Campbell, Joseph (1904-1987), Writer, Mythographer, Teacher

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Campbell, Joseph
(1904-1987), writer, mythographer, teacher.

Joseph Campbell was the foremost American theorist of myth and evangelism for myth. Born in New York City and educated at Columbia University, he was professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College. His first book on myth was the coauthored Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake. While working on this book, he heard lectures by the German refugee Indologist Heinrich Zimmer and was mesmerized. Campbell devoted twelve years to turning the lecture notes of Zimmer, who died suddenly, into four tomes: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization; The King and the Corpse, Philosophies of India, and The Art of Indian Asia. While formally only the editor, Campbell was in fact more like a coauthor. It was from Zimmer even more than from Jung, with whom Campbell is commonly linked, that Campbell took his comparative and symbolic approach to myth worldwide. From Zimmer, Campbell also took his interpretation of myth as mystical.

Even before undertaking the editing of Zimmer, Campbell had been writing the book that remains his best known: The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Here, in contrast to subsequent books, Campbell ties the meaning of myth to the plot, and claims to have deciphered the common plot of all hero myths. Whereas the plot of Otto Rank's Freudian Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909) covers the hero's life from birth to young adulthood, the plot of Campbell's hero covers the hero's adult life. Whereas the heart of Rank's plot is the male hero's killing his father (thereby paving the way for sex with his mother), the heart of Campbell's plot is the male or female hero's journey to a strange, new, divine world. That plot is far more Jungian than Freudian: the encounter occurs in adulthood rather than childhood, is with gods rather than with parents, and is loving rather than hostile. Understood psychologically, the journey symbolizes the rediscovery of the unconscious, from which an adult has lost contact in the process of growing up. Hero with a Thousand Faces became popular in the 1960s as a credo for "tripping." As Jungian as the meaning of the book is rightly taken to be, Campbell breaks with Jung in espousing a fusion of consciousness with unconsciousness, of humanity with divinity, for Campbell's human hero returns home to discover that divinity lay there all along, simply unrecognized. There is no opposition or even distinction between consciousness and unconsciousness; the two are identical. Campbell's interpretation reflects the influence of Zimmer, for whom consciousness must remain distinct from unconsciousness.

In addition to editing various books for the Jungianoriented Bollingen Series, Campbell wrote a four-volume survey of world mythology called The Masks of God. Sometimes he remains a Jungian, but at other times he is more of a Freudian or even more of an ethologist, indebted to Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. Sometimes Campbell roots myth in the unconscious; at other times, in conscious experience. Always obsessed with demonstrating the similarities among myths—the one hero with a thousand faces, the one god with many masks—he attributes the similarities sometimes to independent invention by each culture but at other times to diffusion from one culture around the world. Not only does his theory of myth fluctuate, so does his assessment of his four main branches of myth. Sometimes he favors the East over the West, primitives over moderns, planters over hunters. By the final volume, which is devoted to Western mythology from the mid-twelfth century on, he despises primitives, planters, and the East and now celebrates a self-reliant, heroic individualism epitomized by America. Gone is the advocacy, first expressed in Hero, of mystical oneness among all persons and all peoples. Now he advocates the triumph of individuals, and their triumph in the human, not the divine, world. To some critics, Campbell sounded like a cold warrior. Certainly his politics were unabashedly conservative. He was a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War and, ironically, an equally staunch opponent of the freedom-loving, consciousness-raising generations that took his Hero as their inspiration.

In his other main opus, the unfinished Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Campbell juxtaposes diffusion alongside independent invention as the sources of similarities among myths and elaborately traces the routes of diffusion. In the best-selling The Power of Myth, the book form of the eight-part 1988 TV interview with Campbell that Bill Moyers conducted for the Public Broadcasting System, Campbell sums up his lifelong advocacy of myth as necessary and virtually sufficient for a happy life. He returns to the theme "we are one," originally enunciated in Hero. Now he finds the unity not merely in the similarities among myths worldwide but also in the newest source of myths: space travel. Seen from outer space, the earth seems one.

See alsoDivinity; Mysticism; Myth; Psychology of Religion; Psychotherapy; Space Flight.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1949. 2nd ed., 1968.

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. 4 vols. 1959–1968.

Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Image. 1974.

Campbell, Joseph, with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. 1988.

Golden, Kenneth, ed. Uses of Comparative Mythology. 1992.

Larsen, Stephen, and Robin Larsen. A Fire in the Mind. 1991.

Noel, Daniel C., ed. Paths to the Power of Myth. 1990.

Segal, Robert A. Joseph Campbell: An Introduction. 1987. 2nd ed., 1990.

Zimmer, Heinrich. The King and the Corpse, edited by Joseph Campbell. 1948. 2nd ed., 1956.

Robert A. Segal

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Campbell, Joseph (1904-1987), Writer, Mythographer, Teacher

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