Joseph Campbell


In what has been called by some "The Heroic Age," of those centuries of barbaric invasions and wiping out of cities that we find celebrated in the Indo-European Iliad and Mahabharata, as well as throughout the Old Testament, there were brought onto the historic stage two sorts of nomadic, herding, and fighting peoples bearing analogous, though significantly differing, sociologically oriented systems of mythology inspired by notions of morality wherein the high concern was not of harmony with the universe in its mystery but of the aggrandizement and justification of some local, historical tribe or cult. The whole character, as well as function, of mythology was thereby transformed; and since the myths, ideals, and rites of the new orders of justified violence overlay wherever they fell the earlier of an essential peace at the heart of the universe, the history of mythology in a great quarter of the world for the past three thousand years has been of a double-layered continuum. In some parts, notably India, the mythology of the Goddess returned in time to the surface and even became dominant. Already at the conclusion of the Kena Upanishad (seventh century B.C., or so) there is described a notable and amusing scene, where the Indo-European Vedic gods are found powerless and are introduced to the knowledge of brahman by "a woman exceedingly beautiful, Uma, Daughter of the Mountain Himavat."(68) Also in Greece, the Great Goddess returned to power in many forms, most notably in the mysteries of Eleusis; and in the Near East as well, where a constant biblical refrain became of kings "who did evil in the sight of the Lord," as Solomon, for instance, who "went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites . . . built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Moloch the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrifices to their gods" (I Kings 11:5-8).

Read again the mad account of the rampage of the very good King Josiah of Judah (ca. 640-609 B.C.), when he 

deposed the idolatrous priests whom the kings of Judah had ordained to burn incense in the high places at the cities of Judah and round about Jerusalem; those also who burned incense to Ba'al, to the sun, and the moon, and the constellations, and all the host of the heavens. And he brought out the Asherah from the house of the Lord, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people. And he broke down the houses of the cult prostitutes which were in the house of the Lord, where the women wove hangings for the Asherah. And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba; and he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on one's left of the gate of the city. However, the priests of the high places did not come up to the altar of the Lord in Jerusalem, but they ate unleavened bread among their brethren. . . ." (2 Kings 23:5-9)

Thus the force of the underlying layer, even where officially suppressed or apparently forgotten, worked its influence, often in subtle ways; as for example, in the instance already recognized, of the number 86,400 concealed in the length of years of the biblical antediluvian age.

From as early as the fourth millennium B.C., the Indo-European, cattle-herding, patriarchal warrior tribes were overrunning and transforming the civilization of Europe.(69) Through centuries, waves of invasion followed waves, and with each there was carried into the field of world history another inflection of what Georges Dumezil has in many volumes represented as the prototypical structure of an Indo-European mythology, reflecting the tripartite class structure of a social order of farmers and cattle breeders under a leadership of battle-eager warrior-chiefs and magician-priests.(70)

In the Near East, very much the same was happening, as patriarchal, goat-and sheep-herding, Semitic tribes from the Syro-Arabian desert, under the leadership likewise of warrior-chiefs and magician-priests, were in the names of their gods consummating devastating victories over such long-established cities of the region as, for instance, Jericho (Joshua 6).(71) So that, as a consequence of all of this truly unspeakable violence and barbarity over an immense part of the already civilized portion of Europe and Asia (only Egypt on its desert and god-protected Nile remained through those millennia unbroken), what the historian of mythologies everywhere uncovers, from the British Isles to the Gangetic Plain, is a consistent pattern (retained in religions even to the present day) of two completely contrary orders of mythic thought and symbolization flung together, imperfectly fused, and represented as though of one meaning.

The elder of the two, by far, was of the Neolithic Great Goddess, of whom the earliest known images, as recognized by Gimbutas, are of Old Europe, ca. 7000-3500 B.C., with antecedents, however, in the Upper Paleolithic period, going back to some 20,000, or more, B.C. And the critical point to be made here is that the interest of the earlier order of myth was emphatically in nature, and in the nature, specifically, of the female body as the giver of life and thus of one constitution with the universe. As bird, as fish, as duck, as deer, as frog, even as water, the Great Goddess appears: in many forms, if not already also of many names.

At which point it becomes perhaps appropriate to remark that in every lifetime there is indeed a period when the mother, and specifically the mother's female body, is, in fact, the universe. Indeed, it would be possible even to argue that the infant's initial experience of the mother as universe, transformed in later life into a sense of the universe as mother, should be recognized as the primal impulse of all mythological symbolization whatsoever.

In any case, in the art and arts of the Neolithic stage, not only of Old Europe but of the whole range known to us of peoples of the world, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of life itself as motherhood and as birth, as growth and as transformation terminating in a return to the mother in death, out of which source appears new life, is universally, at this stage of civilization, the all-engrossing, first and last concern. I see no evidence anywhere among the remains of peoples at this stage of the development of civilization anything like the compulsion recognized by Dumezil in Indo-European mythology, to project upon the universe the conditions of their own social order. On the contrary, the compulsion is, rather, to adapt society to the conditions dictated by as much as can be understood of the universe.

And in the succeeding epoch of this biologically instructed, mother-goddess dominated tradition of mythological symbolization (that, namely, of the early Sumerian recognition, third millennium B.C. or so, of a mathematically controlled universal order of cycling eons of 43,200 432,000 or 4,320,000 years) the high concern was still to bring the now comparatively complex sociology of a constellation of agriculturally supported city-states into conformity with the order of the universe.


In All Her Names