The Power — and the Study — of Myth

Angkor Wat

In the latter half of the 20th century, mythologist Joseph Campbell’s vast body of work — from “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” in 1949 to the broadcast of “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers” just months after his passing — resuscitated interest in comparative mythology, revitalizing the study of the field that Campbell called “the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”

However, that interest hasn’t necessarily translated into formal acceptance on college campuses. “Academia doesn’t seem to know what to do with mythology,” says Stephen Gerringer of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Taught under the various umbrellas of history, anthropology, literature, philosophy, folklore, religion, psychology and other disciplines, mythology is rarely recognized as a separate field. To date, only one school — Pacifica Graduate Institute — offers a graduate program in Mythological Studies. As Gerringer points out, even Campbell taught mythology for decades at Sarah Lawrence as a member of the Literature Department.

With an eye to changing the status quo, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Joseph Campbell Foundation and OPUS Archives and Research Center (which houses the archives of Joseph Campbell, archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, psychologist James Hillman, and other scholars of note) are sponsoring the inaugural Symposium for the Study of Myth, over Labor Day Weekend (Aug. 31 – Sept. 2), on the Pacifica campus in Santa Barbara.

Entitled “Exploring Myth: Culture, Theory, Practice,” the conference aims to encourage serious scholarship, but that’s not its only purpose. Dr. Safron Rossi, who heads the OPUS Archives, pointed out, “Everyone with a passion and serious curiosity for myth is invited to participate in this fluid and dynamic event.”

Scholarship will of course play a role — but the symposium moves beyond traditional academic formats, with over 50 different presentations, from a demonstration of Chumash healing ceremonies or a discussion of video gaming as a storytelling medium, to workshops on percussion, rhythm and movement in myth, or a panel on teaching mythology in public schools.

Says Rossi, “We recognize that it is past time for the field of mythology to establish a “home” — a community to which it returns to discuss new developments in the area of study, as well as charting future domains of exploration. In creating this event, we hope to encourage the establishment of just such a home.” Students of mythology in attendance, both within and outside academia, will have the opportunity to participate in the birth of a collaborative community that takes an innovative, nontraditional approach to a nontraditional field.

“If all goes as planned,” says Gerringer, “Pacifica can soon look forward to competition from other colleges and universities offering advanced degrees in the field of mythology.”

Image by Henry Flower via; used under a Creative Commons license

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