Excerpt from The Power of Myth: SACRIFICE AND BLISS by Joseph Campbell

There was a comment on the Working With Oneness Facebook page which prompted me to post this excerpts from Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I dont really remember what it was, but it sparked memories of my reading of this great books and some notes I took. I feel there is a lot here that is germane not only to the recent writings of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee that I have been  sharing my thoughts on but also to what is happening to the world around us and why. I will be using this to sum  up this afore mentioned series.


If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a land of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.

MOYERS: What impresses me as I read what you have written about the impact of the environment on storytelling is that these people — the people on the plains, the hunters, the people in the forest, the planters — are participating in their landscape. They are part of their world, and every feature of their world becomes sacred to them.

CAMPBELL: The sanctification of the local landscape is a fundamental function of mythology. You can see this very clearly with the Navaho, who will identify a northern mountain, a southern mountain, an eastern mountain, a western mountain, and a central mountain. In a Navaho hogan, the door always faces east. The fireplace is in the center, which becomes a cosmic center, with the smoke coming up through the hole in the ceiling so that the scent of the incense goes to the nostrils of the gods. The landscape, the dwelling place, becomes an icon, a holy picture. Wherever you are, you are related to the cosmic order. Again, when you see a Navaho sand painting, there will be a surrounding figure — it may represent a mirage or the rainbow or what not, but there will always be a surrounding figure with an opening in the east so that the new spirit can pour in. When the Buddha sat under the bo tree, he faced east — the direction of the rising sun.

MOYERS: On my first visit to Kenya, I went alone to one of the ancient sites of a primitive camp on what used to be the shore of a lake, and stayed there until night fell, feeling a sense of the presence of all creation — sensing underneath that night sky, in that vast place, that I belonged to something ancient, something very much still alive.

CAMPBELL: I think it’s Cicero who says that when you go into a great tall grove, the presence of a deity becomes known to you. There are sacred groves everywhere. Going into the forest as a little boy, I can remember worshiping a tree, a great big old tree, thinking, “My, my, what you’ve known and been.” I think this sense of the presence of creation is a basic mood of man. But we live now in a city. It’s all stone and rock, manufactured by human hands. It’s a different kind of world to grow up in when you’re out in the forest with the little chipmunks and the great owls. All these things are around you as presences, representing forces and powers and magical possibilities of life that are not yours and yet are all part of life, and that opens it out to you. Then you find it echoing in yourself, because you are nature. When a Sioux Indian would take the calumet, the pipe, he would hold it up stem to the sky so that the sun could take the first puff. And then he’d address the four directions always. In that frame of mind, when you’re addressing yourself to the horizon, to the world that you’re in, then you’re in your place in the world. It’s a different way to live.

MOYERS: You write in The Mythic Image about the center of transformation, the idea of a sacred place where the temporal walls may dissolve to reveal a wonder. What does it mean to have a sacred place?

CAMPBELL: This is an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.

MOYERS: This sacred place does for you what the plains did for the hunter.

Standing still by Darlene Gait

CAMPBELL: For them the whole world was a sacred place. But our life has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. Where is your bliss station? You have to try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the music that you really love, even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects. Or get the book you like to read. In your sacred place you get the “thou” feeling of life that these people had for the whole world in which they lived.

MOYERS: We have talked about the impact of the landscape on the people. But what about the effect of people on the landscape?

CAMPBELL: People claim the land by creating sacred sites, by mythologizing the animals and plants — they invest the land with spiritual powers. It becomes like a temple, a place for meditation. For example, the Navaho did a marvelous job in mythologizing animals. In the Navaho sand paintings, you see these little animals, each with its own value.

Now, these animals are not shown naturalistically. They are stylized. And the stylization refers to their spiritual, not to their merely physical, characteristics. There is a big fly, for example, that will sometimes fly down and sit on your shoulder when you are walking along in the desert. In the Navaho myths he is known as Big Fly, also as Little Wind. He whispers to the young heroes the answers to all the questions that their fathers put to them when they are being tested. Big Fly is the voice of the holy spirit revealing hidden wisdom.

MOYERS: And the purpose of all this?

CAMPBELL: To claim the land. To turn the land where they lived into a place of spiritual relevance. MOYERS: So when Moses looked out on the Promised Land, he was simply doing what other spiritual leaders had done for their own people. He was claiming that land.

CAMPBELL: Yes. You remember the story of Jacob’s dream. When Jacob awakes, the place becomes Bethel, the house of God. Jacob has claimed that place with a certain spiritual significance. This is the place where God sowed his energies.

MOYERS: Do sacred sites still exist on this continent today?

CAMPBELL: Mexico City was a sacred site, one of the great cities in the world before the Spanish tore it apart. When the Spanish first saw Mexico City, or Tenochtitlán, it was a greater city than any city in Europe. And it was a sacred city, with great temples. Now the Catholic cathedral is right where the temple of the sun used to be. That’s an example of land-claiming by the Christians. You see, they are transforming the same landscape into their landscape by putting their temple where the other temple was.

Our Pilgrim fathers, for example, named sites after biblical centers. And somebody in upper New York State had the Odyssey and Iliad in his mind — Ithaca, Utica, and one classical name after another.

MOYERS: In a sense, people are anointing the land where they believe there is energy which empowers them. There is an organic relationship between the land and the structures people build upon it.

CAMPBELL: Yes, but that ended with the coming of the metropolis.

MOYERS: In New York now, the competition is over who can build the tallest building.

CAMPBELL: This is a kind of architectural triumph. It is the statement of the city that we are a financial power center, and look what we can do. It is a kind of virtuoso acrobatic stunt.

MOYERS: Where are the sacred places today?

CAMPBELL: They don’t exist. There are a few historical spots where people may go to think about something important that happened there. For example, we may go visit the Holy Land, because that’s the land of our religious origins. But every land should be a holy land. One should find the symbol in the landscape itself of the energies of the life there.

That’s what all early traditions do. They sanctify their own landscape. That’s what the early settlers of Iceland did, for example, in the eighth and ninth centuries. They established their different settlements in a relationship of 432,000 Roman feet to each other (432,000 is an important mythological number known to many traditions).

The whole organization of the Icelandic landscape was in terms of such cosmic relationships, so that wherever you go in Iceland, you are, so to say (if you know your mythology), in accord with the universe. This is the same kind of mythology that you have in Egypt, but in Egypt the symbology took a different shape because Egypt is not circular, Egypt is long. So there you have the sky goddess as a Sacred Cow, two feet in the south and two feet in the north — a rectangular idea, so to speak. But the spiritual symbolization of our own civilization is basically lost to us. That’s why it’s so wonderful to go to the lovely little French town of

Chartres where the cathedral still dominates, and you hear the bells ring when night turns to day, and when morning turns to noon, and again when day turns to night. I consider Chartres my parish. I’ve been there often. When I was a student in Paris, I spent one whole weekend in the cathedral, studying every single figure there. I was there so much that the concierge came up to me one noontime and said, “Would you like to go up with me and ring the bells?” I said, “I sure would.” So we climbed the tower up to the great bronze bell. There was a little platform like a seesaw. He stood on one end of the seesaw, and I stood on the other end of the seesaw, and there was a little bar there for us to hold on to. He gave the thing a push, and then he was on it, and I was on it. And we started going up and down, and the wind was blowing through our hair, up there in the cathedral, and then it began ringing underneath us — “Bong, bong, bong.” It was one of the most thrilling adventures of my life.

When it was all over, he brought me down, and he said, “I want to show you where my room is.” Well, in a cathedral you have the nave, then the transept, and then the apse, and around the apse is the choir screen. He took me through a little door in the middle of the choir screen, and there was his little bed and a little table with a lamp on it. When I looked out through the screen, there was the window of the Black Madonna — and that was where he lived. Now, there was a man living by constant meditation. That was a very moving, beautiful thing. I’ve been to Chartres time and time again since.

MOYERS: And what do you find there?

CAMPBELL: It takes me back to a time when these spiritual principles informed the society. You can tell what’s informing a society by what the tallest building is. When you approach a medieval town, the cathedral is the tallest thing in the place. When you approach an eighteenth-century town, it is the political palace that’s the tallest thing in the place. And when you approach a modern city, the tallest places are the office buildings, the centers of economic life.

If you go to Salt Lake City, you see the whole thing illustrated right in front of your face. First the temple was built, right in the center of the city. This is the proper organization because the temple is the spiritual center from which everything flows in all directions. Then the political building, the Capitol, was built beside it, and it’s taller than the temple. And now the tallest thing is the office building that takes care of the affairs of both the temple and the political building. That’s the history of Western civilization. From the Gothic through the princely periods of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries, to this economic world that we’re in now.

MOYERS: So when you go to Chartres —

CAMPBELL: — I’m back in the Middle Ages. I’m back in the world that I was brought up in as a child, the Roman Catholic spiritual-image world, and it is magnificent.

MOYERS: You’re not a man who swims long in nostalgia. It’s not just the past that moves you when you go there, is it?

CAMPBELL: No, it’s the present. That cathedral talks to me about the spiritual information of the world. It’s a place for meditation, just walking around, just sitting, just looking at those beautiful things.

MOYERS: The cathedral at Chartres which you love so much also expresses a relationship of the human to the cosmos, doesn’t it?

CAMPBELL: Yes. The cathedral is in the form of a cross, with the altar in the middle there. It’s a symbolic structure. Now many churches are built as though they were theaters. Visibility is important. In the cathedral, there is no interest in visibility at all. Most of what goes on goes on out of your sight. But the symbol is what’s important there, not just watching the show. Everybody knows the show by heart. You’ve seen it ever since you were a six-year-old child.

MOYERS: Why keep going to the cathedral, then?

CAMPBELL: That’s the whole business of myth. Why do we like to talk about these things again? Because it puts us back in touch with the essential archetypology of our spiritual life. Going through a ritual day after day keeps you on the line.

MOYERS: But we don’t do that now.

CAMPBELL: We’ve lost touch with that kind of concern. The goal of early life was to live in constant consciousness of the spiritual principle. In the Assyrian palaces, you’ll see a composite beast with the head of a man, the body of a lion, the wings of the eagle, and the feet of a bull: four signs of the zodiac that have been put together and made into door guardians.

Those same four beasts, which are associated with the vision of Ezekiel, become the four evangelists in the Christian tradition. You remember the prayer: “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, bless the bed that I sleep on.” In this prayer, you are in the middle, where Christ is, and the four points of the compass around you are the four posts of your bed.

Now, this mandala represents the Christ appearing from beyond Space-Time. Those four beasts represent the veil of Space-Time, veiling eternity, and the Christ in the center is the breakthrough, the second birth, the coming of the Lord of the World from the womb of the universal goddess, Space-Time.

MOYERS: You say that a cathedral such as Chartres symbolizes the knowledge of a ground of meaning that transcends the law and is present architecturally not only in the forms of majestic stone but also in the great silence surrounding and inhabiting those forms.

CAMPBELL: All final spiritual reference is to the silence beyond sound. The word made flesh is the first sound. Beyond that sound is the transcendent unknown, the unknowable. It can be spoken of as the great silence, or as the void, or as the transcendent absolute.

MOYERS: When I listen to you talk about how myths connect us to our sacred places, and how landscapes connected primal human beings to the universe, I begin to think that the supernatural, at least as you understand it, is really only the natural.

CAMPBELL: The idea of the supernatural as being something over and above the natural is a killing idea. In the Middle Ages this was the idea that finally turned that world into something like a wasteland, a land where people were living inauthentic lives, never doing a thing they truly wanted to because the supernatural laws required them to live as directed by their clergy. In a wasteland, people are fulfilling purposes that are not properly theirs but have been put upon them as inescapable laws. This is a killer. The twelfth-century troubadour poetry of courtly love was a protest against this supernaturally justified violation of life’s joy in truth. So too the Tristan legend and at least one of the great versions of the legend of the Grail, that of Wolfram von Eschenbach. The spirit is really the bouquet of life. It is not something breathed into life, it comes out of life. This is one of the glorious things about the mother-goddess religions, where the world is the body of the Goddess, divine in itself, and divinity isn’t something ruling over and above a fallen nature. There was something of this spirit in the medieval cult of the Virgin, out of which all the beautiful thirteenth-century French cathedrals arose.

However, our story of the Fall in the Garden sees nature as corrupt; and that myth corrupts the whole world for us. Because nature is thought of as corrupt, every spontaneous act is sinful and must not be yielded to. You get a totally different civilization and a totally different way of living according to whether your myth presents nature as fallen or whether nature is in itself a manifestation of divinity, and the spirit is the revelation of the divinity that is inherent in nature.

MOYERS: Who interprets the divinity inherent in nature for us today? Who are our shamans? Who interprets unseen things for us?

CAMPBELL: It is the function of the artist to do this. The artist is the one who communicates myth for today. But he has to be an artist who understands mythology and humanity and isn’t simply a sociologist with a program for you.

MOYERS: What about those others who are ordinary, those who are not poets or artists, or who have not had a transcendent ecstasy? How do we know of these things?

CAMPBELL: I’ll tell you a way, a very nice way. Sit in a room and read — and read and read. And read the right books by the right people: Your mind is brought onto that level, and you have a nice, mild, slow-burning rapture all the time. This realization of life can be a constant realization in your living. When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything he has done. Don’t say, “Oh, I want to know what So-and-so did” — and don’t bother at all with the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has to give you. And then you can go read what he had read. And the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view. But when you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such a poem — but he hasn’t said anything to you.

One response to “Excerpt from The Power of Myth: SACRIFICE AND BLISS by Joseph Campbell

  1. Pingback: Lifencompass » Blog Archive » Excerpt: Diane K. Osbon, “A Joseph Campbell Companion.”·

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