Joseph Campbell

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Campbell following his bliss.
I'd rather be a
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Suckled in a creed outworn
Gather 'round the campfire
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Urban legends
Sober, modern Occidental judgement is founded on a total misunderstanding of the realities depicted in the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedies of redemption. These, in the ancient world, were regarded as of a higher rank than tragedy, of a deeper truth, of a more difficult realization, of a sounder structure, and of a revelation more complete.
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, ch. 2.

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) was an American mythographer and comparative religionist whose extensive writings have had a deep influence on the tonier parts of the New Age movement.[1][2] He coined the term monomyth to describe an all-encompassing or overarching myth. His own proposed monomyth, the Hero's Journey, according to the preface of The Hero with a Thousand Faces[3], goes like this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The characters he encounters along his journey into wonderland will be Jungian archetypes, or rather, stereotypes and stock characters.

George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, was heavily into his ideas.[4] Thus began a whole shelf full of Bioware video games.[5][6] The Hero's Journey was not actually all that prevalent in popular culture before Lucas took up Campbell's ideas, but now it's bloody everywhere. Quotations from Campbell appear as chapter epigrams in Richard Adams's Watership Down. Dan Brown has said that the character of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code and his other fictions was inspired by Campbell.[7]

He also made The Power of Myth, a series of TV interviews with Bill Moyers about mythology on PBS; these were broadcast in 1988, shortly after his death.

He described his philosophy as "Follow your bliss."[8] Yeah. Like that's going to end well.

Reactionary and anti-Semitic views[edit]

During his lifetime, Campbell expressed a number of right-wing and anti-Semitic views. Two years after his death, and a year after his PBS series brought him and his works once again to the attention of a mass audience, on September 28, 1989 Brendan Gill published an attack on Campbell in the New York Review of Books,[9] calling attention to a number of incautiously anti-Semitic statements Campbell had made during his lifetime. Gill also pointed out that Campbell had been a hawk on the Vietnam War, and viewed the 1960s counterculture with growing distaste over the course of those decades.[10] Gill's posthumous attack concluded with observations that Campbell's "follow your bliss" mantra appealed chiefly to self-centered yuppies of the Reagan era, and compared the resulting ethos with that of Ayn Rand. The piece was controversial, but even some of Campbell's defenders characterized his politics as those of a "romantic fascist".[11] Campbell's defenders have also suggested that the claims of his anti-Semitism were exaggerated by a hard-left clique among his fellow faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, who reacted badly to his anti-Communism.[11]

Most of the evidence is anecdotal; if Campbell was an anti-Semite, he kept it out of his published material. But not entirely: in the late book The Power of Myth, a companion to the PBS series that greatly increased his fame, Campbell wrote that "(t)he Yahweh cult was a specific movement in the Hebrew community, which finally won. This was a pushing through of a certain temple-bound god against the nature cult, which was celebrated all over the place. And this imperialistic thrust of a certain in-group culture is continued in the West."[12] During the 1969 moon landing, Campbell is said to have joked that the Moon would be a good place to move the Jews. He also expressed discomfort when African-Americans began enrolling in Sarah Lawrence, the women's university where he was a professor.[10]

Campbell was a late Romantic; the bulk of his work was about "lumping people together". He took a Spenglerian view of human history, with sweeping characterizations of entire eras and peoples. The four volumes of his comparative mythology compendium The Masks of GodWikipedia are:

  • Primitive Mythology
  • Oriental Mythology
  • Occidental Mythology
  • Creative Mythology

His final major planned work was a Historical Atlas of World MythologyWikipedia, which proposed that "myths of Stone Age hunter-gatherers focus on shamanism and animal totems", while "the myths of Neolithic, agrarian cultures focus upon a mother goddess and associated fertility rites."

Texts like these can't help but paint with very broad strokes. Like his forebears Sir James Frazer and Robert Graves, his works mashed together many distinct myths, cultures, and historical periods. His background was as a scholar of literature, not an anthropologist or sociologist. As a result, his methods were those of a literary critic, looking for parallels and analogies, which he always found interesting or significant, even if no direct historical link between the myths he joined could be demonstrated.[13]

He accepted as historically, or at least mythically true, the mostly discredited ideas of early 20th century folklorists and anthropologists about ancient matriarchies and universal myth structures. Campbell wrote a preface to the second edition of the Indo-Europeanist Marija Gimbutas's The Language of the Goddess (2d ed. 1989), an eccentric late work claiming that prehistoric Europe was an idyllic matriarchy. His work also contained a strong dose of reactionary primitivism, and perpetuated the Romantic myth of the noble savage; he believed that the West was "decadent", disconnected from spiritual values, and he admired the "heroic" qualities of warrior cultures.[10][14]

His anti-Semitism and right-wing opinions can be understood in light of these beliefs. He freely incorporated Jung's "archetypes" into his mythography, and tended to characterize them as numinous figures from the "collective unconscious" who reappear constantly over centuries and cultures. An archetype is well on the way to becoming a polytheistic deity in its own right; his admiration of, if not belief in, paganism predisposed him to dislike the creators of Yahweh and monotheism.[15] His biases actually flowed from his desire for an all-inclusive spirituality: any religion claiming to hold exclusive truth, that its wonderlore was not myth but history, and that other religions were false, was not playing nice. His paganism may have mellowed his right-wing opinions towards the end of his life; in the 1980s "his Republicanism began to waver because of the Republican party's attachment to Christian fundamentalism, to its anti-choice position, and to its stand on the environment."[15]

See also[edit]


  1. Hanegraaff, Wouter. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (SUNY, 1997), p. 196, n. 42
  2. See, for example, Pollack, Rachel and Duffy, Gavin. The Forest of Souls: A Walk Through the Tarot (Llewellyn, 2002). He was all over the place, especially in neopagan circles.
  3. (Pantheon, 1949)
  5. Bioware Trope Chart.
  6. New Proof that Every Scifi Epic is Based on Joseph Campbell, io9
  7. Dan Brown: By the Book. New York Times, June 20, 2013.
  8. Campbell, Joseph. Follow your bliss. The Joseph Campbell Foundation.
  9. Gill, Brendan. The Faces of Joseph Campbell
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Bernstein, Richard. After Death, a Writer Is Accused of Anti-Semitism (New York Times, November 6, 1989)
  11. 11.0 11.1 Gill, Brendan, et. al. Joseph Campbell - An Exchange (New York Review of Books, Nov. 9, 1989
  12. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (Doubleday, 1988), p. 21.
  13. Robert Ellwood: The Politics of Myth: A Study of C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. (SUNY 1999; ISBN 0-7914-4306-X). ch. 4
  14. Segal, Joseph. The Romantic Appeal of Joseph Campbell (Christian Century, April 4, 1990, pp. 332-335)
  15. 15.0 15.1 Macary, Maggie. Joseph Campbell & Anti-Semitism: The Politics of the Matter (Pacifica Graduate Institute, December 28, 2004)