in Contemporary Times
| Nationalism and religious fundamentalism fuel
conflict and repression around the world. Wars are fought over ethnic
or religious belief systems. In many countries, the "think our way"
factions move to limit the rights of those who think differently. Yet,
a teacher in recent times understood, and helped others to understand,
that through the study of mythology, and the comparison of many systems
of belief, we can see the common threads that run through our human existence.
In recognizing our commonality, we may be less inclined to mindlessly
join the camps of those who believe this and those who believe
|I am speaking of Joseph Campbell,
1904-1987. I hope that this page will serve as a tribute and brief introduction
to what was his life's work. I encourage every interested party to read
his books or visit the Joseph Campbell Foundation on
the Internet. Joseph Campbell's ideas are interwoven throughout his books
and lectures, and he never ceased exploring mythology and its application
to psychology, art, and the human experience. His life was a remarkable
journey of discovery that intersected with many of the twentieth century's
great scholars, philosophers, and artists. This single page is not a summary
of his work, only a glimpse of one facet of his sparkling collection of
|There are three concepts that
are important in understanding Joseph Campbell's work with mythology.
The first two are from Carl Jung, a Swiss psychoanalyst (1875-1961). These
are the related concepts of the collective unconscious and archetypes.
The collective unconscious is the term that Jung used to describe
humankind's inborn predisposition to certain feelings, perceptions,
and behaviors. It is not dependent on the experiences of the individual,
but is instead something that we inherit, and perhaps share, as a kind
of genetic memory. We react to certain instances in the same way that
our human and even pre-human ancestors did because we carry the
same potentialities for reaction that they did. They are "engraved"
on our minds. For example, the newborn relates to the mother, because
he or she was born with the concept of the mother already set as a pattern
in the collective unconscious.
|Jung called the contents
of the collective unconscious archetypes which means roughly
the same thing as prototype (a first model which other things are patterned
|Some of the things he identified
as archetypes are: birth, rebirth, death, power, magic, the hero, the
child, the Trickster, God, the demon, the wise old man, the Earth mother,
the giant and many natural things: the Sun, the Moon, trees, wind, rivers,
fire and animals. Also, man-made objects like rings and weapons.
Jung wrote, "There
are as many archetypes as there are typical situations in life. Endless
repetition has engraved these experiences into our psychic constitution,
not in the forms of images filled with content, but at first only as
forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain
type of perception and action."
So these archetypes are not fully developed pictures but are rather
the form of the image that we fill in with the corresponding real-life
experience. Jung writes, "A
primordial image is determined as to its content only when it becomes
conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious
|In Jung's work, the importance
of the archetype includes the way that the individual might be influenced
by one or more of the archetypal models and have a certain kind of personality.
In Campbell's work the importance of the archetype has to do with the
way that myths with similar themes developed concurrently across cultures
and that the themes have resonance and meaning because they originate
in the unconscious archetypes.
But archetypes only come forth as forms to be filled in with the contents
of conscious life and the conscious life that brought forth myth may
be radically different to the listeners or readers of a different age.
So instead of interpreting the myths literally, we must interpret them
This is the third concept, that of the metaphor. A metaphor
is a figure of speech that speaks of one thing by describing another.
For example, "John runs like a racehorse" is not a metaphor,
"John is a racehorse" is. It is certainly an untruth at face
value, but it speaks indirectly of the truth.
So the groundwork is laid as this: the collective unconscious
is a reservoir of unconscious forms that we are born with, these forms
are identifiable as archetypes, and mythology is born from
the archetypes and speaks directly to our lives metaphorically.
|In a very practical way the
archetypes are there to provide us with information about life's experiences.
They have developed over the span of millions of years. In the same way,
myths are metaphorical representations of the content of the archetypes
and can be used to provide us with information about life's experiences.
More than that, there are twin values to the myth. First, there
is the unbidden psychological effect of having the archetypal forms
pulled from the unconscious world into the conscious world through myth
and ritual. It allows us to gain insight into the sources of our fears,
reactions, behaviors, and perceptions. The second value is as blueprint
for handling specific situations that we will see in the cycle of our
|Joseph Campbell identified
a repeated motif in myths and legends that he called the Hero's Journey
that features the hero archetype. It was the basis for a book that he
wrote in 1949 that gave him some measure of popularity and acclaim in
the early 1950's called The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
In its most elemental form, the monomyth, as Campbell described it
using a word invented by author James Joyce, is this: separation-initiation-return.
In the case of the Hero's Journey it can be fleshed out in this form:
- The Call to Adventure- The unexpected call to action.
- Supernatural Aid - The helper figure that prepares the the hero
in some way for the trials to come.
- The Threshold - The point in the story where the hero stands poised
to enter a mysterious new world.
- The Trials - The trials and ordeals the hero must endure.
- The Return - Having completed the trials the hero brings back a
boon to his society.
Of course, every person will not be interested in the hero's journey.
Some are content with the safety of staying in the village while the
heroes pass through.
But in the cases where life seems unfulfilled, or the daily challenges
leave us helpless and frustrated, then we should consider the metaphor
of the hero's journey and the template it provides for dealing with
our experiences, even at the most mundane levels.
Joseph Campbell believed that through identifying with the myth (and
the archetypal element at its core), our lives could open up (and inward)
to reveal a rich symphony of experiences. The archetypes are there to
guide us through the situations of life, and when we are in harmony
with the form, then we are following some deeper level of self-fulfillment.
When we are on the path of following our heart (a metaphor) instead
of the rules of society, then doors will open up for us (Supernatural
Aid) and the universe will give us the help we need.
Of course, the trials and ordeals may be difficult, even deadly. Campbell
said, "Heavy winds blow," But we know that we will return
with some enrichment, and probably to another adventure awaiting.
|Refusal of the Call
|On the other hand, some people
will refuse the call to adventure. Campbell wrote in Hero With
a Thousand Faces,
"Often in actual life,
and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the
dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn
the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure
into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work or 'culture,' the subject
loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim
to be saved."
|Rites and Rituals
|It has been said that there
is no generation gap, only inadequate rites of passage. The rites of passage
to adulthood, especially of the boy's transition to manhood, were also
carefully considered by Campbell and is another interesting application
of the myth's purpose in societies.
He found stories from cultures around the world that were the basis
for the rituals used to initiate young men from the home and hearth
world of the mother to the outside world of the father. For the sake
of our modernity and worldliness, we abandon the stories or ignore their
meanings. If we were initiating boys into manhood in significant ways,
would we have a healthier society? Perhaps some young men would be able
to substitute the actual state of manhood for the sense of the
power they get carrying weapons, and other men might be able to live
up to their own standards instead of being trapped inside their parents'
(or other authority figure's) expectations.
There is much, much more to understand about Joseph Campbell's work.
His perspective was panoramic as he studied, traveled, and worked with
some of the twentieth century's most influential people. The last word
is left for Mr. Campbell:
"Furthermore, we have
not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have
gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow
the thread of the hero path, and where we had thought to find an abomination,
we shall find a god. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall
slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we will come
to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone,
we will be with all the world."
© 1996-2011 worldchanges / d. troland. All Rights Reserved.