Joseph Campbell: Myth and Self-Growth

The American scholar Joseph Campbell believed that mythology could guide the individual along a path of personal growth and fulfilment. Study the world’s mythologies, Campbell argued, and you will find the same ‘hero myth’ appearing again and again – a myth that is really describing individual self-realization. Even more striking, the symbols and images of these myths resemble the dreams analyzed and recorded by depth psychologists like Freud and Jung. Indeed, so striking are the parallels that Campbell considered myth a collective dream and dream a personalized myth.

Joseph Campbell

Before looking at his ideas in more detail, it would help to know a little about the man. Campbell was born in New York in 1904 and died in Hawaii in 1987. As a boy, he was fascinated by Native American culture, which led in turn to a more general interest in mythology. He travelled widely in Europe, visiting London and studying French in Paris and Sanskrit in Berlin. When he returned, he became a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College, remaining there until he retired.

Campbell published several major works during his lifetime. Initially, he made a name for himself as a James Joyce scholar, publishing a guide to Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. Perhaps his most ambitious work, written between 1959 and 1968 and comprising four volumes, was The Masks of God. But his most famous work, and certainly his most popular, is The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

The Hero Journey

Campbell came to believe that every group, from a small African tribe to an ancient civilization, had developed myths related to the hero journey (he even speculated that there may once have been an original, prototype myth, back in the earliest days of homo Sapiens). And that, though the details may vary, all shared a common structure.

First, there is the hero. Often he or she will be humble – a simple peasant boy, for example, or a poor, abandoned orphan. Some shock or upheaval occurs in his (or her) life, and the opportunity arises to undertake a great journey or quest. Initially he is afraid and seeks to escape; but this is destiny. Soon, he meets some kind of mentor, such as a wise old man or magician in disguise, who gives him advice, weapons and training. He sets off, arriving at a border or threshold separating the mundane world from the supernatural.

Now begins the second part of the journey (sometimes known as the descent). The hero crosses into another world, where he encounters strange, sometimes frightening creatures. Eventually, he faces a grand test or ordeal. This pushes him to the limits of his strength and courage as he faces his deepest fears. He or she survives and is then rewarded with treasure of some kind. Now comes the return, again involving pain and sacrifice.

Of course, the details of this journey vary enormously. And rarely do you find every stage neatly laid out. Instead, most of the world’s myths deal with part of the journey (it should be kept in mind that myths change and evolve and that some are lost altogether).

The Journey of Life

But Campbell always stressed that myths (including religious myths) are metaphors. The hero journey is really the journey of life, which is why, as Campbell writes: “In the office of the modern psychoanalyst, the stages of the hero adventure come to light again in the dreams and hallucinations of the patient.” And this is where its therapeutic value lies: myth will guide you through life’s journey because, ultimately, everyone is a hero (or heroine). Indeed, this is the point of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (a work that deeply influenced the young Campbell) in which a single, humdrum day in the life of an ordinary, insignificant man, becomes grand and mythic.

In a sense, the hero represents the individual ego. And the ‘quest’ on which he embarks is one of psychological growth and development. According to the psychoanalyst, the child must first free himself from his parents. Freud believed that infants develop a possessive bond with the parent of the opposite sex and a murderous hatred towards the parent of the same sex. Unfortunately, these feelings can linger in the subconscious well into adulthood. If the individual is to form adult relationships, however, he must rid himself of these “infantile fixations” – or, in mythic language, he must slay the demons.

The powers of darkness which the hero encounters are in fact within, not without. They are his (or her) own negativity, fear and resistance to life. So the hero who can free himself from the parental images, overcome his negativity, embrace life and achieve a kind of psychic wholeness (integrating his feminine side if he is a man, or masculine side if a woman), becomes a sort of model for others to follow.

But there is more to the hero journey. The peasant boy who becomes king must eventually make way for a younger man. If he does not, he becomes a tyrant doomed to bloody rebellion. Translated into psychological language, the individual must know when he is mature and stable enough to seek spiritual transcendence. If he does not, his narrow, time-bound little ego will inflate and he will be left with nothing but a sense of futility and absurdity.

There is an Eastern tradition, for example, which divides life into stages. First, you establish and build a career, then you marry, raise children and, eventually, hand your money and business over to your sons and withdraw into the mountains to meditate and seek enlightenment.

Follow Your Bliss

One of the most famous phrases Campbell used was “follow your bliss.” Indeed, he often gave such advice to his students. But Campbell did not mean flee your responsibilities and embark upon a life of pleasure. To follow your bliss is to transcend the egoic self and live a life of total authenticity.

The ultimate purpose of the mythic quest is the redemption of one’s community or society. And this is what the individual does when he follows his bliss. In essence it means leading the life that you know you must. So, for example, someone who quits a soul-crushing job as an accountant to pursue his interest in music is following his bliss. During his TV interview with Bill Moyers, Campbell described it like this: “The influence of a vital person vitalizes…People have a notion of saving the world by shifting it around…No, the way to bring it to life is to find your own case where your life is, and be alive yourself”.

Many people can no longer believe that their particular branch of mythology (the Bible stories, for example) is literally true. And yet there is an undeniable hunger for such a thing. Campbell offers something new. For him, there is truth in all the world’s myths, from the primitive tales of an African tribe to the intricate mythology of Ancient Greece. The sceptic dismisses myth as untrue, the believer claims they are literally true. Campbell offers a third way.

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