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Excerpted from Thou Art That by Joseph Campbell. Copyright 2001 by Joseph Campbell. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the New World Library. HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.
 

"Those who do not understand the metaphor, the language of religious revelation, find themselves up against the images that they accept or contest as facts."

  Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That, Part 4

The second function of a traditional mythology is interpretive, to present a consistent image of the order of the cosmos. At about 3200 B.C. the concept of a cosmic order came into being, along with the notion that society and men and women should participate in that cosmic order because it is, in fact, the basic order of one's life.

Earlier than this, in primitive societies, the focus of awe was not on a cosmic order but on the extraordinary appearance of the animal that acts differently from others of its species, or on a certain species of animal that seems to be particularly clever and bright, or on some striking aspect of the landscape. Such exceptional things predominate in the primitive world mythologies. In the period of the high civilizations, however, one comes to the experience of a great mysterious tremendum that manifests itself so impersonally that one cannot even pray to it, one can only be in awe of it.

The gods themselves are simply agents of that great high mystery, the secret of which is found in mathematics. This can still be observed in our sciences, in which the mathematics of time and space are regarded as the veil through which the great mystery, the tremendum, shows itself.

The science, in all of the traditional mythologies, reflected that of its time. It is not surprising that the Bible reflects the cosmology of the third millennium B.C. Those who do not understand the metaphor, the language of religious revelation, find themselves up against the images that they accept or contest as facts.

One of the most stunning experiences of this century occurred in 1968 on a great venture around the moon. On Christmas Eve, the first verses of Genesis were read by astronauts, three men flying around the moon. The incongruity was that they were several thousand miles beyond the highest heaven conceived of at the time when the Book of Genesis was written, when such science as there was held the concept of a flat earth. There they were, in one moment remarking on how dry the moon was, and in the next, reading of how the waters above and the waters beneath had been walled off.

One of the most marvelous moments of that contemporary experience was described in stately imagery that just did not fit. The moment deserved a more appropriate religious text. Yet it came to us with all the awe of something wise, something resonant of our origins, even though it really was not. The old metaphors were taken as factual accounts of creation. Modern cosmology had left that whole little kindergarten image of the universe far, far behind, but, as an illustration of popular misconception, the metaphors of the Bible, which were not intended as fact, were spoken by men who believed that they were to millions who also believed that these metaphors were factual.

The third function of a traditional mythology is to validate and support a specific moral order, that order of the society out of which that mythology arose. All mythologies come to us in the field of a certain specific culture and must speak to us through the language and symbols of that culture. In traditional mythologies, the notion is really that the moral order is organically related to or somehow of a piece with the cosmic order.

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