The Hero in the Labyrinth
Photo by Peter bo/Unsplash

The Hero in the Labyrinth

The Pioneering Work of Joseph Campbell
Tomasz Wiśniewski
time 16 minutes

Joseph Campbell, the most famous mythologist of the 20th century, played the saxophone, surfed, and above all, read. He believed that myths from all around the world are the language of the soul, in which an epic human story is told.

Ancient stories or those collected by ethnographers; fairy tales, folk tales, and legends from across the globe; the Old Testament as well as Aztec, Egyptian, and Indian myths; The Grimm Fairy Tales and One Thousand and One Nights. Joseph Campbell searched all of the above for hidden patterns, timeless and spaceless forms of the human imagination. He developed the idea of the spiritual unity of human beings when he discovered the existence of universal motifs and topics, such as the virgin birth, the journey into the afterlife, sacrificing kings, and the resurrection of a deity. As James Hillman aptly pointed out, Campbell belonged to a generation of intellectuals born shortly before World War I whose works were created under the influence of 19th-century models of scholarship. The American’s incredible erudition and diligence stemmed from his ambition to create a total synthesis of human spiritual life.

His fascination with Indigenous American mythologies was inspired by the childhood books his parents bought him. He was first and foremost a reader, up until old age. When Alan Watts once asked what type of yoga he practiced, Campbell allegedly replied that his was the yoga of “emphasizing sentences.” Jean Erdman, an avant-garde theater director and dancer (Campbell’s wife of nearly fifty years who died in 2020 at the age of 104), recalled that during one of their first walks in Manhattan, Campbell lent her Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Suddenly it started pouring. The young man immediately took off his coat, and she assumed he meant to romantically shield her from the rain. Soon enough she realized he was more interested in protecting the book than her.

However, his adoration for books and his incredible erudition weren’t an obstacle to the other activities he undertook. Campbell abandoned his academic career when he became convinced that teaching others about finding life truths in books was a naive way of deceiving both his students and himself. He learned surfing from the one and only Duke Kahanamoku. He played the saxophone in a jazz band. He was an athlete and a sportsman—he almost qualified for the US national track and field team (not making it to the Olympics was purportedly his life-long regret). He constantly traveled between Europe and America, which


You’ve reached your free article’s limit this month. You can get unlimited access to all our articles and audio content with our digital subscription. If you have an active subscription, please log in.


Also read:

Two Visions of the Future
Illustration by Tomek Kozłowski
Dreams and Visions

Two Visions of the Future

Aldous Huxley’s Dystopia and Utopia
Tomasz Wiśniewski

It’s rare for one author to create both a dystopia and utopia. It is exceptionally rare for both works to be renowned and withstand the test of time. It seems that only a single such case is known: in the work of Aldous Huxley.

Published in 1932, Brave New World continues to prompt and alert readers’ awareness toward trends observed today. Another novel—Island—still inspires those who see a silver lining. As a writer, Huxley did not make the ordinary evolution from optimism to pessimism, and, driven by the concerns of an old-fashioned intellectual engaged in world matters, he did not turn to catastrophic bitterness.

Continue reading