Adventure, Favorites, Heroism

Why I Don’t Like Joseph Campbell

I believe in heroism. I try to live by a heroic philosophy.

Often, that means people want to talk to me about Joseph Campbell. And every time, I cringe.

Who is Joseph Campbell

Some of you might not know this name (I won’t judge), so I’ll do my best to fill you in. Joseph Campbell was an author who wrote about world myth. He was an avid reader, traveled quite a bit, and knew his topic well. There’s no denying that Campbell digested a lot of myth in his day. Oh yeah, and Hollywood likes him.

Campbell’s writing focuses on finding universal patterns in myths from around the world. If you know much about the study of myth, this should already be setting off alarms for you. He was heavily influenced by Carl Jung, and decided that myths reflect universal archetypes in the human mind. He believed that all myths tell a single story. He called this the “monomyth.”

So What’s the Problem with JC?

I want to point out that I don’t hate Campbell. His personal philosophy was that people should pursue their passions. I’m down with that. It’s good stuff.

But there are a variety of problems with his work on mythology. Most of these aren’t new; they’ve been covered by plenty of scholars. Let’s get them out of the way quickly:

  • All myths don’t tell a single story. There are motifs common to some (not all) hero myths, but that doesn’t mean they have the same lesson or meaning behind them. When you decide on a pattern that you’re sure is right it’s easy to ignore stories that don’t fit or reinterpret stories that just kinda-sorta fit. That’s exactly what Campbell did.
  • The idea of a monomyth undermines what’s greatest about mythology. Myths carry a tremendous amount of cultural content. The entire worldview of a society, its values and highest aspirations, are encoded in myth. This value-content is unique to each culture’s mythology, and it’s what makes myth magical. Focusing on the things that are the same between all cultures means ignoring the heart of myth.
  • When you universalize myth, you don’t. Any attempt to define the universal story of myth will end up defining the author’s own personal bias. In Campbell’s case, he focused primarily on male mythic figures and stories that agreed with his own theosophical views. The monomyth he tells resonates strongly with Western audiences because it was written by a Westerner.

If any of this seems too nitpicky or academic, let me put it this way:

In the 1940s a white American man wrote about the sacred myths of other cultures. He decided he knew what they meant better than those cultures themselves did.

The problem with this should be self-evident.

A Russian female soldier in the Russo-Japanese War.

Being an Actual Hero

Okay, so all those problems I just outlined? None of those are my beef with Joseph Campbell. If I twitched every time a white author said something ethnocentric, I’d need seizure medication to get near a library.

No, my problem with Campbell is simple: I want to be an actual hero. 

You know, the kind where you do stuff that saves lives or makes people safer.

Campbell’s work doesn’t lend itself to that. Typically, when someone uses the monomyth to talk about living heroically, it goes something like this:

  1. Hey, cool, there’s this story cycle that all heroic myths follow!
  2. What if I took that narrative and applied it to my life?
  3. Hmm, some events in my life kind of correspond to things in the narrative.
  4. So if I re-imagine my life as following this monomyth….
  5. …I’m a hero in my own story!

And that’s great. It’s a way for engineers, bus operators, sales VPs, moms and dads, doctors and teachers, and the guy at the coffee shop with the awesome teeth to feel good about themselves. It might also help them guide their choices, by providing a framework for making strong decisions.

I respect that.

But what it really boils down to is telling a story. And that is unlikely in the extreme to save lives.

Kind of like cosplay.

Literature and Taking Action

Campbell’s approach pretty much guarantees that his work must follow this arc. When Campbell fell in love with Eastern religion, he didn’t set about mastering meditation and chanting practices. When he pursued the question of heroism, he didn’t train his body or confront dangerous challenges. In both cases, he began by reading stories.

Campbell’s approach was primarily literary. And by focusing on a universal myth, he marginalized all the details that root literature in actual experience: cultural customs, religious practices, historic figures, proverbs and mores. He chose to abstract away from a rich body of lore based on human experience and write a new story altogether.

There’s a value to this literary approach. Last month I tweeted asking why people like JC. Many people responded by saying he made mythology interesting. He’s the one who got them into mythology in the first place. He was definitely a popularizer of myth, and that’s pretty awesome.

The problem is that his name has become synonymous with heroism, and he says absolutely nothing meaningful about heroism.

A literary pattern is not heroism. Templating a narrative onto our own lives is not the tool by which heroes are made. An accountant who compares her college days to the “Belly of the Whale” stage of the monomyth is still an accountant. A father of three who views selling his house as the “Road of Trials” stage is still a father of three.

And I don’t want to disparage that. Accountants have saved my ass numerous times (thank you Tracy!). Dads do one of the most important jobs on earth, just like moms do.

But does that make them heroic?

When I think of becoming heroic, I think of the actions that actual heroes took that made them into what they were. These don’t correspond well with the stages of the monomyth that Campbell describes.

In the case of mythical heroes, receiving some kind of lengthy training seems prominent. Having actual skills is nice.

In the case of historic heroes (Che Guevara comes to mind), traveling widely is a recurring theme. Travel shows you a much wider section of the human condition. It gives you a deeper sense of what’s at stake when dads and accountants have no one to stand up for them.

In the monomyth, the literary hero is yanked into adventure by some greater force. In the real world, there is no call to adventure. If you see a chance to do something heroic and you refuse the call, nothing will pull you forward. Being a hero is not a destiny, it’s a choice—the choice to act when no one else will.

Join the Conversation

What do you think? What does it mean to be heroic, and does Joseph Campbell’s writing help at all? Is it even important to be “heroic” in this day and age? And can it mean the same thing it did in ages past? I love seeing the discussion evolve. Comment and share your thoughts.

Edit: Comments are now closed. Here’s an explanation of why. 


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150 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like Joseph Campbell

  1. morganashearth says:

    I feel that what pulls me forward is my commitment to my gods/goddesses. I feel a pull each and every day to do the hard thing in my view the heroic thing.

    • That’s awesome Morgana. I feel that call too. I think that’s an excellent point; I meant that society (our fellow man) won’t pull us forward, because people don’t really expect us to be heroic. But I do feel that pull from the gods. Mostly Lugh. Though even he is very hands-off, in my experience.

  2. While I agree with the criticisms of Campbell and his reductionist approach to mythology, I think you’ve taken the same reductionist approach to Campbell. Not only can the mythic template be applied to real life and be successful at it, there are times when it should be applied to real life in order to spurn the ‘heroic’ life in the first place.

    And I think you’re selling short the call to adventure. Maybe you have a different definition of ‘adventure’—don’t we all?—but that call can be powerful. Likewise, I feel that refusing the chance to do something heroic definitely does something to us: it makes us just a little bit smaller each time. It’s not cataclysmic like the end of the world or stretched out on a cross, but it’s definitely a death of something inside that eventually marginalizes us to the sidelines of life.

    • I agree, refusing the chance for adventures kills a little bit of the human spirit. But many people live their whole lives in that state. The clouds don’t part with a sudden revelation that they should accept the call. There is no Frodo moment. In fiction, either you step up or the world ends; in real life, you can just keep your head down and life will probably go on. To me that’s what makes a hero heroic: they choose to step up voluntarily, when really, they could just be a bystander like everyone else.

      • The key factor to being a hero is choosing action over inaction. Right on.

        You may have addressed the Call to Adventure later in the comments (or perhaps in the post itself), but I think we all regularly have calls. Ignoring is part of life, but it doesn’t end our stories. Our lives don’t fit into a book, but the calls are there, as are all of the other steps. I would say waiting for a “sign from god” type of call clearly can lead to disappointment. It’s the small calls that helps us learn day to day.

        • A question for you Matt. If we’re not waiting for a “sign from god,” then what kinds of things would you say are “calls to adventure”? Can you give examples of these small calls that happen in real life?

        • That’s spot on, Matt. I think The “literary” hero disappoints us in his grandeur. I believe that some 24-hour periods can involve some small apocalypse and a new creation. The cycle of “unknown,” “disorientation,” “ordeal,” and “new orientation” (gift), is something that we live through often–it’s a matter of awareness fidelity to our lives.

          Drew: Calls = waking up when you want go to sleep. Having one less cup of coffee. Taking a road trip. Walking until you don’t want to go home. Revisiting a childhood park. These are just some that jump to mind.

      • Sally Dibbs says:

        “There is no Frodo moment. In fiction, either you step up or the world ends;”

        Not true. Many myths feature a “Refusal of the Call.” Have you read “Hero With a Thousand Faces?” It’s all right there in black and white.

        “…in real life, you can just keep your head down and life will probably go on.”

        Indeed, Campbell referred to this as “The Wasteland,” and unfortunately it’s where many end up.

        “The idea of a monomyth undermines what’s greatest about mythology. Myths carry a tremendous amount of cultural content. The entire worldview of a society, its values and highest aspirations, are encoded in myth. This value-content is unique to each culture’s mythology, and it’s what makes myth magical. Focusing on the things that are the same between all cultures means ignoring the heart of myth.”

        Your criticisms of Campbell seem slapdash and baseless. Campbell maintained that each myth went to serve the culture it was designed for. But he also pointed out that all myths have common themes and incorporated these into the “Monomyth.” Of course there are differences from culture to culture and Campbell readily acknowledged those. The idea, was not to be stuck to the symbols in any given folk story but rather to focus on the transcendent reference. When you read the Bible like a newspaper you’re missing the point. Was there really a boy who cried wolf? It hardly matters. This is what Campbell and his contemporaries were saying. Far from “ignoring the heart of myth,” this IS the heart of myth.

        Among others, Campbell paved the way for you. Remember that the next time you want to cringe.

        • Sally, thank you for a detailed reply with clear argumentation. I’m going to start with your closing comment, and then dive into the points you make.

          You wrote:

          Among others, Campbell paved the way for you. Remember that the next time you want to cringe.

          This seems oddly personal, and I don’t see how Campbell’s precedence is relevant to a critical evaluation of his views. I’ll set aside the fact that he didn’t actually pave the way for me, personally (It was after I formed my hypothesis of a heroic life that B.T. Newberg first suggested I read Campbell, and I followed his advice).

          The more important point is that I don’t see a need to treat Campbell with a special reverence, and I believe that the great reverence he receives often leads people to gloss over the flaws in his thinking on heroism. Campbell was a charismatic author with an inspiring belief system, and people who love that belief system often seem closed off to critical discussion of his claims.

          I would suggest that Campbell’s statements about heroism should be evaluated on their own merits. We are, after all, allowed to criticize those who have achieved fame or authority in their field. If their fame and authority is well-earned, then critical evaluation will only show all the more clearly that no cringe is needed.

          So I’ll do my best to reply to the individual points you made defending Campbell’s work on heroism.

          “There is no Frodo moment. In fiction, either you step up or the world ends;”

          Not true. Many myths feature a “Refusal of the Call.” Have you read “Hero With a Thousand Faces?” It’s all right there in black and white.

          What you’re saying here is that a Campbellian hero sometimes refuses the call at first, then goes on to later accept it. What I’m saying—and what someone reading Campbell will not be prepared for—is that there is no call in the first place.

          Any understanding of heroism fails, I believe, if people expect that they will hear some clear call to action and be able to consciously deliberate whether they are ready to accept it. Real life heroes are seldom recruited or forewarned. They see something happening and they feel tremendous social pressure to keep their heads down and do nothing. The call, if it exists at all, is a call to inaction; the decision to act comes from within, often in defiance of what the hero is being asked, ordered or expected to do.

          I used the Frodo example on purpose because Frodo does, as per Campbell, have hesitation and doubt about his mission. But he also has Gandalf telling him clearly that he is the only one who can do this, and that the entire world is counting on him. The day that a real-life hero sees their boss breaking labor laws, that real-life hero doesn’t get Gandalf’s encouragement. Instead they face the potential to be laid off, bullied, judged or even blacklisted. No one will tell them the world is counting on them, or even that they should get involved.

          That’s why Campbell’s literary call to heroism doesn’t template well to situations that call for actual heroism.

          Your criticisms of Campbell seem slapdash and baseless. Campbell maintained that each myth went to serve the culture it was designed for. But he also pointed out that all myths have common themes and incorporated these into the “Monomyth.”

          Yes, and that’s where he went wrong.

          It’s a fairly well-known fallacy that if you decide in advance that a pattern exists, then go looking for it, you’ll be able to find that pattern whether the data backs it up or not. That’s because as a species we are very good at noticing coincidences that support our beliefs, while ignoring data points that refute our beliefs. This is the mistake that I suggest Campbell made.

          If, for example, I decided that the four elements of earth, wind, water and fire are a universal concept, I could hunt through world myth and find examples to back me up. I could state that the five Chinese elements actually correspond closely to the four Classical elements, and I could find Native American stories that mention some of these elements together. But historic texts indicate that these four elements are an Indo-European concept and not found as a recurring motif outside of Indo-European influence.

          Even better, there might be something much more valuable I could learn by contrasting the Indo-Europeans’ emphasis on these four elements with other cultures’ use of completely different motifs. That would almost certainly be more instructional about all cultures involved than trying to pretend that I found a “universal” belief.

          The monomyth does a great deal of damage to understanding world myth. Those differences between cultures are more than just “symbols” we ought not get stuck in: they’re the keys to understanding people unlike ourselves. Why did the little boy cry Wolf, and not Boar or Bear or Dragon? There’s a very cool answer in the history of European lore and the etymology of the words for “wolf” in different northern European languages.

          When we pretend that everyone, everywhere tells essentially the same stories, and we “acknowledge” the differences as a footnote, we’re really just saying we don’t accept people with different values or perspectives from our own.

          Taking our differences seriously, and learning to appreciate them, doesn’t require “reading the Bible like a newspaper.” But it may mean stepping up to the very difficult task of imagining the ancient Near East as a place we can’t easily relate to—and yet still full of rich, beautiful ideas and lessons.

          I hope this makes my criticism clearer and I invite further constructive criticism of my own views. The main post above was a first effort on my part and lacks a lot of the detail that would really make it a strong piece. I hope to write a more in-depth critique in the future and discussions like this one are very helpful to me.

  3. Great post, Drew! “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” is sitting on my bookshelf, and I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. I am, however, familiar with the ideas of Campbell, so I can comment and talk about this.

    I have to admit, I’m sympathetic to the idea that myths are retellings of the same underlying story, with surface details changed. I come at this from a different angle, having not immersed myself in world mythology. My reading of the literature on evolutionary psychology suggests to me that, while cultural differences are not vacuous, all humans share an underlying cognitive architecture. This means that there are only so many ways to process experiences, including religious and spiritual ones, and retell them in myth. People everywhere share a certain subset of motives and certain range of conscious states (being able to extend that range with things like drugs or meditation), and this idea is reflected in the stories they tell and the god(s) they worship. One does need to be careful, of course, in dismissing variations in details. This thesis doesn’t rely on Jungian psychology, of which I am skeptical. But it does suggest that there might be archetypes, templates, patterns to which we keep returning. One also doesn’t need to espouse the idea that there is a single myth, with different flavors. Rather, there might be multiple threads making up the tapestry of global and historical religious myth.

    How essential do you find the cultural content of myths? As you don’t seem to like the idea of a unity underlying our collective religious stories, do you think the idiosyncratic rituals surrounding different gods/goddesses are especially useful in cultivating a spiritual path? Would my meditation practice be enhanced by chanting, as many monks did and still do? Would a neopagan be best served by participating in drum circles during the summer solstice? Or, could I develop some sort of all-purpose ritual, picking and choosing from the good parts or world religion and leaving out the distasteful bits. Would something critical be lost? In other words, do you think the spiritual technologies that have crept up around different gods/goddesses are accidents of history, or the only way to effectively invoke those gods/goddesses?

    Some of this argument could also spill over into a debate about the perennial philosophy. This is the idea that, while the language used to convey religious experiences differs greatly, the content of religious experience does not (or at least not significantly). So, while Christian and Sunni mystics use radically different words to describe their unity with god, they are feeling something quite similar (and useful). Do you think religious experiences really do differ as much as they seem to when described on paper? Could they differ in individuals? If I use rituals taken from both sunni mysticism and neopaganism, would I experience ecstasy differently in each context?

    Thanks again.

    • I agree that we share a cognitive landscape and that there is a limit to the range of human experience. However that doesn’t mean all myths tell the same story.

      I believe that cultural content of myth and the cultural practices around spirituality are essential to understanding myth & spirituality. Pulling these things out of their context does a great disservice, not just to the tradition they came from but to anyone seeking to build a strong spirituality.

      Creating something eclectic or brand new can work, but only to the extent that new cultural context eventually forms around it.

      Regarding “all religions are the same,” I strongly disagree with that, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out Mario Beauregard’s work monitoring brain activity of Christian nuns when they experience a state of communion with Christ, the highest spiritual state they seek in their tradition. Cf. with studies on the brain during Buddhist and Hindu meditation. Different brain areas are activated and a different mental state is achieved. Different religions seek radically different things, even though the language and symbols they use are sometimes similar.

      Very interesting questions Trent… thank you for that!

  4. I totally understand your beef with JC.

    I might also take a look at the at the work of GK Chesterton, Otto Rank, CG Jung, Geza. I think Campbell pulled the trigger, while many others did the work. Monomyth was an idea from Finnegan’s Wake, and much of Campbell’s theory is based on his study of Joyce.

    I kind of have an issue with Christopher Vogler, who wrote the ‘Writers’ Journey.’ He seemed to “cash in” on the “hero’s journey”; the imitation in Hollywood has red-lined to crazy. It’s imitation, not narrative power.

    I will say that Campbell’s work (while fairly arrogant) must have been pretty radical, given his attention to indigenous myth. It’s biased because a white male wrote it, but I think he had some reverence to the narrative power of the smaller cultures.

    • Great points Mark. I agree that it was fairly radical when it came out – I suspect he wouldn’t have gotten so much spotlight otherwise. You’re right, it’s essentially an application of Jung et al. to the realm of world myth. I don’t think Campbell was bigoted (he seemed to truly love the cultures he studied) but I also don’t think he had the training to screen out his own white American point of view when examining world myth. The last 20 years have been really productive for that in the field of ethnic studies, anthropology, etc.; but it was hardly even acknowledged as a problem in Campbell’s time.

    • Totally agree with Mark on Vogler’s negative impact on the hero’s journey. I don’t think it was deliberate – I think he came at it with genuine humility and reverence. As with anything, once the corporations notice you can make billions with a tool, they’re going to jump on it and rip the heart out of it.

  5. I think Campbell’s association with heroism is more Vogler’s fault. I avoided Campbell for years bc I found Vogler’s book so off-putting as a screenwriter. The heroic journey can’t be boiled down into 12 plot points every action movie needs to have. That’s not heroism: that’s just Hollywood. Using Campbell in that way is stupid and dangerous and I don’t pay any attention to the steps when I write fiction.

    Except the Call to Adventure. I think this is necessary for any story and for any life. it can be destiny or it can be a choice. Its just that moment when a door opens and you don’t know what’s on the other side. Sometimes you go in voluntarily. And sometimes you get pushed.

    • I’m so happy we now have at least two screenwriters regularly reading Rogue Priest. Yay writers!

      Okay, so I’m curious about this Chase. You say the Call to Adventure is necessary not just for any story but for any life. How do you see the Call to Adventure happening in a real life? What form does it takes? What happens if we refuse it? Is it a one-time opportunity or a recurring opportunity? Is it literally a chance to be heroic or are you using this metaphorically? This seems to be the stage of Campbell’s Journey that people take the most interest in, so I’m very curious to hear what you think.

  6. I totally agree that Campbell abstracts things and doesn’t focus on the concrete reality of the stories — that’s beautifully put. We need to balance our need to find basic mythic components of the human condition, our human instinct to be pattern-observers, with an appreciation for specificity and plurality.

    If we owe Campbell anything, I think we owe him the fact that the popularization to the Jungian approach to myth (without the depth psychology baggage, which is often reductivist too) alerted many to the reality of myth’s metaphorical dimension. What’s strange, jarring, and confounding about myth becomes more relevant when you look at it in a symbolic way. That sort of lens was the province of academics for so long, and his popularization of it gave people tools to use it for themselves.

  7. Yep. The way I see it, Campbell created a pattern, not a path. He was fascinated by the pattern he (thought he) saw in myths the world over. And for him, that was enough. I suppose it may have been an experience like contemplating the Harmony of the Spheres. It is certainly spiritual in some sense, genuinely moving for some people, and potentially profound. However, it’s not about becoming a hero. It’s about thinking about heroes.

    Side note: I have to agree with Mark D Robertson’s comment above – it may be anachronistic to fault Campbell for ethnocentric and sexist bias. As I understand it, he fell in love with Native American myths first, and dearly loved them – that may have been quite progressive for the time. Also, he devotes quite a lot of energy to female myths and stories, including a separate sub-version of the monomyth in his Masks of God series. Measured by today’s standards he may be at fault, but I’m not sure that would be so if measured by his contemporaries.

    • Re. your side note: I agree :)

      I love the way you describe Campbell’s approach. It’s not about becoming a hero, it’s about thinking about heroes. Well said.

  8. Katherine says:

    What I dislike is when people call a murderer like Che a “hero.” But that’s just me.

    • I’m a little surprised to see that characterization of him. I went back and reread some of his biography.

      During warfare, Che shot enemy soldiers. In his role as a general and an official in Cuba, he also authorized the execution of war criminals and traitors.

      The Wikipedia article on Che has this excellent snippet:

      “I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent’. Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason or crimes such as rape, torture or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years, and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere.”
      — Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, PBS forum

      Kaif, is there a specific incident you’re talking about, that you could give us more detail on?

        • As murderer. I know lots of people hate Che because he is a Communist. But unlike many other revolutionaries, he’s not accused of any kind of war crimes or purges or genocide or anything else murdery. I was especially surprised because Katherine is the one calling him a murderer, and I happen to know she is very progressive/leftist politically. I was hoping she would give us some explanation on why she feels that way about him.

  9. Heroes?

    These days we hear so little of what I was taught defines heroism. Now the word has devolved into little more than a vague euphemism.

    Soldiers and civil servants doing their job, assuming the admittedly high level of risk they signed up for and re-assume going to work every day. No, I’m sorry, their bravery is admirable and we should be continually thankful for it, this does not qualify them as heroes.

    Worse yet, this watered down definition of “heroism” now embraces the survivor, simple victims and innocent bystander. In my estimation it started with POW’s, themselves tragic victims, some of which (some,) endured to become survivors. Sad, inspiring, admirable in their resolution to make it through unimaginable difficulties… but “heroes”?

    Our shmaltzy popular media has so buggered the definition of heroism it’s hard to imagine what the children of today will teach their own.

    Heroic blog though bud,

    Earrach of Pittsburgh
    (Neopagan Druid Priest)

  10. Well, Joe helped save my life. And I’ve heard the call, too ;) It indeed came from the divine like a slap on the face. A really, really big slap. Like the whole universe stepped on me. You should pay attention, because you might get one too- but it’s good to live life like you already have. You’re more on the ball than I was in my youth, and so maybe you don’t have to get slapped.

    So, do you think we should stick to writing about our own cultures? Or our own ancestors’ cultures? Because if it’s the latter, we all come from Africa. And I most recently come from a bunch of different places, but you know, I don’t know nearly as much about my Native American roots as I do about Greek mythology, and I haven’t the faintest clue how I could be related to Greek peoples. I guess I’m just not as into American stuff, particularly- I am into a global community, though. And I have been called a “monist” because I believe all is one, and do not see any real issue with the monomyth- I can see that the myths are still different. I think the one and the many are beautiful.

    And I mean, even, which state’s culture do I write about when I’ve lived in more than one? California? Iowa? Missouri? South Dakota? Minnesota? Pennsylvania? Some other state? Which myths do I interact with? Hell, I don’t even know the names of the divinities locally worshipped here long ago or the ones worshipped by my own ancestral tribe- I know about the Great Spirit Hunyawat, but I’ve never lived in Oregon, so, should I not write about him? Again, I see the commonality of one community here like Joe saw the commonality in the world’s myths. And I feel like I have a pretty good connection to Jesus, Shiva, and Dionysos, even though I’m a mostly white NativeAmericanGermanIrishScottishAmerican.

    Not to knock you down or anything. You have your own opinion like I do about music. But I have a completely different experience than yours, it seems.

    • Hi KoraKaos, I think our views are closer together than you think. Please know that I never said we should only study our own culture’s myths. Studying the myths of the world is a beautiful, amazing topic. Study the myths of whatever cultures inspire you.

      But to say that the people of California, Iowa, Oregon, Africa, and ancient Greece are all telling the exact same story? That’s unlikely.

      • By hitting on Hero with a Thousand Faces (originally titled How to Read a Myth) you’re setting up something of a straw man. That book was relatively early in his career, and, though more accessible, is less important than the multi-volume Masks of God.

        It’s more than a bit disingenuous to say that Campbell suggests that many different people are “all telling the exact same story.” Campbell found patterns in the preserved narratives of diverse people. And he also explored how the narratives changed over time. An agrarian people did not tell the same same stories as nomad people as seafaring people as desert people. He’s quite clear on that. But there is an underlying pattern of humanness to all our stories. We eat, we poop, we make babies, we get along with our pack or we don’t, we get restless, we take risks — or we don’t. We tell stories, some of which resonate with more people for longer periods of time. Campbell analyzed those stories.

        In Hero, Campbell looked at that one form of literature, the hero story, and found patterns across cultures and across time. Hero isn’t about–never intended to be about–“how to be a hero.” It’s about understanding story. Story is one way of understanding the arc of our own lives, and many people have used Hero that way. That doesn’t make either Hero or those people less than adequate.

        You’ve crafted your own vision of an heroic life. From the perspective of someone a few decades further down the road, one who has made unconventional choices (though not as dramatic as some of yours), and who was called “brave” by her own father, I am curious to see where your path takes you, although I won’t be around long enough to see what you’re like at my age. But I can tell you, do what you’re doing while you’re young. It’ll get harder, later.

        • I came to make the points made in the second and third paragraphs. Campbell wasn’t telling us how to be heroic, nor was he saying every story is the same. He was showing that stories from around the world followed the same patterns. The patterns of our stories reflect the patterns of our lives.

          • I question the patterns thing. Once you start looking for a pattern, you will find it everywhere you want to see it. Humans are great at that. For instance if I decided that every myth is actually about the balance between Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind I could find passages in any story to support that, even though most cultures never believed in that paradigm. Sure, all humans eat and mate and war, and there are patterns to that, but I’m unconvinced that Campbell’s monomyth accurately sums up those patterns. It seems like he made it up and then read it in where he wants.

        • Yeah, I don’t think it’s all the same story. Not the EXACT same. Obviously our stories are different. I received a very obvious divine call and you did not because you didn’t need one. I don’t have a miraculous birth, but many heroes do. But I do believe all is one and that we are all meant to be heroes, in the original sense of the word that to be a hero is to be a real man. I believe there is a reason that things follow a similar pattern; the universe has a certain gravity, and we are all one in this one universe.

        • Hi Phaedra. Great to see you here again!

          You write that “In Hero, Campbell looked at that one form of literature, the hero story, and found patterns across cultures and across time. Hero isn’t about–never intended to be about–’how to be a hero.'” That’s exactly right. I agree with you here. What I’ve seen lately are a large number of blogs, books, and self-help types who do present Campbell as a recipe for how to be a hero. I think that’s mistaken for exactly you give here.

  11. I don’t want to get into Campbell and folklore and myth because it’s entire field that I know very little about. What you say about ‘arm chair heros’ (my words, not yours!) is interesting: that thinking of ourselves as heros in our own journey is a way to feel good about ourselves, but isn’t actually being a hero that saves lives. I have several thoughts about this.

    Firstly, as a woman who has had Disney movies and Christianity guiding my development on what my life as a woman should be like – as cultural phenomena, not necessarily as my personal taste – I am tired of being shown that I need a man to save me. That I’m not enough. That I will be made whole by Man or a male God. I believe we save ourselves and each other. As a woman, I want to be my own hero: I want to save myself. This isn’t me flipping the bird to those who would or could help me in specific struggles, but I need to be able to ask for help when I need or want it, not expect that others will ride to my rescue. So while I may not be winning wars, swooping in to save a child from a roiling river, or jumping out of planes on a grand Adventure with a capital A, being the captain and navigator of my own ship is – as a woman – is me being my own hero.

    Secondly, my question to you is: what are your heroic acts? What *does* being a hero look like for you? So far, judging from your posts, your view of heroism doesn’t seem that far off from the ‘arm chair heroics’ of people trying to live their most authentic lives. Well, except for the fact that you can literally live off the land and most of us can’t. How are you saving lives? And is that the only and/or main definition of a hero/saviour for you?

  12. First of all, that is awesome. Whenever a woman can overcome the “I need to wait for a man” schtick I have to stand up and applaud. You rock.

    Secondly, I don’t believe I have ever saved a human life. I also don’t believe I am a hero.

    My definition of a hero is “someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help others.” That may mean risking their life to save lives, or it may mean other forms of serious personal risk (risking their career, their health, etc.) to help people in a variety of ways (to fight for democracy, to organize communities, to build infrastructure, to educate people, etc.).

    Most people focus on the “helping others” part as heroic, but to me, that’s just being a good citizen. Heroes go a step further by risking their own wellbeing for the sake of others’ wellbeing.

    Being a hero is something I aspire to, but as I’ve said many times, it’s not something you can declare yourself to be. The best I can do is live the heroic path and make sure I am as prepared as possible to make the right choice if the time comes.

    By the way Niki, this is one of my favorite questions anyone has ever asked. I’d love to hear more about what you think a hero is.

    • I really like your definition of a hero. It means that there are a lot of unsung heroes out there. I think about some of the things that parents have to do for their children.

      I’m not sure I could answer what I think a hero is. It’s like that aphorism: I’ll know one when I see one! But I do know that there are qualities that I aspire to, qualities that I think a hero would have, things like integrity, adventurousness, bravery, hope.

      I myself am certainly not a hero, though I am ever more my own hero. Not there yet. But seeing how far I’ve come so far I know it’s possible!

    • Yes, thank you both, myownashram for articulating the question, and Drew for finally answering it so I grok what we’ve been talking about for the last month.

      Now, to commence my own long-ass comment:

      “The problem is that his name has become synonymous with heroism, and he says absolutely nothing meaningful about heroism.”

      That is absolutely the biggest problem with JC. But what he does, and the reason I still recommend him is that he supplies people with a narrative that gives them power and responsibility.

      People are pattern-seeking creatures. They are always looking at the narratives, and typically tend to choose the negative ones over the positive ones. A heroic narrative at least takes them outside of themselves and into the realm of possibility.

      I favour the broadest interpretation of the hero’s journey, so I use the monomyth more or less interchangeably with folkloric tropes.

      Still, I do think there comes a point when the narrative is no longer useful to you, and at that point, it must be discarded.

      So, Drew, does making a point of taking personal risks to help others negate the moral value of what you’re doing? On one hand, it brings to mind Paladins, roaming the land looking for people to save. But on the other it looks like an rationalization for risky behavior. I suppose there’s no harm in being prepared to lay down your lives for others, but I’m a pragmatist, I have to be pretty damn certain I’m not doing things for my own selfish reasons when I choose to intervene.

      • Ooh, really deep question Shanna.

        Here’s my personal take on it. A lot of spiritual quests start out for selfish reasons – and that’s OK. People might have very short-term or self-centered reasons to pursue martial arts, mysticism, yoga, art, or any of the other myriad transformative journeys that we can go on. The same goes for adventure. But the beautiful thing about those journeys is that they are transformative: the seeker changes the longer they practice, and (I believe) begin to value much wider ideals.

        In the case of the heroic life itself, I could definitely see people setting out purely because they love adventure or want an excuse for thrill-seeking. But if they do indeed follow the heroic path, along the way they will see the profound effect their actions (and even just their presence) have on other people. “Come for the beer, stay for the show.” Come for the adventure, stay for helping others.

    • “My definition of a hero is ‘someone who takes extraordinary personal risk to help others.’ That may mean risking their life to save lives, or it may mean other forms of serious personal risk (risking their career, their health, etc.) to help people in a variety of ways…”
      Hmmmm….that definition fits caretaking an aging parent. I had to quit a job and risked my health to make sure my mom had the best possible care in the last years of her life. I sometimes resented it, I sometimes felt like a martyr. But I stayed the course, and glad of it.
      As much as I covet the outward journeys, the inward journeys are often what defines us. Facing the dark places in our lives, healing wounds that bind us, forgiving those who hurt us, coming out of denial, asking forgiveness, and being authentic can be as heroic, or more so, than an outward journey up a mountain or across two continents on foot.
      Carol Pearson’s, The Hero Within, Six Archtypes to Live By, is a nice little primer on charting our course as a hero. “The essential rule…is to honor yourself as well as others, seeing everyone as a hero or potential hero….It is the individual journey, not the map, that is important.”

      • I agree about inward journeys, Martha. I think travel is a catalyst for inner change, but by no means the only way of doing it.

        In subsequent blog posts, my readers and I further defined what it means to be a hero. Not just taking risk to help others, but doing it with no personal stake in it. For example, the person who helps others only out of a sense of obligation may do great things, but doesn’t rise to the level of hero.

        I wonder what you think of that in relation to helping a parent. Does doing your duty make you a hero? Or should every decent person do their duty? This is a sticky question.

        • Drew. After I wrote my reply to this post, I realized it was a year old. But thanks for responding.
          I’ve thought about whether or not caretaking a parent is a hero’s journey. It depends. Duty can sometimes be heroic, but sometimes it’s martrydom. I often felt more like a martyr than a hero, but friends saw the hero in me. I cared for my mother in one way or another for 19 years. She cared for me as well, trying to make up for the past.
          I was 17 months old when mom married a predator three months after my father died. She became PTA president, an upstanding church participant, drank too much, and didn’t protect me from the monster. She was beautiful, charming, generous, and completely exasperating. When she learned about the abuse when I was in my late 20s, her first words to me were, “Why are you trying to hurt me?” Thirty-five years later, seven weeks shy of her 102nd birthday, with her hands on my arm and a light in her eyes, she said, “No mother could have loved her children more. But I didn’t do right by my kids. I have lived with that regret always. But we must forgive ourselves.” I recognized words of closure. She died two days later. A year later I traveled from Washington State to L.A. to bury her ashes next to my dad who had died exactly 65 years earlier. It felt like a hero’s journey to me.

          • I think that’s beautiful, Martha. I’m glad you were there for her. It can be so hard to love our parents, especially as we age. Thank you for sharing that.

  13. Wendy Blackheart says:

    I think I enjoy Joseph Campbell so much *because* he looks at everything through the skew of literature. See, I am a great lover of certain types of tales – myths, fairy tales,folktales, urban legends (which are essentially *modern* folklore). Many of these stories are broken down and studied based on reoccurring motifs (ex, the thief gets his comeuppance, two children in the woods) and Campbell’s style of breaking tales down in this way appealed to me, and put things into a frame work that made it easier for me, personally, to glean information and study and what not.

    It helps that my personal philosophy is also fairly Jungian – ultimately, the way I relate to the supernatural is that I perceive everything as being facets of a larger, single whole, which we break down into smaller, more symbolic bits that we can understand – so again, things resonated.

    I do agree that what he did was not much of anything that could be used as a practical path of heroism. While many heroes went through a similar thematic life path, living as heroically as they did involves a hell of a lot more than recognizing where in the ‘heroes cycle’ you may or may not be in your life (actually, IMO, comparing your life to that of a heroic cycle seems kind of silly if you aren’t actually a hero or in heroic circumstances, but ymmv)

    • Hi Wendy, thank you for your comment! What I find interesting is that I also tend to think of the divine as one great whole that we break into smaller bits. (Or that breaks itself into smaller bits so that we can actually interface with it). But, I still find the idea of the monomyth hard to swallow.

      The reason is this. Even if gods and myths around the world reflect a single greater divine presence, why would that mean they all present the same essential story? A myth about a boy holding off an army from invading his country; a myth about a young man rescuing a woman from her imprisoner and marrying her; a myth about a girl being forced to marry an underworld deity; and a myth about a band of warriors storming the other world to bring back the fertility of the land. Those are all the same story?

      I think that One Giant God Thing can probably come up with more than one lesson to reveal to humankind, using more than one genre of story. Actually, I think that goes hand-in-hand with the idea of the divine breaking down into smaller pieces so that we can understand it. What do you think?

    • Wendy,

      I believe comparing your life to the heroic cycle is a powerful tool for those who need to be convinced that they can be heroic. I teach it because self-labeling is a strong psychological practice. If someone can see themselves as the hero of their own story, then it’s a smaller step to do something heroic when a hero is needed.

  14. hero

    Pearls from the Sun
    Diamonds from the Moon
    Gold-dusted silks from
    exotic worlds
    Valued in danger, adventure
    from there to here.
    Fine old wood
    mellowed with wisdom
    tasting of Earth
    silently regales with tales
    old and pure.

    Young Percival took knighthood seriously. To protect and to serve King and country.
    The old King sickening, perhaps dying, soul sickness they said.
    Crops failed. Floods and droughts, inopportune times. The peasants too sickened,
    died, lived in dreadful poverty and despair.
    In a dream, the young knight was shown the Grail — shiny jewels upon a golden cup
    self-generating elixir of immortality.
    On awakening, he took off in the direction of adventure. He left the dying kingdom
    to its own devices, in search of a promised land of magical curative power. He was
    not thinking of King or country, but of a delicious ecstatic pounding he knew to be
    his own heart.

    Where do you ride, fair Percival?
    Off to find the dreamer’s Grail?
    Learn your song and tell your tale.
    Become a son of Sky and Earth
    and rain
    to return with all you gain
    some wondrous day.
    Break the spell.
    Release the kingdom’s pain.

    He learned the ways of seers, demons, subtle sorceries and charms. Growing ever
    stronger with healthy exercise and happy purpose, he made his way. Trial by
    treacherous trial, he ever more closely approaches his prize.
    These trials are the key. They test mettle while bestowing grace, confidence,
    skill acquisition, glimmerings of wisdom. The prize glitters, shines, glows
    brilliantly in the distance to maintain focus, a clear point, fixed star to contemplate
    through twisting, turning, misty mythic pathways.
    Sometimes the brick is yellow. Some paths are more intuitive, steps in the dark,
    brambly forest.
    Percival knows what a hero does. A hero perseveres. A hero scales the tower to free
    the enchanted maiden, goes where others dare not because fear is a solid companion.
    Daring, fighting, sometimes dazed, momentarily forgetting his cause, he perseveres.
    He need but think to look to see his Grail shining, calling him forward.
    Of course, he reaches the Grail, discovers the codes, incantations, disarms dragons,
    ensorcels giants, generally blazes through to capture his dream.
    Returning triumphant, he fixes the kingdom, drop-kicks the curse, cures the old King
    of his soul malady, takes the throne to wisely guide into times of prosperity.
    So the story goes.

    (c) June 14, 2008 Laurie Corzett/libramoon

    • This is wonderful Laurie. Thank you so much for sharing this here! I just checked out your site and you’ve got some very interesting stuff.

      I wonder, what inspired you to write this?

  15. Michelle says:

    Im reading “The Hero with a thousand faces”, and enjoying it very much. My interest in Joseph Campbells perspective is purely personal, I have a deep interest and experience with archetypes and mythology and have been trying to live by it, but Ive come to a point in my life when Im reevaluating what I once thought I understood. This book is an interesting perspective to the common themes underlying all myths which Im finding helpful food for thought regarding my own personal interpretation of my own experiences. I am not a hero by any stretch of the imagination, but at one stage I may have had delusions of granduer, or perhaps I dont have what it takes to do what needs to be done, or perhaps I have misunderstood, who knows, but I think the point is I am and I presume we all are simply trying to figure things out, and mythology or Joseph Campbells insights or wherever inspiration is found may hopefully help.

  16. Bravo! All wonderful points. Once again, you echo my thoughts, good friend. Now this inspires me to write a bit more on this subject, yet I have to sit and give it more thought. Thank you for giving me something to meditate upon today. I truly enjoy reading your blog, even though sometimes I get sentimental. But this is Val you’re talking to! When am I ever not emotional in one way or another? Cheers and blessings to you.

    I started a WordPress blog over Samhain, but still getting used to the format here and trying things on. So far, I like it. Expect some writing of my own to come soon!!!

  17. Hi, Drew,

    I think this is a fascinating post (as always), and you raise some valid points about Joseph Campbell and his work… I was especially struck by the critique of a singular universal “monomyth,” as well as the limitations of the perspective of a white man in the 1940s.

    I wondered if your biggest beef with Joseph Campbell (failure to provide guidance of HOW to be “an actual hero”) is a language problem as opposed to a fundamental operational or philosophical problem.

    “Hero” is a word with multiple meanings for multiple audiences, and I can’t help but think that you and Joseph Campbell (1) have completely different definitions of the word and (2) both are absolutely, completely, 100% accurate in your understanding and use of the word.

    As you pointed out, Campbell’s work is primarily literary. In the literary and mythical world, “hero” is equal to “protagonist”. The other criticisms of Campbell’s work aside (see my first paragraph), it is entirely possible that Campbell’s hero is very different from the hero you put forth. When you consider that one of Campbell’s foundational theses is to “follow your bliss,” it is apparent that his idea of the heroic journey is an internal, personal struggle to self-actualize. A guide, but not a map. In other words, it is a fight for the soul, and a fight of the soul. Many of the examples have some variation of a wo/man’s intellectual or spiritual self against an emotional or physical enemy. In a metaphorical sense, our rational selves must overcome our impulsive selves in order to self-actualize.

    I hate to speak for old, long-ago-passed-away scholars, but I don’t think Campbell envisioned his hero’s journey as a preparation for heroic acting or heroic doing, but instead a process of bringing one’s authentic self into existence, or heroic being. The return or road back are the ways in which authentic, self-actualized selves return to their communities and uplift those communities’ social consciousness.

    I may be completely off base, but that is how I understand Joseph Campbell and his work. :-)

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  20. Lee says:

    Campbell taught me that a symbol get you where words do not.

    I saw the statue of Jesus and instead of just seeing this as a historical figure with no metaphorical value this time for some reason Jesus represented a symbol of how much God loves us and boom like going down I wormhole I experienced God’s love. Or metaphorically speaking you could say the holy Spirit descended upon me.

    • That’s quite fair, Lee. Campbell certainly made many good points in his work and helped introduce mythology to a whole generation (several, actually) of readers.

      I don’t think that improves or erases the very serious errors he made in interpreting world myth. But I do give him credit for being a popularizer of a thoughtful approach to myth such as what you just described.

  21. I don’t fundamentally disagree with your critique of Campbell’s work. These are major issues in his work, and ones that perceptive readers always catch (eventually!). But, there are a few points that I’d dispute, or at least modify, in the characterization you’ve given of him.

    You’ll have to point out to me where (if at all) Campbell used the term “monomyth”–I’ve heard that term mostly from modern proponents and critics of Campbell, but I don’t recall off the top of my head reading it in his works. (Perhaps I haven’t read the right ones, and there are many of them, but anyway…) While the term and the way we understand it now certainly applies to his work quite well (and was very likely based upon it!), it would be an error to credit him with the term when it is likely that it was engineered as a convenience by his detractors, and thus created specifically in a manner to critique him.

    Campbell was physically active throughout his life, and was a champion runner while he was in college. No, he didn’t go out bear-hunting with no weapons, but it isn’t as if he only sat in studies and read all day. Athleticism does count for something–perhaps not the status of heroism, but to those of us who are disabled and can never imagine doing such things, it looks enviable, to say the least.

    Further, Campbell never claimed to be anything but a scholar. When people called him a guru or tried to think of him as a spiritual teacher (which many do now), he would outright refuse it and contradict their assertions. He always said “My spiritual practice is I underline passages in books.” He also said that he lived the life of a maverick, but he never said this was the same thing as being a hero. To evaluate him with the criteria of spiritual visionaries or heroes, then, might be doing as much a disservice to him as seeing President Barack Obama as a “failed literature professor and failed Olympic water polo player,” when in fact he never set out to do those things.

    On that matter of his self-identification as a maverick: he was not quite old enough to fight in WWI, but he would have been to fight in WWII. He didn’t end up having to serve, probably because of his position as a professor at SLC, but perhaps his drive to make the everyday “heroic” (even if only metaphorically–which it is for the housewife and the accountant and the bus driver) was also an effort on his part to justify his own oddity in terms of what was considered “heroic” in his own day. Heroes, it would have been said, are the “real men” who go off and fight wars, not frou-frou bookish people who are probably Communists (and he did join the Communist party, at least for a period). To do and to think a great deal of what he did involved some serious counter-cultural decisions and identifications, which his culture would have defined as “unheroic,” and which he thus always understood as “being a maverick,” but which people now could potentially see as “heroic” for some value of the term (even if only metaphorical). And, as he said over and over again, myths’ power lies in its metaphorical nature and its applicability to everyday life.

    Is there any harm in that, whatever other critiques might be made of him? Is it his fault that people have not understood the metaphorical nature of his statements and his application of heroism to everyone, and instead have thought they were literally heroes?

    But, as I said to begin, I do think your critiques of many aspects of his mythic project, and those which a variety of people have tried to carry on after him (which lead to monism and other things that I don’t find very appealing), are entirely valid and correct, and should be read or heard soon after people come into contact with his work, if and when possible.

    • Thanks for a measured reply Aedicula.

      I do think there is still a fault in Campbell’s work.

      (First off, note: I no longer have any Campbell books to check — not out of spite but because I could only take one book with me when traveling — but I believe he first used “monomyth” in Hero With a Thousand Faces.)

      You basically make a case that, first, he was very humble; and secondly, he had personal reasons for presenting heroism as he did.

      I would suggest neither of those make his work any more accurate.

      I do believe Campbell was very humble (and also, for that matter, wise); I suspect I would have enjoyed spending time with him if I had ever known him. In some ways our journeys are similar.

      But, as humble as he may have been, he did present his work on heroism as an authoritative analysis of world hero myth, and it has been taken as definitive — but it was deeply flawed.

      I think this is largely a product of his time and culture. 20th century America was very much about cultural imperialism, and syncretizing and explaining different “exotic” beliefs under a united psychological theory. That is exactly what he did, to the detriment of many cultures around the world and two generations of Americans who took him at his word.

      His work swells our sense of entitlement and superiority, while diminishing the unique beauty of each of the cultures from which he borrowed; and it lessens any sense of duty the reader may have to go out and experience or understand a culture through its own lens.

  22. James says:

    I, too, have a common tendency to give precedence to the aspects of Campbell’s work that has and continues to prove to be inspiring and influential. His late work, in particular, is rich in variety and storytelling in his own way. However, I’m more interested in what supplementary books (comparative mythology or otherwise) you would recommend that best address or remedy the errors of Campbell’s weakest moments. You mention cultural imperialism, and I cannot help but think of Edward Said’s work on the subject, a masterpiece in its own right. Still, I’d very much appreciate other books you or anyone else here could suggest that considers myths specifically in contexts both cultural and historical. I would imagine that this would require examining with a magnifying glass every culture from which Campbell derives his material throughout his oeuvre, although perhaps some could be more accurately condensed than others. Now take, for example, JC’s four-volume Masks of God series, particularly the middle volumes focusing on the ‘Occidental’ and the ‘Oriental.’ I would rather have a more nuanced look at the diverse array of cultures from the latter, not to mention African mythology. Perhaps I’m overplaying my hand with this post, but to draw this to a close, I suppose what draws young adults to JC to this day is indeed that very compartmentalization because it’s convenient to have this compact view of world mythology in a dozen or so books. Anyway, thanks for reading.

    • You are correct James, I would recommend studying one or several cultures’ myths on their own terms. This is a much more authentic way of engaging them – as much through the native worldview of that culture as possible – than fitting them into a unifying modern-era worldview.

      I don’t think this has to be a painful project, though. Reading a single book of Greek myths is often enough to jump start a lifetime interest in mythology, and then going on to read some west African myths – or delve deeper into the ancient Greek worldview – can be really rewarding.

      Certainly, one book of Greek mythology was enough to spark lifelong interest on myth on my part, and I found reading the myths to be inspiring on a personal level in the same way that many people find Campbell’s work inspiring.

      I think it’s a falsehood to think it’s somehow easier or more satisfying to hold a culture at arm’s length with protective Western gloves on. Studying something very different from our own way of life has a strong allure and can be fulfilling.

  23. Zak says:

    You seem to believe that being a hero means slaying the external dragon; like saving a life on the battlefield, or with philanthropic charity. In reality, those are simply good deeds, not heroism. In reality, what Campbell teaches is spot on; that slaying the dragon means overcoming your own ego and allowing the cosmic energy to come through you. A hero goes on an inward adventure to find the cosmic source, then becomes a vessel through which truth flows. That’s it.

    • No Zak, my definition of a hero is: “Someone who takes a risk to help others, with no personal stake in it.” Risk doesn’t have to be action-oriented. Some people take social risks (like whistleblowers, or people who risk jail to do the right thing).

      But there does have to be real risk – not just difficulty, as with facing the ego. And it does have to help others, with no personal stake. Overcoming the ego is very much a self-directed victory, motivated by a desire for personal transformation.

      I too desire personal transformation, and I achieve it through my adventures on the road. But those adventures don’t make me a hero.

      A hero goes on an inward adventure to find the cosmic source, then becomes a vessel through which truth flows. That’s it.

      No, that wouldn’t make someone heroic – but it probably makes them more likely to act heroically if a need arises.

      • Lee says:

        Campbell (1988) in The Power of Myth describes Rank’s book The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909/1970) in relation to our own spiritual and psychological journeys and remarks that in that book, Rank:

        declares that everyone is a hero in birth, where he undergoes a tremendous psychological as well as physical transformation from the condition of a little water creature living in a ream of amniotic fluid into an air-breathing mammal which will ultimately be standing. That’s an enormous transformation, and had it been consciously undertaken, it would have been indeed, a heroic act. (pp. 124-125)

        • I think you’ve answered your own question, Lee: the key phrase there is “had it been consciously undertaken.” However, outside of the myth of the birth of some actual heroes and deities from traditional cultures, no one is conscious and thus deliberately decides to be born when that occurrence takes place. This is making heroism into the lowest common denominator by its very definition…and, quoting Campbell as he paraphrases Rank is also a bit weak on this point, given that just because people who have been well-regarded by others aren’t always necessarily “right” or “correct” on given points, even within their particular fields of specialization.

          Heroism is always something that sets a hero apart from the majority of humanity. Thus, anything which democratizes heroism to the point that it is something that everyone has and is by their very birth completely loses the point of the original term.

      • Britta Dueholm says:

        Heroic or not – if you, Drew, believe that overcoming the ego is just a difficulty you are very wrong. It takes more courage than that. Only very few people are actually able to do this. To get there you need to lose yourself, and you risk to go insane on that journey. Most people who dare to enter that path will be so terrified when they sense the danger, the real risk – if they go that far – that they will hurry back to their safe ego and stay there.

        • Britta, you start with “Heroic or not…” but the discussion here is about defining heroism. I agree that overcoming the ego is really hard and extremely rewarding. You seem to be saying it’s really really hard and extremely SUPER rewarding. Okay, I’ll give: you’re right.

          It’s still not a heroic act, although (as I’ve said before) overcoming the ego will certainly help prepare someone to act heroically should the occasion arise.

  24. Britta Dueholm says:

    (Since English is not my mother tongue it may not be entirely correct. But I will do my very best)

    All right, I’ll stick to the subject. But just one comment. I have no idea if overcoming the ego is rewarding cause I haven’t overcome mine. But I wonder, in what way could it be rewarding? I mean if you really succeed in overcoming the ego there will be no ego to receive the reward.

    In the middle of our myth- and soul-killing era of the western world it is refreshing and inspiring to read your blog.
    I fully acknowledge your definition of the hero, of course. Who wouldn’t? Who would disagree with that? “… someone who takes extraordinary risk to help others …, but doing it with no personal stake in it …” This is the most common and recognized definition of a hero. Though I may not be quite as uncompromising in my view of heroism as you seem to be.

    I’m not sure I quite understand a certain part of your problem with Campbell’s book. You want to be an “actual hero”, the one who “saves lives and makes people safer”, and “Campbell’s work doesn’t lend itself to that.” I don’t want to discuss the monomyth problem. It has been a very long time since I read the book. My point is that, as I see it, your concern is the “actual hero” in the physical world, and Campbell’s concern in his book is the mythical hero in the context of the human psyche. I cannot put it as beautifully and clearly as “Building Heroes” did earlier in this discussion:
    ““Hero” is a word with multiple meanings for multiple audiences, and I can’t help but think that you and Joseph Campbell (1) have completely different definitions of the word and (2) both are absolutely, completely, 100% accurate in your understanding and use of the word. … When you consider that one of Campbell’s foundational theses is to “follow your bliss,” it is apparent that his idea of the heroic journey is an internal, personal struggle to self-actualize. … a fight for the soul, and a fight of the soul. …”
    Your approach is the hero in the external world. Campbell’s approach is the hero in the internal world based on myths (monomyth). I don’t see any problem with that(?)

    The hero in the symbolic sense, the myth hero, is very much alive in every human being, consciously or unconsciously. We all want to be heroes (though not everyone would admit it). That’s natural. I believe that we all have a strong urge to live the heroic path. Yet most humans drown it or just live it in their imagination. It seems that the fear and lack of one’s capacity often are stronger than that urge.
    I can easily understand why you live the heroic path. But what is it that motivates you to to aspire to being an actual hero?

  25. Hi-

    Liked the post. I think for me the distinction between the more “transcendent” hero version and the popular version is that traditionally the hero learns to overcome their ego, vices, ties to the material world rather than become the master of the material. This involves a radical change in perception, values, orientation to life, maybe renunciation. I think the more popular version is becoming the hero means winning all the time and getting what you want (e.g. having a heroic ego). The 10 zen “finding the bull” pictures kind of display this trajectory; I think the materialist here kind of gets stuck around step 6…

    Just my two cents :)

    • Interesting Brennan. I’m not familiar with the ten bulls, but I think I understand what you’re saying. I also believe that the victory-oriented hero is a very old and classical type of hero, and represents a different take on values and virtue than we usually use today. Heroes like Achilles were expected to win – but largely because they cultivated excellence in their art (i.e., warfare).

  26. Likely a minor comment, but I do not think I agree with your assessment that JC work essentially focused on male heroes. I recall watching the Bill Moyers interviews of JC and him saying his definition of a hero was anyone who risks their life for another’s. He quickly followed that by saying therefore all biological mothers are heroes. I am male and I have repeated this to several friends of mine when they were carrying their first child and had confided in me that they were frightened for their own lives. It seems to have provided them with some comfort. I have another comment, but will enter it separately.

    • Mark, thank you for this comment. First off, I agree with Campbell’s wisdom on this point and I can see why those words would resonate with so many mothers. They’re true.

      I also have no reason to believe that Campbell doubted women could be heroes. I hope my work didn’t imply that.

      I do think, however, that it’s very clear that his work was strongly focused on male heroes occupying male gender roles (with some exceptions) – and even more so, that it came at the topic of heroism from a decidedly Western reductionist point of view. I don’t think either of these are controversial statements in the study of Campbell’s work.

      What I would like to see from any analysis of myth is a willingness to take the culture on its own merits, to assume that there is something the voices of that culture can tell us that is uniquely theirs to tell – not necessarily universal and not necessarily visible to the microscope of American psychology.

  27. My other comment goes to your statement about wanting to save lives, etc. when I was in graduate school – in addition to my academic studies – several friends and I ended up “studying” a so-called martial art. To make a long story short (I was at MIT 7 years getting my PhD), one thing I believe I learned in reading all those books on eastern philosophy and religion was that dying for someone – or a cause – is relatively easy for what I will call a trained person (read the Hakagura, for example), but it is the living for someone or something that is truly difficult. I saw this come up again and again in my readings, where a “common” person would try to praise a monk or someone else living a monastic life. But that person would say that it is easy to be when that is what you do 24/7, but it is the people that must live their every day lives AND engage in spirituality, for example, that are truly praiseworthy. So, to me the single mother that works two jobs while loving and caring for a child with a disability (to use a somewhat extreme – but not unrealistic example) is truly heroic. Day after unending back breaking day with no end in sight. I fear I would not have the courage to face such a challenge. To truly sacrifice your life (as in many years of life without flinching – without wavering) with no ego soothing going out in a blaze of glory for a righteous cause.

    • I think part of it is that there are different kinds of heroes. One model of the hero is someone who endures or suffers something with dignity. In that sense the mother you discuss is certainly heroic. So is someone who faces their death with dignity. They become an inspiration to all of us.

  28. >In the monomyth, the literary hero is yanked into adventure by some greater force. In the real world, there is no call to adventure. If you see a chance to do something heroic and you refuse the call, nothing will pull you forward. Being a hero is not a destiny, it’s a choice—the choice to act when no one else will.

    Here I would say the crucial question would be how to define “some greater force.”
    I understand what you’re saying.
    A “hero” doesn’t always have Gandalf on top of him/her saying “you must do this” (sometimes Gandalf IS there – but sometimes not)
    But if by “greater force” we also include a kind of desire coming from within, a recurring nagging thought that won’t let you sleep easy, etc. then I would say there does tend to be a recurring greater force.
    There is most definitely a choice – or at the very least the illusion of a choice – but there are also recurring mechanisms that can push you in that direction – these mechanisms can be coming from the outside (in the form of a person, a song, a book, a message on a billboard, etc) or from the inside (a recurring dream, thought, sensation, etc)

  29. n0ttus says:

    As someone who has read just a little Campbell, I am a little confused about where these criticisms fit in with what he has said. I thought when Campbell was talking about the monomyth, he was not speaking on the level of individual myths to an individual person but about the relationship between myth (in general) and humanity in general. When you want to talk about abstractions like that, wouldn’t one have to generalize? Also, I remember him acknowledging the differences in myths and their meanings to their societies but points out that this, in his opinion, is only one of their functions and one that he is not concerned with or primarily interested in analyzing. I also did not get the impression that Campbell was claiming that he knew more about myth than the cultures that they came from. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the guy’s necessarily on point with everything he says. It just seemed like his ideas were being criticized for something I did not see them saying but; like I said, I really have not read that much from him. Just thought I’d share.

    • Hi Nottus, thank you for replying. Did you happen to read my response to Sally Dibbs, above? I believe it addresses all the points you raised. Certainly Campbell acknowledged that there are cultural differences. Unfortunately his thesis is that these cultural differences are relatively unimportant compared to the supposed “universal” pattern he found. That thesis is what I consider damaging.

      And that thesis certainly amounts to saying that (for example) he knows better than the Egyptians what Egyptian myths mean, and that he knows better than the Greeks what Greek myth is all about. He’s essentially saying that everyone in the room is a blind man trying to describe an elephant, except for Joseph Campbell himself, who has both eyes open and can understand better than any of them.

      • n0ttus says:

        Hey Drew, I checked out the Sally Dibbs exchange. It did kind of touch on what I was saying but I think there is a slightly different focus. More than aggressive criticism of your views, I am just curious in trying to find the the cause of the difference in our understanding of Campbell. Where you and other critics seem to see the monomyth idea as a narrowing of individual myths into some super myth that Campbell has unlocked (is this a correct understanding?), I was lead to the impression that it was presented as another paradigm of interpretation–one that was intended to analyze along with the other ways–that was seeking to give insight into the relationship forged between the role of mythology with what was known at the time about the human psyche; not necessarily the only one to be used nor the only important one (which I’m guessing was lacking in other paradigms?). As for the universality of it, I thought it fit in with the psychological nature of the monomyth theory–assuming that humans throughout time have some sort of universal psychological toolkit (which could be a very hefty assumption)–and not as a cultural or literary-interpretation supremacy. It’s not like there’s any ancient Egyptians or ancient Greeks around to ask these days; it all has to be interpreted some way if it’s going to be looked at today. What would be a way to do this that doesn’t seem somewhat culturally or temporally biased? (I’m asking out of genuine curiosity, not as some sort of argumentative challenge) Since your criticism was one of the first that I ran into of him, I was trying to figure out where our differences of opinion stem from so that I can have a better and fuller understanding of the ideas at play on the topic.

        • I can’t say whether Joseph Campbell meant for his monomyth interpretation to become a dominant interpretation, or if he meant for it to be used alongside other interpretations. But I would ask two important questions before using it at all:

          1. Is it actually true?
          Not at all. The monomyth is construed broadly enough that you can read it into a lot of hero stories, but it still doesn’t fit lots of other hero stories. The myth of Achilles, for example, doesn’t fit into the monomyth framework well at all, and that may be the single most influential Western hero story there is.

          2. If it was true, would it be helpful?
          All humans do share some essential psychological characteristics, and there are certainly similarities across cultural divides. The question is whether focusing on these similarities really tells us much about myths, or if the most valuable part of myth is the unique lessons and details each individual story offers.

          I’m of the opinion that really understanding a myth requires some serious geeking out over the culture involved. That’s hard work, and the great appeal of Campbell’s work might well be that he offers us an easy way around it. He suggests we can safely set aside all the cultural detail and look only at the broad strokes. And that’s where he and I fundamentally disagree.

          To give an analogy, imagine if you heard some people talking in Sanskrit, some other people talking in Classical Greek, and some other people talking in Old Irish. You want to know what they’re all saying, but you know it will be a lot of hard work to start to understand these languages. As an alternative, someone reminds you that there’s something universal in all human languages. They suggest that you could just focus on the speakers’ body language and emotional expressions, and you’ll find meaning in what they’re saying.

          Is that person right? Yes. But does their suggestion help you understand what everyone is saying? Well, unless it is a very, very simple message, then no, it doesn’t help much at all — and myth is far from a simple message.

          You raise a really good question about how we can interpret myth without cultural bias. The question of seeing past one’s bias is a major one at the center of the fields of anthropology, comparative religion and myth. There may be no way to ever completely see a different culture the way an “insider” would see it, especially with extinct cultures like the ancient Greeks. But we can understand much, much better if we try to get as much into their mindset as possible. That could involve learning a language, or spending time in a community, or reading the accounts of people from that culture, or studying archaeological and historic evidence. The more ways you try to understand a culture on its own terms, even if you can only get 50% or 60% of the way there, the more of the implied content of their stories you will pick up on. And the more you will see how vibrantly different their perspective is from your own, even despite our universal human similarities.

          At least, that’s been my experience. I hope it’s helpful in some small way.

  30. Mars says:

    Im sorry, but please listen to more on Joseph Campbell, albeit there may have been some things you missed and that not you’re fault. He does make mention on numerous occasions of the differences between east and west spirituality at differing time periods, especially that the west goes against nature and separate of which and east with…. It doesnt stay this way for long and Campbell elaborates changes in outlook over a cultures time. But it was a strong part of his topic to source the similarities and common themes amongst these stories not the opposite. Man there are so many times in which he has stated the reimagining of some mythologies lost true meanings . He even shows differences between apostles understanding of such concepts, So before you make a page with such a attention seeking statement please do your homework. “rogue priest”

  31. Steven lobos says:

    I really respect and appreciate your critism of Joseph Campbell. You have some very strong arguments but to me , it seems that his contributions far outweigh any of that which you have argued. The hero model in mythology is obvious central to his books. However , w that said, regardless of what anyone’s individual opinion is, he simply draws wonderful and engaging parallels between cultural myths and religions.
    It’s refreshing to read and, to me( and many) it seems much needed in today’s world of confused personal ideologies and philosophies.
    And regardless of his race or cultural background, he spoke eloquently and wove a fine tapestry fusing the worlds religions and various cultures . We, as a human race, should be humbly thankful for his contribution in shedding light on the human condition throughout the ages and instilling a profound sense of oneness and spirit in the human race.
    Maybe instead of wasting your precious intellect bickering and criticizing, you can use your time more wisely and potential help to inspire and do something truly profound and awe inspiring for this world

    • Steven, I’ll do my best to reply to your main points:

      “…regardless of what anyone’s individual opinion is, he simply draws wonderful and engaging parallels between cultural myths and religions.”

      Right, but if his ideas are mistaken, then do we really want them to sound wonderful and be engaging? There’s no doubt that Campbell is fun to read, even chilling at times, but he uses that literary charisma to mis-educate readers about key ideas in the religions and myths he’s discussing. If a storyteller like Campbell is going to have his facts wrong, I’d rather if he at least wrote relatively boring books, so that less people would be taken in.

      “And regardless of his race or cultural background, he spoke eloquently and wove a fine tapestry fusing the worlds religions and various cultures.”

      Actually that’s exactly why his race and cultural background are so important. He’s on a mission to fuse the world’s religions into a single set of ideas. That is a mission that is highly unique to white Western modernity. The very fact that he’s aiming at a fused, universal meaning for world myth automatically alienates many cultural viewpoints.

      “Maybe instead of wasting your precious intellect bickering and criticizing…”

      Is there a reason Campbell fans are so consistently rude and insulting? I don’t get personal attacks like these even when I write about topics like politics and religion.

      “…you can use your time more wisely and potential help to inspire and do something truly profound and awe inspiring for this world”

      I’ll assume you haven’t read the rest of this website.

  32. i think mr priestly is just being a devil’s advocate here for the exposure. if i wanted exposure as as writer or a personality on the internet i could find something wrong with let say jesus and i would surely get attention that way even though i am not an expert on jesus.

    ps – by the way of course its just a coincidence that joseph campbell initials are jc or is it? :)

    • Leonardo, if I wanted exposure through controversy the content of this blog would be quite different. It is, of course, entirely possible that people disagree with Campbell for sincere reasons—such as those I’ve outlined in detail in the essay above. If you wish to argue against those points by, for example, presenting reasons why they’re wrong or redeeming Campbell on his other strengths, then I would find your contribution quite valuable.

  33. Jon Davis says:

    I’m joining the conversation pretty late here, it would seem. I just want to comment on Campbell’s structure as related to real life. It is essentially Jung’s identity crisis. The thing is, is that at least for me, Campbell made it possible for me to scale in either direction. I think people get caught up in the large scale hero journey, when it can just as easily go small scale.
    Your friend offers you an exotic fruit to try. You’ve never had it before.
    There is your call to adventure.
    How do you open it or peel it? Once you get it open, you crossed the first threshold. To put a piece of it in your mouth is to enter the belly of the whale.
    Dealing with unfamiliar tastes and textures are your trials and tribulations.
    After swallowing or spitting out the fruit you are a changed person. You have a new fruit you enjoy, a knowledge of a fruit you don’t like, or maybe it’s just okay, not great but whatever.
    The important part is you went on a journey of self discovery and learned a small bit about yourself. Or maybe you refused to eat the fruit in the first place. In that instance, with regard to that fruit, you are in the wasteland. You don’t know if you’ll like it or not.

    • Thanks Jon. This is one of the most common responses to discussion about real-life adventure: essentially, well can’t adventure be something small in everyday life?

      It certainly can, and the word is used many ways. But to those of us who do go out and attempt the “large scale” form of adventure, experiencing the risk and adrenaline and heightened awareness and sense of existential accomplishment that it brings, it does seem truly unlike everyday small discoveries like trying a new restaurant. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the everyday discoveries—or how meaningful they are—it’s that they aren’t just a smaller scale of the same thing, they’re a whole different type of experience.

      • Jon Davis says:

        I would have to say that they are the same thing. It’s just a matter of greater risk bringing greater reward and greater experience. If you break down the process into steps and/or phases, they will be the same for everyday adventure as they are for great adventure.
        I think there was mention also, of life not always dropping adventure into people’s laps. Sometimes you have to seek out the adventure. Furthermore, not everyone succeeds in their endeavor, but there aren’t too many myths or even contemporary stories about the people who fail to realize their ambitions. “There is always the possibility of fulfillment or fiasco.” The hero myths are about the exceptional ones.

        On a side note, I’m curious about Campbell’s ethnocentrism. I’ve read several critiques of his work involving this criticism, but I never see any examples given. My knowledge of Campbell is not very extensive, but I never noticed this trait in his work. It was easy for me to spot ethnocentrism in the work of Eliade, but he’s pretty extreme.

        • I would have to say that they are the same thing. It’s just a matter of greater risk bringing greater reward and greater experience.

          How much have you put your life at risk?

          I don’t mean that facetiously; I wouldn’t presume that you haven’t. But if you have, think back to those moments and everything you felt. Was it really just the same thing as trying something new, but bigger?

          To me, the experience has never even been comparable. There are, I feel, parts of the brain that only fire under certain circumstances. When you’re running from a train or climbing a thousand foot wall or drowning in waves bigger than your boat, your mind kicks in in ways that feel unnatural. Outside of life or death experiences, I have only felt such a widening of the senses in a few situations: fencing against a good opponent, and Vodou initiation. Under these conditions it’s as if I’m aware of a hundred things at once, and my mind is running fast enough to pay attention to them all.

          I don’t feel that way when I’m trying something new, or visiting a new part of my hometown. I feel like my attention is one one thing in front of me, one very interesting and uncertain thing, and maybe I’m a little nervous. It’s a different headspace.

          Part of it, I believe, is because these big-scale adventures are immersive experiences: they overwhelm the senses. They also force you out of your comfort zone, with no choice in the matter, whereas small adventure lets you take a break or give up and go home. You can’t give and quit once you catch a 5-foot wave with your kayak, and you cannot pause it, either.

          My experience is, perhaps, different than other peoples’. But to me there’s no comparison.

          On a side note, I’m curious about Campbell’s ethnocentrism.

          It starts at the top. The very idea that all myths tell the same basic stories, universally, is itself a modern Western idea. Note that many individual cultures interpret their myths as presenting a unique vantage point, and anthropologists tend to agree to one extent or another. It might be that a wanderer rationing water in the deserts of Africa has some insights that don’t directly template to a college student wishing he had money in London. Contemporary anthropology tends to (attempt to) look at a culture in its own right and listen to its stories and beliefs as interpreted by natives, rather than re-interpreting them to fit a Western audience.

          I’m not a professional anthropologist though. That’s just my training from my college days in the Ethnic Studies department, which is about 8 years out of date now.

          • Jon Davis says:

            The times that my life has been in danger, I’ve felt anxious and hyper aware. I’ve felt a similar feeling rescuing someone from a riptide at the beach, but also when performing public speaking.
            I’ve felt a sense of hesitation and anxiety about starting off on foot, to take a 2 or 3 mile walk, and I felt a much stronger version of that sensation when starting off on the Appalachian trail.
            I feel that the experiences do scale, but for similar situations. I’m not saying that trying a new kind of fruit will produce the same experience as having a fencing match but your level of adrenaline may get up to a similar place as the sword fight if you’re being offered $1000 to eat a cockroach, or drop your adrenaline level to that of trying a new fruit if you are fencing an opponent that you completely outclass.
            The definition of adventure is an exciting or unusual, typically hazardous experience. Which does not discount a non-hazardous adventure. Even his oft-quoted advice of follow your bliss, is to do that thing you always wanted to but were too afraid to attempt. It is essentially your own personal hero journey; your attempt to align your current self with the self you want to be.

            On the ethnocentrism, I guess I never understood Campbell to say that all myths told basically the same story. I understood it as all hero myths tend to follow a similar structure and that many of these myths have close parallels in many cultures. It seemed to me, more like an argument for Jung’s collective unconscious, based on the idea that all humans have similar needs and desires, which tend to manifest themselves in similar fashions which tend to have similar types of obstacles in front of them. More like a work on the psychology of storytelling.

            • Jon, you offer excellent examples of what might constitute a “small” adventure. I think that public speaking or being offered high stakes to eat/drink something disgusting are excellent examples. I think it’s when relatively mundane experienced, like trying a new (non-disgusting) food (with low stakes) that I cringe a bit. If it’s forcing someone out of their comfort zone then I suspect it comes much closer to “adventure” the way it’s experienced on large-scale undertakings. That’s an excellent point.

              I personally still don’t see it as heroic (on any scale) just because it is adventurous (on any scale), and I think a personal journey is only heroic if it clearly benefits others, at some personal sacrifice or risk. Most “follow your bliss” personal journeys primarily only benefit the person undertaking them. However I do think adventures (on any scale) are excellent training for being prepared to one day act heroically if needed.

              • Jon Davis says:

                There is a way to make any mundane event into something unfamiliar or challenging, It just depends on circumstances and the way you approach it.
                As for the heroism, to “follow your bliss” can and does benefit others. If you are happy in your work, then you work harder and/or better, which is likely in your own interest, but others will benefit from your work. There is an old saying, something along the lines of “you can’t change the world, you can only change yourself.” If you can change yourself for the better, then you make yourself an example that others could follow.
                You sacrifice your time and effort, and you benefit from it, but so do other people. You are not supposed to get caught up in the story of the hero, but instead understand the metaphor. The hero is an ideal, something people are supposed to strive to emulate. The metaphor is the trials and tribulations of life, made into an epic tale. If you do what feels right to you and suffer the consequences of your choices you can create something worthwhile out of your life, and that something is likely to be of importance to someone, if you had any success in life at all.

                • About heroism: I define heroism as “taking risks to help others, with no personal stake in it.” I think the taking risk part is what separates it from, say, doing charity work (which is admirable and excellent, but not usually what we call heroic). The “no personal stake in it” rules out being paid to take risks for others; it’s something you’re doing selflessly. This is why I don’t believe *all* firefighters or *all* soldiers are heroes, though some who go above and beyond certainly are.

                  In the example of “following your bliss” you are taking no clear risk and you have a strong personal stake in it. Both factors mean it does not fit with heroism as I see it.

                  I understand that “heroism” is a highly subjective term and others may define it differently. I tend to use it in a way that really requires someone to take extraordinary action before they are a hero. That seems to be the majority consensus among scholars of heroism, including Mike Dilbeck, Ari Kohen, Zeno Franco and Phil Zimbardo. But it is definitely not the popular consensus among the general public, who count sports heroes and TV celebrities as heroes. The word just means different things to different people. I can only speak for my own definition.

                  • Jon Davis says:

                    I understand the way you use the term hero but I think it focuses on large scale heroes, in the same way you described adventure.
                    Perhaps I just see everything as scalable.
                    What are your thoughts on the hero myth as metaphor? I’m also still curious on your take of his work as a sort of psychology of storytelling, whether he intended it to be or not.
                    I hope I’m not a bother. As you may have guessed, I’m a fan of Campbell’s work, but I began to wonder if I was taking away something a bit different from his work than most after reading some criticisms of it. You are the first source I was able to find with specific criticisms though, as opposed to vague mentions of nondescript issues I had found in some other places. I find it all the better because I’m actually able to discuss it with you.
                    I intend to delve a little deeper into Campbell’s work soon, so I’m trying to be cognizant of its shortcomings.

                    • I think it’s one thing to view adventure as scalable, where one’s subjective experience matters a whole lot more than some definition because what’s exciting and challenging to one person may not be to another.

                      I think it’s a very different thing to view heroism as completely scalable (though there certainly are a range of heroes) because the whole essence of the word hangs on how much you help or inspire others. Feeling like a hero doesn’t make you a hero; being seen as a hero by others very likely does.

                      What are your thoughts on the hero myth as metaphor?

                      I think it encourages people to re-interpret their own existing life as already heroic, rather than making the substantial changes and risks that would be necessary to truly leap toward something heroic.

                      Please understand I don’t think that is Campbell’s intention. But I think that’s an inherent downfall of the approach.

                      I’m not bothered by this conversation at all, I actually really appreciate it.

                    • Jon Davis says:

                      Sorry for the late response, it’s been a busy weekend.
                      I’m glad you appreciate the discussion, I do as well.
                      I think the range of available heroic activites is too great to have such a limited definition.
                      What if in performing a very risky procedure to save many, you also save yourself?, what if the procedure was entirely self-motivated, with saving others only a byproduct of saving yourself?
                      What about civil-rights heroes? What if in getting legislation passed to curtail oppression of an under-represented group doesn’t require any danger to the person getting it done? Does that make their efforts less heroic? What if the person is a member of that under-represented group? does that make them less heroic since they benefit from their own actions?
                      These are just a couple examples, but I feel they illustrate my point.
                      I feel I should clarify that “seeing everything as scalable” was probably a poor choice of words to describe seeing everything on a spectrum. Cases of black and/or white are essentially non-existent… Everything is shades of gray.

                      Reinterpreting a “non-heroic” life into a “heroic” life seems difficult to do to me. If there is no striving or sacrifice of some kind in order to achieve a goal or better oneself in some way, then the person is hardly following the model.
                      I would also argue that similar flaws can be found in all models, myths and religions. I think that a flaw of Christianity is that it often encourages a lack of responsibility in those who do not pay enough attention to the details of the Bible.

                      I study martial arts for exercise and fun, and in class we tell people that “You get out of it what you put into it.” If you don’t put the effort and time into learning a skill, then you shouldn’t be surprised when you are not very good at that skill. I feel it is the same in regards to self-contemplation, self-discipline, and heroism. If you don’t practice small acts of… I guess I’ll call it “demi-heroism”, throughout your life when the opportunities arise, then how could you ever be prepared to attempt an act of “actual heroism”? Through this process, you condition yourself into a “hero” even if you never have the opportunity to demonstrate it.
                      There is quite a bit of neuroscience that points towards the idea that by practicing certain types of actions and behaviors, you are actually changing the structure of your brain to reinforce those types of actions and behaviors. I can probably link you to a few papers if you are unfamiliar with the research, alternately, searching for the term “Neuroplasticity” should pull up some interesting information.
                      From semantics to neuroscience… this is fun. :)

                    • Jon, thanks again for an excellent discussion. Sorry for the slow reply.

                      Risk does not always mean physical risk. Civil rights heroes, whistleblowers, and many other types of heroes face very real risk–even while no one is threatening their bodies (although many civil rights heroes did face physical harm). All of this is included under the definition I offered.

                      And many heroes save themselves as well as others — it’s that instinct to not only save oneself, but to save others too, that adds a selfless element and makes it heroic.

                      I think you would really enjoy reading the work of Dr. Philip Zimbardo and Dr. Zeno Franco on heroism, as well as watching the “Hero Report” podcast run by Matt Langdon and Dr. Ari Kohen.

                    • Jon Davis says:

                      I suppose I must have misunderstood. It seemed to me as though you were arguing for physical danger as a necessary element of heroism. I was trying to make the point that emotional or social danger could be just as defining as physical. I guess we are in agreement there.
                      I will look up these authors and get back to you about it.
                      Though I should mention that it probably won’t be for a little while. I’m in the middle of my final semester of undergrad, and as such, times are very hectic. I graduate in the middle of May and I look forward to catching up on some reading.

                    • That’s fair Jon.

                      And no, just for the record, “risk” doesn’t mean only physical risk. Whistle blowers are a great example of someone who risks their career, but not (usually) physical harm, to do something heroic.

  34. Ccolin says:

    Is it possible that you’ve focused a bit too narrowly, on a vast subject? Your article appears to assume that Campbell primary attempt was to homogenize mythology. If that is the case, I wholeheartedly disagree with that assumption. Long before I read any of Campbell’s works, I read a wide (but by no means complete) cross-section of the many religious, philosophical and mythological works in print today. Very early on I began to see commonalities in the works which led me to the idea that, whereas there existed firm distinctions, these distinctions were primarily cultural, and if one were to lift the veil of culture, one would see that in each and every one of these works there exists a profound sense of the human experience, transcending any and all ideas of culture. This is not to debase the idea of the importance of culture, but simply to say that the human experience is one which all humans experience. We are not SO different, and neither are our heroes.

    • I think I was clear in calling out Campbell’s strengths. Homogenizng mythology isn’t all that he did. But it was an essential part of his approach, and underlies the way he presents myths in much of his writing. Just because universalism wasn’t his only idea doesn’t mean that it gets a free pass.

      There is definitely a shared human experience in myth, but when we treat that as the central or most important lesson of myth we reduce a huge chunk of human experience—culture, language, context, social structure—to mere ornamentation.

      • Ccolin says:

        “There is definitely a shared human experience in myth, but when we treat that as the central or most important lesson of myth we reduce a huge chunk of human experience—culture, language, context, social structure—to mere ornamentation.”

        This is the part of your assessment of Campbell’s works that I disagree with most. I do not believe that Campbell was treating the universal aspects of mythology as “the central or most important” component of mythology at all. I do believe that Campbell’s work toward solidifying the idea that the human experience is a shared experience, through his work on the “monomyth,” is an important contribution to humanity’s understanding of our shared origins.

        Having reread your article, I notice that another of your chief complaints against Campbell’s works seems to be more against his appreciators, more than against Campbell himself. More than once, you lay responsibilty at his feet for some others’ unquestioning support of his theories, then use that accusation to invalidate his work. To borrow an old phrase: Isn’t this a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath-water? maybe, instead, you can find a way to acknowledge Campbell’s contributions, while cautioning those interested in his works to approach them in a manner cionsistent with critical thinking, without a dishearteningly wholesale denunciation of his works in general.

        • “maybe, instead, you can find a way to acknowledge Campbell’s contributions, while cautioning those interested in his works to approach them in a manner cionsistent with critical thinking, without a dishearteningly wholesale denunciation of his works in general”

          Right. That’s exactly what I did in this article.

          As I wrote:

          I want to point out that I don’t hate Campbell. His personal philosophy was that people should pursue their passions. I’m down with that. It’s good stuff.

          Once a month or so someone who loves Campbell finds this article for the first time, and seems to think that if I disagree with one particular aspect of his work—a central aspect—then I must have totally misunderstood everything he wrote. Quite the contrary; he was a great writer, a great person and had a great philosophy.

          But I find it hard to believe that 60 years later anyone would argue that his view of comparative myth is definitive. We’ve come a long way since then—a long way in the field of anthropology (which he was not trained in) and a long way as a human species, with greater appreciation for pluralism and cultural difference. The whole reductionist thing might only be a single facet of Campbell’s work… but it’s a facet which he returns to again and again, and which is a product of highly American, highly ethnocentric thinking. It’s great the the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible have something in common; but to understand the Gita I’d much rather hear what Hindus say about it, than focus on the parts that I understand intrinsically as a Catholic-raised white American.

          If that line of reasoning doesn’t make sense to you, then I’m at a loss as to how to better explain my position; sometimes I feel like the universalist versus culturalist approaches to myth are as opposite and entrenched as Republican versus Democrat.

          Campbell wrote for a popular audience and did a great job of it. When people discover his works it often kindles a lifelong love of myth, which means he did good. But hopefully, at least some of the people who discover that lifelong love will go on to read more sensitive, definitive, and culturally rooted works by more recent authors. Otherwise, they’re really just redefining all the mythic works they read in American terms. Which is the opposite of studying world myth.

  35. One reason why Campbell’s hero doesn’t match your idea of heroism is that Campbell was describing stages of a mystical or shamanic experience in which the hero journeys into an alternate spiritual reality. He was not describing something that can happen to everyone in their lifetime, much less the stages of each and every person’s lifetime. The idea that “everyone can be the hero in everyday life” is just a popular misinterpretation of his work, influenced by the “follow your bliss” quote which he regretted ever saying. (He said it should have been “follow your blisters.”) Unfortunately, the foundation that bears his name is guilty of helping to perpetuate this distortion.

    Campbell’s hero left physical reality behind him (more like Carlos Castaneda than Che Guevara), learned something radical about the true nature of reality, and returned home with the news. If the story appears to describe physical actions taking place in the ordinary world, rather than a spiritual out-of-body type of journey, that’s because it is a myth.

    To clarify: whether or not all the world’s myths are really the same myth, pointing toward Eastern-style mystical experience, is not my point. My point is that ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’ does not say “follow these steps to be a hero in your own life”.

    • Jon davis says:

      @persephonia – Actually that’s exactly what Campbell was saying. Campbell wants you to find the hero within yourself, it’s just degrees of scale as to how “heroic” you are. It’s not necessarily about conquering a terrible foe of the lands, but about conquering your own personal fears and limitations. Over and over Campbell talks about the metaphor of the myth. That’s what he’s after in his books, is the metaphor you can glean from myths and apply to your own life.

      I don’t think Campbell was interested in studying myths for anthropological purposes, so much as philosophical ones.

      @Andre’ – This will probably sound terrible, but culture is ornamentation when you really get down to it; it’s just a different filter on the human experience, which is just a filter on the experience of being an animal on the planet Earth. All humans need food, shelter and water, most humans want companionship, love, and help with the tasks of living. How specific groups of people interact and go about getting the things they need and want, is just ornamentation. You can explore other cultures to gain new perspectives on your own culture or way of life, but it’s just another way to achieve the same end of surviving and being as happy as you can be. That being said, some cultures are more destructive than others.

      • “This will probably sound terrible, but culture is ornamentation when you really get down to it”

        Then we deeply disagree. Culture teaches us how to go about fulfilling our shared, universal basic needs; it teaches us what to consider right and wrong, whom to revere and why, what limits to accept on our own agency. Culture tells us what is beautiful, what is true and false, what to consider justice or injustice. Culture is thoroughly entwined with language, which shapes the very concepts we have about the world around us and how to interact with it.

        There is perhaps no force on Earth that differentiates humans more than culture. XKCD author Randall Munroe once wrote, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can make me think I deserved it.” Those words are dependent on culture and everything we believe about ourselves and each other is dependent on those words.

        • Jon Davis says:

          I understand how culture functions in those capacities, but I do not understand how that isn’t ornamentation.
          In every culture, the culture serves the same function. It provides the standards by which people interact. If the standards change, the culture changes. This happens on a regular basis, but the function of the culture remains the same.

          • I guess when two groups of people believe different things, want different things, value different things, define “truth” differently, and understand justice differently, to me that seems like a substantial difference. Saying that the function of culture remains the same across the board is a little bit misleading… that’s like saying the function of DNA is the same in both gorillas and starfish. It’s a true statement, but the difference between those two species is vast.

            If two peoples don’t even value the same things or understand the world around them in the same way, it becomes incredibly difficult to communicate. The words can be translated but the experiences behind them remain alien. It’s this kind of difference that can lead to horrific war or, with enough patience and understanding, some of the most beautiful acts of human history. It doesn’t seem like an insignificant thing.

            • Jon davis says:

              “ANDRÉ SÓLO says:
              I guess when two groups of people believe different things, want different things, value different things, define “truth” differently, and understand justice differently, to me that seems like a substantial difference. Saying that the function of culture remains the same across the board is a little bit misleading… that’s like saying the function of DNA is the same in both gorillas and starfish. It’s a true statement, but the difference between those two species is vast.

              If two peoples don’t even value the same things or understand the world around them in the same way, it becomes incredibly difficult to communicate. The words can be translated but the experiences behind them remain alien. It’s this kind of difference that can lead to horrific war or, with enough patience and understanding, some of the most beautiful acts of human history. It doesn’t seem like an insignificant thing.”

              I accept this description. Thank you.

              • And thank you for an excellent discussion. I want to emphasize, too, that I do believe what you’re saying about us all having a common shared experience—notwithstanding my comments above.

                • Jon davis says:

                  The trouble I think is in reconciling the two concepts; finding the right language to describe that murky gray area where they meet. There is a shared human experience, but there are so many variables that can have such a profound impact on that experience. It’s like trying to combine Einsteins Special Theory of Relativity with quantum mechanics. They both are yet to be disproven, so they both approximate the truth in as much as can be in the sciences, yet they are completely in opposition to one another.

                  I still haven’t had a chance to read those blogs you recommended to me, and to be honest I tried to stay out this conversation when I got notification of new comments, but sometimes I just can’t resist. I’m back to school work again. Next Tuesday I have a 30 minute presentation to give with an associated paper to turn in, and then I have nothing in particular to do for school until I graduate on May 11th.

    • Hi Persephonoia,

      “The idea that “everyone can be the hero in everyday life” is just a popular misinterpretation of his work, influenced by the “follow your bliss” quote which he regretted ever saying. (He said it should have been “follow your blisters.”) Unfortunately, the foundation that bears his name is guilty of helping to perpetuate this distortion.”

      Can you offer more detail? Perhaps with links?

      • Colin says:

        I said we all have a shared human experience, which Campbell sought to expose with his theory of the “Monomyth.” André denounces this idea as the homogenization of mythology.

    • As for the J.C. Foundation, my opinion of them was formed primarily from watching the documentary film titled Mythic Journeys. In his books, Campbell tried to push his analysis toward ultimate mysteries of existence, as in the above quotes. The people in that film, however, just spouted a bunch of shallow stuff like how we are all heroes because we all face “dragons” in our lives that we have to conquer. There was none of the intensity or depth of Campbell’s thought represented in that film. It was dumbed way down, in my opinion.

      Again, if you reject the idea that all the world’s myths point back toward one universal truth, in particular an Eastern mystical “truth”, I’m not arguing against that. I’m just saying that “the Joseph Campbell cultural phenomenon” is not necessarily the same as what the man himself was really trying to say. I tried to convey that with the above excerpts, which are intensely mystical and not about daily life at all.

      • That makes sense. I do see the distinction you’re drawing between vague “we all face dragons” type cheerleading and a more intense inner quest for great meaning. I definitely respect and admire that quest of Campbell’s and his emphasis on it. I even think it’s a decent way to approach myth, if one’s going to universalize myth. I think the reason it rankles me so much is because in Campbell’s writing (to some extent) and in how others interpret his writing (to a much greater extent) this quest for inner truth is depicted as heroic, whereas I prefer if my heroes do actual heroic things.

        I would put Campbell’s intense seeking more in the realm of the “sage,” if we’re going to grab iconic mythic figures, and paint the hero more as one who takes outer action for the sake of others.

        • This is boiling down to mere semantics. Campbell called inward meditation “heroic” because he believed that heroic mythology was a figurative or symbolic representation of inward meditation. You do not like appreciate this use of the word ‘heroic’ because you want heroic to mean ‘helping others’. If the myths in question had not been hero myths, and the main character in those myths were not called ‘the hero’, then Campbell would have used a different word, and then you’d have no problem with him! So you have a different use for the word heroic. I’m not sure that’s even worth a blog post. Nice chatting with you anyway.

  36. I take it these quotes are meant to prove your first claim, that “The idea that ‘everyone can be the hero in everyday life’ is just a popular misinterpretation of his work.”

    But I don’t see them proving that at all; most of them simply explain what he thinks is the universal message of myth, and almost none of them indicate how one should go about implementing that message in real life.

    In the few places where these quotes do touch on implementation, they seem to directly contradict your claim and imply that one can, indeed, live mythically within the confines of everyday life:

    “Myths are analogies meant to lead the mind beyond the physical, especially when coupled with ritual. The gods are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind to the ineffable.”


    “The goal of myth is [accomplished by] effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.”

    Campbell says directly that mythic heroism is achieved through a shift in consciousness, without any reference to extraordinary action like a physical ordeal or risking one’s life.

    There’s a reason that self-help style heroism almost always draws on Campbell, and it’s because his “heroism” has a lot more to do with figuring some stuff out in your head than it does with risking yourself to help others.

  37. Others above, may have adressed this, Campbell’s message is clear, that everyone is a hero in their Journey in life, the experience of birth, pain and mystery is personal and universal. Just when you are fully awake you begin to lose everything, sans teeth, eyes, hearing taste then life itself as Shakespeare noted. Heros every one!

    I think your reading of Campbell may be narrow. While I have many problems with him, he does reveal much more than he obscures.

    • Campbell’s message is clear, that everyone is a hero in their Journey in life, the experience of birth, pain and mystery is personal and universal

      Yes, that message is quite clear; I just disagree with it. Those experiences are universal but how does that make them heroic?

      The thing about heroism is that when we see clear examples of it, it seems extraordinary to us. When a person risks their life to save a stranger or sacrifices their career to stop a company from doing something wrong, we don’t look at them and say, “Welcome to the club. I’ve been through pain in life too. I was born just like you. We’re both heroes!” We look at them and ask questions about ourselves: would I be brave enough to do that? What does it take to be that strong?

      When we see heroism we see something that stands outside of the normal, universal human reactions to pain. In fact hero research shows that there is a strong human instinct not to be the first to stand up when something is wrong. We all want to keep our heads down. There are specific factors that lead some individuals to break that silence and act when no one else will. We can practice those things and help prepare ourselves to be heroes – but we don’t come as heroes “out of the box.”

      Campbell didn’t have access to that research in his day. It hadn’t been done yet. He had very good intentions in his work. But that doesn’t change how inaccurate it is.

  38. We have to read the “Power of Myth” for our summer reading assignment in school.
    It’s this book based on a series of interviews between JC and Bill Moyers. Reading this book, i feel like JC claims a lot of things, but doesn’t explain them. For example:

    But mythology suggests that behind that duality there is a singularity.” -JC

    He says this, but gives NO examples from real myths. That really angers me. He talks about myths a lot, how they change us. How they’re universal and bring a society together. How they help us in the journey inwards. However, he never brings up a real myth, like an actual story. He just goes on talking about the effects of mythology.

    Another reason why i despise JC is because sometimes, he’s just being nonsense. In this one part, he spoke about the mythological signs in the dollar bill. So on the back, there is the pyramid, and at the base, it says “1776.” Obviously, this is the year the US became independent. So that’s obvious, it makes sense why it’s there. But then he goes on and says this:

    “Then, when you add one and seven and seven and six, you get twenty-one, which is the age of reason, is it not?”

    To me, this is just a bunch of balogna, a mere coincidence. That’s like someone saying this:

    “My name is Andrew Michael. Oh no! I have 13 letters in my name! My life is going to be filled with unluckiness and misfortune!”

    • Jon Davis says:

      Joseph Campbell describes a few myths in that interview.
      Joseph Campbell is less of an anthropologist and more of a philosopher
      He also has tons of books written before that interview. The interview references a lot of his earlier works.

    • ryang2723 says:

      I’ve read every Campbell book and listed to his lectures and interviews several times and never has he mentioned a conspiracy like the one on the dollar bill you reference above. I think you have your mythologists confused.

  39. Night Owl says:

    Wait minute… Chez Guevara is a hero ? A man who worshipped Stalin and wanted to emulate his form of government ? A man who opposed freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, protest, or any other of the rights that we believe in ? A man who said Cuba was “a people ready to sacrifice itself to nuclear arms, that its ashes might serve as a basis for new societies.” ? A man who was a shameless adulterer who abandoned two wives and many children, some legitimate, others not ?

    A coward, and a mass murderer is a hero ?

    Not my idea of a hero. I’ll stick with Campbell, who spoke of the universal IDEA and STRUCTURE of myth, despite it’s many different forms. You clearly have not read his work with any real understanding.

    • Byron, I read the first two paragraphs of your comment. I don’t allow rude or abusive commenters, and it has been deleted and you have been blocked. I’m particularly tired of ad hominem attacks from Campbell supporters. If you’d like to see my response to your poorly chosen points, and any other points you may have made, please see my replies to the many comments from other Campbell supporters above this.

  40. jim gloor says:

    I never, I mean never respond to to this type of trryp’.. Campbell was a great mentor for me in my formative years. Now with 35 yrs of general medical practice under my belt I still reference his KNOWLEDGE. I do not know what your problem/agenda is but this was a great person, with a new perspective on our human condition. Thanks for bringing up one of my favorite social philosophers.

    • Jim, I’m sad that a student of Joseph Campbell, whose wisdom and philosophy I respect, cannot respond civilly to basic criticism of his views on myth. Those views were a product of his time and the fields of anthropology and comparative religion have come a long way since then. Did you really think that your mentor never made a single mistake in any of his thousands of pages of writing?

  41. I agree. Campbells monomyth have been misunderstood. I find the joe campbell foundation to be doing everything except expressing campbells most important ideas. There is a need for commercial spreading but it falls into tje new age category. I find this man’s work to be inspiring but not by reading what has been publushied after his death. I feel he would disapprove how his ideas have been conveyed by those who.think underatand his philosophy. Still this article is against peoples views on campbell and not campbell. Call your article ‘why i dony like what people think about joe campbell’

    • That’s a fair point, Ouvenp. I think it’s common to use a scholar’s name as a stand-in for referring to their theories writ large, however. For example, “I’m not a big fan of Marx.”

  42. Doug says:


    I hope I am not late to the conversation. I would like to share my own insights and hear your replies. I like to talk in points because it helps me better control length and digression.


    1. First I would advise you to distance your thinking away from the processes that generate the usage of terms like “Champbell Supporter.” If you take note of the case where someone agrees and disagrees with Champbell in similar proportions, it would be inaccurate and prejudice to call the person a “Champbell Supporter.” Let the term be used by those who are self-proclaimed supporters and do not assign it to someone because he/she shows support for a large number of Champbell’s ideals.

    2. Second, I do not think that there is always a minimum requirement of research before disagreeing with a philosophy. Some ideas might safely be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, I will not attempt to challenge the merit of your opinion based on your familiarity with all of the related content. However, based on the descriptions in your article alone, I believe you are not aware of true concepts expressed, many of them crowded out by the details.

    3. It is clear to me that there are three items that point your conclusions in the wrong direction. The FIRST is summed up in your section title “Being an Actual Hero.” The use of Hero in the context of Champbell’s work is a misnomer. Although Champbell’s usage of Hero has similar qualities with the dictionary definition, it is all together a different word and concept. Treat the word Hero as a jargon word and do not apply the dictionary definition. To do otherwise hijacks its true meaning. One should give leeway with the usage of terminology, meaning that a strictly literal usage should not be enforced. This is because some of the concepts cannot be articulated because they are experienced based. An experience based concept can only be vaguely communicated to a subject with a similar psychological experience. The SECOND item is your literal interpretation of Hero deeds. In theory the Hero’s journey could be transversed while sitting in a chair. The Hero’s journey is not directly related to physical occurrences. The THIRD issue is very hard to explain. So I will give an example, but this of course is terrible, because an example is a terrible way to explain concepts. The concept is complex and the example is simple. You will certainly think that the example is wrong. But this is because I am comparing the simple with the complex. Such is the flaw in using the simple to explain the complex. But the complex is more difficult to explain. Though the example is very good, it will not seem so. Example: If someone proposes the question, “Are steak and potatoes the same thing as parmesan chicken pasta?” Any argument can be made for and against the question. The differences are obvious. But if I introduce the concept of carbohydrates and protein and say these are exactly the same, then one should get my meaning and look at the dishes in a new light.

    4. Champbell attempts to illustrate how mythology is a man-made tool to facilitate psychological transformation, be it warrior to husband, boy to man, girl to woman, the here and now – to the eternal. To look at the mythological material in a new light as per the orientation presented by Champbell a person would have to be well versed in the outlook of the psychological system speculated by Carl Jung. And even then a person without dominant “iNtuitive” and “Perceiving” cognitive functions (as per MBTI) will have a very hard time reconciling the details from the overarching and abstract larger picture. I would not attempt to teach through the intermediate level of a hard science via an article posting any more than I would explain my weak understanding of this content. Let me just advise that there is more to the content than it seems. Its significance is not without reason.

    5. Lastly I want to point out your usage of rhetoric. You make the statement, “Oh yeah, Hollywood likes him.” The usage of “Hollywood” is often a pejorative as it is here. If I state for illustration, “Murders very much like his work,” it is clear this statement reveals nothing about the character of the subject. Your statement reveals only that you do not approve of Hollywood or Champbell. You provide no basis for the reasoning that anyone not approving of Hollywood should likewise not approve of Champbell. This is bad rhetoric, but it is not uncommon.

  43. ryang2723 says:

    I think the author here has a profound misunderstanding of the teachings of Joseph Campbell and/or has not read enough of his work or listed to his lectures to gain the necessary insight.

  44. Meeemeeme says:

    To me heroism is sacrificing yourself, for the life of another. Its usually painful and the hero is compelled to act and doesnt necessarily want to but knows he/she must.

  45. It’s all relative, right? A small victory at the office can often seem like one of the twelve labors of Hercules. Admittedly, it takes a shitload more of courage to defeat the Nemean Lion, but, again, it’s all relative to one’s experience. But, as you’re asserting, the desk-jockey isn’t a real hero: he’s not battling the devil, bringing fire to humanity or sacrificing himself for the greater good. However, myths are often comprised with allegorical elements (duh, I know). What the myth is describing, using a metaphorical lens, is only as good as it helps the reader in their own life. So if it’s a little hurdle someone jumps, the story did it’s job.

    Furthermore, the metaphorical value of myths can be applied to the aforementioned desk-jokey. For example, by going to work everyday he’s perhaps sacrificing his own life in order to feed his family. It’s easy to be cynical, but that’s pretty badass if the cubicle slave is conscious of his heroic deed. And isn’t that one point of myths, to inspire? To make the reader understand they can act heroically in any situation? Do they not continue to resonate with readers because they offer something of value, even to 9-5ers?

    Myths take life to the extreme and the fantastic, so of course no one is literally going to cut off the head of a Hydra. If that’s disappointing, I am so sorry. I completely understand if that’s depressing or somehow paints Campbell as a phony. But myths are just entertaining bullshit if you’re a literalist. Maybe just adjust how you read them, and see how the amazing circumstances they depict can be corralled into your personal context.

    • I’m definitely not a literalist, and agree that myth must be taken as metaphor. We agree on that.

      Where we seem to disagree is on two things:

      1) Heroism is not “all relative.” If you don’t take a real risk to help a person or a cause, you’re not a hero. That risk can be in terms of your safety, your social standing, or your finances, but it has to be a real risk. The “desk jockey” who risks his job to report a supervisor who is breaking the law is, in fact, a hero.

      2) While myths are metaphorical, myth is not the only place where heroism takes place. As an example, a traffic cop in Jerusalem recently ran toward the sound of gunfire and used his own body to shield unarmed worshipers in a synagogue from a shooter. He saved several lives and lost his own. That is a hero, and there is no question that his heroism is literal rather than figurative. No hydras or chimeras are involved. My suggestion, then, is that by focusing only on myth, Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on heroism are deeply lacking. They lack the literal, human dimension of people accepting the chance of death in order to help other people. It is easy for all of us to imagine ourselves being the heroes in the myths Campbell studies, and that is a useful practice, but that is not living the heroic live. Not on its own.

      I hope this helps clarify.

      • Living-Is-Heroic says:

        1) You might claim that heroism is not relative. But you can’t claim that it isn’t subjective. Saving a little girl’s teddybear from death by spin cycle might make me a hero in her eyes. Certainly, some people think that highjacking planes full of innocent people and crashing them into buildings is heroic. Perhaps if said people read some Campbell, things would be different.

        2) I don’t think anyone is saying that reading Campbell will make you heroic (even if you DID misconstrue his intent), any more than anyone would claim that simply reading the bible will make you pious. That’s as ridiculous as claiming that looking at an orange will turn you orange.

        • Actually, LIH, a lot of people say that reading Campbell will make you heroic. His hero’s journey schema is used as the basis of numerous heroism programs especially those used with both kids and college students to help develop more real-world programs. If you’re saying that’s a misuse of Campbell’s work then we are in agreement.

  46. Linda says:

    Joseph Campbell was trying to explain what we all share as humans, beyond our cultural conditioning, and teach us the meaning of being fully human.
    No human being can completely immerse himself in every culture and grasp each one, but JC learned about them and respect both their similarities and differences. He actually advises us to dig deeper into our own religious background because we are able to better understand it, yet to go deep enough to the universal. As for differences, he describes how the serpent in some religions is a god, but in ours, it’s demonized, as well as how Islam and Christianity are the only militant religions, yet there is nothing militant about Jesus. Frankly, many people don’t understand their own religion. Islam is not the same as the Taliban, and Christianity is not the same teaching as residential school. Thank God for Joseph Campbell‘s gifts and hard work, in bringing clarity to all religion.
    JC was not just an intellect who lived his life in books and theory, nor in a monastery, he was an athlete, and a traveller, who had relationships, and who understood art, politics, and spirituality. Who better to bring us such vast knowledge as he.
    If the only definition of hero is someone who saves lives, that’s a very limited
    Yes, ordinary people are hero’s when they make decisions from the right place. If you save someone’s life, but are an alcoholic father who ignores his children and cheat’s on his wife, sure, you’re a hero, but only to a certain degree. If you save someone’s life, but become a lawyer instead of “Michelangelo” because your parents and friends approve, sure you’re a hero, but the world is deprived of the other things it wants from you, unless your calling is to be a paramedic.
    Joseph Campbell describes how he sees many ordinary people spontaneously and without thought, saving other’s lives without any consideration of their own safety, and how in these moments, our separation is suspended and evidence or our oneness is revealed. He taught that the highest morality is compassion. That’s where true heroism comes from.
    JC talks about how the first 3 chakras represent our animal nature: survival, procreation and power, and the top 3 chakras are the spiritual reflection of these qualities, and that the heart is our humanity; the bridge between the physical and spiritual. Without that, our lives become reduced and turn into a wasteland. By teaching us how to keep in touch with our humanity, he saves humanity and that is his heroism.

  47. Linda says:

    I’d like to make a correction, although JC tells us to dig deeper into our own religious background, he says a lot more that is too much to mention here, but, he does in fact say some of the things of the things that you have mentioned above, and whether or not one agrees, this is how he explains it:
    … A myth is the dynamic of life. and the myth you may be respectfully worshiping on Sunday may not be the one that’s really working in your heart
    Tom: How do you unite those two dynamics?
    Joseph: By placing the emphasis on your own inward dynamic and then filtering out of the inheritance of traditions those aspects that support you in your own inward life. This means not being tied to this, that, or another tradition,
    By getting to know your own impulse system and its images and the things you really are living for, and then to get support for – you might say – universalizing and grounding this personal mythology, you can find support in the other mythologies of mankind.
    Tom: What are the purposes of myth?
    Joseph: There are four of them. One’s mystical. One’s cosmological: the whole universe as we now understand it becomes, as it were, a revelation of the mystery dimension. The third is sociological, taking care of the society that exists. Finally, there’s the pedagogical one of guiding an individual through the inevitables of a lifetime. But even that’s become impossible because we don’t know what the inevitables of a lifetime are any more. All you can learn is what your own inward life is and try to stay loyal to that….we should see the total, global, society as the community of interest.
    Tom: I thought myths were always tied to a specific group or place.
    Joseph: That’s right. But when you can fly from New York to Tokyo in a day, you can no longer say that’s an incredible span of consciousness to include as one unit. The total globe is the society…..a harmonization of our lives with the order of nature is what’s required.

  48. Thanks for an enlightening post! I first discovered Campbell and The Hero’s Journey during the student teaching phase of my education degree. I was enamored and still am.

    I, too, struggled with Campbell’s structure, even though I have seen it repeated in many films and stories. I do believe that we experience a call – mine was to get off antidepressant medication back in 2010.

    In writing my first nonfiction piece about my experience, I struggled with trying to fit what happened to me into Campbell’s model. It just didn’t fit. My problem is that I had no real mentors on my journey. I banged my head for a while until finally I asked myself, “Is there a Heroine’s Journey?” I did some research and discovered that there is. Maureen Murdock has written a book of the same name. The Heroine’s Journey is what I experienced. I believe that this Journey is about reconnecting with our sacred feminine.

    For many women, we identified with the masculine world of production, work, getting things done, and achievement, and in the process, we detached from our soul selves. We reached every goal on the physical plane that we intended and discover that we are not happy, that we are unfulfilled, and we want more meaning out of life. This is the point at which we deepen our spirituality and choose to BE rather than to just DO. We choose to become more loving, more compassionate, more forgiving, etc. and in so doing we enrich our relationship to the sacred feminine.

    Just my two cents.


  49. Living-Is-Heroic says:

    Wasn’t it established years ago, and quite often since, IN THIS VERY DISCUSSION, that Campbell’s archetype of the hero’s journey, is NOT a “How to Be a Hero” manifest?!? Campbell’s writings were about recognizing certain patterns in a very specific type of story that — THEORETICALLY — would have universal resonance, i.e. that reading and hearing a story about a protagonist who surmounts some kind of obstacle and attains a goal, and in the process grows in some manner, is emotionally satisfying. That’s IT. Campbell wasn’t pedantically telling you that you needed to risk life and limb for the betterment of mankind, or even holding up myths and legends as examples of heroism to be emulated. Whatever other problem you might have with Campbell (white, male, obtusely long-winded), the ubiquity of fictional heroes and the apparent dearth of same in real-life, cannot be placed at his feet. Why are people still griping that Campbell isn’t properly inspiring his readers to run into flaming buildings to save babies? If you want to be a hero, go out and be a hero. Stop whining that chicken-scratch in dead-tree isn’t making you more heroic. But consider this, if you do something heroic while fully aware that it’s heroic, are you really a hero, or just a self-congratulatory drama-queen?

    • “If you want to be a hero, go out and be a hero. Stop whining that chicken-scratch in dead-tree isn’t making you more heroic. But consider this, if you do something heroic while fully aware that it’s heroic, are you really a hero, or just a self-congratulatory drama-queen?”

      So basically, you agree with everything I’ve ever written, and my life project of exploring what real heroism means? It seems like you agree with all of my points and yet you’re yelling at me because I’m not flattering enough toward J.C.

  50. Author note: At this point I’m closing the comments on this essay. This is probably long overdue, even though this post continues to get lots of traffic and plenty of new replies. For those of you who find this, I’d like to explain why I’m closing it.

    Partly it’s because this was originally written as a rather off-the-cuff explanation, a quick answer for those who wondered why my heroism research isn’t based on Joseph Campbell. But it’s a topic that deserves a much more in-depth explanation, and I should write an expanded and improved version. When I do I’ll be sure to post a link here.

    The bigger reason, however, is because of how incredibly hateful, rude, and simply misdirected the majority of Campbell supporters have been. My gratitude goes out to all those who replied, critically or otherwise, in the spirit of good-natured discussion. But most replies come from people who have an almost cult-like loyalty to J.C., and seem affronted at the very notion that someone may disagree with his findings. I’ve been told that I’m stupid, that I’m tearing down Campbell for my own ego, and even that I never read anything Campbell wrote; but for all that I get few actual counter-arguments to the actual points I made. Many miss those points altogether. There’s nothing fun, helpful or enlightening about trying to respond to these commenters.

    But what looms largest over these Campbellites is that Campbell himself wouldn’t have approved of them, in my opinion. He was an academic and he understood that debate helps our knowledge grow and advance. He never would have tried to shush the people who disagreed with him. And I’d like to believe that he’d be fascinated with—not offended by—the way anthropology has changed in the last few decades, and the increased emphasis on the uniqueness of different cultures rather than their sameness. I’m certain he’d be very uncomfortable with the cult of personality that’s been built around him.

    So, for anyone who came here to insult me over my views on heroism: sorry, you’ll have to go someplace else. And while you do, I hope you’ll consider this… if Joseph Campbell’s writing has inspired you to find your bliss, why exactly are you seething in anger at anyone who disagrees with you?

    Dear Joseph, wherever you are, you deserve better.

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