Experience the Mystical Music of Hildegard Von Bingen: The First Known Composer in History (1098 – 1179)

The German abbess, visionary, mystic poet, composer, and healer Hildegard von Bingen “has become a symbol to disparate groups,” writes Brian Wise at WQXR, including “feminists and theologians, musicologists and new-age medicine practitioners. Her chants have been set to techno rhythms; her writings on nutrition have yielded countless cookbooks (even though she never left behind a single recipe.)” She did leave behind an astounding body of work that has made her improbably popular for a 12th century nun, with a lively presence on Facebook and her own Twitter account, @MysticHildy (“very into technology, love to travel”).

Her fame rests not only on the beauty of her work, but on her extraordinary life story and the fact that she is the first composer to whose work we can put a name. She was born in 1098 in Bermersheim, the tenth child of a noble family. It being the custom then to dedicate a tenth child (a “tithe”) to the church, Hildegard was sent to the Monastary of Saint Disibodenberg to become a Benedictine nun under the tutelage of Jutta, a highly-respected anchoress. “After Jutta’s death,” notes Fordham University’s sourcebook, “when Hildegard was 38 years of age, she was elected the head of the budding convent living within cramped walls of the anchorage.”

Throughout her life, Hildegard had experienced visions, beginning at the age of 3. (Oliver Sacks attributed these to migraines). At age 42, she had a powerful experience that radically changed her life. She described this moment in her writings:

And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books...

Overwhelmed, and fearful of writing down her visions “because of doubt and a low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men,” she nonetheless found encouragement from leaders in the church to write and circulate her theological work: “With papal imprimatur, Hildegard was able to finish her first visionary work Scivias (“Know the Ways of the Lord”) and her fame began to spread through Germany.” Soon after, she relocated her convent to Bingen, and began an incredibly productive period in the last few decades of her life.

All told, she turned out an “extraordinary array of creative treasures,” writes Wise: a drama in verse, “more than 70 musical works, medical texts filled with 2,000 remedies, writings presenting feminine archetypes for the divine.” Although she held to orthodox doctrine, opposing the Cathars, for example, and other “schismatics,” she was a mystic whose ideas far exceeded the cramped theological confines of so many male counterparts. “Hildegard’s visions caused her to see humans as ‘living sparks’ of God’s love, coming from God as daylight comes from the sun,” writes Fr. Don Miller. “This unity was not apparent to many of her contemporaries.”

Her transcendent sight did not blind her to the diverse beauty of the natural world. “She not only had faith,” says German director and actress Margarethe Von Trotta, who made a 2010 biopic about Hildegard, “but she was so curious. Today, perhaps she would have been a scientist because she did so much research on healing people, on plants and animals.” Hildegard’s talent, intellect, and forceful personality made her a formidable person, “the only known female figure of her time,” writes Music Academy Online, “who achieved such intellectual stature and whose contributions have had lasting impact.” The revived interest in her music coincided with “the ‘new age’ chant craze in the mid-1990s,” but Hildegard’s work differs markedly from medieval chant written for male voices.

Varying from “highly syllabic to dramatic melismas (swirling melodies on a single open syllable,” Melanie Spiller explains, “her music is quite distinctive and easily recognizable, with unsual elements for the time, including exceeding an octave by a fourth or fifth, and large and frequent leaps.” Her music also functioned as “a vehicle for her own mystical experience,” and it continues to move listeners—of faith and no faith—who hear in her song celebrations of the divinely feminine and the wonders of the natural world.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How William S. Burroughs Embraced, Then Rejected Scientology, Forcing L. Ron Hubbard to Come to Its Defense (1959-1970)

Image by Christiaan Tonnis, via Wikimedia Commons

William S. Burroughs was a cultural prism. Through him, the mid-century demi-monde of illicit drug use and marginalized sexualities—of occult beliefs, alternative religions, and bizarre conspiracy theories—was refracted on the page in experimental writing that inspired everyone from his fellow Beats to the punks of later decades to name-your-countercultural-touchstone of the past fifty years or so. There are many such people in history: those who go to the places that most fear to tread and send back reports written in language that alters reality. To quote L. Ron Hubbard, another writer who purported to do just that, “the world needs their William Burroughses.”

And Burroughs, so it appears, needed L. Ron Hubbard, at least for most of the sixties, when the writer became a devout follower of the Church of Scientology. The sci-fi-inspired “new religious movement” that needs no further introduction proved irresistible in 1959 when Burroughs met John and Mary Cooke, two founding members of the church who had been trying to recruit Burroughs’ friend and frequent artistic partner Brion Gysin. “Ultimately,” writes Lee Konstantinou at io9, “it was Burroughs, not Gysin, who explored the Church that L. Ron Hubbard built. Burroughs took Scientology so seriously that he became a 'Clear' and almost became an 'Operating Thetan.'"




Burroughs immersed himself without reservation in the practices and principles of Scientology, writing letters to Allen Ginsberg that same year in which he recommends his friend “contact [a] local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have used the method—partially responsible for recent changes.” No doubt Burroughs had his share of personal trauma to overcome, but he also found Scientology especially conducive to his greater creative project of countering “the Reactive Mind… an ancient instrument of control designed to stultify and limit the potential for action in a constructive or destructive direction.”

The method of “auditing” gave Burroughs a good deal of material to work with in his fiction and filmmaking experiments. He and Gysin included Scientology's language in a short 1961 film called “Towers Open Fire,” which was, writes Konstantinou, “designed to show the process of control systems breaking down.” Scientology appeared in 1962’s The Ticket That Exploded and again in 1964’s Nova ExpressEach novel references the concept of “engrams,” which Burroughs succinctly defines as “traumatic material.” During this hugely productive period, the radically anti-authoritarian Burroughs “associated the group with a range of mind-expanding and mind-freeing practices.”

It's easy to say Burroughs uncritically partook of a certain sugary beverage. But he clearly made his own idiosyncratic uses of Scientology, incorporating it within the syncretic constellation of references, practices, and cut-up techniques “designed to jam up what he called ‘the Reality Studio,’ aka the everyday, conditioned, mind-controlled reality.” An inevitable turning point came, however, in 1968, as Burroughs journeyed deeper into Scientology’s secret order at the world headquarters in Saint Hill Manor in the UK. There, he reported, he “had to work hard to suppress or rationalize his persistently negative feelings toward L. Ron Hubbard during auditing sessions.”

Burroughs’ dislike of the church’s founder and extreme aversion to “what he considered its Orwellian security protocols” eventuated his break with Scientology, which he undertook gradually and publicly in a series of “bulletins” published during the late sixties in the London magazine Mayfair. Before his "clearing course" with Hubbard, in a 1967 article excerpted and republished as a pamphlet by the church itself, Burroughs praises Scientology and its founder, and claims that “there is nothing secret about Scientology, no talk of initiates, secret doctrines, or hidden knowledge.”

By 1970, he had made an about-face, in a fiercely polemical essay titled “I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard,” published in the Los Angeles Free Press. While he continues to value some of the benefits of auditing, Burroughs declares the church’s founder “grandiose” and “fascist” and lays out his objections to its initiations, secret doctrines, and hidden knowledge, among other things:

…One does not simply pay the tuitions, obtain the materials and study. Oh no. One must JOIN. One must ‘sign up for the duration of the universe’ (Sea Org members are required to sign a billion-year contract)…. Furthermore whole categories of people are automatically excluded from training and processing and may never see Mr Hubbard’s confidential materials.

Burroughs challenges Hubbard to “show his confidential materials to the astronauts of inner space,” including Gysin, Ginsberg, and Timothy Leary; to the “students of language like Marshall MacLuhan and Noam Chompsky" [sic]; and to “those who have fought for freedom in the streets: Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael, Abe Hoffman, Dick Gregory…. If he has what he says he has, the results should be cataclysmic.”

The debate continued in the pages of Mayfair when Hubbard published a lengthy and blandly genial reply to Burroughs’ challenge, in an article that also contained, in an inset, a brief rebuttal from Burroughs. The debate will surely be of interest to students of the strange history of Scientology, and it should most certainly be followed by lovers of Burroughs’ work. In the process of embracing, then rejecting, the controlling movement, he compellingly articulates a need for “unimaginable extensions of awareness" to deal with the trauma of living on what he calls the "sinking ship" of planet Earth.

via io9

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Mister Rogers Accepts a Lifetime Achievement Award, and Helps You Thank Everyone Who Has Made a Difference in Your Life

Television host and children’s advocate Fred Rogers was also an ordained Presbyterian minister, for whom spiritual reflection was as natural and necessary a part of daily life as his vegetarianism and morning swims.

His quiet personal practice could take a turn for the public and interactive, as he demonstrated from the podium at the Daytime Emmy Awards in 1997, above.

Accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award, he refrained from running through the standard laundry list of thanks. Instead he invited the audience to join him in spending 10 seconds thinking of the people who “have loved us into being.”




He then turned his attention to his wristwatch as hundreds of glamorously attired talk show hosts and soap stars thought of the teachers, relatives, and other influential adults whose tender care, and perhaps rigorous expectations, helped shape them.

(Play along from home at the 2:15 mark.)

Ten seconds may not seem like much, but consider how often we deploy emojis and “likes” in place of sitting with others’ feelings and our own.

Of all the things Fred Rogers was celebrated for, the time he allotted to making others feel heard and appreciated may be the greatest.

Fifteen years after his death, the Internet ensures that he will continue to inspire us to be kinder, try harder, listen better.

That effect should quadruple when Morgan Neville's Mister Rogers documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor? is released next month.

Another sweet Emmy moment comes at the top, when the honoree smooches his wife, Joanne Rogers, before heading off to join presenter Tim Robbins at the podium. Described in Esquire as “hearty and almost whooping in (her) forthrightness,” the stalwart Mrs. Rogers appeared in a handful of episodes, but never played the sort of highly visible role Mrs. Claus inhabited within her husband’s public realm.

The full text of Mister Rogers’ Lifetime Achievement Award award speech is below:

So many people have helped me to come here to this night.  Some of you are here, some are far away and some are even in Heaven.  All of us have special ones who loved us into being.  Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are, those who cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.  10 seconds, I'll watch the time. Whomever you've been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they have made.  You know they're kind of people television does well to offer our world.  Special thanks to my family, my friends, and my co-workers in Public Broadcasting and Family Communications, and to this Academy for encouraging me, allowing me, all these years to be your neighbor.  May God be with you.  Thank you very much.

via Mental Floss

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this Wednesday, May 16, for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

John Lennon Extols the Virtues of Transcendental Meditation in a Spirited Letter Written to a Beatles Fan (1968)

An Indian guru travels to the West with teachings of enlightenment, world peace, and liberation from the soul-killing materialist grind. He attracts thousands of followers, some of them wealthy celebrities, and founds a commercial empire with his teachings. No, this isn’t the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the head of the religious movement in Wild Wild Country. There was no miraculous city in the Oregon wilds or fleet of Learjets and Rolls Royces. No stockpile of automatic weapons, planned assassinations, or mass poisonings. Decades before those strange events, another teacher, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi inspired mass devotion among students around the world with the peaceful practice of Transcendental Meditation.

Rolling Stone’s Claire Hoffman—who grew up in a TM community—writes of the movement with ambivalence. For most of his disciples, he was a “Wizard of Oz-type character,” she says, distant and mysterious. But much of what we popularly know about TM comes from its most famous adherents, including Jerry Seinfeld, Katy Perry, David Lynch, the Beach Boys, and, of course, The Beatles, who famously traveled to India in 1968, meditated with Mia Farrow, Donovan, and Mike Love, and wrote some of their wildest, most inventive music after a creative slump following the huge success of Sgt. Pepper’s.




“They stayed in Rishikesh,” writes Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, “a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas, considered the capital of yoga. Immersed in this peaceful community and nurtured by an intensive daily meditation practice, the Fab Four underwent a creative growth spurt—the weeks at Rishikesh were among their most fertile songwriting and composing periods, producing many of the songs on The White Album and Abbey Road.” Unlike most of the Maharishi’s followers, The Beatles got a personal audience. The Indian spiritual teacher “helped them through the shock” of their manager Brian Epstein’s death, and helped them tap into cosmic consciousness without LSD.

They left on a sour note—there were allegations of impropriety, and Lennon, being Lennon, got a bit nasty, originally writing The White Album's “Sexy Sadie” with the lyrics “Maharishi—what have you done? You made a fool of everyone.” But before their falling out with TM’s founder, before even the trip to India, all four Beatles became devoted meditators, sitting for two twenty-minute sessions a day and finding genuine peace and happiness—or “energy,” as Lennon and Harrison describe it in a 1967 interview with David Frost. The next year, happily practicing, and feverishly writing, in India, Lennon received letters from fans, and responded with enthusiasm.

In answer to a letter from a fan named Beth, evidently a devout Christian and apparently threatened by TM and concerned for the bands' immortal souls, Lennon wrote the following (see his handwritten reply at the top):

Dear Beth:

Thank you for your letter and your kind thoughts. When you read that we are in India searching for peace, etc, it is not that we need faith in God or Jesus — we have full faith in them; it is only as if you went to stay with Billy Graham for a short time — it just so happens that our guru (teacher) is Indian — and what is more natural for us to come to India — his home. He also holds courses in Europe and America — and we will probably go to some of these as well — to learn — and to be near him.

Transcendental meditation is not opposed to any religion — it is based on the basic truths of all religions — the common denominator. Jesus said: “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you” — and he meant just that — “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” — not in some far distant time — or after death — but now.

Meditation takes the mind down to that level of consciousness which is Absolute Bliss (Heaven) and through constant contact with that state — “the peace that surpasses all understanding” — one gradually becomes established in that state even when one is not meditating. All this gives one actual experience of God — not by detachment or renunciation — when Jesus was fasting etc in the desert 40 days & nights he would have been doing some form of meditation — not just sitting in the sand and praying — although me it will be a true Christian — which I try to be with all sincerity — it does not prevent me from acknowledging Buddha — Mohammed — and all the great men of God. God bless you — jai guru dev.

With love,
John Lennon

This hardly sounds like the man who imagined no religion. A fan in India wrote Lennon less to inquire and more to acquire, namely money for a trip around the world so that he could “discover the ‘huge treasure’ necessary for achieving inner peace.” Lennon responded with a brief rebuke of the man’s material aspirations, then recommended TM, “through which all things are possible.” (He signs both letters with “jai guru dev,” or “I give thanks to the Guru Dev,” the Maharishi’s teacher. The phrase also appears as the refrain in his “Across the Universe.”)

The letters come from an excellent collection of his correspondence, The John Lennon Letters, which includes other missives extolling the virtues of transcendental meditation. We might take his word for it based on the strength of the creative work he produced during the period. We could also take the word of David Lynch, who describes meditation as the way he catches the creative “big fish.” Or we could go out and find our own methods for expanding our minds and tapping into creative potential.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Behold the Codex Gigas (aka “Devil’s Bible”), the Largest Medieval Manuscript in the World

Bargain with the devil and you may wind up with a golden fiddle, supernatural guitar playing ability, or a room full of gleaming alchemized straw.

Whoops, we misattributed that last one. It's actually Rumpelstiltskin’s doing, but the by-morning-or-else deadline that drives the Brothers Grimm favorite is not dissimilar to the ultimatum posed to disgraced medieval monk Hermann the Recluse: produce a giant book that glorifies your monastery and includes all human knowledge by sunrise, or we brick you up Cask of Amontillado-style.

Why else would a book as high-minded as the Codex Gigas (Latin for Giant Book) contain a full page glamour portrait of the devil garbed in an ermine loincloth and cherry red claws?

Perhaps it’s the 13th-century equivalent of “sex sells.” What better way to keep your book out of the remainder bin of history than to include an eye-catching glimpse of the Prince of Darkness? Hedge your bets by positioning a splendid vision of the Heavenly City directly opposite.

Notable illustrations aside, the Codex Gigas holds the distinction of being the largest extant medieval illuminated manuscript in the world.




Weighing in at 165 lbs, this 3-foot tall bound whale required the skins of 160 donkeys, at the rate of two pages per donkey. (Ten pages devoted to St. Benedict’s rules for monastic life were literally cut from the manuscript at an unknown date.)

It’s a lot.

A National Geographic documentary concluded that the sprawling manuscript would’ve required a minimum of 5 years of full-time, single-minded labor. More likely, the work was spread out over 25 to 30 years, with various authors contributing to the different sections. In addition to a complete Bible, the “Devil’s Bible” includes an encyclopedia, medical information, a calendar of saints’ days, Flavius Josephus’ histories The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities and some practical advice on exorcising evil spirits.

The actual lettering does seem to come down to a single scribe with very neat handwriting. Experts at National Library of Sweden, where the Codex Gigas has come to a rest after centuries of adventures and misadventures, identify it as carolingian minuscule, a popular and highly legible style of medieval script. Its uniform size would’ve required the scribe to rule each page before forming the letters, after which 100 lines a day would have been a reasonable goal.

You can have a look for yourself on the Library’s website, where the entire work is viewable in digitized form. (Note: you will need to have flash enabled to see the pages.)

Certainly the devil is a great place to start, though his appearance may strike you as a bit comical, given all the fuss.

For viewers unsure of where to start, the library has compiled a guide to the highlights.

You’ll also find a lot of interesting historical detail: relocations resulting from the Hussite Wars and the Thirty Years’ War, a close call with fire, and of course the attendant legends.

Begin your explorations of the Codex Gigas here.

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Wonderfully Weird & Ingenious Medieval Books

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, April 23 for the third installment of her literary-themed variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Help a Library Transcribe Magical Manuscripts & Recover the Charms, Potions & Witchcraft That Flourished in Early Modern Europe and America

Magic is real—hear me out. No, you can’t solve life’s problems with a wand and made-up Latin. But there are academic departments of magic, only they go by different names now. A few hundred years ago the difference between chemistry and alchemy was nil. Witchcraft involved as much botany as spellwork. A lot of fun bits of magic got weeded out when gentlemen in powdered wigs purged weird sisters and gnostic heretics from the field. Did the old spells work? Maybe, maybe not. Science has become pretty reliable, I guess. Standardized classification systems and measurements are okay, but yawn… don’t we long for some witching and wizarding? A well-placed hex might work wonders.

Say no more, we’ve got you covered: you, yes you, can learn charms and potions, demonology and other assorted dark arts. How? For a onetime fee of absolutely nothing, you can enter magical books from the Early Modern Period.




T’was a veritable golden age of magic, when wizarding scientists like John Dee—Queen Elizabeth's soothsaying astrologer and revealer of the language of the angels—burned brightly just before they were extinguished, or run underground, by orthodoxies of all sorts. The Newberry, “Chicago’s Independent Research Library Since 1887,” has reached out to the crowds to help “unlock the mysteries” of rare manuscripts and bring the diversity of the time alive.

The library’s Transcribing Faith initiative gives users a chance to connect with texts like The Book of Magical Charms (above), by transcribing and/or translating the contents therein. Like software engineer Joseph Peterson—founder of the Esoteric Archives, which contains a large collection of John Dee’s work—you can volunteer to help the Newberry’s project “Religious Change, 1450-1700." The Newberry aims to educate the general public on a period of immense upheaval. "The Reformation and the Scientific Revolution are very big, capital letter concepts," project coordinator Christopher Fletcher tells Smithsonian.com, "we lose sight of the fact that these were real events that happened to real people."

By aiming to return these texts to "real people" on the internet, the Newberry hopes to demystify, so to speak, key moments in European history. "You don't need a Ph.D. to transcribe," Fletcher points out. Atlas Obscura describes the process as “much like updating a Wikipedia page,” only “anyone can start transcribing and translating and they don’t need to sign up to do so.” Check out some transcriptions of The Book of Magical Charms—written by various anonymous authors in the seventeenth century—here. The book, writes the Newberry, describes “everything from speaking with spirits to cheating at dice to curing a toothache.”

Need to call up a spirit for some dirty work? Just follow the instructions below:

Call their names Orimoth, Belmoth Limoc and Say thus. I conjure you by the neims of the Angels + Sator and Azamor that yee intend to me in this Aore, and Send unto me a Spirite called Sagrigid that doe fullfill my comandng and desire and that can also undarstand my words for one or 2 yuares; or as long as I will.

Seems simple enough, but of course this business did not sit well with some powerful people, including one Increase Mather, father of Cotton, president of Harvard, best known from his work on the Salem Witch Trials. Increase defended the prosecutions in a manuscript titled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, a page from which you can see further up. The text reads, in part:

an Evidence Supposed to be in the Testimony
which is throwly to be Weighed, & if it doe
not infallibly prove the Crime against the
person accused, it ought not to determine
him Guilty of it for So righteous may
be condemned unjustly.

Mather did not consider these to be show trials or “witchhunts” but rather the fair and judicious application of due process, for whatever that’s worth. Elsewhere in the text he famously wrote, “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.” Cold comfort to those condemned as guilty for likely practicing some mix of religion and early science.

These texts are written in English and concern themselves with magical and spiritual matters expressly. Other manuscripts in the project’s archive roam more broadly across topics and languages, and “shed light on the entwined practices of religion and reading.” One “commonplace book,” for example (above), from sometime between 1590 and 1620, contains sermons by John Donne as well as “religious, political, and practical texts, including a Middle English lyric,” all carefully written out by an English scribe named Henry Feilde in order to practice his calligraphy.

Another such text, largely in Latin, “may have been started as early as the 16th century, but continued to be used and added to well into the 19th century. Its compilers expressed interest in a wide range of topics, from religious and moral questions to the liberal arts to strange events.” Books like these “reflected the reading habits of early modern people, who tended not to read books from beginning to end, but instead to dip in and out of them,” extracting bits and bobs of wisdom, quotations, recipes, prayers, and even the odd spell or two.

The final work in need of transcription/translation is also the only printed text, or texts, rather, a collection of Italian religious broadsides, advertising “public celebrations and commemorations of Catholic feast days and other religious occasions.” Hardly summoning spirits, though some may beg to differ. If you’re so inclined to take part in opening the secrets of these rare books for lay readers everywhere, visit Transcribing Faith here and get to work.

via SmithsonianAtlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear 48 Hours of Lectures by Joseph Campbell on Comparative Mythology and the Hero’s Journey

What does it mean to “grow up”? Every culture has its way of defining adulthood, whether it’s surviving an initiation ritual or filing your first tax return. I’m only being a little facetious—people in the U.S. have long felt dissatisfaction with the ways we are ushered into adulthood, from learning how to fill out IRS forms to learning how to fill out student loan and credit card applications, our culture wants us to understand our place in the great machine. All other pressing life concerns are secondary.

It’s little wonder, then, that gurus and cultural father figures of all types have found ready audiences among America’s youth. Such figures have left lasting legacies for decades, and not all of them positive. But one public intellectual from the recent past is still seen as a wise old master whose far-reaching influence remains with us and will for the foreseeable future. Joseph Campbell’s obsessive, erudite books and lectures on world mythologies and traditions have made certain that ancient adulthood rituals have entered our narrative DNA.




When Campbell was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal in Literature in 1985, psychologist James Hillman stated that “no one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.” Whatever examples Hillman may have had in mind, we might rest our case on the fact that without Campbell there would likely be no Star Wars. For all its success as a megamarketing phenomenon, the sci-fi franchise has also produced enduringly relatable role models, examples of achieving independence and standing up to imperialists, even if they be your own family members in masks.

In the video interviews above from 1987, Campbell professes himself no more than an “underliner” who learned everything he knows from books. Like the contemporary comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, Campbell did not conduct his own anthropological research—he acquired a vast amount of knowledge by studying the sacred texts, artifacts, and rituals of world cultures. This study gave him insight into stories and images that continue to shape our world and feature centrally in huge pop cultural productions like The Last Jedi and Black Panther.

Campbell describes ritual entries into adulthood that viewers of these films will instantly recognize: Defeating idols in masks and taking on their power; burial enactments that kill the “infantile ego” (academics, he says with a straight face, sometimes never leave this stage). These kinds of edge experiences are at the very heart of the classic hero’s journey, an archetype Campbell wrote about in his bestselling The Hero with a Thousand Faces and popularized on PBS in The Power of Myth, a series of conversations with Bill Moyers.

In the many lectures just above—48 hours of audio in which Campbell expounds his theories of the mythological—the engaging, accessible writer and teacher lays out the patterns and symbols of mythologies worldwide, with special focus on the hero’s journey, as important to his project as dying and rising god myths to James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the inspiration for so many modernist writers. Campbell himself is more apt to reference James Joyce, Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, or Richard Wagner than science fiction, fantasy, or comic books (though he did break down Star Wars in his Moyers interviews). Nonetheless, we have him to thank for inspiring the likes of George Lucas and becoming a “patron saint of superheroes” and space operas.

We will find some of Campbell’s methods flawed and terminology outdated (no one uses “Orient” and “Occident” anymore)—and modern heroes can just as well be women as men, passing through the same kinds of symbolic trials in their origin stories. But Campbell’s ideas are as resonant as ever, offering to the wider culture a coherent means of understanding the archetypal stages of coming of age. As Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler said in 1985, after recommending The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters, Campbell’s work “can be used to tell the simplest comic story or the most sophisticated drama”—a sweeping vision of human cultural history and its meaning for our individual journeys.

You can access the 48 hours of Joseph Campbell lectures above, or directly on Spotify.

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Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers Break Down Star Wars as an Epic, Universal Myth

A 12-Hour Eastern Spirituality Playlist: Features Lectures & Readings by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Isherwood, the Dalai Lama & Others

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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