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Joseph Campbell (1904-1987)


American writer on mythology and comparative religion who gained fame with such works as The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948), an examination of the archetype of the hero, The Masks of God (1959-1968), exploring the complex mythological heritage and its implications for modern humanity, and the multi-volume Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1989), of which only the sections on the early stages of human culture were completed. Campbell's theories were made popular with Public Broadcasting System series of television interviews with Bill Moyers. The PBS interviews were also published as a book, which became a bestseller.

"Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts - but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is." (from The Power of Myth)

Joseph Campbell was born in New York City, the son of Charles and Josephine Campbell. When he was a child, his father took him to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden, and to the Museum of Natural History. By the age of twelve, he became a reader of American Indian folklore. The family lived next door to the public library and Campbell used to borrow stacks of books from there. "I think that's where my life as a scholar began," he once said. About 1917 in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania he met Elmer Gregor, who had written books about American Indians. Gregor, who could communicate with Indian sign language, became Campbell's first "guru", or teacher.

Campbell revived his interest in mythology while working on a master's degree. Before attending Columbia University, he traveled in Europe. In 1927 Campbell received his M.A. in English and comparative literature. He then returned to Europe for postgraduate study in Arthurian romances at the Universities of Paris and Munich. He discovered that many themes in Arthurian legend resembled the basic motifs in American Indian folklore. The idea inspired Campbell in his unending study of such authors Thomas Mann and James Joyce, whose work he regarded as a kind of guide for his own interpretation of mythological material. Campbell was also caught up in the theories of Jung and Freud. Because much of the relevant literature was written in German, he learned to read and talk in German in three months.

Back in the United States Campbell retired for five years to Woodstock, New York, and Carmel, California. During this period he put together his guiding thesis that perceived myths as "the pictorial vocabulary of communication from the source zones of our energies to the rational consciousness." In 1931-32, on a journey across the country in his mother's Model T Ford, Campbell stopped in San Jose, where he met Adelle Davis. She introduced him to John and Carol Steinbeck and their neighbour, Ed Ricketts, with whom he traveled up coast of British Columbia to Alaska. In 1934 Campbell began teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where he remained for thirty-eight years. In 1938 he married Jean Erdman, one of his early students from Sarah Lawrence, who founded a dance company and school of her own.

From 1956 to 1973 Campbell was a visiting lecturer at the Foreign Service Institute. In 1985 he received the National Arts Club medal for honor for literature and was elected in 1987 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The popular PBS television program The Power of Myth was made in 1985 and 1986 mostly at the ranch of Campbell's friend, the film director George Lucas. Campbell's concept of the hero's journey was one of the sources for Star Wars trilogy. Joseph Campbell died at age of eighty-three on October 31, 1987, at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii, after a brief illness.

"Freud has suggested that all moments of anxiety reproduce the painful feelings of the first separation from the mother - the tightening of the breath, congestion of the blood, etc., of the crisis of the birth. Conversely, all moments of separation and new birth produce anxiety. Whether it be the king's child about to be taken from the felicity of her established dual-unity with Danny King, or God's daughter Eve, now ripe to depart from the idyl of the Garden, or again, the supremely concentrated Future Buddha breaking past the last horizons of the created world, the same archetypal images are activated, symbolizing danger, reassurance, trial, passage, and the strange holiness of the mysteries of birth" (from The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

Campbell began his writing career as a literary critic, co-authoring with Henry M. Robinson A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), a study of James Joyce's major novel. He then turned his attention to explicating the great myths of the world's religions in terms of Jungian concept of the collective unconscious. He also popularized the key discoveries and the psychology of Jung. Campbell argued that world's mythologies, ritual practices, folk traditions, and major religions share certain symbolic themes, motifs, and patterns of behavior. His theories influenced a wide range of writers around the world, among them the Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski in his Tiarnia series.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is often cited as Campbell's best book. It has sold nearly one million copies in various editions. Jung argued, that Freud's concept of unconscious mind can be extended into a collective unconscious, shared by the entire human species. On the other hand, James G. Frazer noted that certain patterns of mythic stories were spread worldwide. Campbell developed these ideas further, and discovered that many mythical heroes around the world share similar features. He juxtaposed these myths from Native Americans, ancient Greeks, Hindus, Buddhists, Mayans, Norse and Arthurian legends, and the Bible to elucidate the hero's path of adventure through rites of passage to final transfiguration. Like Jung, he saw the approach of old age as a step toward the time of wholeness and oneness.

During the 1950s Campbell worked on his four-volume series, The Masks of God. In Myths To Live By (1972) he suggested that new myths would replace old ones, perhaps drawing symbols from modern technology. "I like to think of the year 1492 as marking the end – or at least the beginning of the end - of the authority of the old mythological systems by which the lives of men had been supported and inspired from time out of mind. Shortly after Columbus's epochal voyage, Magellan circumnavigated the globe. Shortly before, Vasco da Gama had sailed around Africa to India. The earth was beginning to be systematically explored, and the old, symbolic, mythological geographies discredited."

In 1954 Campgell met Carl Jung in Bollingen, where they had tea. Jung was "just a genial host", recalled Campbell. They shared a mutual friend, Heinrich Zimmer, an Indologist and historian of South Asian art. By the request of Zimmer's widow, Campbell had edited four volumes of his posthumous writings, and Jung, who had met Zimmer in 1932, had edited one of Zimmer's German works, entitled Der Weg zum Selbst. Campbell compiled as an editor six volumes of Eranos Yearbooks (1954-69), based on "shared feast" lectures various fields of learning held at Ascona in southern Switzwerland and originally published in the Eranos-Jahrbücher. He also assisted Swami Nikhilananda in producing a translation of The Gospes of Sri Ramakrishna  (1942), edited The Portable Arabian Nights (1952), and provided folkloric commentaries for The Complete Grimm Fairy Tales (1944).

Campbell often used skillfully down-to-earth examples when he clarified the influence of myths on modern day thinking. In the essay 'The Impact of Science on Myth' (1961) from Myths to Live By he depicts a discussion he heard at a lunch counter. A young boy tells his mother, that his friend Jimmy wrote a paper on the evolution of man, but the teacher said he was wrong: Adam and Eve were our first parents. And the boy's mother confirms this fundamentalist claim. "What a mother for a twentieth-century child!" Campbell said.

For further reading: The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, ed. by Phil Cousineau (2003); Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind by Stephen and Robin Larsen (2002); Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority by M. Manganaro (1991); Joseph Campbell: Fire in the Mind by S. Larsen and R.A. Larsen (1991); Joseph Campbell and the Study of Religion by D.C. Noel (1990); The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His life and Work, ed. by P. Cousineau and S.L. Brown (1990; centennial edition 2003); An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms ed. by John M. Maher and Dennis Briggs (1988); Joseph Campbell by Robert A. Segal (1987)

Selected works:

  • The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, 1942 (translator; with Swami Nikhilananda)
  • Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial, 1943 (with Maud Oakes and Jeff King)
  • A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, 1944 (with Henry Morton Robinson)
  • The Complete Grimm Fairy Tales, 1944 (contribution)
  • Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization / H.R. Zimmer, 1946 (edited by Joseph Campbell)
  • The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul's Conquest of Evil / H.R. Zimmer, 1948 (edited by Joseph Campbell)
  • James Joyce: Two Decades of Criticism, 1948 (contribution)
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1948 - Sankarin tuhannet kasvot (suomentanut Hannes Virrankoski, 1990)
  • Philosophies of India / H.R. Zimmer, 1951 (ed.)
  • Psychoanalysis and Culture, 1951 (contribution)
  • The Portable Arabian Nights, 1952 (edited by Joseph Campbell)
  • The Art of Indian Asia, Its Mythology and Transformations / H.R. Zimmer, 1955 (comp. and ed.)
  • Basic Beliefs, 1959 (contribution)
  • The Masks of God, 1959-1968 (4 vols., Primitive Mythology, 1959; Oriental Mythology, 1962; Occidental Mythology, 1964; Creative Mythology, 1968)
  • Culture in History, 1960 (contribution)
  • Myth and Mythmaking, 1960 (contribution)
  • Papers from the Eranos Yearsbooks, 1969 (ed. Spirit and Nature, 1954; The Mysteries, 1955; Man and Time, 1957; Spiritual Disciplines, 1969; Man and Transformation, 1964; The Mystic Vision, 1969)
  • Stairways to the Mayan Gods, 1969 (filmscript)
  • Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimensios. Selected Essays, 1944-1968, 1969
  • Myths, Dreams, and Religion: Eleven Visions of Connection, 1970 (ed.) 
  • A Portable Jung, 1971 (edited by Joseph Campbell)
  • Myths To Live By, 1972
  • Erotic Irony and Mythic Forms in the Art of Thomas Mann, 1973
  • The Mythic Image, 1974 (with M.J. Adadie)
  • Myths, 1974 (contribution)
  • My Life and Lives: The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation / Rato Khyongla Nawang Losang, 1977 (edited by Joseph Campbell)
  • Tarot Revelations, 1982 (3rd ed., 1987)
  • The Way of the Animal Powers: Historical Atlas of World Mythology, 1983
  • The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, 1984
  • The Power of Myth, 1988 (with Bill Moyers)
  • Transformations of Myth Through Time, 1990
  • The Universal Myths, 1990 (with A. Eliot and M. Eliade)
  • A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living, 1995 (edited by Diane K. Osborn)
  • The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987, 1997 (edited by Antony Van Couvering)
  • Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, 2001 (edited by Eugene C. Kennedy)
  • Sake and Satori: Asian Journals -- Japan, 2002 (edited by David Kudler and Robert Walter)
  • Baksheesh and Brahman: Asian Journals - India, 2002 (edited by Robin Larsen, Stephen Larsen, Antony Van Couvering)
  • The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work, 2003 (edited by Phil Cousineau)
  • Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce, 2003 (edited and with a foreword by Edmond L. Epstein)
  • Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, 2004 (edited and with a foreword by David Kudler)
  • Mythic Imagination: Collected Short Fiction, 2012 (introduction by David Kudler) 

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