Insights into the ideas of a mythologist
(more about Joseph Campbell)

Sources #9: German Philosophy

German was among the many languages Joseph Campbell read fluently; indeed, he studied at the University of Munich in the late 1920s.

The influence of German philosophy on 20th-century thought cannot be overestimated. Kant, Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud--these are just a few of the names that come to mind.

Campbell was particularly interested in the work of Arthur Schopenhauer and his emphasis on will. He also read deeply, and often quoted from, the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also influenced by Schopenhauer.

One of the lesser-known philosophers (today) to whom Campbell was deeply indebted was Oswald Spengler, whose The Decline of the West detailed the theory that civilizations--including ours--rise and fall in a series of cycles. Further, as the title says, we are now in the "fall" stage.

This is from Stephen and Robin Larsen's biography of Campbell, A Fire in the Mind:

The Decline of the West was a brilliant if unconventional book, and an unusual purview of history and culture from ancient to modern times, from Chinese and Indian civilization through the classical cultures and into the contemporary West. Spengler's generalizations were sweeping but highly informed.

At the outset of his opus, Spengler declares that he is proceeding not by the painstaking methods of exact science, but by a series of intuitive analogies, often informed by mythological ideas. [It is easy to see the significance of this approach to Campbell's work. -J.B.] Some of his categories of cultural styles, such as the Magian, the Apollonian, the Faustian, have achieved historical quasi-respectability as metaphoric terms of reference for the greater patterns of culture which are manifested through time.

Next time: Anthropology

Sources #8: Pop Culture

Most of what we've said so far is kind of, I don't know, high-falutin'. It makes Uncle Joe sound like some kind of Ivory Tower type.

And although he certainly became a kind of "grand old man" in his later years, you can't discount the effect of having taught college for decades on his youthfulness.

The activities of his younger days prove hime to be a "regular Joe":

  • He ran on a track team
  • He played jazz saxophone
  • He liked swashbuckler movies

Two interesting co-incidences with pop culture stand out, though.

One is his well-known influence on George Lucas, who attributed the structure of the Star Wars saga to The Hero with a Thousand Faces. We'll be digging into that eventually. And he's only one of countless filmmakers that have shaped their work around Campbell's thought, especially since the publication of Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey.

The other is less well known, but I think more fascinating. In 1986, he presented a discussion along with Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart of "The Grateful Dead." Its title was, "Ritual to Rapture, from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead."

Prior to that, however, he had attended a concert by The Dead, of which he said: "The Deadheads are doing the dance of life and this I would say, is the answer to the atom bomb."

Read more about Joe and the Dead here.

While classics and great art were certainly his main sources, we cannot discount the influence of popular culture on his ideas.

Next time: German Philosophy

Sources #7: Jung

From its infancy, psychology has used mythology for source material. Freud's famous use of the Oedipus myth is but one easily-noted sample.

Some might even see psychology as successor to the role of mythology in culture, as a parallel to the more-commonly-stated progression from religion to psychology.

In a fair turnabout, Joseph Campbell and other mythologists have used psychology as source material for mythology.

It's no surprise, then to learn that Campbell was closely associated with the thought of Carl Jung.

In 1953, for example, he was chosen to edit the Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks This series of papers was presented at the Eranos conferences in Ascona, Switzerland over a twenty year period. In his role, Campbell met the great man himself, as well as such other scholars of religion (and therefore mythology and psychology) as Mircea Eliade and D.T. Suzuki.

Although not a psychologist, he was chosen by Viking to edit The Portable Jung. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Bollingen Series of books on psychology, anthropology and myth (a list at Amazon).

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, written before the link-up with Jung, Campbell swings back and forth between Freudian and Jungian interpretations; later work is more solidly based on Jung (though from Campbell's own unique point of view). His reliance on interpretation through metaphor is closely intertwined with Jung's theory of archetypes; we will explore this more thoroughly as we get into Campbell's works.

Next time: Pop Culture

Sources #6: Eastern Thought

This is where Joe and I really "click."

Campbell "went East," as I have, and found there some of the purest soundings of the themes of world mythology.

Here are some notes from a chronology of his life:

The journals of this last item have been published as Baksheesh and Brahman and Sake and Satori.

Also from the 1950s, Campbell lectured on cross-cultural matters at the Foreign Service Institute for the U.S. State Department, being an early expert on Asia and other cultures. 

Next time: Jung and Psychology

Sources #5: Art and Creativity

Throughout his work, Joseph Campbell often returns to the nature of the creative process, saying that in the past the shaman was the poet and artist of the tribe, and that today the poet and artist is our shaman.

Like so much else in Campbell's life, this interest in art was shaped by early encounters. While on his European sojourn, he encountered the 20th-century art of Picasso, Brancusi, Braque, and others. He had a friend, Angela Gregory, who was a student of the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, who in turn had worked with Rodin.

Bourdelle was also a renowned teacher of esthetics, and taught Joe a thing or two on the topic.

Campbell's interest in the arts was solidified when he married the important dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher Jean Erdman. She was a former student, who had studied under Martha Graham and, with Campbell's encouragement, started her own company. Later, she and Campbell co-founded New York's Theater of the Open Eye in 1972.

Joseph Campbell, born 1904 and died 1987, was a quintessentially 20th-century man. Both the literature and the arts of the time were as deeply important to him as the "primitive" and medieval works that he drew on so frequently.

Sources #4: Modern Literature

Joseph Campbell was, after all, a literature professor.

He read modern literature with as much passion as he researched medieval materials (described previously). In fact, the next book he wrote (after the commentary on Where the Two Came to Their Father) was
a commentary on Joyce's very difficult Finnegans Wake, which he co-authored with Henry Morton Robinson. (At this time, he also wrote the commentary for a volume of Grimm's Fairy Tales.)

And his first major "solo work," The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was a triumph of literary analysis.

Meanwhile, he was reading (and, after 1934, teaching at Sarah Lawrence College) the work of modern masters like Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, and Goethe, in addition to Joyce, and the then-modern psychologists Freud and Jung, both of whom looked deeply into literature, ancient and modern.

Long ago, he wrote down a reading list. It has been published in various formats, both in print (in the back of The Mythic Dimension) and on the net. I have posted a copy here for download.

Next time: Art and Creativity

Sources #3: Arthurian Romance

The next major source of Joseph Campbell's thought and work is medieval literature in general, and Arthurian romance in particular.

Medieval lit was his specialty at Columbia (B.A. 1925); he returned for a Masters in 1926, where in 1927 he completed his thesis on " The Dolorous Stroke," a motif found in the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, as well as other Celtic stories.

He was then given a fellowship to study in Europe; he studied Romance philology, Old French, and Proven├žal at the University of Paris (a serious medievalist's toolkit).

The fourth volume of his great work The Masks of God is titled Creative Mythology. It is largely occupied with medieval literature, including a masterful retelling and analysis of Wolfram's Parzival.

This stands in deep contrast to his interest in Native American and other "Primitive Mythology" (as the first volume of Masks is called). His deep linguistic study denotes the seriousness with which he approached this body of literature, and his glee in retelling the stories (as, for example, in the Bill Moyers interviews--book--DVD) is evident.

Next time: Modern Literature

Sources #2: Nature and Biology

Although preeminently a scholar, Joseph Campbell drew deep inspiration from nature, both informally and through biological studies.

In an old online curriculum vitae, Campbell wrote:

1917: Family builds country bungalow on Pike County, Pennsylvania. Close neighbor, Elmer Gregor, writer of boy's books on American Indians and devoted Naturalist. He became my mentor for many years, intimate friend and inspiration. Also nearby, Dan Beard's camp for boys. This period of my life was completely devoted to Indians, the woods, bird watching, and voluminous reading.

Campbell would have turned 13 that year.

A few years later, he attended Canterbury prep school in New Milford, Connecticut, where, we read, his favorite subject was biology. It wasn't until later that he turned to the humanities and, especially, literature.

After his graduation from Columbia and his first European sojourn, in 1931 he drove across the continent. In California, he fell in with John Steinbeck and his circle, and ended up taking a sea-life collecting trip with Ed "Doc" Ricketts, famous as a character in Steinbeck's Cannery Row. According to Phil Cousineau's chronology (source of many of the details I've used here), this trip "reconfirm[ed] his belief in the relationship between mythology and biology."

Again, as with Native American mythology, "nature" occupied Campbell from boyhood until his final years. At his death he was working on a massive Historical Atlas of World Mythology, and the titles of the various volumes and parts are indicative of the mythology/nature nexus:

  • The Way of the Animal Powers
  • Mythologies of the Primitive Hunters and Gatherers
  • Mythologies of the Great Hunt 
  • The Way of the Seeded Earth
  • Mythologies of the Primitive Planters

As one essay about Campbell says, "Nature has long supplied the raw material: the sun and moon and stars, wind and clouds, storms and rain, rivers and springs, mountains and valleys, cycles of night and day and of the seasons, the flora, the fauna, the earth itself – these elements form the bedrock imagery of myth." (That essay explores Campbell's relationship to nature in depth; if you can't see it, you may need to join the Joseph Campbell Foundation at, then you can access it here.)

Next time: Arthurian Romance

Sources #1: Native American Stories

We turn now the the sources of Joseph Campbell's work. Which materials (myths, stories, concepts) did he work with the most?

First and foremost is Native American mythology.

From the age of five or six, when his father took him and his brother to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden, until the last months of his life, when he introduced a story that he was telling journalist Bill Moyers by saying, "I'm dealing with an Iroquois story right now..." Joseph Campbell was fascinated with "Indians."

"By the age of ten," his biography says,

Joe had read every book on American Indians in the children's section of his local library and was admitted to the adult stacks, where he eventually read the entire multi-volume Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. He worked on wampum belts, started his own "tribe" (named the "Lenni-Lenape" after the Delaware tribe who had originally inhabited the New York metropolitan area), and frequented the American Museum of Natural History, where he became fascinated with totem poles and masks, thus beginning a lifelong exploration of that museum's vast collection.

As in his life, so in his work: his first publication was the Commentary to a book called Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, written by Jeff King and illustrated by Maud Oakes.

Though he never again published anything specifically "Indian," his work is threaded and illuminated by Native American stories. He also read widely in the anthropology of other pre-literate cultures, and wrote and spoke of the rituals and stories of the Ainu, Inuit, Australian Aborigines, and many, many other indigenous peoples.

Next time: Nature and Biology

Idea #8: Transparent to Transcendence

Joseph Campbell, as mentioned, was a scholar.

In an interview called "Understanding Mythology," a part of Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove's "Thinking Allowed" series, he made this unabashedly clear:

Well, I'm not a mystic, in that I don't practice any austerities, and I've never had a mystical experience. So I'm not a mystic. I'm a scholar, and that's all. I remember when Alan Watts one time asked me, "Joe, what yoga do you practice?" I said, "I underline sentences." And that's all I'm doing. I'm no guru or anything of the kind.

And yet, Campbell did find a "mystical" side in all the thousands of stories found in the world's mythology. In the first post in this blog, I mentioned that Campbell said that the symbols found in our stories must be "transparent to transcendence."

What, exactly, does this mean?

In The Power of Myth, Campbell told Bill Moyers:

I think what we are looking for is a way of experiencing the world that will open to us the transcendent that informs it, and at the same time forms ourselves within it. That is what people want. That is what the soul asks for. (p. 61)

Likewise, on many occasions he said that we must allow the energies of the universe to work through us.

Long ago, I published some correspondence on this topic. If you'd like to read more, you can download those emails here.

Next time, we will begin looking at some of the sources Joseph Campbell used in his work.

Idea #7: Comparative Mythology

Joseph Campbell is most famous as a "mythologist." So what, exactly, does a mythologist do?

Putting together several dictionary definitions of the word, we might say that a mythologist is "a scholar who deals with the systematic collection and study of myths; one versed in, or who writes on, mythology or myths; an expert in mythology."

That would pretty well describe Campbell, with one addition: he was constantly looking for the similarities between myths, rather than what distinguishes one from the other.

In an idea Campbell borrowed from Adolf Bastian, he always sought out the "elementary ideas" (elementargedanken) underlying the "folk ideas" (volkergedanken). (Carl Jung also owed a debt to Bastian, as this distinction was the basis of his idea of the "archetypes of the collective unconsciousness.") Put more plainly, universal ideas are wrapped in the language and imagery of a particular culture, in a certain time and place. But the ideas themselves transcend any specific culture and are universally held.

To explore these ideas thoroughly, Campbell often dealt with myths in categories: creation myths, for example, or myths dealing with death. But foremost in his work, of course, were hero myths.

A look at the titles of two of his most famous works can help us understand his approach.

The first, already mentioned, is his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell proposes that there is one archetypal hero story that manifests itself in many ways across various cultures.

It's easy to see the comparative approach in this.

His other great work is the four-volume The Masks of God (to be discussed in detail later). Note that the title proposes that there is one "God" who wears many "masks." (As mentioned before, the literalists' error is to mistake the mask for the true face of God. All words about God are metaphorical "masks.")

And so it's not uncommon to be listening to Campbell and have him skip from a Native American image to a story of King Arthur and then something about the Buddha, all to make a single point. (Next week we'll begin discussing the various sources he drew upon.)

I believe Campbell's work is important in helping the world's cultures to understand each other. How else can we cherish our local tradition (what Thomas Friedman calls "the olive tree") while acknowledging our interdependence (symbolized by "the Lexus")?

Next time: Transparent to Transcendence

Idea #6: Archetypes

Drawing heavily on the work of psychologist Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell found that the fastest way to understand a myth (or, we could say, a movie, or any good story) is to identify the archetypes in it, and how they relate to each other.

What exactly is an archetype?

That's a tough one to pin down. Let's look at some examples before we try a definition.

If I said that in many stories we encounter the figure of a "wise old man," I suspect you would know exactly what I mean.

Merlin, Gandalf, and Albus Dumbledore are clear examples. But these are all wizards. How about Obi-Wan Kenobi? "Doc" in West Side Story? Adam Schiff, the D.A. in "Law & Order"? Or, in history, Benjamin Franklin, or Mahatma Gandhi?

They all play the role of "wise old man" in their stories or cultures.

So "wise old man" is a role, a prototype--an archetype.

An archetype is a pattern, a model, that can be manifested in numberless ways.

There are lots of other archetypes: The Child, The Hero, The Great Mother, The Trickster.

Things can be archetypal, too: Water carries ideas of Spirit and Unconscious; Fire can be Life or Intellect; and so on.

Jung outlined five key archetypes that make up the psyche:

  • The Self (what we think or when I think of "me")
  • The Shadow (the unaccepted, hidden part of "me")
  • The Anima (a man's "feminine side," reflecting the Self)
  • The Animus (a woman's "masculine side"), and
  • The Persona (the part of my Self I'm willing to show the world)

Just looking at these, we can see how, say, two lovers in a story fulfill the role of Anima and Animus for each other. Or how Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's Shadow. And so on.

(My recent article on The Wizard of Oz also explores the use of archetypes in the film.)

In the next post, we'll look at the importance of comparing myths in Campbell's work, and we'll see how crucial the concept of archetype is in the process.

Next time: Comparative Mythology.

Idea #5: The Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell's first "big hit" (but not his first book) was called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

In it, he analyzed the world's hero myths, and found in them a common pattern for the "Hero's Journey," what Campbell called "The Monomyth" (a word he borrowed from James Joyce).

In its shortest formulation, the Monomyth looks like this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

In simpler terms, Campbell often said, it was merely "a going, and a return."

I usually teach it in five phases:

  • Home
  • The First Threshold
  • The Other World
  • The Second Threshold
  • Home Again, Transformed

Look at any good book or movie, and you'll see this pattern. (George Lucas acknowledges that he consciously followed the pattern in writing the Star Wars saga, but it manifested itself long before Campbell wrote about it. You'll find it in Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and the Bible.)

It can also be seen in our own lives. Childhood is "home"; at puberty, we cross the first threshold into the weird world of adolescence; at some point (graduation from university, marriage, first job) we emerge again, and have been transformed into an adult.

Here's a more detailed version of the Monomyth, with examples.

Also, I've just put up an article that applies the hero's journey model to the classic film The Wizard of Oz.

Next time: Archetypes

Idea #4: "Follow Your Bliss"

This is Campbell's most famous saying.

It may also be his most misunderstood. This is not "Do your own thing" or "If it feels good, do it."

It's much deeper than that.

In Hindu teaching, the attribute of the "highest reality" (you can call it "God") is Sat-Chit-Ananda.

These three traits are usually translated:

  • Sat: Being, or Existence
  • Chit: Consciousness, or Knowledge
  • Ananda: Bliss

These are not only the traits of the Highest Reality; they are also the goal of yoga, and the purpose of all spiritual discipline. The devotee is to attain, to know, to become this Sat-Chit-Ananda.

Campbell seems to have believed this, too. But, he said, Sat or "Being" was too high a concept to be approached. And Chit "Consciousness" would be beyond the ability of our limited consciousness to grasp.

This leaves Bliss. We can recognize Ananda when we see it, he said.

So if we find the thing that fulfills us or completes us, and follow that, then we can expand our Consciousness and finally partake in ultimate Being.

So "Follow Your Bliss!"

Next time: The Hero's Journey

Idea #3: What Exactly is a Myth?

This is not a comprehensive "theory of myth," but a smattering of ideas to help form a picture of what I mean when I say "myth."

First let's talk about what a myth is NOT.

It's not a lie, or a misconception. That's a recent use of the word.

Rather, it is "an energy-evoking and energy-directing sign" or system of signs.

Most often, we think of myth in terms of story.

Campbell said that a myth is a public dream, one we hold in common, just as a person's dream is a private myth.

Likewise, a myth is the story of a ritual, and a ritual is a myth enacted. (One need only think of the Christian mass or communion service, where you can hardly separate the story from the ceremony.)

In more mundane terms, myths are the stories that people tell: of origins, of their place in the cosmos, of their heroes and gods.

But these are more than fairy tales, or fireside stories. These are insights into what makes us tick, and what connects us to the universe.

Campbell said that one man's myth is another man's religion. I talk about my God, that's religion; you talk about another god, that's myth.

And the religion of the conquered becomes the myth of the conqueror. (The Christian image of the devil--horns, pitchfork, cloven hooves--is not in the Bible. It's based on images of "pagan" gods.)

OK, I think we're ready to go on surveying Campbell's ideas.

Next up: "Follow Your Bliss."

Idea #2: The Four Functions of Mythology

If I'm not careful, this post could become incredibly long.

Campbell said that a living, viable mythology serves four functions in any society.

  1. The Mystical Function: This opens the individual to the wonder of life and the universe. It is characterized by awe.
  2. The Cosmological Function: This helps the individual determine his or her place in the universe. The opening chapters of Genesis, for example, are not meant to be a scientific explanation of the beginning, but rather show the place of humankind in "the grand scheme."
  3. The Social Function: This helps to organize the lives of those living in a community. The "Divine Right of Kings" might be an example.
  4. The Pedagogical Function: This teaches the individual how to live a human life. Rites of passage at puberty, for example, are based in a mythic understanding.

These four functions overlap, of course. But they provide a useful framework in examining myth (as well as many other aspects of society, including ritual and even relationships).

There, that wasn't too long, was it?

We'll back up a little next time and talk about the meaning of the word "myth." (I said these were in no particular order, didn't I?)

Idea #1: Metaphor

I will begin this blog by briefly going over some of Joseph Campbell's main ideas. These are in no particular order, and I'm not providing a lot of supporting evidence or lengthy explanations. Just "once over lightly."

Later, I'll start looking more closely at his works, and we'll visit these ideas again, more in-depth.

Here, then, is Idea # 1: Metaphor

Campbell said that anything we can say about "the Other," the Absolute, what many call "God," is of necessity metaphorical.

If "God" is anything like the advertisements, no words could come close to capturing "him." (See?)

One of the great tragedies of religion, he said, was literalism. If your religion becomes trapped in science or history, you lose the "spirit" of it (pun intended).

The literalist, he said, is like a man who goes to a restaurant and eats the menu!

The menu points to something beyond a piece of paper, to a nutritious and delicious substance: food. The menu is not the food ("The map is not the journey").

The scriptures and teaching of any religion are meant to point to something Bigger, and Beyond. If they merely refer to what can be confirmed by science, or if the literalist insists that every word of his or her scriptures is literally, historically true, then the power has gone out of it.

Our symbols, he often said, must be "transparent to transcendence." That is, they must allow the reality of the Other to shine through the mere metaphor we use to "describe" it, like light shining through a stained glass window.

Next time: The Four Functions of Myth.

Meet Joe Campbell

In the pages that follow, I will offer smatterings of the thoughts of Joseph Campbell. It won't be a comprehensive look at his thinking; for that you'll have to read his books. Rather it will be the ideas from his speeches and books that have hit the wall of my mind--and stuck.

First, let me toss out a few biographical snippets for those of you who have never heard of "Uncle Joe":

The capsule biography of Campbell in his Penguin publications reads as follows:

Joseph Campbell was interested in mythology since his childhood in New York, when he read books about American Indians, frequently visited the American Museum of Natural History, and was fascinated by the museum's collection of totem poles. He earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees at Columbia in 1925 and 1927 and went on to study medieval French and Sanskrit at the universities of Paris and Munich. After a period in California, where he encountered John Steinbeck and the biologist Ed Ricketts, he taught at the Canterbury School, then, in 1934, joined the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College, a post he retained for many years. During the 1940s and '50s, he helped Swami Nikhilananda to translate the Upanishads and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. The many books by Professor Campbell include The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Myths to Live By, The Flight of the Wild Gander, and The Mythic Image. He edited The Portable Arabian Nights, The Portable Jung, and other works. He died in 1987.

A more thorough biography can be found at the Joseph Campbell Foundation homepage. For our consideration here, however, a few key points will do:

  • 1924: Young Campbell meets Jiddu Krishnamurti on a trans-Atlantic crossing; the two young men become close friends.
  • 1933: Campbell spends one year reading (in several languages) and writing.
  • 1934: Campbell takes a position teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence College, where he will remain until his retirement in 1972.
  • 1943: Indologist Heinrich Zimmer dies; his widow asks Campbell to see several posthumous works into print, including Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, The King and the Corpse, Philosophies of India, and the two-volume The Art of Indian Asia.
  • 1949: The Hero with a Thousand Faces presents the pattern found universally in hero stories. George Lucas would later find in this work inspiration for his Star Wars films.
  • 1954-1955: Campbell spends one year traveling in India, Southeast Asia, and Japan.\1959-1968: Campbell publishes his magnum opus, The Masks of God, in four volumes: Primitive Mythology (1959), Oriental Mythology (1962), Occidental Mythology (1964), and Creative Mythology (1968).
  • 1988: PBS first broadcasts Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, a six-hour series of interviews created in the last years before Campbell's death in 1987.

So follow me on this "hero's adventure" as I give you my two cents' worth on the great Joseph Campbell.

Everything on these pages is © 2009 by James Baquet