on November 28, 1998
I cannot overrate the depth & breadth of Campbell's insights.This book is at once visionary and scholarly, passionate and detached:in sum, it reveals the powerful (under)currents that helped to shape our minds and hearts into what we are. From Persia and Israel, from Greece and Rome, through the crucible of Norse and Irish mythologies of the Middle Ages-this book ends with Zarathustra's words "By my love and my hope I beseech you-do not forsake hero in your soul!"
on May 16, 2004
When Joseph Campbell died, we lost a treasure. Campbell spent years building his vast knowledge of myths and thankfully, committed much of his distilled knowledge to writing. OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY is one of three major works the author compiled about the history of the myth and is part of the THE MASKS OF GOD series. In OM Campbell reinforces the compelling case he made to Bill Moyers and through his writing, that we need to look beyond the masks if we would truly know 'the thing that stands behind'. In the'Masks of the Gods'series, Campbell synthesizes much of the archeological, linguistic, and theological material discovered and analyzed in the 20th Century, to elaborate and modify many themes found in Sir James Frazier's GOLDEN BOUGH written almost a century earlier.
Campbell organizes his series historically across space, showing how the beliefs of one age and place influenced those of another. In OM he discusses in great depth and with scholarly wisdom how the religions of the Levant were shaped by internal and external forces, and how in turn religious movements that originated in the Middle East interacted with the beliefs of the various peoples of Europe. Religious beliefs apparently do not travel one-way. Among other aspects of religious transmission, Campbell discusses the process of 'mythological defamation' the priests of newer religions employ to attempt to demonize the old religions. Using art forms such as statuary and painting, Campbell also demonstrates how themes and ideas from older religions survive in the guise of the newer religion as elements of the older religion become incorporated into the newer religion (if you can't demonize it, incorporate it). Some of the more interesting transformations in the West involve the snake, the Goddess, and the risen Lord, which have an ancient history.
After revealing how the attributes of one religion after another became incorporated in a succeeding religion (Christianity and Islam are covered), Campbell summarizes his thesis. It seems a core theological issues is this: If a Higher Power exists, is it (he/she) transcendent or immanent? The transcendent God is "out there" while the immanent God is "down here". In other words is God, part of his or her creation? Thousands of people have died fighting over this and other difficult questions.
on October 3, 2003
Occidental mythology developed into the three major monotheistic religions that dominate the West - Islam, Christianity and in particular, Judaism. The role of the divine in the Western psyche has evolved from the Primitive, flirted with the multi-dimensional gods and goddesses of the East before settling down to a one God belief. (Although one would have question how the idea of a Trinity fits in with that belief.)
The notions of sacrifice and redemption are heard throughout the saga, with many religions, lost sects and heresies sharing a similiar prophecy - that a Messiah would come who would lead them to victory. But before this was another belief-the eternal battle between good and evil. Perhaps the hardest idea for Monotheists is the notion of singular God and the presence of evil. This required the invention of yet another divinity - one that is evil.
Campbell traces the origins of Christianity, its strains and morphing theology. Along the was and from an Arian strain of Christianity (which virtually rejected the oneness of a Trinity) arose Islam, a warrior religion that originally worshipped a desert rock. The Kaaba, this rock, is still an object of adoration for Muslims and is circled by pilgrims annually. The ideas of sacrifice and atonement by at first an animal, then a person, had ancient origins - the sacrifice of the one for the many - well before Christian times.
Campbell continually tries to show the parallels between our modern religions and the now-forgotten rituals and beliefs that became universally imbedded in the Occidental mind.
on August 18, 2003
Religion in the West is the story of the battle between immanence (God as present in and suffusing the existence of the world) and transcendence (God as removed from and greater than existence). OCCIDENTAL MYTHOLOGY, Volume III in Campbell's MASKS OF GOD series, tells this story: how Western mythology turned slowly away from polytheism, the transcending of duality, and God's immanence, and toward monotheism, the ontology of duality, and God's transcendence.
Before tackling Christianity, Campbell spends several chapters on its predecessor faiths. We see how Judaism emerges from the scraps of the so-called Jahwist (J), Priestly (P) and Elohim (E) texts, and how the priests who pooled these various tales together created a single mythology for the Hebrew people. Campbell spends a fair clip on the subject of Freud's MOSES AND MONOTHEISM: Did the Great Prophet really exist, and if so, was he Egyptian or Hebrew?
Campbell seems to detour when he takes up the Greek and Roman religions, but we soon realize that it's not as much of a detour as we have fancied. Campbell, following Jane Ellen Harrison's PROLEGOMENA TO THE STUDY OF GREEK RELIGION, argues that Greek mythology began as a group of Goddess-centric mystery cults (of which the Eleusinian, Orphic and Dionysian traditions became the last remaining vestages), and that beginning with Homer, the Greeks edged closer to a monotheistic, paternalistic religion; Zeus' slaughtering of the Titans, the children of the Earth Goddess Gaia, is symbolic of this conquest, and Campbell points out the parallels to the Babylonian God Marduk's slaying of Tiamat, and Yahweh's conquest of the sea-serpent Leviathan. This conquest of the Goddess is driven, Campbell argues, by the rise of the warrior-king - conquerers like Babylon's Hammurabi who used religion to give their invasions the imprimatur of Heaven, necessitating that their faith serve as man's "One True Religion". The Greeks, however, managed to avoid such dogmatism, their religion kept sober by the cool light of reason, bringing a detente between religion and science which has been repeated in few cultures since.
Campbell spends a number of pages on Zoroastrianism. Unlike the Jewish tradition, in which both good and evil flow from God, the prophecies of Zoroaster cast reality as a battle between Ahura Mazda's forces of Light and Angra Mainyu's forces of Darkness - a battle which would end in a single tumultuous war with the triumph of Ahura Mazda. Zoroaster set the stage for the Jewish doomsday cult of the Essenes, and for the foremost apocalyptic prophet of the era: Jesus of Nazareth. We see the message of Christ evolve as it flows through Paul, and then through the councils of the 3rd-5th centuries A.D. Along the way, Campbell delights us with more of his lateral thinking, detailing how the myth of the Disappearing God appears both in the stories of Jesus' resurrection as well as the sudden evaporation of Romulus, the founder of Rome.
In documenting the rise of Christianity, Campbell also shows us all the "heresies" that we lost: the Greek and Roman pantheons; Gnosticism, a "Buddhism for the West", with Christ assuming the role of Shakyamuni; the minor doctrincal differences regarding reincarnation and the bodily existence of Christ that were converted into high crimes. The book finishes with a chapter on Islam, in which Campbell brings the remarkable rise of Mohammed's prophecy to life, and shows how the tradition of immanence nearly lost with the suppression of Gnosticism and the Grecian mystery cults managed to live on in the works of the great poets of Sufism.
While I love the MASKS OF GOD books, and find them a gentle read, the pages upon pages of stone carvings, bas-reliefs and statues can quickly wear down the eyes and the mind. Campbell keeps the pace brisk, but this is still not a book you read in a single sitting. While Freud, Jung and Nietschze make their obligatory appearances, Campbell keeps the psychological theorizing in this volume to a minimum, content to let history tell its own story.
Many Christian authors have accused Campbell of blaming Judaism and Christianity for all the world's ills. But Campbell does the exact opposite: He shows how these religions were part of an inexorable - and, perhaps, inevitable - shift in the religious thinking of the West. This won't satisfy Christian traditionalists bent of proving the "uniqueness" of Christianity, but it will delight students of comparative mythology who seek to understand how religion became a tool of oppression.
on April 8, 2011
This book answered my questions, explaining clearly how life and religion were prior to Christianity. I have been searching for this information, and Joseph Campbell's book certainly was effective in helping me. I trust his information since he does his research. It took him 12 years to compile the facts and to write the book. His conclusions are backed up by archeological information as well as references from many accurate sources. It was a pleasure to read.
DorisMae Honer, Author, A Tale of Spirit: Yours, Mine and Lessons from the Universe.