New Read: The Masks of God

I’ve mentioned The Masks of God by Joseph Campbell a few times over the last few weeks, but I realized I haven’t yet written a post dedicated to it. So here we are, watching the sunrise to reveal a cloudy morning in the desert, thinking about what I can say about this glorious book. There was just so much in it. Where do I even start?

I went out in the gloom to take a better picture of the cover. No worries about shadows and glare today!

the masks of god book cover on rocks

I found out The Masks of God is a four-part series. After reading the first one, Primitive Mythology, I want to read the next three, but I’m not sure I will. They all look like fascinating reads, but it’s out of print and each copy is around $20 in paperback. I could buy them on Kindle, but for some strange reason I just don’t get as much out of digital reading. I’m aware a library may have it, but I’m not a fan of borrowing. If they come across my path on one of my used bookstore adventures, I’ll certainly grab them, but for now I’m satisfied with what I have.

What did I enjoy most about this book? The way he describes and details each mythology, clearly shows in what way he (through research and archeology) believes they were created and disseminated across the globe, and what it might have meant to the people. He shows the connections he has found and how one could have sparked another, branching off and evolving according the climate the people found themselves in.

All the while, he doesn’t talk about any of the mythology as naïve. He doesn’t seem to hold any one mythology above or below another. To him, they are all equally different ways humanity expresses itself. There was a quote somewhere early in the book about “someone else’s mythology is your religion.” That’s the way most books I’ve read on mythology feel. The others have been “anti-religious,” treating past culture and history as far beneath the scientific mind. Both don’t sit well with me.

Clearly, since humanity has created stories and rituals since the dawn of time, mythology is part of our genetic makeup. We have evolved this way for a reason. You may say it’s a real common god or spiritual side of reality. Others may say it’s imagination and naivete. I think our minds work in mysterious ways and that psychology is a science to be explored in as much detail as biology and geology. How strange is that? Humanity evolves to the place where we can use our own evolved mind to explore and learn how that mind evolved and works!

What did I not like about it? There were very long and detailed descriptions about violent and painful rituals that I’d rather have not read. Yes, I’m squeamish. I’m the one that looks away from movies when they get too gory. I don’t think it’s gratuitous in this instance though. The details reminded me how soft we are compared to ancient people, and that’s a good thing in many ways. We’ve changed our physical world so much that we no longer need to brave the elements daily and endure the kind of pain these people did. Our energy can be used for different purposes. That’s progress I can get behind.

The following is a long quote, but each sentence holds on to the next. The idea of the whole book is within this paragraph. From the Prologue:

“No one, as far as I know, has yet tried to compose into a single picture the new perspectives that have been opened in the fields of comparative symbolism, religion, mythology, and philosophy by the scholarship of recent years. The richly rewarded archaeological researches of the past few decades; astonishing clarifications, simplifications, and coordinations achieved by intensive studies in the spheres of philology, ethnology, philosophy, art history, folklore, and religion; fresh insights in psychological research; and the many priceless contributions to our science by the scholars, monks, and literary men of Asia, have combined to suggest a new image of the fundamental unity of the spiritual history of mankind. Without straining beyond the treasuries of evidence already on hand in these widely scattered departments of our subject, therefore, but simply gathering from them the membra disjuncta of a unitary mythological science, I attempt in the following pages the first sketch of a natural history of the gods and heroes, such as in its final form should include its purview all divine beings – as zoology includes all animals and botany all plants – not regarding any as sacrosanct or beyond its scientific domain. For, as in the visible world of vegetable and animal kingdoms, so also the visionary world of the gods: there has been a history, an evolution, a series of mutations, governed by laws; and to show forth such laws in the proper aim of science.”

How could you not read on after reading THAT?!

The author is not saying he has all the answers, that what is contained in this book is the final word on what has occurred in the past, exactly what happened when and where and why. No one can really know that, unless you’re Dr. Who, but we can look back and make connections from what we find, and each year we find and discover more, making new connections. It’s that lighting a candle idea again.

I’ve decided not to get into more of the details of this book. I’ve shared a few of my favorite quotes on my Instagram page, if you’re interested in reading them. For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from the “Conclusion” chapter.

“We may therefore think of any myth or rite either as a clue to what may be permanent or universal in human nature (in which case our emphasis will be psychological, or perhaps even metaphysical), or, on the other hand, as a function of the local scene, the landscape, the history, and the sociology of the folk concerned (in which case our approach will be ethnological or historical). In corresponding Indian terms designating these two aspects of mythology and rite are, respectively, marga, meaning “path” or “way,” the path or way to the discovery of the universal, and desi (pronounced “day-shee”), “of the region, local, or ethnic,” the peculiar, sectarian, or historical aspect of any cult, through which it constellates a folk, a nation, or a civilization.”

“Functioning as a “way,” mythology and ritual conduce to a transformation of the individual, disengaging him from his local, historical conditions and leading him toward some kind of ineffable experience. Functioning as an “ethnic idea,” on the other hand, the image binds the individual to his family’s system of historically conditioned sentiments, activities, and beliefs, as a functioning member of a sociological organism.”

Mythology and religion are important aspects of humanity. It can connect people across time and space, create bonds that make us better humans. It can also build up walls and destroy all we’ve worked for. We cannot toss it aside any more than we can our physical body. It is part of who we are as a species on this planet. It must continually evolve and change with us as we grow, the same way our minds and bodies do.

How? I have no idea. We could start with setting aside the idea that we are right and everyone else is wrong. We could believe that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, even those we profoundly disagree with. It would be a start.

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