Many of us first discovered Joseph Campbell through the Power of Myth, a documentary series hosted by journalist Bill Moyers, which originally aired in the late 1980’s and has been re-aired many times in subsequent years and is in fact scheduled to reappear on PBS this upcoming summer. His scholarship helped to enlighten a great many of us to a new and more profound way to view mythology and story telling. The work he accomplished in academics, writing, and teaching made important contributions to our culture today. Even if we aren’t completely aware of them his ideas have penetrated the mass consciousness.
“I set out to write a children’s film with the idea of doing a modern fairy tale and stumbled upon The Hero with a Thousand Faces. After reading more of Joe’s books I began to understand how I could do this. It was a great gift and a very important moment. It’s possible that if I hadn’t run across that I would still be writing Star Wars today”
One of Campbell’s most powerful contributions to the world culture was the guidance his research and writing has provided to the modern artist. It’s no wonder why the film franchise Star Wars became such a landmark enterprise what with the mentoring that Lucas received on part of Joseph Campbell. For instance the concept of the Mono-Myth, or also called the hero’s journey, is a rhythmic pattern that we can see played out in stories from every corner of the world. It’s a sequence of important events and key stages that progress through the mythic narrative. Every individual, tribe or group will have their own special inflection on these elements but the basic configuration remains the same. What writers and story tellers had been doing unconsciously for thousands of years was now brought to the surface and made available through Campbell’s writing. Today artists are able to draw from this vast reservoir and impregnate that structure with their own unique potential. He showed us that within the multitude of tales, legends and mythologies of the all the peoples of the Earth is one great story of mankind.
In large part what his scholarship was able to do was to distill the complex meanings and realizations sometimes abstractly hidden inside the esoteric language of psychology into a framework that the rest of us could understand and infuse into our creative lives. Frequently, the analysis of mythology by previous thinkers such as Freud and Jung are tragically lost on a great many and for good reason. Few among us have the time, ambition, and dare I say courage, to wade through those volumes of material and integrate that complex vocabulary. One need not necessarily be a student of psychology to use the information that Campbell provides to us in our art work or everyday existence.
Campbell was, after all, a teacher and spent 38 years as a professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He was gifted with an ability to describe on a human level the knowledge that he gathered through his scholarship. However, we might find his greatest contribution not in the information that he gave us on mythology but in his relating of those mythologies to the individual. As Campbell states in The Hero’s Journey “I was, by my female students, forced to consider the material from the point of view from the woman. And that point of view had to do with: what does the material mean to life? What does it mean to me?”
Early on in his teaching Campbell came to know one of his students Jean Erdman who was a gifted dancer and brilliant choreographer. As he later recalled “it became evident to me that I was hooked” and in 1938 the two married and spend the better part of their forty-nine years together in a two-room apartment in Greenwich Village in New York City. Jean was able to combine her dancing abilities with the world of mythology and worked with talented artists such as the multidimensional composer John Cage and still to this day the tragically under-recognized genius of Maya Deren. Together Jo and Jean worked to advance and further this great field of mythology.
Joseph Campbell died in 1987 shortly before the airing of the Power of Myth on PBS. Along with this documentary came along a bio-doc The Hero’s Journey, the mystical and imaginative film Sukhavati: A Mythic Journey, and the Mythos series hosted by Susan Sarandon which we are currently looking forward to the release of its third installment. Recently, film maker Patrick Takaya Solomon has taken on the task of creating a new feature length documentary entitled Finding Joe which we are all joyfully expecting the début of in the coming months. In addition to these films are a vast library of audio recordings of Campbell’s lectures of which there is said to be 90 titles to be released over the coming years.
After Joseph Campbell’s passing his wife Jean and others came together and formed the Joseph Campbell Foundation to promote and protect his work. Out of this endeavor and the work of other passionate supporters of Campbell has arisen the JCF Mythological RoundTable® Program. Through this hard work we have seen the birth of these MRT Groups all across the globe with chapters ranging as far abroad as Tasmania in Australia to here in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a whole host of groups in Europe and South America; in these settings people gather together to discuss the work of Joseph Campbell and the field of mythology while working to form a vast community of supporters and friendships. It is with great honor that we take today to remember the life of the man whose teaching has opened our eyes to a whole world of mythology. Many thanks to all who have worked so hard to preserve his legacy.
Joseph Campbell: March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987