“You can’t teach illumination. You can give different clues how to get it.” – Joseph Campbell
Among several other things, Joseph Campbell was a mythology scholar and a rebel. Born in New York City in 1904, it was at the American Museum of Natural History and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show at Madison Square Garden that Campbell stumbled upon an early fascination with Native American culture. During his exploration of Native American culture, Campbell noticed that Native Americans legends shared a number of commonalities with the stories he had heard growing up as an Irish Catholic; and as he began to travel further, he discovered even more parallels between the myths shared throughout the world. Campbell would conclude that a large reason why these legends shared so many similarities is that they functioned not only as entertainment, but as a means to help one find structure in their own lives.
After traveling throughout several different parts of the world, Campbell returned to the United States in 1929 just in time to witness the Wall Street Crash. Unable to find a job, Campbell decided he would not make what appeared to be the most sensible choice in continuing his collegiate career until the job market improved. Instead, he retreated to a friend’s cabin in upstate New York where he would read and write whatever it was he desired rather than having it assigned to him by a professor. Earning a bare minimum income through small jobs that would occasionally present themselves, Campbell dedicated the next five years of his life to a schedule that ensured he would be able to read nine hours a day. Instead of writing a thesis, Campbell instead underlined sentences and took notes, but equally as important during this time was that he continued to ask himself what it was that he wanted in life. It wasn’t until the opportunity to teach at Sarah Lawrence presented itself in 1934 that the future author found himself making a living as an academic.
Campbell not only continued to study myths, but also began to find value in acclimating them into his personal life. As he had discovered, myths were not just a means of entertaining people, but the journeys they contained often provided a template for how an individual can live deeper and more fulfilled lives. Even the very publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces was a journey onto itself. Initially, Campbell was pitched the idea of writing a book similar to Bulfinch’s Mythology and recounting a number of popular legends, but he instead expressed an interest in writing a book on how to interpret myths. Two different publishers rejected the manuscript for the book Campbell was looking to write before The Hero with a Thousand Faces finally managed to hit shelves. In the book, Campbell outlined The Hero’s Journey by introducing the pattern of the monomyth – a term credited to writer James Joyce, of whom Campbell was a tremendous fan. The Hero with a Thousand Faces not only broke down the seventeen stages that compiled this monomyth, but also explored some of the parallel themes that often took place throughout it such as the Great Flood and the Virgin Birth.
Since that time, the book has become among the most influential pieces of work to chronicle The Hero’s Journey and has been translated into more than twenty different languages. Campbell himself has been honored with a number of awards and has been credited as an influence for artists including Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and George Lucas. As Lucas has said of his composing the Star Wars universe, “There’s a mixture of all kinds of mythology and religious beliefs that have been amalgamated into the movie, and I tried to take the ideas that seemed to cut across the most cultures because I’m fascinated by that, and I think that’s one of the things that I really got from Joe Campbell. That’s what he was trying to do, was find the common threads through the various mythologies, through the various religions.”
Never allowing himself to get so caught up in making a living that he forgot to make a life, Campbell would go on to marry Jean Erdman and continued to author several successful books including the four-volume series Masks of God and Myths to Live By. Just before his passing in 1987, Campbell sat down with journalist Bill Moyers to film a six-part documentary series for PBS entitled The Power of Myth. Transcribed into a book of the same name, The Power of Myth series not only displayed Campbell’s vast knowledge regarding the subject of mythology, but also showcased the enthusiasm with which he approached it.
Whether described as the individuation process, the monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell saw tremendous value in one following their own beliefs and values even if it meant making decisions most would consider unorthodox. But while following one’s heart would sound like a simple enough task, internal and external forces often appear to do everything in their power to see that the Hero never concludes their journey to enlightenment. It is here that we look to the myths as Campbell did to find inspiration as well as the courage to keep moving forward.