The One Mythology: Joseph Campbell.

The Masks of God series by Joseph Campbell
The Masks of God series by Joseph Campbell (Photo credit: jay mann)

Posted December 29, 2013

by Jerry Alatalo

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) is probably most well-known for his simple suggestion to “follow your bliss”. Up until these days I hadn’t become aware of his story – his views of the world. In my typical bumbling, stumbling way of searching for interesting information, I went to look for interviews at Thinking Allowed TV on YouTube, because it was there that I found one of the few interviews of Native American medicine man Rolling Thunder.

So, as I had never really listened to what Joseph Campbell had to say, one of the interviews on the channel was of Mr. Campbell. His views were aligned with my own and led me to the biographical documentary “The Hero’s Journey“, about the life of Joseph Campbell. The film is a keeper, worthy of viewing again and again. He was born in the New York City area, and began his intellectual journey around the age of 10, after being impressed by a local, outdoor theatrical production with Buffalo Bill and Native Americans.

It is interesting to consider whether Mr. Campbell’s life would have taken a completely different direction had he, say, been unable to attend the Buffalo Bill show. One wonders if he would ever have gone at ten years old to read many books at his library about the Native Americans, which would have eventually resulted in the non-existence of this post, as well as Mr. Campbell’s great influence through his life. It’s kind of like baseball, where the World Series ends up decided on a play where the outfielder misses the Game 7 clinching home run by inches – small events making all the difference.

However, Joseph Campbell did attend the Buffalo Bill show in New York at ten years old, read every book in the library about Native Americans, and went on to become a world expert on mythology and religions. After going to Europe for university studies, he returned to the USA weeks before the Great Depression began. It is somewhat astonishing to learn that he spent the next five years reading constantly, on both mythology and world religions.

To be honest one of the reasons it took so long to check Mr. Campbell out had to do with a negative mythology class taken in university. In direct contrast to Joseph Campbell, the professor of my mythology class would have nothing to do with becoming engaged in discussions with his students. After a few attempts at starting a class discussion with personal comments and being shut down by the professor, the rest of the class became one where everyone in the class said nothing, basically riding it out for the credits.

Not so with Joseph Campbell. From the film we find that he was ever-interested in discussions, even during his off the job time. One can see how the Native American oral tradition, where storytelling becomes the means of teaching the next generation on life philosophy, became taken to heart by Mr. Campbell from his readings at ten years old. We can see him sitting in the cafeteria sharing stories with students as if he were a Native American elder sitting in the tepee around the fire, telling stories to the grandchildren.

He lectured at Sarah Lawrence University for 38 years, writing a number of books along the way. His collaboration with Bill Moyers – The Power of Myth – was probably his most widely known creative production. Until viewing “The Hero’s Journey” I had bought in to the idea that myths were some type of made-up fairytale stories and, combined with the unproductive college mythology class, missed the boat where Joseph Campbell was the captain.

The significant contribution of Joseph Campbell

His ideas are most important in that he pointed out that there is one universal mythology shared by the world’s spiritual/religious/mythic traditions, but through differences in language have blocked recognition of the one universal myth. One could see how the various myths from around the world are essentially local bibles or texts – with different languages and symbols all saying the same things. He points out that the historical error of failing to recognize the one universal myth has resulted in separations between religions, a significant barrier to peace and brotherhood, compounded by a failure to recognize the ultimate importance of human beings’ inner search for wisdom.

One had to admire Joseph Campbell’s humility, as he downplayed any suggestion that he was a guru or mystic, stating that he was only a professor. It is obviously water under the bridge, but I can’t help wondering what that mythology class would have been like if Joseph Campbell was the professor. He stated in an interview that he had seen profound changes in his students through close to 40 years of teaching. He said this not in any way of bragging, but to add to the power of the message he shared. His message was simply and honestly powerful.

His explanation of Buddhist symbols such as the evil-looking guardians to entry of the door to enlightenment, how these symbols represent the human ego and fear, gives an example of the correct direction for humans to search – inward. His consideration of modern religions’ emphasis and focus on fear/ego based external sources for “answers”, leading the adherents in the wrong direction, leads him to state that religions are “religions of exile”.

He shares an experience where during a lecture he suggests that “for a Christian, one should live according to the Christ within you”. A woman sitting in the audience later tells him that she was sitting next to a priest when he stated it and heard the priest say, “blasphemy”. Mr. Campbell points out his view, “then what in heaven’s name are we talking about?”

The kingdom of heaven is within you

So, I think Joseph Campbell’s greatest contribution during his 83 years on Earth was his discovery that human beings are all part of one family sharing the same stories, with non-essential details – minor variations due to language and social factors. The hero’s journey is the universally shared inner journey, at each moment available for human beings to begin.

From Gnostic writings found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt – 1945:

The disciples asked: “On what day will the kingdom come?” Jesus said: It cometh not with observation. They will not say: Lo, here! or; Lo there! But the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the Earth, and men do not see it.”

“The Pharisees and scribes have received the keys of the kingdom; they have hidden them. They did not go in, and those who wanted to go in they did not allow. But you be ye as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

There is one spirituality – one religion – one mythology.

“Seek not outside yourself. For it will fail, and you will weep each time an idol falls. Heaven cannot be found where it is not, and there can be no peace except there. There is no other answer you can substitute, and find the happiness his answer brings. Seek not outside yourself. Be you glad that you are told where happiness abides, and seek no longer elsewhere. You will fail.”

– A Course In Miracles

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(Thanks to Finn Jones @ YouTube)

 

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7 thoughts on “The One Mythology: Joseph Campbell.

  1. I think Campbell’s reputation depends on the circles you travel in. Among older leftists and progressives he’s chiefly known for being pro-Vietnam, pro-Nixon, as well as anti-Semitic, anti-Black, and anti-feminist. See http://jmr.dk/mccary01.htm

    I know the term anti-Semitic is grossly overused, but the comment “The moon would be a good place to put the Jews” is pretty extreme. See http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2199&dat=19891112&id=qDQyAAAAIBAJ&sjid=JeUFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2672,4647968

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    1. Stuart,
      Say it ain’t so! Upon hearing this, I find it almost impossible to believe that the accusations line up with his words and actions. God knows I’ve held some naïve, uninformed views (probably still do) and said things based on them through the years. I guess people can take what they find beneficial and leave the rest. This is a reason I like to listen to the elders – they have experience and changed views over many years, with their words more often expressing good wisdom.
      Thanks,
      Jerry

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  2. Thank you for that amazing clip on Campbell on myths and their function in moulding our cultures and civilizations – shaping our psyche and reflecting the urgings of our soul force. The book which most influenced my thinking on my own culture was Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer ( a master of poetic expression of fundamental truths of philosophy) and as he died before the book could be completed or published it fell upon the great Campbell to edit that work.
    In my view myth is in some ways more Real than reality and supersedes history – a striking example is the mythical Rama and Krishna of of Hinduism who though not historical have swept the Hindu and Indian imagination as no real prophet could ever have – every third name echoes their name every other street township, every archetype in the Hindu mind of a hero, a superman or god incarnate equals these mythical figures giving rise to epics scriptures art poetry drama sculpture ethics morality behaviour ideals culture and civilizational inspiration. Indeed they have stolen the soul of India – their myths succeeded in encapsulating all the complexities of Hindu philosophy and metaphysics. Their historicity becomes totally irrelevant – the myth here then supercedes reality and history with a force that is both inexplicable and unimaginable – I dare say that to a lesser degree too the modern myths of superman, batman, Lord of the rings, Star wars etc etc also assume a reality beyond fiction and fact to possess the psyche of the modern mind in shaping it more thoroughly than most real event may.

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    1. Indrajit,
      How are you. It seems that the word myth is a confusing one because there are two definitions. 1. legendary story or person 2. false popular belief – So, when people hear myth many times they hear “false popular belief”, missing out on the profound wisdom of legendary stories and persons, passed down orally because the printing press had yet to be invented. The legendary stories and persons are all descriptions of the one shared story: man’s search for the true meaning of life. All the various legends point to the inner search as the sole means of travel to meaning and purpose. It seems near death experiences are playing a very important role in these days to allow people further insight on legendary story/person historical arc. Absolutely fascinating subjects.
      Thanks,
      Jerry

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  3. I first became aware of Campbell via his enormous influence on George Lucas and the Star Wars mythology. He is certainly a fascinating thinker with interesting ideas and perceptions. I’m also quite fond of the Nag Hammadi gospels and find more pleasure in them than in most canonical scripture.

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    1. Hello,
      Nice to meet you. Excellent post on the Paris incident that Vanessa reposted. We share an appreciation for the Nag Hammadi or Gnostic texts. If you’re not aware of the site, sacred-texts.org has enough writings to last a person a very long time in reading. The world’s spiritual traditions might be seen as individual facets on the diamond of truth, all conveying fundamental wisdom, so leading one to disappointment that people continue to assert theirs is “better” or “correct” when where they overlap is where wisdom resides. Waiting for the day when a world leader is seen on TV saying “the most basic principle of all is that of not harming others, and that means all people, all life and all things” – that all life is sacred. Good change on Earth can only come through spirituality. It’s happening, just not articulated. Thank you. Jerry

      Liked by 1 person

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