Explore the power of myth as it exploded from medieval Europe into the modern world
In this fourth volume of The Masks of God - Joseph Campbell's major work of comparative mythology - the pre-eminent mythologist looks at the birth of the modern, individualistic mythology as it developed in Europe beginning in the twelfth century A.D. up through the modernist art of the twentieth century.
The Masks of God is a four-volume study of world religion and myth that stands as one of Joseph Campbell's masterworks. On completing it, he wrote:
Its main result for me has been the confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology, but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, irresistibly advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge.
This new digital edition, part of the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell series, includes over forty new illustrations.
(Comparative Mythology: Christianity, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Arthurian Romance, Modernism)
The World Transformed
I. The Way of Noble Love
A man a woman, a woman a man,
Tristan Isolt, Isolt Tristan.
"As the glow of love's inward fire increases," the poet Gottfried wrote, "so the frenzy of the lover's suit. But this pain is so full of love, this anguish so enheartening, that no noble heart would dispense with it, once having been so heartened."Note 1
Figure 13. Gottfried of Strassburg (ink on velum, Germany, c. 1304)
Of all the modes of experience by which the individual might be carried away from the safety of well-trodden grounds to the danger of the unknown, the mode of feeling, the erotic, was the first to waken Gothic man from his childhood slumber in authority; and, as Gottfried's language tells, there were those, whom he calls noble, whose lives received from this spiritual fire the same nourishment as the lover of God received from the bread and wine of the sacrament. The poet intentionally echoes, in celebration of his legend, the monkish raptures of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux's famous series of sermons on the Song of Songs:
"I know it," he writes, "as surely as my death, since I have learned from the agony itself: the noble lover loves love stories. Anyone yearning for such a story, then, need fare no farther than here: for I shall story him well of noble lovers who of pure love gave proof enough: he in love, she in love.."
We read their life, we read their death,
And to us it is sweet as bread.
Their life, their death, are our bread.
So lives their life, so lives their death,
So live they still and yet are dead
And their death is the bread of the living.Note 2
Like the other legends of Arthurian romance, that of Tristan and Isolt had been distilled from a compound of themes derived from pagan Celtic myth, transformed and retold as of Christian knighthood. Hence the force of its allure to the still half-pagan ears that opened to its song in the age of the Crusades, and its appeal to romantic hearts ever since. For, as in all great pagan mythologies, in the Celtic there is throughout an essential reliance on nature; whereas, according to every churchly doctrine, nature had been so corrupted by the Fall of Adam and Eve that there was no virtue in it whatsoever. The Celtic hero, as though moved by an infallible natural grace, follows without fear the urges of his heart. And though these may promise only sorrow and pain, danger and disaster - to Christians, even the ultimate disaster of hell for all eternity - when followed for themselves alone, without thought or care for consequence, they can be felt to communicate to a life, if not the radiance of eternal life, at least integrity and truth.
Saint Augustine had established in the early fifth century, against the Irish heretic Pelagius, the doctrine that salvation from the general corruption of the Fall can be attained only through a supernatural grace that is rendered not by nature but by God, through Jesus crucified, and dispensed only by the clergy of his incorruptible Church, through its seven sacraments. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus. And yet within the fold of the Gothic Church of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the corruption at least of the natural (if not also the supernatural) character of its incorruptible clergy was the outstanding scandal of the age.Note 3 Arthurian romance suggested to those with ears to hear that there was in corruptible nature a virtue, after all, without which life lacked incorruptible nobility; and it delivered this interesting message, which had been known for eons to the greater part of mankind, simply by clothing Celtic gods and heroes, heroines and goddesses, in the guise of Christian knights and damosels. Hence the challenge in these romances to the Church.
And to make his own recognition of this really serious challenge quite clear, the poet Gottfried described the love grotto in which his lovers took refuge from Isolt's sacramented marriage to King Mark as a chapel in the heart of nature, with the bed of their consummation of love in the place proper to an altar.
The grotto had been hewn in heathen times into the wild mountain [Gottfried told], when giants ruled, before the coming of Corinaeus (Corinaeus was supposed to have been the eponymous hero of Cornwall. He was so designated in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain 1.12, whose source for the name was Virgil's Aeneid 9.571 and 12.298.). And there it had been their wont to hide when they wished privacy to make love. Indeed, wherever such a grotto was found, it was closed with a door of bronze and inscribed to Love with this name: La fossiure a la gent amant, which is to say, "The Grotto for People in Love."
The name well suited the place. For as its legend lets us know, the grotto was circular, wide, high, and with upright walls, snow-white, smooth and plain. Above, the vault was finely joined, and on the keystone there was a crown, embellished beautifully by the goldsmith's art with an incrustation of gems. The pavement below was of a smooth, shining and rich marble, green as grass. In the center stood a bed, handsomely and cleanly hewn of crystal, high and wide, well raised from the ground, and engraved round about with letters which - according to the legend - proclaimed its dedication to the goddess Love. Aloft, in the ceiling of the grotto, three little windows had been cut, through which light fell here and there. And at the place of entrance and departure was a door of bronze.Note 4
Gottfried explains in detail the allegory of these forms.
The circular interior is Simplicity in Love; for Simplicity best beseems Love, which cannot abide any corners: in Love, Malice and Cunning are the corners. The great width is the Power of Love. It is boundless. Height signifies Aspiration, reaching toward the clouds: nothing is too much for it when it strives to rise to where Golden Virtues bind the vault together at the key..
The wall of the grotto is white, smooth, and upright: the character of Integrity. Its luster, uniformly white, must never be colored over; nor should any sort of Suspicion be able to find there bump or dent. The marble floor is Constancy - in its greenness and its hardness, which color and surface are most fitting; for Constancy is ever as freshly green as grass and as level and clear as glass. The bed of crystalline noble Love, at the center, was rightly consecrated to her name, and right well had the craftsman who carved its crystal recognized her due: for Love indeed must be crystalline, transparent, and translucent. Within the cave, across the door of bronze, there ran two bars; and there was a latch, too, within, let ingeniously through the wall - exactly where Tristan had found it. A little lever controlled it, which ran in from the outside and moved it this way and that. Moreover, there was neither lock nor key; and I shall tell you why.
There was no lock because any device that might be attached to a door (I mean on the outside) to cause it either to open or to lock, would signify Treachery. Because, if anyone enters Love's door when he has not been admitted from within, this cannot be accounted Love: it is either Deceit or Force. Love's door is there - Love's door of bronze - to prevent anyone from entering unless it be by Love: and it is of bronze so that no device, whether of violence or of strength, cunning or mastery, treachery or lies, should enable one to undo it. Furthermore, the two bars within, the two seals of Love, are turned toward each other from each side. One is of cedar, the other ivory. And now you must learn their meaning:
The cedar bar signifies the Understanding and Reasoning of Love; the ivory, its Modesty and Purity. And with these two seals, these two chaste bars, the dwelling of Love is guarded: Treachery and Violence are locked out.
The little secret lever that was let in to the latch from outside was a rod of tin, and the latch - as it should be - was of gold. The latch and the lever, this and that: neither could have been better chosen for qualities. For tin is Gentle Striving in relation to a secret hope, while gold is Success. Thus tin and gold are appropriate. Everybody can direct his own striving according to his will: narrowly, broadly, briefly or at length, liberally or strictly, that way or this, this way or that, with little effort - as with tin; and there is little harm in that. But if he then, with proper gentleness, can give thought to the nature of Love, his lever of tin, this humble thing, will carry him forward to golden success and on to dear adventure.
Now those little windows above, neatly, skillfully, hewn into the cave right through the rock, admitted the radiance of the sun. The first is Gentleness, the next Humility, the last Breeding; and through all three the sweet light smiled of that blessed radiance, Honor, which is of all lights the very best to illuminate our grotto of earthly adventure.
Then finally, it has meaning, as well, that the grotto should lie thus alone in a savage Waste. The interpretation must be that Love and her occasions are not to be found abroad in the streets, nor in any open field. She is hidden away in the wild. And the way to her resort is toilsome and austere. Mountains lie all about, with many difficult turns leading here and there. The trails run up and down; we are martyred with obstructing rocks. No matter how well we keep the path, if we miss one single step, we shall never know safe return. But whoever has the good fortune to penetrate that...