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

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.