Thursday, March 30, 2017

Review: The Mythic Dimension by Joseph Campbell

The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959 – 1987 by Joseph Campbell (edited by Anthony Van Couvering). New World Library, 2017, in conjunction with the Joseph Campbell Foundation, 348 pages trade paperback. (Hardback published in 2008.)

This book is part of a series of “Collected Works” by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) being published by New World Library. We have previously featured two other books in this series. Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine and Romance of the Grail: the Magic and Mystery of Authurian Myth.

The Mythic Dimension has one chapter about the Goddess and touches on the subject in several other chapters. In his Foreword to the book, the editor, Anthony Van Couvering, points out that the essays in the book are in two categories (which he has given section headings): “Mythology and History” and “Mythology and the Arts.” He also notes that the essays are presented “with a minimum of editorial change.” I noticed that this apparently included leaving in Campbell’s use of the generic “Man” (sometimes with initial cap, sometimes not) and “men” for what most of us today would term humans — or more simply, people — as well as other male generics such as “mankind” when humanity or humankind would be more appropriate, and “fathers” instead of parents. I don’t know if this outdated usage will bother many readers, but it will probably come as no surprise to you that it bothered me, at times diverting me from the other content of the book, which contains a huge amount of material often of great historical and mythological interest. Although the use of the male generic occurs throughout the book, the use of “Man” is particularly curious in the first chapter (“Comparative Mythology as an Introduction to Cross-Cultural Studies”), an essay by Campbell about how he developed a course for his students—all women—at Sarah Lawrence College beginning in 1939. This course eventually became a series of lectures on television, beginning in 1963.
Thanks to permission from the publisher, here is an excerpt from the third section of the chapter on Goddess. The title of the chapter is “The Mystery Number of the Goddess.” It is the last of 4 chapters in the first of the section titled “Mythology and History.” This excerpt is from material under the heading “Māyā–Śakti–Devī.” Campbell writes:
The earliest and richest aggregate of testimonials to the character and functionality of this all-embracing and supporting, universal divinity in the earliest period and theater of her preeminency is that illustrated and expounded in Marija Gimbutas’s unprecedented exposition. And the fundamental original trait of the Goddess there represented at the opening of her historic career is that she was at that time bisexual, absolute, and single in her generative role. “As a supreme Creator who creates from her own substance, she is the primary goddess,” Gimbutas declares, “of the Old European pantheon. In this she contrasts with the Indo-European Earth Mother, who is the impalpable sacred earth-spirit and is not in herself a creative principle; only through the interaction of the sky god does she become pregnant.”
The idea is equivalent to that which in India is implicit in the compound noun māyā–śakti–devī, the “goddess” (devī), as at once the “moving energy” (śakti) and the “illusion” (māyā) of phenomenality. For according to this nondualistic type of cosmogonic metaphor, the universe as māyā is Brahman, the Imperishable, as perceived. ….
An outstanding characteristic of many of the artworks illustrated in Gimbutas’s volume is the abstract formality of their symbolically adorned and proportioned form….
Painted or inscribed upon these symbolically composed little revelations of powers intuited as informing and moving the whole spectacle of nature were a number of characteristic signs or ideograms….
Statuettes of the Goddess in many forms…identify her with every one of these tokens of the structuring force of a universe of which she… is at once the source and the substance….
[end of excerpt]

 Other sections of this chapter are “All Things Anew,” which discusses a number over 100,000 (I don’t want to give it away if you don’t already know it), which relates to a “cycle of time.” Campbell puzzles over the fact that the number of years appears not only in writings about the mythology of “recurrent cycles of time” from India, but also in writings of similar subject from Iceland. He continues with related numerology from various other sources, bringing him to the next section, “The Goddess Universe,” which begins with a discussion of various Flood texts, continues with discussion of the relationship of mythologies among various cultures, and leads up to the appearance “everywhere” of a “paramount divinity” that is a “metaphoric apparition of life that outlives death who became in later centuries venerated as the Goddess of Many Names.” The chapter after “Māyā–Śakti–Devī” is titled “The Pulse of Being” and discusses the dates given by Gimbutas of the appearance of the Goddess in various cultures and their relationship to the special number with which Campbell is concerned. The next two sections discuss the Goddess-related forms, “Creatress and Redemptress,” and “The Muses Nine,” after which Campbell moves on to sections titled, “Of Harmony and of Discord,” and “Ragnorok,” about other Goddess roles and relationships. In all, “The Mystery of Number of the Goddess” spans about 65 pages, one of the longer chapters in the book. It is preceded in the Mythology and History section by “The Historical Development of Mythology,” “Renewal Myths and Rites,” and “Johann Jacob Bachoften.”
In the section, Mythology and the Arts, chapters are “Creativity,” “The Interpretation of Symbolic Forms,” “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art,” “The Occult in Myth and Literature,” and “Erotic Irony and Mythic Forms in the Art of Thomas Mann.” The back matter includes the Sarah Lawrence course reading list, notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Though a serious, scholarly, book, The Mythic Dimension is not without its humor. For example, in the first chapter of Mythology and History Campbell writes: “… for six days a week we honor the humanistic values of Greece and Rome and on the seventh for half an hour or so, confess guilt before a jealous Levantine god. Then we wonder why so many of us must repair to the psychoanalyst.”

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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.