Joseph Campbell had a talent, rare to academics, to make complex topics and ideas digestible to those outside his field of study without ever leaving a trace of condescension.
I have a confession to make: I have been in awe of Joseph Campbell since my ninth grade World Civilizations teacher sat us down to watch Bill Moyer’s interviews with Professor Campbell on The Power of Myth.
It was an experience that changed my life.
Through the scholarship of Joseph Campbell I found my way to the study of myths and legends as they pertain to the creation of the written historical record and the use of these common and well known tales as political propaganda.
In this latest publication of Professor Campbell’s works, the political and societal significance of representations of the goddess throughout both recorded and pre-recorded history become clear.
The book is not written by Joseph Campbell but it is his voice that speaks from the pages.
Goddess scholar and professor of mythology Safron Rossi compiled this volume from many disparate and unpublished lectures given by Professor Campbell between 1972 and 1986 to challenge the perception that Campbell was focused solely on the imagery of the hero and not interested in the feminine divine.
While the structure of this publication is not Campbell’s own, the words, concepts and ideas are purely his.
Joseph Campbell had a talent, rare to academics, to make complex topics and ideas digestible to those outside his field of study without ever leaving a trace of condescension. It is a talent represented throughout the goddess lectures as well.
Structurally, the book follows a chronological path. It traces the origin of the Goddess motif from the earliest historical remains and evidence, beginning with paleolithic carved ivory pieces, continues through the influx and rise of Indo-European and Semitic influences and terminates in the poetry of courtly romance and the rise of the veneration of the Virgin Mary in Europe.
Experientially, however, the story of the goddess is woven in a very non-linear fashion. The goddess was, is and will be, regardless of what societal limitations are put upon her.
It is the premise proposed by Professor Campbell that the various representations of the goddess, which have been divided through time into distinct personalities—-i.e. the female aspects of various pantheons across the world—-are, in fact, one. This goddess accent is obscured throughout history as more male dominated cultures, tribe centered cultures, superimposed their deities over the existing substrata of the miracle of nature.
And therein, I believe, lies one of the most fascinating aspects of this work.
Professor Campbell discusses how cultures that are centered around nature and their environments are more hospitable to the inclusion of foreign deities and allow for the overlay and overlapping of similar ideas. For example, after the conquest of smaller villages along the Nile, the deities of Upper and Lower Egypt were combined by Egyptian priests to create a unified myth system inclusive of both sets of ideas.
Cultures that are more tribally focused make the individual tribal deity supreme, forcing all others into a lower caste, as it were, subservient to the great tribal god—-sometimes even carrying the idea past subjugation to demonization, as can be seen with the rise of Yahweh and the parallel abhorrence of the gods of the peoples his followers conquered.
But even in those male dominated myth systems, the goddess can’t be kept down and Campbell draws our attention to the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary to highlight this point. He even suggests that the underlying importance of the mother of Christ to the Christian belief system may have appealed to the notoriously mysogynistic St. Paul precisely because of Paul’s Greek background and an innate understanding of the function of the mother goddess.
Of equal interest to me was Professor Campbell’s reinterpretation of the famous Homeric epics, The Illiad and The Odyssey. I don’t wish to spoil the fun by revealing his secrets, but suffice it to say that Campbell interprets the 10 years of the battle for Troy as the male accent rising during the rise of Indo-European cultures, while Odysseus’ return voyage is a transformation from the sphere of the masculine into a world where masculine and feminine co-exist and an initiation into the proper realm of female power. The goddess reigns supreme in The Odyssey.
The thoughts and ideas presented in this book are, as to be expected from the mind of Joseph Campbell, thought provoking, enlightening and inspirational.
The joy of this book is that the voice that shines through is personal, conversational, impassioned and, to the heart of this reader, nostalgic. Reading the words of Professor Campbell’s transcribed, albeit slightly adapted, lectures brought me right back to that 9th grade classroom, sitting stunned and feeling a world of knowledge just beginning to peer through the cracks opened up when I first heard this great man lecture.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise