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:


Alexis Kennedy said...

Really well done, Sammi. I agree. He was one of the great thinkers of his time.

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