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Joseph Campbell: About His Life, Impact, and Death

Joseph Campbell: About His Life, Impact, and Death
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Who is Joseph Campbell?

Joseph Campbell was an American scholar, mythologist, author, and speaker. He was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. Although Campbell primarily worked in comparative mythology and religion, he had a full-spectrum interest in humanities that cut across culture, philosophy, language and more. He is most known for his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) in which he articulated the concept of “monomyth” and the “Hero’s Journey.”

Early Life 

Joseph John Campbell was born on March 26, 1904 in White Plains, New York, and was raised in a middle-class Irish Catholic family. 

When Joseph was seven years old, his father took him to see Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. This was a critical moment in his life, igniting his interest in all aspects of Native American culture. Later, he would recall that he “became fascinated, seized, obsessed, by the figure of a naked American Indian with his ear to the ground, a bow and arrow in his hand, and a look of special knowledge in his eyes.”

From this point forward, he read every Native American-themed book in the children’s section of the local library, quickly moving on to the adult section. In addition, he regularly visited the American Museum of Natural History, where he further immersed himself in the artifacts of our native cultures.    


Joseph Campbell began his university studies at Dartmouth College where he studied biology and mathematics. But he quickly realized that his heart lay in the humanities. So he left Dartmouth and transferred to Columbia University, where he studied literature. There, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature in 1925, followed by a Master of Arts degree in medieval literature in 1927. 

After Campbell’s graduation from Columbia, he received several academic fellowships and engaged in extensive travel. Finally, in 1934, Campbell became a Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College.

Although Campbell was an accomplished professor, author, and editor, it was his gifts for storytelling and delivering public lectures that enabled him to become an influential public figure.

After a 38-year career at Sarah Lawrence College, Campbell retired in 1972. He continued to take on two-month long lecture tours during his retirement years.

Works by Joseph Campbell 

Joseph Campbell authored and edited many books, and many of his public lectures have been recorded. Among his works, the following are recommended for starting your Joseph Campbell journey:

Joseph Campbell on Psychedelics

Campbell’s interests naturally led him to study the nature of consciousness, such as shamanism and psychedelic substances. As such, Campbell studied and lectured on the ceremonial use of entheogenic substances by various cultures. 

In addition, Campbell was friends with several well-known psychedelic pioneers. Some of the more notable figures include Albert Hofmann, who first synthesized LSD in the laboratory, and Dr. Stanislov Grof, who is known for conducting over 4000 LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions.

Although Campbell remained open-minded and interested, it remains unknown if he ever experimented with psychedelic substances himself. However, he had some insightful observations on the impact of these substances. 

While reflecting on the impact of psychedelics in the sixties, Campbell noted that psychedelics had “uncovered the unconscious depths in a society that is lopsidedly rational and evaluative.” He further expressed that “the young seem bewildered by the world of the psyche. They came into it too fast. It is like the situation in Greek mythology where a person says to a god, ‘Show me yourself in your full power.’ And the god does, and the person is blown to bits.”

The Hero’s Journey

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell introduced concept of the Hero’s Journey. After studying many cultures and mythical narratives across the world and throughout the ages, he observed universal archetypes and themes in these narratives.

In this narrative, the Hero sets out on a journey. In the course of his journey the Hero encounters forces that he must defeat. He must display great strength and courage. The Hero is ultimately victorious, transformed, and returns home with a higher purpose.     

Perhaps the universal presence of the Hero’s Journey across cultures is a reflection of something fundamentally human—as universal as breathing, smiling, and crying. Ostensibly, the Hero’s Journey is necessary for the transition from child to adult, to finding wholeness, and to go from wandering through life to living with purpose. 

The Hero’s Journey and Psychedelics

The Hero’s Journey has been a common theme in the psychedelic community since the 1960s. This is understandable, given that the psychedelic experience often reflects the Hero’s Journey narrative—i.e., the departure from the ordinary, the transformation, and the return to the ordinary world. 

According to Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces became a kind of travel guide for the inward journey. Because of its universality, people were finding something in it that could help them interpret their own experience.

In psychedelic culture, the Hero’s Journey is often associated with the “Heroic Dose,” which is a dosage protocol popularized by Terence and Dennis McKenna. Typically, the Heroic Dose refers to five grams (or more) of dried psilocybin mushrooms. In addition to ingesting the large dose, careful attention must be given to preparation for the journey’s set, setting, and intention.   

Stages of the Hero’s Journey

1. Ordinary World: The Hero’s ordinary and safe existence before the Journey begins.

2. Call To Adventure: The Hero answers a call to undertake a challenge, mission, or quest.

3. Refusal Of The Call: An introspective period of questioning, doubt, or fear.

4. Meeting The Mentor: A wise figure appears who helps the Hero see beyond doubt and fear. 

5. Crossing The Threshold: The Hero commits to the journey and ventures into the unknown.  

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: The period of confronting obstacles that tests the Hero’s skills, strength, and character.

7. Approach To The Inmost Cave: A period of reflection before the Hero engages in the Supreme Ordeal.  

8. The Supreme Ordeal: The moment where the Hero faces a life-or-death challenge; this may be physical, spiritual, or egoic in nature.  

9. The Reward: The Hero has defeats the enemy and seizes the reward. The journey is not over and the Hero must prepare for the next stage.  

10. The Road Back: The Hero embarks on the journey home. However, an enemy may pursue the Hero on the road to return.  

11. Resurrection: The Hero engages in the final battle with the enemy. The Hero’s life and the fate of others are at stake; the Hero must triumph.  

12. Return With The Elixir: The Hero returns home, transformed, ready to improve the ordinary world.

Joseph Campbell’s Death

Joseph Campbell died at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii on October 30, 1987 after struggling with esophageal cancer. 

The Joseph Cambpell Foundation was created in 1990 with the purpose of keeping his work alive and accessible.  

Top Joseph Campbell Quotes

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.”

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”

“When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness.”

“We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it is all about.”

“Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”


What Theory is Joseph Campbell Known For?

Joseph Campbell is known for popularizing the “monomyth theory” (a concept first proposed by James Joyce). The theory suggests there is a common narrative theme in all mythological stories across cultures and throughout history.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

Joseph Campbell further elucidated the monomyth theory by articulating the stages of the Hero’s Journey: the hero embarks on a journey, confronts and defeats an enemy, undergoes a transformation, and returns home with a greater sense of purpose.

What are the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey? 

  • 1. Ordinary World
  • 2. Call To Adventure
  • 3. Refusal Of The Call
  • 4. Meeting The Mentor
  • 5. Crossing The Threshold
  • 6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • 7. Approach To The Inmost Cave 
  • 8. The Supreme Ordeal 
  • 9. The Reward
  • 10. The Road Back
  • 11. Resurrection
  • 12. Return With The Elixir

RS Contributing Author: B.A. Wesler

B.A. is an industrial chemist, aspiring Stoic philosopher, practitioner of Vipassana meditation, and all-around problem-solver who fills his time with activities that are aimed at elevating the human condition. He loves to explore the role of psychedelics at the intersection of science, spirituality, consciousness, and overall well-being. When he is not writing or working, he relishes in the simplest of pleasures such as trail running, staring into a campfire, and dishing out big hugs. B.A. would love to hear from you at [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Joseph Campbell: About His Life, Impact, and Death”

  1. Avatar

    Thanks for sharing so much about Joseph Campbell. I had just ordered his book The Hero’s Journey. I do look forward to read his ideas about the hero all of us can find withinourselves, if we try. I know I am going to like him as an author because I a lover of Greek Mythology. I was born a Catholoc but practice Bhudism for many years and have developed some interesting abilities within my concious and subconcious mind. Life is a hero’s journey one must execute graciously, I love a challange because I welcome divinity within my body and intellect.
    Thanks for sharing some interesting information.


    Liliana Prina

  2. Reality Sandwich
    Reality Sandwich

    @ Liliana, thank you for the read! We’re sincerly happy to hear that you’ve connected with Joseph Campbell’s work.

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