Joseph Campbell and Comparative Religion :
In the beginning there was darkness. Then there was light. Then there was consciousness. Then there were questions and then there was religion. Religions sprouted up all over the world as a response to some of humanity's most troubling questions and fears. Why are we here? Where do we come from? Why does the world and nature act as it does? What happens when you die?
Religions tended to answer all these questions with stories of gods and goddesses and other supernatural forces that were beyond the understanding of humans. Magic, in its essence, were the powers wielded by these superior beings that caused the unexplainable to happen.
Fast forward a few thousand years to the present. In our age and time there is little left unexplained. Science seems able to explain everything with mathematical logic and concrete evidence right before our very eyes. The subject of science is taught in almost every school on Earth. Gone are the days of magic and wonder.
The magic of so called magicians like David Copperfield are a jest. When people attend a magic show everyone looks for the invisible wires and hidden projectors. No one really believes the magician has supernatural powers, except for maybe a handful of children in the audience who still have faith in Santa Clause.
Science does seem to explain all. It has enabled humans to fly, cure incurable diseases, explore the depths of the oceans, stave off death, walk on the moon and wipe out entire civilizations with the push of a button. It is becoming more and more widespread in that people are putting their faith in science above that in the gods.
What parent wouldn't rather bring their sick child to a doctor than have faith in the healing power of some mystical entity that may or may not exist? However strong and almost perfect the view of science is in today's society it cannot and does not cover the entire spectrum of the human experience.
Nor does it explain some of the striking similarities present in the various religions of Earth. These similarities occur in civilizations not only far from each other but also in cultures separated by seemingly impossible to traverse oceans of water. Many of these similarities occur in the cosmological or creation myths of the various religions. In the Bible and other in other comparable ancient literatures, creation is a theme expressed in parables or stories to account for the world. In almost every ancient culture the universe was thought of as darkness, nothing and chaos until order is induced by the divine creative hand. The type of order envisioned varied from culture to culture. In the Biblical perspective, it was envisioned that light should be separated from dark, day from night and that the various forms of plant and animal life be properly categorized. Although the figure differs from myth to myth, all the ancient stories intend to give a poetic accounting for cosmic origins. When viewed in terms of creational motifs, the stories tend to be similar.
Some myths of creation include myths of emergence, as from a childbearing woman, or creation by the marriage of two beings representing the heavens and earth. A common feature of some Hindu, African and Chinese myths is that of a cosmic egg from which the first humans are hatched from. In other cultures, it must be brought up from primordial waters by a diver or is formed from the dismembered body of a preexisting being. Whether the deity uses preexisting materials, whether he leaves his creation once it is finished, how perfect the creation is and how the creator and the created interact vary among the myths. The creation story also attempts to explain the origins of evil and the nature of god and humanity.
An example of two different religions containing various aspects of each other could be that of the creation myth of Christianity and aspects of creationism found in African religion. The creator god in the African religion is Nyambi. Nyambi creates a man, Kamonu and the man does exactly as his god does in every way. Similar to the way the god of Christianity creates man in his own image. Also Nyambi creates for Kamonu a garden to live in, the same way the Garden of Eden was created. Another motif repeated between these two religions is that of the Bible's Tower of Babel.
Kamonu, after his god left him behind, tried to build a tower to reach his god but like The Tower of Babel it collapsed and the humans failed to reach heaven. In Mesopotamian culture the epic tale Gilgamesh is almost totally identical to the Biblical story of Noah and the ark. In the tale of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is warned by Enki that a divine judgment has been passed and the world is to be destroyed by a giant flood.
Gilgamesh is instructed build a boat to bring his family and animals so to escape the flood. Another powerful example of the commonality of myth transcending cultures is in the Trimurti of Brahman in post classical Hinduism when compared to the holy trinity of Christianity. Brahman, the Hindu essence of ultimate reality is at the very core of Hinduism, post classical Hinduism sees him in three aspects. Each of these three aspects of Brahman is expressed by a god from classical Indian literature…
Brahma - The Creator
Shiva - The Destroyer
Vishnu - The Preserver
Very similar to the Holy Christian Trinity of God - the father, Christ - the son and the Holy Spirit. In both Hinduism and Christianity the trinities are three and at the same time one entity. In the mythology of many of the Central Asian Pastoral Tribes the supreme deity of their religion is confronted by an adversary representing the powers of darkness and evil. Very much like the relationship in the Christian mythos between God and Lucifer, this figure of evil attempts to counter the plans of the celestial good being and aims at gaining dominance over the world and at establishing a realm of his own in which he would rule over humanity. The forces of good and evil are not equally balanced, however and there is never any real doubt about the final supremacy of the sky-god. Yet according to some myths the representative of evil and darkness succeeded in leading people astray and bringing about a fall similar to that of Adam and Eve.
Other mythological motifs not involving Christianity or the Bible is that of a god or a hero making the dangerous journey to the underworld or Hades to retrieve a lost love? The Greek mythological tale of Orpheus and the Japanese Shinto myths both contain very similar aspects. In both of these stories, Orpheus and Izanagi lose their spouses to death and venture into the terrible underworld of Hades to try to wrest them back. In both stories they are on the way to getting back each his wife as long as they don't look back towards her. In both tales both Izanagi and Orpheus look back, losing the chance they had at having their loves returned to them.
These are just some of the universal myths contained within various religions of the world. How do all these myths seem to transcend the geographical and cultural boundaries of Earth? Carl Gustav Jung, a leading psychologist and contemporary of Freud, came up with a theory involving the collective unconscious of a person's psyche.
The collective unconscious, according to Jung, is made up of what he called archetypes or primordial images. These correspond to such experiences such as confronting death or choosing a mate and manifest themselves symbolically in religion, myths, fairy tales and fantasies.
Joseph Campbell, considered by most to have been the foremost expert on world religions and mythology, believed to be a fact that...mythologies and their deities are productions and projections of the psyche. It was his belief that religions and myths come from one's own creative imagination and unconsciousness. He further believed that humankind is intrinsically linked in that some part of human nature creates these myths and religions out of a need for them. We all have the same basic psychological makeup just as we all have the same basic physical makeup.
Recent scientific studies suggest that the average human uses only ten to fifteen percent of his or her brain. What happens to the other eighty-five to ninety percent of it?
Does it just sit there and have absolutely no use? Or does it perhaps contain the universal commonalties of what links us all as a great big tribe of human beings containing our greatest hopes, our worst fears, our dreams and creativity. Perhaps it does contain a link to the realm of mysticism and surrealism which artists such as Salvador Dali tried so hard to render on canvas. Science doesn't know what it contains. It's in our skulls and we're not even sure what it contains, maybe the answers to our own primordial questions.
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