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Episode 3: The Functions of Ritual (recorded 1964)

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    The function of ritual, as I understand it, is to give form to human life – form in depth.”

    Joseph Campbell caught my attention with this opening sentence of a talk delivered at The Cooper Union in 1964. Moments later Campbell declares

    All life is structure. On the biological plane, one can observe that the more elaborate the structure, the more demanding and differentiated, the higher the life form.”

    What follows seems at first a digression on organization in nature, before returning to the human condition. From tea ceremonies to track meets, coming-of-age rites to the funeral of a fallen leader, Campbell considers the role ritual plays in our lives.

    One statement that especially resonated for me was this observation about the dependency of childhood and coming-of-age:

    One of the first functions of rites––particularly the puberty rites in primitive societies, and rites of education in our own––is to transform the response system of the established psyche from responses of flight to the the parent, to responses of responsibility and adulthood. Now this is not an easy work to achieve.”

    I taught English and Literature (and, on occasion, a little pre-Algebra) at the junior high level. Literature – stories of our shared humanity – were primary, in my mind. If I did my job well the children would “get” fractions, or pick up the parts of speech,  – but in the absence of coming-of-age rituals, I viewed my primary task as a teacher that of turning these children on the cusp of adolescence into adult human beings. Stories make that possible.

    So I am particularly gratified to find Joseph Campbell making an association between the puberty rites in primal cultures and the role of education in our own. Of course, one can argue whether or not our educational system is up to the task (plenty of evidence it falls short, but that’s a conversation for a different thread); frankly, I don’t believe we can accomplish the mission if we are focused on narrow goals related to standardized tests and job readiness, and miss what’s really at stake.

    Please feel free to share your thoughts about what stood out in this lecture for you.

    And if you have yet to subscribe, know that you are missing out on free Campbell lectures! There is a new episode released the first of every month – this is Episode 3 – but a bonus episode is posted the 15th of every month, so if you have yet to subscribe to the podcast, you have currently have five offerings awaiting you.

    Happy Listening!



    When I first watched The Power of Myth on PBS, the one thing that resonated with me was the missing ritual for adolescents in our society. I still want, some twenty years later,  some sort of passage ritual for coming of age, especially after the school shootings that occur way too often. From what I understand, females have the onset of the menses which is a physical form of becoming a woman, yet I feel the psychological aspect is not there. Furthermore, males have menses but not as obvious physically except the growth of facial hair.
    Joseph Campbell stressed the need to make useful citizens. He also said that celebrities are the new gods. Hence, self created social media influencers creating what young people aspire to be, predominantly materialistic wealth driven based not necessarily on hard work, skills or talent. Competition is fierce. Celebrity and other wealthy parents paying to get a cheater fraud to get their under achieving children into the best schools. Even though their children in some cases were already making money as influencers and had little interest in a higher education.

    To add to the this material climate, some people are creating their reality with the belief of the laws of attraction. In the name of spirituality, the desires are the wish to have more things.
    Really we are all just wanting to be happy and I’m glad meditation is coming into the forefront to increase joy without doing anything except turning inward.





    I could not agree more, telsa, about the absence of coming-of-age rituals in our society. I taught junior high, where students are right on that cusp between child and adult, with nothing to demarcate that death of childhood and the beginning of something new.

    As Campbell pointed out, in the absence of such rituals, along with elders to provide guidance, these initiations emerge on their own, albeit unbridled and dangerous, as teens engage in increasingly risky behavior, essentially flirting with death (an unconscious symbol of the death-and-rebirth initiation they are lacking). Elaborate, violent, often deadly gang initiations often fill that hole.

    I am curious – are there any rituals you practice in your own life? (As an example, I hold a little private ceremony, with incense, candles, sage, drums and rattles, and tarot cards, on the cardinal points of the year – the Solstices and Equinoxes – along with the cross-quarter days that fall halfway between – Imbolc, on February 1, Beltane on May 1, Lughnasad on August 1, and Samhain on October 31/November 1; of course, personal rituals don’t necessarily need to be so formal, as long as they are meaningful for those participating.)

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