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

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

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