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The Hero with a Thousand Faces – Epilogue: Myth and Society

Epilogue: Myth and Society

Nietzsche
Nietzsche

1. The Shapeshifter

Campbell concludes by commenting on the relevance of myths today, how myths are viewed and how you can make use of them in your own life. It is important to remember that there is no system for interpretation myths. If you seek to understand them, then you must have faith in the unpredictable journey you are going to explore, and that by seeing the whole picture, you will be taught its lessons.

“Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Millier); as a repository of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle ofman’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church). Mythology is all of these.”

Myths are, like any work of art, only as valuable as the perceiver wants it to be. The “perceiver” can be the collective – the cultures of the past who derived great value from mythology in functional sense. The metaphors contained within them were central to helping them solve the problems they encountered throughout their life. Similarly, the modern individual can benefit form myths functionally if he chooses to, by applying their lessons and the archetypal themes to his own life.

2. The Function of Myth, Cult, and Meditation

As an individual, you are only a fraction of the complete image of man. You are necessarily a distortion because you are either male or female. You are also constrained by your age, you cannot be young and mature at the same time. And you are limited by your occupation and your social role. The totality in man cannot be seen in a single member, but in the body of society.

Everything you know is derived from your group – including your skills, ideas, language, and DNA. If you choose to cut yourself off, either through action or in thought and feeling, you break your connection with the source of your existence.

The purpose of ceremonies of birth, initiation, marriage, burial, and more, is to “to translate the individual’s life-crises and life-deeds into classic, impersonal forms.” When the individual assumes this form, he no longer only identifies with his own personality, but takes on an archetypal human form as (warrior, bride, priest). The society becomes an imperishable union of various archetypes.

From the viewpoint of society, the individual that breaks off is nothing – a waste. But from another point of view, exile be the first step of the quest. The individual carries within him the totality of society. The differences in sex, age, or occupation are not essential to who we are, but are temporary costumes you wear. People often confound the image of man with the clothes that he wears. To investigate the true nature of our being, beyond the superficial classifications of our cultures, you have to divide yourself from the whole.

This is what ascetics, medieval saints and yogis of India have done. The ancient philosophies provide you with tools to discern our essential nature from the masks that we wear.

“The preliminary meditations of the aspirant detach his mind and sentiments from the accidents of life and drive him to the core. “I am not that, not that,” he meditates: “not my mother or son who has just died; my body, which is ill or aging; my arm, my eye, my head; not the summation of all these things. I am not my feeling; not my mind; not my power of intuition.” By such meditations he is driven to his own profundity and breaks through, at last, to unfathomable realizations. No man can return from such exercises and take very seriously himself as Mr. So-an-so of Such-and-such a township, U.S.A. —Society and duties drop away.”

Initially, the disillusioned individual becomes in-drawn and aloof. But this is not the end. The goal is not simply to “see” – as Narcissus did when he looked into the pool or when Buddha sat under the tree – it is to “realize that one is.” It is a realization that individual and the world are made of the same essence, and that one is free to explore the world as that essence. This realization subverts the need to withdraw from society.

“Thus, just as the way of social participation may lead in the end to a realization of the All in the individual, so that of exile brings the hero to the Self in all.”

3. The Hero Today

“All of which is far indeed from the contemporary view; for the democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the invention of the power-driven machine, and the development of the scientific method of research have so transformed human life that the long-inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed.”

Science has no place for God, and society has no place for God either. Campbell tells of the transformation that has taken place – when societies are no longer carriers of religious content but are merely economic-political organizations. It has purged its ideals of transforming earth into its vision of heaven, in favor of building a secular state – where nothing but the relentless pursuit of material and resource wealth is idealized.

“In the fateful, epoch-announcing words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Dead are all the gods. One knows the tale; it has been told a thousand ways. It is the hero-cycle of the modern age, the wonder-story of mankind’s coming to maturity. The spell of the past, the bondage of tradition, was shattered with sure and mighty strokes. The dream-web of myth fell away; the mind opened to full waking consciousness; and modern man emerged from ancient ignorance, like a butterfly from its cocoon, or like the sun at dawn from the womb of mother night.”

In every period, mankind is faces with problems of a different nature. The men of the past who lived in the golden age of mythology were faced with the problem of dealing with the lies that these mythologies could propagate. Then, myths were taken too seriously – to the point where the individual was too often sacrificed for the ideals of the collective, but today’s problem is precisely the opposite. Then, all meaning was in the group, and none was in the individual. Today, all meaning is in the individual and none is in the group.

Something essential has been lost in modern society, and it is up to the individual hero to restore it.

“It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.”

The Hero with a Thousand Faces (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell)The Hero with a Thousand Faces - Epilogue: Myth and Society 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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