Joseph Campbell

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Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904October 31, 1987) was an American professor, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion.


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. This 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.

Campbell 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.

Campbell 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 Heinrich Zimmer.

After 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).

A 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, [1]) and book, The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on his life and work (1990). In 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) [2] .

During this time period, Campbell studied the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who had been a colleague of Sigmund Freud. Campbell 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.

In 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.

Campbell died in 1987, in Honolulu, shortly after filming The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.

Select works

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 [3] (1944), was based upon Joyce's final work.

The 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 of Passage.

His four-volume work The Masks of God covers mythology around the world from ancient to modern.

Campbell's 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.

A 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 people.

Campbell's original voice

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.

"Truth 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. He 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.

In 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.

He 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.

Hero 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). The 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. Campbell 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 archetypal pattern.

Heroes 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.


Influences 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")

Campbell's "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!"

Campbell 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)

Campbell 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.

Campbell studied under mythology Professor, Heinrich Zimmer whilst Campbell was a young student at Columbia. Zimmer, his teacher, set Campbell on his initial direction in mythology which Campbell followed thru out his life. Zimmer, taught Campbell that the myths (not a guru or person) could serve as a mentor, in that, the stories provide a psychological roadmap to a universal struggle of finding oneself without the labyrinth of our complex, confusing world. Zimmer, relied more in the meaning (symbols, metaphore, imagery, etc) of mythhological fairtales for psychological realizations instead of an emphasis on psycho-analysis. The fact is that Campbell borrowed the interpretative powers of Jung and reshaped them in a Zimmer fashion - interpreting directly from world mythology. This is an important distiction because it helps to explain why Campbell didn't follow, directly, in Jung's footsteps of applied psychology.

Campbell's 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 times. Moyers 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 [4]. 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 [5]. A companion guide of the same name was published in 1997.

Other 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.

More 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. Instead, 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.

Musician and composer Tori Amos has also acknowledged the influence of Campbell in the ideas on mythology and archetypes she employs on her album projects.


  • "Mythology 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 symbolism instead.
  • “This 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.
  • "The one radiance shines through all things." - Tape 4, Power of Myth.
  • "Art is the clothing of a revelation" - Transformations of Myth Through Time
  • “Participate 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."
  • "Follow 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.
  • "I don’t have to have faith, I have had experience." - Joseph Campbell explains his maxim to Bill Moyers:
BILL MOYERS: Do you ever have the sense of... being helped by hidden hands?
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. Professor 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.

Other 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 these letters, continued to uphold his claims.

Stephen 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).

A National University professor named Tom Snyder wrote an essay in 1991 entitled "Myth Perceptions: Joseph Campbell's Power of Deceit" [6] that accused him of launching a single-minded vendetta against organized religion.

Campbell's 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."

Bibliography of works by Campbell

Select Works

  • Gupta, Mahendranath. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1942) (translation from Bengali by Swami Nikhilananda; Joseph Campbell and Margaret Woodrow Wilson, translation assistants - see preface; foreword by Aldous Huxley)
  • A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944) (with Henry Morton Robinson)
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)
  • The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, vol. I (1959)
  • The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology, vol. II (1962)
  • The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, vol III, (1964)
  • The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, vol IV (1968)
  • A Portable Jung, ed. (1971)
  • Myths to Live By (1972)
  • The Way of the Animal Powers: Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1983)
  • The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (1984)
  • Transformations of Myth Through Time (1990)
  • A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living (1995) (Diane K. Osborn, ed.)
  • Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (2001) (Eugene C. Kennedy, ed.)

Books based upon interviews with Campbell


Secondary Sources


  • Golden, Kenneth L. Uses of Comparative Mythology: Essays on the Work of Joseph Campbell. New York: Garland, 1992.
  • Harris, Stephen L. and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology: Images and Insights, third edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, Co., 2001.
  • Henderson, Mary. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Companion volume to the exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. New York: Bantam, 1997.
  • Jones, Steven Swann. The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Larsen, Stephen and Robin Larsen. Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2002.
  • Vogler, Christopher. The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, second edition. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.

Books and articles critical of Campbell

Brendan Gill:


  • Robert Ellwood, The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell
  • Ford, Clyde W. The Hero with an African Face: Mythic Wisdom of Traditional Africa. New York: Bantam, 2000.
  • Manganaro, Marc. Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell. New Haven: Yale, 1992.
  • Daniel C. Noel, editor, Paths to the Power of Myth
  • Pearson, Carol and Katherine Pope. The Female Hero in American and British Literature. New York: R.R. Bowker, 1981.
  • "Galactic gasbag" by Steven Hart from (Article contesting George Lucas's claim that Star Wars was influenced by Campbell).
  • Cosma Shalizi's rejection of Joseph Campbell

Defenses of Campbell

External links