad dichotomies on characteristics, behaviors and attributes and can therefore define what behaviors are appropriate, and which are taboo, often forming the basis for written laws.

Lastly, it can provide us with a pedagogical framework, from which we can begin to understand ourselves.

The fourth function of myth can be used to give a psychological insight to a society or individual.  It defines the belief structures and expectations that a person was raised with, and lives within. We can learn a lot about a person, and ourselves when we understand the framework of the ideas we were raised with. Myth teaches us where we come from, it teaches us about good and evil, it teaches us the behavioral norms that our society will expect from us. Without knowledge of the environments we were raised it is very hard to understand our own or others psychological development.

It must be noted that like most writers, Campbell does get his fair share of academic criticism. While I personally agree with some of it, it is hard to deny his accessibility;  he provides a great gateway into mythological studies. We personally recommend his documentary series, The Power of Myth (available in print or dvd) if you are looking for a friendly introduction to the field.

[i] Campbell, Joseph & Moyers, Bill. The Power of Myth. New York: Random House. 1988. Print.

 

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