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The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion

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by Joseph Campbell

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In these pages, beloved mythologist Joseph Campbell explores the Space Age. He posits that the newly discovered laws of outer space are actually within us as well, and that a new mythology is implicit in that realization. But what is this new mythology? How can we recognize it? Campbell explores these questions in the concluding essay, “The Way of Art,”


In these pages, beloved mythologist Joseph Campbell explores the Space Age. He posits that the newly discovered laws of outer space are actually within us as well, and that a new mythology is implicit in that realization. But what is this new mythology? How can we recognize it? Campbell explores these questions in the concluding essay, “The Way of Art,” in which he demonstrates that metaphor is the language of art and argues that within the psyches of today’s artists are the seeds of tomorrow’s mythologies.

Campbell writes in his introduction: “My desire and great pleasure in the preparation of this little volume has been as rendering a return gift to the Graces for the transforming insights of these recent years, which...we have been testing out in a broadly shared spiritual adventure.”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In a time of felt mythlessness, when the culture suffers a crunching literalism in politics, in religion, and in everyday human relationships, Campbell’s little book on the metaphoric and mythic quality of life functions as a grand net of gems.”
David L. Miller, Watson-Ledden professor of religions, Syracuse University

“Campbell, who is known for speaking his mind, pulls no punches here. This book, more than any other, unambiguously delineates his basic understanding of mythology and religion....Inveterate underliners will be tempted to highlight things on virtually every page.”

“The wealth and breadth of reference in this small book is truly prodigious...as Campbell now soars like an eagle to a generalization about The Big Bang, now dives like a hawk to a precise description of the color and number of lotus petals in each of the seven centers of the chakra system, rendering both lucid in a single universe of discourse.”

Paper reprint. Cloth, $18.95. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

Product Details

New World Library
Publication date:
The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell Series
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Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

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The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

Metaphor as Myth and as Religion
By Joseph Campbell

New World Library

Copyright © 2002 Joseph Campbell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1577312090

Cosmology and the Mythic Imagination

It was a startling experience for me, as it must have been for many others watching the television broadcast of the Apollo spaceflight immediately before that of Armstrong's landing on the moon, when Ground Control in Houston asked, "Who's navigating now?" and the answer that came back was, "Newton!"

I was reminded of Immanuel Kant's discussion of space in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, where he asks: "How is it that in this space, here, we can make judgments that we know with apodictic certainty will be valid in that space, there?"

The little module was out beyond the moon. That was a part of space that no one had ever before visited. Yet the scientists in Houston knew exactly how much energy to eject from those jets, when turned in just what direction, to bring the module down from outer space to within a mile of a battleship waiting for it in the Pacific Ocean.

Kant's reply to the question was that the laws of space are known to the mind because they are of the mind. They are of a knowledge that is within us from birth, a knowledge a priori, which is only brought to recollection by apparently external circumstance. During the following flight, when Armstrong's bootedfoot came down to leave its imprint on the surface of the moon, no one knew how deeply it might sink into lunar dust. That was to be knowledge a posteriori, knowledge from experience, knowledge after the event. But how to bring the module down, and how to get it up there, had been known from the beginning. Moreover, those later spacecraft that are now cruising far out beyond the moon, in what is known as outer space! It is known exactly how to maneuver them, to bring messages back, to turn them around, even to correct their faults.

In other words, it then occurred to me that outer space is within inasmuch as the laws of space are within us; outer and inner space are the same. We know, furthermore, that we have actually been born from space, since it was out of primordial space that the galaxy took form, of which our life-giving sun is a member. And this earth, of whose material we are made, is a flying satellite of that sun. We are, in fact, productions of this earth. We are, as it were, its organs. Our eyes are the eyes of this earth; our knowledge is the earth's knowledge. And the earth, as we now know, is a production of space.

Alerted by such remotely intimate thoughts, and deciding to learn something more (a posteriori) about the anatomy of our great-grandmother, Space, I turned for information to that remarkable world atlas (actually, an atlas of the universe), which had been issued as the fifth edition (1981) of the National Geographic Atlas of the World. I had thought myself already somewhat informed of the findings of those scientists who man the great telescopes on our mountaintops (the eyes and ears of our planet); but what I learned from the first fifteen pages of that volume amazed me. There is one two-page spread on which our solar system is pictured, and then the galaxy of billions of stars within which this solar system rides, and then the cluster of twenty galaxies of which our galaxy is a member, which local cluster, in turn, is represented as but one of thousands of such local clusters of galaxies, themselves gathered in superclusters in a universe whose limits are not yet known.

What those pages opened to me, in short, was the vision of a universe of unimaginable magnitude and inconceivable violence: billions upon billions-literally!-of roaring thermonuclear furnaces scattering from each other, each thermonuclear furnace being a star, and our sun among them: many of them actually blowing themselves to pieces, littering the outermost reaches of space with dust and gas, out of which new stars with circling planets are being born right now. And then, from still more remote distances, beyond all these, there come murmurs-microwaves-which are echoes of the greatest cataclysmic explosion of all, namely the Big Bang of creation, which, according to recent reckonings, must have occurred some 18 billion years ago.

The Big Bang of creation! Out of what did it arise?

The account resembles, in a way, that of the first verses of the Latin poet Ovid's Metamorphoses (composed in the first decade a.d.), where he writes that originally there was a formless chaos of miscellaneous elements, disarranged, vaguely floating; and that deus, a "god," brought order out of this chaos, sending the elements-fire, air, water, and earth-to their places.

From the atlas (and then some further reading) I learned that, originally, what has been described both as a "great featureless mass" and (more mysteriously and, therefore, perhaps more accurately) as an "impulse" (Ovid's deus) reached a maximum of concentration that could be sustained no more than a billionth of a second when (and right here, the Big Bang) the inconceivable pressure of an entire incipient universe confined to a single point became converted into energy and mass, the primal twin manifestations of all perceived "reality" in what is known to the mind as space-time (Sanskrit, måyå). A sphere of ravening intensity began spreading at the speed of light and, as "space" cooled, within the first second, muons and neutrinos had been followed by protons and neutrons, with nuclei capturing electrons and atoms coming into existence. The degree of heat was indescribable. It has been cooling ever since, while the whole event continues to expand with its initial velocity.

And so we come to the picture of this universe today, as disclosed by those marvelous instruments put to use by our astronomers, which are delivering to them a revelation of millions of spinning galaxies, many as great as our Milky Way and each with billions of stars, all moving at prodigious rates away from one another, and with no still point anywhere. An epochal series of experiments conducted in Ohio in the middle 1880s (published 1887) by two American scientists, A. A. Michelson and Edward W. Morley (the Michelson-Morley experiment), which had demonstrated definitively that the classic notion could no longer be entertained of a universal ether against which interstellar velocities might be comparatively measured, resulted in 1905 in Albert Einstein's founding statement of the modern theory of relativity: "It is impossible by any experiment whatsoever to determine absolute rest." Any place you like may be chosen for your hypothetical still point, and from any such tentative, operational center, what you would see would be this streaming away of those myriads of galaxies going into distance, the furthest of them at such distances that, finally, our greatest telescopes lose track of them entirely-the light coming from them arriving so late that their present positions are out of sight.

And so now, of all the possible centers, our own earth, of course, is the only one available to us. Revolving on its own axis once every twenty-four hours, this operational still point is annually circling one of the several hundred billion suns that constitute our galaxy, this sun itself meanwhile traveling at the rate of 136 miles per second around the periphery of our native galaxy, circling it once every 230 million years. The diameter of this galaxy, this Milky Way of exploding stars, is now described as 100,000 light years, a light year being the distance light travels in one year. But light travels at the rate of 186,000 miles per second, and the number of seconds in a year (if I calculate correctly) is 31,557,600. So that if we multiply 186,000 miles by 31,557,600 seconds, we arrive at the idea of one light year, which is, namely (if again I calculate correctly), 5 trillion, 869 billion, 713 million, 600 thousand miles. And 100,000 of these will then amount to 586 quadrillion, 971 trillion, 360 billion (586,971,360,000,000,000) miles. And within this galaxy of that diameter, the nearest sun to our sun, nearest star to our star, is Alpha in Centauri, which is about 4 light years, which is to say, a mere 25 trillion miles, away.

From our position in this inconceivable galaxy, when we look up at night at the Milky Way, we are sighting, as it were, along the radius of a great disk. The other stars that we see in the night sky are members also of this galaxy, but are situated to one side or the other of the crosscut. And this disk, this galaxy of which our sun is a minor member, is but one of what is known to science as a "local group" of galaxies, the number in our particular group being twenty: twenty Milky Ways of billions of exploding nuclear furnaces, flying from each other through spaces not to be measured, the universe (of which we speak so easily) comprising, literally, quintillions of such self-consuming stars.

And so now we must ask: What does all this do to mythology? Obviously, some corrections have to be made.

For example: It is believed that Jesus, having risen from the dead, ascended physically to heaven (Luke 24:51), to be followed shortly by his mother in her sleep (Early Christian belief, confirmed as Roman Catholic dogma on November 1, 1950). It is also written that some nine centuries earlier, Elijah, riding a chariot of fire, had been carried to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11).

Now, even ascending at the speed of light, which for a physical body is impossible, those three celestial voyagers would not yet be out of the galaxy. Dante in the year a.d. 1300 spent the Easter weekend in a visit to hell, purgatory, and heaven; but that voyage was in spirit alone, his body remaining on earth. Whereas Jesus, Mary, and Elijah are declared to have ascended physically. What is to be made today of such mythological (hence, metaphorical) folk ideas?

Obviously, if anything of value is to be made of them at all (and I submit that the elementary original idea must have been something of this kind), where those bodies went was not into outer space, but into inner space. That is to say, what is connoted by such metaphorical voyages is the possibility of a return of the mind in spirit, while still incarnate, to full knowledge of that transcendent source out of which the mystery of a given life arises into this field of time and back into which it in time dissolves. It is an old, old story in mythology: of the Alpha and Omega that is the ground of all being, to be realized as the beginning and end of this life. The imagery is necessarily physical and thus apparently of outer space. The inherent connotation is always, however, psychological and metaphysical, which is to say, of inner space. When read as denoting merely specified events, therefore, the mirrored inward images lose their inherent spiritual force and, becoming overloaded with sentiment, only bind the will the more to temporality.

There is a beautiful saying of Novalis: "The seat of the soul is there, where the outer and the inner worlds meet." That is the wonderland of myth. From the outer world the senses carry images to the mind, which do not become myth, however, until there transformed by fusion with accordant insights, awakened as imagination from the inner world of the body. The Buddhists speak of Buddha Realms. These are planes and orders of consciousness that can be brought to mind through meditations on appropriately mythologized forms. Plato tells of universal ideas, the memory of which is lost at birth but through philosophy may be recalled. These correspond to Bastian's "elementary ideas" and Jung's "archetypes of the collective unconscious." In India, as noticed by Ananda K. Coomarasway, works of art representing indifferent objects, local personages and scenes, such as fill the walls and rooms of most of our museums, have been characterized as deæ ("local, popular, provincial") or as någara ("fashionable, worldly") and are regarded as esthetically insignificant; whereas those representing deities or revered ancestors, such as might appear in temples or on domestic shrines, are perceived as tokens of an inward, spiritual "way" or "path," termed mårga, which is a word derived from the vocabulary of the hunt, denoting the tracks or trail of an animal, by following which the hunter comes to his quarry. Similarly, the images of deities, which are but local forms of "elementary ideas," are footprints left, as it were, by local passages of the "Universal Self" (åtman), through contemplating which the worshiper attains "Self-Rapture" (åtmånananda). A passage from Plotinus may be quoted to this point: "Not all who perceive with eyes the sensible products of art are affected alike by the same object, but if they know it for the outward portrayal of an archetype subsisting in intuition, their hearts are shaken and they recapture memory of that Original."

All mythologies, finally, are works of art of this order and effect. Sociologically and psychologically, however, it makes a great difference what images they present; for the degree of their opening of inner space is a function of the reach into outer space that they unclose. In the earliest, most limited and limiting mythologies of which we have knowledge, for example, the horizons are local and tribal. Such mythologies are neither addressed to, nor concerned with, humanity at large. The tribe and its landscape are the universe. Read again the first, second, third, and fourth chapters of the Book of Genesis. Such a tiny, minute affair! What relation does such a cosmology bear to the universe now perceived? Or to the histories of any but one of the people of this earth? As stated unequivocally in 2 Kings 5:15, "There is no God in all the earth but in Israel." For at that time the center of the universe was Jerusalem. And the center of Jerusalem was the Temple. And the center of the Temple was the Holy of Holies in the Temple. And the center of the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant therein. And the foundation of the universe was the Stone that was there before the Ark. Mythologically, metaphorically, that was a perfectly good cultic image. But it had nothing to do with the universe, or with the rest of the peoples of this planet.


Excerpted from The Inner Reaches of Out Space by Joseph Campbell Copyright © 2002 by Joseph Campbell
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) is widely credited with bringing mythology to a mass audience. His works, including the four-volume The Masks of God and The Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers), rank among the classics in mythology and literature.

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