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Invocations: Beyond Words

The stories at MYTH(OS) ranged from fairy tales to medieval heretics to elder gods and Rooster boys, but for an Invocation it seemed most appropriate to turn to the most well-known recent mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell, speaking on the power and importance of myth and the inadequacy of mere words

Joseph Campbell

Campbell taught mythology for almost forty years at Sarah Lawrence College, and wrote many books with his most well known the bestselling The Hero with a Thousand Faces. That book is cited as the inspiration for Star Wars, and many other iconic stories, plays and films.

And although there are many quotes and comments to be read in his numerous books, it seemed most appropriate to find an Invocation not from his writings, but from a conversation. Campbell sat down to be interviewed by journalist Bill Moyers in 1985 and 1986 at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Marin, and later at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The conversation was recorded for eventual broadcast on PBS television. All in all, the interview lasted for over 24 hours, and was cut down to six hours for broadcast. It was wildly successful.

Unfortunately, Campbell died in his home in Hawaii before it was broadcast. He never knew how well received the PBS broadcast The Power of Myth was.

Joseph Campbell books

But how appropriate that it was recorded for the future, and in spoken form! Myth is, after all, an oral tradition as much as it is a written one, if not more so. Myths, and the mythos that surround them, have traditionally been passed down from person to person, in stories that are shared out loud. Indeed, to be a successful and well lasting myth, a story has to be compelling enough that it will not only be retold, but it will be retold with the proper elements. Good myths have an ability to shape the minds of those that hear them, and then recount them to others.

In searching his words for a compelling description of just what myth is, Campbell provided a comprehensive four functions of myth, which was too important to leave out of Myth(os):

“Myth basically serves four functions. The first is the mystical function,… realizing what a wonder the universe is, and what a wonder you are, and experiencing awe before this mystery….The second is a cosmological dimension, the dimension with which science is concerned – showing you what shape the universe is, but showing it in such a way that the mystery again comes through…. The third function is the sociological one – supporting and validating a certain social order…. It is the sociological function of myth that has taken over in our world – and it is out of date…. But there is a fourth function of myth, and this is the one that I think everyone must try today to relate to – and that is the pedagogical function, of how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.”

― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

And although that’s a compelling description of the facets and importance of myth and its affect in humanity… as Odd Salon uses words and images on the stage to describe odd and unusual stories, the best Invocation that could be used from Campbell’s conversation with Moyers had to be this, also from The Power of Myth:

“It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth—penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words, beyond images”

Further Reading:

The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell –

Works about and by Joseph Campbell – the Center for Story and Symbol

“How to Find your Bliss: Joseph Campbell on What it Takes to Have a Fulfilling Life”

-Matthew Nelson, curator of MYTH(OS)