Campbell, Joseph

views updated May 21 2018

Joseph Campbell


Born March 26, 1904, in New York, NY; died October 30, 1987, in Honolulu, HI; son of Charles William (a hosiery importer and wholesaler) and Josephine (Lynch) Campbell; married Jean Erdman (a dancer and choreographer), May 5, 1938. Education: Attended Dartmouth College, 1921-22; Columbia University, A.B., 1925, M.A., 1927, additional graduate study, 1927-28, 1928-29; University of Paris, graduate study, 1927-28; University of Munich, graduate study, 1928-29; independent study of mythology, 1929-32.


Canterbury School, New Milford, CT, teacher of French, German, and ancient history, 1932-33; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, member of literature department faculty, 1934-72. Lecturer, Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State, 1956-73, and at Columbia University, 1959. President, Creative Film Foundation, 1954-63, and of Foundation for the Open Eye, beginning 1973. Trustee, Bollingen Foundation, 1960-69.

Awards, Honors

Proudfit fellow, 1927-28, 1928-29; grants-in-aid for editing Zimmer volumes, 1946-55; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in literature, 1949, for The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Distinguished Scholar Award, Hofstra University, 1973; D.H.L., Pratt Institute, 1976; Melcher Award for contribution to religious liberalism, 1976, for The Mythic Image; National Arts Club medal of honor for literature, 1985; elected to American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1987.


(With Maud Oakes and Jeff King) Where the Two Come to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1943.

(With Henry Morton Robinson) A Skeleton Key to "Finnegans Wake," Harcourt (New York, NY), 1944.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1949, revised edition, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1980.

The Masks of God, Viking (New York, NY), Volume 1: Primitive Mythology, 1959, Volume 2: Oriental Mythology, 1962, Volume 3: Occidental Mythology, 1964, Volume 4: Creative Mythology, 1968, published in one volume, Arkana (New York, NY), 1991.

The Flight of the Wild Gander, Viking (New York, NY), 1969, published as The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.

Myths to Live By, Viking (New York, NY), 1972.

(With M. J. Abadie) The Mythic Image, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1974.

(With Richard Roberts) Tarot Revelations, Alchemy Books (San Francisco, CA), 1980, second edition, Vernal Equinox (San Alselmo, CA), 1982.

Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Van der Marck (New York, NY), Volume 1: The Way of the Animal Powers, 1983, revised edition published in two parts, Part 1: Mythologies of the Primitive Hunters and Gatherers, 1988, Part 2: Mythology of the Great Hunt, 1988, Volume 2: The Way of the Seeded Earth, Part 1: The Sacrifice, 1988.

The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion, Van der Marck (New York, NY), 1986.

(With Bill Moyers) The Power of Myth (interviews; also see below), Doubleday (New York, NJ), 1988.

Renewal Myths and Rites of the Primitive Hunters and Planters, Spring Publications (Dallas, TX), 1989.

Transformations of Myth through Time, Perennial Library (New York, NY), 1990.

(With Phil Cousineau and Stuart L. Brown) The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1990.

(With Michael Toms) An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with National Public Radio's "New Dimensions" Host Michael Toms, edited by John M. Maher and Dennis Briggs, Perennial Library (New York, NY), 1990.

The Universal Myths: Heroes, Gods, Tricksters, and Others, edited by Alexander Eliot and Mircea Eliade, New American Library (New York, NY), 1990.

A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, edited by Diane K. Osbon, Harper (New York, NY), 1991.

Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce, edited by Edmund L. Epstein, Harper (New York, NY), 1993.

(With Fraser Boa) The Way of Myth: Talking with Joseph Campbell, Shambhala (Boston, MA), 1994.

Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, edited by Diane K. Osbon, Perennial, 1995.

Baksheesh and Brahman: Indian Journal, 1954-1955, edited by Robin and Stephen Larsen, and Antony Van Couvering, Harper (New York, NY), 1995.

The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays, 1959-1987, edited by Van Couvering, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1997.

The Mythic Imagination, Harper (New York, NY), 1998.

Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, edited and with an introduction by Eugene Kennedy, New World Library (Novato, CA), 2001.

Sake & Satori: Asian Journals, Japan, edited and with an introduction by David Kudler, New World Library (Novato, CA), 2002.

Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, edited and with an introduction by David Kudler, New World Library (Novato, CA), 2003.

Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, New World Library (Novato, CA), 2004.


Heinrich Robert Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1946.

Heinrich Robert Zimmer, The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul's Conquest of Evil, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1948.

Heinrich Robert Zimmer, Philosophies of India, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1951.

The Portable Arabian Nights, Viking (New York, NY), 1952.

(General editor) Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), Volume 1: Spirit and Nature, 1954, Volume 2: The Mysteries, 1955, Volume 3: Man and Time, 1957, Volume 4: Spiritual Disciplines, 1960, Volume 5: Man and Transformation, 1964, Volume 6: The Mystic Vision, 1969.

Heinrich Robert Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1955, two-volume second edition, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1960.

Myths, Dreams, and Religion, Dutton (New York, NY), 1970.

The Portable Jung, Viking (New York, NY), 1972.

Rato K. Losang, My Life and Times: The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation, Dutton (New York, NY), 1977.

(With Charles Muses) In All Her Names: Explorations of the Feminine in Divinity, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1991.

Also editor of The Mountainy Singer by Seosamh MacCathmhaoil, AMS Press. General editor of "Myth and Man" series, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1951-54.


The Way of Art, Mystic Fire Audio, 1990.

The World of Joseph Campbell, Highbridge, 1991.

The World of Joseph Campbell: The Soul of the Ancients, Penguin Highbridge, 1991.

The Western Way, three volumes, Highbridge Audio, 1991.

(With Bill Moyers) Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth, Highbridge Audio, 1992.

Joseph Campbell Collection: Mythology and the Individual: Volume 1, Highbridge Audio, 1996.

Inward Journey: Joseph Campbell Audio Collection, Volume 2: East and West, Highbridge Audio, 1997.

The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell, Hay House Audio Books, 1997.

Joseph Campbell Collection: Volume 3: The Eastern Way, Highbridge Audio, 1997.

The Myths and Masks of God, Highbridge Audio, 1998.

Man and Myth, four volumes, Highbridge Audio, 1998.

Western Quest, Highbridge Audio, 1999.

Myth and Metaphor in Society: A Conversation with Joseph Campbell and Jamake Highwater, Mystic Fire Audio, 2002.


Contributor to books, including The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales, Pantheon, 1944; James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, Vanguard, 1948; Psychoanalysis and Culture, International Universities Press, 1951; Basic Beliefs, Sheridan, 1959; Culture in History, Columbia University Press, 1960; Myth and Mythmaking, Braziller, 1960; and Myths, McGraw, 1974. Contributor of articles to publications. Campbell's papers are housed at the Pacifica Institute, Santa Barbara, CA.


The Power of Myth was adapted as a six-part television series by Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1988; Transformations of Myth through Time was adapted as a thirteen-part television series, PBS, 1990; and The Hero's Journey was also adapted as a PBS television film.


One of the world's leading authorities on mythology and folklore and a prominent figure in the New Age movement of the 1980s and 1990s, Joseph Campbell believed that all myth has a common source in human biology. Mythology is "a production of the human imagination," Campbell once explained to D. J. R. Bruckner in the New York Times Book Review, adding that it "is moved by the energies of the organs of the body operating against each other. These are the same in human beings all over the world and this is the basis for the archetypology of myth." Campbell saw the world's myths, religions, and rituals to be humanity's explanations for the essential mystery of creation. "God," Campbell was quoted by Garry Abrams in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all categories of human thought. . . . It's as simple as that." Jeffrey Hart of the National Review explained that Campbell "sought out the great overarching patterns of human perception that underlie the stories human beings tell about themselves, that inform the works of art they create and the rites they perform."

For modern man, Campbell advocated a new mythology, "a modern, planetary myth," he told Chris Goodrich of Publishers Weekly. Campbell's work made him "known among an avid circle of friends and admirers as the Western world's foremost authority on mythology," K. C. Cole wrote in Newsweek. Hart called Campbell "a great modern anthropologist . . . a great modern artist . . . [and] one of the last survivors of the heroic age of twentieth-century modernism. Like Goethe, whom he worshipped, he combined science and art."

Early Fascination with Native Culture

Campbell was born in 1904 into a staunch Roman Catholic family, and as a young boy in New York City, he was first drawn to mythology by his interest in Native Americans. After a visit to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden, Campbell went to his local library and read every book there about Indian tribes. He spent his spare time touring the American Museum of Natural History with his brother and sister, enthralled by the Indian exhibits there. In school he studied the primitive cultures of the South Pacific and by the time he entered college, Campbell had a wide knowledge of folklore and mythology. Majoring in English and earning a degree in medieval literature, he dropped out of Columbia University's doctoral program when told that mythology was not a fit subject for his thesis.

Campbell disagreed, and spent the remainder of his career proclaiming the validity of myth, and warning of the results of its loss from the common literacy. As he later explained to Bill Moyers in a series of interviews recorded and published as The Power of Myth, Classical literaturem—Greek and Roman writings, readings from the Biblem—were the mainstay of education up until the early twentieth century. When the study of such "great books" was discontinued, it was a fact bemoaned by many scholars, among them Allan Bloom, who in his The Closing of the American Mind quoted Campbell as noting that "a whole tradition of Occidental mythological information was lost. . . . These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage." Such stories, myths, provide each individual with "guidesigns," or "clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life" that gives meaning to existence on Earth.

For several years after his graduation from Columbia University, Campbell studied mythology on his own. A stay in California allowed him to accompany a scientific expedition along the Alaskan coast.

For a year and a half he lived in a cabin in rural Woodstock, New York, reading scholarly works on mythology, legends, and folklore. In 1932 he was offered a teaching position with his old preparatory school, the Canterbury School, in New Milford, Connecticut. Two years later he moved to Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught literature until 1972.

Begins Lengthy Writing Career

During his years as a teacher, Campbell produced a massive body of work in the fields of comparative mythology, folklore, and religion. He began during the 1940s by editing the works of the late Heinrich Zimmer, a friend of his who was a noted Indologist at Columbia University. With Henry Morton Robinson, Campbell also wrote a literary interpretation of James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake in which the story's archetypical origins are explained. The book, A Skeleton Key to "Finnegans Wake," is, Andrew Klavan recounted in the Village Voice, "still a standard textbook 44 years after its publication." Campbell's interest in Joyce would extend throughout his career; in 1993 a collection of his speeches and essays on the Irish writer and his work, edited by Edmund L. Epstein, was published as Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce. Containing a memorable review of playwright Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, which Campbell condemned as Finnegans Wake rewritten for Americans, the collection includes his analysis of the mythic origins of several of Joyce's major written works.

Campbell's first book as sole author, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, took him four years to write. Campbell felt "that the four years he put into The Hero were sublime madness, a passage of joyous creativity he has not matched since," Donald Newlove reported in Esquire. The Hero with a Thousand Faces attempts to unite the world's mythologies into what Campbell called a monomyth, the single underlying story that all the myths tell. This story outlines the proper way for humans to live. "In Campbell's view," Cole said of the book's thesis, "the myths are not merely entertaining tales, but are allegorical instructions that seek to teach us, as he put it, nothing less than 'how to live a human lifetime under any circumstances.'"

The Hero with a Thousand Faces focuses on the many tales of heroes who overcome great odds to perform impossible tasks. Campbell discerns a consistent pattern in these tales: The hero is called to an adventure which he accepts; he is given charms ormagical weapons by a protective figure who is older and wiser; the hero then journeys into an unknown land where he meets demons and undergoes great suffering; the hero triumphs over the menace and is reborn in the process; he then returns to his home-land enriched with new in sights that will benefit his people. Campbell saw this story as primarily an inner battle in which the hero undergoes a kind of self-psychotherapy, confronts his own darker side, and gains a greater understanding of himself and his culture in the process.

Sparks "New Age" Movement

Some reviewers of The Hero with a Thousand Faces were put off by Campbell's almost mystical tone. "It is all presented," commented Max Radin in the New York Times Book Review, "in the mystical and pseudo-philosophical fog of Jung." Commonweal contributor H. A. Reinhold found the book to be "full of inconclusive tales, vague and shadowy parallels pressed into service, as if they were solid proofs, and also complete misunderstandings assembled from an alphabetic register in the back of books eagerly looted by a man obsessed with a faith." A New Yorker critic judged The Hero with a Thousand Faces to be "one of the most fascinating and maddening books of the season." Despite such critical misgivings, the book was awarded a grant-in-literature from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and went on to sell several hundred thousand copies.

In the four-volume work The Masks of God Campbell surveys the world's mythology, arguing on behalf of his idea of the monomyth. The first volume, Primitive Mythology, begins with the religious ideas of the Bronze Age, when prehistoric people were still hunters and gatherers. At this time, Campbell believed, humankind was stamped with a basic set of religious beliefs, a coda of responses to his questions about the nature of the universe. These beliefs grew from daily life, a life that consisted of hunting for food, constant migration, and the observance of the cosmos. Because of this experience, peoples throughout the world developed common rituals and beliefs revolving around the hunt, astronomy, and the cycles of nature.

Primitive Mythology, according to Library Journal reviewer Joseph Bram, is "truly thought-provoking and in some ways pathbreaking and should be welcomed as a real contribution to the ancient science of mythology." Some other critics were less sure about the book's importance. S. P. Dunn, in his review for American Anthropologist, remarked that "Campbell has written a stimulating, disturbing, often quite exasperating book." M. E. Opler of the New York Herald Tribune Book Review found himself "alternately exhilarated and puzzled. . . . But if Campbell seems sometimes wrong, he is never dull." Philip Rieff of the American Sociological Review called Primitive Mythology "highly readable, almost too much so. Campbell cannot resist telling a good story. . . . Not all are necessary to his argument." "This work," a Kirkus Reviews critic commented, "is one of enormous scholarship."

The second volume of The Masks of God, titled Oriental Mythology, turns to the East, covering the myths of Egypt, Japan, China, and India. Campbell discusses the particularly Asian ideas of reincarnation and transcendence of the ego, tracing their historical emergence in Eastern culture. Alan Watts, critiquing the book for Saturday Review, called it "the first time that anyone has put the rich complexities of Asian mythology into a clear historical perspective. . . . What Mr. Campbell is offering here is not so much a mythological encyclopedia as a thoroughly documented discussion of the development of myth and of its function in human cultures. It is a bold, imaginative, deeply stimulating work."

Campbell followed the same historical approach in Occidental Mythology, the third volume in the series. Beginning with the prehistoric belief in a mother-goddess, he follows the course of Western religious belief down through the centuries. He depicts a strong contrast in attitude between the beliefs of the East and West, a difference that Campbell felt was due to environment. The harsher landscape of the West "challenged man to shape his own destiny," explained Bram, "whereas India and the Far East have always fostered the attitudes of passivity, resignation, and fatalism." Watts, reviewing the book for New Republic, thought it to be "the best and richest" volume in the series.

The Masks of God concludes with the volume Creative Mythology, in which Campbell shifts his attention from the myths of the past, created by anonymous authors, to those of the present, which have been created by such artists and writers as Dante, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot. He argues that a new mythology is needed, one that speaks to the entire human race in modern terms, and one that is created by the individual artist from his own life. The book, the New Yorker critic summarized, "deals with the modern 'secular' use of myth to express individual experience." Gerald Sykes of the New York Times Book Review saw a "major implication" of the book to be that "although we were once given our myths by the group that nurtured us, now we must mine them painfully from the depths of our own experience." Newlove claimed that in Creative Mythology Campbell "is out to show the face of God burning away the received masks of culture and to herald the birth within." A Choice reviewer called Creative Mythology "a landmark in its field," while Bram concluded that it was "a major work of inspired scholarship that no student of mythology will be able to ignore."

In The Mythic Image Campbell turned to the origins of myth, arguing that man's unconscious mind, particularly his dreams, formed the basis of all mythology. Through the use of four hundred illustrations drawn from all over the world, and ranging from prehistoric cave paintings to the avant-garde works of the present day, he showed how the relationship between myth and dream was evident in humankind's artistic creations. New Yorker critic Winthrop Sargeant felt that psychologist Carl Jung had raised the same point earlier with his theory of the universal unconscious, but nonetheless believed that the idea "has never before been given such a clear and splendid demonstration" as in The Mythic Image. Peter S. Prescott of Newsweek described the book as "an iconography of the human spirit" and added that the book's premise "is convincing, and elegantly supported by hundreds of excellent reproductions of art."

In 1983 Campbell published the first of a planned six-volume series titled Historical Atlas of World Mythology, a work meant to relate the world's mythological history in a single, all-encompassing narrative. The initial volume, The Way of the Animal Powers, covers the beginnings of human culture and examines the early myth of the Great Hunt, a story common to many prehistoric hunting peoples. Combining an authoritative text with an extensive collection of relevant artwork, The Way of the Animal Powers is "a beautiful and informative volume by aworld-renowned scholar," C. Robert Nixon commented in Library Journal. Wendy O'Flaherty of the New York Times Book Review claimed that "no one but Joseph Campbell could conceive of such a scheme or carry it out as boldly as he does in this extraordinary book. . . . It is an exhilarating experience." Hart concluded that The Way of the Animal Powers is "one of the great works of our time."

The second volume in the Historical Atlas of World Mythology, The Way of the Seeded Earth, moves forward in time, focusing on the mythology of the first agricultural communities and contrasting the beliefs of that time with the earlier beliefs of nomadic hunting cultures. As Campbell explained to Goodrich: "In The Way of the Animal Powers . . . people are killing animals all the time; that's where the base of the culture rests. This second book is about women's magicm—birth and nourishment. The myth shifts from the male-oriented to the gestation-oriented, and the image is of the plant world." Women-centered mythology would serve as the focus of In All Her Names: Explorations of the Feminine in Divinity, a collection of essays coedited by Campbell and Charles Muses and published in 1991. The collection contains "The Mystery Number of the Goddess," the last work Campbell completed before his death in 1987. The intended six volumes of the Historical Atlas of World Mythology were never completed.

In addition to his writing, Campbell participated in a number of interviews with Bill Moyers for a special Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television program titled The Power of Myth. These interviews were broadcast in 1988 as a six-part series, drawing an audience of some two and a half million people per episode. A best-selling book based on the television program was also released. The Power of Myth allowed Campbell to range over a host of topics, including the mythology of many cultures, the role of myth in modern society, and the possibilities for myth-making in the future. "Intermittently provocative and ponderous, the conversations are a rambling, serendipitous intellectual journey," commented Clifford Terry in the Chicago Tribune. A second PBS television program, Transformations of Myth through Time, a collection of thirteen lectures on the evolution of myth, was also collected in book form in 1989.

A Lasting Legacy

Campbell's influence has persisted long after his death; since 1987, several volumes of interviews, essays, and other works have been collected. An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with National Public Radio's "New Dimensions" Host Michael Toms is the transcription of ten years' worth of interviews on such diverse subjects as the lost continent of Atlantis and the psychology of the individual in which Campbell "stresses the need to integrate the message of mythology into everyday life," according to a Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor. In keeping with the focus of his entire career, the mythologist stresses the need for society to relinquish provincial attitudes, religious and political dogmatism, and welcome a multicultural, multiethnic world. A more intimate collection of interviews is contained in The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, which includes discussions with friends and family members.

Because of his exposure via PBS, Campbell became known to more people after his death than knew him while he was alive; he was transformed into "one of the world's great scholars and teachers of mythology," Terry reported. As Cole remarked, "Campbell has become the rarest of intellectuals in American life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture." Among his most fervent disciples has been filmmaker George Lucas, who credited Campbell with inspiring his movie Star Wars. "If it hadn't been for him," Lucas told Wolfgang Saxon of the New York Times, "it's possible I would still be trying to write 'Star Wars' today." Some critics have maintained a more cautious approach to Campbell's musings, feeling that his cultural relativism has become "lost in the clamor of New Agers looking for a religion to sanctify their self-preoccupation," wrote Booklist reviewer Stuart Whitwell.

While the works and methodology of the late mythologist continue to be studied and debated, his supporters have remained steadfast. Lauren van derPost, writing in the London Times, cited Campbell for his efforts to "rediscover for a deprived world

If you enjoy the works of Joseph Campbell

If you enjoy the works of Joseph Campbell, you may also want to check out the following:

J. F. Bierlein, Living Myths: How Myth Gives Meaning to Human Experience, 1999.

Carl G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 2001.

Donna Rosenberg and Sorelle Baker, Mythology and You: Classical Mythology and Its Relevance in Today's World, 2001.

the fundamental mythological pattern of the human spirit. . . . He has done more than any scholar of our time to reconnect modern man to a reality which his mind and spirit were rejecting at great peril to his well-being and sanity." And Joseph Coates of the Chicago Tribune called Campbell "that rare scholar with something really useful to say about how life should be lived." A contributor to the Encyclopedia of World Biography summed up Campbell's significance by saying, "Ironically, Campbell's cross-pollination of academia and media both breathed life into esoteric and dated disciplines marred by exclusions and prejudices and helped pry them open for needed scrutiny. On balance, Campbell's final interdisciplinary breakthrough, his controversial television celebrity, was a major accomplishment. Through it, his alleged prejudices responsibly masked or not in evidence, he provided the model of a creative life enthusiastically and generously lived and gave millions of television viewers an experience of genuine intellectual adventure."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Campbell, Joseph, and Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1988.

Campbell, Joseph, Phil Cousineau, and Stuart L. Brown, The Hero's Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1990.

Campbell, Joseph, and Fraser Boa, The Way of Myth: Talking with Joseph Campbell, Shambhala (Boston, MA), 1994.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 69, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Ellwood, Robert S., The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell, State University of New York Press, 1999.

Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, fifth edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Frost, William P., Following Joseph Campbell's Lead inthe Search for Jesus' Father, E. Mellen Press(Lewiston, NY), 1991.

Keleman, Stanley, Myth and the Body: A Colloquy with Joseph Campbell, Center Press, 1999.

Larsen, Stephen, and Robin Larsen, A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.

Madden, Lawrence J., The Joseph Campbell Phenomenon: Implications for the Contemporary Church, Pastoral Press (Washington, DC), 1992.

Manganaro, Marc, Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority: A Critique of Frazer, Eliot, Frye, and Campbell, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1992.

Noel, Daniel C., Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion, Crossroad (New York, NY), 1990.

Rauch, Stephen, Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" and Joseph Campbell: In Search of the Modern Myth, Wildside Press (Holicong, PA), 2003.

Sartore, Richard L., Joseph Campbell on Myth and Mythology, University Press of America (Lanham, MD), 1993.

Segal, Robert A., Joseph Campbell: An Introduction, Garland, 1987.

Snyder, Thomas Lee, Myth Conceptions: Joseph Campbell and the New Age, Baker Books (Grand Rapids, MI), 1995.

Tamm, Eric Enno, Beyond the Outer Shores: The Untold Odyssey of Ed Ricketts, the Pioneering Ecologist Who Inspired John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell, Four Walls Eight Windows, 2004.

Tigue, John W., The Transformation of Consciousness in Myth: Integrating the Thought of Jung and Campbell, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1994.


America, February 20, 1993, p. 12.

American Anthropologist, December, 1960.

American Scholar, summer, 1990, p. 429.

American Sociological Review, December, 1960.

Booklist, January 15, 1990, p. 959; February 15, 1990, p. 1123; October 1, 2001, Ray Olson, review of Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, p. 280.

Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1988.

Choice, December, 1968; July-August, 1989, p. 1824; October, 1990, p. 292.

Christian Century, July 5, 1989, p. 652; April 4, 1990, Robert Segal, "The Romantic Appeal of Joseph Campbell," p. 332.

Christianity Today, July 14, 1989, p. 61.

Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 1969.

Commentary, December, 1969.

Commonweal, July 8, 1949; April 21, 1989, p. 231.

Esquire, September, 1977.

Investor's Business Daily, June 3, 2004, J. Bonasia, "Joseph Campbell's Storied Life," p. A3.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1959; December 1, 1989, p. 1742.

Library Journal, September 1, 1959; January 15, 1964; February 15, 1968; January, 1984; December, 1988, pp. 126-127; February 15, 1990, p. 193; May 15, 1990, p. 82; October 1, 1991, p. 108; July, 2001, Christian Graham, review of Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, p. 98; August, 2003, Michael Rogers, review of The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, p. 143.

Los Angeles Times, May 27, 1987.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 20, 1990, p. 14.

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 1990, p. 24.

National Review, July 13, 1984.

New Republic, June 27, 1964; August 3, 1992, p. 29.

Newsweek, March 31, 1975; November 14, 1988.

New Yorker, May 7, 1949; February 1, 1969; July 21, 1975.

New York Herald Tribune Book Review, November 22, 1959.

New York Review of Books, September 28, 1989, pp. 16, 18-19; November 9, 1989, p. 57.

New York Times, June 26, 1949; March 22, 1987.

New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1969; December 18, 1983.

People, November 27, 1989, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1985; April 13, 1990, p. 50; October 11, 1993, p. 81; July 23, 2001, review of Thou Art That, p. 70; September 27, 2004, review of Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, p. 56.

Saturday Review, June 2, 1962.

Sunday Herald, March 28, 2004, Allan Burnett, "How Myth Became the Legend of Joseph Campbell."

Tikkun, May-June, 1989, p. 23.

Times (London, England), July 12, 1984.

Utne Reader, November-December, 1989, p. 102; March-April, 1990, p. 38.

Village Voice, August 1, 1968; May 24, 1988.

Washington Post Book World, January 2, 1994.


In the Air, (June 9, 2005), Robert Walter, "Joseph Campbell: A Lifelong Journey into the Heart of the Mystery."

Joseph Campbell Foundation, (June 9, 2005).



Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1987.

New York Times, November 3, 1987.

Time, November 16, 1987.

Washington Post, November 4, 1987.*

Campbell, Joseph

views updated May 21 2018


CAMPBELL, JOSEPH (19041987). Joseph Campbell was perhaps the best-known mythologist of the twentieth century. His fame was largely due to his highly acclaimed public television interviews with Bill Moyers in 19851986 and his posthumously published best-selling book, The Power of Myth (1988), based on that series, and in no small part to movie director George Lucas, who gave Campbell credit for inspiring his movie Star Wars (1977). Campbell's books on myth had many admirers, from literary critics who found his analysis of hero myths interpretatively rich, to the general public, who loved Campbell's retellings of his "myths to live by." Campbell believed that the world's great myths symbolized the ultimate human spiritual goal of living joyfully and mystically, at one with one's true self and the cosmos, and generations of fans took his advice to "follow your own bliss."

Early Years

Campbell was born in New York City in 1904 to a prosperous Irish-American family who gave their gifted child every advantage. He was trained in Roman Catholicism at parochial school, but became fascinated by non-Western traditions after seeing American Indians at Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Campbell read widely, including many Indian myths that, he noticed, shared common motifs with stories from the Bible. After entering Columbia University in 1921, Campbell continued his studies in languages and literature, and studied anthropology with Franz Boas and philosophy with John Dewey. Campbell was introduced to Eastern religions on a trip to Europe before his college graduation. There he met Jiddu Krishnamurti and read Edwin Arnold's The Light of Asia, with its translations of Asian religious classics like the Upaniads and the life of the Buddha. Both Hinduism and Buddhism were to have a major impact on Campbell's interpretation of myths.

After graduating in 1926 with a master's degree in medieval literature, Campbell lived abroad in Paris and Munich on a two-year traveling fellowship, studying Romance philology and Sanskrit. He was deeply influenced by the contemporary European intellectual scene, and particularly intrigued by the fictional heroes of novelists James Joyce and Thomas Mann, cultural morphologist Adolf Bastian's notion of elementary ideas, ethnologist Leo Frobenius's idea of culture circles, and Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung's theories of dreaming and the unconscious. Jung's theory of collective archetypes and their role in the psychic process of self-integration had a lasting impact on Campbell's thinking.

Scholarly Work

In 1934, Campbell began his teaching career at Sarah Lawrence College, where he was a popular instructor until his retirement in 1972. His first major publication, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944, with Henry Morton Robinson), was in the field of literature, but Campbell's broad scholarly interests soon shifted to mythology. He was influenced by his friendship with the German Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, whose positive views of Indian myths as repositories of timeless spiritual truths greatly impressed him. After Zimmer's untimely death in 1943, Campbell edited his manuscripts, publishing Zimmer's Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (1946) and other important books on Indian philosophy and art, along with several volumes from the Eranos conferences in Ascona, Switzerland, for the Bollingen series.

Campbell's fascination with myth, Eastern religion, and Jungian psychology finally led to his own famous study of hero myths, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Several other notable studies on comparative mythology followed. The Masks of God (19591968), written after an eye-opening trip to India in 1954, was a monumental four-volume survey of "primitive," "oriental," "occidental," and modern literary "creative" mythology. His goal was to write a "natural history" of myths that traced "the fundamental unity of the spiritual history of mankind" by revealing themes with a worldwide distribution, such as "fire-theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero" (vol. 1, p. 3). This was followed by The Flight of the Wild Gander (1969), a collection of Campbell's important essays on the biological, metaphysical, and historical-cultural origins of myth as well as his own positive essay on the "secularization of the sacred" in the modern world.

After retiring from Sarah Lawrence in 1972, Campbell moved to Honolulu, where he continued writing. Books from this period include Myths to Live By (1972), his argument that the modern world has a desperate need for new myths; The Mythic Image (1974), his exploration of the intimate connection between dreams, myths, and art; The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (1986), a collection of lectures arguing that the true meaning of myth is symbolic, universal, and mystical; The Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1983, 1989), a two-volume attempt to trace the historical origin and diffusion of myths; and The Power of Myth. Campbell died of cancer in Honolulu in 1987.

Concepts of Myth

Campbell was hostile to organized religion. Intellectually, his antipathy owes much to John Dewey's critique of organized religion in his A Common Faith (1934). Dewey dismissed religion as a set of fossilized doctrines and institutions based upon a now scientifically discredited belief in the supernatural and physical immortality, weighted with historical doctrines and rituals that obscured the powerful personal experiences underlying it, and mistakenly believed to be literally rather than symbolically true. While institutional religion had little value for Dewey, however, its symbols did. They expressed the "religious moral faith" of the individual who conscientiously harmonized the self to the world through a pragmatic "adjustment" of human ethical ideals in response to an experience of the "imaginative totality" of the Universe (Dewey, 1934, pp. 1819).

Campbell agreed with Dewey that taking such stories as the virgin birth, heaven, and resurrection as literal truths was absurd, and argued that they must be understood symbolically rather than doctrinally. In other respects, however, Campbell abandoned Dewey's self-conscious pragmatism for a Jungian perspective. Campbell saw parallels between religious and dream symbolism and followed Jung's view that dreams symbolized the collective patterns, or archetypes, of the unconscious psyche. Campbell considered dreams to be personalized myths, and myths to be depersonalized dreams. He believed that myth's symbols expressed a psychic-spiritual wisdom that could free ordinary people from the debilitating anxieties and social chaos of modern secular society.

Campbell believed that religious doctrines were nothing more than misunderstood mythology. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which he considered his most important work, Campbell drew on Freudian and Jungian psychology to argue that hero myths worldwide use a universal narrative formula to describe rites of passage, each one a local example of what James Joyce called the mono-myth, a narrative magnification of a basic three-part structure: separation, initiation, and return. Despite their various historical and cultural particularities, the stories of Jesus, Buddha, Gilgamesh, and other mythological heroes ultimately shared an underlying archetypal unity of common motifs, symbols, and themes. They also had a shared meaninga common psychological and metaphysical reality was at work in these tales. This universality explains why ancient myths, even those of other people, are still powerful today.

Campbell believed that myth functioned as a kind of comforting second womb. He focused his work on the latter half of human life, where dealing with despair and anxiety, and especially old age, sickness, and death, is unavoidable. Myths responded to the reality of suffering and mortality by revealing a spiritual way to transcend the universal tragedies of humanity. Campbell supplemented Jung's theory of psycho-developmental integration of the unconscious and conscious with the mysticism of Hinduism and Buddhism. He believed world myths pointed to the possibility of apotheosis, of discarding personal ego and realizing an enduring oneness with the cosmos. The power of myth was its ability to shatter "forms and our attachment to the forms" and through "comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy," to evoke an ecstatic feeling of being alive (Campbell, 1949, pp. 2829).

Campbell modified his views after his trip to India in 1954. In the latter volumes of The Masks of God, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology, he rejected what he came to consider a dehumanizing monism in Eastern theology and instead embraced a Western spiritual individualism that did not dissolve the ego into a larger social and cosmic mystical whole. In Creative Mythology, Campbell claimed that this ideal, with origins in pre-Christian European paganism, was classically formulated in the twelfth-century Romantic literature of courtly love. Stories like those of Tristan and Isolde, in which the heroic lovers achieve an ecstatic spiritual and physical union while preserving their separate identities, exemplified the ideal of individualism. He found parallels in contemporary Western literature in the novels of James Joyce and Thomas Mann. The male heroes of Mann's Magic Mountain (1924) and Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939) personify a kind of spiritually radical monism that is not self-sacrificing but rather a self-fulfilling realization of the "soul in the body, heaven on earth, and god in humanity" (Segal, 1990, p. 138).

Critical Views

Several criticisms have been lodged against Campbell's comparative mythology. Folklorist Alan Dundes argues that, like many other universalists, Campbell is prone to sweeping generalizations. To show the universality of his Belly of the Whale motif, for example, Campbell often cited stories in which a hero is swallowed. Dundes, however, points out that Campbell's motif of a fish swallowing a person is not actually found worldwide; it is not found in sub-Saharan Africa, for one, so how can it be a universal structure? He further argues that Campbell's examples include both Jonah being swallowed by a whale and Little Red Riding Hood being swallowed by a wolf. But Little Red Riding Hood is a heroine, not a hero; her story is a fairy tale, not a myth; and a wolf, not a whale, swallows her. Campbell does not explain to what level of generality an analysis can go to find the mythic pattern in myths.

Other critics, including Wallace Martin, fault Campbell for emphasizing what stories have in common, an approach that inevitably blurs distinctions "and thus makes it impossible, within the theory, to show how and why stories are different" (Martin, 1986, p. 103). Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty dismisses this as Campbell's "TV dinner approach" to myth, boiling it down to its bloodless archetypes. She sees this reductionism in The Historical Atlas of World Mythology, where Campbell abandoned Jungian theory for a supposedly historical analysis tracing the origin of his mythic motifs through diffusion. What Campbell forgot, O'Flaherty notes, is that a phallus, for example, may be archetypal, but it is "always someone's phallus." It is in the "banal details" of myths, their variants, and their culturally specific forms that meaning resides (O'Flaherty, 1988, pp. 3435). Because of his decontextualizing approach, she argues, Campbell ignored indigenous interpretations and trivialized the many and often contested meanings of myths within their cultures of origin.

Although he recognized different functions of myth, his critics claim that Campbell ignored the social, political, and ethical to focus exclusively on the mystical. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell left Jung behind with a metaphysical, spiritual perspective that envisaged the role of myth "not to cure the individual back again to the general delusion, but to detach him from delusion altogether and this not by readjusting the desire (eors ) and hostility (thanatos )for that would only originate a new context of delusionbut by extinguishing the impulses to the very root, according to the method of the celebrated Buddhist Eightfold path." (Campbell, 1949, pp. 164165). Thus Campbell argued that the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh told the same story as the Dao de jing and Indian Tantrism: that physical immortality was impossible and that the only eternity was in the realization that all was one here and now (p. 189). Hindu mysticism and the eightfold path of Buddhism provided the key for Campbell's understanding of hero myths, and he later relied upon Kualinī Yoga and European paganism as well. This one-meaning-fits-all approach, critics claim, reveals more about Campbell's own brand of philosophy than anything else.

Several critics, including Brendan Gill and Robert Segal, have also accused Campbell of being anti-Semitic. Campbell was hostile to organized religion generally, but his critics argue that he singled out Judaism especially, using what Segal calls "the crudest of stock epithets" for his vitriolic attacks on it as chauvinistic, fossilized, tribal, patriarchal, and literalistic (Segal, 1999, p. 462). Campbell's biographers Stephen and Robin Larsen sympathetically portray him as, at most, anti-Zionist, but other critics believe Campbell's prejudices left him indifferent to the Holocaust and blind to the dangers of what the philosopher Paul Tillich describes as the "mythical powers of origin of the soil and blood" that culminated in the Nazi worship of a German paganism that lay at the heart of its terror (Tillich, 1977, pp. 1318). Campbell's limited focus only allowed him to see this paganism nostalgically, as the source of a Western romantic individualism buried under the historical encumbrances of Christianity and Judaism.


Campbell, Joseph. A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, with Henry Morton Robinson. New York, 1944.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, 1949.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. 4 vols. New York, 19591968.

Campbell, Joseph. The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. New York, 1969.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York, 1972.

Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Image, assisted by M. J. Abadie. Princeton, N.J., 1974.

Campbell, Joseph. The Historical Atlas of World Mythology. 2 vols. New York, 1983, 1989.

Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. New York, 1986.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, edited by Betty Sue Flowers. New York, 1988.

Dewey, John. A Common Faith. New Haven, Conn., 1934.

Doniger, Wendy. "A Very Strange Enchanted Boy." New York Times Book Review, February 3, 1992.

Dundes, Alan, ed. Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley, 1984.

Ellwood, Robert. The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. New York, 1999.

Friedman, Maurice. "Why Joseph Campbell's Psychologizing of Myth Precludes the Holocaust as Touchstone of Reality." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66 (1998): 385401.

Gill, Brendan. "The Faces of Joseph Campbell." New York Review of Books 36 (September 28, 1989): 1619.

Larsen, Stephen, and Robin Larsen. Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind. Rochester, Vt., 1991.

Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. New York, 1986.

Noel, Daniel, ed. Paths to the Power of Myth: Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion. New York, 1994.

O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Other People's Myths. New York, 1988.

Segal, Robert. Joseph Campbell: An Introduction. Rev. ed. New York, 1990.

Segal, Robert. "Joseph Campbell on Jews and Judaism." Religion 22 (1992): 151170.

Segal, Robert. "Joseph Campbell as Anti-Semite and as a Theorist of Myth: A Response to Maurice Friedman." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67 (1999): 461467.

Tillich, Paul. The Socialist Decision. Translated by Franklin Sherman. New York, 1977.

Mark W. MacWilliams (2005)

Campbell, Joseph

views updated Jun 27 2018


Editor, essayist, mythologist; b. New Rochelle, N.Y., March 26, 1904; d. Oct. 31, 1987. Campbell helped to create an interpretive genre in which psychoanalytical techniques were used to elucidate mythology and folklore. As Campbell pointed out in his most famous work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), myth stands at the interface of the human and mystery that continually beckons the human to move beyond itself. For Campbell, myths provided the human with the means for self-transformation; yet, myths themselves needed to be rediscovered by each society. His legacy as an interpreter of the inner psychological meaning of myth and symbol is a challenge to both traditional religions and clinical psychologies. His emphasis on the universal character of mythology developed out of his personal story, which brought him into the diverse stream of mythic writings.

Life. As a youth Campbell read the Arthurian legends and Native American mythology at the local library. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City further stimulated these formative encounters with Indian religious art and the ethnographic literature being collected by anthropologists. He attended Canterbury School in Connecticut and Dartmouth College before going to Columbia University for his B.A. and M.A. in literature in 1925 and 1927 respectively.

In 1927 Campbell went to Europe to prepare for dissertation work in European Romance literature. His intellectual and personal encounters during this period altered the course of his life. He studied medieval French at the University of Paris and Sanskrit at Munich. Campbell's early interest in tribal art and mythology was being echoed by such artists as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque whose works manifested African and Native American influences. His readings in Nietzsche and Spengler gave him the critical distance he sought from which to describe the ennui and unrest of Euro-American societies. In literature Campbell entered the dream realms of James Joyce and Thomas Mann. Perhaps most important were his readings in Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung whose psychoanalytical techniques opened new questions about the unconscious structure of individual myth and the quest for a meaningful life. Jung's psychology especially influenced Campbell, who saw it as an inquiry into the collective dream of myths whereby individuals and societies aspire to integration. The variety and extent of these creative influences reoriented Campbell towards his doctoral work.

When he returned to New York in 1929 he found resistance at Columbia to his proposal to study mythical themes in literature. He abandoned his graduate program and, as the Great Depression deepened, withdrew to Woodstock, New York. For the next five years he read widely and voraciously, living on funds he had saved from a college stint as a jazz band musician.

During this period he traveled to California, where he met John Steinbeck and the biologist Edward Ricketts. On returning to the East coast he took a post teaching at Canterbury School. In 1934 he joined the literature faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, where he taught for 38 years. The unique tutorial-seminar system at this college afforded Campbell the opportunity to develop his particular interpretive style in the classroom and in personal conferences with students. Joseph Campbell's marriage in 1938 to the dancer Jean Erdman brought him into closer contact with another expression of myth and symbol.

Works. During these years of teaching and expanding his contacts with others interested in mythology, he joined with Henry Robinson to coauthor A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake (1944). This interpretive guide to Joyce's novel had been preceded by Campbell's commentary on the first volume of the Bollingen Series, Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial (1943). These two works illustrate the disparate literatures in which Campbell was able to study using his mythic analysis of themes.

In his many works on myth Campbell developed a fourfold interpretive schema that can be found in The Mythic Image (1974) and also in his penultimate work, The Historical Atlas of World Mythology: The Way of the Animal Powers (1983). These include the mystical, epistemological, sociological, and pedagogical aspects of myth. He stressed the mystical dimension of mythology, which evokes a sense of the numinous mystery in the universe. Secondly, he pointed out the epistemological function of mythology, which gives people a comprehensive means for knowing the world about them. Campbell next stressed the sociological character of mythology namely, its function in promoting social order and ideals. Finally, he cited as seminal the pedagogical role of myths, which enable individuals to guide themselves through the difficult passages of their lives.

This interpretation of myth by Joseph Campbell has been seen by some reviewers as being in tension with the revelations of Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion. Campbell's critical focus regarding religion hinged on the question of key teachings as being mythological or ontological. The meaning of religion for Campbell was not in the realm of "being"; rather, he saw religion as dynamized by deeper unconscious forces that could be articulated in many forms. Campbell himself was deeply committed to the spiritual quest, and his final work, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Methapor as Myth and as Religion (1986), continued to explore the mythic meaning of words and the psychological depths in which they reverberated.

Campbell's friendship with the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer led directly to his editing Zimmer's manuscripts after his death in 1943. This work culminated in the two volume edition of The Art of Indian Asia: Its Mythology and Transformation (1955). Zimmer had also introduced Campbell to the editors of the planned Bollingen series, which resulted in his eventual editing of the Jungian Conference's Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (195468). Campbell's indefatigable editing skills also extended to such projects as The Portable Arabian Nights (1952), The Masks of God (195968), and The Portable Jung (1971).

Bibliography: A good guide is Robert Seagal's Joseph Campbell, An Introduction, which does not include his extensive audio and visual cassettes. j. campbell, A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake with h. m. robinson (New York 1944); The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (New York 1949); The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (New York 1969); The Masks of God, v. 1 Primitive Mythology (New York 1959), v. 2 Oriental Mythology (New York 1962), v. 3 Occidental Mythology (New York 1964), v. 4 Creative Mythology (New York 1968); Myths to Live By (New York 1972); The Mythic Image, with m. j. abadie, Bollingen Series C (Princeton 1974); Historical Atlas of World Mythology, v. 1 The Way of the Animal Powers (San Francisco 1983); The Inner Reaches of Outer Space (New York 1986). j. campbell, ed., Myth and Man Series (London/New York 195154); The Portable Arabian Nights (New York 1952); Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks, tr. r. manheim and r. f. c. hull, Bollingen Series XXX (New York/Princeton 195468); Myths, Dreams, and Religion (New York 1970); The Portable Jung, tr. r. f. c. hull (New York 1971).

[j. a. grim]

Joseph Campbell

views updated Jun 27 2018

Joseph Campbell

A college teacher of literature, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was an editor and popularizer of comparative mythology. He created comprehensive theories of mythology that synthesized the discoveries of modern science, psychology, art history, and literature and used modern media, including television, to popularize his subject.

Joseph Campbell was born March 26, 1904, in New York City, the son of Charles William Campbell, a hosiery importer and wholesaler, and Josephine Lynch. He was raised Roman Catholic. He traced his lifelong fascination with mythology to his having seen Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a child and to trips with his brother and sister to the Museum of Natural History. At age nine he and his family moved to New Rochelle, New York, next to the public library, where he read exhaustively about Native American cultures and precociously educated himself.

He attended Dartmouth College in 1921-1922, then transferred to Columbia University and switched from science to the humanities. His Master's thesis (1927) compared the Arthurian legends with Native American myths. He read medieval French literature at the University of Paris in 1927-1928 and studied Sanskrit and Indo-European philosophy at the University of Munich in 1928-1929. While abroad he discovered modern art, literature, and psychology. He dropped his doctoral studies to work on integrating modern discoveries in archaeology, anthropology, art history, psychology, and literature into a comprehensive theory of the origins, functions, and meanings of world mythological themes.

For five years during the Great Depression of the 1930s Campbell lived a bohemian life between Woodstock, New York, and Carmel, California; sailed up the Alaskan coast; and read German philosophy. In 1934 he joined the faculty of literature at Sarah Lawrence College. By all accounts a charismatic teacher, he remained at Sarah Lawrence until he retired as professor emeritus in 1972. In 1938 he married Jean Erdman, a dancer in the Martha Graham dance troupe who later became a choreographer and founded a troupe of her own. They lived in Greenwich Village, New York City, and Honolulu, Hawaii.

Campbell's publishing and editing career started to flourish with A Skeleton Key to Finnegan's Wake (1944), a guide to the symbolic labyrinth of James Joyce's novel. Written in collaboration with Henry Morton Robinson (best-selling author of The Cardinal), it became a critical success.

After the death of his teacher and friend Heinrich Zimmer in 1943, Campbell edited Zimmer's collected works (1946-1955) and six volumes of the Jungian Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (1954-1968) in the Bollingen Series, where his first solo work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), also appeared. Hero was a phenomenal popular success and won Campbell the National Arts and Literature grant (1949), but generated mixed reviews. It and successive projects revealed Campbell to be a complicated academic maverick, at once learned, romantic, and mystical, who wrote graceful, intelligible prose. An enormously gifted comparativist and popularizer, he bridged scholarly, scientific, and aesthetic disciplines with enthusiasm and with an intentional disregard for particular historical and local contexts of myths and rituals that rankled many specialist academics and scientists. With a broad brush he mixed the whole vast, esoteric, scholarly, and scientific apparatus of late 19th-and early 20th-century culture with modern literary and pictorial techniques of free association and taught an ambitious doctrine of underlying similarities and unities in world myth.

In his grand plan for the study and comprehension of all mythology, he oscillated idiosyncratically between being an energetic modernist and a scientific and political reactionary. He proposed an elaborate theory of the "monomyth" of the hero as the integrating structure of consciousness by which human beings organize personal psychic life and society in relation to the cosmos. He lamented the absence of viable mythologies and religions in the contemporary world and proposed in their place a planetary mythology, a gender-neutral ideal of individualist hero, and the practice of Buddhist compassion. He popularized the hypothesis of a pre-patriarchal goddess religion, but viewed it as an archetypal anachronism. He believed, however, in the therapeutic value of the wisdom of myth for modern individuals.

His works progressed as a set of variations on these and supporting hypotheses, among them a controversial theory of the geographical diffusion of major myth forms from a single fourth-millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamian source and a contention that significant differences between hunter and planter societies prefigured and determined contemporary forms of East and West. In Hero, Campbell introduced the hero "monomyth" in a poetic Jungian meditation that charmed and inspired readers (among them George Lucas, who made the Star Wars movies). The Masks of God (1959-1968), a four-volume synthesis of modern knowledge about human culture and mythology from 600,000 B.C.E. to the present, was a stylistic throwback to, and valuable updated rival of, such synthetic masterpieces as Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. The Mythic Image (1974), a Bollingen "coffee-table book," was a Jungian literary and pictorial exploration of the theories of Masks. Campbell's last major project, Volume I of the Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1983) and Volume II, completed by editors and published posthumously (1988), consists of five slim "oversize" books of text and pictures that repeat familiar Campbellian narratives and themes in a turn-of-the-century style. The Flight of the Wild Gander (1969) is an excellent selection of Campbell's major scholarly essays.

Between his retirement in 1972 and his death in 1987, Campbell lectured and published extensively and enjoyed growing popularity. His person, subjects, methods, and message fitted a post-1960 and increasingly media-oriented America. In 1988 a six-part public television interview series, The Power of Myth, and a subsequent rash of publishing spin-offs gave Campbell immense posthumous celebrity. Former friends and assorted academics raised caveats: Campbell was formally charged with being reactionary, anti-Semetic, anti-Black, inconsistently pro-and anti-West, and ingenuously partial to Eastern spirituality. He was attacked as a guru of a self-indulgent faith of self-realization and criticized for the slogan "Follow your bliss."

Ironically, Campbell's cross-pollination of academia and media both breathed life into esoteric and dated disciplines marred by exclusions and prejudices and helped pry them open for needed scrutiny. On balance, Campbell's final interdisciplinary breakthrough, his controversial television celebrity, was a major accomplishment. Through it, his alleged prejudices responsibly masked or not in evidence, he provided the model of a creative life enthusiastically and generously lived and gave millions of television viewers an experience of genuine intellectual adventure.

Further Reading

Robert Segal's Joseph Campbell: An Introduction (1990, Revised), a popular edition of an earlier scholarly text, presents and critiques Campbell's ideas in a piecemeal way, but compares them copiously with those of Jung, Freud, and others. The bibliography lacks the "Reviews" listing of the first edition. Campbell's own writings, especially his pre-retirement works, are the best guide to his thought. Magazine interviews in Esquire (September, 1977) and Parabola (Spring, 1976 and February, 1980) are recommended. The Brendan Gill article in the New York Review of Books (September, 1989) set off the posthumous controversies that surround Campbell's legacy. An academician's view of these controversies is in the American Scholar (Summer, 1990). Video tapes of the television series The Power of Myth are an indispensable record of Campbell's personality.

Additional Sources

Larsen, Stephen., A fire in the mind: the life of Joseph Campbell, New York: Anchor Books, 1993. □

Campbell, Joseph (1904-1987)

views updated May 23 2018

Campbell, Joseph (1904-1987)

A prominent American authority on mythology and leading exponent of the idea of "myth" as an inherent characteristic of humanity. Campbell was born March 26, 1904, in New York City. He studied at Dartmouth College, (1921-22) and Columbia University (A.B., 1925; M.A., 1927). He did additional graduate study at the University of Paris and the University of Munich. He taught for a year at Canterbury School, New Mil-ford, Connecticut, before joining the faculty in the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York (1934-72), where he taught until his retirement.

Campbell began his literary work as editor of the writings of his friend Heinrich Zimmer. His first independent work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), examines a number of "hero" tales from around the world in which Campbell discerns the same basic outline. In the book he offers a thesis that myths provide instruction on how we should live, and says that the common themes of mythology throughout the world show these ideas are inherent in human biology. He also launches his search for what he terms the "monomyth," the single underlying story all the myths tell.

He followed The Hero with a Thousand Faces with a four-volume work, The Masks of God (1959-68), which traces the development of ancient mythology and argues for the need of a new worldwide mythology adaptable to the emerging worldwide culture.

Campbell's last years were spent writing the proposed six-volume Historical Atlas of World Mythology, of which only two volumes were completed. He did complete a series of interviews with Bill Moyers that were broadcast posthumously over the Public Broadcasting Service as "The Power of Myth." The television series brought Campbell's works a measure of acclaim the man himself never enjoyed in life.

Campbell died on October 31, 1987. His library and papers have been deposited at the Pacifica Institute in Santa Barbara, California.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon, 1949.

. Historical Atlas of World Mythologies. 2 vols. New York: Harper, 1983-88.

. The Masks of God. 6 vols. New York: Viking, 1959-68.

. Myths to Live By. New York: Viking, 1972.

Campbell, Joseph

views updated May 14 2018

Campbell, Joseph (writer on myth): see MYTH.

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