You Are That (.org)
The resurrection of my late lamented website (mostly) on spiritual matters.

Joseph Campbell: Ideas

An exploration of some of the seminal concepts in Campbell's works

[This essay was originally posted to]

The Condensed Version

Joseph Campbell's oeuvre fills volumes of books and hours of audio and video.  However, like any good teacher, Campbell had certain ideas that he repeated throughout his work.  Here is a list of the most important of these (for an exhaustive list, you'll just have to read, listen to, and view all of his work!)  In another project (introduced here, with a brief biography), I wrote very brief pieces about each of the ideas below; they are linked to each item.  Also, check The Journal (now my blog) for frequent comment on one aspect or another of Uncle Joe's teaching.

A Preliminary List
(in no particular order)

  • What is a myth?: Campbell's ever-evolving understanding of myth helped define it for the 20th century.
  • Comparative mythology: exploring the myths of various cultures, finding "common ground"
  • The Four Functions of Mythology: the Mystical (opening us to wonder), Cosmological (placing us in the universe), Social (organizing our lives in community), and Pedagogical (teaching us how to live a human life)
  • Metaphor: All words about "the Other" are metaphorical, and less than the "real thing."
  • Becoming "transparent to transcendence": allowing the energies of the universe to work through you (largely by avoiding a concrete, scientific, historical reading of myths)
  • German PhilosophySchopenhauer, Spengler, Kant, Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud: Campbell read German fluently (he studied in Munich in the 1920s) and was deeply affected by the ideas of "trendy" German philosophers.
  • Carl Jung: The obvious connections of myth to psychology were not lost on Campbell; he edited Jung and developed a deep affinity for his ideas.
  • Archetypes: Drawing heavily on Jung, finding keys to understanding widely varying myths through their resonance in the human psyche
  • The "Hero's Journey": A cycle of Call, Departure, Attainment, return, and Transformation underlies the world's hero stories
  • "Follow Your Bliss": Campbell's best known (and, I suspect, least understood) dictum, crystallizing the wisdom he gained from a lifetime of studying myths
  • Native American stories: Along with stories of other primal cultures, these pre-literate stories held special meaning for Campbell.
  • Arthurian romance: In contrast to the Native American tales, these are some of the most sophisticated of stories.
  • Modern Literature: A literature professor, he co-authored a book on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake; his most famous book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is essentially literary analysis. He also deeply appreciated Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Mann, and Goethe.
  • Pop Culture: Running track, playing jazz saxophone, watching Errol Flynn movies, influencing Star Wars, discussing ritual with the Grateful Dead--out of the ivory tower
  • Nature and Biology: From an early age he was deeply connected to the natural world; his last major work, the Historical Atlas of World Mythology, drew on hunting and planting mythologies
  • Eastern thought (Hindu and Buddhist): Campbell "went East," as I have, and found there some of the purest soundings of the themes of world mythology
  • Art and creativity: Throughout his work, Campbell often returns to the nature of the creative process, saying that in the past the shaman was the poet and artist of the tribe, and that today the poet and artist is our shaman

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