"The Power of Myth" by Joseph Campbell (with Bill Moyers) (1988)
"MOYERS: In the Christian story the serpent is the seducer.
CAMPBELL: That amounts to a refusal to affirm life. In the biblical tradition we have inherited, life is corrupt, and every natural impulse is sinful unless it has been circumcised or baptized. The serpent was the one who brought sin into the world. And the woman was the one who handed the apple to man. This identification of the woman with sin, of the serpent with sin, and thus life with sin, is the twist that has been given to the whole story in the biblical myth and doctrine of the Fall.
MOYERS: Does the idea of woman as sinner appear in other mythologies?
CAMPBELL: No, I don't know of it elsewhere. The closest thing to it would be perhaps Pandora with Pandora's box, but that's not sin, that's just trouble. The idea in the biblical tradition of the Fall is that nature as we know it is corrupt, sex in itself is corrupt, and the female as the epitome of sex is a corrupter. Why was the knowledge of good and evil forbidden to Adam and Eve? Without that knowledge, we'd all be a bunch of babies still in Eden, without any participation in life. Woman brings life into the world. Eve is the mother of this temporal world. Formerly you had a dreamtime paradise there in the Garden of Eden - no time, no birth, no death - no life. The serpent, who dies and is resurrected, shedding its skin and renewing its life, is the lord of the central tree, where time and eternity come together. He is the primary god, actually, in the Garden of Eden. Yahweh, the one who walks there in the cool of the evening, is just a visitor."
Joseph Campbell was a professor of Comparative Mythology at Sarah Lawrence College. He wrote numerous books on the subject of myth, the most famous being The Hero with a Thousand Faces and this book, The Power of Myth. The conversations between journalist Bill Moyers and Campbell that form The Power of Myth were also adapted into a public television series of the same name.
In The Power of Myth, Moyers and Campbell discuss the ways in which myth informs daily life, and also how we might draw meaning in our own lives from ancient stories. They discuss the origins and functions of romantic love, attitudes toward death, what heroism might mean, sexuality as it relates to divinity, and even how the Star Wars movies draw upon mythic themes.
It's fairly heavy going, but placing all of these subjects in the context of a conversation makes for easier reading, and the discussion is far from dry. It is, in a sense, philosophy at its best. It is philosophy as the Greeks intended it - philosophy applied to daily life and daily problems.
And if I have a reservation about this book, it is only that it's a bit backward-looking. In many of the conversations, Campbell seems to want to turn the clock back to former times, and alongside this wish there is also the requisite idealization of those former times - the idea that they were better than our own. Such a yearning is to be expected from a man who spent his life studying myths, but I wouldn't trade the "authenticity" of the mother goddess cult for modern medicine, or the romantic longings of the medieval troubadours for modern legal systems. These things are of a piece, and one cannot revive elements of older, more tradition-bound societies without endangering many elements of our own. I think it's good to look back and examine where we came from, but the only way is forward, not backward into idealized eras.
But this is a small complaint, and does not take too much away from the book as a whole. Taken as a whole, The Power of Myth is a thought-provoking book that's also very readable, and such books are few and far between. I highly recommend it.