Joseph Campbell’s Mythic Journey
by Jonathan Young
New Perspectives Magazine — July 1994
Mythologist Joseph Campbell was a masterful storyteller. He could weave tales from every corner of the world into spell-binding narratives. His lifelong quest from childhood days as a devout Catholic altar boy to fame as the world’s most noted scholar in comparative mythology makes for a fine heroic story.
The adventure picks up when young Joe Campbell sees the Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1912. The future scholar soon became convinced that he had Indian blood. One of the striking details of the early years was Campbell’s youthful studiousness. He read his way through the children’s section of the public library and was admitted to the adult stacks at the age of eleven. He devoted himself to every available fact about Native American life, including the reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology. By high school, he was already writing articles on Native American mythology, presenting many of the themes he would still be working in his eighties.
Campbell’s life was a passionate intellectual journey. College years at Columbia University were spent discovering literature while becoming a track star and playing in a jazz band on weekends. Graduate study in the Holy Grail legends of Arthurian mythology took him to Paris and Munich where he discovered the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as well as James Joyce, Thomas Mann and modern art. This is when he saw the parallels between mythic themes in literature and psychological lessons such as those revealed in dreams.
Returning to Columbia, Campbell wanted to expand the scope of his dissertation topic beyond the Grail myth to include parallels with psychology and art. His advisors made it clear that such a daring perspective would not be acceptable. The depression had set in and, with no job prospects, Campbell abandoned doctoral work and went off to Woodstock for five years of intensive study of the imagination. At every turn, Campbell met the interesting thinkers of the time – many of whom became friends, from the philosopher Krishnamurti to Adelle Davis, who was Campbell’s first serious romantic interest long before her career as a nutritionist. During a break from his period of unsponsored scholarship, Campbell travelled to California, where he met an unknown novelist named John Steinbeck and promptly fell in love with Steinbeck’s wife, Carol. Another part of his west coast adventure was a trip up the Northwest coast to Alaska collecting marine specimens with “Doc” Ed Ricketts who was later immortalized in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
Teaching and writing
Finally, a job offer came from Sarah Lawrence College. This most experimental school provided the setting for the next 38 years of Campbell’s work. He became a master teacher and mentor to generations of notable women. He credits his students for bringing the element of personal application to his writing. His future wife, Jean Erdman, began as a student at Sarah Lawrence the same year that Campbell joined the faculty. She went on to star in Martha Graham’s dance company, then became a acclaimed choreographer in her own right and founded the performance dance department at New York University.
As these two prolific talents energetically pursued their creative careers they moved among the bright lights of New York’s artistic and intellectual circles. Composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham were particularly close. Indologist Heinrich Zimmer was such a kindred spirit that, upon his untimely death, Campbell was asked to edit and complete his works. Through Zimmer, Campbell met Carl Jung and participated in the Jungian Eranos Conferences in Switzerland.
It was the publication of The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949 that established Joseph Campbell as the preeminent comparative mythologist of our time. He wanted the book to be a guide to reading a myth. Campbell explained how challenging experiences could be seen as initiatory adventures. It was this connection between ancient stories and the emotional concerns of modern life that was distinctive. As Campbell observed, “The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.”
Campbell’s prodigious scholarship went on to include the four-volume Masks of God as well as The Mythic Image and the lavishly illustrated series The Historical Atlas of World Mythology. As his influence grows, Joseph Campbell seems destined to join Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung as one of this century’s great disseminators of the psychological wisdom of mythology.
Encounters with a storyteller
Coming away from the first seminar I attended with Joseph Campbell, I had a new sense that meaning could be found in every direction. The weekend had been filled with Campbell’s enchanting storytelling. He had explained that the great scriptures of the world’s religions could be understood as metaphors for psychological changes. It was a major turning point in my life.
One conversation with him that first weekend had been especially significant for me. We were sitting down to dinner together and I mentioned that I missed the ritual of saying grace before meals. I said that it just wasn’t clear to me at that time what I should give thanks to. Campbell gently suggested that I say my thanks to the animals and plants that had given their lives so that my life would continue. In a few words, he captured the essence of an old ritual and gave it fuller meaning. It was typical of his way of showing the significance of familiar details of everyday situations.
It might be worth mentioning that Campbell was also eating meat. He liked to tease vegetarians by saying they were people who couldn’t hear a carrot scream. His humor illustrated some of the most important points, like the comment that the mid-life crisis was getting to the top of the ladder, only to discover that it was leaning against the wrong wall.
The same evening that first seminar ended, I was to lead a discussion group at a local church. It was something I did often, but this Sunday was different. It wasn’t just the usual personal problems and philisophical questions. We ended up talking about the symbolic messages available in ordinary life. I realized that Campbell’s vision had really gripped me.
There would be many more seminars with Campbell. Usually I would be his aide, taking care of details and being his driver. I would seize any chance to spend extra time with him and ask one more question. Campbell’s style was profoundly natural. He would tell stories drawn from many traditions, often weaving several stories to show similarities. His lectures were usually illustrated with slides of the sacred images of each of the cultures involved.
One setting was an ecumenical retreat center. He would occasionally comment on the images on the walls of the chapel. Noting the crucifix, Campbell would describe some of the many resurrection stories from different cultures and comment on how the symbolism suggests personal spiritual integration. His ease in drawing on a wide range of material was striking.
During his visits to Santa Barbara it was sometimes my responsibility to get him away from the seminar for a quiet meal. One evening I took him to a restaurant out on the local pier with Jean Houston who was presenting with him that weekend. Joseph Campbell was every bit as charming at dinner as at the lectern. He looked out over the oceanfront and remarked on Santa Barbara’s great beauty and how sad he was about the decline of his native New York City. He noted that his new home in Hawaii was also a place of abundant natural loveliness.
Ritual as mythic experience
Campbell believed that participation in ritual could put you into a direct experience of mythic reality. One day he told a beautiful Native American story of the buffalo princess who let herself be married to a buffalo so that her tribe could eat. It showed the deep connection between the indians and the animals they relied on for survival. That evening, Campbell suggested that we enact the story as the indians had in one of their major rituals. When our group gathered to prepare it was decided that I would play the princess. I guess it was type – casting since I am bearded and six-foot-five. Campbell was delighted with our trickster approach and said none of his groups had taken that angle before.
It sometimes fell to me to take him out to Santa Barbara Airport for his departure. This was a prized task because I would have time alone to ask more questions. He was always gracious. One time he had recounted a story from Arthur’s round table in which a horse is cut in half as a knight is entering an enchanted city. I asked why the horse had to die. He explained that I was being too literal in my reaction. The horse was a symbol for our physical nature which was not the vehicle for entrance into the sacred realm. In a few words he explained a great metaphysical principle.
The last time was in 1985, two years before he died. The topic was the beloved of the soul. Campbell described the spiritual dimensions of romantic love. When The Power of Myth television series with Joseph Campbell was broadcast, millions of people were inspired by the wisdom of the late mythologist. Many lives were deeply changed by this amazing teacher. The world found out what a devoted band of Campbell’s students had known – that this man’s message was a great treasure of our time.
My training had been in comparative religion and, later, clinical psychology. Joseph Campbell showed the psychological dimensions of the great spiritual traditions. For me, Campbell was the one teacher who explained how it all fit together. My approach to therapy changed markedly to include story and soul. The seminars on creativity I had been giving became workshops on the symbolic wisdom of mythic stories. Passing on Campbell’s work had become a calling.
A few years later, the college in Santa Barbara that had sponsored the seminars with Joseph Campbell started a graduate program in psychology with an emphasis in mythology and religious studies. I eagerly accepted an offer to be one of the core professors. It was a chance to teach the ideas that Campbell had outlined to future leaders in the field of psychology. The program grew and now the Pacifica Graduate Institute has trained hundreds of therapists and has some four hundred students currently working on Masters and Doctoral degrees.
When the Campbell family was deciding where the archives would be located, Pacifica was chosen. Mrs. Campbell felt that it was the one college that was teaching the parallels between psychology and mythology in the spirit of Campbell’s pioneering work.
A mythic calling
The president of Pacifica knew that Joseph Campbell had been a mentor to me and offered me the task of building an appropriate repository for the papers and books. Beginning in 1990, my labor of love as curator of the Joseph Campbell Archives and Library was to assemble the thousands of books and years of notes Campbell gathered in nearly seventy years of scholarship. Working in his studies in New York and Honolulu with Mrs. Campbell to understand how he used each book and how he arranged his files has been memorable. When I would come across outlines for the very seminars that had effected me so deeply, it was like finding lost jewels.
The library is administered by an independent, non-profit, corporation. The facility, which formally opened in January of 1993, has displays of religious objects collected by Campbell in his travels and an extensive photo exhibit of his life and work. Choosing the pictures from the family albums was especially rewarding. Most of them have never been published and can only be seen at the archives.
The personal aspects of folklore and mythology has been the theme of the seminars I’ve been invited to give around the country for the last ten years. My notes from the many occasions I was with Joseph Campbell as he addressed these issues have been the core of my presentations. It is one of those marvelous turns that life takes that I now have the opportunity to edit these materials that have had such a personal impact on my inner life.
One of the most rewarding experiences I have as I travel to present seminars on mythic stories is to meet the many people who have been inspired by Joseph Campbell and his work. Everywhere I go people tell me stories about studying with him at Sarah Lawrence College or meeting him after one of his lectures. Whether through seeing him in person, reading his books or seeing him on television, people describe the profound impact that Joseph Campbell’s ideas have had on their lives.
Campbell’s opus is not yet fully published. His literary executors have nine additional books in various stages of the editing process. These will be released over the next several years. Many hours of lectures on video are to be released in newly edited versions. Joseph Campbell’s influence on our understanding of mythology seems to still be on the rise. When the religious history of this century is written, the impact of Joseph Campbell will surely be a major event in our collective spiritual development.