In the fourth episode of The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell discuss the role of sacrifice in myth — including a mother’s sacrifice for her child — and the need for all of us to find our sacred places in the midst of today’s fast-paced world. In this clip, the two discuss where heroism can be witnessed in modern society.
Released in 1988, The Power of Myth was one of the most popular TV series in the history of public television, and continues to inspire new audiences.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL (words of Chief Seattle, 1852): “The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky, the land? The idea is strange to us. Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, all are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We’re part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. Each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father; the rivers are our brothers. They carry our canoes and feed our children.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. This we know: the earth does not belong to man. Man belongs to the earth. All things are connected, like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
“Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? What will happen when the secret comers of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires? The end of living and the beginning of survival. When the last red man has vanished with his wilderness and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any spirit of my people left? We love this earth as the newborn loves its mother’s heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it; care for it as we’ve cared for it, hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children and love it, as God loves us all. One thing we know, there is only one God; no man be he red man or white man can be apart. We are brothers, after all.”
BILL MOYERS: Sacred places: Delphi, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Jerusalem. We recognize these as places where societies came together to express their spiritual concerns. But for some very early societies, as Joseph Campbell points out in his Historical Atlas of World Mythology, the whole earth was a sacred place, whether living on the wide plains under the great dome of the open sky, or in dense forest under a canopy of trees, our ancestors saw the sacred in everything around them. The voices of the gods spoke from the wind and thunder, and the spirit of God flowed in every mountain stream. It was a geography not of city and nation-states, but of sacred places, the realm of the mythic imagination.
As our ancestors turned from hunting to planting, the stories they told to interpret the mysteries of life changed, too. Now the seed instead of the animal became the symbol of life, death and resurrection. The plant died, was buried, and its seed born again. To spiritual visionaries this image reveals a divine truth as well as a principle of life itself. From death comes life; from sacrifice, bliss.
Joseph Campbell explored the nature of these places and the relation of myth to landscape. He visited many of the world’s sacred places in preparing the first two volumes of his Atlas: The Way of the Animal Powers and The Way of the Seeded Earth. But as he often reminded his students at Sarah Lawrence College, “You don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to find your own sacred place, where you can follow your bliss and nourish the activity of your own creative imagination.”
(interviewing) What does it mean, to have a sacred place?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is a term I like to use now as an absolute necessity for anybody today. You must have a room, or a certain hour a day or so, where you do not know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe to anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you, but a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. And first you may find that nothing’s happening there, but if you have a sacred place and use it, and take advantage of it, something will happen.
BILL MOYERS: This place does for you what the plains did for the hunter…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: For them the whole thing was a sacred place, do you see? But most of our action is economically or socially determined, and does not come out of our life. I don’t know whether you’ve had the experience I’ve had, but as you get older, the claims of the environment upon you are so great that you hardly know where the hell you are. What is it you intended? You’re always doing something that is required of you this minute, that minute, another minute. Where is your bliss station, you know? Try to find it. Get a phonograph and put on the records, the music, that you really love. Even if it’s corny music that nobody else respects, I mean, the one that you like or the book you want to read, get it done and have a place in which to do it. There you get the “thou” feeling of life. These people had it for the whole world that they were living in.
BILL MOYERS: We talked about the effect of the spreading plain on mythology, this plain clearly bounded by a circular horizon with that great blue dome of an exalting heaven above. Hawks and eagles hovering, the blazing sun passing, the night moon rising. And I can see the effect on people’s stories of that, but what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Total transformation of environment and of psychology and everything else.
BILL MOYERS: No horizon?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No horizon.
BILL MOYERS: No dome of the sky?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No dome of the sky. A lot of birds up there, and the heavy vegetation underneath, with scorpions and poisonous serpents, and in between, distances of trees and trees and trees. No sense of perspective. Colin Turnbull tells us a marvelous story of bringing a pygmy out of the forest. He brings this pygmy, who had never been out of the jungle, onto a mountaintop, and suddenly they come over the hill, and there’s an extensive plain out there. And the poor little fellow was utterly terrified, had no way of judging perspective and distance, he thought that the animals grazing on the plain out there were so small that they were ants, that they were just across the way, and so forth, and just totally baffled, he rushes back into the forest. You have a different mythology there, you have a different relationship to the hunt and everything else.
The forest is home. You are at home in the forest, where you and I would be perhaps ill at ease, thinking what’s behind that tree, and all this kind of thing. The sense of the beautiful, simple delight in there, the forest and the deities, the master of the forest, the forest master.
BILL MOYERS: What impresses me is that these people, the hunters and the searchers for the roots and for the berries, they’re participating in their landscape, they are pan of that world.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And it becomes sacred to them. Place becomes sacred.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Every feature of it does.
BILL MOYERS: We moderns are stripping the world of its natural revelations of nature.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I know it.
BILL MOYERS: I think of a … remember that wonderful pygmy legend of the little boy who finds the song of the most beautiful … the bird of the most beautiful song in the forest?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And he brings it home, doesn’t he? And he asks his father to bring food for the bird, and the father doesn’t want to feed only a bird. And one time the father kills the bird, and when he killed the bird, he killed his own life, and he died.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it. And the legend says, the man killed the bird, and with the bird he killed the song, and with the song himself. Isn’t that a story about what happens when human beings destroy their environment, destroy their world, destroy nature and the revelation of nature?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Destroy their own nature.
BILL MOYERS: Human nature, too. They kill the song.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: They kill the song.
BILL MOYERS: And isn’t mythology the story of the song?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Mythology is the song. It’s the flight of the imagination, inspired by the energies of the body and in its life.
BILL MOYERS: What happened as human beings turned from the hunting of animals to the planting of seeds? What happened to the mythic imagination?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I try to think of it this way. An animal, as I think I’ve said before, is sort of a total entity, and when you kill that animal, that animal is dead. But when you cut down a plant, new sprouts come out. Pruning is, you know, helpful to a plant. Also in forests where a good deal of the origination of myth is to be recognized, out of rock comes life, even in these forests here, of the beautiful redwoods. I was in a wonderful forest right near Mendocino, and there are some great, great stumps from enormous trees that were cut down some decades and decades ago. And out of them are coming these bright new little children who are part of the same plant. So there’s a sense of death as not death somehow, that death is required for new fresh life and so on. And the individual isn’t quite an individual, he is a member of a plant. Jesus uses the term, you know, where he says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” That vineyard idea is a totally different one from the separate entity of the animal.
BILL MOYERS: And this makes a difference on the stories you tell about…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Oh, the whole feeling about what life is.
BILL MOYERS: What stories did this experience of the planter give rise to? Your favorite stories in plant mythology.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the cutting up and burial and then growing of the plant world, the world of the plant that you eat being already a cut up dead body, is the dominant motif, I would say, in the most of the tales. It occurs all over the place, particularly in the Pacific cultures and in the Americas.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me that story of the origin of maize, as Longfellow borrowed it from the Chippewas, didn’t he, or the Algonquins?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it’s an Algonquian story, and it is simply of the boy in his vision, he sees a young man come to him with plumes on his head, and green and so forth, and visitant invites the young man to a wrestling match, and allows him to win. He wins and wins, this happens three or four times; but he tells him, “The last time I come, you must kill me and bury me, and take care of the place where you will have buried me.” And the boy then in the last one actually does what he has been told to do, plants the man, the visitant, and in time comes back and sees the com growing. And it was a boy who had been concerned for his father, who was a hunter but old, and he was thinking, isn’t there some other way to get food besides this one. And so it came to him out of his intentions. A lovely story.
BILL MOYERS: Some other way of getting food than hunting.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: But the idea is that this visitor, this figure in the vision, has to die and be buried before the plant can grow from the remains of his body.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the main theme. It comes up, I mean, almost the duplicate of this one, throughout Polynesia, for instance.
BILL MOYERS: Well, there’s one in Polynesia about the legend of the maiden Hina, do you remember that one?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, all of the legends in the Polynesian area have a maiden named Hina. And she’s associated with the moon, and you know, the death and resurrection of the moon is a dominant theme.
BILL MOYERS: What happens to her in this legend?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the girl who loves to bathe in a certain pool, and there’s a great eel that is swimming around in the pool, and day after day he scrapes across her thigh as she’s bathing. And then one fine lovely day he turns into a young man, and he becomes her lover for a moment, and then goes away and comes back again and back again, and then one time when he comes he says, just as the Algonquian visitant, “Now, next time I come to visit you, you must kill me, and cut off my head and bury my head.” And she does so, and there grows from the buried head a coconut tree. And when you pick a coconut and look at the coconut, you can see it’s just the size of the head, and you can see eyes and things in the little nodules that simulate the head.
BILL MOYERS: So what you have is the same story springing up in cultures unrelated to each other. What is this saying?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, to such an extent that it’s stunning. And after years and years and years of reading these things, I am still overwhelmed at the similarities in cultures that are far, far apart. There are two explanations of this. Now, one explanation is that the human psyche is essentially the same all over the world. It is the inward aspect of the human body, which is essentially the same all over the world, with the same organs, with the same instincts, with the same impulse systems, with the same conflicts, the same fears.
There is also the counter theory of diffusion. Now, for instance, when agriculture is first developed, let’s say, in the Near East or in Southeast Asia, I mean, these are the two big centers in the old world, then the art of tilling the soil goes forth from this area. And along with it goes a mythology that has to do with fertilizing the earth and bringing up the plants, killing the body, cutting it up, burying it and having the plant come. That myth will go with the agricultural tradition. You won’t find it in a planting in a hunting culture tradition. So that there are historical as well as psychological aspects of this problem.
BILL MOYERS: In all of these stories there is someone dying, a hero dying, in order for life to appear again. What does that say to you?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Let me tell you one story here. This isn’t a story, this is a ritual. It’s in New Guinea, and it’s associated with the men’s societies in New Guinea, and they are horror societies, because they really enact the myth of death and resurrection and cannibalistic consumption. And you have the myth there of the buried body and the life coming out of it, you know, this is the basic myth. Now we’re going to enact it.
So here’s this sacred field, the drums going and chants going and then pauses, and this went on for three or four or five days, on and on. And rituals are boring, they just wear you out, you know, and then you break through to something else. Then comes the great moment: the young boys who were being initiated into manhood were now to have their first sexual experience. There was a great shed of enormous logs, supported by two uprights over here, and the young woman comes in, all ornamented as a deity, and she is brought to lie down in this place, beneath the great roof. And the boys then, with the drums going and chanting going on, one after another, there are about six boys, have their first permitted or public intercourse with the girl. And when the last boy is with her in full embrace, the supports are withdrawn, the logs drop, and the couple are killed.
There is the union of male and female again as they were in the beginning before the separation took place, there is the union of begetting, and death again, and they’re both the same thing. The little pair are pulled out and roasted and eaten right that evening, enacting the myth in its essential character. You can’t beat that.
BILL MOYERS: And the truth to which there…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the sacrifice of the mass. One of the wonderful things in the Catholic ritual is going to communion. There you’re taught that this is the body and blood of the Saviour, and you take it to you and you turn inward, and there he’s working within you.
BILL MOYERS: The truth to which the ritual points is?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The nature of life itself had to be realized in the acts of life. When in the hunting cultures a sacrifice is made, it is as it were a gift, a bribe, as it were, to the deity that is being invited to do something for us, or to give us something. When a figure is sacrificed in the planting culture, that figure is the god. The person who died, was buried and became the food is Christ crucified, from whose body the food of the spirit comes. There is a sublimation of what originally was a very solid vegetal image. He is on Holy Rood, the tree. He is himself the fruit of the tree. Jesus is the fruit of eternal life which was on the second tree in the garden of Eden.
When man had eaten of the fruit of the first tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he is said to have been expelled from the garden. He had already expelled himself from the garden. The garden is the place of unity, nonduality, nonduality of male and female, nonduality of man and God, nonduality of good and evil. You eat the duality, and you’re on the way out. So this tree of the nonduality, is the tree of the exit.
Now, the tree of coming back to the garden is the tree of immortal life. Where you know that “I and the father are one.” And the two that seem to become one again. And this is exactly the tree under which the Buddha sits.
BILL MOYERS: The tree of wisdom?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The tree of immortal life, of the knowledge of immortal life. And the Buddha under his tree, and Christ hanging on his tree are the same image. They are the same image. The one who has died to the flesh and been reborn in the spirit. This is an essential experience of any mystical realization; you die to your flesh and are born to your spirit. You identify yourself with the consciousness and life of which your body is but the vehicle. You die to the vehicle and become identified in your consciousness with that of which the vehicle is the carrier, do you understand me? And that is the god.
So that what you get in the vegetation traditions is this notion of identity behind the surface display of duality, identity behind it all. All of these are manifestations of the One. The one radiance shines through all things. The function of art, in a way, is to reveal through the object here the radiance, and that’s what you get when you see the beautiful organization of a fortunately composed work of art. You just say, aha. Somehow it speaks to the order in your own life. ‘This is a realization through art of the very thing that the religions are concerned to render.
BILL MOYERS: That death is life and life is death, and that the two are in accord.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You have to have a balance between death and life. They’re two aspects of the same thing, which is being/becoming.
BILL MOYERS: And that’s in all of these stories?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All of them. I don’t know one where death is rejected.
BILL MOYERS: This idea of sacrifice is so foreign to our world today.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the old idea of being sacrificed is not what we think at all.
BILL MOYERS: No?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Just consider: I think the great model of sacrifice is the Mayan Indian ball game. You know they had a kind of basketball game, there’s a loop there up in the stadium wall, and the idea was to get this big heavy ball through that. I don’t know how they did it, with their shoulders or heads or something or other. And the captain of the winning team was sacrificed on the field by the captain of the losing team, his head was cut off. And going to your sacrifice as the winning stroke of your life is the essence of the early sacrificial idea.
There’s a wonderful story that I found in the Jesuit relations, you know, the Jesuits here in the 17th century as missionaries up in Canada and northern New York state and so forth, of a young Iroquois boy who had just been captured by the Hurons or perhaps it was the other way around, I’ve forgotten. And he was being brought to be tortured to death. The Northeast Indians engaged in a systematic torture, which would go on for a long time, and the ordeal was to be sustained with a smile, without flinching, that was it. That was real manhood.
But the boy is brought to this as though he were being brought to his wedding. He is singing, and the people with him are treating him as though they were his hosts and he was the honored guest. And he played the game with them, knowing where he was going. And the priests describing the thing are absolutely bewildered by the situation, and they say that the mockery of this kind of hospitality for people who are then going to be become the brutes. No, those people were the priests! And this was the sacrifice of the altar, and that boy was Jesus, you know, by analogy. And the priest every day is celebrating mass, which is an imitation or repetition actually of the sacrifice of the cross. That’s what this priest was witnessing.
But then you have it also, in John, in the Acts of John: Jesus, before going to crucify the Jesus dance, that’s one of the most beautiful passages in the Christian tradition. In the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John gospels, it’s certainly mentioned that we sang a hymn and Jesus went forth. Well, here you have the whole hymn described: in a ring, Jesus in the center, saying, ‘join hands and we’ll sing and we’ll dance,’ and he says, ‘I am this, I am that, I am so forth and so forth, amen, amen.’ Oh, my God, it’s grand. And then he walks out to be crucified. When you go to your death that way as a god, you are going to your eternal life. What’s sad about that? Let’s make it great And they do.
BILL MOYERS: The god of death is the lord of the dance.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The god of death is the lord of sex at the same time.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It’s a marvelous thing. One after another, you can see these gods Ghede, the death god of the Haitian voodoo, is also the sex god. Wotan had one eye covered and the other uncovered, do you see, and at the same time was the lord of life. Osiris, the lord of death and the lord of the generation of life. It’s a basic theme: that which dies is born. You have to have death in order to have life.
Now, this is the origin thought really of the head hunt, in Southeast Asia and particularly in the Indonesian zone. The head hunt, right up to now, has been a sacred act, it’s a sacred killing: Unless there is death, there cannot be birth, and a young man, before he can be permitted to marry and become a father, must have gone forth and had his kill.
BILL MOYERS: What does that say to you?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that every generation has to die in order that the next generation should come. As soon as you beget or give birth to a child, you are the dead one; the child is the new life and you are simply the protector of that new life.
BILL MOYERS: Your time has come and you know it.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, well, that’s why there is this deep psychological association of begetting and dying.
BILL MOYERS: Isn’t there some relationship between what you’re saying and this fact, that a father will give his life for his son, a mother will give her life for her child?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There’s a wonderful paper. I don’t whether you knew it that I would love to talk to this point there’s a wonderful paper by Schopenhauer, who’s one of my three favorite philosophers, called “The Foundation of Morality.” There he asks exactly the question that you’ve asked. How is it that a human being can so participate in the peril or pain of another, that without thought, spontaneously, he sacrifices his own life to the other? How can this happen? That what we normally think of as the first law of nature, namely self-preservation, is suddenly dissolved, there’s a breakthrough.
In Hawaii, some four or five years ago, there was an extraordinary adventure that represents this problem. There’s a place there called the Pali, where the winds from the north, the trade winds from the north, come breaking through a great ridge of rocks and of mountain, and they come through with a great blast of wind. The people like to go up there to get their hair blown around and so forth, or to commit suicide, you know, like jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, a police car was on its way up early, a little road that used to go up there, and they saw just beyond the railing that keeps cars from rolling over, a young man actually clearly about to jump and prepare himself to jump. The police car stopped. The policeman on the right jumps out to grab the boy, and grabs him just as he jumped and was himself being pulled over, and would have gone over if the second cop hadn’t gotten around, grabbed him and pull the two of them back. There was a long description of this, it was a marvelous thing, in the newspapers at that time.
And the policeman was asked, “Why didn’t you let go? I mean, you would have lost your life?” And you see what had happened to that man, this is what’s known as one pointed meditation everything else in his life dropped off. His duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life, just disappeared and he was about to go. And his answer was, “I couldn’t let go. If I had,” and I’m quoting almost word for word, “if I’d let that young man go, I could not have lived another day of my life.”
How come? Schopenhauer’s answer is, this is the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization that you and the other are one. And that the separateness is only an effect of the temporal forms of sensibility of time and space. And a true reality is in that unity with all life. It is a metaphysical truth that becomes spontaneously realized, because it’s the real truth of your life. Now, you might say the hero is the one who has given his physical life, you might say, to some order of realization of that truth. It may appear that I’m one with my tribe, or I’m one with people of a certain kind, or I’m one with life. This is not a concept; this is a realization, do you see what I mean?
BILL MOYERS: No, explain it.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And the concepts of love your neighbor and all are to put you in tune with that fact, but whether you love your neighbor or not, bing, the thing grabs you and you do this thing. You don’t even know who it is. That policeman didn’t know who that young man was. And Schopenhauer says in small ways you can see this happening every day all the time. This is a theme that can be seen moving life in the world, people doing nice things for each other.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think has happened to this mythic idea of the hero in our culture today?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It comes up in an experience. I think, I remember during the Vietnam war, seeing on the television the young men in helicopters going out to rescue one of their companions at great risk to themselves. They didn’t have to rescue that young man; that’s the same thing working. It puts them in touch with the experience of being alive. Going to the office every day, you don’t get that experience, but suddenly you’re ripped out into being alive. And life is pain and life is suffering and life is horror, but by God, you’re alive and it’s spectacular. And this is a case of being alive, rescuing that young man.
BILL MOYERS: But I also know a man who said once, after years of standing on the platform of the subway, “I die a little bit down there every day, but I know I’m doing so for my family.” There are small acts of heroism that occur without regard to the nobility or the notoriety that you attract for it.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right, that’s right.
BILL MOYERS: And the mother does it by the isolation she endures in behalf of the family, of raising…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Motherhood is a sacrifice. On our veranda in Hawaii, there are little birds that come that Jean likes to feed. And each year there have been one or two mothers, mother birds. And if you’ve ever seen a mother bird plagued by her progeny for food, that the mother should regurgitate their meal to them, and the two of them, or five of them in one case, flopping all over this poor little mother, they bigger than she in some cases, you just think, well, this is the symbol of motherhood. This is just giving of your substance, every thing, to this progeny.
There should be it in marriage. A marriage is a relationship. When you make a sacrifice in marriage, you’re not sacrificing to the other, you’re sacrificing to the relationship. And this is symbolized, for example, in that Chinese image of the tai chi, the tao, you know, with the dark and the light interacting, it’s a well-known sign. That is the relationship of yang and yin, male and female, which is what a marriage is. And that’s what you are, you’re no longer this, you’re the relationship. And so marriage, I would say, is not a love affair, it’s an ordeal.
BILL MOYERS: An ordeal?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The ordeal is sacrifice of ego to the relationship, of a two-ness which now becomes the one.
BILL MOYERS: One not only biologically but spiritually, and primarily spiritually.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Primarily spiritually.
BILL MOYERS: But the necessary function of marriage, in order to create our own images and perpetuate ourselves in children, but it’s not the primary one, as you say.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No, that’s really just the elementary aspect of marriage. There are two completely different stages of marriage. First is the youthful marriage, following the wonderful impulse, you know, that nature has given us, in the interplay of the sexes biologically. And in the reproduction of children. But there comes a time when the child graduates from the family, and the family is left. I’ve been amazed at the number of my friends who in their forties or fifties go apart, who have had a perfectly decent life together with the child, but they interpreted their union in terms of relationship through the child. They did not interpret it in terms of their own personal relationship to each other.
BILL MOYERS: Utterly incompatible with the idea of doing one’s own thing?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It’s not one’s own thing, you see. It is in a sense one’s own thing, but the one isn’t just you, it’s the two together. And that’s a purely mythological image, of the sacrifice of the visible entity for a transcendent unit, cracking eggs to make an omelet, you know? And by marrying the right person, we reconstruct the image of the incarnate god, and that’s what marriage is.
BILL MOYERS: The right person. How does one choose the right person?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Your heart tells you; it ought to.
BILL MOYERS: Your inner being.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the mystery.
BILL MOYERS: You recognize your other self.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I don’t know, but there’s a flash that comes and something in you knows that this is the one.
BILL MOYERS: What has mythology told you about death? What do you think about death?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the way, if one can identify with the consciousness of which the body is a vehicle, and really achieve an identification with the consciousness of which the body is a vehicle, not knowing what it is, undifferentiated consciousness, one can let the body go. I like what I heard of Woody Allen, you know, “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” You can have disengaged yourself from the body, and not be there, you might say.
BILL MOYERS: And yet you know from myth and nature that the body dies. It perishes, it rots we’re back to the beginning of the…
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: So you expect it. Growing old, I mean. You know what’s happening. The body is rotting, it’s dying, it’s losing its energy, there’s more mass than energy here. And the identification then with the life which in a plant survives pruning, cutting and even eating. The plant is right back there again, is as you might say, a biological image that is metaphorical of the spiritual mystery.
BILL MOYERS: There’s the wonderful report of the Indians riding into the rain of bullets from Custer’s men, and they’re saying, “It’s a good day to die.”
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: “It’s a great day to die.” They’re not hanging on. That’s the message of the myth. You as you know yourself are not the final term of your being. And you must die to that, one way or another, in giving of yourself to something, or in being annihilated actually physically, to return, you might say, or to recognize. Life is always on the edge of death, always, and one should lack fear and have the courage of life. That’s the principle initiation of all of the heroic stories.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the central story? Do you have a story that’s central to this?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Green Knight, Arthur’s court is in session, and there rides into the court on a great big green horse a giant knight. And the knight says. “I have a challenge. I have an adventure. I challenge anyone here to come down here and take this great big ax and cut my head off and then one year from today, meet me at a green chapel,” and he tells them roughly where the green chapel is, “and I’ll cut his head off.” And the only knight who had the courage to accept this curious invitation was Gawain. And the knight gets off his horse, sticks out his neck, Gawain comes down with his axe, and there’s the head. And then the knight stands up, picks up the head, gets on the horse and rides off, says. “I’ll see you in a year.”
Well, that year everybody was very generous to Gawain, and he rides off for the year. As the day approaches, he finds himself before a little hunter’s cabin, and he thinks he’ll ask advice here as to where the green chapel is, and tells them, “I’ve got to be there in three days.” Then the hunter greets him and Gawain tells his story, and the hunter says, “Well, the green chapel, it’s just down the way here. It’s about a couple of hundred yards. And why don’t you just spend the next three days with us, and we’ll entertain you, and then you can go to this adventure.” “All right, very well.” So the hunter says. “Well, I’ve got to go out for the day on the hunt,” and he says, “you’ll spend the night with us, and then in the morning I’ll go forth and in the evening I’ll come back and I’ll give everything I will have got during the day to you, and you give to me what you will have got during the day.”
Well, in the morning the hunter rides off, and Gawain’s in bed, and in comes the hunter’s gorgeous, beautiful wife. And she tickles Gawain’s chin and invites him to love. Well, he’s an Arthurian knight, a knight of Arthur’s court, and to betray his host is the last thing that a knight can submit to, so he resists this woman. And she’s very, very aggressive, and he’s very, very stern in his position, and finally she says, “Well, let me give you a kiss, anyhow.” So she gives him one big smack, and that’s that. In the evening the hunter comes back with a great haul of game, throws it on the floor, and Gawain gives him a kiss, and they laugh, and that’s that.
Second morning, a similar event, the wife comes in and Gawain gets two kisses. And the hunter comes back with about half as much game and he gets two kisses, and they laugh, and that’s that.
The third morning, the wife comes in, and now here’s a man about to meet his death. He’s about to have his head chopped off, a beautiful woman, the last moment, I mean, of the possibility of this one fulfillment, and again he resists. She gives him three kisses and her garter. And she says, “This will protect you against any danger.” The hunter comes home with just one silly smelly fox, throws it on the ground, and he gets three kisses but no garter.
So comes the time now to go and have your head chopped off. Do you see what the tests are of the knight here? One is sex, you know, lust, and the other is courage. So he approaches the chapel, the green chapel, with the Green Knight whom he’s about to encounter, and he hears the knight whetting this great knife, this great ax, whew-whew-whew-whew, and he comes to it. And the knight is there, certainly, the great big green fellow, and he greets him. And says, “Okay, put your neck out there on this block, and I’ll chop your head off.” And he lifts the ax, and he says, “No, stretch out a little more.” He does this three times. And then the ax comes down and whew just cuts his neck a little bit. And the Green Knight says, “That’s for the garter.”
Well, this is the original legend of the Knights of the Garter. Here’s a knight who really transcended the two great temptations, fear of death and lust for sex and the joys of life.
BILL MOYERS: And the moral?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And the moral is that the realization of your bliss, your true being, comes when you have put aside the, what might be called passing moment, with its terror and with its temptations and its statement of requirements of life, that you should live this way.
BILL MOYERS: What is that story about and I forget where it comes from about the camel and then the lion, and along the way you lose the burden of youth?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The three transformations of the spirit. That’s Nietzsche. That’s the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me that story.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: When you are a child, when you are young and a young person, you are a camel. The camel gets down on its knees and says, “Put a load on me.” This is obedience. This is receiving the instruction, information that your society knows you must have in order to live a competent life. When the camel is well loaded, he gets up on his feet, struggles to his feet, and runs out into the desert, where he becomes transformed into a lion. The heavier the load, the more powerful the lion. The function of the lion is to kill a dragon, and the name of the dragon is “Thou Shalt.” And on every scale of the dragon there is a “Thou Shalt” imprinted. Some of it comes from 2,000 years, 4,000 years ago. Some of it comes from yesterday morning’s newspaper headline. When the dragon is killed, the lion is transformed into a child, an innocent child living out of its own dynamic. And Nietzsche uses the term, ein aus sich rollendes Rad, a wheel rolling out of its own center. That’s what you become. That is the mature individual.
The “Thou Shalt” is the civilizing force, it turns a human animal into a civilized human being. But the one who has thrown off the “Thou Shalts” is still a civilized human being. Do you see? He has been humanized, you might say, by the “Thou Shalt” system, so his performance now as a child is not simply childlike at all. He has assimilated the culture and thrown it off as a “Thou Shalt.” But this is the way in any art work. You go to work and study an art. You study the techniques, you study all the rules, and the rules are put upon you by a teacher. Then there comes a time of using the rules, not being used by them. Do you understand what I’m saying? And one way is to follow…and I always tell my students, follow your bliss.
BILL MOYERS: Follow your bliss?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Your bliss, where the deep of sense of being in form and going where your body and soul want to go, when you have that feeling, then stay with it and don’t let anyone throw you off. Have you ever read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt?
BILL MOYERS: Not in a long time.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Do you remember the last line? “I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.”
BILL MOYERS: Quite an admission.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the man who never followed his bliss. Well, I heard that line. I was living in Bronxville when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to be eating out in the restaurants of the town for my lunch and dinners. And Thursday night was the maid’s night off in Bronxville, so that all the families were out in the restaurants. And one fine evening, I was in my favorite restaurant there. It was a Greek restaurant. And at a table was sitting a father, a mother, and a scrawny little boy here, about 12 years old. And the father says to the boy, “Drink your orange drink your tomato juice.” And the boy says, “I don’t want to.” And the father with a louder voice says, “Drink your tomato juice.” And the mother says, “Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.” The father looks at her, and he says, “He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do.” Said, “If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me, I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.” I said, My God, Babbitt incarnate. And that’s the man who never followed his bliss.
Well, you may have a success in life, but then just think of it, what kind of life was it, what good is it? You’ve never done a thing you wanted to in all your life.
BILL MOYERS: What happens when you follow your bliss?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You come to bliss. This should be it in marriage. I mean, that’s the sense of the marriage ceremony. In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There’s the hub of the wheel, and there’s the revolving rim of the wheel. And if you attached to the rim of the wheel, let’s say fortune, you will be either above, going down, at the bottom, or coming up. But if you are at the hub, you’re in the same place all the time. And that’s the sense of the marriage vow, you know. I take you in health or sickness, you know, in wealth or poverty, but I take you and you are my bliss, riot the wealth that you might bring me, nor the social prestige, but you. And that’s following your bliss.
I came to this idea of bliss because in Sanskrit which is the great spiritual language of the world, and they know all about it and have known about it for a long time, the transcendent is transcendent. But there are three terms that bring you to the brink, you might say the jumping off place to the ocean. And the three terms are sat, chit, ananda. And sat, the word sat means “being.” Chit means “full consciousness.” And ananda means “rapture.” So I thought, I don’t know whether my consciousness is full consciousness or not, I don’t know whether my being is proper being or not, but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture and that’ll bring me both being and full consciousness, and it worked.
BILL MOYERS: What was your rapture?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it started with Indians, and then it went on into more and more mythological matters and the realm of the arts, music, and when I met Jean, then the dance came in, and this is it, just stay with that.
BILL MOYERS: And one doesn’t have to be a poet to do this, carpenters do it, farmers do it.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: A poet is simply one who’s made a profession and a lifestyle of being in touch with that. Most people have to be concerned with other things. They get themselves involved in economic and other activities, or you’re drafted into a war that isn’t the one you’re interested in, and how to hold to this umbilical, you might say, under those circumstances? That’s a technique each one has to work out for himself somehow. But most people living in that realm of what might be called occasional concerns, they all have the capacity that’s waiting to be awakened, to move to this other place. I know it, I’ve seen it happen in students. A wonderful way of teaching we have at Sarah Lawrence, where I taught for 38 years, I’d have an individual conference with every one of my students at least once a fortnight for half an hour or so. And there you’re talking on about the things that students ought to be reading, and suddenly you hit on something that the student really responds to. You could see the eyes open, the complexion changes, a life possibility has opened there. And all you can say to yourself is, I hope this child hangs onto that, you know. They may or may not, but when they do, they’ve found a life right there in the room with you.
BILL MOYERS: How would you advise somebody to tap that spring of eternal life, that joy, that is right there?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, we’re having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your joy is. Grab it; no one can tell you what it’s going to be. I mean, you’ve got to learn to recognize your own depths.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have this sense, when you’re following your bliss, as I have at moments, of being helped by hidden hands?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It’s miraculous. I even have a superstition that has grown on me as the result of invisible hands coming all the time. Namely, that if you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you’re living somehow. And well, you can see it. You begin to deal with people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open doors to you. I say, follow your bliss, and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have sympathy for the man who has no invisible means of support?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Who has no invisible means yes, he’s the one that evokes compassion, you know, the poor chap. And to see him stumbling around, when the water of immortal life is right there, is really evokes one’s pity.
BILL MOYERS: Right there? Right there? You believe that?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: The waters of eternal life?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Right there.
BILL MOYERS: Where?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Wherever you are if you’re following your bliss. I mean, you’re having that joy, that refreshment, that life, all the time.
Visit the Joseph Campbell Foundation website.
Downloadable and streaming versions of The Power of Myth are available at PowerofMyth.net.