Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: The Power Of Myth – Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers

The Power Of Myth – Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers

Campbell's most impressive gift was his ability to take a contemporary situation, such as the murder and funeral of President John F. Kennedy, and help us understand its impact in the context of ancient mythology. Herein lies the power of The Power of Myth, showing how humans are apt to create and live out the themes of mythology. Based on a six-part PBS TV series hosted by Bill Moyers, this classic is especially compelling because of its engaging question-and-answer format, creating an easy, conversational approach to complicated and esoteric topics.

Review: I’ve lost track of how many people have recommended this book to me over the years. I was told that it would change my life. It would alter the way I looked at the world. It would completely transform the way I think about literature. After all that hype, I had massive expectations for this book.

Did it meet my (probably unrealistic) expectations? No. Will I read more of Joseph Campbell’s work in the future? Yes.

The Power of Myth is written as an interview between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. They discuss mythology and whether or not it’s still relevant in modern times. This book covers a lot of ground. They talk about everything from ancient civilizations, to love, to Star Wars. Since this is a philosophy book, it’s fairly dense. It took me about two weeks to read it, and I still felt like parts of it went over my head. This is the type of book that you have to read several times to really “get” it.

A “myth” is a story that helps form the basis of a culture. The main goal of a myth is to teach people how to behave in their society. Joseph Campbell claims that myths are still relevant in today’s world. Here are the main points of his argument:

1. Cultures around the world have very similar myths. Motifs of creation, death, resurrection, and heroism crop up over and over in different stories. This suggests that there are some universal human values.

2. Mythology can teach us about the history of the world because myths evolve as different cultures interact.

“Whether you call someone a hero or a monster is all relative to where the focus of your consciousness may be.” – The Power of Myth

3. Technology has forced us to go from isolated tribes to a global society. The old myths don’t work for us anymore, so we have to come up with new ones that apply to everybody.

“Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.” – The Power of Myth
“We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet.” – The Power of Myth

4. Modern American society lacks myths. For example, there is no widespread ritual that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. This can lead to young people inventing their own rituals, such as gang initiation. In ancient societies, there were transition rituals for different stages of life.

“Society has provided [children] no rituals by which they become members of the tribe, of the community. All children need to be twice born, to learn to function rationally in the present world, leaving childhood behind.” – The Power of Myth

5. Even though myths are old, they still have things to teach us. Myths are about the adventure of being alive. Campbell urges people to “follow their bliss.” Do what feels right and makes you happy.

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” – The Power of Myth

This book didn’t change my life, but Joseph Campbell is a good storyteller. My favorite parts are when he tells different myths from around the world. There are a lot of similarities and common themes between them. I didn’t like the analysis of the myths as much as the myths themselves. Some of Campbell’s opinions are too mystical and hippie-ish for me. I’m not a spiritual person. Parts of the book made me feel like a cynic. Following your bliss is great, but it’s not always practical in the real world.

“We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.” – The Power of Myth  

I didn’t love this book, but the myths interested me enough that I’m looking forward to reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces.


  1. I love reading reviews for books like this! This is a book I have been recommended as well and was frequently references by professors in college, and I just haven't read it. It's on the TBR list now and I hope to get to it soon. I love all of the different things you learned from it and the quotes you included in your review!

  2. I'm guessing the JFK one is Camelot, but it doesn't really fit.

  3. I've listened to this book numerous times on audio and I still don't think I completely get it but it is an entertaining read nonetheless.