Ep. 6: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘Masks of Eternity’

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In the final episode of The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell discuss commonalities in every culture that create a need for God, and the symbolism of circles in life and literature. In this clip, Campbell talks about the common experience of God across cultures.

Released in 1988, The Power of Myth was one of the most popular TV series in the history of public television, and continues to inspire new audiences.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: We want to think about God. God is a thought, God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. I mean, he’s beyond being, beyond the category of being or nonbeing. Is he or is he not? Neither is nor is not.

Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.

He who thinks he knows doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.

There is an old story that is still good — the story of the quest, the spiritual quest, that is to say, to find the inward thing that you basically are. All of these symbols in mythology refer to you — have you been reborn? Have you died to your animal nature and come to life as a human incarnation? You are God in your deepest identity. You are one with the transcendent.

BILL MOYERS: The images of God are many. Joseph Campbell called them “the masks of eternity,” and said they both cover and reveal the face of glory. All our names and images for God are masks, Campbell said, they signify that ultimate reality, which by definition transcends language and art.

A myth is a mask of God, too, a metaphor for what lies behind the visible world. As teacher, scholar and writer, Joseph Campbell spent his life in the study of comparative religion. He wanted to know what it means that God assumes such different masks in different cultures. We go east of Suez and see people dancing before a bewildering array of fantastic gods. When those people come here, well, Campbell told the story of the young Hindu who called on him in New York and said, “When I visit a foreign country, I like to acquaint myself with its religion. So I bought myself a Bible and for some months now have been reading it from the beginning. But, you know, I can’t find any religion in it.”

Campbell, who became president of the American Society for the Study or Religion, was at home in the sacred scriptures of all the world’s great faiths. He found comparable stories in them: stories of creation, of virgin births, incarnations, death and resurrection, second comings, judgment days. Quoting one of his favorite Hindu scriptures which he translated from the Sanskrit, he concluded that “truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.”

Joseph Campbell began his journey into this literature of the spirit after his imagination was excited by a visit to the Museum of Natural History in New York when he was just a boy. We met there a few months before his death and talked through a long evening, about the masks or eternity.

Is there something in common in every culture that creates this need for God?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I think anyone who has an experience of mystery and awe knows that there is a dimension, let’s say, or the universe that is not that which is available to his senses. There’s a wonderful saying in one of the Upanishads, “When, before a sunset or a mountain and the beauty of this or that, you pause and say, ‘Ah, that is participation in divinity.'” And I think that’s what it is, it’s the realization of wonder. And also the experience of tremendous power, which people of course living in the world of nature are experiencing all the time. You know there’s something there that’s much bigger than the human dimension.

And our way of thinking in the West largely is that God is the source of the energy. The way in most Oriental thinking, and I think in most of what we call primitive thinking, also, is that God is the manifestation of the energy, not its source, that God is the vehicle of the energy. And the level of energy that is involved or represented determines the character of the god. There are gods of violence, there are gods or compassion, there are gods that unite the two, there are gods that are the protectors of kings in their war campaigns. These are personifications of the energy that’s in play, and what the source of the energy is. What’s the source of the energy in these lights around us? I mean, this is a total mystery.

BILL MOYERS: Doesn’t this make of faith an anarchy, a sort of continuing war among principalities?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: As life is, yes. I mean, even in your mind, when it comes to doing anything, there will be a war. A decision as to priorities, what should you do now? Or, in relationship to other people, there will be four or five possibilities of my way of action. And the notion of divinity or divine life in my mind would be what would determine my decision. If it were rather crude, it would be a rather crude decision.

BILL MOYERS: But is divinity just what we think?


BILL MOYERS: What does that do to faith?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, it’s a tough one about faith.

BILL MOYERS: You are a man of faith-


BILL MOYERS: You’re a man of wonder and…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, I don’t have to have faith, I have experience.

BILL MOYERS: What kind of experience?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, I’ve experience of the wonder, of the life, I have experience of love, I have experience of hatred, malice — I’d like to punch the guy’s jaw, and I admit this. But those are different divinities, I mean, from the point of view of a symbolic imaging. Those are different images operating in me.

For instance, when I was a little boy and was being brought up a Roman Catholic, I was told I had a guardian angel on my right side and a tempting devil on my left, and when it came to making a decision of what I would do, the decision would depend on which one had most influence on me. And I must say that in my boyhood, and I think also in the people who were teaching me, they actually concretized those thoughts.

BILL MOYERS: They did what?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: It was an angel. That angel is a fact and the devil is a fact, do you see; otherwise, one thinks of them as metaphors for the energies that are afflicting and guiding you.

BILL MOYERS: And those energies come from?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: From your own life. The energy of your own body, the different organs in your body, including your head, are the conflict systems.

BILL MOYERS: And your life comes from where?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, there you are. From the ultimate energy that’s the life of the universe. And then you say, well, somebody has to generate that. Why do you have to say that? Why can’t it be impersonal? That would be Brahman, that would be the transcendent mystery, that you can also personify.

BILL MOYERS: Can men and women live with an impersonality?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, they do all over the place. Just go east of Suez. In the East, the gods are much more elemental.

BILL MOYERS: Elemental?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Elemental, less human and more like the powers of nature. I see a deity as representing an energy system, and part of the energy system is the human energy systems of love and malice, hate, benevolence, compassion. And in Oriental thinking, the god is the vehicle of the energy, not its source.

BILL MOYERS: Well, of course the heart of the Christian faith is that these elemental forces you’re talking about embodied themselves in a human being in reconciling mankind to God.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. And the basic Buddhist idea is that that is true of you, as well, and that what Jesus was a person who realized that in himself, and lived out of the Christhood of his nature.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think about Jesus?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: We just don’t, know about Jesus. All we know are four contradictory texts that tell us what he did.

BILL MOYERS: Written many years after he lived.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: But I think we know what Jesus said. I think the sayings of Jesus are probably pretty close. But when you read the Thomas gospel, the Gospel According to Thomas, which was dug up there in that, with those other gnostic texts, it has all the flavor of one of the synoptics, Matthew, Mark or Luke, except that it doesn’t say quite the same thing.

There’s one wonderful passage, it’s the last one in the gospel, actually. “When will the kingdom come?” Now, in Mark 13, I think it is, we hear that the end of the world is going to come. That is to say, a mythological image, that is, the end of the world, is taken as a reference to an actual, physical, historical fact to be. When you read the Thomas gospel, Jesus says, “The kingdom of the father will not come by expectation; the kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it.”

So I look at you now in that sense and the radiance of the presence of the divine is known to me, through you.

BILL MOYERS: Through me?


BILL MOYERS: A journalist?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Jesus also says in this text, “He who drinks from my mouth will become as I am, and I shall be he. “He’s talking from the point of view of that being of beings which we call the Christ, who is the being of all of us. And anyone who lives in relation to that is as Christ. And anyone who incarnates, or rather brings into his life the message of the Word, is equivalent to Jesus. That’s the sense of that.

BILL MOYERS: So that’s what you mean when you say, “I am radiating God to you.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You are, yes.

BILL MOYERS: And you to me.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And I’m speaking this seriously, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, I take it seriously. I happen to believe the same as you without being able to articulate it as you do. I do sense that there is divinity. The divinity is in the other.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: So you are the vehicle, you are as it were radiant of the spirit. And that’s…why not recognize it?

BILL MOYERS: I’ll tell you what the most gripping scripture in the Christian New Testament is for me. It says, “I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I believe in what?

BILL MOYERS: I believe in this ultimate reality, and that I can experience it, that I do experience it, but I don’t have answers to my questions. I believe in the question, Is there a God?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I had a very amusing experience, which might be well worth telling. I was in the New York Athletic Club swimming pool, and you know, you don’t wear your collar this way or that way when you’re in a swimming pool. And I was introduced to a priest, “This is Father So-and-so, this is Joseph Campbell.” I’m a professor, he’s a professor at one of our Catholic universities. So after I’d had my swim, I came and sat down beside, in what we call, you know, the horizontal athlete situation, and the priest is beside me. And he said, “Mr. Campbell, are you a priest?” I said, “No, Father.” He said, “Are you a Catholic?” I said, “I was, Father.” He said, and now he had the sense to ask it this way, “Do you believe in a personal God?” I said, “No, Father.” And he said, “Well, I suppose there is no way to prove by logic the existence of a personal God.” And I said, “If there were, Father, what would be the value of faith?” “Well, Mr. Campbell, it’s nice to have met you.” And he was off. I really felt I had done a jujitsu trick there.

But that was a very illuminating conversation to me. The fact that he asked, “Do you believe in a personal God?” that meant that he also recognized the possibility of the Brahman, of the transcendent energy.

BILL MOYERS: Well, then, what is religion?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the word religion means religio, linking back, linking back the phenomenal person to a source. If we say it is the one life in both of us, then my separate life has been linked to the one life, religio, linked back. And this becomes symbolized in the images of religion, which represent that connecting link.

Mandala painted by Kristine Mann while in analysis with Carl Jung.BILL MOYERS: Your friend Jung, the great psychologist, says that the most powerful religious symbol is the circle. He says, “The circle is one of the great primordial images of mankind, that in considering the symbol of the circle, we are analyzing the self.” And I find you, in your own work throughout the course of your life, coming across the circle, whether it’s in the magical designs of the world over, whether it’s in the architecture both ancient and modern, whether it’s in the dome-shaped temples of India or the calendar stones of the Aztecs, or the ancient Chinese bronze shields, or the visions of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, whom you talk about, the wheel in the sky. You keep coming across this image.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, it’s an ever-present thing. It’s the center from which you’ve come, back to which you go. I remember reading in a book about the American Indians, called The Indian Book, by Natalie Curtis, it was published around 1904, her conversation with a chief. I think it was a chief of the Pawnee tribe. And among the things he said was, “When we pitch camp, we pitch the camp in a circle. When we looked at the horizon, the horizon was in a circle. When the eagle builds a nest, the nest is in circle.” And then you read in Plato somewhere, the soul is a circle. I suppose the circle represents. totality. Within the circle is one thing, it is encircled, it’s enframed. That would be the spatial aspect, but the temporal aspect of the circle is, you leave, go somewhere and come back, the alpha and omega. God is the alpha and omega, the source and the end. Somehow the circle suggests immediately a completed totality, whether in time or in space.

BILL MOYERS: No beginning, no end.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, round and round and round. The year, well, this is November again, you know, and we’re about to have Thanksgiving again. We’re about to have Christmas again. And then not only the year, but the month, the moon cycle, and the day cycle. And this is we’re reminded of this when we look on our watch and see the cycle of time, it’s the same hour, the same hour but another day, and all that sort of thing.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you suppose the circle became so universally symbolic?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, because it’s experienced all the time. You experience it in the day and the year, just as we’ve said, and you experience in leaving home, going on your adventure, hunting or whatever it may be, and coming back to home. And then there’s a deeper one also, that mystery of the womb and the tomb. When people are buried it’s for rebirth, I mean, that’s the origin of the burial idea, you’re put back into the womb of Mother Earth for rebirth.

BILL MOYERS: And Jung kept returning to that theme of the circle as being the sort of universal symbol.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, Jung used it as a pedagogical device, actually, what he called the mandala. This was actually a Hindu term for a sacred circle.

BILL MOYERS: Here is one of the pictures.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s a very elaborate mandala. You have the deity at the center, with the power source, the illumination source, and these are the manifestations or aspects of its radiance. But in working out a mandala for oneself, what one does is draw a circle and then think of the different impulse systems in your life, the different value systems in your life, and try then to compose them and find what the center is. It’s kind of discipline for pulling all those scattered aspects of your life together, finding a center and ordering yourself to it. So you’re trying to coordinate your circle with the universal circle.

BILL MOYERS: To be at the center.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: At the center. The Navaho have that wonderful image of what they call the pollen path. And when you realize what pollen is, it’s the life source. And it’s a single, single path, the center, and then they were saying, “Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path.”

Navaho pollen path

Navaho pollen path

So the little cosmos of one’s own life and the macrocosm of the world’s life are in some way to be coordinated. Well, for instance, among the Navaho Indians, healing ceremonies were conducted by way of sand paintings, which were mostly mandalas, on the ground and then the person who is to be treated moves into the mandala. There will be a mythological context that he will be identifying with, and he identifies himself with that power. And this idea of sand painting with mandalas and used for meditation purposes appears also in Tibet in the great Tantric monasteries outside of Lhasa. For instance, Rgyud Stod, they practiced sand painting, cosmic images and so forth indicating the forces of the spiritual powers that operate in our lives.

BILL MOYERS: Now, what do you make or that, that in two very different cultures, the same imagery emerges?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, well, there are only two ways to explain it, and one is by diffusion, that an influence came from there to here, and the other is by separate development. And when you have the idea of separate development, this speaks for certain powers in the psyche which are common to all mankind. Otherwise you couldn’t have — and to the detail the correspondences can be identified, it’s astonishing when one studies these things in depth, the degree to which the agreements go between totally separated cultures.

BILL MOYERS: Which says something about the commonality of the species, doesn’t it?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, yes, that was Carl Jung’s idea, which he calls the archetypes, archetypes of the collective unconscious.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by archetypes?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: An archetype is a constant form, a basic fundamental form which appears in the works of that person over there, and this person over here, without connecting them. They are expressions of the structure of the human psyche.

BILL MOYERS: So if you find in a variety of cultures, each one telling the story of creation or the story of a virgin birth or the story of a savior who comes and dies and is resurrected, you’re saying something about what is inside us and the need to understand.

One can say that the images of myth are reflections of spiritual and depth potentialities of every one of us. And that through contemplating those, we evoke those powers in our own lives to operate through ourselves.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right. One can say that the images of myth are reflections of spiritual and depth potentialities of every one of us. And that through contemplating those, we evoke those powers in our own lives to operate through ourselves. There was a very important anthropologist — he’s the one with whom my works begin, you might say, my studies — Bastian in Germany, end of the last century and first part of this. He was a world traveler and recognized very soon that there were certain motifs that appeared in all of the religions and all of the mythologies of the world. Such an idea, for example, as a spiritual power, that’s an archetypal image that appears everywhere. And he called these “elementary ideas.” But they appear in very different forms and different provinces and at different times, and those different forms are costumes he called ethnic or folk ideas. But within the ethnic idea is the elementary idea, and it is those elementary ideas that Carl Jung then began studying and called “archetypes of the unconscious.” When you say elementary idea, they seem to come from up here. When you say archetypes of the unconscious, they come from up here, and they appear in our dreams, as well as in myths.

BILL MOYERS: So when one scripture talked about being made in his image, in God’s image, it’s being, it’s being created with certain qualities that every human being possesses, no matter what that person’s religion or culture or geography or heritage.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: God would be the ultimate elementary idea of man.

BILL MOYERS: The primal need.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And we are all made in the image of God, okay? So that is the ultimate elementary idea or archetype of man.

BILL MOYERS: I feel stronger in my own faith, knowing that others had the same yearnings and were seeking for the same images to try to express an experience that couldn’t be costumed in ordinary human language.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: I feel much more kinship with all those who follow other ways, because it seems…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is why clowns are good.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Clown religions, because they show that the image is not a fact, but it’s a reflex of some kind.

BILL MOYERS: So does this help explain the trickster gods that show up at times?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: They’re very much that, yes. Some of the best trickster stories are associated with our American Indian tales. Now, these figures are clownlike figures, and yet they are the creator god at the same time, very often. And this makes the point, I am not the ultimate image. I am transparent to something. Through me, through my funny form, and mocking it, and turning it into a grotesque action, you really get the sense which, if I had been a big sober presence, you get stuck with the image.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a wonderful story in some African tradition of the god who’s walking down the road, and the god has on a hat that is colored red on one side and blue on the other side. So when the people, the farmers in the field go into the village in the evening, they said, “Did you see that fellow, that god with the blue hat?” And the others said, “No, no, he had a red hat on,” and they get into a fight.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. He even makes it worse by first walking along this direction, and then turning around and turning his hat around, so that again, it’ll be red and black or whatever and then when these two chaps fight and are brought before the king or chief for judgment, this fellow appears and he says, “It’s my fault, I did it. Spreading strife is my greatest joy.”

BILL MOYERS: And there’s a truth in that…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: There sure is, yes.

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No matter what system of thought you have, it can’t possibly include boundless life. And when you think everything is just that way, the trickster comes in and it all blows, and you get the becoming thing again. Now, Jung has a wonderful saying somewhere that, “Religion is a defense against a religious experience.”

BILL MOYERS: Well, you have to explain that.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that means it has reduced the whole thing to concepts and ideas, and having the concept and idea short-circuits the transcendent experience. The experience of deep mystery is what one has to regard as the ultimate religious experience.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there are many Christians who believe that to find out who Jesus is, you have to go past the Christian faith, past the Christian doctrine, past the Christian church. And I know that’s heresy to a lot of people, but…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, you have to go past the image of Jesus. The image of God becomes the final obstruction. Your God is your ultimate barrier. This is basic Hinduism, basic Buddhism. You know, the idea of the ascent of the spirit through the centers, the chakras, as they call them, or lotuses, the different centers of experience. The animal experiences of hunger and greed or just the zeal of reproduction or the physical mastery of one kind or another, these are all stages of power. But then when the center of the heart is reached, and the sense of compassion on another person, mercy and participation, and I and you are in some sense of the same being this is what marriage is based on there’s a whole new stage of life experience opens up with the opening of the heart.

And this is what’s called the virgin birth, actually, the birth of a spiritual life in what formerly was simply a human animal, living for the animal aims of health, progeny, wealth and a little fun. But now you come to something else: to participate in this sense of accord with another, or accord with some principle that has lodged in your mind as a good to be identified with, then a whole new life comes. And this is in Oriental thinking, the awakening of the religious experience.

And then this can go on even to the quest for the experience of the ultimate mystery, that is, the ultimate mystery can be experienced in two senses, one without form and the other with form. And in this Oriental thinking, you experience God with form here, this is heaven, that’s the identification with your own being, because that which God refers to is the ultimate mystery of being, which is the mystery of your being as well as of the world, so it’s…this is it.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain what the psychologist Maslow calls “peak experiences,” and what your friend James Joyce called epiphanies. I love that word, epiphany.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Oh, well, they’re not quite the same, but…


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The peak experience refers to actual moments of your life when you feel that this has told you something, something has come through in your experience of your relationship to the harmony of being. It can come…my peak experiences, I mean, the ones that I knew were peak experiences after I had them, all came in athletics.

BILL MOYERS: Which was the Everest of your experience.


BILL MOYERS: Which one was it, was it when you were running at Columbia?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, of course. And I ran a couple of races that were just beautiful, and the whole race, I knew I was going to win and there was no reason for me to know I was going to win, because I was touched off anchor in the relay with the first man 30 yards ahead of me, and I just knew, knew, it was a peak experience. Nobody could beat me today. That’s a kind of being in full form and really doing it. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in my life as competently as I ran those two races. And those consequently were the experience of really being at my full and doing perfect job. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything like that, quite, that I really came up to anything quite that way.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think you, Joseph Campbell, have to…it has to be physical?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: No, but it can be a peak experience there are other kinds of peak experiences, which I know were superior to those, but those are the ones that when I read Maslow and read of peak experience, I just know that those were peak experiences.

BILL MOYERS: What about James Joyce’s epiphanies?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Now, that’s another thing. This has to do with the esthetic experience. Joyce’s formula for the esthetic experience is that it does not move you to want to possess the object, that he calls pornography; nor does it move you to criticize and reject the object, that he calls didactics, social criticism in art and all that kind of thing. It is the holding the object, and he says you put a frame around it and see it as one thing, and then seeing it as one thing, you become aware of the relationship of part to part, the part to the whole and the whole to each of the parts. This is the essential esthetic factor rhythm, the rhythm, the rhythmic relationships. And when a fortunate rhythm has been struck by the artist, there is a radiance. That’s the epiphany. And that is what would be the Christ coming through, do you understand what I’m saying?

BILL MOYERS: The face of the saint beholding God.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And it doesn’t matter who it is. I mean, you could take someone who you would think of as being a monster, that is an ethical judgment on the life, and this is transcendent of ethics, no didactics.

BILL MOYERS: But see, that’s where I would disagree with you, because it seems to me in order to experience the epiphany, that which you behold but do not want to possess must be beautiful in some way. A moment ago, when you talked about your peak experience, running, you said it was beautiful. Beautiful is an esthetic word.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, that’s right.

BILL MOYERS: And how can you behold a monster?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I tell you, there’s another emotion associated with art which is not of the beautiful, but of the sublime. And what we call monsters can be seen as sublime. And they represent powers too great for the mere forms of life to survive. Prodigious expanse of space is sublime. This is a thing that the Buddhists know how to achieve in their temples. Particularly when I was in Kyoto, I was there for seven glorious months.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, visiting some of the temple gardens. They are so designed that you’re experiencing something here, and then you break past a screen and a whole new horizon opens out. And somehow with the diminishment of your own ego, the consciousness expands. This is the experience of the sublime. Another experience of the sublime is not of tremendous space, but of tremendous energy and power. And I have known a couple of people who were in central Europe during the saturation bombings that were conducted over those cities, and there was the…you just have the experience of the sublime there.

BILL MOYERS: I once interviewed a veteran of the Second World War, and I was talking to him about his experience at the Battle of the Bulge, with the assault of the Germans about to succeed. And I said, “Well, as you look back on it, what was it?” And he said, “It was sublime.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And so the monster comes through there.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by monster?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, by a monster I mean someone who breaks all of your standards for harmony and for ethical conduct.

BILL MOYERS: Is there a story in mythology that illustrates the sublime in the monster?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the god of the end of the world, Vishnu, at the end of the world is a monster. I mean, good night, he’s destroying the world, first with fire and then with a torrential flood that drowns out the fire and everything else and nothing’s left but ash, the whole universe has been wiped out. That’s God.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the Christian millennialists talk of the rapture.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, read Chapter 13 in Mark.

BILL MOYERS: Which says?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the end of the world. You see, these are experiences that go past ethical judgments. Ethics is wiped out. Our religions, with the accent on the human, as I mentioned a little while ago, also stress the ethical. God is good. God is horrific the end of the world? There’s an Arab saying that I read somewhere in The Arabian Nights that the angel of death, when the angel of death comes it is terrible; when he has reached you, it is bliss.

Now, in the Buddhist systems, particularly as we get them from Tibet, the Buddhas appear in two aspects; there is the peaceful aspect and there is the wrathful aspect of the deity. Now, if you’re clinging to your ego and its little world and hanging on, and the deity wants to open you, the wrathful aspect comes. It seems to you terrible. But if you are open, and open enough, then that same deity would be experienced as bliss.

BILL MOYERS: Well, Jesus talked of bringing a sword, and I don’t believe he meant that in terms of using it against your fellow [man], but he meant it in terms of opening the ego, I came to cut you free from the blinding ego of your own self-centeredness.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: This is what’s known in Sanskrit as Viveka, discrimination, and there is a Buddha figure called Manjushri, who will be…who’s shown with a flaming sword over his head.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And what is the sword for? It’s to distinguish the merely temporal from the eternal. It’s the sword that distinguishes that which is enduring from that which is merely passing. The tick-tick-tick of time shuts out eternity, and we live in the field of time. But what is living in the field of time is an eternal principle that’s inflected this way.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the eternal principle?


BILL MOYERS: Which is?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, we call it God, but that personifies it, do you see. That’s…

BILL MOYERS: It is the experience of eternity.


BILL MOYERS: The experience of the eternal.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: As what you are.


JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I would say, that’s…

BILL MOYERS: That whatever eternity is, is here right now.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: And nowhere else, or everywhere else. If you don’t experience it now, you’re never going to get it. Because when you get to heaven, that’s not eternal, that’s just everlasting. Heaven lasts a long time; it’s not eternal, it’s everlasting.

BILL MOYERS: I don’t follow that, now.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: The eternal is beyond time; the concept of time shuts out eternity.

BILL MOYERS: Time is our invention.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Our experience, yeah. But the ultimate, unqualified mystery is beyond human experience, it becomes inflected. As they say, there is a condescension on the part of the infinite to the mind of man, and that is what looks like God.

BILL MOYERS: So whatever it is we experience, we have to express in language that is just not up to the occasion.


BILL MOYERS: It’s inadequate.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s what poetry is for. Poetry is a language that has to be penetrated, it doesn’t shut you off, it opens, it’s the rhythm, the precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the word, is what has to happen. And then you get what Joyce calls the radiance, the epiphany. The epiphany is the showing through of the essence, what Aquinas called the quidditas, the whatness. The whatness is the Brahman.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you think it is there is in so many people this deep yearning to live forever, to secure my place in heaven?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: When you realize what heaven is, I mean, in the works of such persons as Thomas Aquinas, it is the beholding of the beatific image of God, which is a timeless moment, you know, time explodes. So again, eternity is not something everlasting, and you can have it right here now in your relationships. I’ve lost a lot of friends, and my parents and all, and a realization that has come to me very, very keenly is that I haven’t lost them, that that moment when I was with them had an everlasting quality about it that is now still with me. What it gave me is still with me. And there’s a kind of intimation of immortality in that. Do you see what I mean?

Now, there’s a wonderful work of Schopenhauer’s; he says, “When you reach a certain age,” and he wrote this when he was in his 60s or so, “and look back over your life, it seems to have had an order. It seems to have had been composed by someone. And those events that when they occurred seemed merely accidental and occasional and just something that happened, turn out to be the main elements in a consistent plot.” So he says, “Who composed this plot?” And he said, “And just as your dreams are composed by an aspect of yourself, of which your consciousness is unaware, so your whole life has been composed by the will within you.” Then he says, “Just as those people whom you met by chance became effective agents in the structuring of your life, so you have been an agent in the structuring of other lives, and the whole thing gears together like one big symphony,” he says, “everything influencing and structuring everything else.” And he said, “It’s as though our lives were the dream of a single dreamer, in which all the dream characters are dreaming too, and so everything links to everything else, moved out of the will in nature.”

That’s a beautiful idea. It’s an idea that occurs in India, in the image of what’s called the “Nee of Indra” or the net of gems. Where it’s a net of gems where every gem reflects all the other ones. And they also have the idea of a spontaneous and simultaneous arising. Everything arises in relation to everything else, and so you can’t blame anybody for anything; it’s all working around. It’s a marvelous idea. It’s as though there were an intention behind it, and yet it all is by chance. None of us has lived the life that he intended.

BILL MOYERS: And yet we all have lived a life that had a purpose. Do you believe that?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I don’t believe life has a real purpose. I mean, when you really see what life is, it’s a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being.

BILL MOYERS: Not true. That’s, not true, you…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, now, wait a minute. Just sheer life can’t be said to have a purpose, because look at all the different purposes it has all over the lot. But each incarnation, you might say, has the potentiality and the function of life is to live that potentiality. Well, how do you do it? Well, again when my students would ask, you know, should I do this, should I do that? Dad says I should do this, and my answer is, follow your bliss. There’s something inside you that knows you’re in the center, that knows you’re on the beam, that knows you’re off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life.

BILL MOYERS: So it is not the destination that counts, it’s the journey.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. There is a wonderful old man, I think he’s, still alive, in Germany, the Graf Karlfried, Karlfried Graf Durckheim. And he says, “When you’re on a journey and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you’ve realized that the real end is the journey.” That’s not bad. This is it, this moment now is the heavenly moment, and…

BILL MOYERS: I like the idea that Eden was not: Eden will be.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Eden is. “The kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it” I mean, Eden is.

BILL MOYERS: There’s some image of Shiva, the god Shiva surrounded by circles of flames, rings of fire.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s the dance of the world, the dancer whose dance is the universe. And in this hand he has a little drum that goes tick-tick-tick. That is the drum of lime. The tick of time, which shuts out eternity, and we are enclosed in that. In this hand there is a flame, which burns away the veil of time and opens us up to eternity. And in his hair is a skull and a new moon, the death and rebirth at the same moment, the moment of becoming.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a powerful image for any life, not just…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the goal of your quest for yourself is to find that burning point in your point, that becoming thing in yourself, which is fearless and desireless, but just becoming. This is the condition of warrior going into battle with perfect courage. That’s life in movement. A plant growing, I think of grass, you know. Every two weeks a chap comes out with a lawn mower and cuts it down. Suppose the grass were to say, well, for Pete’s sake, what’s the use? It’s the coming into being that’s it, and that’s the life point in you, and that’s what these myths are concerned to communicate to you.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I’ve always interpreted that powerful, mysterious statement, “The Word was made flesh,” as the eternal principle finding itself in the human journey, the human experience.


BILL MOYERS: Now, I don’t know what the Word is, and I don’t even know what flesh is, but I know that there is that experience of epiphany, when you meet what you don’t know and understand it.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yeah, and you can find it in yourself, too, the Word in yourself.

BILL MOYERS: Where do you find it, if you don’t find it in yourself?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, right. Goethe says, “All things are metaphors.” Alles vergangliche ist nur ein gleiches.” Everything that’s transitory is but a metaphorical reference. That’s what we all are, and to see the Word, getting back to that, your radiance that we spoke of before comes out here again now.

BILL MOYERS: But how does one worship a metaphor, love a metaphor, die for a metaphor?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, that’s what people are doing all over the place. That’s what people are doing all over the place, dying for metaphors. And when you really realize the sound Aum, the sound of the mystery of the Word everywhere, then you don’t have to go out and die for anything, because it’s right there all around, and just sit still and see it and experience it and know it.

BILL MOYERS: Explain “Aum.” That’s the first time you’ve used that.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, “Aum” is a word that, what can I say, represents to our ears that sound of the energy of the universe, of which all things are manifestations. And “Aum”, it’s a wonderful word, it’s written A-U-M. You start in the back of the mouth, Ah, and then, Ooh, you fill the mouth, and M-m-m, closes it, the mouth. And when you have pronounced this properly, all vowel sounds are in that pronunciation: “Aum”. And consonants are regarded simply as interruptions of “Aum”, and all words are thus fragments of “Aum”, as all images are fragments of the form of forms, of which all things are just reflections. And so “Aum” is a symbol, a symbolic sound, that puts you in touch with that throbbing being that is the universe.

And when you hear some of these Tibetan monks that are over here from the Rgyud Stod monastery outside of Lhasa, when they sing the “Aum,” you know what it means, all right That’s the zoom of being in the world. And to be in touch with that and to get the sense of that, that is the peak experience of all. “Ab-ooh-mm.” The birth, the coming into being, and the solution to the cycle of that. And it’s just called the four-element syllable. What is the fourth element? “Ah-ooh-mm,” and the silence out of which it comes, back into which it goes, and which underlies it.

Now, my life is the “Ah-ooh-mm,” but there is a silence that underlies it, and that is what we would call the immortal. This is the mortal, and that’s the immortal, and there wouldn’t be this if there weren’t that.

BILL MOYERS: The meaning is essentially wordless.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes. Well, words are always qualifications and limitations.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, Joe, all we puny human beings are left with is this miserable language, beautiful though it is, that falls short of trying to describe…

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s right And that’s why it’s a peak experience to break past all that every now and then, to realize “oh, ah,” I think so.

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