It’s Easter Sunday. I’m not thinking of church, Judy Garland or the Easter bunny. Instead Joseph Campbell comes to mind, the man who wrote:
“The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change."
Joseph Campbell first came to notice in 1949 when he published his ground-breaking book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He caught our attention with the above quote and then spent the rest of his illustrious career as teacher and author showing how the world’s myths are not old fanciful stories, but living teachings alive in us today if we know how to interpret them.
His message was simple: all the world’s myths arise from common energies in our bodies and minds, common observations of the world we live in and our common need to make sense of it all and give it meaning through the poetry of myth and the dance of ritual. If we could see through the details of each story and recognize that our local deity is not in opposition to the folks who live across the river, but the same god with a different face and name, we can make a first bold step to our shared humanity and a transcendant religion that includes all and opposes none.
His work came to a wider notice in the mid-80’s when he was interviewed in a 6-part series on television with Bill Moyers and some folks recognized it as a teaching for our time. With several thousand years behind us of fluid myths hardened to religious dogma, misinterpreted teachings which gave permission to slay the infidels in the name of our particular tribal god, it was time to back off and see the common threads that connected them all. The advent of global communication, anthropological studies, shared literature made such a compartive study possible back in the 1940’s, as well as Campbell’s good sense to climb the shoulders of such folks as James Frazer, Leo Frobenius, Claude Levi-Straus, Carl Jung, Heinrich Zimmer and others to get a larger overview. Raised Catholic, he was weary of the arrogance that Christians had the true God and Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus and others the false one. And yet more impatient with the parade of Christian sects—Catholics, Protestants, each then subdivided further with the Greek Orthodox or Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and on and on, each claiming their little piece of the whole as the Gospel Truth.
And so back to Easter. Campbell deftly shows how the Resurrection story of Jesus Christ was but one version of a common motif in myths worldwide. It comes from the agragarian culture dependent on seeds growing to plants to flower to fruit and dying back into the ground, to be resurrected next Spring. Since this grand cycle of the seasons grants us our very life, it becomes a spiritual story humanized and made palatable and understandable in anthropomorphic terms. Birth, death and resurrection is all around us— from the seasonal circle to the moon cycle to the small death of sleep at night and small birth of arising each morning. The Buddhists take it one step smaller, asking us to attend to our death in each exhale and birth in each inhale.
If you look at the world’s myths, you’ll find countless stories of some kind of death and resurrection. If you look out the window of your garden, you’ll see the same. My own vote for one of the most powerful artistic renderings of this is the movie Black Orpheus. That last scene with the kids dancing an Sugarloaf Mountain, ready to begin the cycle anew, never fails to reduce me to tears and lift my heart to the skies.
Meanwhile, no matter what your upbringing, belief, faith or preferred story, I wish you the remembrance of new life and hope and the wisdom and compassion to recognize the ways others come to the same renewal. And thanks to Joseph Campbell for his helping us to come to our senses.