Straight Dope on Joseph Campbell

A colleague and I have been discussing religion at work (always a bad idea). He asked me why I thought we saw the same archetypes among cultures that were not exposed to each other. I said it was confirmation bias, but I admitted I have no idea at all about the subject. He mentioned the work of Jospeph Campbell. What is the Straight Dope on him and his work?

He’s probably most famous for his books, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” and “The Masks of God”. They’re books about comparative mythology. His argument in Hero is that there are certain universal myths that all cultures tell. There’s what he calls a “monomyth” that underlies the stories, which he says is something like this:

He divides the hero myth into 17 different stages, and he says that mythological stories from around the world tend to follow that general pattern.

The Masks of God look at the anthropological factors that that cause the myths of different cultures to be different.

Brilliant. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s a great read. IMHO.

How about the idea that things like snakes pop up in the mythology of many cultures and are seen as positive figures rather than menacing ones? My initial thought was that instinct makes us wary of things like snakes, but if they are near-universally seen as non-threatening this argues against that position

There is no shortage of information about Joseph Campbell online. The best place to start is probably the Joseph Campbell Foundation website. His Hero With A Thousand Faces is widely considered to the the seminal (or at least most comprehensive and accessible to the layman) work on comparative mythology and the common motifs in heroic storytelling and theological mythology, demonstrating how and why common elements and structure (what Campbell terms “the monomyth”) are implicit in compelling storytelling from the Sumerian legends of Gilgamesh to The Matrix, from Homer to George Lucas, from the Old Testament to Casablanca. These are the basic elements that make a story compelling on a fundamental human level, and are only deviated from by intentional or ironic reversion.


If it didn’t mean getting a sex-change operation, I probably would have majored in Comparative Religion and study under him.

Wait - are you saying that your colleague is suggesting that Campbell’s work supports the theist view?

If so, that seems to be the opposite of the obvious argument.

I’m not clear what your point is, here. Are you trying to disprove your friend’s thesis that there are common independent mythological stories between disconnected cultures, or argue that myths are reinterpreted in the context of the reader’s culture, or what?

In the case of symbols like snakes, it is not uncommon for a symbol to have two distinct and even contradictory meanings within the same culture, or sometimes, even in different tellings of the same story. Both the Book of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost tell the story of the creation of mankind, the introduction of evil to Earth, and the temptation and fall of Man from the Garden of Eden, and tell it from a Judeo-Christian context, but they have very different interpretations of the same story.


tvtropes page on Campbell’s idea of the hero’s story.

He has a new age view that we are all connected, that religions are trying to describe the same fundamental truth, but that our words are not sufficient to describe something so outside of our daily experience. He is a theist to the extent that he thinks there is something that connects all of us.

It’s easier for me to explain my view, that we are just meat puppets; there is nothing special about consciousness and what distinguishes humans from other animals is a difference in degree rather than kind.

His argument is that common archetypes show that cultures are all seeing a glimpse of an underlying truth that is viewed through their cultural filter.

My assumption would be that common archetypes are explained by something about our physical nature and instincts. For example, football, basketball, and Oedipus are all about preventing the impregnation of your mate/mother by “foreign” genes as a way to make you genes more likely to survive.

Thanks for the clarification. I can’t see how the fact that many cultures have creation myths or flood myths could be interpreted as glimpses of an underlying truth, nor do I see why people thousands of years ago would be better equipped to glimpse any underlying truth than we are today.

I think Campbell was an entertaining writer, but he borrowed a LOT of stuff from James Frazier’s “THE GOLDEN BOUGH”. All cultures have similar myths, and they differ mainly in the details.
What I would like to know is: why the dragon in Chinese mythology? In the West, the dragon is evil (St. George kills one), but in China, the dragon is a beneficient creature, which you WANT to hang around.

He’d do better to read The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley:

Seriously, suggest it.

I read Hero for a world mythology class. I was not impressed. Everything is proof of his thesis, according to him

Hero is male: proof
Hero is female: still proof
Hero leaves home: proof
Hero doesn’t leave home: proof
Hero meets an adviser before setting out: proof
Hero meets the adviser after failure: proof
Hero does A: proof
Hero does not-A: proof

Basically, the whole book is him taking bits and pieces of myths and trying to use them to prove that they are all connected. Sure they are all connected, they are stories that people have been willing to retell. They fit a similar mold in the sense that we respond better to stories about individuals overcoming adversity. That is about as far as I am willing go take it. Campbell’s theory is the poster child for non-falsifiable. No matter what happens in the story, it will confirm his theory, therefore his theory is meaningless.

FWIW, most folklore scholars concur with Strassia. (Alan Dundes, Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth*) Campbell’s reasoning is much more like a lawyer’s than a scholar’s.

That said, the recurrance of the archetypes that the OP points out is a major point of contention among folklorists. Most do agree that there’s something to it, but there’s not a generally accepted theory as to why. One place to start would be the compilation cited above.

Bill Moyers did a series of interviews with him called The Power of Myth. I know they are available in book form and I assume they are in available as videos also. He was an extremely popular lecturer and teacher.

I would certainly never refer to him as “new age.”

The man himself may not be new age, but the basis of his theory seems to be that all humans are connected by some species wide subconscious, which is decidedly new agey.

ETA: And the fact that any piece of evidence automatically supports his theory even if it is the opposite of the evidence he used to support it the page before is also very new agey.

No. It makes him a Jungian.

Snakes aren’t anything like “near-universally seen as non-threatening”. Quiet often they are considered the embodiment of pure evil. And in some cultures they’re not particularly important at all.

Partly because people are very sloppy and tend to call any particularly notable creature from some other culture’s beliefs by the same name as a famous creature from their own, regardless of whether there’s much of a direct comparison or not. “Dragon” is now almost meaningless for how garbled its definition has become.

And Jungian beliefs follow many of the same tenets as New Age beliefs… with a comparable lack of empirical support.