Brett Williams's Reviews > Way of the Animal Powers, Part 1

Way of the Animal Powers, Part 1 by Joseph Campbell
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An excellent final effort from an extraordinary life

“We live today in a terminal moraine of myths and mythic symbols, fragments large and small of traditions that formerly inspired and gave rise to civilizations.” Thus Campbell opens the first volume in his final series on mythology and its evolution. The source of myth, Campbell shows, comes from the odd landscape of that space between our ears. Even for we moderns having paved over most of the mystery of existence, in the end there’s something enigmatic about our conscious awareness of the universe and ourselves in it. This is the terrain myths address and it’s best examined fresh, from the beginning, before codes and cannons were established tens of thousands of years after consciousness arose. So, Campbell starts with human evolution and its external expressions – brain size, tool making, cave paintings – and what can be approximated from that.

This large format book is loaded with interconnected charts, maps, and graphics. Each human type links to the fossil image of this creature’s head and notable brain size variation with corresponding changes in tool technology and art. Reasonable generalizations are drawn early in the introduction. For example, the functions of myth are: 1) to awaken and maintain a sense of wonder and participation in this mystery of life shared by community members (there were no “individuals” among the prehistoric or ancients as we now understand “individual”), 2) attach mystical importance to these images (i.e. give them authority), 3) serve social needs of community order, 4) escort individuals through inevitable stages of life. The chief distinction between mythical types is most pronounced between those of Stone Age animal plains vs. tropical jungle, where plants, not animals dominate, and women not men are primary as the source of life, not the ritual hunt which males perform on the plains. One type of mythological template is subject to anxiety and seeks to conquer nature, the other governed by inspirations of joy with childlike participation in nature. (Hmm...wonder which one we inherited?)

With just a little foresight one can see the earliest stages of our modern “holy of holies,” albeit in caves, not temples. Cave paintings begin with no human reference, thousands of years later dominated by human images. In this, the original impulse to worship nature can be seen to transform into a personification of nature’s powers, eventuating in the many gods with their very human characteristics of anger, tantrums, murder, and blessings. On occasion Campbell seems be a bit too egger to accept questionable anthropological conclusions – which might be any of a dozen other possibilities – but this book is nonetheless a fine coalescence of Campbell’s decades-long work as the pioneer in comparative mythology. After reading this book, one can easily see these mythological “fragments” all around us - in the background of society, and in our religions which incorporated mythic symbols readily available to the ancients.
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Started Reading
November 13, 2014 – Finished Reading
February 4, 2015 – Shelved

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