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Joseph Campbell was a three dimensional intellectual. He was able to integrate his studies of human psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and mysticism into his discipline of mythology. He was like a mythological old man, sitting on the top of a mountain watching the caravans of humanity pass by. He was like an ancient story-teller who knew the folk tales of all cultures and enjoyed sharing them with the coming generations.

          Joseph Campbell, alongside being an accomplished intellectual, was also a kind man. He had a mind of a philosopher and a heart of a mystic. He was a gentle, peaceful and compassionate person. He accepted rather than judged people. That is why people from all walks of life, from different religious and cultural traditions, were attracted to him. He had great insights into human condition and also had the gift to present very complicated and sophisticated concepts in layman’s language because he knew the power of myth and metaphor.

          He was one of the few intellectuals of the twentieth century who built bridges between science and spirituality. He had a scientific attitude towards mysticism and a mystic attitude towards science. He tried to study human history from a mythological point of view.

          Since Joseph Campbell has talked and discussed dozens of subjects in his lectures and interviews, I will just focus on a few issues that I found quite interesting and fascinating.

                                      1. DOMAIN OF MYTHOLOGY

Joseph Campbell believed that mythology deals with the mysteries of human condition especially focusing on the relationship between human beings and the universe. Over the centuries human beings have been trying to explore and understand their mysterious relationship with their environments. It has not been easy for many people to comprehend mythology as it goes far beyond the realm of logic and rationality and concepts. It deals with the essence of life. Mythology deals with issues that rational mind does not fully comprehend. It is because mythology uses the language of symbols and images and metaphors, which touches human beings at a deeper level than rational and logical thinking. Human mythology has two parts, a personal and a collective. The personal myths are experienced through visions and dreams. That is why the waking rational mind has difficulties understanding the night dreams as well as nightmares because they deal with the unconscious aspect of personality. Sigmund Freud tried to explore that aspect of human psyche and created his masterpiece Interpretation of Dreams. On the other hand collective myths are expressed by art and literature and folklore. That is the area where Carl Jung made his significant contributions by interpreting images and stories of folklore in his book Man And His Symbols and introducing his concept of collective unconscious. Joseph Campbell acknowledged the contributions of Freud and Jung but felt that as he got older he felt closer to Jung than Freud as he was fascinated by mythology and believed that “…the first function of a mythology is to awaken and maintain in the individual a sense of wonder and participation in the mystery of this finally inscrutable universe.” (Ref 2 p17)

                                      2. BIRTH OF HUMAN BEINGS

Joseph Campbell believed that human beings, Homo sapiens, were born when animals reached a stage in evolution when they could walk on two feet and develop their brains. By the increase of the size of brains they could experience a transformation of consciousness. Such transformation made it possible for human beings to create mythology. It is amazing to note that such change took place at many parts of the world at the same time. Campbell stated, “ Now we come to later Homo sapiens, Cro-Magnon man. This order of the human species appears around 30, 000 to 40, 000 B.C. and appears not only in Europe, where he was first discovered, but also in Southeast Asia and in two or three other places, as though there was a parallel evolution taking place.” (Ref 1 p 10)

As human beings evolved they created human civilizations. The early signs of those civilizations are found by archeologists who discovered ruins of cities like Mohejo-Daro in India and other parts of the world. Those cities were erected a few thousand years B.C. As civilizations became more sophisticated human beings created languages, arts and religions. They also became aware of cycles in nature around them and the relationship of those cycles with human life. One such example was the “recognition of the equivalence of the menstrual and the lunar cycles. This would be the first inkling we have of a recognition of counterparts between the celestial and earthly rhythms of life.” (Ref1 p 13)

 With the development of a microscope and a telescope, human beings were able to make accurate observations and predictions of stars, moons and suns and developed lunar and solar calendars.                                                       


Joseph Campbell in his lectures discussed different cultures, mythologies and civilizations throughout history. He believed that there was a time when human civilizations were matriarchal. In India archeologists have discovered an old temple nearly 4000 B.C where the courtyard was of the shape of the vagina of a cow. People of that part of the world, in those times, considered cow as the goddess and her milk as sacred milk. Cow was the symbol of mother god and her four feet the four corners of the compass. Even today we find sacred cows wandering around in the streets of India. Researchers like Marija Gimbutas [author of Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe] have also shown that even in Europe during 7000-3500 B.C, the matriarchal mythologies were more prevalent. The expressions like mother tongue and mother-land still remind us of those times.

          Gradually the mother goddesses went in the background and male gods took over and the societies became patriarchal. This change took place after Zeus and Yahweh, the male gods, became popular. Such a change also promoted tribal thinking because Yahweh was not only considered to be a god but also the only god of Israel. According to that mythology gods of other communities were considered evil and called devils. Campbell brings to our attention that “Yahwehist monotheism says, “There is no other God in the world. Those others are devils.” (Ref 1 p 85). Over the centuries, followers of that tradition, whether Christians or Muslims wanted to spread the message of their God to other nations either by preaching or by declaring holy wars.

                             4. EASTERN AND WESTERN MYTHOLOGIES

Joseph Campbell shared that the Eastern and Western traditions are different as they are the outcome of different mythologies of the world. Eastern traditions are the products of the teachings of Buddha, Confucius and Lao-tzu, all three living nearly 500 B.C. Buddha focused on finding nirvana, one’s own truth and following the ‘right path’. Confucius focused on the philosophy of social responsibility and Tao-ism highlighted the relationship of human beings with nature. (ref 1 p 122)

          In the Eastern mythology, the spiritual tradition believes that God exists in all of us and all human beings can have a mystical experience. Such tradition is closer to Native Indian tradition. Native Indians also believe that all human beings are capable of discovering their own spirituality through dreams and visions. Native Indians believe God is the Great Mystery of the universe.

          As compared to the Eastern tradition, the Western tradition believes that God is the creator and human beings are the creation. The Western mythology also believes that God is the Master and human beings are the subjects and their role is to praise and worship their Lord. Campbell believed that the king concept of God was first presented by Dariush in 1000 B.C in Near East. Dariush presented God as the king of the kings and believed that human beings were the slaves. Such a concept became popular in the Middle East and was adopted by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Campbell highlights that these religious traditions have not been respectful and accepting of religious and spiritual traditions of other cultures.

          Campbell believed that people in the West have inherited two traditions, tradition of the Bible and that of Aristotle, one of the Greek philosophers. Greek Philosophers were the first ones who, in their philosophy presented Human Beings as primary and gods as secondary. Greek Philosophers not only created a rational system of thinking, which helped humanity in establishing sciences, but also developed a humanistic philosophy.

According to that philosophy gods became the echoes of human psyche. Humanistic philosophy believes that human beings created gods rather than gods created human beings. Such a philosophy revolutionized how human beings experienced the world around them. As the Greek philosophy developed it challenged the myths of the Western world.


Joseph Campbell considered religion a misinterpretation of mythology. When people cannot fully experience the spiritual dimension of life and comprehend the abstract they rely on the concrete interpretations of symbols, images, metaphors and scriptures. Such literal interpretations lead to religious leaders and institutions that misguide people. The religious tradition judges people and declares them sinners. On the other hand the mystic tradition accepts people and encourages them to get in touch with their deeper selves. Campbell believed that when communities lose touch with mythologies, they develop ideologies. Campbell highlighted that one of the basic difference of religion and mysticism is the concept of good and bad, right and wrong, sin and virtue. He said, “ The mystical dimension is beyond good and evil. The ethical dimension is in the field of good and evil. One of the problems in our religions lies in the fact that it accents, right from the start, the good and evil problem.” (Ref 1 p22)

Joseph Campbell did not see any conflict between science and mythology as he stated, “ I would say that there is no conflict between mysticism, the mystical dimension and its realization, and science.” (Ref 1 p 46) He believed that science and mythology of 2000 B.C were in harmony but mythology of 2000B.C is in conflict with science of 2000A.D. because contemporary mythology has not kept in touch with contemporary science. “ Your mythology, your imagery, has to keep up with what you know of the universe, because what it has to do is put you in accord with the universe as known, not as it was known in 2000 B.C in the Near East.” (Ref 1 p22). He believed that new mythology is developed when creative people come up with new symbols, images and metaphors that embrace the contemporary understanding of life.

Joseph Campbell thought that in the contemporary world there is not only conflict between science and religion but also between different religions. He stated that even followers of Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions are not able to live peacefully with each other in the Middle East, as they are insisting on their own tradition and not respecting other traditions.

          He states that in the mystic tradition of the East, people are encouraged to focus on the essence, on the experience, rather than the method. He praised Dalai Lama, who in his speech in America had encouraged his listeners to follow their own path hoping that their sincerity will eventually lead them to their spiritual truth. “Dalai Lama said, “ Keep up your practice. The results do not happen fast: there is no instant realization. And as you practice, you will become aware of a change of consciousness. Do not become attached to your method, for when your consciousness changes, you will recognize that all the methods are intending the one goal.” That is the song mythology sings.” (Ref 1 p 63)

                             6. EAST AND WEST LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER

Joseph Campbell felt that while Eastern people can learn from the Western tradition of science and humanism, the Western people can also learn from Eastern spirituality and the disciplines of yoga and meditation. He discussed his understanding of yoga and meditation as a way to discover one’s own truth. He explained that by comparing human mind to a pond. He shared that when pebbles are thrown in the pond, the images remain shattered. But when pond is still, the surface becomes a mirror and one can see clear reflection. He stated that yoga helps people to clear their minds from the haphazard thought patterns of the brain, reacting to outside stimuli, and develop a peaceful state, in which people can see and experience the reflections of their inner self and get in touch with their true self, their true nature and then realize that their true nature has similarities with the true nature of other humans as well as the universe. Such truth and consciousness is beyond words and forms. Joseph Campbell shared,

“ This consciousness that throws up forms and takes them back again, throws up forms and takes them back again. And then you can realize that you are one with the consciousness in all beings…This is the ultimate mystic experience on earth.” (Ref 1 p 27). In this way the individuality of human beings gets in touch with the universality of humanity and universe as “the function of yoga is to release us from the time-space commitment, introduce us to the transcendent” (Ref 1 p134). But such experiences are mystical and are beyond words and languages and rational workings of the mind. So they can be experienced but very difficult to explain or describe to others. One of the ways mystics share those experiences with others is through symbols and metaphors that give rise to folklore and wisdom literature.

                                                7. LIFESTYLE

Alongside being impressed by Joseph Campbell’s philosophy I am also impressed by his lifestyle. He was one of those creative people who could rise above the temptations of the materialistic world and focus on his own passions and dreams. He was quite dedicated to his creative work. His commitment to his teaching and learning helped him deal with issues that others find stressful. In that way he seemed to have a spiritual and mystical approach to life. Michael Toms wrote, “ Joseph took pride in the fact that he never did anything primarily for money. This was because he derived so much fulfillment from doing just what was important to him, what was meaningful…Once, when I was speaking with him about his capacity to forgo the usual trappings of the materialistic mainstream, he replied by saying that he had luck. I thereby asked, ‘’ isn’t there a myth that says you create your own luck?” laughing loudly, he retorted, “That is not only myth.” 

                                      8. INTIMATE RELATIONSHIPS

          Alongside his personal life, I was also impressed by his attitude towards intimate relationships in general and his marriage in particular. He was one of those few creative people who had discovered a balance between his creative and family lives. He was married to his wife for almost half a century. He believed that marriage goes through two stages. The first stage is romantic and lustful but in the later years it develops a spiritual dimension and those people who cannot develop this spiritual dimension in their long term intimate relationships, the relationships usually fall apart. He stated,

 “ Then there comes a time when those vital energies aren’t there, but at the same time there is an awakening of a spiritual relationship. When that does not happen, you see people getting divorced.” (Ref 2 p 128) He believed that the secret of a lasting loving relationship is the attitude when both parties feel they are giving to the relationship and building it together rather than giving to the other partner resentfully. He said, “ And when you are giving, you are not giving to the other person; you are giving to the relationship” (Ref 2 p 127). When people happily contribute to the relationship then they grow together.

                                      9. MEANING IN LIFE

Joseph Campbell had an existentialist approach towards life. He believed that life did not have any intrinsic meaning, but it had many meanings depending upon what meaning we gave to our lives. He believed that we were all free as human beings to choose our lifestyle and follow our own bliss. And following one’s own bliss is a mixed blessing. On one hand it is like walking on a razor’s edge because nobody has done it before but it is also the secret of leading a creative and successful life. Obviously he had found his own bliss as he followed the suggestion of William Blake, “ Arise and drink your bliss ! For everything that lives is holy”. (Ref 2 p17)

                                      10. APPRECIATING METAPHORS

          The most important thing I learnt from Joseph Campbell was to appreciate metaphors, as they not only help us understand our dreams but also learn from folklore and scriptures as they all use the language of symbols and metaphors. He believed that  the stories of Garden of Eden and Flood of religious scriptures need not be perceived as concrete realities, as they were mythological metaphors. He explained many religious symbols in lay man’s language. For example Joseph Campbell explained that the symbol of cross consists of four corners and one center. The four corners represent two sets of opposites, the representation of the rational world, while the center represents the mystical world. Having Christ in the center reflect that for all human beings to discover their spirituality they have to discover their center, where they will find the door to their own truth. Discovering one’s own truth is the main goal of spiritual tradition and discovering its relationship with universal truth is the main aim of mythology. Campbell also believed that God is a human metaphor as he said, “We keep thinking of deity as a kind of fact, somewhere; God as a fact. God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery.” (Ref 1 p 16) 


Reference 1. Campbell Joseph (1904-1987) Transformations of Myth Through Time
                   Perennial Library 1990 Harper and Row Publishers New York USA
Reference 2. Joseph Campbell In Conversation With Michael Toms
                   Perennial Library Harper and Row Publishers New York USA 1990

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