Joseph Campbell’s Four Basic Functions of Mythology

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“It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestations.” ~ Joseph Campbell

camp1 At our most basic nature, we are social creatures who love to tell stories. Myths are stories that may or may not be true, designed to be taken into deep consideration rather than believed. Myths are the path to human understanding, and myth-making is the path to self-expansion and human expansion. Myths help us understand reality. They are the dreams of the universe.

Myth goes beyond science and religion, striking the flint-stone of the magical experience at the heart of all things. In a mysterious cosmos, myth is the attempt to explain the unexplainable through the mystical, leaving us with a sense of astonishment that keeps us engaged and desiring to know more. Joseph Campbell described mythology as having four basic functions: The mystical, the cosmological, the sociological, and the pedagogical. Let’s break them down.

The Mystical Function

“As the island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance –the boundary between the known and the unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination but to more questions and mysteries.” ~ Marcelo Gleiser

camp2 This function is about experiencing the awe of the universe. It’s telling stories that touch the cornerstone of what it means to be a human being engaged with the unexplainable.

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From ghost stories, to alien abductions, to confrontations with angels, to long talks with God or the gods, and even scientific stories like Schrodinger’s cat and the multiverse theory of reality, the mystical function is important for relating the mind to the mystery that something exists rather than nothing and creating awe and a connection to the sacred.

Myth, especially within the mystical function, links the unconscious to the conscious by tethering latent instincts between nature and the human soul. The stories we tell are the reconciliation of consciousness with the preconditions of existence. Basically meaning that we tell stories to make sense of our own mortality. We’ve tasted the fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil over and over again throughout the history of the human leitmotif.

We’ve told countless stories of this sacred tasting through art, poetry and music. The mystical function is a sacred reconciliation because it helps us to honor fundamental change and insurmountable impermanence, while helping us to make sense of being or not being in a universe that has no meaning other than the meaning we are able to bring to it.

The Cosmological Function

“Each piece, or part, of the whole of nature is always merely an approximation to the complete truth, or the complete truth so far as we know it. In fact, everything we know is only some kind of approximation, because we know that we do not know all the laws as yet. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.” ~ Richard Feynman

camp3 This function is about formulating and rendering an image of the universe. The universe we live in is unfathomably huge, inexplicably scary, and perplexingly mysterious. It is so awe-inspiringly enormous that we cannot even wrap our minds around its immense structure.

So how do we explain it? Before science, before religion, we create stories through art, spoken word, and the mighty pen. Using our imaginations, we mythologically lash out. Our five senses explode into the creation myth.

From Hesiod’s Theogony to Genesis in the Old Testament, from Brahma merging with Vishnu and Shiva to the current scientific-based Big Bang theory, cosmogonical myths are at the heart of each culture. They help us to make sense of the nothingness from which we come. Problems arise when we cling to, instead of learn from, such myths, but they are still important for both the psychological and sociological function of reconciliation.

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They give us something to hang our hats on, even if the hat-rack itself is mysteriously inexplicable. As Joseph Campbell said, “The human brain has no mechanism to recognize what is relevant or what is not. Relevance is an environmental/cultural phenomenon. All value is actualized through imagination alone.” And so it is through our imaginations first (the mythological hat-rack) that we make sense of the world.

The Sociological Function

“I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.” ~Thomas Cooley

camp4This function is about supporting and validating a certain social order. These stories help to bind people to a certain tribe or social group. Sociological myths are the essential building blocks behind all codes of moral conduct. It maintains the meaning of culture while shaping the meaning of our lives. Even when we’re not aware of it, cultural mythos is working behind the scenes.

It’s the story in the mind. It’s the cartoon in the brain. It’s the way we go about being human in a non-human and sometimes even inhumane world. And it’s a huge problem when the cultural myth is not in accord with natural order, such as the current Western cultural myth that we are separate from nature when, really, we are nature, interconnected and interdependent. Ishmael’s Leavers and Takers parable is a powerful example of this.

The Greek myth of Pandora is another good example of a myth that upholds a misbalanced culture. The Greeks were a patriarchal society that subjugated women, and the myth helped to uphold and justify that belief. The problem is that it’s not in accord with cosmic order: since healthy human dynamic requires a balance between masculine and feminine energies.

There are many such myths that uphold unhealthy beliefs. It’s our responsibility as healthy creators of myths, in our own right, to learn from such beliefs and create healthier ones (see self-inflicted mythology). Sociological myths are often stories wherein the moral is about what not to do, which then directly shines a light on what to do in order to achieve a healthier social experience.

The Pedagogical Function

“What we observe is not Nature itself but Nature exposed to our method of questioning.” ~ Werner Heisenberg

According to Joseph Campbell, this is the most important of the four functions. This is the psychological function of myth, which lies at the heart of the other three functions. It’s about how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances. Such myths touch upon human themes that never change: love and revenge, mortality and immortality, knowledge and lack of knowledge, motherhood and fatherhood, and even mind-stretching stories of male motherhood like Zeus giving birth to Dionysus from his thigh and Yahweh giving birth to Adam and Adam birthing Eve from his rib, or even stories like virgin mothers and immaculate conceptions.

camp5 Pedagogical myths help to shape individuals to the aims and ideals of a particular social group or tribe, guiding them from birth to death through the course of a human life. These are myths that show by good and/or bad example how to live a human life.

They provide patterns of thought that bring meaning to life. Such powerful guidance stories as the Jewish Ten Commandments, Buddha’s Eight-fold Noble Path, Lord Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita, and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, for example.

These are vital stories that help us look for the truth within ourselves through the guidance of people from the past (real or not, it doesn’t matter) who have gone through similar trials and tribulations. Such myths as the teachings of Muhammad, the wisdom of the Buddha, the Parables of Christ, and powerful shamanic myths like the teachings of Don Juan. Even trickster myths hold deep wisdom for how to live a sensible and meaningful life in the face of absurdity and meaninglessness.

At the end of the day, the most powerful function of myth is the self-created kind. When we can absorb the teachings of the mythologies that came before us, and then have the courage and audacity to add in our own imaginative soul-signature wisdom, the universe is compelled into revealing itself even further. We ride the wave of the human leitmotif like daring soul-surfers, Jesus in our Solar Plexus, Buddha in our heart, Lao Tzu in our throat, Vishnu in our third eye, and self-inflicted mythology existentially crowning out between what it means to be a human being within an infinitely magnanimous cosmos.

Image source:

Stonehenge
Campbell quote
Creation myths
Campfire stories
Monomyth

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