October 23, 2023

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth Summarized

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth is a 1988 documentary series featuring six hour-long conversations between journalist Bill Moyers and mythologist Joseph Campbell. Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and he authored many books, including his most famous book in 1949 entitled The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell died of cancer before this PBS series aired, so these interviews serve as a sort of last lecture summarizing the ideas of his life of teaching. Throughout the series, Campbell sprinkles in mythological stories to underline the points he is making. While the interviews do have some visual accompaniment, they can just as easily be listened to as watched. If you can watch them, wonderful imagery and video footage often illustrate what Campbell is referring to.

The conversations are wide-ranging, covering topics such as religious figures, Star Wars, Native American spirituality, the different types of love, rituals surrounding sacrifice, his ideas on God, and many mythological stories he tells from memory. Campbell acknowledges that he is a maverick regarding his ideas on religion and mythology, and in these interviews, he certainly proves that to be true.

This documentary series is generously offered for free on the YouTube channel of the excellent film distributor Kino Lorber. Their channel features many more free movies and documentaries if you’d like to check them out on the Kino Lorber YouTube Channel. Hopefully, they will keep up the Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth series on their channel for all of eternity! You can access them all from our page here:

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth for Free on the Kino Lorber YouTube Channel

Here are pages we put together for the six lectures from the series with brief summaries of what each volume in the series covers:

Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth Vol. 1: The Hero’s Adventure

In this first interview from the PBS series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers questions Joseph Campbell on the role of the hero. Using his vast mythological knowledge, Campbell describes archetypes of heroes that arise in cultures throughout human history. He points out the similarities of spiritual heroes from Moses to Jesus to Buddha to Muhammad. Moyers asks where modern society’s myths come from, and the discussion turns to movies, specifically George Lucas’s Star Wars saga. Campbell touches on characters like the old teacher who guides the hero in Obi-Wan Kenobi and the compassionate hero who pretends he’s an egoist like Han Solo. Campbell urges his students and listeners to follow their bliss and forge into the unknown, for that is where the hero’s journey lies. It’s a thoroughly engaging talk that begins this popular PBS series.

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth Vol. 2: The Message of the Myth

In this second part of the PBS series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, Moyers and Campbell discuss creation myths and the tremendous consequences they have for civilizations. Campbell points to the Judeo-Christian story of creation and how man is set apart from nature and God through the fall of sin. He contrasts that with Eastern religions, where the myths teach that man should be in tune with nature. Campbell emphasizes his belief that the importance of myth is in the metaphors they teach and not in their literal interpretations. He suggests that the old-time religion must be continually abandoned to create new myths that confront the ever-changing challenges that arise in new eras and civilizations. And while the troubles of any time often seem overwhelming, Campbell believes that one can always tap into the vitality of life to wake up from the nightmare of history.

Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth Vol. 3: The First Storytellers

In this third part of the PBS series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, Campbell talks about the earliest myths and their relation to rituals. He discusses the rituals around the stations of life, such as initiations into adulthood. He also touches on the traditions around hunting and the reverence for animals, specifically in Native American religions. And Moyers and Campbell discuss many rituals around death in early human cultures. Campbell highlights the importance of the shamans in primitive societies and the artists in modern society in conveying the inner wisdom of a culture. From cave paintings to Picasso, artists have reached within to tell the stories of their times.

Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth Vol. 4: Sacrifice and Bliss

In this fourth part of the PBS series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and Campbell start the talk with addressing the need for each of us to have a sacred space in which we put aside the news of the day and enjoy life. Campbell then discusses the many rituals throughout human cultures that act out human sacrifice. Far from the tragedy we might view human sacrifice as today, they were seen as joyous occasions expressing the non-duality of life and death. Campbell then discusses more modern examples of sacrifice, from laying down one’s life for another to motherhood to committing to relationships. At the end of the talk, Moyers questions Campbell more about following one’s bliss and what that means in practice.

Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth Vol. 5: Love & The Goddess

In this fifth part of the PBS series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers and Campbell turn to the topic of love. Campbell places the roots of our concept of Western love in medieval times with the 12th-century troubadours. Unlike the ideas of eros love or agape love, the troubadours put forth a love through the heart and eyes, which takes into account the other person. Going against the arranged marriages of the church and state, this concept of individuals seeking their true love through the heart came to dominate in Western culture. Moyers then questions Campbell about the role of goddesses throughout human history, from their supremacy in early human cultures to their subjugation in Christian culture. Campbell acknowledges the vast consequences of placing masculine gods or feminine goddesses above one another instead of allowing for an interplay between the two. He tells many tales of goddesses throughout human history in the second half of the discussion.

Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth Vol. 6: The Masks of Eternity

In this sixth and final part of the PBS series Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers interviews Campbell for the last time, just months before his death at age 83. As Moyers points out in the introduction to this interview, Campbell is radiant as he discusses his belief in the mysteries of life. Moyers questions Campbell about his ideas of God, Jesus, and faith, and Campbell points to his belief in an impersonal God that is beyond being and time. He points to the peak performances and epiphanies in his own life that put him in touch with the sublime bliss of eternity. In the end, Campbell suggests that the purpose of life is the journey, and if one is to come in tune with eternity in their journey, one must follow one’s own bliss. Campbell certainly did in his quest to bring myths to life through his many books and teachings.

Enjoy the timeless wisdom of Joseph Campbell in these priceless interviews with Bill Moyers.