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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