Joseph Campbell

“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”


Joseph Campbell, was an American professor, writer, speaker, anthropologist, and mythologist. He was born on March 26, 1904 and died on October 30, 1987. Joseph (John) Campbell is most famous for his work in the fields of both comparative mythology and comparative religion, and especially for his theory of “mono myth”, a term he borrowed from the joseph-campbellrenown Irish writer James Joyce (1882 – 1941). This is central concept which Joseph Campbell would also refer to as the “hero’s journey”. Joseph Campbell’s philosophy is today typically abridged to by what would become a popular phrase of his: “Follow your bliss”. Joseph Campbell would become a professor at Sarah Lawrence University and would stay there most of his career from 1934 to 1972. He would marry in 1938 with his student there, Jean Erdman (1916 – ), a dancer and choreographer.

Joseph Campbell was born on March 26th 1904 in New York City, where he also grew up in a Catholic family of upper middle class. As a child he would become passionate for Native American culture as a result of his father taking him to visit the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Joseph Campbell would quickly become an expert in many aspects of American Indian culture, and specifically its mythology. This would fashion a passion for him in myths and related tales, folk stories, legends, fables etc. It is through such readings that Joseph Campbell would start to notice how they all seemingly have common traits and that regardless of the culture to which they belong.

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” 

Joseph Campbell would attend Dartmouth College where he would first study biology and mathematics before changing his focus and study humanities at Columbia University. Campbell would end up graduating with a BA in English literature (1925) and an MA in medieval literature (1927) respectively. As a side note, he would also be a very good athlete, winning for instance several races.

Joseph Campbell would eventually come to study both Old French and Sanskrit at the University of Paris and at the University of Munich. Indeed, he would learn other languages on top of his native English, which would include French, German, Japanese and Sanskrit. In 1924 he would meet the religious philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti by chance on a steamboat from Europe to the US. Together they would talk about Asian philosophy. This impromptu encounter would kindle Joseph Campbell’s lifelong study of Eastern thought. Joseph Campbell would later recall that the experience of talking with Jiddu Krishnamurti would have changed his life. After the trip Joseph Campbell would decide to stop being a practicing Catholic.

Having put his formal academic studies in hiatus at the completion of his Master’s degree, he would decide on his return to the United States to abandon the idea of getting a doctoral degree. Instead he would prefer to isolate himself in the woods not too far from New York City, spending his time reading intensely for five years. According to his poet and writer friend Robert Bly (1926 – ), he would have developed at the time a systematic program allowing him to read for nine hours each day. Joseph Campbell would later feel that it was during that period that he received his real education. Furthermore, it is at that point that he began developing his unique vision on the nature of life.

“If you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.” 

Joseph Campbell would begin his literary career by editing posthumous articles of the Indian culture scholar Heinrich Zimmer (1890 – 1943). He would also co-write with Henry Morton Robinson (1898 – 1961) the literary criticism work A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), for which generations of readers who had struggled with James Joyce’s last work would be forever grateful. The term “mono myth” came from that late book, which Joseph Campbell would in turn use and develop further as a concept in The Hero with a Thousand Faces(1949). He would affirm there that all myths follow the same archetypal patterns. The idea of “mono myth” is described further in the book such as in the following passage:

“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.”

Joseph Campbell would also study the ideas of the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875 – 1961), who had been a disciple of Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939). Carl Jung had studied under Sigmund Freud and would collaborate closely for six years with him before diverging theoretically, culminating in Carl Jung’s resignation of the International Psychoanalytical Association in 1910. The research Joseph Campbell would do on mythology sought to link the seemingly disparate stances of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud, including their pivotal debate over the notion of collective unconscious. Another dissident member of Freud’s circle who would influence Campbell was Wilhelm Stekel (1868 – 1939), who as it turned out would be the first to apply Freud’s ideas about dreams, fantasies of the human mind, and the unconscious, to many fields such as anthropology and literature. [From:]

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” 

Works by Campbell

Early collaborations

The first published work that bore Campbell’s name was Where the Two Came to Their Father (1943), a Navajo ceremony that was performed by singer (medicine man) Jeff King and recorded by artist and ethnologist Maud Oakes, recounting the story of two young heroes who go to the hogan of their father, the Sun, and return with the power to destroy the monsters that are plaguing their people. Campbell provided a commentary. He would use this tale through the rest of his career to illustrate both the universal symbols and structures of human myths and the particulars (“folk ideas”) of Native American stories.

As noted above, James Joyce was an important influence on Campbell. Campbell’s first important book (with Henry Morton Robinson), A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), is a critical analysis of Joyce’s final text Finnegans Wake. In addition, Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), discusses what Campbell called themonomyth — the cycle of the journey of the hero — a term that he borrowed directly from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

theherowithathousandfaces-josephcampbell-110922055128-phpapp02-thumbnail-4From his days in college through the 1940’s, Joseph Campbell turned his hand to writing fiction. In many of his later stories (published in the posthumous collection Mythic Imagination) he began to explore the mythological themes that he was discussing in his Sarah Lawrence classes. These ideas turned him eventually from fiction to non-fiction.

Originally titled How to Read a Myth, and based on the introductory class on mythology that he had been teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published in 1949 as Campbell’s first foray as a solo author; it established his name outside of scholarly circles and remains, arguably, his most influential work to this day. The book argues that hero stories such as Krishna, Buddha, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus all share a similar mythological basis. Not only did it introduce the concept of the hero’s journey to popular thinking, but it also began to popularize the very idea of comparative mythology itself—the study of the human impulse to create stories and images that, though they are clothed in the motifs of a particular time and place, draw nonetheless on universal, eternal themes. Campbell asserted:

Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history, mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret its mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives becomes dissolved.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” 

The Masks of God

Written between 1962 and 1968, Campbell’s four-volume work The Masks of God covers 35520mythology from around the world, from ancient to modern. Where The Hero with a Thousand Faces focused on the commonality of mythology (the “elementary ideas”), the Masks of God books focus upon historical and cultural variations the mono myth takes on (the “folk ideas”). In other words, where The Hero with a Thousand Faces draws perhaps more from psychology, the Masks of God books draw more from anthropology and history. The four volumes of Masks of God are as follows: Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology.

The book is quoted by proponents of the Christ myth theory. Campbell writes, “It is clear that, whether accurate or not as to biographical detail, the moving legend of the Crucified and Risen Christ was fit to bring a new warmth, immediacy, and humanity, to the old motifs of the beloved Tammuz, Adonis, and Osiris cycles.”

Historical Atlas of World Mythology

At the time of his death, Campbell was in the midst of working upon a large-format, lavishly illustrated series DH0000-DHA-IA-coverentitled Historical Atlas of World Mythology. This series was to build on Campbell’s idea, first presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, that myth evolves over time through four stages:

  • The Way of the Animal Powers—the myths of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers which focus on shamanism and animal totems.
  • The Way of the Seeded Earth—the myths of Neolithic, agrarian cultures which focus upon a mother goddess and associated fertility rites.
  • The Way of the Celestial Lights—the myths of Bronze Age city-states with pantheons of gods ruling from the heavens, led by a masculine god-king.
  • The Way of Man—religion and philosophy as it developed after the Axial Age (c. 6th century BC), in which the mythic imagery of previous eras was made consciously metaphorical, reinterpreted as referring to psycho-spiritual, not literal-historical, matters. This transition is evident in the East in Buddhism, Vedanta, and philosophical Taoism; and in the West in the Mystery cults, Platonism, Christianity and Gnosticism.

Only the first two volumes were completed at the time of Campbell’s death. Both of these volumes are now out of print.

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” 

The Power of Myth

The_Power_of_MythCampbell’s widest popular recognition followed his collaboration with Bill Moyers on the PBS series The Power of Myth, which was first broadcast in 1988, the year following Campbell’s death. The series discusses mythological, religious, and psychological archetypes. A book, The Power of Myth, containing expanded transcripts of their conversations, was released shortly after the original broadcast.

Collected Works

The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell series is a project initiated by the Joseph Campbell Foundation to release new, authoritative editions of Campbell’s published and unpublished writing, as well as audio and video recordings of his lectures. Working with New World Library and Acorn Media UK, as of 2009 the project has produced seventeen titles. The series’ executive editor is Robert Walter, and the managing editor is David Kudler.

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

Other books

  • Where the Two Came to Their Father: A Navaho War Ceremonial (1943). with Jeff King and Maud Oakes, Old Dominion Foundation
  • The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension (1968). Viking Press
  • Myths to Live By (1972). Viking Press
  • Erotic irony and mythic forms in the art of Thomas Mann (1973; monograph, later included in The Mythic Dimension)
  • The Mythic Image (1974). Princeton University Press
  • The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor As Myth and As Religion (1986). Alfred van der Marck Editions
  • Transformations of Myth Through Time (1990). Harper and Row
  • A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living (1991). editor Diane K. Osbon
  • Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce (1993). editor Edmund L. Epstein
  • The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays (1959–1987) (1993). editor Anthony Van Couvering
  • Baksheesh & Brahman: Indian Journals (1954–1955) (1995). editors Robin/Stephen Larsen & Anthony Van Couvering
  • Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (2001). editor Eugene Kennedy, New World Library ISBN 1-57731-202-3. first volume in the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell
  • The Inner Reaches of Outer Space (2002)
  • Sake & Satori: Asian Journals — Japan (2002). editor David Kudler
  • Myths of Light: Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal (2003). editor David Kudler
  • Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation (2004). editor David Kudler
  • Mythic Imagination: Collected Short Fiction of Joseph Campbell (2012).


Interview books

  • The Power of Myth (1988). with Bill Moyers and editor Betty Sue Flowers, Doubleday, hardcover: ISBN 0-385-24773-7
  • An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms (1989). editors John Maher and Dennie Briggs, forward by Jean Erdman Campbell. Larson Publications, Harper Perennial 1990 paperback: ISBN 0-06-097295-5
  • This business of the gods: Interview with Fraser Boa (1989)
  • The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (1990). editor Phil Cousineau. Harper & Row 1991 paperback: ISBN 0-06-250171-2. Element Books 1999 hardcover: ISBN 1-86204-598-4. New World Library centennial edition with introduction by Phil Cousineau, forward by executive editor Stuart L. Brown: ISBN 1-57731-404-2

“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.” 

Audio tapes

  • Mythology and the Individual
  • The Power of Myth (With Bill Moyers) (1987)
  • Transformation of Myth through Time Volume 1–3 (1989)
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces: The Cosmogonic Cycle (Read by Ralph Blum) (1990)
  • The Way of Art (1990—unlicensed)
  • The Lost Teachings of Joseph Campbell Volume 1–9 (With Michael Toms) (1993)
  • On the Wings of Art: Joseph Campbell; Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce (1995)
  • The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell (With Michael Toms) (1997)
  • The Collected Lectures of Joseph Campbell:Myth and Metaphor in Society (With Jamake Highwater) (abridged)(2002)
    • Volume 1: Mythology and the Individual (1997)
    • Volume 2: The Inward Journey (1997)
    • Volume 3: The Eastern Way (1997)
    • Volume 4: Man and Myth (1997)
    • Volume 5: The Myths and Masks of God (1997)
    • Volume 6: The Western Quest (1997)
  • “Mythology and the Individual Adventure” (1972) – Big Sur Tapes


  • The Hero’s Journey: A Biographical Portrait—This film, made shortly before his death in 1987, follows Campbell’s personal quest—a pathless journey of questioning, discovery, and ultimately of delight and joy in a life to which he said, “Yes”
  • Sukhavati: A Mythic Journey—This hypnotic and mesmerizing film is a deeply personal, almost spiritual, portrait of Campbell
  • Mythos—This series comprises talks that Campbell himself believed summed up his views on “the one great story of mankind.”
  • Psyche & Symbol (12 part telecourse, Bay Area Open College, 1976)
  • Transformations of Myth Through Time (1989)
  • Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (1988)
  • Myth and Metaphor in Society (With Jamake Highwater) (1993)

“Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.” 

Books edited by Campbell

  • Gupta, Mahendranath. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1942) (translation from Bengali by Swami Nikhilananda; Joseph Campbell and Margaret Woodrow Wilson, translation assistants—see preface; foreword by Aldous Huxley)
  • Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Heinrich Zimmer (1946)
  • The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil. Heinrich Zimmer (1948)
  • Philosophies of India. Heinrich Zimmer (1951)
  • The Portable Arabian Nights (1951)
  • The Art of Indian Asia. Heinrich Zimmer (1955)
  • Man and Time: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Various authors (1954–1969)
  • Man and Transformation: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Various authors (1954–1969)
  • The Mysteries: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Various authors (1954–1969)
  • The Mystic Vision: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Various authors (1954–1969)
  • Spirit and Nature: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Various authors (1954–1969)
  • Spiritual Disciplines: Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks. Various authors (1954–1969)
  • Myths, Dreams, Religion. Various authors (1970)
  • The Portable Jung. Carl Jung (1971)


“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”

The Joseph Campbell Foundation

Joseph Campbell was arguably the single most important 20th Century scholar of myth.

His ability to articulate myth’s relevance to modern culture brought mythology out of the dusty clajcf_introssrooms of Classics and Anthropology; amplified the connections between myth and psychology explored by Jung, Freud, and others; and shared the evocative magic of myth with people outside of academia throughout the world.

He was a populist, a pattern-seeker, and a inspired storyteller, who caught our imaginations even as he shared the sparkle of his own.
In Campbell’s vision, myth is vibrant, timely and timeless. The Joseph Campbell Foundation has taken up that vision since his death, and has worked to continue to bring that magic outwards. JCF was founded in 1991 to preserve, protect, and perpetuate the works of Joseph Campbell, to further his pioneering work in mythology and comparative religion, and to help individuals enrich their lives by participating in Foundation activities.

With a tiny staff and a tiny budget, JCF has served as an extraordinary well for those enchanted by myth and imagination all around the world, providing programming, support, and inspiration with a uniquely generative generosity.

We are honored that they have joined us as co-sponsors for Fools Dancing on the Edge, and are proud to donate a portion of all registration fees to them.

We urge you to become an Associate of JCF, and explore what becoming a part of this community can bring you. (And while they’re really gentle about asking, checks with large numbers of zeros are hugely appreciated!) [From:]

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe to match your nature with Nature.” 


Now Watch His Videos:

Joseph Campbell–On Becoming an Adult


Joseph Campbell–Myth As the Mirror for the Ego


Joseph Campbell–The Dynamic of Life


Joseph Campbell–The Mythic Symbology of Release