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.

Related Content:

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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Comments (6)
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  • Marco Romano says:

    How does one access the 48 hours of video without the Spotify app? Thank you.

  • Gnosisless says:

    No one says “orient” and “occident” anymore…. True, and irrelevant. If someone is listening who doesn’t understand the meaning of these words, pointing them out is unhelpful. If someone does understand, pointing it out is unhelpful. How about we let the ideas stand and try to sidestep the pedantic “modern language is the right language” view?

  • Josh Jones says:

    Sure, it’s relevant. Whatever Campbell’s biases, those terms come from a colonial discourse that largely treated cultures of “The Orient” as so many objects to be collected in museums, during a period when pretty much only white European and American men were published in academia, meaning that living people from “The Orient” could not comment on their own traditions in scholarship. Those are the kinds of associations the words conjure, and it’s worth mentioning their lack of currency. But I suppose you either needed that explained to you are you’re being disingenuous and pretending that you did.

  • Nathan says:

    I love your articles Josh. The reprimand above seems to be an overreaction. “Academia” or higher education was designed by and for western European men. (ministers) It is only recently that we are reassessing the role of said systemic frameworks and I would agree that is only serves ego to entertain judgement in hindsight—pedantic virtue signaling. Asians as well as other countries do have a way to document wisdom and it’s distinct to that culture which is not what Campbell is representing but enlightening.

  • Josh Jones says:

    I appreciate your comment. Perhaps you don’t like my tone, but there certainly have been many Asian scholars educated in western institutions and conversant in western European discourse as well as in their own cultural traditions during much of the colonial period. (Regardless of who the institutions were built for.) As to your other point, I think we are in agreement. It is only recently that academic frameworks have changed. Noting that some of the work Campbell draws on represents an older view simply points that out. It is not “virtue signaling” and needn’t be read as conveying any sort of value judgment at all.

  • Terminator X says:

    Josh what is your favorite kind of meat do you eat and besides that do you like downing it whole or having someone predigest it for you?


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