March 26, 2008


Heracles, courtesy of wikipedia.

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is probably the most popular interpreter of myths today. Campbell was the author of The Masks of God, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and many other works. His works also inspired Star Wars creator George Lucas.

Campbell's public following grew by leaps and bounds with PBS's broadcast of The Power of Myth, a series of interviews between Campbell and Bill Moyers. Strongly influenced by Jung, he believed that all myths worldwide shared similar themes and spiritual insights. He sometimes spoke of a "monomyth," such as that of the quest of a hero, as if all humanity was basically watching the same psychic movie.

One problem with that approach is that it selectively picks from many diverse myths and imposes a general interpretation on widely diverse traditions with widely different systems of meaning.

He had a knack for catchy phrases such as this one:

Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.

Sounds good but doesn't hold up too well. Myths are enduring stories repeated over time, whereas dreams are physiological events, most of which are not remembered or retold. Myths provide a world of meaning for those who accept them, whereas most dreams are mental static that have little influence on daily life (although we arguably should pay more attention to them than we do).

The problem with overgeneralizing about myths is that in doing so one creates a more or less artificial construct that loses a lot of particularity. As one of El Cabrero's teachers used to say, you can't unscramble an egg. Instead of lumping all myths together into some gigantic stew, it might be more interesting to look at different traditions in their own terms.


THE TREE ARMY. Here's Bill McKibben on the relevance of New Deal era programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps today.

COAL AND/OR HEALTH. A new study by a WVU researcher finds that residents of the state's coalfields are more likely than other West Virginians to suffer from chronic heart, lung and kidney disease.

SOME DAYS YOU EAT THE BEAR... Here's Dean Baker on the credit crisis and corporate bailouts.

THE WIRE. Here's a critical view of El Cabrero's favorite TV show that talks about all the positive things in Baltimore and other cities that the show ignores.
Point well taken, but can somebody tell the folks at HBO to get that season 5 DVD out soon?

SPIDERS AND SNAKES. New research is studying the question of whether the common fear of snakes and spiders is an evolutionary inheritance or something learned.

LOOK TO THE ANT, THOU SLUGGARD! They invented farming 50 million years ago when we were just a twinkle in a primate's eye.


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