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Joseph Campbell



Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers during the Power of Myth series from PBS


"God is a metaphor for a mystery that absolutely transcends all human categories of thought"

Joseph Campbell



From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Joseph John 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.



"Follow your bliss."

Joseph Campbell


"new mexico"

a painting from 2008






Childhood and education

Joseph Campbell was born and raised in White Plains, New York[1] in an upper middle class Roman Catholic family. As a child, Campbell became fascinated with Native American culture after his father took him to see the American Museum of Natural History in New York where he saw on display featured collections of Native American artifacts. He soon became versed in numerous aspects of Native American society, primarily in Native American mythology. This led to Campbell's lifelong passion for myth and to his study of and mapping of the cohesive threads in mythology that appeared to exist among even disparate human cultures. He graduated from the Canterbury School (Connecticut) in 1921. While at Dartmouth College he studied biology and mathematics, but decided that he preferred the humanities. He transferred to Columbia University where he received his B.A. in English literature in 1925 and M.A. in Medieval literature in 1927. Campbell was also an accomplished athlete, receiving awards in track and field events.


"A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."

Joseph Campbell




a painting i did at the tesuque flea market in 2008




In 1927, Campbell received a fellowship provided by Columbia to study in Europe. Campbell studied Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris in France and the University of Munich in Germany. He quickly learned to read and speak both French and German, mastering them after only a few months of rigorous study. He remained fluent in both languages for the remainder of his life.

He was highly influenced while in Europe by the period of the Lost Generation, a time of enormous intellectual and artistic innovation. Campbell commented on this influence, particularly that of James Joyce, in The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (1990, first edition:28):

CAMPBELL: And then the fact that James Joyce grabbed me. You know that wonderful living in a realm of significant fantasy, which is Irish, is there in the Arthurian romances; it's in Joyce; and it's in my life. COUSINEAU: Did you find that you identified with Stephen Daedalus...in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? CAMPBELL: His problem was my problem, exactly...Joyce helped release me into an understanding of the universal sense of these symbols . . . Joyce disengaged himself and left the labyrinth, you might say, of Irish politics and the church to go to London, where he became one of the very important members of this marvelous movement that Paris represented in the period when I was there, in the '20s.

It was in this climate that Campbell was also introduced to the work of Thomas Mann, who was to prove equally influential upon his life and ideas. Also while in Europe, Campbell was introduced to modern art, becoming particularly enthusiastic about the work of Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. A new world of exciting ideas opened up to Campbell while studying in Europe- Here he also discovered the works and writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. It was also during this time, as well, that he met and became friends with the young Jiddu Krishnamurti, a friendship which began his lifelong interest in Hindu philosophy and mythology. In addition, after the death of Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, Campbell was given the task to edit and posthumously publish Zimmer's papers.




"Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world--all things and beings--are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.

This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as shakti, and the Christians as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself."

Joseph Campbell, from the Hero with a Thousand Faces



Jean Erdman, Joseph Campbell and Joan Halifax



Return to the United States and the Great Depression

On his return 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 (The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, 1990, first edition: 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, 2002:160) and he engaged in a period of intensive and rigorous independent study. Campbell discussed this period in The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (1990, first edition:52-3). 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."

He also traveled to California for a year (1931-32), continuing his independent studies 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 during which time he also attempted to publish works of fiction (Larsen and Larsen, 2002:214) [2].

Campbell's independent studies lead to his greater exploration of the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, a contemporary and colleague of Sigmund Freud. Campbell edited the first Eranos conference papers and helped to found Princeton University Press' Bollingen Press. Another dissident member of Freud's circle to influence Campbell was Wilhelm Stekel (1868 - 1939). Stekel pioneered the application of Freud's conceptions of dreams, fantasies of the human mind, and the unconscious to such fields as anthropology and literature.


"It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure."

Joseph Campbell


"the abyss" a painting i did in 2007


Sarah Lawrence College

In 1934, Campbell was offered a position as professor at Sarah Lawrence College (through the efforts of his former Columbia advisor W.W. Laurence). Campbell married one of his former students, dancer and dance instructor Jean Erdman, in 1938. He retired from Sarah Lawrence College in 1972, after having taught there for 38 years.



"We're so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about. "

Joseph Campbell




Joseph Campbell died at the age of 83 on October 31, 1987, at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, from complications due to cancer shortly after completing filming of The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.


my painting "ouroboros" from 2008



Campbell's original voice

Campbell relied often upon the writings of Carl Jung as an explanation of psychological phenomena, as experienced through archetypes. But Campbell did not necessarily agree with Jung upon every issue, and had very definite ideas of his own.

A fundamental belief of Campbell's was that all spirituality is a search for the same basic, unknown force from which everything came, within which everything currently exists, and into which everything will eventually return. This elemental force is ultimately “unknowable” because it exists before words and knowledge. Although this basic driving force cannot be expressed in words, spiritual rituals and stories refer to the force through the use of "metaphors" - these metaphors being the various stories, deities, and objects of spirituality we see in the world. For example, the Genesis myth in the Bible ought not be taken as a literal description of actual events, but rather its poetic, metaphorical meaning should be examined for clues concerning the fundamental truths of the world and our existence.



"Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human manifestation..." Joseph Campbell



Accordingly, Campbell believed the religions of the world to be the various, culturally influenced “masks” of the same fundamental, transcendent truths. All religions, including Christianity and Buddhism, can bring one to an elevated awareness above and beyond a dualistic conception of reality, or idea of “pairs of opposites,” such as being and non-being, or right and wrong. Indeed, he quotes in the preface of The Hero with a Thousand Faces: "Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names." which is a translation of the Rig Vedic saying "Ekam Sat Vipra Bahuda Vadanthi."


"Is the system going to flatten you out and deny you your humanity, or are you going to be able to make use of the system to the attainment of human purposes? "

Joseph Campbell



Campbell was fascinated with what he viewed as basic, universal truths, expressed in different manifestations across different cultures. For example, in the preface of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he indicated that a goal of his was to demonstrate similarities between Eastern and Western religions. In his four-volume series of books "The Masks of God", Campbell tried to summarize the main spiritual threads common throughout the world. Tied in with this, was his idea that many of the belief systems of the world which expressed these universal truths 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.



"returning on a red horse"

the first painting i did upon my return from india in feb2008



Heroes and the monomyth

The role of the Hero played a crucial role in his comparative studies. In 1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces introduced his idea of the monomyth (borrowed from Joyce as stated above), which outlined some of the archetypal patterns Campbell recognized. Heroes were important to Campbell because, to him, they conveyed universal truths about one's personal self-discovery and self-transcendence, one's role in society, and the relationship between the two.


"When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness."

Joseph Campbell



Center for Story and Symbol

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