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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.

"I view traditional mythologies as serving four functions."

  Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That, Part 2

"No," I said, "I tell you it's metaphorical. You give me an example of a metaphor."

He replied, "You give me an example."

I resisted, "No, I'm asking the question this time." I had not taught school for thirty years for nothing. "And I want you to give me an example of a metaphor."

The interviewer was utterly baffled and even went so far as to say, "Letís get in touch with some school teacher." Finally, with something like a minute and a half to go, he rose to the occasion and said, "I'll try. My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There's a metaphor."

As the last seconds of the interview ticked off, I replied, "That is not the metaphor. The metaphor is: John is a deer."

He shot back, "That's a lie."

"No," I said, "That is a metaphor."

And the show ended. What does that incident suggest about our common understanding of metaphor?

It made me reflect that half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

What Myths Do

I view traditional mythologies as serving four functions. The first function is that of reconciling consciousness to the preconditions of its own existence Ė that is, of aligning waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum of this universe, as it is.

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