Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) spent his life studying the myths of mankind. It is a fascinating topic, but before Campbell, most of the work in the field had been the province of scholars. Campbell’s triumph was his ability to present his findings in a way that made them compelling, and appealing to the general public. The culmination of all of this were the six programs that make up The Power of Myth series, which originally aired on PBS in 1988. Each episode contained a one-hour conversation between Campbell and Bill Moyers, focusing on a specific topic in relation to mythology.
I remember watching these shows at the time, and being surprised at how popular they were. There was a reason for it though, as they were great, and not at all what one might have expected. The simultaneous publication of the book The Power of Myth only served to underscore the phenomenal reach of Campbell’s findings. The Power of Myth was a true cultural event, and remains one of the finest efforts in this field ever.
The Power of Myth has been available on DVD for a while now, but the new 25th Anniversary Edition of it from Athena is definitive. This is a three-disc set, with a plethora of extras, offered at a very reasonable price.
Episodes one through five were recorded at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in Northern California. This makes perfect sense, as Lucas has always credited his Star Wars films as being inspired by the classic myths. The incredible success of those basic stories speaks for itself as to the ongoing importance of mythology in the world.
The first episode addresses this directly. In “The Hero’s Adventure” Campbell discusses Star Wars explicitly, as well as the stories of other heroes of the ages, such as Buddha, Jesus, and an Iroquois Indian. The power of dreams and fantasy is also discussed, as well as the psychoanalysis of Carl Jung.
“The Message of the Myth” follows, and focuses on the spiritual elements of mythology. These are relatively straight-forward, as many of the main topics are the basis of religions. Campbell and Moyers discuss creation, sin, morality, and others in this. They also veer off into a segment about the religious qualities of computers, which is quite intriguing.
The third in the series is “The First Storytellers,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The basic stories are explored, but again, Campbell veers off into areas that might not initially come to mind. These involve killing for food, harmony with nature, animal massacre (the buffalo), initiations, and more. A talk about the role of shamans leads into the main topic of “Sacrifice and Bliss,” which is the fourth program. Campbell begins with a discussion of Chief Seattle, then moves further into a talk about the Earth and agricultural renewal. The idea of sacrifice is also brought up, including that of humans.
The fifth and final Skywalker Ranch show is “Love and the Goddess.” This is another wide-ranging program, going from a talk about the troubadours and romantic love, all the way into a comparison of Mother Earth with that of fertility. For the final show, the two decamp to New York, and the American Museum of Natural History. Topics in this episode include the circle as a symbol of life, masks, Shiva, and infinity.
There are more than two hours of bonus materials, with the majority being 105 minutes of additional interviews with Campbell. I found this material to be pretty interesting, but a 33-minute piece with George Lucas was captivating as well. Also included are profiles of Campbell’s influences, episode photo galleries, and a biography of Bill Moyers. A 12-page booklet rounds out the extras.
It is unfortunate that Joseph Campbell passed before these programs aired, as I think he would have been gratified to see just how big an impact they had. For anyone who has never seen The Power of Myth, this new 25th Anniversary Edition is definitely the one to get. The six programs have lost none of their luster over the years, and the extras are worthwhile as well. This set is an early 2013 highlight from Athena, and recommended.