My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”As an artist, the writer must be cruel and merciless in observation, even with pain to himself, and yet as a human being may be gentle, cordial and unassuming; or, as we now have also learned, as an artist he must be all-loving (in his own way), all-understanding, and yet, as a mere man, may still be capable of righteousness and even the use of brute force–as we hear, indeed, of Christ himself in that instance of the money-changers in the temple…
”The artist lives thus in two worlds–as do we all; but he, in so far as he knows what he is doing, in a special state of consciousness of this micromacrocosmic crucifixion that is life on earth and is perhaps, also, the fire of the sun, stars, and galaxies beyond” (p 332-333).
Creative Mythology, Volume IV (1968) of The Masks of God tetralogy, by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is much more than an historical analysis on mythology since the birth of Christ.
What would best sum up this massive volume of a dense 678-page critical review and interpretation of the development of literary art in the past two thousand years is that Campbell takes a close look at understanding better the influences and patterns found in: (a) the quest for the Holy Grail; (b) Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce compared to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924);
(c) the legend of Tristan and Isolt; (d) and finally, the change from religious-centric literature around 1600 to a ”newer reality” that helps to shape the gods within you.
I cannot go into any great detail here and do Campbell justice, so I will mainly focus on (a) the idea of Quest in relation to the creative myth.
But Campbell, on page four, does explain what he means by ”Creative Mythology” and it would be wise to let him explain himself:
”In what I’m calling ‘creative’ mythology, on the other hand, this is reversed: the individual has had an experience of his own–of order, horror, beauty, or even mere exhilaration–which he seeks to communicate through signs; and if his realization has been of a certain depth and import, his communication will have the value and force of living myth–for those, that is to say, who receive and respond to it of themselves, with recognition, uncoerced…
”For those, however, in whom the authorized signs no longer work–or, if working, produce deviant effects–there follows inevitably a sense both of dissociation from the local social nexus and of quest, within and without, for life, which the brain will take to be for ‘meaning”’ (p 4-5).
So let us begin with just such a quest.
The Quest for the Holy Grail
Campbell goes in search for the Holy Grail in a realistic effort to understand the archaeological aspect of this mythological fixture in Christian culture as well as the symbol it represents in the myth and story of Parzival, countless Arthurian romances, and the legends surrounding King Arthur, who Campbell explains did exist once:
”Arthur apparently was a native Briton who distinguished himself in a series of battles in the early sixth century and for a time represented the last hope of the Celtic Christian cause… Arthur [according to the text Historia Britonum] was not a king but a professional military man (dux bellorum), who ‘fought in company with the kings of the Britons’ in a series of twelve battles, in the eighth of which, at the castle Guinnon, he ‘carried on his shoulders [possibly meaning ‘on his shield’] the image of the Holy Virgin Mary”’ (p 517).
It is clear that the question as to whether or not King Arthur was an actual, living-breathing man has been answered, even if his ego, image, identity, truth, story has been vastly exaggerated.
But Campbell asks many other, more interesting, questions. Did the Holy Grail once exist long ago? Why did so many knights and Popes seek to find the Holy Grail? And why were so many stories told, written, copied and continued to tell of the mystical object that once was used to hold Christ’s blood and could grant men who looked upon the Grail eternal peace and life?
Campbell first goes into some depth about explaining how the Grail was not in the form of a cup, goblet or chalice, but instead in the shape of a bowl, as many drinking utensils were of ancient times.
As you can see from the above Figure A, a bowl of gold that was unearthed in 1837 near Pietroasa of Rumania, was of an Hellenistic influence and describe as follows starting at one o’clock and moving clockwise:
1) Orpheus the Fisherman
2) A Naked Figure in Attendance at the Entrance
3) A Kilted Male, the Neophyte (Novice)
4) A Draped Female Figure, Portress of the Sanctuary
5) Demeter Enthroned
6) Her Daughter, Persephone
7) The Initiated Mystes
8) Tyche, the Goddess of Fortune
9) Agathodaemon, the god of Good Fortune
10) The Lord of the Abyss
11) The Mystes, fully initiate
and 12) and 13) Two Young Men Regarding Each Other
14) The Returning Mystes
15) A Draped Female Figure with Pail and Bowl
16) Hyperborean Apollo
You may see the center of the bowl (below, Figure B) is a cupbearer (pages 9-27).
Now compare with others:
We can see an emerging theme building and transitioning among cultures in Figure E.
”One need not be amazed, then,” writes Campbell of this cultural and historical pseudomorphosis, ”to learn that in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe the orgiastic as well as monastic forms of religious devotion flourished. The Albigensians were of the ascetic line; so also (at least officially) were the clergy of the Roman Church. However, as we know from many sources, wherever in the world the fostering powers of life are denied as gods, they reappear in malignant forms as devils” (p 165).
As for the story of Parzival, who takes up much of the focus regarding the influence of the Grail, Campbell sums it up nicely:
”The knightly rules of Gurnemanz had prepared Parzival well for his ambition in the world, but left his own unfolding interior life, his ‘intelligible character’ (to use Schopenhauer’s term), not only unguided but unrecognized and completely out of account. And when the old knight offered him his daughter, the youth discreetly departed, not because an inward knowledge already told him that a life–a life with substance–has to be earned and fashioned from within, not received from the world as a gift, as the Maimed Grail King had received his castle and throne” (p 455).
What Campbell is hinting at, if you have not uncovered the truths yet, is that the Holy Grail could never be found if one went seeking it; instead, the Grail could only be found by one who did not seek the reward (i.e., the object of one’s ambition) on purpose, but was found worthy through countless trials over time. The Grail, therefore, was meant to represent, even if it was/is a true artifact, a spiritual journey in this often meaningless world of trials and tribulations a Self that contains substance, of worth, of value, of merit, of true honor, and this is ”fashioned from within” and can never be given by the world as a gift.
Now as I reread this and reflect on my own life, I somehow know what Campbell is referring to. I cannot begin to tell you of all the lonely nights I have spent writing stories and novels that continue to go unread and unnoticed. I cannot begin to describe to you of how I have made difficult choices, those sacrifices we know we must make but cannot name a price upon such loss, in my life. Those moments in your life, as Robert Frost so cleverly told in ”The Road Not Taken,” that fork and diverge, often taking you far from loved ones, and you can only sigh ages and ages hence.
It’s these moments when I spend hours upon hours learning, memorizing, sweating over, reciting and imbibing into my soul the essence of a poem in hopes of sharing it one day with the world, only for people to tell you to your face that they have always wanted to recite poems from the heart but never did, for these same people to go behind your back and speak of you as if you were putting on a show, being someone that you are not, and yet in your heart you know you are being exactly who are you, that what you did was not for external reward but for a greater intelligible character within. A life with substance is often ridiculed and rejected, and this is why it is so very rare.
”Man’s genuine self,” explains Campbell, ”is swallowed up by his cultured, conventional, social self. Every culture or every great phase of culture ends in man’s socialization, and vice versa; socialization pulls man out of his life of solitude, which is his real and authentic life” (p 390).
Campbell goes much deeper than I dare to go here into better understanding the Holy Grail as an historical actualization (a real and true authentic object) and its role in shaping Art through the Middle Ages and beyond.
I will, however, insert a remark Campbell has included in his own work. It comes from Tertullian who remarked once: ”Credo quia ineptum,” [translation from the Latin: ”I believe because it is absurd.”] (p 396).
If you have always been interested in learning more about the Holy Grail, Arthurian Romances, the legends of King Arthur and his round table of valiant Knights, including Gawain and Parzival, then I recommend reading this book by Campbell. You just might find out a thing or two that may surprise you.
And the quest continues when Campbell begins to compare Joyce and Mann.
”Next, in Ulysses (1922) and The Magic Mountain (1924),” writes Campbell, ”two accounts of quests through all the mixed conditions of a modern civilization for an informing principle substantial to existence, the episodes being rendered in the manner of the naturalistic novel, yet in both works opening backward to reveal mythological analogies: in Joyce’s case, largely by way of Homer, Yeats, Blake, Vico, Dante, and the Roman Catholic Mass, with many echoes more; and in Mann’s, by way of Goethe’s Faust, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, the Venus Mountain of Wagner, and hermetic alchemical lore” (p 39).
You have an interest in any or all of these prominent figures in either literature or psychology, as I do, then I recommend reading this book because Campbell explores these key figures and their contributions to literature and culture in extreme depth.
But I shall give you a taste of Campbell’s methodology and practice:
”The assurance can also be given that, according to the evidence of these pages, it appears that the soul’s release from the matrix of inherited social bondages can actually be attained and, in fact, has already been attained many times: specifically, by those giants of creative thought who, though few in the world on any given day, are in the long course of the centuries of mankind as numerous as mountains on the whole earth, and are, in fact, the great company from whose grace the rest of men derive whatever spiritual strength or virtue we may claim.
”Societies throughout history have mistrusted and suppressed these towering spirits. Even the noble city of Athens condemned Socrates to death, and Aristotle, in the end, had to flee its indignation. As Nietzsche could say from experience: ‘The aim of institutions–whether scientific, artistic, political, or religious–never is to produce and foster exceptional examples; institutions are concerned, rather, for the usual, the normal, the mediocre” (p 41).
I’ll give you some time to think about that last statement. [Pause…]
Nietzsche continues to remark of the personal quest each man or woman strives to obtain:
”That the Great Man [/Woman] should be able to appear and dwell among you again, again, and again [he wrote], that is the sense of all your efforts here on earth. That there should ever and again be men among you able to elevate you to your heights: that is the prize for which you strive. For it is only through the occasional coming to light of such human beings that your own existence can be justified…And if you are not yourself a great exception, well then be a small one at least! and so you will foster on earth that holy fire from which genius may arise” (p 41).
The longer I live the more I see that are fewer and fewer examples of even small exceptions in the human race. Instead, social and cultural expectations are drowning out the genius found in every man, woman and child, and this oppression seeks to quash the great illumination found within. And one only needs to dig deeper into the meaning of ‘genius’ as I believe Campbell and Nietzsche could also have included in their understandings of the idea:
Genius: from the Latin root of ‘gignere’ meaning ‘beget’ and often translated as the ‘spirit present from one’s birth, innate ability or inclination’ and could also have meant ‘special guardian spirit’
So I must ask you now: where is your genius?
I shall end with Campbell’s four major functions of myth.
He states that the first function of myth is to waken in any individual an experience of ‘awe, humility, and respect, in recognition of that ultimate mystery’ [Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of life? What is beyond death? What is before birth?]; the second function of myth is to render an abstract notion of a cosmology, the universe as a thing of wonder, ‘whether regarded in its spatial or its temporal, physical, or biological aspect,’ into concrete notions that may be better understood; the third function of mythology is to validate and maintain an established order; and the last function is the ‘centering and harmonization of the individual, which in traditional systems was supposed to follow upon the giving of oneself, and even giving up of oneself altogether, to some one or another of Nietzsche’s authorities,’ referring to the two faces of Nihilism, which more can be read about this on pages 622-623 (pgs 609-624); and so to sum up, the functions of mythology and its symbols and meanings are four: ”mystic, cosmological, sociological, and psychological” (p 630).
What shall we do with all this knowledge once we have it?
Campbell, as always, has an answer for that too:
”In this life-creative adventure the criterion of achievement will be, as in every one of the tales here reviewed, the courage to let go the past, with its truths, its goals, its dogmas of ‘meaning,’ and its gifts: to die to the world and to come to birth from within’ (p 678).
Now on to Myths to Live By.
More of Joseph Campbell’s Books:
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers