Occidental Mythology - Joseph Campbell Occidental Mythology is the third book in Campbell’s The Masks of God tetralogy. This is not light reading. Densely packed, each page is loaded with historical references that make most textbooks seem like waiting room material.

I have quickly become a devotee of this man, but his writing can be overwhelming. The Masks of God is undeniably an ambitious project with its sweeping exploration of global myth. However, Campbell is so well versed in his subject I believe he forgets at times that the reader does not come to his books with the same base familiarity in the nuances of his subject. He is most accessible and enjoyable when he falls back into storytelling mode and inserts passages that strike him as particularly illustrative of whichever theme being conveyed.

Discussing religion is a potentially explosive subject and he handles the topic respectfully and with great tact. But near the end, he lets his guard down… just a little:
It is one of the great lessons of our study that for the vulgar, ill- or uninstructed mind, myths tend to become history and there ensues a type of attachment to the mere accidents of the local forms that, on the one hand, binds so-called believers into contending groups and, on the other hand, deprives them all of the substance of the message each believes itself alone to have received. pg. 516
Beginning with the Greeks, Babylonians and Zoroaster with his Ahura Mazda, Campbell walks through the motifs that have been borrowed and transformed to help convey the morals of the Western foundational religions. Regardless of ones beliefs (or lack thereof) to turn away from exploring the origins of belief seems to deprive yourself of any ability to assess why you may or may not believe. Such failure to look into the mythic seeds which germinate into doctrine baffled Professor Guignebert who ruminates:
All the religions that have so desired have had their miracles, the same miracles, and on the other hand, all have shown themselves equally incapable of producing certain other miracles. The unprejudiced scholar is not surprised at this, because he knows that the same causes everywhere produce the same effects. But what is strange is that the believer is not surprised at it either. He merely insists that…his miracles are the only genuine ones; others are mere empty appearances, fabrications, frauds, uncomprehended facts, or witchcraft. pg. 355
This is not an easy book to digest. It’s not by any means esoteric beyond comprehension, but to really walk away with as much as you can, it’s a slow read. At times, I found myself falling into skimming instead of reading. However, given the intimate interplay between religion and the philosophical angst of Western writers, it’s seems hard to believe that one can have a firm understanding of one without the other. For purists, even if the book is not the best written, it is overflowing with historical ideas and connections that are invaluable to understanding the myths and values which drive us.


Campbell is by no means immune to inspiration. Some of the quotes that struck Campbell:

“There are some words of Emerson, quoted on the motto page of the last published work of E. E. Cummings, that are worth repeating here. ‘Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members… The base doctrine of the majority of voices usurps the place of the doctrine of the soul” pg. 449

“In Seneca’s words: ‘Not what you bear but how you bear it is what counts.” pg. 251

“Friedrich Nietzsche was the first, I believe, to recognize the force in the Greek heritage of an interplay of two mythologies: the pre-Homeric Bronze Age heritage of the peasantry, in which release from the yoke of individuality was achieved through group rites inducing rapture; and the Olympian mythology of measure and humanistic self-knowledge that is epitomized for us in Classical art. The glory of the Greek tragic view, he perceived, lay in its recognition of the mutuality of these two orders of spirituality, neither of which alone offers more than a partial experience of human worth.” pg. 141

And, somewhat surprisingly, Campbell ends with this quote that resonates with Western classical thought: “By my love and hope, I conjure thee,’ called Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: ‘cast not away the hero in thy soul.” pg. 523