William Edelen: Joseph Campbell — Metaphor and Religious Mystery



The Contrary Minister

Bill Moyers had two interviews with Joseph Campbell for his national television program, Bill Moyers Journal. In his introduction Moyers said “Joseph Campbell is one of the world’s foremost scholars of mythology.” Anyone having an interest in becoming religiously educated and enlightened will be helped by insights from these interviews.

Campbell brings out, of course, that mythological themes or motifs such as flood, virgin birth, resurrected hero, “heaven” concepts, a sacred meal (or ritualistic cannibalism) have a world-wide distribution and are everywhere. They are organized and ritualized according to local needs. In the Moyers’ interviews, Campbell said, “When people try to interpret a spiritual symbol (in mythology) as though it referred to a concrete fact, you have lost the message.”

Moyers: “Give me an example.”

Campbell: “Well, the image of the virgin birth is perfect for an example. This is a motif that occurs in all the mythologies of the world. There are virgin births all over the place in all religions. ‘Virgin birth’ is symbolic of the birth of the spiritual life, and so with resurrection themes or motifs. Misunderstanding consists in reading spiritual mythological symbols as though they were references to historical, factual events.”

Other observations by Campbell in the interviews include the following: “The ‘hero’ in mythology is always the founder of something, a new religion, a new age, a new way of life. The ‘hero’ founders of all religions usually go on their vision quest. The Buddha went into solitude and sat beneath the tree of Immortal Knowledge; Jesus goes off into the desert for 40 days; Zoroaster goes off into the desert, and so it goes.

And you might say the founder of one’s own life instead of living everybody else’s life, must come from a quest too.

“Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished, and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared on the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation: Religions, philosophies, arts, and the social forms of primitive and historic man.

“The motivating force that has elevated man from the ground dwelling apes is the sense of awe and mystery, which is the first function of mythology, and it is that that carries him on. This is the mystical function that makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. The second function of myth gives us a picture of the universe. It allows us to see ourselves in relationship to nature, as when we speak of Father Sky and Mother Earth. The third function of myth is sociological, in that it supports a social order; and lastly myth has a psychological function in that it offers a way of passing through, and dealing with, the various stages of life from birth to death.

“It is encouraging that more and more people today are learning to let religious symbols speak directly to them. They are finally realizing that no longer are they going to let a committee of Bishops, or other church ‘leaders’ meet in a conference and then decide for everyone how the symbols are to be read and interpreted, nor how they must be believed.”

Having studied with Joseph Campbell and communicated with him on a regular basis, I can make some personal observations. He was perhaps the most deeply spiritual person, in its most profound sense, that I have ever known. In his lecturing and his presence, there is a radiance, and a quality of peace, harmony and wholeness — a centeredness that I have known in few other people.

He was, without question, the most intellectually brilliant person I have ever heard lecture. The material he had at his command can only be called awesome. For all of his adult life he indexed and outlined every book he studied and then committed the outline to memory. He lectured and conversed with an energy and vitality that many people envied.

Two of his favorite words were “awe” and “mystery.” And the first function of mythology, all mythologies, whether North American Indian or Christian, is to point us toward the mystery, in awe.

“A living mythology points you toward the source, the holy and the mystery. An artificially retained mythology points you only toward a religious institution.”


That being said, just re-post this piece from time to time and save a lot of energy trying to save the souls of the stupid who “believe”.

Thanks for that post Wiilliam,

The only thing I knew of Joseph Campbell is what I gleaned of him from the Bill Moyer interviews and then his book “The Power of Myth” but he impacted me and the rest of my life in no small way. What came across to me of him as an individual totally jibes with your description of him from having known and studied with him.

Being the son of a minister and imbued with the gobbledygook since toddlerhood, I decided at about eight that it was all nonsense and then identified myself as an atheist when I discovered the word later as a preadolescent. An experience while very high on marijuana in my 30’s caused me to dis-identify with atheism because I had recognized a state beyond just material existence but I was left very confused. The interviews helped me move through my confusion to becoming a spiritual person without all the bullshit. One of his sayings has been a mainstay for me ever since was “Follow your Bliss”. Thanks again for more insight into that remarkable man.

    This sounds like a generational story, very similar to many I have heard. Mythology seems so useless to a developing worldview and yet is so helpful when understood as part of every human experience.

    It’s so easy to sidetrack the archetypal metaphor as fiction in the search for truth. Needed for us is the bridge from metaphor to real life, here and now, and personal, to make it useful.

    This is the gap that can be filled with real astrology, as it clocks the evolution of the human experience in the large and in the small, as it was practiced before our cosmic understanding was organized into today’s religions.

    Before dismissing astrology as key to understanding the myth of the human journey, as well as your own, do yourself a favor and take the time to read the exhaustive and scholarly work of Richard Tarnas in “Cosmos and Psyche”, a delineation of history according to cosmic reflection. Stunning.

    It will save you a few laps around the track in your search.

    Don’t allow ignorant, unstudied opinion, however rational sounding, deter your search. The fullness of our reality is counter-intuitive, even while demonstrable to anyone willing to actually look.

    Do think for yourself, and do take the time to read Tarnas’ work if you want to leave the station ahead of the train.