It’s rare for an hour-long academic lecture to capture my attention and hold me mesmerized till the very end. But such is the case repeatedly when watching Joseph Campbell’s Mythos lecture series, filmed between 1982 and 1985. The series originally aired on PBS in the mid-90s under the title “Transformations of Myth Through Time” which was also published in book form. Many Americans are familiar with the PBS series Campbell did with Bill Moyers in the late 1980s called The Power of Myth, but the Mythos series is longer and contains significantly more detail concerning world mythology.
In Mythos, Campbell delivers a primer for approaching all of the world’s major mythologies. There are a total of 15 lectures, broken into 3 parts. In part 1, Campbell begins with a definition of myth and its relationship to human psychology – especially dream – and society. He delivers a very detailed interpretation of a Navajo story through its mythic symbolism as well as the familiar story of Isis and Osiris. Part 1 ends with an explanation of the symbolism attached to the ancient Greek Mystery Schools.
Part II is dedicated entirely to the mythic systems of the Orient. The lectures selected here focus primarily on Buddhist and Hindu mythic symbol including a detailed discussion of Kundalini yoga and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Campbell clarifies the timeline for the development of these two major traditions. He also relates a metaphor passed on to him by Heinrich Zimmer from many years prior explaining the difference between Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism – a distinction commonly overlooked or misunderstood.
Part III moves into Medieval and contemporary mythology in the West. Campbell discusses the Arthurian romance of Tristan and Isolde and presents an illuminating and fascinating interpretation of Parzival and the Grail, stemming from the work of Wolfram von Eschenbach. Campbell stresses the significance of the grail stories as the synthesis of an authentic European worldview with its emphasis on individuality with the deeply legalistic and authoritarian Roman Christian overlay. What was produced as a result of this mixture was the symbol of the Grail as the highest individual achievement – achieved by choosing to listen to the inner authentic voice rather than conforming to social propriety. Part III ends with lectures on the bridging of eastern and western symbolism through the writings of men like Schopenhauer as well as discussions on the modern mythographers Thomas Mann and James Joyce.
Throughout the series, Campbell reiterates that the images being presented at one time and one location through the costumes of one culture’s unique art, architecture, and story are symbolic of that which all cultures at all times share. This common reference is the mystery that can’t be fully explained by any set of symbols. The symbols can only refer to a Reality that is beyond words and thoughts.