Book Review: The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

Posted August 19, 2012 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 8 Comments

Book Review: The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
Published by Anchor Doubleday on 2011 (original pub. 1989)
Pages: 287
Genres: Non-Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased

The Power of Myth is the companion text to the 1988 six-part PBS documentary called Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. In this documentary Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion, is interviewed by journalist Bill Mowyers about the role of mythology in modern society. This companion text to the documentary is just that — a companion. It does not exactly replicate the conversations broadcast on television; rather, it follows the flow of the televised conversation while also weaving in additional information gleaned from the 24 hours of filmed conversation.

I know this probably sounds kind of boring: two old guys talking about mythology 24 years ago. This isn’t relevant to your life, right? WRONG. Really, guys, it is totally fascinating! I’ve always loved mythology; it’s so interesting to learn the stories past civilizations told to explain the mysterious world around them and to teach lessons. But mythology isn’t just ancient Greek stories about youths turning into flowers because they can’t get enough of their own reflections; it is an integral part of every culture, even today, and it is intriguing to learn how the mythologies of different cultures and eras all tell the same stories, but in different ways. Did you know that many, many mythologies have tales of virgin births, heroic sacrifices, and snake figures? It is amazing to read about all of these common links, which hint at the essential core of humanity and what makes us tick.

This is the kind of book that made me want to run up to people and gush, “Hey, did you know that gangs arose because our society no longer places importance on mythology? Yeah, Joseph Campbell says kids growing up in the city aren’t taught the myths, so ‘they make them up themselves. This is why we have graffiti all over the city. These kids have their own gangs and their own initiations and their own morality, and they’re doing the best they can. But they’re dangerous because their own laws are not those of the city. They have not been initiated into our society.’ DID YOU KNOW THAT?!”

So it’s really not two old men talking about Orpheus and Euridice. They’re talking about how mythology teaches people of all cultures and times how to experience the world around them. Campbell tells dozens of stories from different mythological systems ranging from Hinduism to Christianity to Buddhism to Native American religions, and it is really interesting to learn about the common themes they all share and why these themes are important. It might sound dry, but the conversational style is really easy to read, and the subject matter will be fascinating to anyone interested in mythology, religion, sociology, or even just stories. And since you’re reading a blog dedicated to books, I’m pretty sure you love a good story.

In addition to teaching me about the role of mythology in the world, The Power of Myth helped me develop some of my beliefs and ideas about religion/God. It confirmed some of my existing convictions, helped me clarify some vague inclinations, and blew my mind with brand new ideas. However, this heightened understanding actually made me more confused about other aspects! My mind is sufficiently boggled in the best possible way. I’m not comfortable posting my beliefs/thoughts about religion for the world to see, but I’m fairly certain I can promise that whatever your beliefs (or lack thereof), this book will challenge some, reinforce others, and help you understand them and how they fit into the world. Very highly recommended reading!

  • I have always loved myths and was fascinated in the roles these stories played in society. This book sounds great. 🙂

    • I think you would like it. Reading myths from different mythological systems around the world was so much fun, and it was amazing to see how they all connect.

  • I’m so glad you liked it! It’s one of my fave reads, and I LOVE the documentary 😀

    • I actually got the documentary from the library, but I’m sorry to say it didn’t do it for me! I learn from reading much better than from listening, and it was a little hard for me to focus. I like to be able to go back and re-read sections to make sure I fully understand them, and I couldn’t quite get into the flow of being borne relentlessly forward in the documentary. But I did really love the book 🙂

  • I’m pretty sure I don’t agree with Campbell about why gangs exist (I’m pretty sure a good dose of mythology wouldn’t change much), but this DOES sound like an interesting read. I’m adding it to my list!

    • You’re probably right that there’s more to the gang situation than a paucity of mythology in members’ lives, but it’s an interesting correlation, at least. Yay, I hope you like it!

  • Lovely book, it reminds me very much of American Gods (which I haven’t read yet but everyone at Goodreads gives it 4 stars). It would be a great experience to watch the documentary and read the book right afterwards.

    • I’m not familiar with American Gods, but I’ll have to look it up! I tried to watch the documentary after reading the book, but as I told Layla, I couldn’t get into the documentary! Perhaps it would be better to watch the documentary first, since the book kind of expands on the conversations in the TV series.