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Reply To: What are the myths of Good vs. Evil


Hello Kenneth,

I moved your post from the Meet & Greet forum, which is mostly for saying hello, to The Works of Joseph Campbell forum because you are seeking specific works that address your question, and it’s more likely to be seen here.

Morality, as related to good and evil, has a rather complex history mythologically

(just ask Eve & Adam about that apple from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – a knowledge the gods [Hebrew elohim, translated God, is a plural term] of Genesis intend to keep as a trait exclusive to deity).

Joseph Campbell points out that morality enters mythology with the emergence of Zoroastrianism in Persia. Prior to that, myths are not inherently moral. The Greek gods, the Hindu gods, the Norse, even Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods and goddesses do not concern themselves with sin and righteousness, nor salvation – they are themselves amoral, even immoral.

You should be able to find a discussion of this in Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology (Volume III of The Masks of God), among other places.

Here is a little glimpse from a manuscript I’ve been editing for publication for the Foundation, drawn from Campbell’s responses to interviews (including material never aired or printed), and question-and-answer sessions following lectures. This exchange follows on his explanation of the emergence of “the perennial philosophy”:


CAMPBELL: Now when you transfer that into philosophy, you get a metaphysical rather than an ethically based philosophy. “Good and Evil,” Aeschylus says, “are one.” Heraclitus says, “For God, all things are good and right and just. For men, some things are right and others not.”⁠

But this does not take hold in the popular philosophy of the West.⁠

Now in the West, we’ve had the address to objective fact (rather than the metaphoric reading of the universe, seeing the mystery behind it), becoming fixed on the objects of measurement and desire and fear. This short-circuiting leads us also to an ethical emphasis: good against evil. Our religions are largely ethical and not metaphysical. And so it’s just about at the period of 500 B.C. that this distinction begins to break in.⁠


CAMPBELL: It’s at that time that a different turn is taken in Persia. The Persian empire was founded by Cyrus, 529 B.C., and he is followed by Darius, whose dates are 521 to 486 B.C. Darius gives as his prophet⁠, Zoroaster. His dates are variously argued. Some place him as early as 1200 B.C., others around 600 B.C⁠.

You have a totally new mythology with Zoroaster.  That mythology is⁠ basically an ethical tradition, with the notion that good and evil are absolutes—not just relative to the position you’re in, but that there is absolute Good, absolute Evil—and these are symbolized in two deities: a deity of light and virtue and justice and wisdom named Ahura Mazda, and then, contrary, the god of darkness and hypocrisy and misinformation and malice, named Angra Mainyu. Ahura Mazda created a good world; Angra Mainyu threw evil into it, so you have the Fall. And this world is not good.⁠

The world that we are living in is a world that is compounded of these two principles. The other traditions ask you to put yourself in accord with nature. This tradition says, “No. Nature is mixed of good and evil. You do not put yourself in accord, you correct it.” Now that is a deep, fundamental distinction, which, as far as I know, nobody else has even pointed to.⁠


CAMPBELL: I think so. It’s in the Persian tradition.⁠ Everything that has come out of the Near East now has it.⁠ That also comes through in the biblical tradition: with the fall in the garden nature becomes corrupt⁠. You get it in the Dead Sea Scrolls: the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. And you get it in the whole Christian tradition.⁠ The teachings of this great prophet of the Persian Achaemenid house of Darius the Great have come down through the Bible into Christianity.⁠”


Zoroastrianism was the dominant faith in the empire of Cyrus the Great, who conquered the Babylonian empire, shortly after Nebuchadnezzar the Great had carried off thousands of the nobility, intelligentsia, and the priesthood of Judah – the literate leadership – after sacking Jerusalem.

Cyrus liberated the Jews, and eventually allowed them to return to Palestine and rebuild their nation. This happened in several waves under Cyrus and his successors, particularly Darius and Xerxes.

During the seven decades before the first wave returned, these leaders were exposed to Zoroastrianism and it’s sharp dichotomy between Good and Evil, with an emphasis on the need to choose the side of Good for salvation from the coming conflagration. This marks the emergence of morality as the mythic context of Faith, one which was transmitted to Judaism and her daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. It was in this period, under that influence, that the Hebrew scriptures were edited into their final form.

Prior to the Babylonian captivity, Yahweh is as amoral as other gods. After outlawing murder (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”), Yahweh orders the Israelites to slay the male infants of the nations they defeat – that will teach those Moabites, Midianites, Amorites and Amalekites to sacrifice their children to Moloch

… er, wait a minute there…

And then whenever the Pharaoh of the exodus is on the point of capitulating and releasing the Israelites, God hardens the monarch’s heart, and Moses is forced to call down another plague. Sure would have spared both sides a lot of grief, and a lot of lives, if God had allowed Moses to take advantage of Pharaoh’s grudging generosity, rather than stiffening the monarch’s fading resolve.

In the book of Job, Yahweh and Satan hang out together in heaven, wagering away Job’s wealth, health, and the lives of his children, somewhat reminiscent of the Olympic pantheon’s disputes spilling over to life-and-death events before the walls of Troy . . .

and it is Yahweh, rather than the Devil, who sends an evil spirit from heaven to repeatedly torment King Saul.

Later, when God is holding council in heaven, looking for a way to cause King Ahab’s death, a lying spirit speaks up. Ahab, praying and sacrificing to Yahweh, seeks to know God’s will – whether or not he should go to battle – and the lying spirit volunteers to inspire all the prophets (save one: need to preserve a legal loophole) to persuade Ahab that God will preserve his life and ensure victory if he goes to war.

Ahab is killed and the army defeated: were Yahweh a national leader or mafia head, he could be charged with conspiracy to commit murder under the RICO act, or at least risk becoming an unindicted co-conspirator – but since he’s God, his actions transcend good and evil.

In fact, in Isaiah 45:7 (traditionally written prior to the Babylonian captivity), God proclaims “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.” (emphasis mine)

Similarly, in Isa. 54:16, the same Yahweh declares, “Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.” (emphasis mine)

But by the New Testament period, the polarization is complete: the Judeo-Christian deity is no longer claiming to have created the waster, is no longer the source of evil, which has had its origins transferred to Satan, the Devil.

A little more from the Q & A with Campbell:


And now everyone is called upon to participate in this mixed world where good and evil are in conflict. We are exhorted to put our weight on the side of the good powers and restore the world of perfection. We have inherited this in a secularized form in our notion of progress leading toward a golden age⁠.


Gnosis is the psychological crisis of seeing everything as God. In Sanskrit this is called bodhi – enlightenment – and he who has attained it is called the Enlightened One, the buddha. The Kingdom of God is not a historical event yet to come—it’s here, it’s happening, iti iti as they say in Sanskrit. The only thing holding you back from seeing it is your attachment to the hard physical thing you are. So kill that attachment. When you do, when you see, then it really doesn’t matter if you die this minute⁠.

In Christianity you get a concretization of everything. God is concretized. Not only God but the Devil. Heaven and Hell are fixed poles. When you have a polarity, you are still in the world of phenomenology, and God is a fact and has a name. He represents something—and anything that represents something is this side of maya, isn’t it?

I suggest you get hold of Elaine Pagel’s book, The Gnostic Gospels. She deals with some of these problems, and gives references there to help understand how and why the Byzantine notion of Christianity came down full force and wiped out everything else.

The whole Gnostic tradition is wiped out. When you go to India, you find that there are 98 different ways of thinking about the deities. There were 98 different ways also in early Christianity. But then, by military power and violence, all ways, except this one of the Byzantine throne, were called anathema, heretical, and wiped out. That’s a choice of which Christianity you are going to develop. This is a specific, historically determined choice.

Why, I cannot answer. You don’t get that kind of thing elsewhere. Well, you do in Islam, and I think in Judaism also—you can see it in the Old Testament: the Yahwist group were the ones who gained control. And when you read Elijah, for instance, my God! It’s a bloodbath of people who are on the other side of the fence!

Then, as you read in the books of Samuel and Kings of the lives of the different Jewish kings, you find that about four of them did well in the sight of Yahweh. All the rest were worshipping on the hilltops, worshipping the Goddess. Then Josiah in 621 B.C. went in and cleaned up the temple. He found in the temple prostitutes, a horse of the sun god, a serpent that was being worshipped named Nehustan, which Moses was supposed to have molded in bronze in the desert, and all that kind of thing. It was quite a moment there. This history of the dominant pushing out the other varieties comes right through our own story.⁠


And one more section, from a later chapter discussing philosophy:



Well, in Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra—that’s his great, great book—he says Zarathustra is the one who first formulated the idea of an absolute ethic: Good and Evil as absolutes, not as relative. He said we’ve learned a lot from this ethical accent, but if Zoroaster were to come back today he would say, “OK you’ve learned that lesson, now let’s take the next one. Beyond good and evil is the mystical principle.⁠”

Morality is the local and contemporary, and the metaphysical vision is transcendent of that—the “elementary idea,” rather than the “folk idea.” This is the basic problem in religion: relating the ethical notion of good and evil, which is local. There is no such thing as absolute good and absolute evil. This is locally transformed in time and space, and then these two, good and evil, come together in our life.

We have to make decisions about good and evil in life, but in our metaphysical knowledge we must go past, to wisdom⁠.

Now, Nietzsche says the idea of the good man is an inorganic idea.  What you have done has been to cut man in half. Every act has both good and evil results.⁠  What’s good for the tiger is bad for the antelope. But the antelope acquiesces in it. This is the idea of the old primitive hunters: this is the nature of life, and there is a covenant between the animal world and the human world. The animal gives itself as a willing victim with the understanding that a ritual will be proposed by which the life will be given back to its source; the animal will come back. With that you have a disregard of the finality of the physical. The physical is not final; it’s the garment of something that lives past it, and the recognition and gratitude for that which transcends.⁠

This is a theme that Wolfram Von Eschenbach brings up in his Grail legend of Parzival. He starts out by saying every deed involves light and dark; all that can be done is to intend the light. But the dark will come out, and I think we have learned that: two world wars that were for one thing have yielded another, haven’t they? We’ve been working for virtue and have achieved something else⁠.

The acts of God are like acts of nature, indifferent to good and evil. . . . And so Nietzsche in his Zarathustra puts us back on the “beyond good and evil” stretch.⁠


Nietzsche, in his Genealogy of Morals, speaks of the two ways of reading the word “virtue.” There is the earlier way of “virtu”: a virtuous lion is a lion who fulfills all the potentialities of lion-hood, such as tear a lamb in half. That’s a virtuous lion. A good knife is a knife that cuts. But with the ethical way of reading the word “good,” good-versus-evil is the way it’s thought about, not “good versus no-good.”⁠

One of the characteristics of Western thinking again, in contrast to the primitive and the Oriental (which I’m beginning to be more and more respectful of), is the notion that nature is to be corrected. It comes from the old Biblical idea that nature is corrupt and man has been given dominance over the animals and nature and everything else, and there’s going to be a reformation when we restore the good Day of Yahweh and all will be grace and perfection again. This is sheer nonsense, but it’s what’s moving people⁠.

The virtue manager is the real curse of the modern world, I think—the one who’s got righteousness on his side and knows that everyone else is to be corrected⁠.


The great health-giving and spiritually supporting attitude is that of yielding to nature, even in its ferocity and its terror. We think the ferocity and terror is evil. It isn’t. It’s part of the operation of what is natural.⁠ But there’s a faith in nature that’s involved here which we do not have in our biblical tradition, a faith that all things manifesting themselves in their perfection coordinate to a perfect manifestation in the world⁠. There’s a saying: the processes of nature cannot be evil. That’s a dreadful thought, but realize what the processes of nature involve.

I saw a picture several years ago in an issue of National Geographic of three cheetahs eating a gazelle. The gazelle was still alive. They were at his belly, and the gazelle’s head was lifted. And I said to myself, “Do we say yes to that?” We do⁠.


Sure. That’s what’s tough about it; it’s the essence of the problem. How long can you look at it? How deeply can you see? What can you take? Or are you going to play a little game: “Listen to the birds, aren’t they just sweet? Don’t look at the gazelle being eaten by three cheetahs.⁠”

You make your choice. If you want to be a moralist, go ahead. If you want to go love life, do—but know that life is nasty⁠. And it will involve death. Sorrow is part of the world.


Not to say that Campbell believes there is no place for ethics in religion (though conceived somewhat different from the morality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, a morality rooted in revelation). Bill Moyers points out to Campbell in the small paperback edition of  The Power of Myth that “myths deal with metaphysics,” but that religion “deals with ethics, good and evil, how I relate to you, and how I should behave toward you and toward my wife and toward my fellow man under God. What is the role of ethics in mythology?”

Campbell’s response, on page 281:

We spoke of the metaphysical experience in which you realize that you and the other are one. Ethics is a way of teaching you how to live as though you were one with the other. You don’t have to have the experience because the doctrine of religion gives you molds of actions that imply a compassionate relationship with the other. It offers an incentive for doing this by teaching you that simply acting in your own self-interest is sin. That is identification with your body.

This is the essence of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – or, in Bill Moyers’ formulation,
“Love thy neighbor as thyself, because thy neighbor is thyself”).

We find variations of the Golden Rule in all major religions, including those, like Hinduism, which don’t automatically assume Good = God = Good.

The difference Campbell finds is that the religion often codifies a morality (e.g., the Ten Commandments; the Levitical code; Sharia law), a pattern of behavior that approximates the actual experience of the unity of all Life – whereas mythology propels us past revelation, to the experience of unity itself . . .  and once we realize this Truth, this recognition of my Self in the Other, morality does not need to be externally enforced, but is etched in one’s heart.

Much of our approach to morality is grounded in determining the difference between Good & Evil – which are subjective, often changing concepts.

Better to root morality in Compassion – but that’s just my opinion.

Hope some of that is relevant. Unfortunately, the Q & A excerpts cannot be quoted – the book won’t be out until 2022; however, that did seem to touch on some of what you had in mind, and they were close at hand. Give me a day or two, and I will track down and point you toward passages that echo those themes in his published work (start with Occidental Mythology).