There is one man who profoundly changed my life… who opened my eyes and my brain/mind/spirit to a new world of scholarship and the mystery of the human spirit. That person was a man who became my dear friend, Joseph Campbell, the pre-eminent scholar in the history of religions and comparative mythologies.
Campbell changed many people’s lives. Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, said it was because of Campbell that he became a leading scholar on the history of percussion. George Lucas said his “Star Wars” theme was due to the insights of Joseph Campbell.
My friendship with Campbell began when I spent three weeks with him one glorious summer in the Montana mountains. He lectured about 5 hours a day to the 30 of us who had been selected for the seminar. The rest there were all artists and university professors. His wife, Jean Erdman, the lead dancer for Martha Graham, had grown up in the home of her father, a Congregational minister. That may have been the bond that drew us together, as, at the time, I was a Congregational minister of the large downtown church in Tacoma, Washington while at the same time lecturing at the University of Puget Sound.
I remember vividly the day that changed my life, my thought, and the direction of my studies. It was a Sunday morning, one of those most glorious days, in the “Moon When the Ponies Shed,” as the Lakota call it. We were at 7,000 feet. The sky was an intense blue, undimmed by haze or smog. It was “like wine” as they say. Aspen leaves were quaking. Walking on such a day in such companionship is a spiritual experience, when in silence, or soft talk, you feel, smell… hear… see… touch and taste, everywhere, the Mystery. To move toward the Mystery of our being we must allow our spirit to soar and fly in the timeless, spaceless quest for the holy, the sacred. Throughout history, that quest has been described many different ways in the myths of humankind.
That morning, Campbell nailed it down in my mind forever. He said: “A LIVING mythology always points toward the Mystery, whereas an ARTIFICIALLY RETAINED mythology always points only to the support of an institution.” Artificially retained mythologies would be the Apostles and Nicene Creeds recited by millions every Sunday, like parrots in church. A LIVING mythology would be the creations of the American Indian with their weaving… pottery… baskets… while working their sacred symbols into their objects.
Campbell, of course, brought out the fact that many mythological themes are UNIVERSAL. Virgin birth… the flood… resurrected hero… “heaven” concepts… a sacred meal, or “ritualistic cannibalism”, where the leader is eaten in order to share in his “divinity.” These themes are everywhere and are organized and ritualized according to local needs. Misunderstanding consists in reading mythological spiritual symbols as though they were references to historical, factual events.
As Campbell often said: “the vast majority of the clergy do not even understand their own material.”
At the end of the seminar I was chosen by the group to present him with his thank you gift: four bottles of expensive Scotch whiskey. His wife gave us the clue as to the gift.
Personal observations: He refused to “waste time” as he put it, getting a PhD. He was easily the most intellectually brilliant person I have ever heard lecture. He was a very warm person. He had a radiance and a quality of peace, harmony and wholeness, a centeredness that I have known in few other people. He and I communicated until the time of his death, in Hawaii. I treasure all of his personal letters. Perhaps we have lost that precious art of writing letters with the advent of digital e-mail??
The Magazine section of the New York Times honored his place among the giants of the world. His picture was on the cover with an article on the fact that the term “comparative religions” has become archaic. “Comparative mythologies” is the only valid term after Joseph Campbell. Under his picture, they said this: “Joseph Campbell, the world’s pre-eminent scholar of comparative mythologies.”
He gave me my direction on one morning walk. “Bill, just keep pointing people TOWARD THE MYSTERY.”