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.