Who is Joseph Campbell?

wiseGEEK Writer

Joseph Campbell, writer, educator, lecturer, teacher and by some considered almost shamanic, did not become known to the popular world until after his death in 1987. In 1988, PBS aired a 6 hour conversation between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, which discussed at length Campbell’s theory that most myths, stories, and religions share the same types of images and archetypes that represent the hero’s journey, which is the desire of the everyman to achieve individuation or wholeness of the psyche.

Joseph Campbell stayed with John Steinbeck for close to a year.
Joseph Campbell stayed with John Steinbeck for close to a year.

This concept of shared images in vastly different cultures was Campbell’s distillation of Carl Jung’s work on the universal unconscious. To Jung, all people had, beneath a personal unconscious, a set of shared images that meant roughly the same thing. Myth, religion, folklore and fairy tales were artistic representations of the universal unconscious. Joseph Campbell called this underlying structure the monomyth.

The works of Joseph Campbell inspired George Lucas to model the town of Mos Eisley, where Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, after towns from the bible and the American Old West.
The works of Joseph Campbell inspired George Lucas to model the town of Mos Eisley, where Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie, after towns from the bible and the American Old West.

For Joseph Campbell, this connection to a universal unconscious was deeply personal. Campbell as a boy became deeply interested in the Native American tribes which once populated his home. He closely studied Native American lore, and even developed his own tribe. Raised as a conservative Roman Catholic, Campbell noted similarities between tribal lore and Catholicism. These early studies would later inspire his interest in all mythology.

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As a college student, his interests were primarily in medieval studies. He received his Master’s in Arthurian Studies, and then traveled to Paris on a fellowship to continue his work. During his stay in Paris, he certainly studied not only literature, but also contemporary art, fascinated by the work of Bourdelle and Picasso. He also first began to study the work of Carl Jung, which would prove foundational in his later work and studies.

In the 1930s Joseph Campbell traveled through the US, staying with John Steinbeck for close to a year, before accepting a teaching position in 1934 at Sarah Lawrence College. He would remain a professor there for close to 40 years. He also met and married his wife Jean Erdman, a dancer in Martha Graham’s modern dance company.

In the 1940s, Joseph Campbell was offered a post as one of the directors for Bollingen Press. This company would later publish the many works of Campbell. His first works for Bollingen were collaborative, and included the editing and publications of texts written by Heinrich Zimmer, who died in 1943.

In 1949, Bollingen published Campbell’s first and best known work on mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces which expounded his theories of the similar qualities of all mythos. Campbell would go on to publish over ten more works, as well as collaborate on dozens more. Yet the 1949 work is the principal piece for which Joseph Campbell is recognized.

Joseph Campbell is more acknowledged as a great lecturer than writer. Most contemporary critics find his work to be difficult, with very poor indexing. He did not write the indices for his books and they suffer, as they are not easily searched. However, scholars lauded Joseph Campbell for his lectures, performed throughout the country. He later regularly lectured at the Esalen Institute.

The Power of Myth brought Joseph Campbell national attention. Campbell’s approachability through lecture is apparent. He is particularly noted for his ability to look at modern works, like the Star Wars trilogy and relate them to ancient mythology’s exploration of the hero’s journey. The motto “follow your bliss,” is derived from this series of conversations.

Campbell’s work tends to preference male hero journeys over female ones. Some of his texts ascribe to females the very traditional roles of wives and mothers, rather than workers, and this quality tends to evoke the ire of feminist critics. It is notable that his wife continued to work as a dancer, and that the couple did not have children. Perhaps his comments relating to women are something of wish fulfillment. However, many feminists question the value of the hero’s journey as developed by Joseph Campbell, because of a perceived old-fashioned take on women’s roles.

Putting aside these prejudices, the work of Joseph Campbell represents important scholarship, aimed at achieving harmony in a world torn by so many differences. His examinations of mythos suggest that even with great differences in cultures, there are often greater similarities in belief systems and religious structures, which, if understood, would create unity among all people.

As a boy, Joseph Campbell became interested in Native American culture.
As a boy, Joseph Campbell became interested in Native American culture.

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Discussion Comments


I think that the most telling thing about J. Campbell is that he returned to the Catholic church on his deathbed. All the myths and theories are dazzling and fascinating. At the end, he returned to Christ.



I would agree with you. If Christ truly did say "I am the way the truth and the life," I don't think he was leaving room for other figureheads. He does call people to be like him in the Bible though, does he not? This would mean that people who follow in his footsteps are also heroes.



I agree that there is much in common, and religions certainly do form the base of a society, but I would disagree that they merely split on minor details. The fact that there is a common hero image in every religion merely points to the fact that all humans need a hero and a savior. But core heroes and gods are not created equal and have fundamentally different approaches to their people. Some are loving some are merely looking out for their own petty interests. Recognizing these fundamental differences and inequalities amongst religions is important, and I believe the differences are irreconcilable at their core.



It must be emphasized that all religions and mythologies have too much in common to bicker over unimportant details and minor differences. Sects seem to always find the most random and insignificant piece of dogma to split over. Our world needs to be unified, and a great place to start is with religions, since they form the base of a society.


Joseph Campbell seems to have become the American representative of Jung, but his assumption seem to have more of an agenda. This agenda is the postmodern agenda to push the ideal of "coexistence" and allowance of all religions and beliefs without questioning their truthfulness. This kind of view seeks to weed out the "fundamentalists" or "radicals" of any religious group.

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