The Hero With A Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell

I probably bought this book over twenty years ago at a used book store. I never got around to reading it. I likely tried, then put it back down, promising I would come back to it when I was older and smarter. Somewhere in the meantime, Rick and Morty became immensely popular and everyone and their dog began talking about Campbell again, and so I wondered if it wasn’t the right time to pick this book up.

Now older, I recognize smarter is not coming. I might as well dive in.

Two thoughts immediately become apparent reading this book. The first is that I waited for years to read a book that I now detest. The second is that this is exactly the kind of book a younger version of myself would have gone around proselytizing, telling anyone who would sit still long enough about the light and the truth of this work.

To summarize this as briefly as possible, Joseph Campbell believes that the myths ancient people wrote down reflect some kind of broader universal truths about the world, using the same kind of “reasoning” Carl Jung used in his work. It is meant to, for lack of a better word, to science the mystical.

Oh fuck, this is going to be a disappointment-fest.

The preface alone is terrifying, and includes these choice words by Sigmund Freud, where he forgets that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. He claims that when parents tell their children that a stork delivered them, the parents are being symbolic and not coy. I wouldn’t know, as my parents were pretty upfront about their sex life. I would wager that Freud here is wrong. The book is off to a bad start.

Then Campbell chimes in:

It is the purpose of the present book to uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology by bringing together a multitude of not-too-difficult examples and letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. The old teachers knew what they were saying.

Campbell, Joseph not Bruce

Let me put my cards on the table. I spent a good part of my life studying Semiotics at the fucking university (Master’s) level. I actually have what some people would dare call expertise on signs, symbols and symbolism. I am credentialed enough to say the following: Most symbolism is largely arbitrary and relative, and the circumstances that establish when it is and when it isn’t is largely boring and not relevant right now. A bird is mostly just a fucking bird, in the abstract. There are no ‘truths’ to uncover, and in 99 cases out of 100 ‘ancient meaning’ will have no practical impact on your life. Suppose the bird is a dick, so what of it?1


To derail this review completely, when I look at birds I do not think of penises. For anyone who thinks I have gone insane, that isn’t my example, it’s Campbell’s. It’s also why he brought up Freud, as I mentioned in the paragraph above. So let’s do some analysis to help us figure out to what extent this is true. These two titans of thought would have us believe that the reason we tell our children that storks deliver children is because a stork is a metaphor for a penis. However, one notes how penises are involved in the child delivery process even in those circumstances where, culturally, no one tells the stork story. Moreover, as illuminated in footnote1 below, it is not agreed upon as to whether birds truly represent penises or not. They may just as well not. But symbols become detached to their ‘meaning’, just as easily (and by the same mechanisms) as words become detached from their etymology. Just as ‘quarantine’ no longed draws notions of ’40’ to most modern English speakers, most parents tell their children stork stories without thinking of the symbolic relation of bird to phalli2.

Reading books like this do little more than help me understand a little bit better who I am. At this point I am tempted to just get a tattoo on my head that reads “Secular and Skeptical AF”. This book best represents the world I wanted when I was younger, one where we could all run around being Indiana Jones and looking for ancient lost meaning left to us by the great civilizations. Sure, that would be cool. It makes for great fiction. But, as I learned far too late in life, the only real answers for great existential questions are all from real, actual science. Frankly, I truly see no value in books like this.

1 This all reminds me of the classics professor I had who summed up all it is to be a classics scholar as the following: There has been for many years a disagreement about what an ancient Roman Poem is really about. It has an enigmatic line about a bird on a woman’s lap. A certain portion of scholars think the poem is innocent, and the bird is merely a bird. The others seem to take an erotic interpretation. The argument goes on to this day “It’s a bird! It’s a dick! Bird! Dick! Bird! Dick!” I promptly dropped classics.

2 I never in all my life imagine having to have written a paragraph such as this. What a time to be alive.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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