Joseph Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 31, 1987) was an American education, writer, and orator best known for his work in the fields of comparative mythology and comparative religion. A prolific writer and outstanding speaker, Campbell brought to life the myths and legends of cultures throughout the world.
Campbell's recognition of the universality of human stories allows people to recognize their own dreams and aspirations in those of other times and places, breaking down the barriers that have divided us and preparing for a new age of values that transcend our differences.
Joseph Campbell was born to Charles and Josephine Campbell in an upper middle class Irish Roman Catholic family in White Plains, New York.
When he was seven years old, a turning point in his life occurred. His father took him and his brother Charlie to see Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. He was fascinated by the naked Native American who put his ear to the ground and listened with some special knowledge. He visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and absorbed everything he could about Native American society, focusing on mythology. By the time he was ten, he had read everything about Native Americans in the children's section of the library, and that led them to allow him into the adult section to continue his studies. Thus began Campbell's lifelong passion with myth, and to his mapping and study of its seemingly cohesive threads among disparate human cultures.
At thirteen, he spent the year recovering from a major respiratory illness. Afterward, he went to Canterbury School, a Catholic residential high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Campbell's high school years went very well except for a major tragedy—in 1919, their home was destroyed by fire. His grandmother died in that fire, and the family lost all their possessions.
Campbell graduated in 1921, and attended Dartmouth College, a liberal arts school, where he studied biology and mathematics. The academic aspect of this phase of his youth was lackluster, and he knew that he wanted to study the humanities instead, so he transferred to Columbia University where he shone. He played also in a jazz band and became a star runner.
In 1924, on a journey to Europe with his family, Campbell met and became friends with Jiddu Krishnamurti, a friendship which initiated his lifelong fascination with Hindu philosophy and mythology. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature in 1925 and his Masters of Arts, specializing in Arthurian Studies in 1927.
In 1927, Campbell received a fellowship provided by Columbia University to further his studies in Europe. Campbell studied Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris in France and the University of Munich in Germany. He used his uncanny linguistic talents to quickly learned to read and speak both French and German, mastering them only after a few months of rigorous study. He remained fluent in both languages for the rest of his life.
He was highly influenced in Europe by the works of the period of the "Lost Generation," a term that referred to American expatriot poets, intellectuals, and writers who relocated to France after the First World War. The 1920s had been time of enormous intellectual and artistic innovation. Campbell commented on this influence, particularly that of Irish poet James Joyce, in The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work. 
It was within this climate that Campbell was also introduced to the work of Thomas Mann, who became equally influential upon his life and ideas. While in Europe, Campbell was introduced to modern art. He became particularly enthusiastic about the work of Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. A whole new world opened up to Campbell while studying in Europe. Here he discovered the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.
On his return from Europe in 1929, Campbell announced to his faculty at Columbia University 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 advisers did not support this, Campbell decided not to go forward with his plans to earn a doctorate, and he never returned to a conventional graduate degree program.
A few weeks later, the Great Depression began, bringing no hope of obtaining a teaching position. Campbell spent the next five years (1929-1934) trying to figure out what to do with his life. He spent two years re-connecting with friends and family, and then decided to find his destiny. During this period he engaged in intensive and rigorous independent study, as he explained in his autobiographical writings:
I 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 traveled all over California, and became close friends with the budding writer John Steinbeck and his wife Carol. During this time, he eliminated anthropology from his career choices and realized that the passion he had felt in examining the Native American Indians could be incorporated into a career in literature.
In 1932, after learning Russian in order to read War and Peace in its original language, he decided to leave California. Campbell applied to 70 colleges in his attempt to find work. Finally, he accepted a post back on the East Coast at the Canterbury School as headmaster for one year. This was a difficult year for him, made brighter by selling his first short story, "Strictly Platonic." In 1933, he lived in a cottage without running water in Woodstock, New York, reading and writing mostly science fiction novels all year.
In 1934, Campbell was offered a position as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College (through the efforts of his former Columbia advisor W. W. Laurence). In 1938 Campbell married his former student, Jean Erdman. Jean was an emerging dancer with Martha Graham's new modern dance troupe and eventually became a choreographer in her own company. Campbell remained as a professor at Sarah Lawrence for 38 years, until he retired in 1972.
In 1940, he was introduced to Swami Nikhilananda, and was asked to help with a new translation of The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. This was published in 1942. Subsequently, Nikhilananda introduced Campbell to the Indologist Heinrich Zimmer, through whom he became involved with the Bollingen Foundation, founded by Paul and Mary Mellon. They were just beginning an ambitious publishing project, the Bollingen Series which would become a major venue for Campbell's publishing over the years.
When Zimmer unexpectedly died with much left to edit, Campbell was asked by Zimmer's widow and Mary Mellon to edit these for publication. Campbell completed four volumes from Zimmer’s posthumous papers, and prepared the way for his later works.
Campbell was at his best in The Power of Myth, a series of live interviews with Bill Moyers. He died in 1987, in Honolulu, Hawaii, shortly after filming it—a fitting way for the "Hero" to exit.
After his brief work in short stories, and his voluminous editing of Zimmer's un-published notes, Campbell began publishing his own work. In 1944, he published in the more conventional, more strictly English literature analysis genre with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake which he co-authored with Henry Morton Robinson. The Skeleton Key was the first major study of James Joyce’s notoriously complex novel.
His first venture into mythological exploration that would become his life's work was in 1949, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It was an instant success, winning him many honors and awards, one of which was the National Institute for Arts and Letters Award for Contributions in Creative Literature. In this work, Campbell introduced his concept of the "Monomyth," the archetypical pattern of the hero that is held in common throughout the world in all cultures. This term is borrowed from James Joyce, but is developed in detail uniquely by Campbell. In The Hero book, the monomyth relates primarily to the individual and the psychological aspects of heroism. When Campbell developed this idea later, however, the monomyth also applies to the wider society and culture, and he utilized techniques and observations characteristic of anthropology. The Hero with a Thousand Faces has stimulated much creative thought, discussion, and expression and has been acclaimed a classic.
Campbell continued to author dozens of other books, generally relating to similar themes. These included the four-volume series, The Masks of God. They were The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (Vol. 1: 1959); Oriental Mythology (Vol. 2: 1962); Occidental Mythology (Vol. 3: 1964); and Creative Mythology (Vol. 4: 1968). He also authored The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (1969); Myths to Live By (1972); The Mythic Image (1974); The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (1986).
Campbell also left unfinished his multi-volume Historical Atlas of World Mythology (1983-1987). At the time of Campbell’s death he was producing this as a large-format, beautifully illustrated series. It was to follow Campbell’s idea (first presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces) that myth evolved over time through four stages:
Many of his thoughts and ideas have been compiled posthumously, including a compilation of many of his ideas which is titled Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor.
He was also a prolific editor. He edited The Portable Arabian Nights (1952) and was general editor of the series Man and Myth (1953-1954), which included major works by Maya Deren Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti (1953), Carl Kerenyi The Gods of the Greeks (1954), and Alan Watts Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1954). He also edited The Portable Jung (1972), as well as six volumes of Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (Bollingen Series XXX): Spirit and Nature (1954), The Mysteries (1955), Man and Time (1957), Spiritual Disciplines (1960), Man and Transformation (1964), and The Mystic Vision (1969).
Although Joseph Campbell's books are treasured by many, and have been quite influential, perhaps his greatest talent was in his public speaking. He had the ability to re-tell the myth in a powerfully-engaging fashion, as exemplified in the PBS television series with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth.
This series was first broadcast in 1988, the year after Campbell's death. The series presented his ideas on archetypes to millions, and remains a staple on PBS. A companion book, The Power of Myth, containing expanded transcripts of their conversations, was released shortly afterward.
Campbell often referred to the work of modern writers James Joyce and Thomas Mann in his lectures and writings. The work of anthropologist Leo Frobenius was important to Campbell’s view of cultural history. He often indicated that the single most important book in his intellectual development was Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.
Campbell's ideas regarding myth and its relationship to the human psyche are heavily dependent on the work of Carl Jung. The Jungian method of dream interpretation, which is heavily reliant on symbolic interpretation, is closely related to Campbell's conception of myth. Jung's insights into archetypes were in turn heavily influenced by the Bardo Thodol (known in English as the The Tibetan Book of the Dead).
Campbell had studied under mythologist Heinrich Zimmer while a young student at Columbia University. Zimmer taught Campbell that myth (instead of a guru or person) could serve as a mentor, in that the stories provide a psychological roadmap for the finding of oneself in the labyrinth of the complex modern world. Zimmer relied more on the meaning (symbols, metaphor, imagery, etc.) of mythological fairytales for psychological realizations than on psychoanalysis. Campbell borrowed from the interpretative techniques of Jung, but then reshaped them in a fashion that followed Zimmer's beliefs—interpreting directly from world mythology instead of through the lens of psychoanalysis.
His "Follow your bliss" philosophy was influenced by the Sinclair Lewis 1922 novel, Babbitt. In The Power of Myth Campbell quoted from the novel:
Campbell also referenced the Sanskrit concept of Sat Chit Ananda. Sat (Being) Chit (Full Consciousness) Ananda (Rapture):
I don't know whether my consciousness is proper consciousness or not; I don't know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.
Joseph Campbell was fascinated by what he viewed as universal sentiments and truths, disseminated through cultures which all featured different manifestations. In the preface of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he indicates that his goal was to demonstrate the similarities between Eastern and Western religions.
He believed all the religions of the world, all the rituals and deities, to be “masks” of the same transcendent truth which is “unknowable.” Campbell claimed Christianity and Buddhism, whether the object is "Buddha-consciousness" or "Christ-consciousness," to be an elevated awareness above “pairs of opposites,” such as right and wrong. Indeed, he stated 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."
In his four-volume series of books The Masks of God, Campbell tried to summarize the main spiritual threads of the world, in support of his ideas on the "unity of the race of man." Tied in with this was the idea that most of the belief systems of the world 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.
In Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor Campbell stated:
Mythology is often thought of as "other people's religions," and religion can be defined as "misinterpreted mythology."
In other words, Campbell did not read religious symbols literally as historical facts, but instead he saw them as symbols or as metaphors for greater philosophical ideas.
Campbell believed all spirituality to be searching for the same unknown force (which he spoke of as both an immanent and a transcendent force, or that which is both within and without, as opposed to being only without) from which everything came, in which everything currently exists, and into which everything will return. He referred to this force as the "connotation" of what he called "metaphors," the metaphors being the various deities and objects of spirituality in the world.
Campbell defended his view exhaustively—some say at the expense of literary quality. The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut satirized Campbell's views as being excessively "baroque," offering his interpretation of the monomyth called the "In The Hole" theory, loosely defined as "The hero gets into trouble. The hero gets out of trouble."
A few years after his death, some accused Campbell of anti-Semitism. Stephen Larsen and Robin Larsen, the authors of the biography Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind, (2002) argued against what they referred to as "the so-called anti-Semitic charge":
For the record, Campbell did not belong to any organization that condoned racial or social bias, nor do we know of any other way in which he endorsed such viewpoints. During his lifetime there was no record of such accusations in which he might have publicly betrayed his bigotry or visibly been forced to defend such a position. 
In his choice of academic discipline Campbell found great freedom—his work is not strictly scientific, and thus should not be subjected to criticism on these grounds. Truly his work relates to the creative side of humanity, and thus can gain the latitude reserved for artists.
Joseph Campbell's philosophy is often summarized by his phrase "Follow your bliss."
The twentieth century was a time in great need of renewed meaning. Joseph Campbell offered a renewal of myth as the center of ancient meaning. Myth is central to the religious development that has historically provided meaning and stability for culture. Myth is close to dreams and the unconscious. Campbell's work continues to help people to reconcile the challenges of the present with meaning from the past, through a closer examination and appreciation of mythology and the living lessons that can be found there.
Joseph Campbell presented a way to understand the underlying unity of human culture, and he presented substantial evidence to support a belief in the unity of mankind. Whether Campbell actually proved this underlying unity remains to be seen. His literary and anecdotal analysis is logical, but lengthy and tends at times to go into such minute detail as to distract one from the main point. The success of this technique is academically supported by the work of French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who made anecdotal evidence and verbal report an acceptable source of knowledge. Levi-Strauss would not use content the way Campbell did, preferring structure as a basis for analysis, but his work has allowed the work of Campbell to be seen more favorably.
American writer Tim Miller has cited Campbell's work as an essential early influence on his own poetry, which generally centers on mythology and religion. For Miller, what is useful and most valuable in Campbell's work is not his theories of how or why myths came to be, but rather his re-telling of the myths themselves, and his passion for the importance of myth and religion in modern society. Miller credits Campbell—at the very least—with pointing the way to a direct experience of sacred texts and stories, as well as introducing him to the work of other scholars, Mircea Eliade among them. Miller's long poem-in-progress "To the House of the Sun" is in many ways directly related to Campbell's early influence on his writing.
George Lucas' film series Star Wars was extremely popular, with Lucas being the first Hollywood director to acknowledge the effect that Joseph Campbell's ideas had on the development of his films:
I came to the conclusion after 'American Graffiti' that what's valuable for me is to set standards, not to show people the world the way it is… around the period of this realization… it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology…. The Western was possibly the last generically American fairy tale, telling us about our values. And once the Western disappeared, nothing has ever taken its place. In literature we were going off into science fiction… so that's when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe's books. Before that I hadn't read any of Joe's books… It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of 'Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope' was following classic motifs… so I modified my next draft [of 'Star Wars'] according to what I'd been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent… I went on to read The Masks of God and many other books 
The 1988 documentary The Power of Myth, was filmed at Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, and during the interviews with Bill Moyers, Campbell discussed the way in which Lucas used The Hero's Journey in the Star Wars films (IV, V, and VI) to re-invent mythology for contemporary times. Moyers and Lucas filmed an interview 12 years later in 1999 called the Mythology of Star Wars with George Lucas and Bill Moyers, to further discuss the impact of Campbell's work on Lucas' films 
The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, sponsored an exhibit during the late 1990s called "Star Wars: The Magic of Myth" which discussed the ways in which Campbell's work shaped the Star Wars films. A companion guide of the same name was published in 1997.
Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood screenwriter, created a now-legendary seven-page company memo, A Practical Guide to "The Hero with a Thousand Faces,"  based on Campbell's work which led to the development of Disney's 1993 film, The Lion King. Vogler's memo was later expanded and developed into the 1998 book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which served as a textbook for a new generation of screenwriters, and would become the basis for a number of successful Hollywood films.
The sheer volume of Campbell's published works and their emphasis on minute and obscure detail proved to be deterrent factors that blocked access to his ideas by the general reading public, except those specifically interested in his field of mythology, until the televised showing of The Power of Myth. The format of video, broadcast on public television stations across the United States, made him much more accessible to a broad audience of people.
Joseph Campbell remains beloved by many and has stimulated much creativity. It is interesting to note that unfortunate circumstances of his life including the academic culture that was so adversarial to his formative career, worked in such a way to open such a lengthy and meandering course that enriched his life experiences for decades, before he settled into a recognizable academic career. As literate as he was, his greatest strength emerged in his speaking and when he made his own myths, engaging his audience in the process which he was describing. It is fortunate that his brilliance was recognized and rewarded with the opportunity to film The Power of Myth before he died; providing him the platform to not only define the unity of humanity, but show us how to dance together, in bliss, within it.
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