In the last section of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes about the relevance of mythology to modern times. He wrote this book in the 1940s, which is about 65 years ago now, yet his observations about myth are still true. Mythology is about the mysteries of life, which is relevant to all people in all times.

The Shapeshifter

The shapeshifter is, of course, a common mythological character type, but Campbell uses it here as a metaphor for mythology itself. He tells of Proteus, not just a shapeshifting god but a kind of oracle. The answers you get from the god/oracle to your questions depend on your questions. Ask a stupid question and you’ll get a stupid answer. Anyone who’s ever used oracles, such as Tarot or Runes or the Yijing (I Ching), know this.

Campbell ends with a sort of overview of various definitions of myth from different thinkers, all of which, he tells us, are true to some degree:

Mythology has been interpreted by the modern intellect as a primitive, fumbling effort to explain the world of nature (Frazer); as a production of poetical fantasy from prehistoric times, misunderstood by succeeding ages (Muller); as a repositing of allegorical instruction, to shape the individual to his group (Durkheim); as a group dream, symptomatic of archetypal urges within the depths of the human psyche (Jung); as the traditional vehicle of man’s profoundest metaphysical insights (Coomaraswamy); and as God’s Revelation to His children (the Church).*

Mythology can be all of these things when we look beyond the surface of it (stories) and care about what it can do for us.

Proteus as sea god with multiple heads.

Proteus, a sea-god, was a shapeshifter who also told fortunes. Campbell compares mythology to Proteus because it can be many things but, like the fortune teller, will give stupid answers if asked stupid questions. “Der höllische Proteus” (1695). In the public domain.

The Function of Myth, Cult, and Meditation

Society, Campbell tells us, reflects the full potential of humankind. What he means is that any single individual is limited by various circumstances in life. For instance, as a woman, I can fulfill my full potential only as a woman. Perhaps if I’d been born a man, my full potential would have been different.

Rituals give us a chance to experience some of the potential we can never fulfill as well as see how we fit into the whole of society. Take, for example, a football game. The opening ceremony allows us to experience potential we can never fulfill through those on the field as we watch the players prepare to play. We also, however, feel our role as spectators, an important part of the experience of a football game.

The rituals of Pagans and indigenous people go even further. They bring humankind into harmony with nature. For example, celebrations of the autumn equinox or Mabon bring us into harmony with the fertility and abundance of the earth, which is most obvious in the fall when crops are overflowing with the harvest. In this way, we feel our part in a much bigger cosmic whole.

However, in modern times and especially in the West, many of us are “exiled” from the group. Societal roles no longer mean as much as they did. The 50-year climb up the corporate ladder, from mail room to boardroom, is no longer a reality for most people. Jobs are volatile; even doctors, lawyers, and college professors, once thought to have such stable career choices, don’t feel compelled to stay in their careers forever. Marriage and motherhood are no longer the only ways women contribute to the world. Living your entire life in one town is no longer desirable for most people. And the list goes on.

Campbell doesn’t lament “the good old days,” and neither should we. Personally, I don’t think the group can show us deep truths about who we really are. “We” as in humanity. The “garments” we wear (our roles and circumstances, such as, for me, woman, daughter, sister, friend, teacher, etc.) are too distracting. The price we’ve had to pay for individuality and freedom is an obsession with the “me of we.”** In other words, a person tends to focus on how they as an individual fit into the whole. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but it is limited.

So this is where the Hero’s Journey comes in. Remember, it begins with leaving the group behind and venturing into the unknown (“exile”).

Each [person] carries within himself the all; therefore it may be sought and discovered within.

But it’s hard to do that when the roles you play in the group and your circumstances distract you. That’s why “exile” is necessary, even if it’s just in the form of rejecting who you always thought you were or what you always thought you should do.

One more point Campbell makes about this is that “exile” from the group doesn’t have to involve physical separation. That’s the gift of individualism and freedom in the West. It’s not perfect, but part of perfecting it involves testing it and challenging those who would ignore it. We do this by embracing “exile.”

I’ve known so many people who seek spiritual enlightenment, have felt something of it, and then believed themselves to be outside of society and the everyday life around them. This is the immature hero not yet ready for at-one-ment with the father.

The wise, mature hero doesn’t let any experience absorb his senses, not the bliss of illumination and not the drudgery of everyday life. Campbell emphasizes that the point isn’t to see the truth but to be the truth, which you then are in whatever you’re experiencing. There’s no need to emotionally separate yourself from everyday life or the people around you to experience the truth.

* Note that Campbell considers the Old and New Testaments myths, not history.

** I got this from the writer Carson McCullers, who actually used the expression “we of me,” but she used it to describe human relationships. I’m thinking more of the relationship between the individual and humanity.