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

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

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