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The Power of Myth

From ancient myths to Han Solo

By Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
13-minute read
Audio available
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers

The Power of Myth (1988) clarifies the origins, evolution and meaning of myths. By comparing stories from different cultures, myth-master Joseph Campbell demonstrates how myths give clarity to universal notions of life, love and death. As spirituality declines in Western culture, he explains that myths are more important than ever, as they help us understand the human experience.

  • Humanities students or professors
  • Writers, storytellers, scriptwriters or anyone interested in the creation of myth
  • Spiritualists or religious thinkers curious about the role of myth in religion

American mythologist, lecturer and author Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was best known for his exhaustive research and insight into comparative mythology and comparative religion. His best-known works, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, valued by scholars as well as storytellers, influenced films such as Star Wars. The Power of Myth was the companion book to a documentary that aired in the United States.

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The Power of Myth

By Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
  • Read in 13 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 8 key ideas
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The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers
Synopsis

The Power of Myth (1988) clarifies the origins, evolution and meaning of myths. By comparing stories from different cultures, myth-master Joseph Campbell demonstrates how myths give clarity to universal notions of life, love and death. As spirituality declines in Western culture, he explains that myths are more important than ever, as they help us understand the human experience.

Key idea 1 of 8

A myth is a story that provides a shared identity for a community and reflects its cultural origins.

When you were a child, did you enjoy bedtime stories? Tales of the heroic deeds of Robin Hood, or the adventures of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table?

Such stories, or myths, are essential in establishing and preserving the identity of a community.

Many myths explain the beginning of life, or how a culture came to be. Through this, myths function as a tool in forming a group identity and in doing so, they also explain how one group is separate or different from other groups.

The concept of a “chosen people” is grounded in myth. Certain religious groups believe the truth of their community is the only truth, and that they have been chosen by God for a special purpose. In contrast, people who exist outside the group need to be converted or fought.

Religious myths foster a connection with other members of a group and create a common identity and shared destiny, while also acting as a boundary for anyone with differing beliefs.

So how do myths happen? Stories tend to mirror the geographical or cultural roots of the place where they originate.

The idea of a god, for instance, is a cultural construct. In religions with multiple gods, each god is responsible for some element in nature, such as the wind or sun, or even animals. The Incas of South America, for example, believed their founding ancestor was the “son” of the sun god, Inti.

And when circumstances in a culture change, so do its myths.

The mythology of Native American tribes in North America was centred around vegetation. The Cherokee’s “first mother” and most important goddess was Selu, meaning “maize.”

Yet after the Spanish brought horses to the continent, which helped the tribes more efficiently hunt buffalo, the buffalo became an important mythological figure as well.

Myths can adapt or vary over time, but their core message usually endures, allowing members of a group to continue to identify with them.

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