Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell on the mythos of the Admiralty Islands

A young woman—we are told—went into the forest. The serpent saw her. “Come!” he said. But the young woman answered, “Who would have you for a husband? You are a serpent. I will not marry you.” He said, “My body is indeed that of a serpent, but my speech is that of a man. Come!” And she went with him, married him, and presently bore a boy and girl; after which the serpent husband put her away, saying, “Go! I shall take care of them and give them food.”

The serpent fed the children and they grew. One day the serpent said to them, “Go, catch some fish!” They did so and returned, and he said, “Cook the fish!” but they replied, “The sun has not yet risen.” When the sun rose and warmed the fish with its rays, they consumed the food, still raw and bloody.

And the serpent said, “You two are spirits; for you eat your food raw. Perhaps you will eat me. You, girl, stay here! You, boy, crawl into my belly!” The boy was afraid and said, “What shall I do?” But the snake said, “Come!” and he crept into the serpent’s belly. The serpent said to him, “Take the fire and bring it out to your sister! Come out and gather coconuts, yams, taro, and bananas!” So the boy crept out again, bringing the fire from the belly of the serpent.

Then, having gathered roots and fruit, as told, they lit a fire with the brand the boy had brought forth, and cooked their food; and when they had eaten, the serpent asked, “Is my kind of food or yours the better?” To which they answered, “Yours! Our kind is bad.”[1]

Here is a legend of the planting world such as might have been told practically anywhere along the tropical arc of the primary migration, from Africa eastward (south of the Elburz-Himalayan mountain line) to southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Melanesia; whereas, actually, its place along the arc was a primitive enclave at the remote eastern end of the great tropical province: the Admiralty Islands, just off the northern coast of New Guinea.
Joseph Campbell in The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Volume 1, Chapter 10 “Mythological Thresholds of the Neolithic”, Section I “The Great Serpent of the Earliest Planters (c. 7500 B.C.?)”, (New York: Arkana, 1991), p. 384-5. Originally published (New York: Viking Press, 1959).


[1] J. Meier, “Mythen und Sagen der Admiralitäts-insulaner, Anthropos, Vol. II (1907), p. 654.

Heinrich Zimmer on the relation of knowledge and action

The first requirement of the spiritual pupil in India, as we have seen, is the great virtue of faith (śraddhā), trust in the teacher and his words. The faith will be corroborated by the pupil’s own experience in the course of his spiritual progress, but meanwhile he cannot presume to argue with his guru in callow criticism of the paradoxical doctrine. He must undergo, first, a transformation; that, not criticism, will be the means of his understanding. He must be brought by a process of evolution to a spiritual level from which to experience the meaning of the enigmatical teaching. And meanwhile, the process of his sublimation will be facilitated by meditation on the magic formula, which is the “Heart of the Wisdom of the Other Shore,” and which he is to regard as an expression of his own supreme belief, designed to concentrate and intensify his faith. Though temporarily unintelligible to him, it is nevertheless his credo, to be repeated in constant recitation, as an invocation bidding the Wisdom of the Other Shore to come to him. And the wonder is that this magic formula actually can function as an effective alchemical charm, facilitating the transmutation that duly yields, of itself, the gold of enlightenment.

For meditation on this curious string of words is not the sole means by which the neophyte, filled with faith, is to attempt to bring to pass the all-important transformation in his understanding. The performance of certain characteristic acts is also required, and these, together with the experience of their results, make the formula more meaningful in the course of time, while, in reciprocal effect, the formula, constantly held in mind, serves to extract and bring to a point the lesson of the faithful performance of the necessary acts.

The sense, for example, of the Mahāyānist rerenderings of certain tales from the Jātaka, in the sixth-century collection known as the Jātakamālā, “The Garland of Tales from the Earlier Lives of the Buddha,”[91] is that one has to assume peculiar attitudes, exhibit uncommon reactions in crucial situations, and accomplish very special deeds, if one is ever to come to a new outlook upon life and on oneself. Practice precedes insight; knowledge is the reward of action: therefore, try! That is the thought. For it is by doing things that one becomes transformed. Executing a symbolical gesture, actually living through, to the very limit, a particular role, one comes to realize the truth inherent in the role. Suffering its consequences, one fathoms and exhausts its contents. Knowledge is to be attained, in other words, not through inaction (as in the Jaina and the classic Yoga disciplines) but through a bold and advertent living of life.
Heinrich Zimmer in Philosophies of India, edited by Joseph Campbell, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 542. Originally published (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951).

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"The first requirement of the spiritual pupil in India"


[91] The Jātakamālā is a work in Sanskrit attributed to a certain Āryasūra (for translation, see supra, p. 537, note 84), which contains 34 Jātakas, or exemplary tales of the earlier lives of the Buddha, adapted, for the most part, from the much earlier Pāli compendium of more than five hundred Jātakas. The latter is one of the great portions of the orthodox Hīnayāna

Joseph Campbell on “The Hero’s Journey (On Living in the World)”

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.
What you have to do, you do with play.
Life is without meaning. You bring the meaning to it.
The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.

Being alive is the meaning.

The warrior’s approach is to say “yes” to life: “yea” to it all.

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.
We can not cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.
When we talk about settling the world’s problems, we’re barking up the wrong tree.
The world is perfect. It’s a mess. It has always been a mess.

We are not going to change it.
Our job is to straighten out our own lives.
We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come.

If we fix on the old, we get stuck. When we hang onto any form, we are in danger of putrefaction.
Hell is life drying up. The Hoarder, the one in us that wants to keep, to hold on, must be killed.
If we are hanging onto the form now, we’re not going to have the form next.
You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Destruction before creation.

Out of perfection nothing can be made. Every process involves breaking something up. The earth must be broken to bring forth life. If the seed does not die, there is no plant.
Bread results from the death of wheat. Life lives on lives. Our own life lives on the acts of other people.
If you are lifeworthy, you can take it. What we are really living for is the experience of life, both the pain and the pleasure.
The world is a match for us. We are a match for the world. Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging. Negativism to the pain and ferocity of life is negativism to life.

We are not there until we can say “yea” to all.

To take a righteous attitude toward anything is to denigrate it. Awe is what moves us forward. As you proceed through life, following your own path, birds will shit on you. Don’t bother to brush it off. Getting a comedic view of your situation gives you spiritual distance. Having a sense of humor saves you. Eternity is a dimension of here and now.

The divine lives within you. Live from your own center.

Your real duty is to go away from the community to find your bliss. The society is the enemy when it imposes its structures on the individual.
On the dragon there are many scales. Everyone of them says “Thou Shalt.” Kill the dragon “Thou Shalt.” When one one has killed that dragon, one has become The Child.
Breaking out is following your bliss pattern, quitting the old place, starting your hero journey, following your bliss. You throw off yesterday as the snake sheds its skin.

Follow your bliss.

The heroic life is living the individual adventure. There is no security in following the call to adventure. Nothing is exciting if you know what the outcome is going to be. To refuse the call means stagnation.
What you don’t experience positively you will experience negatively. You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.
Where there is a way or path, it is someone else’s path. You are not on your own path. If you follow someone else’s way, you are not going to realize your potential.
The goal of the hero trip down to the jewel point is to find those levels in the psyche that open, open, open, and finally open to the mystery of your Self being Buddha consciousness or the Christ.

That’s the journey.

It is all about finding that still point in your mind where commitment drops away. It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave that was so dreaded has become the center.
You will find the jewel, and it draws you off.

In loving the spiritual, you cannot despise the earthly.

The purpose of the journey is compassion.

When you have come past the pairs of opposites, you have reached compassion. The goal is to bring the jewel back to the world, to join the two things together.
The separateness apparent in the world is secondary.

Beyond that world of opposites is an unseen, but experienced, unity and identity in us all.

Today, the planet is the only proper “in group.” You must return with the bliss and integrate it. The return is seeing the radiance everywhere.

Sri Ramakrishna said: “Do not seek illumination unless you seek it as a man whose hair is on fire seeks a pond.”

If you want the whole thing, the gods will give it to you. But you must be ready for it. The goal is to live with godlike composure on the full rush of energy, like Dionysus riding the leopard, without being torn to pieces.

A bit of advice given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: “As you go the way of life, you will see a chasm.


It is not as wide as you think.”
Joseph Campbell, “The Hero’s Journey (On Living in the World)”. Cited by Diane K. Osbon in Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion, (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), ~p. 21-4. Available online at Daron Larson’s blog “Learning to Stay” and Sunny Vargas’ Tribe.