Written by on Sunday, October 31, 2010 1:09 - 5 Comments

Excerpts from Joseph Campbell’s “Transformations of Myth Through Time”

The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell died on Oct 30, 1987. My personal encounter with his work began when I was 20 years old and I must say that no other author has made more of an impact on my life than Joseph Campbell.

Campbell’s efforts provided humanity with the tools by which to understand its spiritual past with a clarity not known until his work. Campbell threw out the lifeline to humanity with his decipherment of a language we no longer speak and that is the language of life otherwise known a mytho-symbolism.

A vivifying and pictorial language that connects us to the deepest parts of our selves and the Cosmos. Please enjoy the following excerpts from his book The Transformations of Myth through Time.

Ch 1 In the Beginning: Origins of Man and Myth

“The material of myth is the material of our life, the material of our body, and the material of our environment, and a living, vital mythology deals with these in terms that are appropriate to the nature of the knowledge of time.”

“The first experience of anybody is the mother’s body… and mystic participation between the mother and child and the child and the mother, s the final happy land. The earth and the whole universe, as our mother, carries this experience into the larger sphere of adult experience.

When one can feel oneself in relation to the universe in the same complete and natural way as that of the child with the mother, one is in complete harmony and tune with the universe. Getting into harmony and tune with the universe.

Getting into harmony and tune with the universe and staying there is the principal function of mythology. When societies develop out of the earlier primitive condition, the problem is to keep the individual in this participation mystique with the society. Now, looking around, you see how little chance we have, particularly if you live in a large city.”

“It is a fact that, in the human body, every muscle has an impulse to action and one is not fully alive unless one is in action. So we have the invention, always, in societies of games. Games of strength, games of cleverness, games of winning, as in ancient Greece.”

“… the philosopher Giambettista Vico (1668-744) had suggested that the first notion of the godhead arose out of experiencing the voice of the thunder. The voice in the thunder is the fist suggestion of a power greater than that of the human system.”

“The basic mythic theme of hunting cultures is that the animal is a willing sacrifice. It comes willingly to be killed. You can find this in the myths all over the place. But the animal comes with the understanding that it will be killed with gratitude, that a ceremonial will be conducted to return its life to the mother source for rebirth, so that it come again next year.

There is also the idea of a specific animal – that is, you might say, the Alpha Animal – to whom the prayers are addressed that are to concern the entire animal community. It is as though there were a covenant between the animal and the human communities honoring the mystery of nature, which is: life lives by killing. No other way. And it is the one life, in two manifestations that is living this way, by killing and eating itself.”


“today we don’t kill the animals we eat. We have butchers who do that, and the food comes all nicely packed. … It’s a different attitude. These people thanked the animal for having given itself. We thank our notion of
divinity for having given us this meal.”

[Thirteen] is the number of nights between the first crescent and the full moon.”

“We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery. The mystery is what’s important, could be incarnate [or recognized] in a man or in an animal.”

[Joseph Campbell’s Historic Atlas of World Mythology describes the serpent symbol in the same terms as he uses again here. The excerpt is from the above book notes.]

“The prominence of the serpent in the mythologies of agriculturally-based societies is a mystery of profound psychological and sociological import. Repeatedly shedding its skin to be born again, the serpent – like the moon that shed sits shadow in rebirth – typifies life-energy and consciousness locked within temporal space, delivering and suffering births and deaths.”

“fluent in movement as the waters flowing over and fertilizing the earth, yet with their fiery forked tongues flashing tirelessly as lightning from a storm-laden sky, serpents appear to incarnate the elementary mystery of life, wherein apparent opposites are conjoined.”

“The lion is associated with the Sun. It is the solar animal. The Sun does not carry a shadow in itself; the sun is permanently disengaged from the field of time and birth and death, and so it is absolute life.”

“The first people to listen to St Paul were the merchants of Corinth, and so we have the vocabulary of debt and payment in our interpretation of the mythic themes. Whereas in the Orient, the interpretation is in terms of ignorance and illumination.”

Ch 2 Where People Lived Legends:
American Indian Myths

“Using the terms that [WB] Yeat’s applies to this, we are born from the transcendent mystery and immediately the society begins putting its imprinting upon us.”

“Out on the plains on the fifteenth night of the moon, at the time of sunset, looking to the west, you see the sun at a moment just resting right on the horizon. And if you look there to the east, the moon will be in the same position on the eastern horizon.”

And so this also is part of the mythology of the body: the body going through its inevitable course – the long body [from birth to death].”

“Furthermore, the land is the holy land. And the land where you are, not the land someplace else. Not only the body, but the specific landscape in which the people are dwelling is sanctified in these old mythologies. You don’t have to go someplace else to find a holy place.”

“In [Navaho] sand painting the center is dark, the abysmal dark out of which all things come and back to which they go. And when appearances emerge, they break into paris of opposites.”

“The North is always an area of awe and mystery and danger, the danger of that which has not been accommodated in the forms of social order.”

“We are particles of that mystery, that timeless, endless, everlasting mystery which pours fourth from the abyss into the forms of the world.”

“That’s an archetype, the recognition of breath as the breath of life.”

“Where did the myth come from? It came with the people to that place. And then they consecrated the place in terms of the myth that was with them.”

Ch 3 And We Washed our Weapons in the Sea:
Gods and Goddess

“The next great stage in the emergence of the city civilizations – the beginning of the historic process… Civilizations emerge that have histories: a youth, a maturity, and an aging.”
[see Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West]

“There are three main centers that have been recognized as matrices of origin of agriculture and the domestication of animals. They are southeast Asia, which is now recognized as probably the earliest center; the area that comprises southwest Asia, Asia Minor, and Southeast Europe; and, of course, middle America, Mexico and Peru.”

“It is in the Near East that the first cities appear, and here is something entirely new.”

“With the professional priesthood, there was a recognition of the passages of the planets through the zodiac of the fixed constellations. These were the people who invented writing, arithmetic, and numeration in terms of sixties and tens… With writing, mathematics, and precise observation of the heavens, it was possible to determine that the planets were moving at a mathematically determinable rate. So we begin to get an idea of a cosmic order that could be mathematically recorded.

This is a whole transformation of culture, and something altogether new and different comes in. In the earlier situations this particular tree, this special pond or rock, the exceptional becomes important. Later it is the animal that is of most importance, or the plant. But now we begin to have the notion of a cosmic order and the exception is out rather than in. The exception is aberrant. And so we have a totally new way of regarding the universe.”

“In the Tigris-Euphrates area, the earliest cities in the world appear… somewhere around 4000 BC.”

Uruk and Al-Ubaid were very early cities.”

“… the mythology in the Book of Genesis, is largely an adaptation of Sumero-Babylonian myths.”

“There’s no idea of a fall in these traditions. In India, the deity enters the world voluntarily, as a dance. The world is a play; it’s a game. That’s the mood you have in these mythologies. It’s joyous, humorous at least. There’s no more dreary mythology in the world than that of the Old Testament.”

“So, here it is, about 2400 BC, the beginnings of the kind of war that has been distinctive of our world, of civilization ever since – ruthless annihilation of whole populations.”
[refer to the Bible, Book of Judges, Book of Joshua]

Ch 4 Pharaoh’s Rule:
Egypt, the Exodus, and the Myth of Osiris

[Moses inherited “Protestant” Monotheistic cult from Akhnaton (1377 – 1358 BC), who incidentally, was the lesser half of Queen Nefertiti]

“That is a good thing that coalesced and came to knowledge of itself in Egypt, in the land of suffering, in the abyss. Moses was not the hero. The hero of the Old Testament is the people.”

Ch 5 The Sacred Source:
The Perennial Philosophy of the East

“When you go to sleep, it’s the body that’s talking. What the body is moved by are energies that it does not control. These are the energies that control the body. They come in from the great biological ground.”

“When you dream, your waking consciousness aspect does not understand the dream… The interpretation is gradual and it comes from an exploration, by the head, of your own wisdom.”

“The message always is of the spirit, and when the symbol is taken to be the fact, so you have to go to… Israel to get to the Promised Land. This concretization is one of the major deceptions in the Western handling of symbols. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve lost touch with the elementary idea and the perennial messages – the concretization of the symbol, the notion, for example, that God is a fact. The god idea is a symbol. Anything that can be named and regarded as form is a symbol.”

“In Goethe‘s words, ‘Everything that is transitory is but a reference.’ But the reference isn’t to anything. It’s to what is called the void, sunya, and it’s called the void because no thought can reach it. So what these symbols talk about is something that can’t b talked about. THey have to become transparent. They have to open.”

“… then comes this discovery of the great cycles of the heavens, and what you find is a great concern to relate the whole organization of the society to this cycling – a tremendous accent on seasonal festivals. These festivals… are meant to put you in accord with nature, and when you are in accord with nature, nature will yield its bounty.”

Ch 6 The Way of Enlightenment:

“The Buddha‘s dates are 563 BC to 483 BC. I want to stress the date 500 BC, which is… of great importance.”

“Early Buddhism… was very strongly monastic. But then, in the first century AD, in northwest India, the idea changed. There’s another Buddhism. The first century AD was the first century of Christianity as well – only a short distance to the west.”

“The images of Buddha, which begin to appear five or six hundred years after the Buddha’s death, have nothing to do with the beautiful character of 500 BC.”

“The dynamic feats of saviors are symbolic of the meaning of the saviors’ teaching.. It has nothing to do with what happened in life. It has to do with the implications of the life.”

“The Buddha and Confucius share an important date, 500 BC. But the Buddha sought Nirvana, the still point, while Confucius emphasized social participation. Through social participation, the Tao, the way, the life order, is recognized and participated in and brought into manifestation. Confucius’s dates are something like 551 to 478 BC.”

“Lao-tzu represents the Tao in nature; Confucius adapts it to the Tao in society.”

“Now we come to the Near East and Darius I, 523 – 436 BC. He was the master. … The idea is of the emperor as incarnation, or representative of the king of kings – god as king of kings, and human beings as God’s subjects. Here is the idea of Man as the servant of God, man as the subject of God, man as the salve of God. This has come down to us.”

Ch 7 From Id to Ego in the Orient:
Kundalini Yoga, Part I

“In the north [the sun] is, as it were, under the earth, and that’s the area from which demons come, disease comes, dangers come, and tyrannical force comes.”

“c 2000 BC re: a Libation Cup belonging to King Gudea of Mesopotamia
“Lagash was one of the important cities of Sumr durin gthe Sumerian renaissance. Two lion birds, these are later known as cherubim, open the portals of a shrine. Within the shrine are… seven centers formed from interlocking serpents. This is the earliest appearance in the world… of the caduceus.”


“The cherubim who guard the gate of Paradise, the two cherubim that God placed at the gate to keep man away from the tree of immortal life, are now opening the portal. So you can go in, and there is the tree of life, under which the Buddha sat. And where is that tree? It’s right in every one of us.”

Ch 8 From Psychology to Spirituality:
Kundalini Yoga, Part II

“… the 108 names of the goddess. And 108 times 4 is 432, the number of years in the cycle of time. The goddess is the cycle of time. She is time. She is the womb.”

is in her Durga aspect. But she s as black time, Kali. Kali means ‘black”; kali means “time.” That’s her name. She is black time out of which all things come, back into which they go – the void, the transcendent, the mother and tomb of all things.”

Ch 9 The Descent of Heavens:
The Tibetan Book of the Dead

“… absolute… undifferentiated consciousness… You may speak of it as the void, you may speak o fit as the abyss, you may speak of it as mother light. it is that which transcends all cogitations. There are no words for it.”

Ch 10 From Darkness to Light:
The Mystery Religions of Ancient Greece

“The notion that it’s out of he darkness of the abyss, the cthonic realm, that life comes is an important mythological motif. And so the [mystery] cults were very much associated with a cycle of death, descent into the underworld, and then life reborn again.”

“… the two trees in the Garden of Eden. The tree of knowledge of good and evil is the tree of going from unity to multiplicity, and the tree of eternal life is that of going from multiplicity to unity. It’s the same tree in two directions.”

Ch 11 Where there was no Path:
Arthurian Legends and the Western Way

“The bear is the oldest worshipped deity in the world.”

Ch 12 A Noble Heart:
The Courtly Love of Tristan and Isolde

Ch 13 In Search of the Holy Grail:
The Parzival Legend

“… the Grail King, who is in this story, symbolic of the whole problem of the waste land. The Grail King did not earn his position, he inherited it. … He rode out [and] he came to a forest. Out of the forest came riding a pagan Knight from the Holy Land near the place of the Holy Sepulcher. The two knights placed their lances and rode at each other. The Grail King’s lance killed the pagan knight, and the pagan knight’s lance castrated the King and broke the tip of the lance remaining in the wound.”

“Nature has been killed in Europe. The energy of nature has been killed. The death of that pagan knight symbolizes it, and the spiritual impotence of the Grail King is the consequence.”

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Oct 31, 2010 4:09

Thankyou for your light burning so bright, we are truely blessed. Aotearoa New Zealand had/has as nothing really leaves only morphs back to another our selves, the largest Eagle ever. The

Haast's Eagle

Haast's eagle was the largest eagle ever to have lived. Any larger, and it would not have been able to fly.

It was also unusual because it was the top predator in a unique eco-system or food chain – one which was made up of only birds.

Bones of the eagle have been found in more than 50 places, mostly in the east and south of the South Island. Some are estimated to be only 500 years old, showing that eagles and humans were alive together. Other bones are up to 30,000 years old.

Julius von Haast, first director of the Canterbury Museum, was the first to "describe" bones found in the Glenmark Swamp in 1871. The most complete eagle skeleton was recovered from a cave on Mount Owen in northwest Nelson in 1990.

Because eagle bones were found with moa bones in the Glenmark Swamp, it is believed that the eagle may have preyed on moas which were stuck in the swamp.

Charles Frith
Mar 12, 2011 16:54

Excellent work. I only learned about Campbell recently: http://www.charlesfrith.com/2011/01/myth-matters.html

Skip Hunt
Jun 8, 2011 6:31

Got turned onto Joseph’s work around 20 too. He led me to the work of Krishnamurti as well. Always take the Moyer’s interviews and his Hero of a Thousand Faces with me to listen to out in the desert. Great truth from an enlightened soul.

Rohaan Solare
Jun 8, 2011 6:53

I agree and I also believe that the magnitude of Campbell’s contribution to the advancement of human culture has yet to be adequately acknowledged. Talk about demystifying the past!

May 10, 2013 12:26

Thank you from Poland for posting this

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