(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
This is a classic in the comparative studies of myth across civilizations.
Campbell conducted more than mere "archeology" of myth. Campbell behaved
like a psychoanalist in trying to "explain" the meaning of each myth.
Therefore his book is not only about customs and traditions, but also
about the human mind.
While most parts of the book sound a little outdated (and are written in
an ornate style that sounds a little tedious today), the central theme is
possibly more relevant than ever.
The book's main thesis is that myths recur in different civilizations and evolve from one civilization to the next one. There is a continuum of myth. At the origin of a myth there is an archetype, which works as a "memory deposit". Mythology is therefore "an organization of images conceived as a rendition of the sense of life". The rites are "physical formulae" in human flesh, unlike physical formulae that are written in symbols, but they are also formulae that describe natural laws of the universe.
Campbell's viewpoint contrasts with that of the anthropologist Jamez Frazer's idea that the similarity of myth is due to similar causes operating on similar brains in different places and times.
Today, we can mainly use observations he made in passing that are relevant for the study of mind. We just need to adapt them to the modern scientific language.
Campbell offers a wealth of details to show that two contrasting mythologies appear depending on whether tribes are hunters or planters.
Myth appears to be a system to organize knowledge about the environment and pass it on to others, in particular to future generations. The reason this system works is that it somehow takes advantage of the way the human brain works. A myth is so constructed that, once inserted in a human brain, it will provoke the desired reaction. It does not require thinking. In a sense, it "tells" you what to do, without having to prove that it is the right thing to do. It shows you the consequences, or the rewards, so you are prepared for them; or it shows you the dangers and so it saves you from experimenting them in real life. For example, when the Sumerian city yields the myth of the city of god what matters is not the historical record but the subliminal message: build such a city! The creator of the myth must craft the myth in such a way that it will trick the brain into wanting to achieve a goal. The "creator", naturally, is not one specific author, but rather the chain of humans who use and adapt the myth to their conditions. The myth evolves over many generations and eventually gets "designed" to perform his task in a very efficient way, just like any organ of the body.
Campbell calls myth "the spiritual resources of prehistoric man" and insists on the "spiritual unity" of the human race: the spiritual history of the human race has unfolded roughly in the same way everywhere.
Campbell also implies that myth, just like language and just like genes, obeys a grammar, that Campbell is busy deciphering. Just like language and just like genes, myths have evolved from more primitive myths. Just like language and just like genes, myths are universal, shared by all humans. Just like language and just like genes, myth tells the story of mankind, as it follows the spread of races in the continents and their adaptation to new natural pressures.
Campbell does not answer some of the most interesting questions that he asks: why do coyotes howl to the moon? That is a very interesting question. Maybe the answer would also help explain why humans think.