Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth: Watch the Six-Part Series with Bill Moyers (1988)

The twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry encour­ages us to regard our­selves as hav­ing evolved beyond heroes, to say noth­ing of myths. Such things were only use­ful in the pre-mod­ern world, as yet unblessed by the con­ve­niences, plea­sures, and cer­tain­ties of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. What, then, explains how devot­ed peo­ple are to Star Wars? For schol­ar of mythol­o­gy Joseph Camp­bell, author of The Hero with a Thou­sand Faces, George Lucas’ block­buster space opera — and the tril­o­gy it began — demon­strat­ed mod­ern man’s undi­min­ished need for myth. Lucas returned the com­pli­ment, say­ing that could nev­er have made it with­out the knowl­edge of arche­typ­al heroes and their jour­neys he drew from Camp­bel­l’s work.

Camp­bell him­self lays out this knowl­edge in the six inter­views with jour­nal­ist Bill Moy­ers that con­sti­tute The Pow­er of Myth. That doc­u­men­tary series has just come avail­able free to watch on the Youtube chan­nel of dis­trib­u­tor Kino Lor­ber, 34 years after its orig­i­nal broad­cast on PBS in 1988.

At that time, Moy­ers says in an updat­ed intro­duc­tion, “when mil­lions of peo­ple were yearn­ing for a way of talk­ing about reli­gious expe­ri­ence with­out regard to a reli­gious belief sys­tem, Camp­bell gave them the lan­guage for it.” For decades — for cen­turies, real­ly — once-invi­o­lable nar­ra­tives of the world and man’s place in it had been break­ing down. The inabil­i­ty to trace a mytho­log­i­cal arc in their own lives has dri­ven peo­ple in var­i­ous direc­tions: toward cults, toward health fads, toward ther­a­py, toward pop cul­ture.

In the mid-to-late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, this cre­at­ed the most oppor­tune of con­di­tions for Camp­bel­l’s rise as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al. Though formed by the Depres­sion rather than the Age of Aquar­ius, he could adapt his teach­ings about ancient myth, as if by instinct, for lis­ten­ers hop­ing to raise their con­scious­ness. “Fol­low your bliss,” he said, think­ing of the Hin­du Upan­ishads, and the New Age made into a cliché. But the Camp­bell of The Pow­er of Myth has much still-rel­e­vant wis­dom to offer, even for those who feel plunged into a despair unique to our moment. “The world is a waste­land,” he admits. “Peo­ple have the notion of sav­ing the world by shift­ing it around and chang­ing the rules and so forth.” But “the way to bring it to life is to find, in your own case, where your life is, and be alive your­self.” A hero’s jour­ney awaits each of us, but nev­er has there been so much to dis­tract us from mak­ing it.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear 48 Hours of Lec­tures by Joseph Camp­bell on Com­par­a­tive Mythol­o­gy and the Hero’s Jour­ney

How Led Zeppelin’s “Stair­way to Heav­en” Recre­ates the Epic Hero’s Jour­ney Described by Joseph Camp­bell

Updat­ing Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Jour­ney” to Cov­er Female Action Heroes–Pretty Much Pop: A Cul­ture Pod­cast #33

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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