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Themes in Joseph Campbell’s Thought

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    Toby Johnson

      By way of participating in this “conversation,” let me share some thoughts I have written elsewhere about Three Themes in Joseph Campbell’s Thought. Here’s the first section:

      There are three identifiable themes in the thought of Joseph Campbell and his fans (Joe would not have liked the word “followers” which perhaps would have been the appropriate term there!). These are loosely associable with what Campbell identified as the four functions of myth: psychological/pedagogical, social, cosmological, and mystical/metaphysical.

      These themes are: training young people in the nature of mythology, reclaiming myth as a high cultural art form, and (I think, most importantly) identifying the so-called “new myth.” There is also in the work of the Joseph Campbell Foundation an effort to link like minds in various sorts of real and virtual roundtable discussions. These then correlate respectively with the pedagogical, mystical, cosmological, and social functions.

      The Pedagogical Theme:

      While the content of Campbell’s books and talks was always the vast range of mythological stories and artistic expressions that he loved to rhapsodize about, the single, central message in all his work was simply that all religion is myth.

      His joke was that “myth is other people’s religion.” But the implication of that, of course, was that one’s own religion is also myth to somebody else. None of it is true in any literal sense. All religion is metaphor for certain biological and psychological dynamics that determine and direct human experience. The metaphors of religion are supposed to assist with the “right” ways to experience one’s human life and so to make the “right” choices about how to live a decent, happy, contributing life.

      This is a radically different way of understanding religion from the mainstream Judeo-Christian religion that dominates the U.S. (and, in particular, the culture of New York City in the middle of the 20th Century when Campbell was coming of age and then flourishing). Judeo-Christian religion claims to be historically true, and so not mythological at all.

      For Campbell’s readers and fan, then, one of the central problems of modern life is how to raise children to understand religion, that is, how to gain from the moral lessons in the stories and to be properly edified, but not to fall into unscientific and unreasonable belief in the religious doctrines in the way the religious institutions would want. A solution for how to teach children about religion was then developed which mimicks the experience of the adults in discovering and being edified by Joseph Campbell’s ideas–and those of the whole field of comparative religions and new-paradigm science. Teach the children all the myths.

      This results in a sort of valorizing of myth for its own sake: exposure to the mythological stories of all the various human cultures of the world will be beneficial. Indeed, this is a theme in Jungian psychoanalysis (which arena of thought was the basis for the new-paradigm of religion). For Jung, cultural myths were like the dreams of the collective unconscious; and in the same way as Freud discovered that talking about one’s psychodynamic processes, including analysis of dreams, was therapeutic for mental disorders, so Jung thought bringing mythological themes and associations into consciousness would be beneficial and healing for the human personality.

      It’s not entirely clear how true this might be. Indeed, it is this notion that is really what the modern “new-age, new-paradigm,” philosopher of religion Ken Wilber calls the “pre/trans fallacy,” i.e. confusing the irrationality of primitive religion with the trans-rational mystical consciousness of evolved post-modern, post-quantum theory thought. Just because American Indian languages like Hopi (as discussed by Benjamin L. Whorf) consist primarily of verbs, it does not follow that the Hopi elders understood the quantum nature of the cosmos.

      Toby Johnson

        The High Culture Form Theme:

        Fans and followers of Joseph Campbell’s–like Campbell himself–like stories. They like aphorisms like that of Eli Wiesel that “God created human beings because He loves stories.” Campbell liked to tell stories. His audiences liked to listen to him. And they probably went home and repeated those stories to other people.

        One theme then in Campbellian thought is that we ought to read and listen to and analyze the great treasury of mythological stories that come down to us from around the world because they’re great art in themselves. Religion and creative art are aspects of one another.

        In the same way you go to art museums to appreciate the high culture forms of past artisans and artists, so you might read the mythological stories from the past and even participate in the religious practices of those people who still practice religion (and believe in it as literal truth–“God’s own Truth”) but with your own enlightened perspective.

        This results in even more valorization of myth for its own sake. And further raises the spectre of the “pre/trans fallacy.” Just because you–as a modern, sophisticated, intelligent person well-read about religion–can see deep and profound meaning for you in the stories of the past, it doesn’t follow that the prophets and evangelists who composed the religions knew or intended such profound wisdom.


        For me, personally, the pedagogical theme Campbell identifies in myth is a sign of his genius – it’s where academic analysis and the real world intersect. The first time I read The Hero with a Thousand Faces I appreciated it as an historical work, and for the insights it offered into understanding the extreme fundamentalist cult in which I was raised – but it wasn’t until I came back to Hero …, during a period of psychological crisis in the midst of a health emergency, that I realized the stages of the hero quest aren’t just some abstract, intellectual analysis, but actually apply to my life!

        I was able to see where I was on the path (at that point, mired deep in the Wasteland) … and myth provided the road map that helped me make sense of my journey.

        Toby Johnson

          The “New Myth” Theme:

          One of the things Joseph Campbell liked to talk about was what would be the myth of the future, what will be the content of the religious doctrines in the future?

          He opined that we can no more predict the myth of the future than we can predict tonight’s dream. And in that context, it sounded like he was talking about the birth of a new religion with a new savior: a new Jesus (or Maitreya or whatever) who’d rise to prominence with a new religion to spread.

          But that is NOT really what the new myth is going to be about. And Joe knew that perfectly well.

          Way back in the 1970s, when Joe was starting to achieve prominence with the West Coast counterculture, this current writer was on the crew that regularly hosted and put on (and ushered, cooked, cleaned, stuffed envelopes, put up posters, etc.) his Northern California appearances. I met Joe originally at the Mann Ranch in 1971. I was fresh out of Catholic religious life, studying Comparative Religions –especially “hippie” neo-Buddhism– at the California Institute of Asian Studies (which later changed its name to Integral Studies). I was fascinated with Campbell’s ideas because of the implication they had for my own religious belief: it meant my Catholicism was a myth like all the others and that “Truth” transcends all the various traditions.

          I told him that in a conversation over dinner that first time I met him. I told him I thought his vision of religion as myth and metaphor was in fact the insight that would found a new paradigm spiritual consciousness. In my own rhapsodizing, I guess, I told him I thought his ideas were the “new myth.” Joe was gratified to have fans–especially bright-eyed young men. I think because he didn’t have sons of his own and he taught at a girls’ college, his young male fans represented something like his legacy. BUT he didn’t want to be seen as a guru of any sort. That is something he did not like among the hippies and counterculturalists who were drawn to his lectures. He was an academician and a scholar, not a spiritual teacher or guru. He didn’t want to be anybody’s priest or psychological guide.

          And so he always deflected my enthusiastic rantings during the question and answer parts of his talks when I’d get up and proclaim the meta-myth of myth–i.e. understanding the nature of religion as myth and understanding one’s own understanding as yet an example of more mythological thinking.

          But this is THE important idea in Campbell. He referred to the evolution of myth in the conclusion to The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

          The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth-century astronomy to nineteenth-century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in twentieth-century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. (Hero, p. 391)

          That prodigious transfer has continued on into the twenty-first century now with brain study, DNA research, bio-feedback studies of meditators, and complex theories of consciousness (including, of course, the role of consciousness in determining the outcome of scientific experimentation). Ken Wilber’s work, by the way, is another example of this shift in the human experience toward greater and greater reflexivity and self-consciousness.

          To paraphrase the last sentence in the quote from The Hero: Not the supernatural world of the gods of old, but consciousness itself in now the powerful image of the essence of existence. Not an external personality watching over the earth, but the spark of consciousness itself is the appropriate image for God today. God isn’t “out-there”; God is “in here,” in the sense that our own awareness of our being aware and creating images for ourselves of what our experience is is the thing that inspires us to feel wonder and to sense a place within the cosmos.

          Toby Johnson

            I think that what has gone wrong with the modern world is that the traditional myths don’t make sense anymore; they don’t further cooperation for the good of the human race and the planet.

            We need some new myth that explains in logical, scientific, truthful, realistic sounding language how we are all part of this reality, and happiness, success, and evolution of the species comes from getting along together and being truthful and well-motivated.

            This idea of the “new myth” was a major theme in the later thought of  Joseph Campbell. What is the metamyth, the all-encompassing myth that shows how all the various myth systems of the past all fit together.

            There is a wonderful story Campbell used to tell of how he’d been lecturing one night on the theme of the hero cycle in myth, and during the Q&A at the end, a stern looking woman got up and said “Prof Campbell, I’ve been listening to you all night and, well, I think you’re an atheist,” and Campbell said he stepped forward to the edge of the stage and replied, “Madam, anyone who believes in as many gods as I do can hardly be called an atheist.”

            I think that anecdote sums up the new myth. In ecological / eco-scientific jargon, this is the Gaia Hypothesis, that Earth is a living organism of which we are parts (I think, you know, it’s even more true to say that the Sun is the living organism and we’re on the brain part that has to be kept in a cooler region–just as the human male’s testicles have to be kept outside the heat of the body; Remember Jung’s story: “The Sun is God, everyone can see that.”).

            The “new myth” is the explanation of how all the disparate myths around the world and down through time fit together to point to something higher than any of them individually.



            I wonder if we might return to the legitimacy of  imagination as a way into accepting the knowledge that myths of the times before us shared, so that they might still resonate with us today. I am not looking for an all encompassing myth, since that is not possible given the diversity of cultures, experiences and peoples. This is not the aim as I see it, rather it is really important to understand the myths of those who came before us and use them as a structure in creating a myth that reflects our time. I agree with the Gaia Hypothesis, but we shan’t create a myth in too scientific terms-then we are missing out on the imaginative element of myth. We are already bereft of an ability to speak in metaphor, in allusions and just sheer beauty, so I advocate for a language that incorporates all the senses-even those that terrify , the rhythm of  music, the ability to create what is possible. It seems to me a bulwark against the cynicism that it so much part of our experience in the world today-so many of the myths at least left us with hope despite what was often dire and frightening.


              In our current time myths, metaphores and imagination are considered outdated, non-scientific or not related to the current polarised personal views for most, save what now is called or pointed at as the more intelectual elite. General themes fitting in the past are hard to translate for many, but still attracts in commercial or consuming settings. As if a blanket of individual hedonism has covered, to difficult or confronting to realise, a insight in the message of these common themes like who one is, one’s place among others and the dynamics with all around us. Horizons have closed in only one step from the doorposts of common people. Gaia is a horizon for those who want to stay involved, but it is geocentric, heliocentric at best, but ignores the vastness of the universe. If that should be incorporated too, for many utterly incomprehencable given mindboggling conceptions like relativity (the mass, space and time triplet) and quantum mechanics (unrelated cause and consequence), it is understandable, even acceptable with our extremely rapid development from a rural-based worldview to a universal view, that common themes based from an intuitive and emotional (historic) settings have to be re-interpreted and retold in modern what we consider rational language. In itself, this is one of the basic common themes of mankind, to imagine, express and act according to present challanges and understanding. One might notice a slow but steady retreat from the scientific approach of the last few centuries which raised human kind from these known rural grounds back to the tidy, cheerfull and simple realities promised by contemporain prophets, political and religious alike, giving back the polarisation of opinions, taste and personal salvation so much needed by us humans.

              Our common themes are so basic. Both insight and destruction come forth from them, as a representation of ourselfs, creators of creating gods and thrusting forward heroes.



              Your post rings true for me. At the same time, though, Campbell pointed out we can’t determine what the new myth would be, any more than we can decide ahead of time what we’re going to dream tonight – though he does point out elements it’s likely to contain (such as acknowledgement of the planet as one whole).

              Also, most cultures don’t think of their myths as “myth,” but simply what is.

              Given what the whole planet is undergoing in this coronavirus crisis (which in many ways strikes me as a collective death-and-rebirth initiation), feels like we are experiencing a true mythogenetic moment. I suspect the story we all tell ourselves will be dramatically different after we emerge from the abyss … but it may be years, or perhaps decades, before that picture becomes clear.


              I just returned from another strange encounter with shopping in the new way[s] we are required to do so now. Standing in line [with a mask of course]was not the way I was accustomed to doing so-I never even experienced Black Friday. I did however have time to think-something again that was strange since one does not often do this when shopping. It is a beautiful day and I was unexpectedly struck by a though from Campbell’s, The Power of Myth in which he tells us that we are in need of a new myth and that myth must be about the planet-our relationship to it and by extension to one another. I find this both poignant and challenging. I found myself feeling alienated and suspicious standing in line and yet I realize we, yes, we need to learn how to live on this planet and one another in a different way-not as in the most recent ways where we fail to see the humanity in one another and one in which the earth is neglected, robbed of her beauty, and seen as a means to an end. Yes, Campbell was surely correct in his call. I am not sure what that myth might feel and sound like, but the call to create one is so needed at this moment.  I wonder if this might be one basis of conversation for us all in this new kind of summertime. Mars-your thoughts about rational language while quite as we say in German  grounded in Vernunft[ I use this German word because it most clearly expresses what I am thinking], I hope can be also expressed poetically-in language that can hold the profundity of such a new myth-a new turn [the volta in the poetry of Shakespeare’s sonnets] in the way we see the world. At the very least we can try-I know as Stephen points out, we cannot predict what it may be,  but in dreaming, painting, dancing and writing, stories,  perhaps we will be able to recognize it-share it and repeat it.

              Toby Johnson

                The image of the “new myth”

                EarthriseCampbell said the image in popular culture that best signified the new myth was the photo, Earthrise, of planet Earth rising above the lunar horizon. He said it signified humankind looking back on the Earth from outside and over and above.

                I think that perspective is what generates the new myth, i.e., the modern idea that the planet is a “living organism” — Gaia — that reveals itself to itself through the religions and myths of old, and that we are all part of it.

                Johanna, I liked how you described your sense in the store that human beings need to see ourselves as parts of a bigger consciousness.

                Mars observed above that the Gaia is is a little geocentric. Maybe a way to understand Gaia is as not so much the Earth, but Sol, the star. And the star evolved planets for it to have a place for the cooler processes of its consciousness.

                This is still a myth, of course. But the understanding that “we’re all in this together” may be one of the most important teachings in all the myths.




                Makes sense that the Gaia concept is indeed geocentric (or heliocentric at best, as you and Toby agree). For those raised, though, in a belief system grounded in a specific region, nationality, ethnicity, or religion, it is indeed a start – a step outside their own bounded horizon (to borrow Campbell’s metaphor).

                But you are right – whether our growing understanding of outer space, or inner space, mythology must expand beyond even the earth, taking into account the sublime wonder of all that is, which would seem but a sliver of what we apprehend.

                Getting from here to there is the tricky part, especially given the tendency the past few years on the part of many around the globe to pull back into their own little “in-groups,” as Joe called them. This contraction is a reflexive but not altogether unexpected response. The question that arises is will humanity get past this?

                Only time will tell.


                  Telling stories actually has almost nothing to do with rationallaty (“Vernunft”), as it is not the language of the the concious but of the emotions instead. Artists, tirans and sybarites know or use this for their own expressions or interests. If the story is about moderation and temperance, the rational level is addressed but the emotional level is lost. And even more: where and how is the instinct involved and satisfied (happy end, eternal life)? Earthrise is a very expressional view, dating from a recent but not now appealing decade anymore, which ‘showed’ hope for mankind in those specific turbulent times, but has surpassed largely in half of a human lifetime. We have our ditto times, themes and current answers. Once a piece of art is created, it is outdated. I do like Dante’s work, such a monument, this medieval perception.

                  Trying to break the bounds of the now, the needs and urges, to flatten out ripples on the waves of history, dissolve from this blissfull and bountyfull polarised life, its joy and sorrow, seen as if from far above on Olympic clouds or from far away above Selene deserts, gazing out towards that blue pearl, is only but a first step, eager awaited yet so difficult to perform. It’s the Hero’s – our – Journey.

                  How to tell a story, how to point others to awareness? There is no other route then to follow, not exact, not imitating, the authentic personal interpretation no matter what. No generalitions, no all including definitions, no final answers. And no eclectic views from above or below, but from this middle plane only, the emo-level. Story level.The professor, his daughter and the burned matches. That’s the story. On a rational level, they are different. On the emotional level, they are exchangeable, interchangeable better. On the the instinct level, they are the same. These three strata of consiousless (no good english, but the transcription engines sort of fail now) must coincide (compare that coincide of opposites) for a succesfull story, image or promise whatsoever. A rapture in any form will suffice, but be it a rapture, or nothing.

                  On this, a personal threshold (like anyone else): meeting, joining and loosing what appears to be the hubris is a breathtaking experience, not alloyed in times long ago, but immortal in memories. To erect a monument proper, on behalf of such an encounter, rarely gifted, no yield guarenteed, is, in storytelling, not simply a writing, but an urge to express. The wounded impaired king retold. The world now is so kingless.


                    Sorry for the grammer flaws, transcriptions and interpretation deviations. I assume your following.


                    Definitely appreciating what you say, Mars. Don’t worry too much about grammatical and other slips – we all do that. It’s just conversation on the internet, and not a doctoral thesis; what counts is that your point does come across.

                    Toby Johnson

                      Mars, I appreciate your observation that the Earthrise photo and the 1969 Moonlanding are from an earlier time.

                      Perhaps the Hubble Deep Field photograph would be more appropriate for now. The universe as we know it today is vaster than anybody ever imagined.

                      But, you know, I offered Joe’s suggestion of the Earthrise photo as iconic of the “new myth” not about technology or achievement, but about perspective. We can look at the stories people have told, and can understand from a higher perspective from which they are neither true nor false, right or wrong.

                      And from such a perspective, I think, we can understand and craft our own stories. At least, from what I learned from Joseph Campbell, the stories now are about our own lives. In Joe’s terms, we see that “the central character in every myth is you.” SO we are creating myth by finding these archetypal themes in our own lives, by creating our own stories for ourselves.

                      Maybe the Hubble Deep Field can be called upon as an icon for that process because it reveals the incredible multiplicity and the vastness of the universe. Each star a story. So many stories.

                      Thank you

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