Joseph Campbell Profile

Carolyn and I have appreciated the work of literature professor, author, and mythologist Joseph Campbell, who is recognized today as being one of the most influential experts on mythology.

Joseph John Campbell was born in White Plains, New York in 1904. His father was a hosiery importer and wholesaler, and he was raised in an upper-middle-class Irish Catholic family, with a younger brother.

When Campbell was seven years old, his father took him and his brother to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which made a great impression on him. Campbell “became fascinated, seized, obsessed, by the figure of a naked American Indian with his ear to the ground, a bow and arrow in his hand, and a look of special knowledge in his eyes.”

As a result of this experience, Campbell became extremely interested in Native American culture. By the time he was ten years old, Campbell had read every book on American Indians in the children’s section at his local library and began devouring the books on the subject in the adult section.

In 1921, Campbell graduated from the Canterbury School in Connecticut and initially studied biology and mathematics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, although he later switched to the humanities, and transferred to Columbia University in New York, where he excelled.

In 1924, after traveling to Europe with his family on a steamship, on the return voyage, he met philosopher and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti aboard the ship, and they discussed Indian philosophy. This began a friendship between the two; they stayed in touch for five years, and this had a profound influence on Campbell, sparking his interest in Eastern philosophy and Hindu thought.

In 1925 Campbell graduated with a degree in English literature from Columbia University, and then in 1927, he earned a master’s degree in medieval literature from the school. Later that year Campbell received a fellowship from Columbia University to study in Europe, where he studied Old French Provencal and Sanskrit at the University of Paris and the University of Munich.

From 1929 to 1934 Campbell lived in a cabin in Woodstock, New York, where he engaged in an intensive and rigorous independent study. During these years he generally read for nine hours a day, although he traveled to California for a year, between 1931 and 1932, where he became close friends with writer John Steinbeck.

In 1934, Campbell accepted a position as professor of Literature at Sara Lawrence College in New York. Then, in 1938, Campbell married one of his former students, dancer-choreographer Jean Erdman, and they lived together in a two-room apartment in Greenwich Village in New York City for 49 years. In the 1980s they purchased a second apartment in Honolulu, and they divided their time between Hawaii and New York.

In 1943 Campbell coauthored the book Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial. This book takes its title from the symbolic creation legend of the Navaho people, which they incorporated into their blessing ceremony for tribe members headed to battle, and the book explores how this rite influenced Native Americans during World War II when they were for the first time drafted into the U.S. military.

In 1949 Campbell’s best-known book was published, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The book was published to wide acclaim and brought him numerous awards and honors. In this study of the myth of the hero, Campbell proposes the existence of a “monomyth” (a word coined by James Joyce), or “a universal pattern that is the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture.” This book has had a major influence on generations of creative artists, from abstract expressionists in the 1950s to contemporary filmmakers today.

Between 1955 and 1956, Campbell traveled to Asia for the first time and spent months in India and Japan. This had a profound influence on his thinking about Asian religion and myth, and it inspired him to want to teach comparative mythology to a larger audience.

Campbell authored numerous books on mythology, including The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology in 1959, Oriental Mythology in 1962, Occidental Mythology in 1964, and Creative Mythology in 1968. In 1972 he published Myths to Live By, and in 1986 his book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion was released. Campbell was also a prolific editor. Some of the many books he edited included Alan Watts’ Myth and Ritual in Christianity and The Portable Jung, with work by psychologist Carl Jung.

Campbell also widely lectured, and starting in 1965, he led workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur for many years. In 1972, Campbell retired from Sarah Lawrence College, after having taught there for 38 years.

In 1985, Campbell was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal of Honor in Literature. At the award ceremony, James Hillman said, “No one in our century— not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Lévi-Strauss— has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.”

In 1987 Campbell died at his home in Hawaii and is buried in Honolulu.

Before his death, Campbell completed filming a series of interviews with Bill Moyers that aired on PBS in 1988 as The Power of Myth, and much interest in his work followed the airing of this popular series. The series discusses mythological, religious, and psychological archetypes, and a book, The Power of Myth, containing expanded transcripts of their conversations, was released shortly after the original broadcast. Millions of viewers were introduced to Campbell’s ideas by the broadcast, which was composed of six hours of conversation that the two men had videotaped over the course of several years.

In 1991, Campbell’s widow Jean Erdman worked with others to create the Joseph Campbell Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving, protecting, and perpetuating Campbell’s mythological work.

Hollywood filmmaker George Lucas has also credited Campbell’s influence. Following the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, he stated that its story was shaped, in part, by ideas described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works of Campbell’s. Many other filmmakers have acknowledged the influence of Campbell’s work on their films, including Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood screenwriter, who created a company memo based on Campbell’s work, A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which led to the development of Disney’s 1994 film The Lion King.

Some of the quotes that Joseph Campbell is known for include:

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.

The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.

You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.

All the gods, all the heavens, all the hells, are within you.

Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.

by David Jay Brown

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