Living Myths: A Conversation with Joseph Campbell

Photo by B.S. Wise

Photo by B.S. Wise

In the Spring of 1976, Parabola sat down with Joseph Campbell to discuss the ways in which myths endure and are lived today; readers familiar with Campbell’s work may discover a few surprises in this candid discussion. The conversation appeared in our second issue, “Magic,” and is available for purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing

In his seventy-two years, Joseph Campbell has been a teacher, author, lecturer, and editor. But most of all he has been an explorer, searching the great myths and legends of all cultures and times and finding in each a source of delight, illumination, and instruction. Even in his scholarly four-volume work, The Masks of God, Campbell resisted the temptation of simply cataloguing and describing the riches of world mythology. For him the vitality of the great traditions springs from their immediate and perennial relevance to the human condition. They are maps leading to the treasure of man’s deepest spiritual potential—and in his search he has discovered for us ways in which we are all characters in the mythic play.

To the dismay of some, Campbell’s tack invariably hews toward the psychological interpretation of myths, symbols, and religious traditions. Others are troubled by his tendency to restrict the contemporary role of myth to either an ideological or therapeutic function. But we are all in his debt for making this material available in the engaging formats of his books and talks.

Tall and thin, graced with an Irish gift for story-telling, Campbell’s quiet geniality is animated by an unquenchable wonder at the richness of our mythological inheritance. Moving easily among sources as diverse as James Joyce and Buddhist Sutras, native American traditions and C.G. Jung, he is exhilarated by finding fresh parallels, of theme and meaning. Through his teaching and writing, he has brought the richness of man’s spiritual history to our contemporary world. He invites all of us individually, to strike out on our own inward journeys, guided by the wisdom of those who have travelled to the heart of things and returned to tell the tale.

—Lorraine Kisly

Lorraine Kisly: In trying to assess the role of mythology in our lives now, would you say that mythology is as much a part of human life as it was in the past? Are we simply not aware of it?
Joseph Campbell: We’re aware of it but we don’t interpret it as mythological. Just consider the trouble spots in the world today and what’s behind them. First, there’s the conflict in India between Hinduism and Islam that goes on and on. These are two great mythological structures—the mythology of Islamic monotheism and Hinduism, which is perhaps the oldest high culture tradition still functioning in the world.

Moving further west to Israel you find another terrible conflict because one people has a mythology of the chosen race and a land which has been chosen for them by God’s grace, a land which they say is a gift from God. The state of Israel is a mythological institution. You can’t explain a people’s feeling of having a right to a land in purely political or social terms. You hear of people moving in, saying “This is my homeland”—people who have never been there before, whose grandfathers had never been there, who actually don’t know anything about the place. And these people are coming into collision with the people who were there and are there, and who simply belong to another tradition, the Islamic.

And then right here in the Christian sphere, you find Catholic and Protestant readings of a single mythological tradition causing seemingly unending difficulties in Northern Ireland. So in terms of its activity in the contemporary world, mythological collisions are crucial and immensely important. But in this modern world, these contending mythologies are playing an outworn game. They have very little relevance to the real problem of contemporary life, which is to recognize that we’re all passengers on the same “spaceship earth,” as Buckminster Fuller called it. These in-group out-group attitudes of retaining love and admiration for your own group and projecting disdain and aggression outward are archaic attitudes.

Kisly: But still very much alive.
Campbell: They are alive. I see more and more all around me a proliferation of these in-group definitions where people find a group to align themselves with and, in that relationship, hold themselves against others. Social problems are not very comfortably solved in that way. Black power is one example. The notion of Aryan supremacy in Hitler’s time is the only one we seem to realize was dangerous, but they are all dangerous. There’s also the distinction on the social class level in the idea of the proletariat and the command that the workers of the world should unite—unite again it.

Kisly: Would you define these kinds of things as myth?
Campbell: They are definitions of the social field, within which the emotional system is then shaped to an in-group out-group mythology. Now that is a mythological theme. I’ve described in my books what I call the four main functions of myth. One is the mystical one of opening the mystical dimension. The second is the cosmological function of relating us to the cosmos as now known in such a way that its mystery can be experienced, that we can relate to it with gratitude. After all, myth has to do with attitudes. Third is the sociological function of validating and maintaining the moral or ethical system of the specific social group to which one belongs; so that when you define your social group you define the margin of your mythological identification.

It’s an identification that one makes with a group, which is a mythological act. One person identifies with this group, and another person with that, and each acts in these contexts in ways that are not always rationally supportable. And finally there is the pedagogical function of mythology, of carrying the individual through the crises of life from dependency in childhood to maturity and the realization that one is a self-responsible individual, and then on to disengagement from society, which comes in the later years of life and forward, to the ultimate threshold of death. So there are those services which myth supplies.

Kisly: I suppose you’ve answered the question of how mythology is alive in our own times in terms of the third or social category. Is it as much a part of our lives in the first two, the mystical and cosmological functions that you’ve described?
Campbell: Go to any church or synagogue and you’ll find the clergy there trying to support an archaic concept of the universe against the findings of science. Religion has been kicking against the findings of science ever since Hellenistic times. just think, the first chapter of Genesis was composed at a time when the Greeks had already measured the circumference of the earth to within a couple of hundred miles. It presents a deliberately archaic notion of the shape of the cosmos and the way in which the cosmos came into being, and then the religious system is hung onto that belief.

Look what happened when Copernicus published in 1543 his formula for the heliocentric universe and the geocentric system seemed damaged. Since the religions had tied their faith to that system, a persecution of scientists set in. Now, the individual has to feel comfortable in his universe, religiously comfortable as well as physically, and if the religion does not relate one to the universe as it is, but is fighting against it—what does the individual do? The old system had the notion of special-species creation so that the emergence of evolutionary thinking in the late 18th and early 19th centuries seemed a destruction of religion. That we should be related to the animals was something that in our tradition wasn’t acceptable, though in India, for example, it has long been taken for granted.

So these relationships to the findings of science do get into the mythological world. And it does make a difference to your concept of your role in life, whether you think of man as a special creation superior to the animals or think of him as in accord with not only the animal world, but also the plant world, the whole of the natural world. So that’s the cosmological aspect of it.

Kisly: Is there a way in which evolution can be seen as a myth itself?
Campbell: Well, evolution is a scientific finding to which the mythology must adjust itself. And if it isn’t adjusted to it there is a stress between the mythological or religious and the actual experience of the world which people are having to take account of these days

Kisly: Can you see a scientific finding-like evolution, for example—somehow being turned into a myth, having values put onto them of an almost mythological kind? As you said, it restructures the way we think about ourselves, the kind of values we have.
Campbell: Yes, it does.

Kisly: And it may not be the ultimate “objective truth,” if anything can be said about that.
Campbell: Well, it is the current working hypothesis to interpret the phenomenology of nature, and it seems to be pretty well documented. I don’t think we can say that it’s likely to be a discarded theory very soon. Also, the findings that are coming through now about the antiquity of the early hominid type, putting the date back nearly four million years—this gives a different notion about the place of man in nature from the one that would have us all created together with the world 4004 B.C. It makes the problem of deity, which most people think they like to relate to, a very different one from the problem of the deity who created a small world six thousand years ago.

Now look at these galaxies beyond counting that the scientists are showing us—literally millions of galaxies and every galaxy a milky way of stars and every star with a possible solar system around it and some of these solar systems probably inhabited. Well, what does that do to the whole history of creation and the fall that we have in our inherited tradition? It just breaks it up.

Kisly: In showing ways that mythology is alive in us, you seem to have shown that it is alive in a different way, a less connected way than it was in the past. Mythology before, in certain cultures and traditions, instead of dividing all the time, causing conflict, wars, and fragmentation as in the social examples you gave, seemed to feed people and support them and fill their lives. And in that sense, we don’t really have a mythology.
Campbell: That’s right. I’d say the basic mythology of the high literate civilizations from the time of the first emergence of such civilization in Sumer, in Mesopotamia, during the fourth millennium B.C., was concerned to coordinate into a single organically conceived social unit the disparate types of men who were functioning in that developed world. In the earlier period of foraging, little tribes, all of the adults were in control of the whole cultural heritage.

When the cities began to evolve with specialized vocations (specialized priests, governing people, trading people, peasants, and so forth) the problem arose of coordinating these disparate types of human life. This was done with the mythology of the social unit as an organism, and it was put in accord with the cycles of the seasons, as our ritual festivals still do—Christmas and the Festival of Lights at the time of the dawn of light in the winter solstice, spring festivals, fall festivals. All of the basic mythology revolved around that which put the society in accord with the world of nature, and then the individual, who was also a product of nature, was put in accord with nature-his own nature—through participation in those rites.

Well, now that’s blown apart. We don’t have the idea of micro-macrocosm—the little cosmos of man, the big cosmos of nature, and then the middle cosmos of society which shows the laws that govern them all. We don’t have that same unity anymore. Physics and psychology really are not the same science anymore, although in their outermost reaches they’re beginning to bump into the same mysteries. Still, you wouldn’t take Einstein’s formula as a guide to marriage.

So the two spheres have broken apart and this is part of the problem of modern man. Furthermore, the roles that people play in the world now are far more various than they ever were in the traditional society and the individual has to find his own way. He isn’t forced into a specific social pattern of life as, for instance, in the traditional society of India even today when you inherit your dharma, you inherit your morality and law of existence from the society. We in our world are much more freely choosing and evaluating, self-responsible individuals. That brings a whole new problem

Kisly: I remember once reading that at one point you had studied Eastern tradition and culture for so long that you “almost felt like a Hindu.”
Campbell: Until I went to India.

Kisly: And returned recognizing the strength of your own need for the Western value of respect for the individual.
Campbell: That’s right.

Kisly: There are many people in America today who feel themselves to be Hindus or Buddhists. Do you think it is possible for them really to be a Hindu or a Buddhist?
Campbell: No. Absolutely not.

Kisly: Why not?
Campbell: In the first place Westerners do not usually have much contact with these traditions until they are already at least adolescents—sixteen, seventeen, nineteen years old. And so they’ve had at least fifteen years of the building of an occidental psyche.

What’s the difference between an occidental and a traditional oriental psyche? In the Orient, as I’ve said, one’s duties are put upon one. One is not a freely choosing individual and the whole accent is on ego-suppression, ego dissolution. The East has never distinguished between what Freud called the id and what he called the ego. The id is the “I want” function—I want, I want, I want. And in the Orient this is mastered by the superego function—you must, you must, you must. So one goes from “I want” to “you must” and one does not go to what Freud calls the reality function of the ego—that function of the psyche that puts you in touch with the actual circumstances of your life now, the I life of your society now, the world situation now, and gives you the charge of judging and evaluating, and then acting upon your own evaluations.

So the ego, you see, is not the “I want”, but it’s the “I judge” and “I accept” and “I take the responsibility” principle. And that is just what you do not have in the East. Consequently, the development of the ego principle, as it is understood in the West, is the creative principle that takes hold of and moves into new circumstances and situations. The Westerner has a function operative in his psyche that is not so strongly operative in the East. One goes, then, to a guru. If one were an Oriental one would have, one might say, a very fragile ego—like a hollow glass sphere. The guru has a little tack hammer and he hits that glass sphere and it cracks. Voila! The ego never was much developed, and now you see it go with pleasure in the sense of release from a burden. But the Westerner goes with this hard rock of an ego, a sort of living organism of an ego, and it does not crack when hit with the little hammer.

Kisly: So that Westerners who identify themselves as Hindu, for example, are in danger of getting themselves further into confusion and division when they try to put the tradition on whole, as it were.
Campbell: I would define the great value of the Oriental instruction for us as this: the translation of mythological symbols into psychological references. We have read our own mythological symbols as historical references. Moses did go up the mountain and get the tables of the Law from God, came down, broke them, went up, got a second edition, came back again. This is taken to be literally true. The Jews did go through the waters of the Red Sea and after that they did go through the waters of the Jordan. Jesus was born of a Virgin, did rise from the dead, did ascend to heaven. So here are these symbols, important symbols of revelation, of spiritual birth, of exaltation, all read as historical facts.

The same symbols come to us from the Orient, read however as having psychological reference, representing powers within the human spirit, within your spirit, my spirit, which are to be developed and which can be evoked by contemplation and meditation on appropriate symbolic forms. The symbols then point to things that are in ourselves. This is what the Orient is telling us. But then you go and take over, also, all their old archaic sociological problems. Doesn’t fit. You dress like a Japanese or like a Hindu. So you are deracinating yourself—you are not reading the message in terms of your own condition, but are trying to change your condition and it just doesn’t work. Or rather very, very seldom does it work, and it works only in the most sophisticated people—those who have absorbed the oriental material thoroughly and know where it meets them, where it doesn’t meet them, know how to move into it. If they want to continue practices in Buddhist monasteries and that sort of thing they know precisely its value to them. But this is extremely rare.

Kisly: It seems to me that many people who are attracted to the study of myth and tradition see and sense a meaning and truth in them and are then faced with the problem of trying to relate the truth of what they see to their own life in a practical way. Do you think that this can be done without a guide of some sort, outside of a tradition?
Campbell: I never had a guide! The material in itself, if one gets into it, is guidance enough. Now an important point to realize is that all the old, basic, historically-grounded traditions were rendered effective through rituals. Rites are the enactments of myths, and by participating in the rite one is participating in the myth and consequently activating the accordant structures and principles within one’s own psyche. Without some kind of ritual enactment the whole thing fails to get inside the active aspect of one’s system unless one happens to be working through actual life problems in terms suggested by mythological considerations.

Kisly: I think it is an interesting point that participation in rites and ritual is participation in myth and tradition—that they enable an active response in the individual. Without that participation you are saying that Western man outside of a tradition must try for himself to apply the content of myth to the process of his own psyche.
Campbell: You see, for instance, I was brought up a Catholic, and I was a good practicing Catholic until I was twenty-four or twenty-five years old—which is almost fifty years ago now. Every week I would go to confession, and before going to confession I’d examine my conscience. I would think of all the negative things I had been guilty of doing. Why in heaven’s name not think of all the great things one has done, and the good things and the lovely things and forget the others? But dragging those up and meditating on them—it turns one into a worm. You’re always on your knees, beating your chest—through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Sure, get it off your chest when you’ve done something, but these little peccadillos, these little tiny things—what in heaven’s name! If you do something ghastly you don’t have to go to confession about it—you know what it is and it’s hitting you in the face all the time.

Kisly: I was also brought up in the Catholic tradition and in spite of negative aspects like the one you just mentioned, I’ve always felt grateful to have been exposed to the rituals and sacraments as a child. It seems to give one a sense at least of a part of oneself that isn’t touched by ordinary life and to open one to mystery and paradox.
Campbell: I would say that also. The problem is, though, to lose it without losing it. When you find that you have lost your faith, let’s say, then you’ve lost the imagery that really connected your conscious life with the deepest spiritual potentials within you. And so my belief is that one shouldn’t throw these things out, but reread them so that they do have valid spiritual rather than impossible historical references. And then it all comes to life again. The Catholic myth, after all, is indeed a rich and beautiful one.

Kisly: Do you think that each tradition has within it, at least potentially, all the dimensions of truth that are contained in the other great traditions, or are there significant esoteric differences?
Campbell: Well, there are significant differences. Take, for instance, Judaism and Hinduism. These are ethnic religions—one is born a Jew, one is born a Hindu. Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam, on the other hand, are credal religions—credo, “I believe,” —and one’s birth has nothing to do with it. It’s one’s confession or belief, and so they are not race-bound in the same way that ethnic religions are. That’s a difference and an important one. It’s an important difference psychologically and it’s an important difference, you might say, historically. Yet each of these world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—is exclusive in its own way too: there are adherents of the faith and there are those who are outside. So I would say that in a contemporary world, too, they are a bit outdated.

The most recent big thing that has come along in our contemporary world has been communism. It has all the signs for me except one of a functioning mythology, and that one is the most important of all, namely, a sense of the mystery dimension of the world and of all things. Communism is impudent with respect to mystery. It is a sterilized variety, I would say, of biblical mythology. It foresees only one society and the triumph of that society over the whole face of the earth. People outside aren’t even considered to be people—they’re liquidated with perfect impunity and nobody feels any guilt for it.

What happened in the Vietnam war when the Communists massacred people? We didn’t even get detailed reports of those massacres in our papers. But when a Western individual went berserk it was in streamer headlines. Another interesting thing is that they have a book that is venerated as a kind of revealed bible. The big ideological quarrel between Russia and Red China, for example, is over who is interpreting this scripture correctly. It is a kind of scholastic quibble with reference to an unassailable book. Then you have those saints of the tradition who are embalmed, and are its true interpreters. Instead of icons of Jesus in his mother’s arms, you have images of Mao and Stalin everywhere, so that the individual is related to the society by way of mythologized human figures.

Next, there’s the notion of the good guys and the bad guys. We’re the good ones, the others are the bad ones, and that’s it. There’s a conflict between the forces of good and evil which is in the process of being resolved and will culminate in the day of the revolution—or in the day of Yahweh, or in the day of the Second Coming when evil will be eliminated and there will be nothing but the good world. This is a perfectly mythological structure—and it is a completely dogmatic one. There’s no room for deviation. The way in which those purging trials were conducted in Russia—people were brutalized very much as Galileo had been when up before the Inquisitor. Here again are inquisitors, and there is torture applied. Also, there is campaigning against all other religions: a kind of Holy War. It is an anti-God campaign that is being waged absolutely against Buddhism, Christianity, and even shamanism in Siberia. So it has everything except the mystery dimension—it tells you what to do and what to believe in every detail. I see it as a completely reactionary system totally eliminating the individual experience. Consider what went on and is going on in Tibet right now! It is one of the most appalling stories, including genocide and everything else, but do you read about that in our papers? We keep hearing, rather, about Hitler, who’s been dead for these forty years.

Kisly: I remember something you wrote in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. You said, as I remember it, that it is only those who know neither an inner call nor an outer doctrine whose plight is truly desperate. Today, that includes most of us, and you see communism coming along as an outer doctrine.
Campbell: That’s exactly right.

Kisly: Twenty years ago you had a question about Spengler’s view that our culture was in its declining phase. How do you feel about him today?
Campbell: He’s working out almost on schedule! It’s fantastic. I used to have a question about it, but not anymore. The only question, and this is a big one, is whether the industrial revolution is a world phenomenon or an occidental phenomenon. That is to say, is it the Western mind, the Western psyche that supports it? With the gang-up against the West now and also the West moving into its terminal phase—according to Spengler—will this great new heritage of man finally dissolve away as the building of the pyramids did when Egypt lost its power? Or on the other hand is this something which can be and has been fundamentally assimilated to the consciousness of the global man, if we can call it such, that it will continue and we shall move into a new world phase? Are we entering the phase of no more horizons that I’ve spoken about, the true post-agricultural phase of human society? This “airport civilization” that’s, as it were, putting down its centers all over the world—is that something that’s going to fade as the gifts of the British Empire faded? Or is it something that will be carried on? Can these other culture worlds take it in? Do they want to? Are they using it, as Spengler says, simply to smash the West that gave it to them, or is there something there that they truly want for themselves?

Kisly: On completing The Masks of God, you noted that its result was for you a confirmation of the unity of man spiritually as well as biologically. You referred to the “next great movement” as on its way and probably containing within it the same perennial themes, the same recurrent motifs that have appeared again and again in the history of man.
Campbell: But how long that next movement will endure is the question that arises out of what we’ve just been talking about. Is it going to be a phase that will disappear and will all these separate cultures go back into their own little boxes again, or is it something that actually represents the beginning of a totally new age of man on the planet? You realize that if we don’t destroy this planet in the next couple of hundred years, it’s good for millions of years—with man on it. That’s a long, long prospect, and it may well be the beginning of a great long history.

Kisly: You are not, obviously, looking at the future in terms of an either/or—a great new age or the destruction of the planet. You see the possibility of simply breaking up into small groups again.
Campbell: Yes, and I think that’s more likely than total destruction. I think there’s a possibility of the first, but I don’t think many people really want it. I see so much reaction. I see communism as a reaction. People are afraid of the unknown and the “whole-world” step is a kind of free-fall into the future.

Kisly: How would you describe the difference between your approach to the study of mythology and the approach of Levi-Strauss?
Campbell: Levi-Strauss is a man of great knowledge with respect particularly to the mythologies of non-literate peoples and more specifically those of South America. One comes to a rather different point of view with respect to mythological principles through a study of non-literate mythologies from the one that one arrives at through a study of the great literate systems. The great literate systems are magnificent poetic images and they’re more or less consistent within themselves, whereas within a non-literate community the sort of material that an anthropologist who hardly knows how to speak their language can collect gives an impression of fragmentation and little parcels of strange myths that you don’t know how to relate to larger images.

Now on the basis of a whole multitude of examples of these fragmentary mythic moments, Levi-Strauss goes to work, and the way he works is by breaking them up into still smaller pieces and then reassembling these to accord with what I take to be an already fixed theory. The discovery of pairs of opposites as being implicit in all mythological systems, furthermore is not Levi-Strauss’s discovery. It is something that has been known for a long time. What Jung has called the coincidence of opposites, for example, is exactly that.

The other thing about Strauss, where I really put myself on the other side of the fence, is his idea of mythology as a kind of proto-science. My idea is that the basic thing about myth is that it is visionary. A mythology is a system of affect-symbols, signs evoking and directing psychic energies. It is more like an affective art work than like a scientific proposition. Levi-Strauss is saying that something like verbal grammar is the structuring form of myth, and this seems to me just wrong, that’s all. The logics of image thinking and of verbal thinking are two very different logics.

Kisly: It seems that if myth is looked at in a completely analytic way, the heart of it is likely to be missed. It seems to require an emotional as well as an intellectual response. Do you think that the faculty that is required to understand myth can be trained and developed?
Campbell: Just as one can be trained to experience art. Many people come to art verbally trained, and as they look at pictures and visit galleries they gradually open to it and learn how to experience the art work. So also I think with these matters of the spiritual traditions of myth. There’s a mystery dimension in myth—there always is, and you can’t put a ring around it. It’s the difference between drawing a circle on the ground and dropping a pebble into a pond from which circles go out. The myth drops a pebble into a pond, it tells you of a certain center, it puts you on a certain center—what the Navajo call the pollen path of beauty—but it doesn’t give you a definition.

What happens in dogmatic religions, however, is that definitions are contrived to circumscribe the myth and the ritual. I think that what is going on in the Catholic church now is something of a disaster. There you have the inheritance of one of the greatest ritual structures ever, anywhere, and what are they doing to it? It’s really incredible. Instead of simply presenting the mythic ritual beautifully, that rich mythologically-based heritage of beautiful, powerful ritual, for the individual to experience in his own way, they are destroying the clean lines of the rites and insisting, instead, on the dogmas, which are to tell us how we have to interpret our experience. Dogma simply cuts the individual off from his own potential of response.

Kisly: You’ve said recently that you see an inward turning and the need for an inward turning among all the great traditions today.
Campbell: Yes. There’s always an inward reference when mythology is alive: that is to say, when contemplating iconographic structures, one is really, by way of a mirror-reflection, contemplating one’s own spirit, one’s own inward truth. But when those pictures fall away, when they’re no longer speaking because they have become archaic and we are no longer in the field of experience out of which those pictures came, there then comes a need for an inward search directly on the part of the individual.

Now I take as a rather vivid representation of this situation what happened on the American Plains to the buffalo-hunting Indians when the buffalo were slaughtered and taken away from them in the 1870s and 80s. The basic pivot of their ritual life had been in relationship to the buffalo. It’s a normal thing among hunting peoples that the animal on whom their living depends should become their spiritual messenger. He is their “willing victim” and the center of the ritual has to do with the relationship to that animal. Well, that animal was taken away. Immediately the peyote cult came up from Mexico and became the rage among the Plains Indian tribes. What does peyote do? It gives you visions from inside. So the outside social structure is no longer sanctified through rites. The rite has been taken away, the object of the ritual no longer exists, nor does the manner of life that made it relevant.

An inward turn, then, is the only resort for the individual—he find his religion inside—and that’s what’s happening to ourselves right now. The authority of the inherited religions is now in question. Christianity and Judaism are on the rocks, at least for many of the young people in our culture. So along comes the peyote and LSD fad of the 60s—inward turning. And today it’s no longer LSD so much, but meditation.

Kisly: You were speaking about the way images and symbols can lose their life and obviously this has happened to us now. It seems to me you are saying that they can have meaning for us, but that the meaning is not given automatically anymore. If we want it we have to make some sort of active movement towards it.
Campbell: I would say, for instance, that a Catholic who loses his faith has nevertheless had these images built into him, and it’s worthwhile reactivating them in a spiritually cogent rather than historically ridiculous way. I notice that a lot of young Jews now are talking about Kabbalah and Hasidism. These represent the experiential side of their tradition. Good, I would say. But there has to be something also to help the individual make modern sense of these traditions for his modern, individual search. And there, I think, the writings of C.G. Jung on individuation are about as sound and helpful as anything we’ve got. They don’t represent a tradition, but they do represent the insights of a very, very deeply grounded psyche—C.G. Jung’s. I don’t know of anybody else whom I could give that much credit to as a guide.

Kisly: You’ve noted that “something happened” in the 60s, when suddenly interest in your work shot up along with your lecture fees.
Campbell: That was the era of inward discovery in its LSD phase. Suddenly, The Hero with a Thousand Faces became a kind of triptych for the inward journey, and people were finding something in that book that could help them interpret their own experience. The book is a presentation of the one great mythic theme—that of the journey, the inward journey of the quest, and the finding and the return. Anybody going on a journey, inward or outward, to find values, will be on a journey that has been described many times in the myths of mankind, and I simply put them all together in that book. The archetypology of the heroic quest is what I have put forward there; that is the quest that people are embarking on now and for which society no longer gives us instructions.

Kisly: Do you see any other historical parallels to what you say happened in the 60s and is happening now, besides the Plains Indians?
Campbell: Yes, another parallel is what happened in the period of the Hellenistic mystery cults. The mythology of the polis, the earlier city, had broken up, and people were living in a cosmopolis, a world city—not in the vast dimensions of today’s world city, yet very much the same, relatively, for those times. And there again, as today, there was this inward turning.

There was also a coming on of Caesarism: the regulation by a Caesar of a mob instead of a folk—for there is a great difference. A mob is a conglomeration of people of quite heterogeneous origins and heterogeneous beliefs, all thrown together with no common ethos. They have to be held together by force—otherwise the society goes to pieces. And it was at the time of the rise of the Caesars that the inward turning of the individuals, to find within the structuring forms that were lacking in the world without, came along.

Kisly: I want to ask you about the number of books that are appearing that say they are discussing the kinds of myths we are creating now, for example, books about the American Dream as a kind of myth. Would you call that myth and how far is it really possible to see the kinds of myths we are creating right now?
Campbell: That has to do with that aspect of the social side of myth that provides life models to live by. The pattern of the rancher, the pattern of the frontiersman, all grew out of actual life situations that don’t exist anymore. What’s happening is that the life models for life styles are changing very, very fast—as fast as women’s fashions actually: a new dress-length every year. And you can’t have the building of a substantial mythos on such a basis. The frontier is all finished now. We have another environment, and what are the models for it? Today, when you move into a life career it isn’t going to turn out to be the one you thought you were entering. The pattern of the teacher, the pattern of the writer—patterns that I experienced—are not at all what I thought they were going to be in the good old days when I was first thinking about them. And so I just don’t think we are going to have in the experience of our careers the sense of depth and spiritual dignity that the old mythologies used to give to the lives they supported and informed.

We have to build our own experience of the deeper dimension of our lives—with the guidance of art. I think great art is as useful a guide to mythological dimensions as anything we have; it’s much better today than our churches. Many of our artists today, however, just aren’t interested in those dimensions, so that even they are at sea.

Kisly: One of the articles in the first issue of Parabola was “Psychotherapy and the Sacred,” an adapted chapter from a new book by Jacob Needleman. He’s saying in that chapter that psychoanalysis does not really speak to or recognize the whole man. He speaks of two paths—one of earthly happiness and another of self-transformation—and says that psychotherapy, in its emphasis on adjustment and acceptance and a feeling of well-being, is blind to the most vital and critical potential in man.
Campbell: Well, briefly I would say that this is true of Freudian psychoanalysis but not of Jungian. Now whether the actual practising Jungian affects any significant transformation in his patients, I don’t know, but that’s what Jung’s speaking about. The transformation comes out of the allowance of the neglected or unrecognized aspects of one’s own potential spiritual life to become evident to one’s consciousness and manifest in one’s life ways.

Kisly: What Needleman is saying applies to Jung as well. He points out that the great traditions speak about and affirm an objective higher consciousness, a higher intelligence, universal laws, and that the sacred potential in man is that in him which can relate to this objective higher consciousness. How would you define the sacred?
Campbell: Well, the sacred from a social standpoint is the object or system of objects that have been set up by the society to integrate the individual spiritual life into the functioning of the social system. What is sacred for the individual is that which of itself has come to mean depth to him. The problem of the religious life is to open the ego system to the grace, you might say, of transpersonal energies and influences.

Then the question is, where do those transpersonal influences and energies come from? They come, from the psychological standpoint, from the depths of the psyche, which is deeper than the ego system. If one has faith in nature then one can let come whatever springs from the depths of the psyche and see what is coming as one’s own nature’s communication to one’s own limited ego-consciousness. That message can be seen as something to be regarded, to be responded to, to be open to, and to accept as a guide to enlarged spiritual horizons. The word spiritual is a kind of fuzzy word, it can get to be even silly: but I would say what gives it its majesty is the recognition of really potent powers within us which speak through the signs and symbols of our dreams, our visions, and if we are in a fortunate mythological context, through the myths of our people, to our functioning ego system.

Living with these things all the time, I can see how there are certain universal patterns for these manifestations. A shaman among the Navajo or in the Congo will be saying things which sound so much like, say, Nicolas Cusanas, or Thomas Aquinas, or C.G. Jung, that one just has to realize that these ranges of experience are common to the human race. There are some people who close themselves away from them, some people who open themselves to them. There are also some people who are gifted in the direction of opening themselves, just as there are people who are gifted in playing a piano. But I think the potential for at least clumsy piano playing is available to all of us.

Kisly: The step beyond that, when one can perhaps feel these forces and these energies in oneself is a step that traditions take as opposed to psychology. The traditions all affirm that these forces are continually being created by a higher consciousness, according to laws.
Campbell: Well, that’s a theological way of interpreting them—as though the source were outside somewhere. The psychological way is to recognize that the source is inside, and this psychological way opens into the way of Hinduism and Buddhism, which says that all the gods are within us. We find this same message in certain modes of Christianity. The enigmatic saying of Jesus that the kingdom of heaven is within you intended this same sort of idea. When you have that view, you rest, so to say, in yourself—in your deepest part within the bounds, to use theological terms, of God. And he speaks to you from within yourself. If you throw the God image away, as one does in Buddhism and ultimately in Hinduism, you will immediately recognize that whatever the power is that we speak of as divine operates from within as the source, and you can have faith in your own nature.

On the other hand, since we are living for the most part off balance, we’re living as it were in a cock-eyed way, not on our center, the pollen path of beauty, but off-center; and what nature is telling us is that before we can get on center we have to honor the other side. So there’s a swing over to demonic ways, to dangerous paths.

That’s the thing that a guru has to watch out for in a student, or that any pedagogue has to watch for. If you’re leaning too far to the right, then there’s going to be a swing to the left. There must be a tendency to pendulation before the inner center can be found, and over on that other side are possibilities of damage, shipwreck, and terrible disaster. That’s why people are afraid. But you’ve got to dare it, that’s all, if you’re going to come to center at all on your own. It’s a dangerous path. In the words of the Upanishads: “the narrow edge of a razor is this,” this path, and not everyone is able to negotiate it. One can go crazy—or one can go through craziness and come out the other side.

That’s another point: the Freudian psychoanalysts generally try to abort the psychosis, knock it out, which can prevent one from going through the whole path, the whole trip, and coming out the other side. So, let’s suppose that the urge to go on a trip is still operating within you, and you still are defending yourself against this urge. A good thing to remember is that what looks like devils from an angelic point of view are actually angels that have not been properly regarded. If you have seen the play Equus, you’ll remember the problem of the psychologist. He realized that what he was doing was removing his patient’s worship and he asked himself, “What is a man without his worship?” Nietzsche makes the same point when he warns us to be careful lest in casting out our devils we cast out the best that’s in us. A person can be filleted, gutted by a psychoanalytic cure, a cure to cure energy, you might say.

Kisly: I asked before whether you thought that every tradition had the same esoteric potential. Can you say for yourself which tradition is the richest, deepest and most meaningful?
Campbell: I would say, given my prejudice, namely, that the energy comes from within, that the religion that puts God outside and keeps Him out there is not as strong as the one that allows the divine to be inside—and really inside. This is one of the main problems of our biblical tradition—God is out there, not in my heart. My heart is corrupt until I am converted, and then it is still corrupt. I can’t say “tat tvam asi,” “Thou art That,” “I and That are one.” I have to ask instead, am I in the proper relationship to That? Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of relationship. The way to get into relationship is by participating in the historical cult, and if you are not participating in that, then you are not in a proper relationship to God. That I call, to put it bluntly, the way of an inferior sort of religion. What religions best open the inward way? Hinduism and Buddhism, I would say, and of the two, I put Buddhism on top because, as I’ve said, it’s a creedal religion, a religion of belief and consciousness, not a religion of birth and caste. So for me, of the traditions that have been inherited from the past, Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism in particular, is tops. It really is. But I find beautiful echoes in very simple religions like those of the Navajo and Hopi. I think one can receive very important instruction from these tribal religions which recognize the power as within the field of nature and the world, and of ourselves. They don’t set man apart. I recall the amusing opening of a lecture that Daisetz T. Suzuki delivered at Eranos some years ago. He stood there before the audience with his hands on his hips leaning forward, and announced very slowly, and as though solemnly: “God against man. Man against God. God against Nature. Nature against God. Man against Nature. Nature against Man. Very funny religion.” He summed it up just like that. Where you have absolute final duality, you don’t have the ultimate message. ♦

From Parabola Volume 1, No. 2, “Magic,” Spring 1976. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.