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The 5th Function of Myth?

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    This post its really intended as a means of introducing Joseph Campbell’s contribution to a detailed report (where this additional function of myth appears): a futurist study prepared for the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) think-tank, designed — in the words of the report’s editors — to explore

    a plausible vision of the future in which democratic methods survive, major problems are managed successfully if not resolved, and the unfolding of the human potential continues to expand … including plausible steps to its realization …

    This SRI report, commissioned by the Kettering Foundation in order to examine the ways in which humanity’s perception of itself might in fact evolve, circulated over the course of the next decade through government, business, and academic circles, but wasn’t made available to the general public until 1982, when it was published by Pergamon Press. Card catalogs and bibliographies often list Joseph Campbell as the primary author — an accident of alphabet. Campbell is but one of eight co-authors representing fields as diverse as physics, the social sciences, engineering, and the humanities. Two members of the team, O.W. Markley, Project Director, and Willis W. Harman, Project Supervisor, served as editors.

    Most Campbell bibliographies fail to list the hard-to-find Changing Images of Man — and even A Fire In the Mind, Robin and Stephen Larsen’s heavily footnoted biography of Campbell, makes no mention of this episode.

    Joseph Campbell’s hand is most apparent in the first two chapters of the book. Though part of the original draft, Campbell’s examination of “the role of myth in society” didn’t appear in the 1974 publication; the 1982 Pergamon edition corrects this omission, restoring that section in the opening chapter. The second chapter relies heavily on Campbell, focusing on a variety of “images of man” dominant in different periods and different societies — reflected in the mythology, philosophy, science, and psychology of a culture — and how these images help shape and define a given culture.

    In addition to authoring a significant portion of the text, Campbell is also listed as one of a panel of 23 experts who reviewed the final draft (other notable reviewers include Yale physicist Henry Morgenau, psychologists B.F. Skinner and Carl Rogers, and anthropologists Anthony F.C. Wallace, Luther Gerlach, and Margaret Meade, among others — many of whose comments and criticisms appear as footnotes).

    The research team at times ventures in unconventional directions — for example, referencing investigations of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, psychokinesis, and hypnosis when examining contemporary scientific perspectives — but their credentials and their approach make clear this is a serious study.

    From page 7 of the 1982 edition:

    From studies of mythology and past civilizations done by Joseph Campbell, at least five functions stand out as needing to be fulfilled by images, rituals, and institutions of a society. They are the mystical, the cosmological, the sociological, the pedagogical or psychological, and the editorial functions.

    Those first four functions sound familiar – but what about that 5th function?

    In its editorial function, the myths and images of a culture define some aspects of reality as important and credible, hence to be attended to, while other aspects are seen as unimportant or incredible, hence to be ignored and culturally not seen. For example, the anthropologist Malinowski reported that the Trobriand Islanders believe that a child inherits his physical characteristics only from his father. Hence, the Trobriands simply do not observe or notice any resemblance between the child and his mother, although to Malinowski, such similarities were quite evident.

    Campbell found this fifth, editorial function of myth a secondary function – not as universal across all mythologies as the first four functions. However, I believe it would be fascinating to consider how that fifth function applies to contemporary society. What do we in “first world” societies not see about ourselves due to the default setting supplied by our dominant mythologies?

    Similarly a 6th and a 7th function of myth are discussed in the report:

    Two additional functions – the political and the magical – are also noteworthy. The political, as distinct from the strictly sociological, function appears wherever a myth or institution of society is deliberately employed to represent the claim to privilege and authority of some special person, race, social class, nation, or civilization; and the magical, wherever prayers, rituals or other “extraordinary” techniques are used for special benefit, such as for rain, good crops, war-winning.

    Though the obvious example of the operation of the political function in the past century is the mythology propagated by the Third Reich, this function clearly played a role in the United States in justifying and supporting the institution of slavery (indeed, we are still dealing with the consequences of that today), as well as the concepts of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism. Once again, though, Campbell saw these as relatively minor, compared to the four primary functions a mythology serves.

    Though these additional functions are an interesting bit of trivia, Changing Images of Man remains a relevant read yet today – worth tracking down on its own merits.





    Your post and your question (“[…] “it would be fascinating to consider how that fifth function applies to contemporary society. What do we in “first world” societies not see about ourselves due to the default setting supplied by our dominant mythologies?”) remind me of the concept theory of “participation mystique” from its various angles. Here are some links of definitions about it. (Next I would try to think of specific examples from our first world culture.)

    Please excuse/forgive the first link which is Wikipedia–I realize that as a source it is not always accurate or completely accurate, but it makes for a good starting point at times.

    While some seem to say or imply that participation mystique is a type of ignorance that is negative, I think there are also positive/beautiful instances of participation mystique in the sense of participating in the mystique of a ritual or nature–or a natural rite (so sometimes both nature and ritual), especially when one is informed or knowledgeable as to the meanings and the symbols of the rite such as its mystical elements, or as magical elements, such as in the use of sympathetic magic in rites. Some people have looked back upon such rites of tribal or indigenous people around the world as pre-Christian (pagan) and ignorant. Yet the medicine man or woman is in the know to bring rain to the tribe through an object like the rain stick that mimics the sound of rain. People connect with the object because of the beauty of the sound. This seems to go along with what you wrote elsewhere about beauty of rhythm that myth is, or mythic pattern, whether in sound of other way. With so many people being disconnected with the natural world today, neo-pagans seeking this connection might pick up the rain stick to connect to the archetype of rain. The mystique of the participatory moment(s) can enchant, like another form of meditation though considered magic, and though considered magic, is the energy of the archetype behind the archetypal image–so whether one believes in the gods (or God) or not, the ceremony is one example of a pleasant and not negative form of participation mystique in my opinion–whether polytheistic ceremony (generally pagan/neo-=pagan) or monotheistic. There are times in the myths and in magic when identification is sought after on purpose and not in ignorance. Who is to say when and when not a collective unconscious not only exists, but manifests. Sometimes we hear the expression “the air was so think you could cut it with a knife,” and that seems to me like the collective unconscious becoming conscious almost as if psychoid material which is then consisting of both mind and matter–it is then that commonality of sympathy is so strong or imbued. Whether it is Cakes and Wine in a pagan/neo-pagan rite or whether it is the act of Communion in the Catholic Mass, all are participating in a mystic and/or magical rite.

    As for the negative projections, our first world culture seems full of them lately, in all the myriad ways that people project their Shadows onto the so-called “other.” I guess one would be a religious ego of superiority, someone saying/thinking “My religion is better than your religion and my religion is the true one with the true idea of God,” then treating the other as less-than through ridicule, shaming, banishing/banning from a church or organization, and even judgement getting so strong sometimes it can become in some people an obsession and then even lead to violence. But then most of us know this because we see it in the news, so it can become conscious.

    “Changing Images of Man”–I hope this changes soon.

    I did my best to not get political.

    I did not touch upon all aspects of participation mystique–just a few ideas including one of my own I have pondered for quite some time (when participation mystique is not dubbed “ignorant” due to common images of “primitive” as if lacking awareness. In the positive sense I feel that participation mystique can be a heightened experience of the moment, a moment of transcendence. It is for me when the world feels most enchanted when it feels (when I feel) most alive in bliss. Likewise when I am immersed in my poetry or fiction-writing it is my bliss when I am utterly ensconced in it, its mystique. I will skip the politics here about other types of writing in our culture.



    Hi Mary,

    I tend to think of this 5th editorial function of mythology as limiting in focus, which may or may not have something to do with why it didn’t make Campbell’s final cut, so to speak – which is why I appreciate your pivot to the sense of participation mystique. Even though the means of accessing the numinous may vary from one culture to another (e.g. meditation, dreamwork, prayer, the ingestion of teacher plants, etc.), the experience of that state is remarkably consistent across cultures.

    The most common doorway into that realm is through ritual. Joseph Campbell speaks of how

    A ritual is the enactment of a myth⁠; by participating in the rite one is participating in the myth⁠, opening oneself to the mythic dimension of experience⁠, and consequently activating the accordant structures and principles within one’s own psyche.

    (from a yet-to-be-published manuscript)

    Stepping into a myth, ego drops away – absolutely essential to experience that participation mystique. Joe continues, expanding on how rituals effect this change:

    Rituals of themselves are actually very boring. They go on and on, beyond your secular tolerance. In this way, they break open something in you, and the participation then is with the rite in its proper sense, and not as an entertainment. You are experiencing it as a ritual. And when experienced in this way, something is happening to you in the way of a transformation of your level of consciousness⁠. Without some kind of ritual enactment the whole thing fails to get inside the active aspect of one’s system, unless one happens to be working through actual life problems in terms suggested by mythological considerations.⁠


    Participation is key.

    When I was 8 years old I attended a performance of a pueblo dance at the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colorado. The Koshare Indian Dancers are not necessarily indigenous peoples, but are drawn from the ranks of Boy Scout Troop 232 in the Rocky Mountain Council of the Boy Scouts of America.

    Of course, this was a performance, relatively brief, to accommodate the attention span of the mostly white spectators (this was back in 1965), compared to the length of actual dances. Though the colorful spectacle remains etched in my memory, there was nothing numinous about it – just a re-enactment of what seemed a quaint and slightly bizarre custom (I could not imagine actually joining in those dances myself – struck the eight-year-old me as rather boring and repetitive). This sense was confirmed for the grown-up me when Philip J. Deloria (author of Custer Died for Your Sins) referred to the Indian Koshare Dancers as hobbyists “playing Indian.”

    Real rituals are not spectator sports (imagine non-Catholics buying tickets to watch Mass: world of difference between that, and the profound experience of the true believer who actually partakes of the body and blood of Jesus Christ).

    But where do rituals come from?

    Campbell offers a prescription reminiscent of Mircea Eliade’s description of the archaic world, where every meaningful act participates in the sacred:

    The way mythology is integrated into life is by way of ritual. What has to be ritualized is essential to the life of the day. If one is to try to bring a mythological perspective into action in the modern world one has to understand the relationship of what is being done to the essentials of life, not to the superficialities of life. The essentials of life remain the same; they’ve been the same since the Paleolithic caves. Eating, reproduction, being a child, being mature, growing old. To realize that these things one is doing are not personally initiated acts but are functions of a biologically present world within yourself is to live in a very different way from the way one lives if one feels that one is the volitional initiator of everything going on.

    (Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, p. 205)

    I have had the opportunity to participate in a number of collective rituals, old and new, and have accessed that numinous state, which can be ego-shattering (or, in its more gentle aspects, ego-transcending). Ritual provides a sacred space in which to confront these energies, and myth presents archetypal images we can safely engage in that sacred space

    . . . and suddenly here we are, sailing into the mystic.


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