Joseph Campbell was an American professor, writer, and orator best
known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative
Campbell was born and raised in New York City in an upper middle
class Roman Catholic family. As a child, Campbell became fascinated
with Native American culture when his father took him to see the
American Museum of Natural History in New York. He soon became
versed in numerous aspects of Native American society, primarily
in its mythology.
led to Campbell's lifelong passion with myth and its similar,
seemingly cohesive threads among all human cultures. At Dartmouth
College he studied biology and mathematics, but decided that he
preferred the humanities and transferred to Columbia University.
He received a B.A. in English literature in 1925 and M.A. in Medieval
literature in 1927. He was also an accomplished athlete, receiving
awards for track and field.
next traveled to Europe on a fellowship provided by Columbia.
It was during this time that he met Jiddu Krishnamurti and became
interested in Hindu philosophy. This was also the time period
of the Lost Generation (the period between the end of World War
I through to the Great Depression), when enormous intellectual
and artistic innovation was occurring in Europe.
studied Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris and
the University of Munich. He learned to speak at least French,
German, and Japanese in addition to English. Campbell began his
literary career by editing the posthumous papers of Indologist
returning from Europe in 1929, Campbell announced to his faculty
at Columbia that his time in Europe had broadened his interests
and that he wanted to study Sanskrit and Modern art in addition
to Medieval literature. When his advisors did not support this,
Campbell decided not to go forward with his plans to earn a doctorate
and never returned to a conventional graduate program (Campbell
and Cousineau, The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on his life
and work, page 54).
few weeks later, the Great Depression began. Campbell would spend
the next five years (1929-1934) trying to figure out what to do
with his life (Larsen and Larsen, 2002, p.160) and engaging in
independent study. Campbell discussed this period of his life
with Phil Cousineau for the documentary (The Hero's Journey: The
World of Joseph Campbell, 1987) and book, The Hero's Journey:
Joseph Campbell on his life and work (1990).
Chapter 3: The Vision Quest, Campbell states that he "would
divide the day into four four-hour periods, of which I would be
reading in three of the four hour periods, and free one of them...I
would get nine hours of sheer reading done a day. And this went
on for five years straight" (52-53). He traveled to California
for a year (1931-32), continuing his independent reading and becoming
close friends with the budding writer, John Steinbeck and his
wife Carol (Larsen and Larsen, 2002, chapters 8 and 9). Campbell
also maintained his independent reading while teaching for a year
in 1933 at the Canterbury School and also attempted to publish
works of fiction (Larsen and Larsen, 2002, p. 214).
this time period, Campbell studied the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist
Carl Jung, who had been a colleague of Sigmund
also edited the first Eranos conference papers and helped to found
Princeton's Bollingen Press. Another dissident member of Freud's
circle who influenced Campbell was Wilhelm Stekel (1868 - 1939),
who pioneered the application of Freud's conceptions of dreams,
fantasies of the human mind, and the unconscious to such fields
as anthropology and literature.
1934, Campbell was offered a position as a professor at Sarah
Lawrence College (through the efforts of his former Columbia advisor
W.W. Laurence). Campbell married a former student, Jean Erdman,
in 1938 and retired from Sarah Lawrence in 1972.
died in 1987, in Honolulu, shortly after filming The Power of
Myth with Bill Moyers.
James Joyce was an important influence upon Campbell, particularly
the novel, Ulysses. Indeed, Campbell's first important book (with
Henry Morton Robinson), A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944),
was based upon Joyce's final work.
Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) is one of his best-known books:
it discusses the monomyth cycle of the hero's journey (a term
Campbell borrowed from Joyce's Finnegans Wake), a pattern found
in many cultures. In addition to Freud and Carl Jung, this text
was also influenced by Arnold Van Gennep's 1909 text, The Rites
four-volume work The Masks of God covers mythology around the
world from ancient to modern.
widest popular recognition came with his collaboration with Bill
Moyers on the PBS series The Power of Myth, which was first broadcast
in 1988, the year after Campbell's death in Honolulu. The series
presented his ideas on archetypes to millions and remains a staple
on PBS. A companion book, The Power of Myth, containing expanded
transcripts of their conversations, was released shortly afterward.
recent compilation of many of his ideas is titled Thou Art That:
Transforming Religious Metaphor. The book explains that religion
and mythology are actually the same thing and puts religious symbology
in its proper mythological context. One of Campbell's favorite
quotes is that "...Mythology is often thought of as 'other
peoples' religions and religion can be defined as mis-interpreted
mythology." He explains that by understanding religious symbols
not as historical facts but rather as mythological images, the
symbols can take on deeper and more-believable meanings for many
Campbell relied on the texts of Jung as an explanation of psychological
phenomena, as experienced through archetypes. But Campbell didn’t
agree with Carl Jung on every issue, and certainly had a very
original voice of his own. Campbell didn't believe in astrology
or synchronicity as Jung had. Campbell's true study and interpretation
is in the melding of accepted ideas and symbolism. His iconoclastic
approach was as original as it was radical. His take on religion
has been compared to Einstein's idea of science in his last days,
the search for a unifying theory. Joseph Campbell believed all
the religions of the world, all the rituals and deities, to be
“masks” of the same transcendent truth which is “unknowable.”
He claims Christianity and Buddhism, whether the object is 'buddha-consciousness'
or 'Christ-consciousness,' to be an elevated awareness above “pairs
of opposites,” such as right and wrong. Needless to say,
many religious exclusivists find his ideas heretical.
is one, the sages speak of it by many names," he often quoted
from the Vedas. Joseph Campbell was fascinated by what he viewed
as universal sentiments and truths, disseminated through cultures
which all featured different manifestations. He wanted to show
his idea that Eastern and Western religions are the same on a
very basic level, and that nobody is right but everyone is searching
for the same unknown, and indeed unknowable, answer. His fascination
dealt with purely surface level comparisons, which in most cases,
completely contradict each other when one examines the deeper
meanings or compares literal facts between religions.
began to look paradoxically at moral systems as both incorrect
and necessary. In one of his interviews, he goes on to discuss
how the horrors of the world, such as greed, murder, and racism,
are necessary, and should not be rejected, but indeed embraced
as part of the world. In this way he melded also the concepts
of modernism and postmodernism, although some interpretations
place him as a postmodernist before his time.
his four-volume series of books "The Masks of God",
Campbell tried to summarize the main spiritual threads of the
world, in support of his ideas on the "unity of the race
of man"; tied in with this was the idea that most of the
belief systems of the world had a common geographic ancestry,
starting off on the fertile grasslands of Europe in the Bronze
Age and moving to the Levant and the "Fertile Crescent"
of Mesopotamia and back to Europe (and the Far East), where it
was mixed with the newly emerging Indo-European (Aryan) culture.
believed all spirituality is searching for the same unknown force
(which he spoke of as both an immanent and a transcendent force,
or that which is both within and without, as opposed to only without)
from which everything came, in which everything currently exists,
and into which everything will return. He referred to this force
as the connotation of what he called "metaphors", the
metaphors being the various deities and objects of spirituality
in the world. Any information to the contrary was regarded as
"ridiculous" and ignored, so that what remains may be
forcibly pushed into this worldview.
mythology and the monomyth
Heroes played a crucial role in his comparative studies. In 1949
The Hero with a Thousand Faces set out the idea of the monomyth,
a streamlined version of all the archetypal patterns Campbell
recognized (Campbell's archivist at the Pacifica Graduate Institute
says he borrowed the term from James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake).
monomyth involves the hero receiving a "call to adventure"
– to leave the ordinary world which he has psychologically
or spiritually outgrown. After passing "threshold guardians"
(often with the aid of a wise mentor or spirit guide) the hero
enters a dreamlike world – generally a dark forest, a desert,
an underworld or a mysterious island. After a series of trials
in which the hero eventually surpasses his mentor, the hero achieves
the object of his quest (often an atonement with the father, a
sacred marriage or an apotheosis) before returning to his homeland,
bringing with him a spiritual boon.
wrote that almost all hero myths, throughout history and across
cultures, can be shown to contain at least a subset of these patterns.
In contemporary popular culture, three film series, Star Wars,
The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings (along with Tolkien's original
The Lord of the Rings novel) hew very closely to Campbell’s
were important to Campbell because they conveyed, to him, universal
truths about how one should live one's life and about an individual's
role in society.
upon Campbell's works
Campbell's ideas regarding myth and its relationship to the human
psyche are heavily dependent on the work of Carl Jung, whose studies
of human psychology, as previously mentioned, heavily influenced
Campbell. The Jungian method of dream interpretation, which is
heavily reliant on symbolic interpretation, is closely related
to Campbell's conception of myth: “Myths are public dreams;
dreams are private myths." ("Sukhavati")
"Follow your bliss" philosophy was influenced by the
Sinclair Lewis character Babbitt, who, in the book's last page,
laments, "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in
my whole life! I don't know if I've accomplished anything except
just get along. I figure out I've made about a quarter of an inch
out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you'll carry things
on further. I don't know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure
out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it.
Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you
down. Tell 'em to go to the devil! I'll back you. Take your factory
job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family. No, nor all
of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I've been. Go ahead, old man!
The world is yours!"
also referenced the Sanskrit concept of "Sat Chit Ananda".
Sat (Being) Chit (Full Consciousness) Ananda (Rapture). He said,
"I don't know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness
or not; I don't know whether what I know of my being is my proper
being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang
on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and
my being." (The Power of Myth)
was also highly influenced by the works of Friedrich Nietzsche,
a factor which resonates throughout many of his works, particularly
in The Masks of God: Creative Mythology.
influences on others
George Lucas was the first Hollywood filmmaker to openly credit
Campbell's influence. He stated during the release of the first
Star Wars films during the late 1970s that they were based upon
ideas found in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and other works
of Campbell. Indeed, The Power of Myth, was filmed at Lucas' Skywalker
Ranch. During these interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell discusses
the way in which Lucas used The Hero's Journey in the Star Wars
films (IV, V, and VI) to re-invent the mythology for contemporary
and Lucas filmed an interview 12 years later in 1999 called the
Mythology of Star Wars with George Lucas & Bill Moyers, to
further discuss the impact of Campbell's work on Lucas' films.
In addition, the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian
Institution sponsored an exhibit during the late 1990s called
Star Wars: The Magic of Myth which discussed the ways in which
Campbell's work shaped the Star Wars films. A companion guide
of the same name was published in 1997.
members of the film industry were also inspired by Campbell. Chris
Vogler, a Hollywood film producer and writer, created a now-legendary
7-page company memo, A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand
Faces, based on Campbell's work which led to the development of
Disney's 1993 film, The Lion King. Vogler's memo was later developed
into the late 1990s book, The Writer's Journey, which would become
the basis for a number of successful Hollywood films.
recently, it has been taken up by computer game companies in search
of new ideas and techniques for storyboarding and developing new
products. Responding to those who would view his book as mere
plagiarism or debasement of Campbell's complex ideas, Vogler has
continually warned against viewing his book as a simple "formula"
or "recipe" for writing success.
Vogler encourages writers to delve into the world of archetypes
and mythic structures as a deep source of enrichment for their
own creative work. Creativity in writing emerges during the (conscious
and unconscious) processes of deciding which archetypal elements
to use, transmute, or discard.
and composer Tori Amos has also acknowledged the influence of
Campbell in the ideas on mythology and archetypes she employs
on her album projects.
is often defined as 'other peoples' religions', religion can be
thought of as misinterpreted mythology." He asked people
to step back and examine their own religious traditions as mythology,
and in doing so, people with doubts as to the literal interpretations
of religious texts could get more meaning from the mythological
is an essential experience of any mystical realization. You die
to your flesh and are born to your spirit. You identify yourself
with the consciousness and life of which your body is but the
vehicle. You die to the vehicle and become identified in your
consciousness with that of which the vehicle is the carrier. And
that is the God.” - Tape 4, Power of Myth.
one radiance shines through all things." - Tape 4, Power
is the clothing of a revelation" - Transformations of Myth
joyfully in the sorrows of life” - this was not an endorsement
of masochism, but rather a recognition that life contains hardship
and an individual should embrace the experience of being alive
by living affirmatively in the face of inevitable sorrow and suffering.
This was an echo of a Buddhist teaching that calls for "joyful
participation in the sorrows of the world."
your bliss." - Campbell believed that at the heart of every
hero myth was just that message. After the Power of Myth series
aired it became a bit of a catch-phrase. Campbell intended it
to mean that one should follow the natural order and cycles of
life, though, like Aleister Crowley's “Do what thou wilt
shall be the whole of the law,” it has been misunderstood
by critics as a call to craven libertinism.
don’t have to have faith, I have had experience." -
Joseph Campbell explains his maxim to Bill Moyers:
MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: All the time. It is miraculous. I even have a
superstition that has grown on me as a result of invisible hands
coming all the time - namely, that if you do follow your bliss
you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the
while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living
is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to
meet people who are in your field of bliss, and they open doors
to you. I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors
will open where you didn't know they were going to be.
"Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and
you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's
myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret
your own religion in terms of facts -- but if you read the other
ones, you begin to get the message."
A few years after his death, some accused Campbell of anti-Semitism
beginning with Brendan Gill's article, "The Faces of Joseph
Campbell," published in the New York Review of Books, Vol.
36, Issue 14, September 28, 1989, pages 16-19. Gill, who identified
himself as a friend of Campbell from the Century Club in New York
City, notes in the article that he wrote it in reaction to the
enormous popularity of The Power of Myth series in 1988.
of religion, Robert Segal, followed Gill's contention of anti-semitism
with the article, "Joseph Campbell on Jews and Judaism"
( Religion Volume 22, Issue 2, April 1992: 151-170). Later in
the article Segal also suggests that this view of Campbell stems,
at least in part, from his general dislike of Western religions.
scholars disagreed both with Gill's general critiques as well
as the accusation of anti-semitism. A few months after Gill's
article appeared, the New York Review of Books, Volume 36, Issue
17, November 9, 1989, pages 57-61, published the series of letters
"Brendan Gill vs. Defenders of Joseph Campbell" (cover
of New York Review), "Joseph Campbell: An Exchange"
(title of letter collection). A number of the letters, from former
students and colleagues, argue against the accusations. In particular,
Professors Roberta and Peter Markman argue that "we were
dismayed because this piece of character assassination was unsupported
by any evidence." Gill, in a response to all of these letters,
continued to uphold his claims.
Larsen and Robin Larsen, the authors of the biography "Joseph
Campbell: A Fire in the Mind," (2002) also argued against
what they referred to as "the so called anti-Semitic charge"
(p.x). They state that: "For the record, Campbell did not
belong to any organization that condoned racial or social bias,
nor do we know of any other way in which he endorsed such viewpoints.
During his lifetime there was no record of such accusations in
which he might have publicly betrayed his bigotry or visibly been
forced to defend such a position" (p.x).
National University professor named Tom Snyder wrote an essay
in 1991 entitled "Myth Perceptions: Joseph Campbell's Power
of Deceit" that accused him of launching a single-minded
vendetta against organized religion.
scholarship has also come under attack; and the American novelist
Kurt Vonnegut satirized Campbell's views as being excessively
baroque by offering his interpretation of the monomyth, called
the "In The Hole" theory; loosely defined as "The
hero gets into trouble. The hero gets out of trouble."