Wednesday, 20 November 2019


Let me ask you some questions about these common features in these stories, the significance of the forbidden fruit.

Well, there’s a standard folktale motif called 
“The One Forbidden Thing.” 

Remember, in Bluebeard
“Don’t open that closet.” 

You know, and then one always does it. 

And in the Old Testament story, God gives the one forbidden thing, and he knows very well, now I’m interpreting God, 
he knows very well that man’s going to eat the forbidden fruit. 
But it’s by doing that that man becomes the initiator of his own life. 
Life really begins with that.

I also find in some of these early stories, 
the human tendency to 
Find someone to BLAME.


Let me read Genesis 1, 
then I’ll ask you to read one from the Bassari legend.

All right.


Genesis 1: 
“And God said, 
‘Have you eaten from the tree 
which I commanded you that you should not eat?’ 

Then the man said, 
‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, 
she gave me of the tree and I ate.’ 

And the Lord God said to the woman, 
What is this you’ve done?’ 

And the woman said, 
‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’ 

Now, I mean, you talk about buck-passing, it starts very early.

That’s right.

And then there’s the Bassari legend.

It’s been tough on serpents, too. 
“One day Snake said, 
‘We too should eat these fruits. 
Why must we go hungry?’ 

Antelope said, 
‘But we don’t know anything about this fruit.’ 

Then Man and his wife took some of the fruit and ate it. 

Unumbotte came down from the sky and asked,
 ‘Who ate the fruit?’ 

They answered, 
‘We did.’ 

Unumbotte asked, 
‘Who told you that you could eat that fruit?’ 

They replied, 
‘Snake did.’ 

It’s the same story.

Poor Snake.

It’s the same story.

What do you make of this, that in all of these stories the principal actors are pointing to someone else as the initiator of the fall?

Yeah, but it turns out to be Snake. 
And Snake in both of these stories is the symbol of life throwing off the past and continuing to live.


The power of life, because the snake sheds its skin, 
just as the moon sheds its shadow. 

The snake in most cultures is positive. 
Even the most poisonous thing, in India, the cobra, is a sacred animal. 

And the serpent, Naga, the serpent king, Nagaraga, is the next thing to the Buddha, because the serpent represents the power of life in the field of time to throw off death, and the Buddha represents the power of life in the field of eternity to be eternally alive.
Now, I saw a fantastic thing of a Burmese priestess, a snake priestess, who had to bring rain to her people by calling a king cobra from his den and kissing him three times on the nose. There was the cobra, the giver of life, the giver of rain, which is of life, as the divine positive, not negative, figure.

BILL MOYERS: The Christian stories turn it around, because the serpent was the seducer.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, what that amounts to is a refusal to affirm life. Life is evil in this view. Every natural impulse is sinful unless you’ve been baptized or circumcised, in this tradition that we’ve inherited. For heaven’s sakes!

BILL MOYERS: By having been the tempter, women have paid a great price, because in mythology, some of this mythology, they are the ones who led to the downfall.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Of course they did. I mean, they represent life. Man doesn’t enter life except by woman, and so it is woman who brings us into the world of polarities and pair of opposites and suffering and all. But I think it’s a really childish attitude, to say “no” to life with all its pain, you know, to say this is something that should not have been.

Schopenhauer, in one of his marvelous chapters, I think it’s in The World as Will and Idea, says: “Life is something that should not have been. It is in its very essence and character, a terrible thing to consider, this business of living by killing and eating.” I mean, it’s in sin in terms of all ethical judgments all the time.

BILL MOYERS: As Zorba says, you know, “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is no trouble.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s it. And when people say to me, you know, do you have optimism about the world, you know, how terrible it is, I said, yes, just say, “It’s great!” Just the way it is.

BILL MOYERS: But doesn’t that lead to a rather passive attitude in the face of evil, in the face of wrong?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You participate in it. Whatever you do is evil for somebody.

BILL MOYERS: But explain that for the audience.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, when I was in India, there was a man whose name was Sri Krishnamenon and his mystical name was Atmananda and he was in Trivandrum, and I went to Trivandrum, and I had the wonderful privilege of sitting face to face with him as I’m sitting here with you. And the first question, first thing he said to me is, “Do you have a question?” Because the teacher there always answers questions, he doesn’t tell you what anything, he answers. And I said, “Yes, I have a question.” I said, “Since in Hindu thinking all the universe is divine, is a manifestation of divinity itself, how can we say ‘no’ to anything in the world, how can we say ‘no’ to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness?” And he said, “For you and me, we must say yes.”

Well, I had learned from my friends who were students of his, that that happened to have been the first question he asked his guru, and we had a wonderful talk for about an hour there on this theme, of the affirmation of the world. And it confirmed me in a feeling that I have had, that who are we to judge? And it seems to me that this is one of the great teachings of Jesus.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I see now what you mean in one respect; in some classic Christian doctrine the world is to be despised, life is to be redeemed in the hereafter, it is heaven where our rewards come, and if you affirm that which you deplore, as you say, you’re affirming the world, which is our eternity of the moment.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s what I would say. Eternity isn’t some later time; eternity isn’t a long time; eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking in time cuts out.

BILL MOYERS: This is it.


BILL MOYERS: This is my …

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: If you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere, and the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.

There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Boddhisattva. The Bodhisattva, the one whose being, satra, is illumination, bodhi, who realizes his identity with eternity, and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder, and come back and participate in it. “All life is sorrowful,” is the first Buddhist saying, and it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow, loss, loss, loss.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a pessimistic note.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, you got to say yes to it and say it’s great this way. I mean, this is the way God intended it.

BILL MOYERS: You don’t really believe that?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, this is the way it is, and I don’t believe anybody intended it, but this is the way it is. And Joyce’s wonderful line, you know, “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid and to recognize, as I did in my conversation with that Hindu guru or teacher that I told you of, that all of this as it is, is as it has to be, and it is a manifestation of the eternal presence in the world. The end of things always is painful; pain is part of there being a world at all.

BILL MOYERS: But if one accepted that isn’t the ultimate conclusion, to say, well, ‘I won’t try to reform any laws or fight any battles.’

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I didn’t say that.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t that the logical conclusion one could draw, though, the philosophy of nihilism?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that’s not the necessary thing to draw. You could say I will participate in this row, and I will join the army, and I will go to war.

BILL MOYERS: I’ll do the best I can on earth.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts. And that wonderful Irish saying, you know, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get into it?” This is the way life is, and the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.

Let me tell you one story here, of a samurai warrior, a Japanese warrior, who had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. And he actually, after some time, found and cornered the man who had murdered his overlord. And he was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, when this man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in his face. And the samurai sheathed the sword and walked away. Why did he do that?


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man then, it would have a personal act, of another kind of act, that’s not what he had come to do.

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