Joseph Campbell, as the popularizer of the hero’s journey, has been criticized by feminist scholars for creating a somewhat lopsided and masculine view of the role of mythology in personal and cultural development. For example, in a lecture* on Joseph Campbell’s chronicling of the hero’s journey, Christine Downing argued the myths shared in Campbell’s classic book The Hero With A Thousand Faces are primarily associated with masculine pubertal initiation rites, and thus fail to address feminine aspects of self and society as well as other significant transitions that occur across the lifespan.
Downing said Campbell’s account of the hero’s journey was very inwardly directed and goal oriented, much like Jung’s individuation journey. Both the hero’s journey and the process of individuation are deep engagements with one’s inner world and the longing for wholeness that are significant aspects of personal and spiritual growth. Yet lacking, according to Downing, is the role of Eros and the longing for connection with others that she associated with mythologies of the goddesses. Furthermore, rather than the archetypal image of the feminine divine as a great maternal figure, such as Mother Earth, Downing pointed to the multitude of roles and images goddesses and the archetypal feminine divine have taken throughout human history, including warriors, artisans, huntresses, and cosmic entities.
Posthumously, Campbell gives his rebuttal to such criticisms with the release of Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine (2013). The book’s editor, Safron Rossi, PhD, successfully organized materials from the Joseph Campbell Foundation, including Campbell’s unpublished lectures, to relay Campbell’s dynamic understanding of the archetypal themes associated with the feminine divine. In particular, Rossi identified three dominant themes Campbell associated with goddesses and the feminine divine:
- Initiation into the cosmos and nature. Especially through the elemental constructs of time and space, goddesses have been a primary way of revealing the ideas of immanence and eternity, and thus existing outside the bounds of ordinary, lived experience;
- Transformation, most notably as guiding the life cycle from birth to death; and
- Energy consciousness, and developing a deep, felt sense of the aliveness of all life.
Campbell explores these themes, beginning with images of the Great Goddess from the Old Stone Age over 10,000 years ago, and continuing his exploration into the Renaissance and the portrayal of The Graces.
To fully appreciate Campbell’s thesis requires studying the book’s many images as much as reading its text. Dr. Rossi did an extraordinary job combining Campbell’s unpublished lectures with photographs and drawings of the artifacts and antiquities he references. While reading Goddesses, I felt as if I was spending the day in a museum devoted to the archetypal themes of the feminine divine with Campbell as curator. Because the text comes from unpublished lectures, Campbell’s tone is relaxed and colloquial. I sensed his respect, if not reverence, for the qualities associated with the divine feminine, as well as his personal belief in the need to revive the feminine divine if we are to create balanced and sustainable relationships and cultures.
In Goddesses, Campbell covers a lot of mythological history in the charming tone of storyteller. There were several parts of the book I found especially interesting, even when some of his ideas were familiar to me from his other books. For example:
• Campbell’s description of the impact of the suppression of the feminine divine by Semitic mythologies, and how this changed both mythology and the world:
“And so, with these masculine Semitic mythologies, we have for the first time a separation of the individual from the divine, and this is one of the most important and decisive motifs in the history of mythology: that the eternal life and oneness with the universe are no longer ours. We are separated from God, God is separated from his world, man is turned against nature, nature is turned against man” (p. 86).
• The connections he made between the feminine divine and the story of Christ:
“Going back at least nine thousand years to the early agriculture of the Near East and Old Europe, we have a tradition of the power of the Goddess and of her child who dies and is resurrected—namely, it is we who come from her, go back to her, and rest well in her. This tradition was carried through the cults of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and down into the Classical world, before finally delivering the message into Christian teaching” (p. 257).
•Campbell’s portrayal of the Tree of Immortal Life as an early symbol of spiritual development:
“… From all we know of the Sumerian tradition—and there are other seals in which this tree is shown—there was no sense of sin involved in people’s view of this tree. The deity that attended the tree was there to dispense its fruits, and the fruit of immortal life is to be eaten” (pp. 188-189).
He also discussed the role of the Tree of Immortal Life for both Buddha and Christ:
“… The Tree of Immortal Life is the very tree under which the Buddha sits. When you approach a Buddhist shrine, you see two military-looking door guardians there. Those are the cherubim to keep you out. What do they signify in Buddhism? They signify your psychological fear and desire. The fear of death is the fear of death to your ego, and the desire that the ego should enjoy the goods that it is interested in—these are what keep you from realizing your immortality. Fear and desire are the slashing rocks that exclude us from the intuition of our own immortal character.
“This is the big theme of the mystery religions of Buddhism and Christianity—Christ when through that door and becomes himself the fruit of immortal life by hanging on the tree” (p. 189)
• Campbell’s description of The Odyssey as a spiritual quest driven by the need to regain the feminine aspect of selfhood. This section of the book seemed thematically similar to CG Jung’s spiritual journey in The Red Book (and fodder for Downing’s interpretation of Campbell):
“So now we know the problem: he [Odysseus] is coming from a world that has rejected and denied the female principle, trying to dominate it or subsume it into the patriarchal system, and now he is going to have to face the sheer force of this and submit to it” (p. 162)
• And Campbell’s beautiful account of the emergence of the feminine divine in romantic love during the Middle Ages, when romantic love was seen as the “left-hand path” as well as spiritual journey:
“The rules of love, they really are severe. If you’re giving up everything for something, then give up everything for something and stay with it with your mind on where you’re going.
“These are wonderful lessons for people who are off on the Left Hand Path—and that’s the path to be on if you want to have a spiritual instead of a nice sociological life” (p. 250)
Throughout the book, there is some circling back to ideas presented earlier, which at times felt a bit repetitious. However, Campbell aimed to show how archetypal qualities associated with goddesses in earlier times have been transmuted throughout history. Rather than destroyed, the feminine divine has continually resurfaced in patriarchal society, albeit in muted forms, if not recast as masculine qualities.
“Perfection is a masculine desideratum, while woman inclines by nature to completeness. … just as completeness is always imperfect, so perfection is always incomplete, and therefore represents a final state which is hopelessly sterile. ‘Ex ferfecto nihil fit,’ say the old masters, whereas the imperfectum carries within it the seeds of its own improvement. Perfectionism always ends in a blind alley, while completeness by itself lacks selective values” (p. 33)
Campbell also focused on the association of goddesses with the drive towards union:
“… Where the male come in, you have division, while where the female comes in you have union” (p. 86).
From Goddesses, I got the sense Campbell was searching for evidence of a once balanced world order, where masculine and feminine aspects of self and society complement one another and are equally respected. At one point he wrote:
“The important thing about the Goddess is not whether women sat on thrones and ruled in a matriarchal social structure; it is whether the quality of Woman, the being of Woman, the sense of Woman was understood, known, and respected.”
I found Campbell’s Goddesses a revolutionary text even as it stretched deep into human history. Campbell’s portrayal of the mythical role of the feminine divine as balancing the masculine aspects of society and self is a refreshing break from the gender wars that today are all too common. One of the greatest messages that came out of Jungian psychology, including Campbell’s studies of mythology, has been the recognition that each person has the potential to fully develop both the feminine and masculine aspects of self, which reside within all of us. Campbell’s Goddesses shows how the balance between the masculine and feminine was lost with patriarchal society, but it also gives evidence of the continual symbolic and spiritual revival of archetypal aspects of the feminine divine.
*Lecture: Christine Downing, Ph.D., A Woman’s Response to Campbell’s Sketch of the Hero’s Journey, June 26, 2013. Part of the lecture series, A Cup of Joe: An Online Journey into the Work of Joseph Campbell offered by Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Campbell, Joseph. 2013. Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Jung, Carl G. 2009. The Red Book: Liber Novus. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Jung, C. G. 1958/2011. Answer to Job. Translated by R.F.C. Hull, Bollingen Series Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Homer. 2012. The Odyssey. Translated by Alexander Pope. Published by Ex Fontibus Co.
© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.