Friday, March 9, 2012

Joseph Campbell’s Functions of Myth

So last week after watching The Power of Myth, I was inspired to write a blog post about how Joseph Campbell shaped my studies. I touched on one of his foremost theories which was the monomyth but he has many, many more about religion and really culture in general.

Possibly my favorite of Campbell’s works that he has written is The Masks of God where he goes into the concept that all myths have come from one place and deviated from there. In addition towards the end of the book he goes into the concept that myths also have different functions not only in individual societies (such as explaining events) but in human society in general. Campbell then broke them down into what he thought were four different functions.

The first of these functions is the “The Metaphysical Function: Awakening a sense of awe before the mystery of being.” According to Campbell, the absolute great mysteries of the world cannot be captured specifically with just words or images. Myths are "being statements and the experience of this mystery can be had only through a participation in mythic rituals or the contemplation of mythic symbols that point beyond themselves"(Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth).

The second is a little more concrete and he calls it “The Cosmological Function.” This function is to explain the shape of the universe whether it is creation or something else. Campbell believed that myths also functioned as a sort of “proto-science” bringing the observable (physical) world into accord with the metaphysical and psychological meanings rendered by the other functions of mythology. Campbell thought that the current problem many people have today between science and religion on matters of “truth” is really between science of the ancient world and that of today (Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth).

The next two he had sort of go hand in hand. He believed that there was a “Sociological Function.” And it sounds just like what it means. He believed that there was a sort of social order that the myths laid down and also validated through the stories. He had this notion (which I immensely agree with through my studies of Anthropology) that ancient societies had to conform to an existing social order if they were to survive at all. This is because they evolved under pressures from necessities much more extreme than the ones encountered in our modern world (such as big natural disasters, warring societies, etc. Mythology then confirmed that order and enforced it by reflecting it into the actual stories which often describe how the order was sent down by the gods (Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth).

Last is related to the Sociological Function and is called the “The Psychological Function.” This one Campbell believed took those orders set down by the gods and then was set to guide the people of the society through the stages of life. Campbell believed that as a person goes through life, many psychological challenges will be encountered. Myths then served as a guide for getting through these challenges and “passages of life” (Campbell, Lectures II 1.1 The Function of Myth). The greatest example of this (in my opinion) is in most ancient (and present day) cultures they used rites of passage as a youth passed to the adult stage. There are many great myths about these elaborate journey’s that young men (and sometimes women) went through to achieve the next stage in life. The myths were a fantastical representation of the actual rituals that the cultures practiced.

It is easy to see that these functions all go hand and hand. These functions then can be applied to essentially every culture out there and their myths. They show once again that all myths have those common threads that run through them, the common structure that they build off on. This then backs up the concept of the monomyth that I love so much (yeah, yeah I’m such a geek I know).

If you want to learn more about Joseph Campbell and his functions you can go on his Foundation website and download his lectures that he gave back in the 60s (there is a fee involved):

Also you can watch The Power of Myth on your local MPT (PBS) station and if you’re like me completely geek out watching these last interviews of Joseph Campbell’s amazing life.


Campbell J. (1969) Lectures II.1.1 The Function of Myth (given at the The Esalen Institute in August, 1969)

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, vol. 4: Creative Mythology (New York: Viking, 1965)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Joseph Campbell: Mythologist, Lecturer and Hero

Joseph Campbell was one of the greatest scholars of all time. His thoughts and theories on mythology and philosophy have shaped the study of mythology as well as shaped my studies throughout the years. Before I go into detail about how he has touched my life let me give a little bit of background to who Joseph Campbell was for those who are unfamiliar with him.

Joseph Campbell was originally born in New York and was raised to be a devout catholic. He attended Dartmouth University where he studied biology and math though he felt the pull of something else while he was in college. His love of folktales and mythology overtook his studies and he transferred to Columbia University from which he graduated with a B.A. in English. After graduating from college he spent a lot of time overseas with his family where he began to fall in love with the Asian ways of thinking and mythology. After he returned to the states he stopped practicing Catholicism and became enthralled in the Hindu practices.

He went back to Columbia University where he studied Medieval Literature as well as some Sanskrit and Modern Art. After he graduated he began to travel around meeting many influential people along the way including author John Steinbeck. Among Steinbeck, Campbell also learned of the greats of the past including Carl Jung, James Joyce and Wilhelm Stekel. From all of this knowledge that he picked up, Campbell started to create his own thoughts and theories on the way the world worked, especially when it came to mythology. He wrote books, taught classes and continued to study more about mythology.

When Campbell returned from a trip to India in 1956 he realized just how little Americans knew about mythologies around the world. Because of this he started to lecture outside of the venues that he was used to. In addition to writing The Mask of God, he went on the radio, TV and journeyed around to many different places to give public lectures. At the end of his life he filmed a series of interviews with American journalist Bill Moyer about mythology entitled The Power of Myth.

Sadly Campbell died of cancer at the age of 83, shortly after he finished filming the series of interviews. The interview ran that next year and he was able to touch many more lives. He still continues to touch lives with his works and theories to this day which brings us to how he influenced me.

I first heard of Joseph Campbell in a mythology class that I took in high school. We were talking about how all mythologies have common thread that run through them such as archetypes. Of course one cannot learn about mythological confluences without mentioning Joseph Campbell (or mythology in general for that matter). This is when I learned all about Campbell’s idea of the “monomyth” and I was immediately hooked.

The Campbell's term monomyth (which sometimes is also referred to as the hero's journey) refers to a basic pattern found in many world myths. This idea was first fully described in Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The term was actually taken from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake since like I mentioned earlier Campbell was a big fan of Joyce’s work. As a strong believer in the unity of human consciousness (which he took from Carl Jung’s theories) and its poetic expression through mythology, through the monomyth concept Campbell expressed the idea that the whole of the human race could be seen a single story of monumental proportions, and in the preface to The Hero with a Thousand Faces he indicated it was his goal to demonstrate similarities between Eastern and Western religions (Campbell, 1949).

He also goes on to explain that as times change, this story gets broken down into local forms, taking on different masks, depending on the culture that interprets it. In the end it comes down to humanity's search for the same basic, unknown force from which everything came. From within this force everything currently exists, and everything will return and is considered to be "unknowable" because it existed before words and knowledge (Campbell, 1949).

This concept is something that struck me really hard and I was completely enthralled by it. After this class I took in high school I was determined to learn more about mythology around the world and how there was this common thread that wove through them all. As I studied mythologies of Ancient Mesopotamia, Russia, Greece, Italy, Japan, Norway, Ireland, England and pretty much any other culture you can think of, I began to see that what Campbell was right. All the stories had the same themes, same plots, and in some cases even the same characters but were tailored to each culture.

Campbell inspired me back then and still continues to inspire me. The theory of the monomyth was one of the most powerful things I had ever heard and his other theories also made perfect sense to me (which I will get into in a later posts, as each are very intricate). I was thrilled to pieces to hear that PBS was running The Power of Myth again on Saturday mornings. Re-watching those pivotal interviews made me fall in love with Campbell’s ideas all over again and it is what inspired me to write this post.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 1949.

Joyce, James. Finnegan’s Wake. NY: Viking, 1939.

The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, third edition, edited by Phil Cousineau. Novato, California: New World Library, 2003

Joseph Campbell Foundation Website: