The Meaning of Life: ‘Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers’

“Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life,” explains scholar Joseph Campbell near the beginning of the celebrated PBS series Joseph Campbell on The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. His definition of myth, rather than being that myths are examples of the search for life’s meaning, is that myths are the ongoing search for “the experience of life”. According to Campbell, what myths—all myths—tell us is that the meaning of life is the experience of life: “Eternity isn’t some later time, eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time! It is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out … This is it. If you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. The experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.”

The Power of Myth first aired as a six-part series in 1988. Campbell sat down with Moyers, an award-winning journalist, for several conversations at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch over the previous two years. The two discussed Campbell’s work and his theories on mythology, symbolism, the human experience and how the myths are strikingly similar throughout human history, with the same symbols, stories and themes repeated down through the ages across widely varied cultures.

This two-volume DVD set presents the series in its original six episode form, with introductions from Moyers. Campbell had passed away before any of the episodes were broadcast, so these introductions have a sense of solemnity, but the episodes themselves are lively and engaging. The energy and each man’s genuine, obvious passion for the topics elevates these discussions far beyond the setting where they take place, which is essentially a warmly lit, almost nondescript room with two chairs facing each other. It’s like a cozy, fireside chat. Because one of the participants happens to be a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and the world’s foremost expert on mythology, it’s also a bit like a lecture course, but it’s the most fascinating lecture you’ll ever attend.

The first episode, The Hero’s Adventure, provides an overview of the structure of myths. No matter the culture or tradition, the hero of every myth takes the same journey. Each hero departs, interacts with other archetypal beings and encounters the same sorts of trials, completes his quest or fulfills his purpose (which is sometimes not to complete his quest) and returns, changed in some way.

It’s not just the sword-drawing King Arthur or light-saber-wielding Luke Skywalker-style heroes that take these epic journeys, either. The adventure can be one of inner exploration and spiritual seeking as well. Not in any way judging, refuting or discounting any of the world’s myriad belief systems, Campbell notes how this mythic journey is present—and nearly identical—in many major religions. Buddha, Moses, Jesus, for instance; all embarked on spiritual quests, they met with allies or enemies, each was tested and each returned transformed.

Episode Two, The Message of the Myth explores how, at their core, all myths exist to teach us. They teach us about ourselves and others, and they show us how to live our lives. This episode is where things begin to get really interesting, as Campbell, with a twinkle of glee point out that myths serve more than just the folkloric functions in society of “do this”, “don’t eat that”, “be careful when traveling there”, etc. “Myth,” he explains, “is the field of reference…metaphors for what is absolutely transcendent”. Myths are the guidebooks for life itself, with all its beauty and mystery. They reflect the concept of transcending duality (because while things do come in pairs and everything has its opposite, there can be no good without evil). Myths are the keys to understanding the whole of human experience.

The First Storytellers discusses the ways in which ancient cultures sought to understand their existence and explain their connection to the world through storytelling and rituals. These tales and customs, such as rituals in which a hunter thanks and honors the spirit of an animal which he has killed so that it will be willing to return to be hunted again, or a shaman re-enacts the hunt or the harvest to ensure the cycle continues, evolved as a way for humans to live in harmony with nature. These myths were passed down through the ages and have now become cautionary tales.

Campbell clearly has the storyteller’s gift as he relates a version of “The Buffalo’s Wife” and then goes on to marvel at how the Indians of the plains lost the entire basis for their societies in less than one generation with the buffalo massacre of the 1880s. Moyers questions him on the diminished impact of myths and Campbell concedes that as societies have moved forward without the guidance of these stories and rituals, crime has increased and resources have been depleted. He also admits that the modern world moves much faster than myths traditionally evolved in the past, which is one reason they may not seem so prevalent, or relevant, as they once were. However, he also points out that new myths are arising all the time (cleverly using the computer age as one example) and that artists increasingly fill the societal roles of shaman and teacher.

The fourth episode is about Sacrifice and Bliss. It reiterates many of the ideas already discussed using the concepts of renewal and/or transcending death through sacrifice, both literal (human, animal) and figurative (the ritual of Mass), and the idea of being dutiful to society versus following one’s own bliss. Fifth episode Love and the Goddess, explores the age-old beliefs common to matriarchal religions, to virgin births and to the story of the crucifixion. Moyers was just as attentive as viewers will be, as Campbell holds forth on the everything from rise of romantic love in mythic tales, like that of Tristan and Isolde, to the Big Bang Theory. Most of this episode deals with the idea of the sacred feminine, Mother Earth, and images of fertility goddesses, but it’s likely because of the focus on slightly more modern and/or western legends that viewers will know many more of the tales that Campbell refers to than they may have in other episodes.

The last episode, Masks of Eternity, was filmed at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. In it, the two men talk of the infinite and how one of the needs we have as part of the human experience is to identify with it. Campbell points out that all cultures create “masks”, which are the names and images for God, and they serve as metaphors for an “inexpressible transcendence, the being beyond all being and the idea beyond all thought”. Throughout the series ,Campbell often brings the discourse back to examples from his own life, but no more so than in this conclusion. He was aware that he was approaching his own death, which he knew was not an end, but just another step in his experience of eternity, and he looked to it much as he looked to the myths he studied, with hope, with more questions than answers and, above all, a desire for discovery.

The Power of Myth is a powerful and riveting experience, and it’s all the more so for its seeming simplicity. In that way, it too is like the myths Campbell loved. Joseph Campbell wasn’t preaching from that chair as he sat across from Bill Moyers. He was sharing the clues that he had gathered in his ongoing search for “the experience of life”.

The bonus features on this DVD set include an unreleased conversation with Campbell in 1981, Moyers’ 1999 interview with George Lucas about how Campbell’s work inspired Star Wars, photo galleries from the episodes, excerpts from the film Sukhavati and a 12 page viewer’s guide with profiles of artists influenced by Campbell, an essay on mythology in everyday life, Campbell’s biography, and an explanation of animal symbolism in myths.

RATING 9 / 10