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MythBlast | What’s Old Is New Again: Primitive Mythology

BY Andrew Gurevich September 30, 2018

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (Collected Works digital edition)When I was asked to lead the team of academics responsible for fact-checking and updating the archaeological discoveries, anthropological theories and migration patterns presented in the Primitive Mythology, the first volume in Joseph Cambpell’s four-volume opus, The Masks of God, I was humbled and overjoyed by the opportunity, but also a bit worried about how the material would hold up.

Would a text about the Paleolithic (originally written in 1959, before the advent of advanced dating and other methods) still be relevant to readers in this modern technological age, a world not only experiencing profound paradigm shifts but also on the verge of environmental, political and economic collapse? Would the old arguments about “pure culture” vs. syncretized mythic structures be so obscure as to render them hopelessly outdated, not only in factual accuracy but in the very paradigms of thought and ways of seeing that were used to consider the research to begin with? What of the recent discoveries in central Europe, Indonesia and the African Savanna which are entirely rewriting our understanding of our earliest human ancestors and their migrations, rituals and systems of belief? “Stuff just keeps getting older,” the author Graham Hancock gleefully reminds us, and this observation has some profound implications for our evolving understanding of the origins of culture and mythology. I worried that Primitive Mythology, at nearly six decades old, might require so much revision that we would need to write an entirely different book.

Much to my surprise (and ultimate delight), I found that the text not only holds up but is now, in many ways, more relevant and immediately applicable to the ongoing human project than it was when Campbell first published it. Beyond updating some dates that came from discoveries made after the text was published, the content remains a clarion call for our species to reconnect to its unified spiritual origins before the world is engulfed by the flames of our unyielding ignorance, apathy and jingoistic pride.  

In the foreword to Primitive Mythology, Campbell reflects on the years he spent developing the series and what it taught him about the unitary nature of consciousness and the overlapping goals, relational structures, and mythopoetic motifs of the world’s great wisdom traditions. He claims that the project confirmed an idea that he had long entertained: a thought that informed his entire body of work and stands as perhaps his most important contribution to the study of myth and human culture. His notion was this:

“The unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony […], is irresistibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge” (Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Vol. I: Primitive Mythology, v).

Adolf Bastian
Adolf Bastian, circa 1896

Building on the work of the German anthropologist Adolf Bastian, Campbell noted that the long, winding and often quite diverse pathways of human mythological mapmaking contained some important repeated  patterns. Bastian noted the difference between what he called the “elementary” ideas (foundational meta-structures of association, relationship, and meaning) and the “folk” ideas (the particular cultural “clothing” in which the elementary ideas were shrouded). The distinction is a cornerstone of the way Campbell addressed the various intersections within and among mythological constructs. It served as the basis for his assertions about the ultimate cohesion of the seemingly disparate threads of our species’ spiritual agency.

Where do these elementary notions come from, according to Campbell? For this he relied on the work of the psychologist Carl Jung.

C.G. Jung, circa 1912
C.G. Jung, circa 1912

According to Jung, mythic symbols, characters and motifs are not simply the expression of individual acts of creative consciousness but rather emerge from the collective subconscious, fully formed and imbued with their own teleological force. Myths, to Campbell, are relational algorithms in narrative form that develop in service of deep, fundamental and ultimately unchanging human needs. Who are we? Where do we come from? What is the nature of our relationship to ourselves, to each other, to the natural world, and to transcendence?

We do not grow past these questions. We do not evolve or innovate beyond this timeless confrontation with the abyss. In fact, when we reject the reflective contemplation of these mysteries, we become jaundiced, jaded, and cut off from one another. Cast adrift in a dark sea of calloused anonymity and performative identity, we fade away into the very abyss with which we were once engaged in a cosmic co-creative dance of relational mythogenesis. That which once gave us meaning now, cruelly, robs us of it and replaces it with a constant struggle against itself. Like the ancient Hebrews, we become Is-ra-el (Hebrew: the ones who struggle against G-D.)

Recent discoveries in the field of quantum physics have, strangely, been lending scientific support to many of Campbell’s theories about the unitary nature of consciousness, the mythic self and the entangled symbolic structures within which it is expressed. In his new book The Quantum Revelation, author Paul Levy states, “Quantum Physics is itself the greatest threat to the underlying metaphysical assumptions of ‘scientific materialism,’ a perspective which assumes that there is an independently existing, objective material world that is separate from the observer” (14). What the new studies are showing in the lab is what folks like Campbell were discovering in the field close to a century ago: a fundamental truth about the nature of the Universe and our place within it that was directly intuited and experienced by our Neolithic and Paleolithic ancestors but which has been lost in the glamour and glitz of the modern world of perpetual distraction. The high-tech materialism of modern civilization has cut us off from the transformative, creative energies that animate all forms and give rise to myths — the narrative construction of individual and cultural identities.

God, in this equation, is a technology for accessing and communicating with nonlocal consciousness: a conduit to generating and sustaining communal spaces that foster compassionate, life-affirming and wellness-generating choices. The Torah, the Dao, the Way, the Dharma, the Gospel, the Marga: all are variations on a constant Cosmological theme — harm-reduction writ large in the mytho-cultural milieu of the given society. The world “religion” itself comes from the Latin religio (“to reconnect, to tie together”). What is it that we need to be reconnected to, according to the myths? The answer is always the same: ourselves.

Campbell also understood that it was in the Paleolithic that the clues to our mythological origins should be sought. The power of the symbolic activity of the Paleolithic that Campbell explores in Primitive Mythology lies in the images, figurines and ceremonial masks themselves. The images call to us across an impossible chasm of time and space. A mysterious, seemingly insurmountable void sits between us and the people of the Upper Paleolithic and yet, the symbols and artifacts they left behind still speak to us. They trigger the timeless need that springs eternal in the human heart to reach out and touch the infinite.  

In Primitive Mythology, Campbell engages us in a conversation about the origins of mythological consciousness, the importance of symbolic “play,” and the purpose of putting on, and taking off, the various masks we wear (Jung’s persona/personae matrix) in the course of living a human life filled with human experiences. Campbell explores how the notion of play (intentional and targeted detours into the Otherworld) not only alters the consciousness of the individual but allows them to more easily travel back and forth between the realities of the seen world and those of the shadow world upon which it is built. Primitive Mythology directly introduces the reader to this Cosmic Consciousness at the very moment in our history where it began to shroud itself in the masks of the flesh.

The work seeks to rekindle that sense of childlike wonder and infinite creative potentiality expressed in notions like the “imaginative universals” of Giambasta Vico; which suggests that we relate what we don’t understand to things we do have experience with in order to integrate the mystery into our living sense of wonder. In a world that is increasingly fractured by the binary masks and oppositional roles we find ourselves forced into, I can think of no better tonic than this prescient reminder of our original inheritance. Primitive Mythology explores the lived experiences of unified consciousness that are reflected and refracted in the essential forms of the manifested world. “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it,” George Orwell once noted (Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”). Campbell shows that this process is at once ancient and modern. And one that can provide a roadmap back to the most essential parts of our human story.


Andrew Gurevich

The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (Collected Works digital edition)

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