The Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell
1988

When George Lucas was putting together Star Wars, he didn’t just want to tell a good story or introduce some crazy special effects. He was reformulating some of the central myths of the western world, adorning their archetypes in new garb, and telling a tale that is as old as human memory. And in this, George Lucas was profoundly inspired and influenced by Joseph Campbell, a scholar and author who delved deep into comparative mythology and religion to understand how and why some stories last, how and why some stories differ according to time and place, and how and why some stories are near-universal, their central contours of plot, character, and meaning recurring again and again in human history. And so in the mid 1980s the creator of science fiction history invited Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers up to his ranch to talk about myth-making and why it matters. Those videotaped interviews played as a series on PBS in 1988, shortly after Campbell’s death, and were published in book form later that year – packaged as The Power of Myth, the discussions became massively important, popularizing Campbell’s scholarship and significantly increasing cultural literacy around myth and ritual not only in the past but in the here and the now.

Archetypes of human character, creation and magic, the interpretation of dreams and the role of the shaman, ritual and rites of passage, sin and redemption, human society and the natural world from fertility of soil to rules around the killing of animals – the scope is broad, and focuses on the critical role that story and imagery play in the formation and maintenance of society. And then the question of the contemporary west, the myths we retain, the ones we have lost, and what it means to live in a time of transformation and sometimes loss of rites that have shaped and defined us since time immemorial. It’s an incredible collection of interviews and stories.

Influenced by such diverse thinkers as Carl Jung, James Joyce, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Campbell saw a universal story in local mythologies, a story that has been broken down, reconstituted, and transmitted in different ways and places and times but which shares a common central thrust that is universal, timeless, and a core feature of human society. What we describe as myth is the artistic, oral, literary re-telling this story in order to communicate to succeeding generations the fundamentals of the human condition in ways that can be understood and absorbed fully, if subconsciously. Such myths play four functions – metaphysically, they connect us to knowledge and experience that is beyond reason; cosmologically, they provide insight into the real workings of the natural world; sociologically, they bind societies together, creating order and cohesion; psychologically, they form signposts to guide us through the major transitions of human life. Myth is everywhere. Myth is always. Myth is who and what we are.

Read the book. It’s worth your time. And watch Star Wars again after you do. An intro to Joseph Campbell and you’ll see how his thought provides the very foundation for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. And so much more that surrounds us.

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