In the last years of his life, mythologist Joseph Campbell crossed the country to give lectures that summarized his life’s work. The resulting series of 15 approximately one-hour Mythos episodes, originally broadcast on PBS, has been remastered into this DVD set of three seasons of five episodes each—Mythos I: The Shaping of Our Mythic Tradition, Mythos II: The Shaping of the Eastern Tradition, and Mythos III: The Shaping of the Western Tradition.
This set not only presents Campbell’s research into and interpretation of many cultures’ history, philosophies, religions, and myths, but equally important, it provides insights into Campbell himself. Many of us have read Campbell’s books, such as the popular The Hero with a Thousand Faces, or studied his ideas in university classes, but few are likely to have seen Campbell in action, passionately discussing a topic while animatedly gesturing to emphasize a point. This DVD set helps viewers understand the concept and importance of mythology, but it also makes Campbell a “real person” instead of a remote author/scholar.
The set logically begins with the basics of Campbell’s work, such as terminology and concepts useful to understanding later episodes, and it concludes with in-depth examples of these ideas found in 20th century art. The series historically progresses from creation myths to the works of modern writers, artists, and thinkers. Mythos I investigates the psychological sources of myths and dreams, ancient personifications of divinity (e.g., gods and goddesses), and spiritual development. Mythos II covers the core myths of Asian religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. Mythos III illustrates the influence of myths on art and literature, from 12th century romances (such as Tristan and Iseult) to 20th century novels (such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain).
Campbell’s many years as a university professor are evident in the way he structured lectures. Early in each segment, he clearly delineates the main points to be covered. The first episode, “Psyche and Symbol”, introduces mythology as “a set of stories or ideas that tries to make sense of the world and our place in it.” Campbell analyzes the four functions of mythology: the mystical (the source of mystery), the cosmological (a changing worldview, often in response to science), the sociological (that which validates and maintains a social order), and the pedagogical (guidance through crises in life).
An episode from Mythos III, “Love as the Guide”, stresses the significance of Arthurian legends (1150-1250 A.D.) and their influence on the way we perceive love today. Campbell establishes the origins of romance as the result of four eras of pre-Christian European literature: Classical Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic. Each emphasized respect for the individual rather than the importance of the group and helped instill the idea of love over duty within later European societies.
Actress Susan Sarandon introduces each episode and provides additional summaries to bridge topics. Her brief commentaries guide viewers through a single episode but also help connect diverse subjects within the broader framework of the entire Mythos series. Although each episode can easily be understood as a standalone unit, in case some viewers are interested in only a few of the many cultures or topics, audiences who watch the entire series in linear order can best grasp the breathtaking scope of Campbell’s work—and of global cultural traditions.
The strength of Mythos is the elucidation of Campbell’s ideas and, for 21st century audiences, the ability to see and hear this famous man in his element. Campbell “in person” is easier to understand, especially in one-hour blocks, than in print. This DVD set’s strength, however, is also likely to be perceived as a technical weakness by audiences accustomed to state-of-the-art recordings and multiple ways of interacting with visual texts. Each disc understandably begins with a disclaimer about the quality of recordings because of their age.
The episodes are primarily filmed lectures, supplemented by Sarandon’s comments to link segments of Campbell’s talks. When Campbell is on screen, the camera focuses on him as he explains topics before a small audience. The variation in camera shots is minimal—a shift from a medium (or torso) shot to a long shot of Campbell walking around the stage or perching on the edge of a table, a zoom from the back of the room onto the stage, a cut to a close-up of Campbell as he delivers a key point.
Other graphics edited into the lecture include maps, photographs, or brief video clips, but the majority of each episode revolves around Campbell the lecturer. The episodes were created in an earlier television era, which accounts for a great deal of the technological simplicity, but they also were designed to make viewers think, without visual distractions. The series is not flashy entertainment but it’s compelling because of the wealth of cultural information on display.
Mythos is educational but not exclusively for scholars; Campbell makes the information accessible to everyone, and audiences willing to lower their technological expectations are rewarded with episodes packed with examples from ancient to modern societies around the world and a guide who ably tells the story of humankind.
As might be expected, given the straightforward presentation of episodes on the DVDs, the discs do not offer additional features. The collection does, however, include a 12-page booklet with Campbell’s biography, a previously unpublished essay by Campbell, and information about the Joseph Campbell Foundation that continues his work.
Campbell described mythos as “the one great story of humankind.” Instead of elaborating upon the differences between peoples, he highlighted the common themes found in all cultures’ stories and within typical human experiences. He helped define what it means to be human. As Sarandon reminds viewers, “We only need to open our eyes to a different way of looking at the world” to better understand the “universal themes of the human condition that unite us all.”
Finding common ground within today’s fragmented global politics seems ever more challenging but necessary. For that reason alone, Campbell’s insights—and these DVDs—make for timely viewing.