American writer on mythology and comparative religion who gained fame with such works as THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES (1948), an examination of the archetype of the hero, THE MASKS OF GOD (1959-1968), exploring the complex mythological heritage and its implications for modern humanity, and the multi-volume HISTORICAL ATLAS OF WORLD MYTHOLOGY (1989), of which only the sections on the early stages of human culture were completed. Campbell’s theories were made popular with Public Broadcasting System series of television interviews with Bill Moyers. The PBS interviews were also published as a book, which became a bestseller.
“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. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is.” (from The Power of Myth)
Joseph Campbell was born in New York City, the son of Charles and Josephine Campbell. When he was a child, his father took him to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden, and to the Museum of Natural History. By the age of twelve, he became a reader of American Indian folklore. About 1917 in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania he met Elmer Gregor, who had written books about American Indians. Gregor, who could communicate with Indian sign language, became Campbell’s first “guru”, or teacher.
Campbell revived his interest in mythology while working on a master’s degree. Before attending Columbia University, he traveled in Europe. In 1927 Campbell received his M.A. in English and comparative literature. He then returned to Europe for postgraduate study in Arthurian romances at the Universities of Paris and Munich. During his stay he discovered that many themes in Arthurian legend resembled the basic motifs in American Indian folklore. The idea inspired Campbell in his unending study of such authors Thomas Mann and James Joyce, whose work he regarded as a kind of guide for his own interpretation of mythological material. Campbell was also caught up in the theories of Jung.
Back in the United States Campbell retired for five years to Woodstock, New York, and Carmel, California, where he put together his guiding thesis that perceived myths as “the pictorial vocabulary of communication from the source zones of our energies to the rational consciousness.” In 1934 Campbell began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where he remained for thirty-eight years. In 1938 he married Jean Erdman, one of his early students, who founded a dance company and school of her own.
From 1956 to 1973 Campbell was a visiting lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute. In 1985 he received the National Arts Club medal for honor for literature and was elected in 1987 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The popular PBS television program The Power of Myth was made in 1985 and 1986 mostly at the ranch of Campbell’s friend, the film director George Lucas. Campbell’s concept of the hero’s journey was one of the sources for Star Wars trilogy . Campbell died at age of eighty-three on October 31, 1987, at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, after a brief illness.
“Freud has suggested that all moments of anxiety reproduce the painful feelings of the first separation from the mother – the tightening of the breath, congestion of the blood, etc., of the crisis of the birth. Conversely, all moments of separation and new birth produce anxiety. Whether it be the king’s child about to be taken from the felicity of her established dual-unity with Danny King, or God’s daughter Eve, now ripe to depart from the idyl of the Garden, or again, the supremely concentrated Future Buddha breaking past the last horizons of the created world, the same archetypal images are activated, symbolizing danger, reassurance, trial, passage, and the strange holiness of the mysteries of birth” (from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)
Campbell began his writing career as a literary critic, co-authoring with Henry M. Robinson A SKELETON KEY TO FINNEGANS WAKE (1944), a study of James Joyce’s major novel. He then turned his attention to explicating the great myths of the world’s religions in terms of Jungian concept of the collective unconscious. He also popularized the key discoveries and the psychology of Jung. Campbell argued that world’s mythologies, ritual practices, folk traditions, and major religions share certain symbolic themes, motifs, and patterns of behavior. His theories influenced a wide range of writers around the world, among them the Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski in his Tiarnia series.
In 1948 appeared The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is often cited as Campbell’s best book. It has sold nearly one million copies in various editions. Campbell juxtaposed myths from Native Americans, ancient Greeks, Hindus, Buddhists, Mayans, Norse and Arthurian legends, and the Bible to elucidate the hero’s path of adventure through rites of passage to final transfiguration.
During the 1950s Campbell worked on his four-volume series, The Masks of God. In MYTHS TO LIVE BY (1972) he suggested that new myths would replace old ones, perhaps drawing symbols from modern technology. “I like to think of the year 1492 as marking the end – or at least the beginning of the end – of the authority of the old mythological systems by which the lives of men had been supported and inspired from time out of mind. Shortly after Columbus’s epochal voyage, Magellan circumnavigated the globe. Shortly before, Vasco da Gama had sailed around Africa to India. The earth was beginning to be systematically explored, and the old, symbolic, mythological geographies discredited.”
As an editor Campbell compiled six volumes of ERANOS YEARBOOKS (1954-69), based on “shared feast” lectures held at Ascona in southern Switzwerland and originally published in the Eranos-Jahrbücher. He also assisted Swami Nikhilananda in producing a translation of THE GOSPEL OF SRI RAMAKRISHNA (1942), edited THE PORTABLE ARABIAN NIGHTS (1952), and provided folkloric commentaries for THE COMPLETE GRIMM FAIRY TALES (1944). Campbell often used skillfully down-to-earth examples when he clarified the influence of myths on modern day thinking. In the essay ‘The Impact of Science on Myth’ (1961) from Myths to Live By he depicts a discussion he heard at a lunch counter. A young boy tells his mother, that his friend Jimmy wrote a paper on the evolution of man, but the teacher said he was wrong: Adam and Eve were our first parents. And the boy’s mother confirms this fundamentalist claim. “What a mother for a twentieth-century child!” Campbell said.
- Reprinted by Literature Weekly for Daily Literary Quote