Book Review – Primitive Mythology by Joseph Campbell


Primitive Mythology is the first volume of The Masks of God, a four volume work by Joseph Campbell. Campbell is well known for his other works in the field of mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the PBS series The Power of Myth. He was the creator of the concept of the monomyth (one myth) — a word he borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake — which essentially refers to a theory that all mythic stories are variations of a single great narrative, which is made evident by themes, tropes, and other elements common among numerous great myths around the world, regardless of place and time. While The Hero with a Thousand Faces — which I understand to be his most renowned written work — approaches this idea from the perspective of psychology, The Masks of God approaches it more through anthropology and history.

The Masks of God covers the topic over four volumes, discussing mythology from around the world with Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology. Primitive Mythology, as one might expect, starts with the primitive roots of mythology from around the world, examined with the most recent (for the time) discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, and psychology.

As someone who will probably be spending most of his life fascinated with studying mythology this book felt like an obvious choice as a part of that reading journey. Having read this volume through now, I stand behind that belief quite firmly, but did not leave the book feeling as enlightened as I had, perhaps naively, hoped I would. I didn’t find this to be a fault with the book, however, but rather the limits of my own knowledge.

As I’ve stated already, the book draws a lot from anthropology and history. While I found much of it fascinating, I quickly realized how limited my knowledge of primitive time periods was, coupled with the fact that I’m better versed in Classical mythology than anything else. This made the book very challenging, and not because of the new stories and concepts it introduced, but rather the language that it used. Pretty much anything related to primitive humanity I have scarcely touched from a scholarly standpoint, and numerous key terms are used throughout in reference to time periods, cultures, scientific names, places, and more, which were outside of my realm of understanding.

I ran into the same problem when I first started reading Greek mythology. I started reading a collection of Greek myths and had trouble getting into it because a large percentage of the names I had never heard pronounced before. When I formally studied it I gained a better, more solid understanding of the myths because I was able to understand pronunciation, on top of the added knowledge of geography and cultural context. When I went back to the book I first read I was astonished to find I didn’t remember reading any of it, when at that point I was all too familiar with each story.

While this is the case with a lot of the mythological names in Primitive Mythology as well, it has more to do with the more technical terms that are esoteric to me. I wouldn’t want this to scare away anyone interested in going through this work because it is definitely worthwhile, but it may pose a challenge to you.

The mythologies and ideas the book explores are fascinating nonetheless, approaching many myths from early stages that I hadn’t imagined before. Parts that particularly stood out to me were the explanation of “Early Hunters” and “Early Planters,” which delves into the distinction between primitive mythologies based on whether the culture attained food through hunting or agriculture. It describes particular treatments of death, for example, as either a celebrated part of the cycle of death and rebirth for the planters, or a more violent and disruptive part of everyday life for the hunters, where a body might be interred in a restrained manner for fear that his spirit will fight to escape the grave.

Early on in the book, there was a section I found particularly fascinating about myth’s importance to the human mind. Campbell discusses innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs), which are the instincts within all animals that tell us what to do when faced with an experience we have never encountered before. An example he uses is that of the sea turtle. A baby, just hatched from an egg on land, will head toward the ocean and swim once they reach the water, despite never having swum or experienced water before. He goes on to consider the IRMs of human beings that dictate our behaviour.

While he brings up a number that infants demonstrate, such as recognizing vague suggestions of a human face, he discusses how we have considerably fewer IRMs because to allow us to learn over the course of our developmental years, which are considerably longer relative to other animal life. For about ten years, we are physically incapable of looking after ourselves effectively, but this time is dedicated to learning and understanding the behaviours and beliefs of the society around us. Myths, since the beginning, have been the medium through which these beliefs and values are shared between all people through generations.

This idea sparked particular enthusiasm within me because it further asserts in my mind the idea that we are all blank slates when we start out. Many people seem to believe there is a natural order to the personal and interpersonal workings of people and society. While this is likely the case in very specific areas, most of it is all arbitrary and constructed by the stories of our ancestors. While the pressure to maintain the tradition of the generation before us will probably always be prominent, it demonstrates that these values can be changed, just as they always have and will continue to do so. I had never thought about it in relation to human development quite so closely before and, when I think about the progress being made with some of the social issues of today, I find the knowledge comforting.

If you’re someone looking to expand your knowledge of mythology, world history, and culture, I highly recommend Primitive Mythology. It’s a book I realize I won’t just read once, but will likely study throughout my life along with the remaining volumes. If this is not a field you’re very interested in, I would pass on it. I do not think it is a text suited for more a casual enjoyment of mythology.


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