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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.
 

"The first function of mythology is to arouse in the mind a sense of awe before this situation."

  Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That, Part 3

The primitive mythologies including most of the archaic mythologies are concerned with helping people to assent or say yes to that. They do it, however, in the most monstrous way, by enacting rituals of horrendous murder right in front of onlookers' eyes with the whole community participating in it. If one cannot affirm that, one is not affirming life, for that is what life is. There came then in human history a moment when consciousness refused to accept this interpretation and there arose a system of mythologies concerned with helping people to remove themselves, to place themselves at a distance from this conception of basic experience.

The Zoroastrian religion appeared, presenting the notion that the world was originally good harmless, so to say and that an evil principle moved in to precipitate a fall. Out of that fall came this unfortunate, unhappy, unintended situation known as the human condition. By following the doctrine of Zoroaster, by participating in a good work, persons associate themselves with the forces of restoration, eliminating the infection of evil and moving on toward the good again.

Essentially, this is the mythology, in broad terms, found in the biblical tradition: the idea of a good creation and a subsequent fall. Instead of blaming the fall on an evil principle antecedent to man, the biblical tradition blamed it on man himself. The work of redemption restores the good situation and, this completed, will bring about the end of the world as we know it that is, the world of conflict and contest, that universe of life eating life.

Whether one thinks of the mythology in terms of the affirmation of the world as it is, the negation of the world as it is, or the restoration of the world to what it ought to be, the first function of mythology is to arouse in the mind a sense of awe before this situation through one of three ways of participating in it: by moving out, moving in, or effecting a correction.

This I would regard as the essentially religious function of mythology -- that is, the mystical function, which represents the discovery and recognition of the dimension of the mystery of being.

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