Joseph Campbell: Matters Fundamental to Ourselves

Today is the 111th anniversary of the birth of mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell. My thinking about Buddhism and religion in general was influenced greatly by his work. From Campbell, I learned that nearly all religious literature is pure mythology, and therefore, one should not take it literally. A simple idea, perhaps, but when you consider how many people in this modern age are literalists when it comes to religion and that they cause a lot of trouble for others because of it, you realize it is a great insight, and extraordinarily relevant.

The title of one of his books, Myths to Live By, suggests that we should not disregard myths, but rather try to understand what these stories are trying to tell us about living. Here, in his own words, from that book, is Campbell explaining the essence of religious mythology:

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987
Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

What I would suggest is that by comparing a number from different parts of the world and differing traditions, one might arrive at an understanding of their force, their source and possible sense. For they are not historical. That much is clear. They speak, therefore, not of outside events but of themes of the imagination. And since they exhibit features that are actually universal, they must in some way represent features of our general racial imagination, permanent features of the human spirit — or, as we say today, of the psyche. They are telling us, therefore, of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it would be good for us to know; about which, in fact, it will be necessary for us to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths. In short, these holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious mind from quarters of the spirit unknown to normal daylight consciousness, and if read as referring to events in the field of space and time — whether of the future, present, or past — they will have been misread and their force deflected, some secondary thing outside then taking to itself the reference of the symbol, some sanctified stick, stone, or animal, person, event, city, or social group.”


4 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell: Matters Fundamental to Ourselves

  1. “all religious literature is pure mythology, and therefore, one should not take it literally”

    well, thats a blanket statement. Its true in some religions. I think buddha’s teaching’s started off as dispelling mythologies, focusing purely on one’s phenomenal experiences, and solutions to one’s life’s pursuit. This is no different than a typical scientific inquiry. Buddhism does have its fair share of mythologies, but the core teachings are more practically oriented, I believe.

    Mythologies started off with good intent, teaching in the form of story, but most humans (80-90%) miss the teaching, end-up focusing on all kinds of things in the story . As such, they do more harm than good, even compared to “religion”, I think. Though, they can be excellent bed time stories.

    I notice most of the mythologies formed long time ago, less-so in recent times. I think over the last 2000 years, dramatic arts have increasingly made new mythologies obsolete, or they rarely get started. And over the last ~100 years, Films, TV, hollywood, etc., make them even more crowded out.

    1. It’s true in all cases. Read some Campbell, he says the harm is not with the stories, but in taking the message of the stories as literal truth. Movies, etc. are the new mythologies.

      1. god with monkey(or elephant) head that can move mountains, now thats a good (hindu) mythology.

        I know you are advanced buddhist, bear with me please. Buddha was a rebel of sorts, he relentlessly tried to dispel existing mythologies, gods, superstitions, faith, religions. Erase the slate clean so to speak. He wouldn’t even cite/use existing mythologies involving *any* god, even for teaching purposes. Its famously said he wouldn’t answer any metaphysics questions. His whole thing was one’s suffering…he was the ultimate “believe in yourself, no gods, transform your self”, if there ever was any.

        If we take the analogy of “living life” as “hitting a golf ball”, Mythologies were/are like a book about someone who played golf well, how beautiful it was, barely covering any details of hitting golf ball. Though they contain some techniques, they barely explain them in detail, or give the tools to find out/learn by one’s self. If you have some basic golf vocabulary you could glean a lot, but average person (lay people..~90% during buddha’s time) either lacks that vocabulary, or ends up focusing on the stories (not delving into golf hitting much). Mythologies slowly, and surely, end up taking a life of their own. They end up being not much about the underlying teaching, but the figureheads in the story.

        Its technically true that all that came after buddha’s death is just commentary on what he might have said/taught. But, one thing is abundantly clear, his whole thing was about one’s suffering (4 noble truths), and his solution purely lay in one’s self-effort. Not gods, or any mythologies. Now, Is his teachings a mythology ? history says he existed, like any history, we can never be sure. We are blurring the meaning of the word “mythology”…any algorithm/scientific-process that gives step-by-step instruction and leads to certain wisdom, I take it as a cookbook, not myth. A good mythology is the kind this comment started off with.

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