Heim on Joseph Campbell’s View of Myth

Excerpt from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), pages 57-60.

Girard argues that our dominant modern interpretations of myth — “demythologizing” and avant-garde though they fancy themselves — are in large measure similar to traditional literal readings. They perform the same :function as the literal reading, which is to draw attention away from the collective violence that occasioned the myth. Such interpretations shield myths from the hermeneutic of suspicion that has been otherwise extended to all historical texts. The sacrificial mechanism is alive and well among us, and for this reason myths have profound relevance to us today. But Girard suggests that those who are the greatest enthusiasts for myth systematically miss the true nature of that relevance. In determinedly steering all who would approach myth into any avenue but serious consideration of their collective sacrificial function, in convincing us that myths must be read differently than other human texts (and so immunized to the hermeneutic of suspicion), such intellectuals play a role identical to that of ancient priests who warned people against looking too closely into the sacred mysteries.

We can take a simple example of what Girard means. It comes from one of the major interpreters of myth in our time, Joseph Campbell, and his dialogues with Bill Moyers. Campbell explains that the death and resurrection of a savior figure is a common motif in the legends of agricultural societies, since it represents the reality of the cycle of the growth of vegetation: seeds are sown in the earth, grow up into plants that then die and decompose into the earth from which new life arises.

Campbell: The death and resurrection of a savior figure is a common motif in all these legends…. Somebody has had to die in order for life to emerge. I begin to see this incredible pattern of death giving rise to birth, and birth giving rise to death. Every generation has to die in order that the next generation can come.

Moyers: You write, “Out of the rocks of fallen wood and leaves, fresh sprouts arise, from which the lesson appears to have been that from death springs life, and out of death new birth. And the grim conclusion drawn was that the way to increase life is to increase death. Accordingly, the entire equatorial belt of this globe has been characterized by a frenzy of sacrifice — vegetable, animal and human sacrifice.”

Campbell: There is a ritual associated with the men’s societies in New Guinea that actually enacts the planting-society myth of death, resurrection and cannibalistic consumption. . . .

Campbell goes on to describe a long religious festival and sexual orgy, where all kinds of taboos are broken and some young boys undergo sexual initiation. The boys come one by one into a specially constructed log hut to have their first sexual experience with a young woman dressed up as a deity.

Campbell: . . . And when the last boy is with her in full embrace, the supports are withdrawn, the logs drop, and the couple is killed. There is the union of male and female again, as they were in the beginning, before the separation took place. There is the union of begetting and death. They are both the same thing.

Then the little couple is pulled out and roasted and eaten that very evening. The ritual is the repetition of the original act of the killing of a god followed by the coming of the food from the dead savior. In the sacrifice of the Mass, you are taught that this is the body and blood of the Savior. You take it to you, and you turn inward, and there he works within you.

Moyers: What is the truth to which the rituals point?

Campbell: The nature of life itself has to be realized in the acts of life. In the hunting cultures, when a sacrifice is made, it is, as it were, a gift or a bribe to the deity that is being invited to do something for us or to give us something. But when a figure is sacrificed in the planting cultures, that figure itself is the god. The person who dies is buried and becomes the food. Christ is crucified, and from his body the food of the spirit comes.

The Christ story involves a sublimation of what originally was a very solid vegetal image. . . . (1)

This is a quite extraordinary passage. Campbell is certain that the myths in question represent the natural agricultural cycle of life, under the image of a dying and rising god whose body is the food. He notes that there are even sometimes rituals in which people literally act out the mythical image. What is amazing is that though actual killing is at the very center of the event Campbell narrates, it seems virtually invisible to him. What are we to make of Campbell describing how in reality the sacrificed “little couple” are pulled out, cooked, and eaten, only to have Moyers ask, apparently with a straight face, “What is the truth to which the rituals point?” In other words, the truth is not that two people have been killed. That is only a ritual detail that points to the real meaning of the myth, its representation of nature’s process of birth and rebirth, the unity of male and female, death and life.

The killing happens before their very eyes, so to speak, and it does not register at all, except as a symbolic sign. Myth is the true reality; sacrificial violence is only a simpleminded pantomime of it. For some reason these tribal people felt compelled to literally act out what was only a metaphor to begin with: the story of a dying god, whose actual meaning merely refers to the natural cycles of plant life. Campbell has the highest regard for the wisdom reflected in this violent ritual practice. But, not to put too fine a point on it, his admiration presumes that these people are much stupider than Girard believes them to be. They are murderers for no real reason. They kill to reinforce the natural cycle by feeding it human blood.

Girard’s view is quite the reverse. Campbell believes that first there was myth, using the metaphor of dying and rising to describe nature, and then people started to actually act out the metaphor in ritual. But Girard contends that first there was actual violent scapegoating, and then comes the mythologizing of this practice, using themes like the agricultural cycle to make human violence as natural and unexceptionable as the seasons. Even leaving aside the question of which came first, Girard’s argument is that sacrifice endured because it had real social effects, not just because people couldn’t catch on that it had no causal control over the natural world.

He maintains that behind the mythic stories there are real victims whose reality and voice have been ignored in the telling, just as Moyers and Campbell ignore them in this telling. The violence of ritual sacrifice is not an odd quirk of playacting, but a serious repetition of the active reconciling ingredient in original religion. It is not an accident that the festival Campbell describes was marked by riotous violation of the community’s rules, or that the selected victims were engaged in a sexual relation between a human and a figurative god, a blurring of boundaries likely to bring calamity and worthy of being punished. All the social functions of sacrifice are seen by Campbell as somehow analogies from nature. But to Girard, the overlay of analogies to nature is secondary to the primary social origins and function of sacrifice.

Campbell is explicit about the reality of sacrifice in a way traditional myth is not, even as he glosses over it. This testifies implicitly to a sea change we will begin to take up in the next chapter. Yet so enamored is Campbell of the mythic account, that even when it is clearly enacted in history with real victims in the roles, those victims virtually disappear. Spellbound by myth, we don’t register the violence in front of us. The symbols are real. The “little couple” isn’t. Girard says founding myths are not imaginary things presented in the misleading guise of historical or literal narrative. They reflect a very literal history, veiled in the misleading guise of symbolic imagery. The central plot of much myth is a very real and recurrent historical event. Myth itself is a lie humanity has been telling itself about that event. And much modern self-congratulatory critical study swallows the lie as much as any ancient tribe did. “Our lack of belief serves the same function in our society that religion serves in societies more directly exposed to essential violence.” (2)


1. Joseph Campbell and Bill D. Moyers, The Power of Myth, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1988), 106-7.

2. Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 262.

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