Joseph Campbell: Myths Missing the Mark


I. Background Joseph John Campbell was born on March 26th, 1904, in White Plains, New York. In 1921, he graduated from high school in Milford Connecticut and proceeded to Columbia University to acquire his Bachelors degree in English Literature. In 1927, he finished his formal education with a Masters degree in Medieval Literature from Columbia University. When Campbell was very young, his father took a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. As a result, Campbell became fascinated with Native American mythology. This fascination with mythology would continue for the rest of his life. In 1927, Campbell received a fellowship from Columbia University to study in Europe. The time that he spent in Europe formed his worldviews and ignited a search to rationalize religion and understand spirituality. Campbell was influenced by the works and ideas of Jiddu Krishnamurti, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. He was also in Europe during a time of immense disillusionment, particularly among the American writers and novelists of the time - a phenomenon writer Gertrude Stein would label ‘The Lost Generation’. After returning from Europe, he held a number of teaching positions, finally settling in at Sarah Lawrence College where he met his wife, Jean Erdman, and where he would continue to teach until 1972. After traveling to South East Asia in 1956, Campbell decided that the American public was ignorant of the world’s myths and cultures. And so Campbell embarked on a public outreach mission through books, lectures, and interviews to bring his knowledge and opinions about mythology to America. This effort produced

3 his finest and most renowned work The Masks of God. Joseph Campbell’s work includes over a dozen books and the Joseph Campbell Foundation, established after his death in 1987, which continues to promote his ideas. Campbell’s work has had the most notable affect on Hollywood writers and directors, including George Lucas, who credits him for the mythology behind Star Wars. II. Exposition Campbell rejects God as the divine creator of the universe. Instead his philosophy teaches that myth is man’s religion. There is one god, but he cannot be defined in words, he can only be interpreted by myth. The force behind all living things came before time and language, thus language cannot define this being. Something more comprehensive than definitions must be employed to understand this force. Word pictures, symbols, caricatures, stories, and patterns weave together to form myths. And these myths are the keys to truly fulfilled human lives. As Campbell put it in the book The Power of Myth, which was a transcript of an interview between Billy Moyers and Campbell, “Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.”1 Let us delve into myths, as Campbell perceives them, and how he describes the religions and great stories of human history as testaments not of Jehovah God, but of the unknown being. Myths reveal truths about the unspoken order of the world. Cultures, like people, have an ethos. This ethos has its foundation in traditions and history. Different people groups mold their ethos until it is unique and personalized. The religion of a people will spring up from its ethos and consequently will bear the trademarks of that culture. Stories will be written, heroes will become legends, and the culture will develop layers.

Joseph Campbell and Bill D. Moyers, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday,

1988), 5.

4 But beneath all of these layers lies myth, the original inspiration of all things. Campbell opens his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces by describing it this way, “Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.”2 There are recurring patterns in these things. Common symbols, common ideas, commonalities that defy chance and must validate myths. “These are the everlastingly recurrent themes of the wonderful song of the soul’s high adventure,” writes Campbell.3 Psychoanalysis of history thus becomes a religion to itself. The idiosyncrasies of every people group can be paralleled to the practices of another. These common practices thus validate each other and testify to some truth. Campbell purports that myths teach us of rights of passage and rituals that feed our souls.4 In fact any religion can be studied because all religion spawns from the same myths.5 In his book The Masks of God, Campbell asserts an “organizing theological concept”6 that highlights the patterns in the religions of the world. Campbell proposes that similarities between religions indicate a common origin. Campbell points to themes like “creation, death and resurrection,


Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Novato: New World Library,

2008), 1.

Ibid., 16. Ibid., 17. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York: Viking Press,



1968), 9.

Ibid., 10.

5 ascension to heaven, and virgin births.”7 These common elements exist because long ago prophets and witch doctors communicated these symbols, which survive only in myth.8 It is now the mission of the psychoanalyst to revive and communicate these myths. An important aspect of myths is the archetypal hero. Heroes should all bear certain trademarks that become evident after studying the great heroes of history. And we are designed to emulate heroes; we are to be hero-like. “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.”9 Campbell makes heroes into role models for us to aspire to. These heroes’ actions make them timeless, not constricted to the present eroding time. They “come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought.”10 Campbell spends a good deal of time describing the hero’s journey, or the “monomyth”, where the hero goes through seventeen distinct stages of development. These stages, he asserts, can be derived from studying the patterns of epic tales and folklore. The stages are roughly divided into three parts: departure, initiation and return.11 To achieve a greater awareness of your being, Campbell would recommend imitating the hero’s journey. What is the end goal of Campbell’s philosophy? What does life become after accepting his theories? The end of Christianity is Christ and living for His glory. What is the chief end of the world as Campbell sees it? Campbell says to turn within. The

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 10. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 6. Ibid., 18. Ibid., 14. Ibid., 23.





6 meaning of everything can be found within your very own skin. “Your own meaning is that you’re there . . . the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.”12 Some might consider this conclusion to be anti-climactic. But Campbell insists that there is no lasting, resonating meaning in anything. “What’s the meaning of the universe?” he asks. “What’s the meaning of a flea? It’s just there. That’s it . . . there’s no meaning.”13 Life is an existential search to find meaning. There are optional methods that you can employ, but ultimately it is up to you to embrace yourself and the rapture of being alive. The world has no meaning, man should follow the example of mythic heroes, and somehow your self worth is somewhere inside of you. Campbell asserts that a careful study of myths teaches one how to tap into this inner self. “They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols.”14 “They’re stories about the wisdom of life.”15 And this is Campbell’s philosophy: study the symbols, embark on the monomyth, and turn inward. III. Criticism A. Pantheism Joseph Campbell’s philosophy is a form of pantheism. No single religion is condemned; rather all religions are credited as different interpretations of the same god. In this way, the follower of Campbell can worship any god, follow any moral code, and live a fulfilled life. The monomyth might be a new philosophy, but pantheism is not a

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 6. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid., 9.




7 new concept. C.S. Lewis contends that it might be the oldest religious form.16 In fact, Lewis argues that, “if religion means simply what man says about God, and not what God says about man, then Pantheism almost is religion.”17 Further, Pantheism is a poorly conceived concept from the start in that its credibility relies on a shoddy study of history and religion.18 Campbell is especially guilty of this fault. In his quest to create an ‘organizing theological concept’, or more realistically a justified Pantheistic system, Campbell is compelled to stretch history to fit his theory. Consider his concept of the belly of the whale as being symbolic of the rebirth of the hero. “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale,” writes Campbell.19 To come to this conclusion he has to pull from the Biblical story of Jonah, the Eskimo folk tale of a whale hunter, and the story of Hiawatha. The similarities of these stories surely point to some conclusion; perhaps an innate curiosity placed in man by God or perhaps the American tales of Hiawatha and the Eskimo are distant descendants of the Jonah story. But the firm conclusion that Campbell asserts, that these stories indicate a stage in the hero’s monomyth, is based on inductive logic, and weak logic at that. What his arguments all suffer from is the fallacy of reduction. He glosses over important differences in stories and various religions, or simplifies them so far that they seem to be related, but ultimately he is merely manipulating the facts to fit his theory. This is a trademark of all Pantheistic

C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco,

2001), 130.

Ibid. Ibid. Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 74.



8 systems. B. Myth The mythology that Campbell teaches claims that the patterns and similarities between world religions indicate the ‘original myth’. This argument makes the fallacy of assuming that because many things are similar all things are the same.20 And from this fallacy, Campbell concludes that: all things being the same, all things had similar origin. The fact remains that his premise is flawed. First, consider that all religions do not have elements similar to each other, but similar to Christianity. Milton Scarborough summarizes an argument by C.S. Lewis this way, “The stories of dying and rising vegetation gods, found everywhere in the world, were not plagiarized from Christianity but, in what might be understood as a modern twist on the condescension theory, are anticipations of Christ.”21 The patterns that Campbell finds, “creation, death and resurrection, ascension to heaven, and virgin births,”22 are all found in Christianity. In fact all of the patterns that Campbell highlights: the hero’s journey through the seventeen stages, the rituals and rights of passage, can all be found in the Christian faith. The question is not “are all religions similar,” it is rather, “are all religions similar to Christianity?” As Dr. John Warwick Montgomery noted in the book Myth, Allegory, and Gospel, “Those images are in civilized and uncivilized


Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology, 1680-1860

(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1972), 352.

Milton Scarborough, Myth and Modernity: Postcritical Reflections. (Albany, N.Y.:

State University of New York Press, 1994), 19.

Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 10.

9 because the true Light lights every man coming into the world.”23 Man is marked upon his entry into the world with a seemingly inexplicable magnetism to certain themes and symbols. Sacrificial hanging,24 the belly of the whale, virgin birth, going to hell and returning, and walking on water are all symbols that evoke interest and understanding from all men, saved or unsaved. This is because we are created in the likeness of God, designed to understand and appreciate the signs that he leaves for us in creation. Myths do not point to some original being that spawned many sorted religions, myths point to Jehovah God. Campbell’s Original Thing is nameless, formless, nature-less, and unknown. All of his myths point to some cohesiveness that draws a lineage from nowhere. Carl Jung, whom Campbell studied, found that myths also present themselves in the human subconscious. Dreams that revolve around ancient symbols of various religions prove that the subconscious is somehow connected to myth.25 Alan Watts makes the simple observation that the subconscious is subject to the Holy Spirit. “It would not be stretching things too far to equate the “wisdom” of the Unconscious with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” notes Watts.26 What Dr. Montgomery asserts about the imprint of God in man, Watts extends to say that the Holy Spirit continually works on the human soul, or the subconscious. Thus, myths constructed from history and myths

Edmond Fuller, Myth, Allegory, and Gospel: An Interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S.

Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy Inc, 2000), 123.

Ibid. Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 13. Alan Watts, Myth and Ritual In Christianity, 13.



10 formulated in the subconscious are all best justified through a Biblical understanding of the universe. We are truly made in the image of God. Second, the Original Thing must have a concrete character, not an abstract nature. Why? Campbell would agree that things exist: animals, plants, and substances. These things are constrained by the laws of nature. Science and math can describe nature but they cannot justify or explain why the universe exists. Laws only give us a universe of “ifs and ands.” 27 What we know from studying laws and principles is that there are connections and themes between them. This indicates what Lewis would call the “torrent of opaque actualities” that form these connections.28 Something non-scientific fills in the cracks and justifies the universe. The Creator of the universe must be the source of these torrents thus making the Creator the source of all things that are concrete. Therefore, God must have a concrete nature in order to be the source of concreteness. Campbell’s Original Thing, the source of all of the myths that he professes can be found in fairy tales and folk lore and religions all the way back to the beginning of time, is not concrete. As Lewis noted, “If anything is to exist at all, then the Original Thing must be, not a principle nor a generality, much less an ‘ideal’ or a ‘value’, but an utterly concrete fact.”29 The effect of the Campbell myth is the degradation of reality. Robert Alan Segal suggests that reducing the world to a compilation of myths “turns history into essence, culture into Nature, and obscures the role of human beings in producing the structures they inhabit and thus their capacity to change them.”30

C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 138. Ibid. C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study, 138. Robert Alan Segal, Structuralism in Myth: Lévi-Strauss, Barthes, Dumézil, and Propp.




11 IV. Conclusion Do myths exist? Yes, myths exist. And they are capable of transporting us past the confines of reality to understanding greater truths about the universe we live in and the laws that rule it. But myths are not in and of themselves an end. They are just one useful tool in pursuing a much greater end. We ought to focus on the greatest myth of all, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christ more than any other legendary hero should captivate our interest and instill meaning in our immortal souls.

(New York: Garland Pub, 1996), 212.

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