Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell

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.

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Iron John

Iron John
Robert Bly

Iron John was resoundingly attacked by feminist scholars when it appeared in 1990, and Bly himself associated in many circles with pseudo-intellectual anti-feminist backlash. In this discussion of myth and gender, social psychology and the nature of strength, the well-known poet lamented the disappearance of manhood and the tendency to consider masculinity a four-letter word, and argued the time was long overdue for a movement by, for, and about men. The response was massive. A men’s movement did indeed begin to emerge with the conversation Bly initiated; or, more accurately, several men’s movements emerged – some of them thoughtful, reflective, and entirely consistent with the project as Bly himself understood it, but some articulating exactly the misogynist politics that feminist critics feared. Continue reading “Iron John”

The Golden Bough

The Golden Bough
James Frazer

“I realized then that anthropology, as presented by Sir James Frazer, is a great science, worthy of as much devotion as any of her elder and more exact studies and I became bound to the service of Frazerian anthropology.” Bronislaw Malinowski, by all accounts one of the most significant and influential figures in the development of anthropology, started here, with Frazer, with The Golden Bough, a study of comparative religion that not only helped to shape anthropology as an academic discipline but profoundly influenced a whole lot of the literature that appears on this list and intellectual and artistic culture generally – Yeats, Lovecraft, D.F. Lawrence, Hemingway, Freud, William Carlos Williams, Wittgenstein, and – more recently – Joseph Campbell and Camille Paglia, to name just a few.

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Grimm’s Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales
Brothers Grimm

Jacob and Wilhelm called their collection Children’s and Household Tales when it first appeared in Germany in 1812. We know it, of course, as just Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and you’d be hard pressed to find anything on this list that requires less of an introduction or justification. “Hansel and Gretel”, “Cinderella”, “Iron John”, “Rapunzel”, “The Brennan Town Musicians” – they are all in here, along with countless others less well known.

The Grimm boys collected and revised a wide array of stories, tales, myths, and folklore, essentially translating a whole lot of central Europe’s oral tradition to the page. And in doing so, they – with Charles Perrault – preserved much of the region’s cultural foundation that may very likely have otherwise been lost. Continue reading “Grimm’s Fairy Tales”

The Inferno

The Inferno
Dante Alighieri

The first and most famous part of Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Inferno follows the author as he is taken on a guided-journey through Hell by the great Roman poet Virgil. The piece both reflects and builds upon medieval imaginings of Hell, drawing a picture of nine levels of torment which grow increasingly-brutal as they lead deeper into the earth. The book was written in the early part of the 14th century by soldier and poet Dante while in exile from Florence following his participation in a series of political and religious conflicts that wracked the Italian city-states of his day. Continue reading “The Inferno”

Hesiod’s Theogony

700 BC

Theogony is a 1000-line Epic poem composed by Hesiod in approximately 700 BC. In it is recorded the genealogies of the gods of ancient Greece.  It is the first recorded cosmogony in the Greek mythical tradition, and thus serves to narrate the origin of the universe from its primal beginnings in Chaos and Gaia. Written as a hymn to Zeus, Theogony describes the natural world and the generations of the gods who struggle for power over the the newly-created world. In addition to the major and minor gods, Hesiod also personifies and assigns origin stories to many of the earth’s more challenging aspects such as Death, Toil, Strife, and Murder. Much of modern understanding of Greek mythology comes from the stories recounted by Hesiod in addition to the genealogical lists which populate his narrative. More than just an exercise in story-telling, Theogony is an early example of an attempt to provide a coherent explanation of the cosmology of Greek society – from its formless beginning to the ultimate mastery of the universe by Zeus.

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