Joseph Campbell: Power of Myth, Hero’s Journey

by | March 26, 2007 | Blog | 2 comments

I have always been intrigued by the magical power of stories and storytelling. I was born into a Catholicism rich with everything from the stunning account of Jesus’s resurrection to a creepy folklore legend about the sound of Satan’s claws collecting scraps beneath the floorboards of a wasteful woman’s home. There was a “Noah’s Ark” LP that I memorized and broadcast over the intercom in our house as a child. I learned the fables of Aesop, the folk tales and fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and in the ninth grade I discovered the vast, mysterious world of J.R.R. Tolkien, with its Hobbits, Ents, and The Dark Lord.

When Transcendental Meditation swept the United States in 1975, I began examining the Bhagavad-Gita, the Buddha, and other Eastern religious traditions. In my later teens, I ate up one after another of Carlos Castaneda‘s books and began to see the world in completely new ways, thanks to the Yaqui sorcery knowledge of don Juan and his tenderly hysterical friend don Genaro. Bruce Springsteen arrived on my horizon pointing his guitar down Thunder Road toward the Promised Land, and I gasped when Obi-Wan Kenobi prodded Luke Sykwalker to “Use the Force.”

Gradually, it dawned on me that there was really only one story here, being told and retold in all sorts of different settings, languages, colorings, times, names, and costumes. I wondered whether I was crazy to think this way, or just the only person to ever make these connections. To my relief, I eventually discovered that I was neither.

One afternoon in 1988, my local PBS station aired a biographical program called The Hero’s Journey, about a scholar named Joseph Campbell, who had spent his astounding life finding and mapping out the development of these themes from the first primitive societies to the most modern art. I learned that Campbell had written a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces which revealed the universal framework underlying countless hero stories from around the world and that Campbell’s work had indeed served as both the inspiration and blueprint for his friend George Lucas‘s movie Star Wars.

It turned out that The Hero’s Journey had been broadcast as an introduction to a six-hour series of conversations with Bill Moyers called Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. I watched the installments every week with my mouth hanging open. Here it all was as if mankind had spent its existence fixating on one dot or another until Campbell came along and connected them all and said, “See? It was right in front of you the whole time.” So, thanks to PBS and Bill Moyers, I found out about Joseph Campbell and I have been reading and re-reading Campbell’s many written works ever since.

‘Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers’

(6 one-hour episodes on 2 DVDs, 1 companion book)

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (DVD)

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (6 hours on 2 DVDs)

Recorded at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and New York’s Museum of Natural History not long before Joseph Campbell’s death in 1987 and edited down from an original 23 hours, these conversations between Campbell and Moyers are wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and peppered with Campbell’s delightful storytelling. A fine use of television — programs to learn from again and again over the years.

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (book)

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (companion book)

This is the companion book to the PBS series. Illustrated throughout with mythological imagery from around the world, it presents the 1985-86 dialog between Campbell and Moyers in a somewhat different and extended version. A good introduction to Joseph Campbell and comparative mythology, and relatively easy reading.

Episode 1: The Hero’s Adventure

Bill Moyers introduction, about Joseph Campbell, the hero with a thousand faces, the hero’s journey, initiation ritual, heroism in birth, hero motifs, hero types, hero deeds, father quest, finding your career, entering the army, heroic morality, Prometheus, fire theft, slaying monsters, Moses meeting with Yahweh, departure-fulfillment-return, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, three temptations of each, Muhammad, transformation of consciousness by trials and revelations, movie heros, Douglas Fairbanks, standard mythology in Star Wars, serendipity, belly of the whale, the threshold, the powers of nature, Darth Vader and the system vs. humanity, an Iroquois story: the refusal of suitors, serpents and dragons, dreams and Jungian psychology, “follow your bliss,” an athlete’s quiet center, Nirvana, consciousness in plants, Gaia philosophy, spiritual consciousness, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Cathedral of Chartes, Salt Lake City, spirituality vs. economics, emerging myths, NASA’a “Earthrise” photo as a symbol

Episode 2: The Message of the Myth

Bill Moyers introduction, myths as clues to the experience of life, that which can’t be named, Michelangelo’s “Creation,” the Elephanta Caves, transcending duality, the Garden of Eden, pairs of opposites, God vs. Nature, Genesis vs. Basari and Upanishad creation, the God within you, the one forbidden thing, serpents and women represent life, morality, affirmation of the world, eternity is right here and now, the bodhisattva, participation in sorrow and pain, samurai vengeance story, life as a poem, every religion is true as a metaphor, denotation vs. connotation, the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus within us, “Old Time Religion,” religious conflict in Beirut, bringing old religion into new metaphors, the machine vs. humanity, Darth Vader unmasked, the personality of computers, the PC as Old Testament God: a lot of rules and no mercy, religion as “software,” functions of myth, the story of Indra and the ants, participation in society

Episode 3: The First Storytellers

Memories of the animal envoys, Bill Moyers introduction: echoes of the first stories, ancient myths, harmonization with body and life cycle, retirement and death, consciousness vs. its vehicle, light vs. bulb, the Christ in you, death prompting mythology, Le Moustier, the invisible plane supporting the visible, hunters and the animal food covenant, Hokkaido Ainu bear sacrifice, prayer at meals, totem pole animals, buffalo’s role in Native American myths, story: “The Buffalo’s Wife,” buffalo massacre of the 1880s, “thou” vs. “it,” war propaganda, Lascaux cave paintings, caves as temples, Cathedral of Chartes, caves in initiation of hunters, Australian Aboriginal initiation ritual, Catholic confirmation, Jewish Bar Mitzvah, menstruation, society losing rituals, youth crime, Latin Mass vs. guitar Mass, adapting myths to place and time, mythmaking function of artists, the Shaman’s gift, trance dance of the Bushmen, Black Elk Speaks, the hoops of all the nations, the central mountain of the world: Harney Peak, Jerusalem, Rome, Benares, Lhasa, or Mexico City? God’s center is everywhere

Episode 4: Sacrifice and Bliss

Words commonly attributed to Chief Seattle, Bill Moyers introduction, the sacred Earth, sacred places, a room and hour of creative incubation, your bliss station, plains vs. jungles, Colin Turnbull, The Forest People, Pygmy story: “Bird of the most beautiful song in the forest,” destroying nature, hunting vs. planter myths, agricultural renewal, Jesus as the vine, Henry Wadsworth Logfellow, Algonquin maize legend, Polynesian goddess Hina, coconut origin legend, inherent myths vs. diffusion of myths, New Guinea horror societies, sexual initiation turned into human sacrifice and cannibalism, the sacrifice of the Mass, body and blood of the savior, hunting prey as sacrifice, food of the spirit, Holy Rude, Jesus is the fruit on Eden’s second tree, Buddha and the Bodhi Tree, Mayan ballgame sacrifice, Acts of John (94): The Jesus dance, the Lord of Sex, headhunting, Arthur Schopenhauer on self-sacrifice, Nu’uanu Pali prevented suicide story, you and the other are one, sacrifice in marriage, yin and yang, choosing the right spouse, aging and physical decline, “a good day to die,” story: “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Friedrich Nietzsche‘s three metamorphoses of the spirit: camel/lion/child, societal dictates, follow your bliss, Sinclair Lewis: Babbit, story: “Drink your tomato juice,” the wheel of fortune, Sat-cit-ananda, rapture and one’s career path or curriculum, “hidden hands” guiding life’s work and doors opening, the water of eternal life right there

Episode 5: Love and the Goddess

Giraut de Bornelh excerpt, Bill Moyers introduction, the troubadours as the origin of romantic love, vs. Eros and erotic zeal, Cupid, Kama, agape, arranged marriage, family love, Tristan and Iseult, the ideal of love in the Western world, libido over credo, accent on the individual, Wolfram: origin of the Holy Grail, the Grail King (Fisher King) in Parzival, authentic life vs. obeying supernatural authority, God is love, Lucifer / Iblis / Satan as God’s greatest lover, separation from the beloved, love your enemies, Peter and the sword, 1959 Tibetan uprising, Nirvana, Philippians 2:5-8, Abelard: the Crucifixion as atonement, suffering evokes compassion, love is the pain of being truly alive. Second half: the goddess, Mother Earth, agriculture, Kena Upanishad story, goddesses of Egyptian agriculture vs. warrior gods of slaughtering cultures, Hebrews wipe out goddess “abominations,” Roman Catholic Virgin Mary traditions in France, virgin birth: Greek influence in Gospel of Luke, Kundalini: the virgin birth of spiritual man out of animal man, the Buddha’s birth, virgin birth is symbolic not physical, forerunner of the Madonna: Isis restores Osiris and conceives Horus, dead and resurrected gods, Christmas at the solstice, yin and yang, flesh vs. spirit, rituals enact myths, Earth as a goddess, outer space and the Big Bang of creation

Episode 6: The Masks of Eternity

God is transcendent, mythology is metaphor, symbols refer to you, you are God, Bill Moyers introduction, dimension of the unknown, participating in divinity, gods personify energy, its source is a mystery, Eastern gods are more elemental, vehicles of energy, Gospel of Thomas, the divine in us, being equivalent to Jesus, Catholic priest story: personal vs. transcendent gods, “religion” means “linking back,” Carl Jung: symbolism of the circle, Natalie Curtis Burlin: The Indians’ Book, cycles of time, mandalas, Navajo pollen path, sandpainting, Jungian archetypes, Adolf Bastian‘s elementary ideas and ethnic ideas, clowns and trickster gods, religion is a defense against a religious experience, your god is your ultimate barrier, the ultimate mystery, Abraham Maslow‘s peak experience, James Joyce‘s epiphany, the sublime: beautiful as Kyoto temple gardens or monstrous as saturation bombing, Vishnu as a monster, Mark 13: the end of the world, peaceful vs. wrathful buddhas, Manjusri, eternity is beyond time, the ultimate mystery is beyond words, poetry can imply and suggest, Arthur Schopenhauer: life as a composition, Indra’s net, life has no purpose, follow your bliss, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim, Eden is, the dance of Shiva (Nataraja), Goethe: all things are metaphors, Aum, word are limitations, breaking past

‘The Masks of God’ (4 volumes)

This is the magnum opus that Campbell began in 1956 and finished in 1968. It tells the whole story, from the beginnings of humanity to the modern masterpieces of James Joyce and Pablo Picasso. The text is scholarly but accessible, and is bound to send readers off on side-trips though some of the many works referenced within it.

If you seriously want to know what life is, what love is, what God is, what death is — then these books are must reading. They are well worth the considerable time it takes to work through them properly.

The Masks of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology, by Joseph Campbell

The Masks of God, Volume 1: Primitive Mythology

Index entries include: Shamans, cave paintings, sand paintings, art, tattooing, Paleolithic age, Neanderthal man, caves, fire, society, Aranda tribe, ancestors, magic, witchcraft, moon, sun, universe, initiation rites, hunters, planters, mother-goddess, underworld, resurrection, Africa, China, India, pre-Colombian America, North American Indians, Caribou Eskimos, Ainu race, cult of the Bear, pig, snake, birds, buffalo, dogs, sex, women, birth, death, burial, religion, skulls, swastika, psyche, psychology, archetypes, etc.

The Masks of God, Volume 2: Oriental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell

The Masks of God, Volume 2: Oriental Mythology

Index entries include: Mesopotamia, bull-god, cow-goddess, creation myths, Apis bull, Neolithic age, Sumer, sacrifice, regicide, Egypt, role of art, mathematics, city states, Persia, Aryans, tao and taoism, “Book of Changes” (I Ching), India, Ganges, Indus Valley, Jainism, dharma, brahman, karma, nirvana, reincarnation, Krishna, Shiva, Brahmin caste, Mahabharata, Upanishads, Vedas, yoga, Hinduism, Confucius, Confucianism, Bronze Age, Buddha (Gautama Shakyamuni), Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, China, Chou dynasty, Japan, Shinto, Mo Tzu, Tibet, etc.


The Masks of God, Volume 3: Occidental Mythologhy, by Joseph Campbell

The Masks of God, Volume 3: Occidental Mythology

Index entries include: Adam, Abraham, heroes, Ahura Mazda, Angra Mainyu, Sumeria, Levant, Babylon, Zoroaster and Zoroastrianism, Persia, Iran, Semitic culture, Hebrews, Jews, Judaism, Maccabees, Josephus, Mithra, Mithraism, Rome, Roman Empire, Bible, serpent, tree, Book of Genesis, Yahweh, Greece, Hellenism, Zeus, syncretism, Hermes, Homer, Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, Christianity, Jerusalem, Messiah, Messianic thought, Gospels, Gnostics, Gnosticism, Acts of John, Dead Sea Scrolls, Ecumenical Councils, Mohammed, Koran, Germanic tribes, Celts in Europe, Ireland, etc.

The Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology, by Joseph Campbell

The Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology

Index entries include: Heloise, Peter Abelard, Troubadours, alchemy, Gottfried von Strassburg, Richard Wagner, Tristan, Isolde, Morold, Amfortas, Anfortas, Dante Alighieri, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Parzival, Grail King, Maimed King, King Mark, Castle of the Grail, Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Hans Castorp, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Oswald Spengler, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Heinrich Zimmer, Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus, Ulysses, Molly Bloom, Finnegans Wake, Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, etc.

Other works

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Campbell’s famous early masterpiece, illustrating motifs like “The World Navel,” “The Call to Adventure,” “The Belly of the Whale,” “The Road of Trials,” “Atonement with the Father,” and so on, through parallels in hero stories from many times and places.

Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce

Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: Joseph Campbell on the Art of James Joyce

Attempting to tackle James Joyce’s brilliant, multilayered writing without several knowledgeable guides almost guarantees missing both great themes and small references. This book is a wonderful introduction to the writer who, beginning in Paris in 1927, inspired Joseph Campbell like no other. Starting with Dante‘s La Vito Nuova and its parallels with Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Campbell’s observations on the mythological themes and structure of Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake are also collected here, as is The Skin of Whose Teeth?, Campbell’s indictment of Thornton Wilder and his play.

Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind, by Stephen and Robin Larsen

Joseph Campbell biography

Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind

By Stephen and Robin Larsen

A fascinating Joseph Campbell biography, combining the development of his life’s work with colorful anecdotes of his surfing in Hawaii with Duke Kahanamoku and his son David, and witnessing the rapture of rock and roll with the Grateful Dead. There are also moving accounts of his encounters with Carol and John Steinbeck, and of his marriage to Jean Erdman.

Joseph Campbell-related websites

  • Joseph Campbell Foundation — Nonprofit organization formed to perpetuate Campbell’s work. Among other resources, the site includes a basic biography and a list of Campbell’s works.
  • OPUS Archive and Research Center at Pacifica Graduate Institute — The work of Opus Archives and Research Center began with a generous gift. The Joseph Campbell estate entrusted the rich works of a scholar’s lifetime to this place so that they might be held, tended, treasured, and shared with others.
  • The Center for Story and Symbol — Educational center of Jonathan Young, founder of Pacifica’s Mythological Studies department and the library above. The Web site contains several articles about or related to Campbell.
  • Esalen Institute — Educational center at Big Sur, California founded in 1962 by Michael Murphy and Richard Price, devoted to the “exploration of unrealized human capacities.” Campbell was partly the inspiration for the institute, and a frequent lecturer.
This post is tagged: art, books, featured, history, mythology, PBS, religion, video.

Blog highlights

  1. CharlyWhiskey

    This is fabulous! Joe Campbell’s was so on it. I did not know about the movie! Thanks!

  2. Walter Mattfeld

    I cite Campbell’s research in my two books (1) Eden’s Serpent: Its Mesopotamian Origins and (2) The Garden of Eden Myth: Its Pre-biblical Origin in Mesopotamian Myths (, 2010), noting he understood the Hebrews had recast earlier Canaanite and Mesopotamian myths via 180 degree inversions (see Occidental Mythology). He thought Eden’s serpent was a recast of Ningishzida of Mesopotamian myths.


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