Friday, March 9, 2012

Joseph Campbell’s Functions of Myth

So last week after watching The Power of Myth, I was inspired to write a blog post about how Joseph Campbell shaped my studies. I touched on one of his foremost theories which was the monomyth but he has many, many more about religion and really culture in general.

Possibly my favorite of Campbell’s works that he has written is The Masks of God where he goes into the concept that all myths have come from one place and deviated from there. In addition towards the end of the book he goes into the concept that myths also have different functions not only in individual societies (such as explaining events) but in human society in general. Campbell then broke them down into what he thought were four different functions.

The first of these functions is the “The Metaphysical Function: Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being.” According to Campbell, the absolute great mysteries of the world cannot be captured specifically with just words or images. Myths are "being statements and the experience of this mystery can be had only through a participation in mythic rituals or the contemplation of mythic symbols that point beyond themselves"(Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth).

The second is a little more concrete and he calls it “The Cosmological Function.” This function is to explain the shape of the universe whether it is creation or something else. Campbell believed that myths also functioned as a sort of “proto-science” bringing the observable (physical) world into accord with the metaphysical and psychological meanings rendered by the other functions of mythology. Campbell thought that the current problem many people have today between science and religion on matters of “truth” is really between science of the ancient world and that of today (Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth).

The next two he had sort of go hand in hand. He believed that there was a “Sociological Function.” And it sounds just like what it means. He believed that there was a sort of social order that the myths laid down and also validated through the stories. He had this notion (which I immensely agree with through my studies of Anthropology) that ancient societies had to conform to an existing social order if they were to survive at all. This is because they evolved under pressures from necessities much more extreme than the ones encountered in our modern world (such as big natural disasters, warring societies, etc. Mythology then confirmed that order and enforced it by reflecting it into the actual stories which often describe how the order was sent down by the gods (Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth).

Last is related to the Sociological Function and is called the “The Psychological Function.” This one Campbell believed took those orders set down by the gods and then was set to guide the people of the society through the stages of life. Campbell believed that as a person goes through life, many psychological challenges will be encountered. Myths then served as a guide for getting through these challenges and “passages of life” (Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth). The greatest example of this (in my opinion) is in most ancient (and present day) cultures they used rites of passage as a youth passed to the adult stage. There are many great myths about these elaborate journey’s that young men (and sometimes women) went through to achieve the next stage in life. The myths were a fantastical representation of the actual rituals that the cultures practiced.

It is easy to see that these functions all go hand and hand. These functions then can be applied to essentially every culture out there and their myths. They show once again that all myths have those common threads that run through them, the common structure that they build off on. This then backs up the concept of the monomyth that I love so much (yeah, yeah I’m such a geek I know).

If you want to learn more about Joseph Campbell and his functions you can go on his Foundation website and download his lectures that he gave back in the 60s (there is a fee involved):

Also you can watch The Power of Myth on your local MPT (PBS) station and if you’re like me completely geek out watching these last interviews of Joseph Campbell’s amazing life.


Campbell J. (1969) Lectures II.1.1 The Function of Myth (given at the The Esalen Institute in August, 1969)

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, vol. 4: Creative Mythology (New York: Viking, 1965)


Alexis Kennedy said...

We have a date for tomorrow morning, Sammi!! 8am MPT!

Sam Curtin said...

Yep! I'll be there!! (though I might be at the gym for part of it since there's a television in there)

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