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The Masks Of God: Primitive Mythology by…

The Masks Of God: Primitive Mythology (1959)

by Joseph Campbell

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Masks of God (book 1)

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Henry A. Murray, from Harvard University, said of this work, "[It is a] monument of learning, wonder, and wisdom, daringly conceived and brilliantly written by a man who is at home in the Eastern and the Western universe of spirit. . .In temporal span and spatial scope and in relevance to the needs of its own day, it is unexampled."
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  uufnn | Jan 28, 2017 |
I'm actually glad I have a little distance from this book when reviewing it. If I was reviewing it immediately after reading it, I would likely give it an even lower rating than I have here. But having read the succeeding three books in the series, I can understand why this book is written the way it is: it serves as a foundation.

All of the books in the Masks of God series are dense. They read like textbooks, rather than the kind of non-fiction novels in the In Cold Blood style that it seems like more "modern" nonfiction is written in. There is a ton of information here, and Campbell is presenting his research rather than telling us a story. This first volume focuses on what we know about the religious/mythological beliefs of (mostly) prehistorical cultures. Since many of them didn't leave written text behind, it's a lot of interpretation of artifacts and paintings, etc.

Which makes this volume a little problematic. While it does lay a lot of ground for the future volumes in terms of tracking social change from cultures that worship a female diety with primarily female priestesess, focused on honoring the Mother Earth and the cycle of life (often taken very literally with human sacrifice) to societies that worship a male diety with male priests, it also was written over 50 years ago based on the state of archaeology at the time. There has been a lot of progress made, not in the least not referring to tribal societies (whose belief systems form a part of this book) as "primitive", but also in archaeology itself. Also, like Joseph Campbell's most well-known work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, there's a heavy influence from what was de rigeur psychology at the time: Freudianism and psychoanalysis. While I personally believe that the pendulum has swung a little too far away from these kinds of theories (which is a whole different topic), there's no denying that they've fallen far out of favor because of their lack of scientifically provable reliability. To read a book (and series) premised on psychoanalysis as the appropriate lens through which to view the world is a little jarring.

If you're a big mythology nerd who thinks you might want to read this series, pick up The Hero With A Thousand Faces and read it first. Campbell's writing style can be dry and pedantic, but if it holds your interest, then ask yourself if you really really want to read over 2000 pages of world mythology. While I found reading The Masks of God to be ultimately rewarding, it was also a slog at times (especially in this first volume) and you need to be prepared to watch your normal reading pace slow considerably. ( )
  ghneumann | Jan 15, 2016 |
Like a lot of generalists, he probably overreaches, but still, there are riches here. I haven't anything like "finished" this book, or the others in the series, and don't expect to in my lifetime. But they will be an ongoing source of reference and inspiration. ( )
  CSRodgers | May 3, 2014 |
I was expecting something different. Something more comparative, less archeological and abstruse. This was a dense and difficult read and, frankly, I'm not sure I'm any the better for the struggle.

For now, it stays in the library but I may change my mind about that. I kept reminding myself that it had been written 55 years ago and then wondering if what Campbell was discussing still held true. One LT reviewer said they'd have liked an annotated version of Primitive Mythology, that sounds like a splendid idea. Plus, maps. Maps would have helped a lot. ( )
  AuntieClio | Feb 8, 2014 |
Penguin edition
  yakyakdonttalkback | Feb 5, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Joseph Campbellprimary authorall editionscalculated
Rosenberg, StuCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stuart, NeilCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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The comparative study of the mythologies of the world compels us to view the cultural history of mankind as a unit; for we find that such themes as the fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero have a worldwide distribution—appearing everywhere in new combinations while remaining, like the elements of a kaleidoscope, only a few and always the same.
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"The primitive roots of the mythology of the world are examined in light of the most recent discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, and psychology"--P. [4] of cover.

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