Myths of Light

Next on my summer reading list was Joseph Campbell‘s Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal (I am warmly grateful to Andreas for the present). This is a rich feast of a book. Campbell (1904-1987), a professor of comparative mythology, is now primarily renowned for his inspirational 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. A nonprofit Foundation was set up after his death to continue exploring the fields of mythology and comparative religion and in 2003 the Foundation published this selection of edited transcripts of Campbell’s lectures. Collectively, they represent a wonderful comparative introduction to Eastern myth and religion. There are too many fascinating observations and insights for me to start quoting from them here. Rather, I would like to quote four food-for-thought passages which illustrate Campbell’s underlying philosophy. (1) ‘I think what happens here in the West is that the mythological archetypal symbols have come to be interpreted as facts. Jesus was born of a virgin. Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Jesus went to heaven by ascension. Unfortunately, in our age of scientific skepticism we know these things did not actually happen, and so the mythic forms are called falsehoods. The word myth now means falsehood, and so we have lost the symbols and the mysterious world of which they speak.’ (2) ‘At present, our culture has rejected this world of symbology. It has gone into an economic and political phase, where spiritual principles are completely disregarded. You may have practical ethics and that kind of thing, but there is no spirituality in any aspect of our contemporary Western civilization. Our religious life is ethical, not mystical. The mystery has gone…’ (3) ‘The mythology of a people presents a grandiose poetic image, and like all poetic images, it refers past itself to principles that are mysterious and ineffable.’ (4) ‘In these traditions, mythology was not an account of pseudo-historical facts that are supposed to have happened somewhere else, long ago; rather, each myth is a poetic revelation of the mystery…’ In effect, Campbell was an extremely learned student of poetry.

1 Comment

  1. Cleveland Moffett

    Dear Martin, I found this most interesting. Ever since I encountered Saint Francis in Assisi I have enjoyed the language of mysticism. The mystics inhabit a parallel universe that their writings can only give us a squinty peep into. Because of my irrational devotion to things Belgian I am now reading and trying to think of some way to write about Ruysbroeck l’Admirable. In the town where he was born, Ruusbroec, they don’t seem to know much about him. I got the Flemish equivalent of Bof… for answers. I am reading him filtered through the elegant translation of Maeterlinck so I don’t know if I’m getting the genuine Ruysbroeck or not. I can recommend Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology, by F.C. Happold. It helps if you can be at ease with total incomprehensibility. Cleve

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