'Occidental Mythology' by Joseph Campbell (1964)

A selection from Occidental Mythology, Vol. 3 in Joseph Campbell's study of comparative mythology The Masks of God, 1964.

[Work in Progress]


Myth and Ritual: East and West

The geographical divide between the Oriental and Occidental ranges of myth and ritual is the tableland of Iran. Eastward are the two spiritual provinces of India and the Far East; westward, Europe and the Levant.
Throughout the Orient the idea prevails that the ultimate ground of being transcends thought, imaging, and definition.

The supreme aim of Oriental mythology... is... to establish... identity with that Being of beings which is both immanent and transcendent... . Prayers and chants, images, temples, gods, sages, definitions, and cosmologies are but ferries to a shore of experience beyond the categories of thought, to be abandoned on arrival... [editors note:
a passage in the Mundaka Upanishads likens sacrifice with a boat, which, of themselves, are 'inadequate to reach the farthest shore'].

"Thou art that," [
Tat Tvam Asi] declares the Vedic sage... .

"O thou," states a basic Buddhist text, "who art gone, who art gone, who art gone to the yonder shore, who at the yonder shore hast disembarked: Enlightenment! Hail!"
In the Western ranges of mythological thought and imagery, on the other hand, whether in Europe or in the Levant, the ground of being is normally personified as a Creator, of whom Man is the creature, and the two are not the same... . [...] The high function of Occidental myth and ritual, consequently, is to establish a means of relationship-- of God to Man and Man to God.

However, certain exclusively Occidental complications result from the fact that, where two such contradictory final terms as God and Man stand against each other, the individual cannot attach his allegiance wholly to both. On the one hand, as in the Book of Job, he may renounce his human judgement in the face of what he takes to be the majesty of God: "Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee?" Or, on the other hand, as in the manner of the Greeks, he may stand by his human values and judge, according to these, the character of his gods. The first type of piety we term religious and recognize in all traditions of the Levant: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The other we term, in the broadest sense, humanistic, and recognize in the native mythologies of Europe: the Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Germanic. By and large, the recent history of Occidental mythology can be described in terms of a grandiose interplay of these two contrary pieties; specifically, a violent tidal seesaw of exchanges, East to West, West to East, East to West, and West to East again, commencing with the first serious Persian attempt against Greece in 490 B.C. Alexander's conquest of the Levant turned the Levantine tide and was followed by the victories of Rome. However, even in the earliest Roman period, a counter-current of Levantine mythologies flowing west had begun to make itself felt. During the Carthaginian wars, in 204 B.C., the cult of the Phrygian Magna Mater was introduced formally to the city. Stoicism also carried a Levantine-Oriental strain, and at the height of Roman power, in the period of the Antonines, the Persian syncretic cult of Mithra became the chief religion of the empire. Christianity followed, after which the European empire fell, and Levantine Byzantium assumed both its name and its role as the New or Second Rome. Next, Mohammed's revelation burst upon the world, in 622 A.D., and through the following millennium bade fair to become the ultimate religion of mankind... . [...] Within Christianized Europe itself, furthermore, the absolute authority of the One Church was dissolved through the irresistible return to force of the native European principles of individual judgement and the worth of rational man. The Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and present Age of Science followed, culminating, as of now, in the European spiritual conquest of the world-- with, however, the next Levantine tide already on the rise.

Much of the complexity and vitality of the Occidental heritage must be attributed to the conflicting claims—both of which are accepted—on the one hand, of the advocates of what is offered as the Word of God, and, on the other, of the rational individual [Editors note: Campbell is echoing here Nietzsche's statements in his Geneology that the ongoing conflict between 'Rome and Israel', the schizophrenia of their union in the Roman-Synagogue of the Church, explained the depth and complexities of European psychology]. Nothing quite of the kind has ever seriously troubled the mentality of the Orient east of Iran, where the old hieratic Bronze Age cosmology of the ever-circling eons-- static yet turning ever, in a round of mathematical impersonality, from everlasting to everlasting-- endures to this day as the last word on the universe and the place of man within it.  [...] Like a jewel, ever turning facets to the light, apparently in change but actually unchanging, this Bronze Age image of the cosmos, still intact in the Orient, renders a fixed world of fixed duties, roles, and possibilities: not a [temporal] process, but a [eternal] state; and the individual, whether man or god, is but a flash among the facets. There is no concept, or even sense, of either will or mind as a creative force. And when the Westerner exhibits these, the sage Oriental simply gazes, baffled, yet with the consoling sense of watching only a devil at work whose time will surely be short, and of himself, mean-while, as securely rooted in all that is eternally true... . All of which he knows, or at least believes he knows, out of the old, old store of wisdom that both he and we  inherit from the Age of Bronze.

For on a deeper level of the past than that of the shuttleplay of Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Islam, and, later, Europe, the legacy of the Bronze Age supplied many of the basic motifs of Occidental, as well as of Oriental, mythological thought. Moreover, the origins of this legacy were neither in India, as many still suppose, nor in China, but in the Near East, the Levant, where the spades of recent archaeological investigation have uncovered a background of preparation going back to c. 7500 B.C. At about that time, in the high, protected mountain valleys of Asia Minor, Syria, northern Iraq, and Iran, the arts of agriculture and stock-breeding were developed, and these produced an epochal mutation in both the character of human existence and its potentialities for development. Whereas earlier mankind had lived only precariously by food-collection..., men now became substantial tillers of the earth. Self-sustaining villages appeared, and their number, steadily increasing, spread in a broad band east-ward and westward, arriving simultaneously at both oceans, about 2500 B.C. Meanwhile, in the developed zone of origin, the nuclear Near East, a second epochal mutation occurred c. 3500 B.C., when in the river land of Mesopotamia the fundamental arts of all high civilization were invented: writing, mathematics, monumental architecture, systematic scientific observation (of the heavens), temple worship, and, dominating all, the kingly art of government. The knowledge and application of these reached Egypt with the first pharaohs of Dynasty I, c. 2850 B.C., Crete and the Indus Valley, c. 2500 B.C., China, c. 1500 B.C., and c. 500-1000 B.c. passed to Mexico and Peru. Now in the neolithic village stage of this development and dispersal, the focal figure of all mythology and worship was the bountiful goddess Earth, as the mother and nourisher of life and receiver of the dead for rebirth... . 

Toward the close of the Age of Bronze and, more strongly, with the dawn of the Age of Iron (c. 1250 B. C. in the Levant), the old cosmology and mythologies of the goddess mother were radically transformed, reinterpreted, and in large measure even suppressed, by those suddenly intrusive patriarchal warrior tribesmen whose traditions have come down to us chiefly in the Old and New Testaments and in the myths of Greece.

Chapter 5

The Persian Period: 549-- 331 B.C.

I. Ethical Dualism

It was in November 1754 that a young Frenchman, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron (1731-- 1805), enlisted as a private in the French army to sail for India, where he hoped to find-- and where he did find-- what remained in the world of the works of the fabled Persian prophet Zoroaster. In 1771 his publication of the Zend Avesta appeared; and the progress that Oriental scholarship has since made toward an understanding of the relationship of those texts to the doctrines of both Christianity and Islam has been-- though extremely slow-- secure and convincing.
The Persian prophet's words have come down preserved like gems in the setting of a later liturgical work known as the Yasna, "Book of Offering,"... .

Professor L.H. Mills, in the introduction of his translation of the Yasna, sugggested for the Gathas [the oldest part of the work] a period roughly between c. 1500 and 900 B.C. Professor Eduard Meyer dates the prophet c. 1000 B.C. And Professor Hans Heinrich Schaeder, observing that the social order represented in the Gathas sets the prophet in a world of "petty regional princes, who are obviously not subject to a common overlord," assigns to him a date preceding the rise of the Median Empire in the seventh century B.C. But, on the other hand, there is an influential school that would... place the prophet as late as c. 550 B.C.

Meyer has termed Zoroaster "the first personality to have worked creatively and formatively upon the course of religious history."

In the Orient of India no attempt was ever made to bring into play in the religious field any principle of fundamental world reform or renovation. The cosmic order of eons, ever cycling in a mighty round of ineluctably returning ages-- from eternity, through eternity-- would never, by any act of man, be changed from its majestic way.

In Zoroaster's new mythic view, on the other hand, the world, as it was, was corrupt-- not by nature but by accident-- and to be reformed by human action. [...] For the primal character of creation had been light, wisdom, and truth, into which, however, darkness, deception, and the lie had entered, which it was now man's duty to eradicate through his own virtue in thought, word, and deed.
...according to this teaching, two contrary powers made and maintain the world in which men live: first, Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Life, Wisdom, and Light, Creator of the Righteous Order; but then, too, his antagonist, Angra Mainyu, the Demon of the Lie, who, when the world had been made, cormpted every particle of its being. These two powers are coeval; for they have existed from all eternity. However, not both are eternal, for the Demon of the Lie is to be undone at the end of time, when truth alone will prevail. Thus we note, beside the primary novelty of the ethical posture of the Zoroastrian system, a second novelty in its progressive view of cosmic histor
y. This is not the old, ever-revolving cycle of the archaic Bronze Age mythologies, but a sequence, once and for all, of creation, fall, and progressive redemption, to culminate in a final, decisive, irrefragable victory of the One Eternal God of Righteousness and Truth.

Of high importance throughout is the idea of individual free will... .

III. The King of Kings

The mighty Assyrian monarch Tiglath Pilesar III (r. 745-727 B.C.) was the inventor of a new method of breaking the will of conquered populations.

Tiglath Pilesar's genial idea... was to sever the primary lifelines of attachment to the soil by transferring conquered populations to lands distant from their own. Babylonia was conquered in 745, and a large part of its people was removed... . [...] Populations were being tossed from east to west, west to east, north to south, and south to north, until not a vestige of the earlier, ground-rooted sense of a national continuity remained.

The world historic role of the Kings of Assyria can be described, therefore, as the erasure of the past and creation of a thoroughly mixed, internationalized, interracialized Near Eastern population that has remained essentially thus ever since. For themselves, mean-while, however, they were accumulating an extremely dangerous karma. In the year 616 B.C. an alliance of King Nabopolassar of a revived Babylon with the Aryan King Kyaxares of the Medes, who were coming down now from the northeast, rose against the Assyrian, whose capital, Nineveh, was taken in 612... .

For seventy-five years thereafter the mastery of the Near East was shared by the Medes, controlling the north, and the Babylonian Chaldean kings in the south. ...Judah itself then fell, in 586, to Nebachadnezzar, "Yahweh's servant" [i.e., 'chastising the people of Judah for their sins of diobedience']. Both populations [the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah] were removed. However, during the middle of the sixth century a new type of master appeared in the Near Eastern political theater, with a new idea of the state. In four masterful strokes, the Persian Cyrus the Great first overthrew King Astyges of the Medes in the year 550 [the king of the Median Empire was Cyrus's grandfather, and ruled from Ecbatana], and instead of putting his eyes out, flaying him alive, or otherwise mishandling him in the manner of all kings before, assigned to him a residence in his capital; next, when threatened with an alliance of Nabonidus of Babylon, Amasis of Egypt, the powerful Croesus of Lydia, and the Greek city state of Sparta, he advanced directly against the chief antagonist, Croesus [
king of Lydia], and by the end of the year 546 was the ruler of Anatolia-- whereupon he bestowed on his defeated enemy the government of the city of Barene, near Ecbatana; third, in the year 539, on his march south to Babylon, he was met by an open invitation, from the priesthood of the god Marduk of the chief temple of that city, to enter and take possession, which he did; and fourth, having become master of all of Hither Asia, he paid worship in the city of Babylon to Marduk, the god of that city, removed from the temple the captured Images of the deities of numerous leading eitles of the Near East, which he returned to their proper sites, and, finally, gave order that the people of Judah should be returned to their place and the temple of Jerusalem rebuilt. "The nobility of his character shines forth to us equally," Professor Meyer writes, "from the writings of the Persians whom he led to world mastery, the Jews whom he freed, and the Greeks whom he overthrew."

The Second Isaiah, writing c. 539 B.C., in the period of the return from exile, termed the noble king Cyrus of Persia "the anoined of Yahweh,"... .

...in direct argument against the dualism of Zoroastrian doctrine, Yahweh is supposed to have said to Cyrus: "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am Yahweh, who do all these things."

...he [Isaiah] exults..., with eloquent song, in the miracle of restoration which the Lord had brought about through an alien king.

IV. The Remnant

Oswald Spengler seems to have been the first to point out that, from the time of the Persians onward, the cultural developmcnt of the Near East has taken place in terms not of nations but of churches, not of post-neolithic, earth-rooted, primary communities, but of freely floating sects without geographical bounds. The terrible plowing, pulverizing, and tossing about of peoples that the whole culture province had suffered during the centuries had wiped out the earlier continuities. The first world age of the birth and primary flowering of civilization in the Near East was ended, and in the making was a new birth—of unprecedented kind.
Spengler, with his eye for the symbolically significant, saw the architectural interior created by the dome (Hadrian's Tomb in Rome, Sancta Sophia in Constantinople, and the mosques through-out Islam) as exemplifying the new Levantine sense of space and, therein, the wonder-world of creation. The dome of the sky, as seen from a desert or plain, supplies the model for the bounded, yet soaring, cavern-like interior created by the architectural dome.

[The] words [of 'the decree of Cyrus the Great, renewing Jerusalem and the temple'], according to Ezra, were these:

Yahweh, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of Yahweh, the God of Israel-- he is the god who is in Jerusalem.

The rebuilding of the temple was begun in the reign of Darius, 520. Its dedication took place 516.

...the image of his ['the King of Kings of Persia'] grandiose lordship, as symbolized in the glory of his throne and palace in Persepolis, and the methods of despotism that in his hands became the nerves and sinews of the most powerful social organization the world had up to then seen, were in his time so prodigiously impressive that, though they endured for hardly two centuries, they have remained, through all centuries since, the ultimate figure and symbol of kingly majesty and rule. [...] ...the model of the Persian King of Kings was copied and made definitive for all Oriental ideals of political method and achievement to this day. Furthermore, the Old Testament prophetic visions of the majesty of God, the imprint of the King of Kings of Persia can be recognized as finally the source [editors note: Jesus was styled 'King of Kings' in 1 Timothy and in Revelations]

cont. here

V. The God of Love


Part Four

The Age of The Great Beliefs


The Dialogue of Europe and the Levant

During the reigns of Trajan (98-117A.D.) and his successor Hadrian (117-138) the forms of the dome and arch had begun to appear in the architecture of Rome, and therewith-- as Spengler recognized-- the world-feeling of the rising Levant was announced. In his words: "The  Pantheon... is the earliest of all mosques." 1 And at the same time the eyes of the portrait busts of emperors began to have their pupils bored [e.g., Constantines bust], whereas in earlier Classical sculpture eyes had been as though blind [e.g., Ceasar's bust]: there had been no gazing forth of an interior spirit into space.2 For, just as the Greek temple had stressed the exterior with its columns, there being but a simple cella within, affording no sense of interior space but only of outside physicality, so (again to use Spengler's words) for Classical man "the Temple of the Body, too, had no 'interior.'"3
The mosque, in contrast, was all interior: an architectural like-ness of the world-cavern, which appears to the Levantine mind to be the proper symbol of the spiritual form of the universe. "An ingeniously confusing inlerpenetration of spherical and polygonal forms," äs Spengler writes of it, "a load so placed upon a stone drum that it seems to hover weightless on high, yet ciosing the interior without outlet; all structural lines concealed; vague light admitted, through a small opening in the heart of the dome but only the more inexorably to emphasize the walling-in—such are the characteristics that we see in the masterpieces of this art, St. Vitale in Ravenna, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and the Dome of the Rock (the Mosque of Omar) in Jerusalem." 4
An awesome, all-pervading sense of bounded space and time, as a kind of Aladdin cave within which light and darkness, good and evil, grace and willfulness, spirit and soul, interplay to create, instead of history, a mighty fairy tale of divinely and diabolically motivatcd agents, fills all the mythologies of the Levant—whether of Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Manichaeism, Eastern Christianity, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, the late Classical Mysteries, or Islam. And the cognate view of the individual in this world is not of an individual at all, but of an organ or pari of the great organism—äs in Paul or Augustine's view öl the Living Body of Christ. In each being, äs throughout the world cavern, there play the two contrary, all-pervading principles of Spirit and Soul—Hebrew mach and nephesh, Persian ahu and urvan, Mandaean manuhmed and gyan, Greek pneuma and psyche.

The manifestation of a newly developing culture through the forms of an alien heritage—such as is represented by the appearance of the dome in late Roman architecture and the pupils in the eyes of Roman portraits—Spengler has denominated by the term "pseudomorphosis." [editors note: refer to Volume 2, chapter Historical Pseudomorphosis, of Spengler's Decline of the West here].

[The Levantine culture's] earliest stage of germination lay entirely within the ambit of the ancient Babylonian civilization... . [...] "... from 300 B.C. onwards," Spengler states "there begins and spreads a great awakening in the young Aramaic speaking peoples between Sinai and the Zargos range." Yet precisely at this juncture came the Macedonians, who laid down a thin sheet of Classical civilization as far as to India and Turkestan. With the victories of Pompey in Syria and then of Augustus at Actium (30 B.C.), the heavy toga of Rome feil over the land. And for centuries thereafter, until the veritable explosion of Islam into sudden form, Levantine thought and feeling had to express itself—except in the released realm of the Persian Sassanian kings—under forms that our scholars have consistently misinterpreted äs representing an interval largely of transition from the Classical to the Gothic stages of our own European civilization.
"The Magian Culture," as Spengler seems to have been the only historian to observe,

geographically and historically, is the midmost of the group of higher Cultures—the only one which, in point both of space and of time, was in touch with practically all others. The structure of its history äs a whole in our world-picture depends, therefore, entirely on our recognizing the true inner form which the outer molds distorted. [...] The historians proper stayed within the domain of Classical philology and made the Classical language frontier their eastern horizon; hence they entirely failed to perceive the deep unity of development on both sides of their frontier... . The result is a perspective of "Ancient," "Medieval," and "Modern" history, ordered and defined by the use of the Greek and Latin Languages.

...two contrary pseudomorphoses... appear. Of the first, Spengler has just informed us; namely, the germination of Levantine forms beneath an overlay of Hellenistic-Roman formulae. And the second might be termed the Levantine revenge; namely, the massive diffusion of Pauline Christianity over the whole culture field of Europe, after which the native Celtic and Germanic sense of being, and manner of experience, were compelled to find both expression and support in alien terms, antipodal, or even antipathetic, to every native sentiment and impulse. The breakthrough of the released Levantine spirit in a late yet powerful statement will be seen in the vivid, definitive victory of Islam from the seventh century on. And the comprable breakthrough of the released European mind... .