War and Peace

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Mythologies of War and Peace

From the text:
Myths o Live By
Joseph Campbell
Copyright 1972
From a lecture given in 1967

It is for an obvious reason far easier to name examples of mythologies of war than mythologies of peace ;for not only has conflict between groups been normal to human experience, but there is also the cruel fact to be recognized that killing is the precondition of all living whatsoever: life lives on life, eats life, and would otherwise not exist.

“Man,” wrote Oswald Spengler, “is a beast of prey.” That is simply a fact of nature……Heraclitus declared war to be the creator of all great things; and in the words again of Spengler, “The one who lacks courage to be a hammer comes off in the role of the anvil.” Many a sensitive mind reacting to this unwelcome truth, has found nature intolerable, and has cried down all those best fit to live as “wicked,” “evil,” or “monstrous,” setting up instead, as a counter-ideal, the model of him who turns the other cheek and whose kingdom is not of this world. And so it is that two radically opposed basic mythologies can be identified in the broad panorama of history: one in which this monstrous precondition of all temporal life is affirmed with a will, and the other in which it is denied. (emphasis placed by Mr. Hughes)

I know of no primitive people anywhere that either rejects and despises conflict or represents warfare as an absolute evil. The great hunting tribesmen are killing animals all the time, and since meat supplies are limited, there are inevitably collisions between the members of contending groups coming in to slaughter the same herds. By and large, hunting people are warrior people; and not only that, but many are exhilarated by battle and turn warfare into exercises of bravura. The rites and mythologies of such tribesmen are based generally on the idea that there is no such thing as death. If the blood of an animal slain is returned to the soil, it will carry the life principle back to Mother Earth for rebirth, and the same beast will return next season to yield its temporal body again. The animals of the hunt are regarded in this way as willing victims who give their bodies to mankind with the understanding that adequate rites are to be performed to return the life principle to its source. Likewise, after episodes of battle special rituals are enacted to assuage and release to the land of spirits the ghosts of those who have been slain.

Such ceremonies may include rites for toning down the war mania and battle heat of those who have done the killing.

…it is a basic idea of practically every war mythology that the enemy is a monster and that in killing him one is protecting the only truly valuable order of human life on earth, which is that, of course, of one’s own people.

But not all primitive people are fighters, and when we turn from the hunting and warring nomads of the ranging animal plains to the more substantially settled village peoples of the tropics-inhabiting a largely vegetable environment, where plant, not animal food has been forever the basic diet-we might expect to find a relatively peaceable world, with little or no requirement for either a psychology or a mythology of warcraft. How ever, as already remarked in earlier chapters, there is a very strange prevailing belief throughout those tropical zones, based on observation that in the vegetable world new life arises from decay, life springs from death, and that from the rotting of last year’s growths new plants arise. Accordingly, the dominant mythological theme of many of the peoples of those regions supports the notion that through killing one increases life….their inspiration being the notion that to activate life one kills.

Aztec civilization, where it was supposed that unless human sacrifices were continually immolated on the numerous altars the sun itself would cease to move, time stop, and the universe fall apart. And it was simply to procure...
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