My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology (1964) by Joseph Campbell casts a large net over what it is to hold a Western faith in distinction from an Eastern faith and how such distinctions developed among the varied belief systems over the ages.
Campbell’s book on comparative mythology includes, but is not limited to what will be reviewed here, the interconnections between East and West relating to ”the serpent’s bride” as well as the age of Moses. In one chapter, Campbell also discusses the marriage between the West and the East, which is an underlining theme throughout all of his four volumes in the Masks of God series.
The first two chapters deal heavily with symbol as Woman gaining substance and power in myth (as in metaphor) and in religion (as in spiritual worship) and how the mother goddess was further established among the varied vegetal cultures and intermixed with the occidental view which up to a time (prior to and parallel to the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman civilizations) was mainly that of the male-dominated hunter clans.
As the cattle herders from the northern regions descended and the sheep herders of the southern regions ascended, Campbell argues that the ancient world had ”prevailed in that world an essentially organic, vegetal, non-heroic view of the nature and necessities of life that was completely repugnant to those lion hearts for whom the patient toil of earth but the battle spear and its plunder were the source of both wealth and joy” and that ”in the older mother myths and rites the light and darker aspects of the mixed thing that is life had been honored equally and together, whereas in the later, male-oriented, patriarchal myths, all that is good and noble was attributed to the new, heroic master gods, leaving to the native nature powers the character only of darkness” (p 21).
This is why in so many fairy tales and myths the evil antagonist to the handsome young male protagonist is quite often the ugly, old witch/sorceress living deep within a dark forest. If there is a wizard, as in Merlin, he is usually presented in a more light-hearted and acceptable form, who is often the mentor or aide to the young knight/hero. The battle, one might argue, or the divergence was not primarily between races or ethnicities but between two genders: male and female. And who is to blame for the fall of mankind? None other than Eve, who took of the apple in the most perfect garden and she alone, as many believe, is to blame. Even so, this divide of male and female establishments (as in identifiable groups of common behavior within a culture) seeks an audience to contemplate the connection among individualism and collectivism. Is it not woman who relishes in large groups and the man often seeking peace and quiet away from the crowd?
The woman, of ancient times, tended the gardens among friends and likely chattering away as loud as possible in order to scare away forging animals or evil spirits come to haunt, whereas men went silently into the wild to hunt for game, and on return these same men went into the cave or village shelter seeking individualistic fame awarded to the one hunter above the others.
What is the art of politics if not the gaining of power over men and women? Campbell fully explores what happened when the fate of men in myth finally accompanied the victory over the goddess-mother, and her return in the form of Christ’s holy Mother Mary.
In regards to the biblical Moses, Campbell provides several connections to other myths. A Western mind might well expect to read the following passage and immediately consider Moses:
”My lowly mother conceived and bore me in secrecy; placed me in a basket of rushes; sealed it with bitumen, and set me in the river, which, however, did not engulf me” (p 73).
The man in the above passage goes on to become a lowly gardener for a time and finally rules over the kingdom. The figure of this story is not Moses but Sargon, the Monarch of Agade (c. 2350 B.C.). What is further of interest to note is how both Sargon and Moses crossed over cultural thresholds in order to rule. Moses being among the low classes of slaves at birth rises only to be promoted over them, and back again to an outcast to herd sheep for a period of decades and return as prophet and once more leader.
Sargon’s father was a mountain dweller, likely those who hunted and lived in caves, and Sargon ended up with the goddess Ishtar, a gardener, who later raised the humble gardener to king over the lands. Such other myths, if you liked this one, to consider would be the Greek one concerning Erichthonius and the Hindu Vyasa which both relate mythic figures and their exposure on the waters.
Being rescued and raised by foster parents, the reader might take into account the story of Romulus and Remus, brothers who are told to have started all of Rome. Campbell is not in any short supply of examples and this line of thought is highly rewarding. Campbell gets really interesting when he begins to compare the two primary texts resulting in the Holy Bible: the Elohim Text and the Yahwist Text.
One of the primary marriages between the West and the East take place when Alexander invades Persia (modern Iran) in the years of 336-330 B.C. and ”gave strict orders that no sacred object whatsoever should be injured” whereas two centuries before the Persians raided Greece and destroyed temples and images of gods (p 239). Again, some two hundred years later, Persia attacks Greece under Xerxes the Great, who sent a fleet of 3,000 ships and fought those brave 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
Alexander was Europe’s answer to chaos and order, as was Xerxe’s to the Orient, and ”within two generations of [Alexander’s] death at the age of thirty-three [the same age as Christ], he was celebrated in the Orient as a god” (p 240). It would seem that warfare had a large part in the marriage between the East and the West and their sharing and acceptance of myths/stories/beliefs. Campbell is anything but succinct when proving his point, as I am here.
I believe two additional points should be added here and they are both the treatment Campbell gives to Islam and Rome in the final portions of this book. They should not be missed since they provide a nice overview of how mythology asserts itself into religion and how this ultimately changes the world.
Occidental Mythology is a strong recommend for serious readers and scholars who will not shy away from a book rife with controversy in its statements connecting myths with religions, or its chapters that are weighted down heavily with considerable examples and sources that one reflects more often than reads.
CG FEWSTON was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy).
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son, The New America: A Collection, Vanity of Vanities, A Time to Love in Tehran, and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 275,000+ followers