You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Joseph Campbell's classic analysis of mythology from around the world. Campbell discusses elements of various myths and shows patterns that appear in all myths. His approach uses theories of psychoanalysis from Freud and Jung. Freud's ideas about the son killing the father and taking his place in the mother's bed has reflections in all sorts of myths beyond the story of Oedipus.

Part One is "The Adventure of the Hero". It describes the hero's journey as he leaves society, does great deeds, goes to the world beyond, and returns to bring knowledge to his people. The hero crosses the threshold from the natural world to the supernatural world, entering the the world of forms, or metaphorically, entering the subconscious. There he joins with the mother, atones with the father, and receives special knowledge. The special knowledge may be in the form of a magical item and helps the natural world or society. Often there are tests that the hero must go through to prove his worth or even his very identity. When the hero returns to the natural world, the knowledge he brings either restores society or takes it to a new level.

In Part Two, "The Cosmogonic Cycle," Campbell discusses the myths of origins. Many mythologies describe vast cycles of time that repeat or alternative. Most systems begin with a creation of order out of chaos, or a separation of singularity into complements, e.g. yin/yang or male/female or light/dark. The primordial world is described as giving birth through some primal mating, often with the Earth and sky. At some point, the mythic world of forms is transformed into the world of history, often with a transformative figure. This hero bridges the world of gods and legends to the current world.

I found this book very informative and sweeping in its coverage of different myths. I was somewhat unsure about Campbell's use of classic psychoanalysis, since I feel it overemphasizes the Oedipus Complex due to Victorian standards and preoccupations. But its truth is expressed in myths throughout the world. Many mythologies express the concern of a god or legendary king seeking to protect his power from being stolen from his progeny, or show his heirs stealing the power that's rightfully theirs. Also, the usurper in turn becomes the tyrant, leading to another cycle.

I was also intrigued by the elements of motherhood, specifically the virgin births. Mothers are seen as producing the whole world. The cycles of life, death, and rebirth occur again and again.

I came to understand myth much better when Campbell discussed mythical forms as representations of the subconscious. Maybe a part of me already knew this, but reading the passages up to it gave me the foundations to see it this way. I had always considered them abstractions, but not as symbols of the inner psyche. This was enlightening to me. In Campbell's description, when the hero reaches the other world and communes with the eternal mother and achieves special knowledge, this is symbolic of internal psychological forces. So much myth makes so much more sense with this perspective.

Campbell was clearly well read and understood not just the surfaces of myths but their underlying meaning and common links. He shows how the mythical hero is the embodiment of so many things: the super powerful human, the link to the world of forms, the transcending of life and death or even all opposites. These elements play out on the microcosm of the mind and the macrocosm of the universe. Understanding myth is critical to understanding psychology, religion, literature, even art. It is an eternal cycles that we encounter in many great works. A


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