The Household of the Grail

Edited by John Matthews,

The Aquarian Press, 1990.

Chapter 12



Jules Cashford

Joseph Campbell is arguably the greatest mythographer of our age. In seminal works such as Hero With a Thousand Faces, Masks of God and most recently the bestselling Power of Myth, based on the hugely successful TV series of the same name, which had audiences in the USA glued to their TV sets over the six weeks of its screening in 1987, Campbell reawoke a latent fascination with the subject which has been present in mankind from the earliest times. Throughout his life he ‘followed the bliss’ of his innermost dreams much as the Grail knights followed their obsession. He brought fresh and illuminating insights to the myth which have opened it up for a fresh generation of students. His influence has reached far, even into Hollywood, where the director of the Star Wars trilogy drew heavily on the Hero With a Thousand Faces for the overall shape of his epic. No better contender could be found to end this collection, for if any man could be called one of the Household of the Grail, Joseph Campbell is he.

For Joseph Campbell, the Grail myth was the beginning of Europe. The unprecedented sense of yearning and striving towards an unknown end, not knowing what to look for or how to look for it, while at the same time believing that whatever is to be discovered must be found inside the seeker’s own heart - this inaugurated the characteristically Western living of life which we inherit. The age-old theme of the quest had now turned irrevocably inwards; the inspiration, motive, direction and guide are for the first time wholly individual and utterly unique. There is no authorized way or teacher to be followed, for all ways already found, known and proven, are wrong ways, since they are not the person’s own.

In the thirteenth-century legend La Queste del Saint Graal, when the vision of the veiled Grail appears to the knights in Arthur’s banquet hall to summon them each to their quest of unveiling it, the knights decide to ride forth singly, for to go in a group would have been shameful. This is the point which Campbell - the greatest mythologist of this century - holds up as testimony to a new moral initiative that is of the essence of European spirituality. When all the knights had put on their arms, attended Mass and expressed their gratitude to their king, they ‘entered into the forest, at one point and another, there where they saw it to be thickest, all in those places where they found no way or path ...’ (his italics) (CM, 540). So they start their journey as individuals, each trusting to their own authority and to the mysterious power of their calling. As it transpired, though, in this story written by a Cistercian monk, there was finally only one way to be followed, the ‘straight path to Paradise’, and so the orthodox Christian opposition of the spiritual and the physical worlds - the world of God distinct from the world of nature - remained unchallenged. The Grail is revealed as a symbol of a supernatural grace dispensed by way of sacraments, not a blessing upon the choice and persistence in the dark and lonely path.

Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival was the book which inspired Campbell beyond all the other stories of the Grail. For him it was not only the greatest book of the Middle Ages, beyond even Dante, but also ‘the first sheerly individualistic mythology of the human race’. (CM, 553) It is Wolfram’s achievement to have taken a Christian symbol - with all the customary associations of an historical and literal interpretation - and to have opened it out to its universal and psychological meaning, so becoming the first example in world literature of a consciously developed secular Christian myth. (CM, 476)

The crowning moment is Parzival’s failure. He honours the code and he dishonours his heart, and thus a new ethic is disclosed. As Campbell tells the tale in his book Creative Mythology (the last of four volumes of his monumental work The Masks of God ), Parzival is the one figure through whom this crucial distinction between individual and collective can be worked out. Like the meaning of his name ‘right through the middle’, he is destined to get to the centre of things. For he has been brought up in the country by a mother, disillusioned of the court, who wanted her son to know nothing of its elaborate rules and codes of conduct. His life is lived in terms of the dynamic of his own natural impulses, and when he first sees three knights riding by on their prancing horses he falls to the ground on his knees imagining they are angels. Leaving his home, he comes across an old knight called Guernemanz, who is to be his first teacher. Guernemanz instructs him in the skills and virtues of knighthood and the civilities of court - never to lose the sense of shame, to be compassionate to the needy, not to ask too many questions, and so on - and when he has mastered these Guernemanz then offers him his daughter in marriage. But Parzival says, ‘No, I must earn a wife, not be given a wife,’ passing the first spiritual test of both Wolfram and Campbell.

Having later earned his true bride, whom he loves, he rides to the next test a married man, and is eventually conducted to the Castle of the Grail. There he sees the Grail resting on its deep green cloth of gold-threaded silk and he shares the cup of its infinite sweetness with his suffering and melancholy host who, resting on a litter unable to sit or stand or lie, tells him God has maimed him. And Parzival thought, remembering Gurnemanz: ‘He counselled me, in sincerity and truth, not to ask too many questions.’

‘For that I pity him,’ Wolfram comments, ‘and I pity too his sweet host, whom divine displeasure does not spare, when a mere question would have set him free.’ (CM, 446)

Parzival’s fault was not to act on his impulse of compassion. He was moved to ask, ‘What ails you, Uncle?’ But he quells his spontaneous moment of sympathy, the natural opening of the human heart to another human being, believing it to be more important to obey the rule of courteous restraint given to him by his teacher who had helped him come this far. Yet his question was an expression of compassion, and as a truly individual human feeling could not fall under any general notion of society. It was not curiosity - ’another’ question - not one of ‘too many’; it was the Question, his question.

Parzival does not fully understand what he has done wrong until, poised for the glory of acceptance at the Round Table of King Arthur, the summit and consummation of knightly virtue, he is shamed before the meal begins by the dog-nosed, boar-tusked Cundrie, who curses him for his empty heart. She shames him because, Campbell explains, she is the messenger of a deeper sphere of values and possibilities than was yet sensed or understood by his socially conscious mind, but which, in the dreamlike, visionary image of the Castle of the Grail, had appeared to him as the first sign of a kingdom still to be earned, beyond the sphere of the world’s flattery, proper to his own unfolding Life. (CM, 454) It was his own inward knowledge, but he did not yet know it. Parzival takes up Cundrie’s challenge: ‘I am resolved to know no joy until I have seen again the Grail,’ he declares, in defiance now of the rule that proclaims there are no second chances. Then, in answer to Gawain’s gentle wish that God would give him good fortune in battle, he makes this momentous reply:

Alas, what is God? Were He great, He would not have heaped undeserved disgrace on us both. I was in his service, expecting His grace. But I now renounce Him and His service. If He hates me, I shall bear that. Good friend, when your own time comes for battle, let a woman be your shield. (CM, 452)

Parzival’s denunciation of God, or of what he takes to be God - the god-image ‘up there’ reported by his mother and the knightly code - marks, Campbell says, ‘a deep break in the spiritual life not only of this Christian hero, as a necessary prelude to his healing of the Maimed King and assumption of the role without inheriting the wound, but also of the Gothic age itself and thereby Western man.’ (CM. 452) For Parzival has now to confront directly the void without and within, where, as Nietzsche tells, the dragon of ‘Thou Shalt’ is to be slain. By saying No to the social, collective morality, and No to the image he takes to be God, he casts himself into the wilderness where he wanders desolate for five years, but in so doing he frees his own authentic experience, since that has become the only thing and everything he has.

Only the Grail can redeem the Wasteland, yet what is the Wasteland but the absence of the Grail? Before this, Parzival lived in the Wasteland, but did not suffer it; now he experiences the anguish of that life and so takes on symbolically the wound of the Grail king whose maiming is the expression of the Wasteland. For only when Parzival has healed himself will he be able to heal Anfortas and take upon himself the role of king. But what is the Wasteland? For Campbell it is simply the inauthentic life, a state of being which is barren of the truth of who you are.

Wolfram could see it all around him in the twelfth century, but it belongs to any age or person who lives a life handed down by society and does not take up the challenge of his or her own destiny. In practice, this means that you put what (you think) is expected or required of you (the social ‘ought’) before the impulse of your own heart, wherever it may lead. This is exactly parallel to Jung’s radical distinction between the individual and the collective life, which is the life you inherit-the ideals, beliefs, perspectives-you have not yet made your own. The appeal of the collective sensibility is clear with Parzival: why should he be blamed, he protests, when he only behaved courteously, as any true knight would? And in Wolfram’s ironic aside, he had indeed been ‘true to the dictates of good breeding’. But the often beguilingly reasonable claims of the society are never valid, Campbell insists. To be persuaded that they are is the third temptation of the Buddha-‘Perform your Duty to Society’. Your duty to society is no good, he persists, unless it is you. First, you have to be an individual, and it takes a hero to be one.

In 1949, Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is a book not just to learn from but one which lives and grows as the reader’s own understanding of its meaning and implications deepens. There, the world of myth comes brilliantly alive:

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind. It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. (H, 3)

The images and symbols of mythology are not, therefore, manufactured; they are natural phenomena, born out of and rooted in the human imagination.

They cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source. (H, 4).

How, then, are the images of myth different from the images of a dream?

Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream; both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind.

(H, 19)

The essential drama of mythology is the visionary quest which is the myth of the hero. The particular function of the hero myth is to carry the human spirit forward, offering the model and guide by means of which people may be assisted across ‘those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life.’ (H, 10) For while the passage of the mythological hero may be overground, incidentally:

Fundamentally it is inward-into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world. (H, 29)

All heroes follow a characteristic path. Whether Prometheus, Jason, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, the Buddha, Jesus or Parzival, they all fall into the same pattern of Separation-Initiation - Return. The first task of the hero is to turn away from his society - the false, restrictive consciousness entranced with the infinitely various and bewildering spectacle of phenomena. So, dying to the world, he must venture bravely forth into the lonely realm of night - the belly of the whale, the underworld, the descent to hell - a region, typically, of supernatural wonder where fabulous forces are encountered. Suffering first the trials and then the victories of initiation, often with the unsuspected assistance that comes to one who has undertaken his proper adventure, the hero is reborn into his own true nature, and thereby into the nature of the wonder of being. Finally, he returns once again to the society he had originally to leave behind, bearing now his gift of a vision transformed.

Campbell calls Parzival the Grail Hero, and here his immense range of study into the mythologies of the world allows him to discern the universal dimension within the specific cultural ideas of medieval Europe. It was essential, he taught, to distinguish the ‘ethnic’ or ‘folk ideas’ of a particular time and place from the ‘elementary ideas’, (in Bastian’s term), or the ‘archetypes of the collective unconscious’, (in Jung’s term), which are the mythic motifs common to all human beings. For a recognition of the two aspects, a universal and a local, in the constitution of sacred stories everywhere - whether called myths, religion, literature, or even history - prevents the fruitless debate on which one is ‘right’. Mythology, he declares, ‘is psychology, misread as biology, history, cosmology.’ (H, 256)

Parzival’s separation from Arthur’s Court and his refusal of the courtly God marks, then, the first stage of the hero’s solitary journey to fulfilment, that lonely dangerous quest, which is the only way to an individual life. As a boy, he was first ‘called’ away from his childhood by the knightly messengers - ’angels’, as he thought. Later, a knight himself, after his loving marriage to Condwiramurs and his unwitting visit to the Castle of the Grail, he was ritually conducted to Arthur’s Table by the gentlest knight of all, Gawain, the only one who understands his gazing at the drops of blood upon the ground to be the trance of love. The second messenger who summons him, this time away from the rewards of his worldly goal, and sets him irrevocably on the inward, visionary quest, is no angel of light but the dark apparition of the Loathly Damsel, Cundrie, richly arrayed and ugly as a hog.

The Loathly Damsel or Ugly Bride is a familiar figure in Celtic legend and fairytale, a maiden who is seen as ugly by the wicked and as fair by the good, and whom a loving kiss can transform from ugly to beautiful in an instant. (Compare the Russian tale of the Toad Bride, Beauty and the Beast, and also the play on this motif by Papagena in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.) In the Celtic folktale, this mythic figure appears as the daughter of the King of the Land of Youth, who was cursed with the head of a pig, but, when boldly kissed, became beautiful and granted her saviour the kingship of her timeless realm. Here, buried in the image of Cundrie’s boar tusks, is a vital clue to the nature of the Kingdom of the Grail, and one, furthermore, that would most likely be overlooked without the kind of mythic reach that Campbell offers. For, he argues, the Kingdom of the Grail is such a land as is suggested by this image: ‘To be achieved only by one capable of transcending the painted wall of space-time with its foul and fair, good and evil, true and false display of the names and forms of merely phenomenal pairs of opposites.’ (CM, 455) Consequently, the image prepares us for a passage beyond the known bounds and forms of space, time and causality to a domain of vision, where time and eternity are at one: in Parzival’s case, the Grail Castle, and in Gawain’s - summoned at the same time, as though they were soul brothers - the enchanted Château Merveil.

Entering, then, the Wasteland of their own disoriented lives, the next stage of trial begins in the enchanted underworld, and here the story passes to Gawain who, having lifted the spell on the enchanted castle, then meets the Lady Orgeluse, sitting by a spring. Seeing in her the reflection of the moving principle of his life, his lifelong service to love in general is irreversibly transformed into a service to that particular love. His spiritual test is now to hold to that one experience in loyalty and love beyond both fear and desire for distraction, the model already established in the Buddha’s holding to the ‘immovable point’ beneath the Bodhi Tree, which neither fear nor desire could move. Again, the mythic resonance is necessary to transform our perception of the image: ‘The sense of such a female by a spring is of an apparition of the abyss: psychologically, the unconscious; mythologically, the Land below Waves, Hell, Purgatory or Heaven. She is a portion of onself, one’s destiny.’ (CM, 489) The larger point being made here, and one which is essential to an understanding of the meaning of the Grail, is that ‘initiations transpire through the revelations of chance, according to the readiness of the psyche.’ (CM 484) Campbell frequently refers to James Joyce’s Ulysses as a parallel contemporary myth, comparing Stephen Dedalus and Parzival as the solitary introverts moved by a sense of purpose, and Bloom and Gawain as love-questing extroverts. So similarly, Joyce writes of Dedalus: ‘He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible.’ (CM 197) Since, in the case of both Gawain and Parzival, their trials were proper to their own lives, they were consequently their match. And so the second heroic stage of Initiation was achieved.

What then, finally, is the Holy Grail? Campbell did not leave the symbol vague and general, in the bafflingly opaque terms of the cup of transformation which would grant eternal life. In all the Grail stories, the Grail is the supreme spiritual value, but which one? Since, also, ‘it is a law of symbolic life that the god beheld is a function of the state of consciousness of the beholder’, (CM 566) it is a matter of some consequence which author is doing the beholding. In the monastic version of the Grail story (La Queste del Saint Graal ), the Grail is exclusively associated with Christ’s passion, as it is in Wagner’s opera Parzival and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: The Grail is the chalice of the Last Supper and the chalice that received Christ’s blood when he was taken down from the cross. Thus the reference of the symbol remains enclosed within the Christian orthodox tradition, dependent on the dualistic opposition of spirit and nature, and on belief in the sacraments as administered by the Church. Here the source of the Grail’s gift is imagined as coming from outside nature, so nature is still inherently fallen, or cursed, not itself, even potentially, divine. So the reawakening to nature that was springing up everywhere in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was, in this work, reversed, and the supernatural reimposed as the proper authority, leaving, as Campbell characteristically puts it, ‘nature, man, history, and all womankind except baptized nuns, to the Devil’. (CM, 566)

It is hardly surprising that one who was not just a comparative mythologist but who practically ‘invented’ comparative mythology as an independent study should place the claims of psychology beyond those of any particular theology. Campbell’s criterion for evaluating the different Grail myths was always their relation to the archetypal order. Does the local, specific image become translucent to a universal truth? Is it a statement about the nature of humanity, valid for the whole human race? For the ultimate reference of mythology is to the human being as human. So it was to Wolfram’s Parzival that he again turned for an understanding of the Grail as a symbol of a metaphysical truth. Wolfram tells a story of the origins of the Grail in which it was once carried from heaven to earth by the angels who had remained neutral when Satan opposed God and there was war in heaven. These were the angels in the middle, between the warring factions, and so the Grail here stands for that spiritual path that is between pairs of opposites, between fear and desire, black and white, good and evil (hence the meaning of Parzival’s name). As he says at the beginning of his tale: ‘Every act has both good and evil results.’ Between these opposites, where the Grail is to be found, is the spontaneous natural impulse of a noble heart.

The Grail, as Campbell describes it, drawing on the meaning of Wolfram’s image, is then the inexhaustible vessel, the centre of life continuously coming into being, energy pouring into creation, energy as creation, out of which civilizations arise, mountains are formed-the unquenchable fountain of the source. If we relate that image to ourselves, it is the place in us where life comes into being inside us - ‘the still point of the turning world’, as T.S. Eliot calls it in The Four Quartets - which is a place before or beyond desiring and fearing, just pure becoming. This is an image which emerges in very different cultures separated by time and space, and so must be a reflection of certain powers or spiritual potentialities in the psyche of every one of us. Furthermore, by contemplating this and other mythic images, we evoke their powers in our own lives.

In Celtic mythology, for instance - the immediate origins of all Arthurian Romance - there was not a chalice but a cauldron of plenty in the mansion of the god of the sea, Manannan Mac Lir, himself the Northern Celtic counterpart of the Roman Neptune and the Greek Poseidon, who in turn was the Occidental counterpart of the Oriental Shiva. Beneath the waves, Manannan served the flesh of pigs that, killed today, were alive tomorrow, and an ambrosial ale which bestowed immortality on all his guests, enacting, in the ceaseless ebb and flow of the tides of the sea, the continual filling and emptying of the celestial cup of the moon above. These are the images that point, in turn, to the distant roots of the mythology of the Celts in the most ancient native European mythological tradition: that of the old Megalithic, Bronze Age Goddess of many names, mother of all creation - gods and humans - and the immanent power of all nature: the earth, not as dust (as it became in the Judeo-Christian tradition), but as the source, the living body which was herself, out of whom all things proceed and to whom they return at peace.

Nearer to Celtic myth, in place and time, was Germanic myth. And there, similarly, the life-giving vessel is central. Odin (Wotan) gave an eye for a sip from the Well of Wisdom at the foot of the World Ash, Yggdrasil, where it was guarded by the dwarf, Mimir; while high above in Valhalla, the warrior dead drank a mead, served by the Valkyries, which restored them to life and joy. The late Classical Orphic sects (themselves rooted in the earlier Bronze Age Mother Goddess cultures of Mesopotamia, Crete, Egypt and Old Europe), also conducted their mystery rites through the drinking of liquid from sacramental bowls, though the symbols there were read in the inward anagogical way that is proper to symbols, not reduced to a literal sense and referred outward to supposed, actual or possible historical events. These cults were carried by the Roman armies as they advanced into northern Europe in the Gallo-Roman period, when at the same time the native Celto-Germanic gods which they encountered in the lands they occupied were identified with their Greco-Roman counterparts, allying, thereby, the classical mystery tradition with local Celtic myth and ritual.

Wolfram linked his central symbol to both these traditions - the Celtic and the Classical - and their ancient sources, as well as extending its reference to include Islam. For in his work, while the Grail acts like a vessel - in its presence whatever anyone stretched out their hands for it was waiting for, food and drink alike - it was actually a stone, the ‘Wish of Paradise’, called ‘lapsit exillis’, the name of the Philosophers’ Stone of the alchemists, but also suggesting the Ka’aba of Islam. The Grail, which ‘was the very fruit of bliss, a cornucopia of the sweets of this world and such that it scarcely fell short of what they tell us of the Heavenly Kingdom’, (P, 127) was a symbol which unified the different, even warring, traditions in a new image of the human being released from any one ecclesiastical authority, serving the world through individual love.

In his television conversations with Bill Moyers, entitled The Power of Myth, and in the book of the same name in which many of these conversations are recorded, Campbell interprets these myths of the vessel, bowl and cauldron, or the Grail stone as cornucopia, as meaning that it is out of the depths of the unconscious that the energies of life come to us, the bubbling spring from which all life proceeds. And not only the unconscious of the race - the collective unconscious, as Jung calls it - but also the vale of the world. It is not just the psyche and it is not just the world; it is from the depths of both that life comes irrepressibly forth, since one is the reflection of the other. There had been other images of the inexhaustible source of creation, but no myth before this had linked that image to the spontaneous outpouring of an individual heart, rendering the outward Grail consubstantial with the inward point of becoming life in the human being.

Then how is the Grail attained? Wolfram’s answer, conveyed first through Parzival’s failure and then through the terms on which he and Gawain finally succeed, is that it is won through the act of compassion that comes spontaneously out of an individual who lives his or her own authentic life. The Maimed Grail King, Anfortas, had not earned his castle or his throne; they had come to him as a gift, and for this reason he could not withstand the lance of the pagan, the Muslim knight, who rode at him in the woods. The Grail King’s lance kills the pagan, but the pagan’s lance castrates the Grail King. What this means, Campbell explains, is that ‘the Christian separation of matter and spirit, of the dynamism of life and the realm of the spirit, of natural grace and supernatural grace, has really castrated nature ... The true spirituality, which would have come from the union of matter and spirit, has been killed.’ (PM, 197) For the pagan represents the natural man, and yet, astonishingly, the word ‘Grail’ was written on the head of his lance: ‘That is to say,’ he continues, ‘nature intends the Grail. Spiritual life is the bouquet, the perfume, the flowering and fulfilment of a human life, not a supernatural virtue imposed upon it.’ (PM, 197).

This battle is in a sense reenacted between Parzival and the pagan knight, his half-brother Feirfiz, whose nobility (and compassion) in fighting (throwing away his sword when Parzival’s had broken) allows a recognition to take place between them, after which Cundrie appears to summon Parzival to heal the King and receive the Grail along with his wife and son. When the moment arrives, Feirfiz cannot see the Grail but only the eyes of her who carried it, the Queen Repanse de Schoye, and he was urged to be baptized and to renounce his gods if he would marry her (Parzival’s aunt, as it turned out). In a lecture that he gave on the Grail myth which was taped, Campbell, telling the story to a room already resounding with laughter, expostulates at this point: ‘Good God, I thought, is Wolfram going to let me down here at the end of the story?’ But it was all right; Wolfram played with the idea of baptism and the one true god. Feirfiz asks: ‘Is your god her god? “Yes,’ says Parzival. ‘Then for the sake of your aunt’s god, let me be baptized,’ says Feirfiz with much enthusiasm. (CM, 563)

Courtly love, Campbell explains, is exemplified in this idea of putting the loved person before any other authority in utmost particularity. For it is not the two impersonal relations of Eros and Agape - earthly and spiritual love, neither of which require a personal relationship between two unique people - but Amor, the specific, discriminating love that both Parzival and Gawain achieve for the one person who could be no other, and who is loved for who she is. One of Parzival’s tests was at the marriage of Gawain when he chose to leave the scene of festivities because of his love for Condiramors - she who leads him to love. His pagan brother simply loves the god in his lady, whoever it is.

Now when the newly baptized heathen sees the Grail with his own eyes, he sees written upon the Grail a hitherto unprecedented statement of compassion extended to the political world: ‘If any member of the Grail Company should, by the grace of God, be given mastery over a foreign folk, he must not speak to them of his race or of his name, and must see to it that they gain their rights.’ (FG, 221)

In the lecture, and in many places in his books, Campbell turns to Schopenhauer for an understanding of the power and meaning of compassion. In The Foundation of Morality, Schopenhauer asks the question: How is it that a human being can so participate in the pain and danger of another that, forgetting his own selfprotection, he moves spontaneously to the other’s rescue? How is it that what we think of as the first law of nature - self-protection - is suddenly dissolved and another law asserts itself spontaneously? Schopenhauer answers: this is the breakthrough of a metaphysical truth - that you and the other are one, and that separateness is a secondary effect of the way our minds experience the world in the frame of time and space. At the metaphysical level, we are all manifestations of that consciousness and energy which is the consciousness and energy of life. This is Schopenhauer:

The experience that dissolves the distinction between the I and the Not I ... underlies the mystery of compassion, and stands, in fact, for the reality of which compassion is the prime expression. That experience, therefore, must be the metaphysical ground of ethics and consist simply in this: that one individual should recognize in another, himself in his own true being ... Which is the recognition for which the basic formula is the standard Sanskrit expression, ‘Thou are That’, Tat vam asi. (CM, 75)

When Parzival can ask ‘what ails you?’ he has experienced the other in himself. If this is the impulse which wins the Grail, then the Grail, in its widest implication, is an image of the unity of creation-the reality of which compassion is in humanity the prime expression.

* * *

Campbell’s own life could itself be seen as an enactment of the Grail myth. His whole life is marked with the passion of the hero on his visionary quest, and, retrospectively at least, the events of his life would seem to fall into the imaginative pattern of the hero’s journey of transfiguration and return for the enlightenment of the human tribe. He lived his own description of the hero as ‘the one who, while still alive, knows and represents the claims of the superconsciousness which throughout creation is more or less unconscious’. (H, 259)

Mythology was the way that was most truly his own. It was not simply a lifelong study of a subject which he also taught; it was a profound religious position, one that refused the doctrine of a divinity transcendent to nature: ‘The great realization of mythology,’ he said, ‘is the immanence of the divine.’ (OL, 32) He often quoted the saying of Jesus from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: ‘See the Kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.’ By contrast, religion, in the orthodox sense of unilateral belief, was best defined as ‘a misinterpretation of mythology’, where ‘the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference’. (OL, 79) The mythic image is here, now, and always; myths are great poems which render insights into the wonder and miracle of life. Though they are deeply meaningful, they do not offer meaning or answers so much as delight and the longing to participate in the mystery of this finally inscrutable universe. As a union of psyche and metaphysics, myths put you in touch with your hearts.

Later in his life, in conversations on TV and taped dialogues, Campbell was often asked how to live the authentic life of an individual, how even to begin to try. To this he had one answer which remained constant throughout his life: ‘Follow your Bliss.’

I feel that if one follows what I call one’s bliss-the thing thatreally gets you deep in the gut and that you feel is your life-doors will open up. They do! They have in my life and they have in many lives that I know of.

(OL, 24)

If you follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid ... (PM, 120)

He came to this idea of bliss, he explains, because of three terms in Sanskrit, which is the great spiritual language of the world: Sat, Chit, Ananda. Sat means being; Chit means consciousness; Ananda means bliss or rapture, and these terms represent the brink, the jumping-off place to the ocean of transcendence. ‘I thought,’ he said, ‘I don’t know whether what I know of my being is my proper being or not; but I do know where my rapture is. So let me hang on to my rapture, and that will bring me both my consciousness and my being.’ (PM, 120)

Yet it is not always easy to hang on to your rapture, and here the hero myth, and specifically the Grail myth, offers a guide. If the Call comes - the feeling that there is an adventure there for you - the risk must be taken. In An Open Life, a compilation of taped interviews with Michael Toms from 1975-85, Campbell speaks from the experience of an idea he has personally tested: ‘When I wrote about the Call forty years ago (in The Hero with a Thousand Faces), I was writing out of what I had read. Now that I’ve lived it, I know it’s correct ... These mythic clues work.’ (OL, 26) Elsewhere, he adds: ‘I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.’ (PM, 118) When you follow your bliss, you come to bliss. But how to find your bliss, if it has not called you? ‘We are having experiences all the time which may on occasion render some sense of this, a little intuition of where your bliss is. Grab it. No one can tell you what it is going to be. You have to learn to recognize your own depth.’ (PM, 118)

When still at an early age, Campbell had to take on the challenge of seeing things differently from those around him. While he was brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, which he took very seriously, he was at the same time going with his father to see the Museum of Natural History with its rooms of totem poles, learning about the American Indians. So he was comparing virgin births, deaths and resurrections in both mythological systems at an early age. When he was a kid, he said, he never let anyone push him off course, and in this his family always supported him.

In his university years, he studied the literature of the Middle Ages and classical mythology, finding the same images which occurred in the Christian tradition, but inflected towards the more universal point of view. Graduate work in medieval literature took him first to Paris, in 1927, where he discovered James Joyce, and also modern art - particularly, Picasso and Klee. Then, in 1928-9, he went to Germany, to the University of Munich to study philology - the history of language - which brought him to Sanskrit, and introduced him to the whole world of the Orient. He had met Krishnamurti by chance (or synchronicity) on a boat to Europe in 1924, and had been given a book on the life of the Buddha, which prepared him for his later translating and editing of the Upanishads and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna with Swami Nikhilananda.

In Germany he discovered Thomas Mann, and also Freud and Jung who opened up for him a new psychological dimension in the field of mythology. When he wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the two men were equal in his thinking, Freud relating to (what Jung calls) the personal unconscious and Jung to the collective unconscious. But in the years following, Jung became more and more eloquent for him: ‘Freud tells us what myths mean to neurotics. On the other hand, Jung gives us clues as to how to let the myth talk to us in its own terms, without putting a formula on it.’ (OL, 121) Jung’s Symbols of Transformation was ‘one of those things that sends all the lights up in all directions.’ (OL, 50) Campbell and Jung both saw mythology as the expression of the collective unconscious (though Campbell was more interested in diffusion than Jung was), and when they met, years later, it was as co-editors of the work of Heinrich Zimmer, the great Indologist and interpretor of symbols, whom Campbell regarded as ‘supplementary to Jung’. (OL, 120) It was Zimmer who, beyond anyone, gave him the courage to interpret myths out of what he knew to be their common symbols. There’s always a risk in such an interpretation, he added, pointing us to the operation of the hero myth at any moment of our lives, whatever we are doing.

When Cundrie appears to Parzival at Arthur’s Table, she disrupts the vision he had of how his life would be, and he got up and left it all behind. Campbell describes an experience in the little garden of Cluny in Paris, in which he was similarly struck by an impulse to change the course of his life, one that he, like Parzival, immediately followed. He was sitting in the garden, having put some years of study into his Ph.D., when:

It suddenly struck me: What in heaven’s name am I doing? I don’t even know how to eat a decent nourishing meal, and here I’m learning what happened to vulgar Latin when it passed into Portugese and Spanish and French. So I dropped work on my Ph.D. On my return I found a place in upstate New York and read the classics for 12 hours a day. I was enjoying myself enormously, and realized I would never finish my degree because it would have required me to do things I had already outgrown. In Europe, the world had opened up: Joyce, Sanskrit, the Orient, and the relationship of all these to Psychology. I couldn’t go back and finish up that Ph.D. thesis; besides, I didn’t have the money. And that free-wheeling maverick life gave me a sense of the deep joy in doing something meaningful to me. (OL, 125-6)

Like Parzival, he spent five years without a job! He came back from Europe in 1929, just three weeks before the Wall Street crash, which meant there were no jobs to be had, so he found a retreat up in Woodstock, New York, in ‘a little chicken coop place’, with no running water, and here he did most of his basic reading and work: ‘It was great. I was following my bliss.’ (PM, 120) When, after five years, he was invited to teach at Sarah Lawrence College, it was on his own terms: ‘I would not have taken a job otherwise, just as I wouldn’t take the Ph.D.’ (OL, 126)

He was to stay at Sarah Lawrence College from 1934 until he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1972, pursuing his own vision, and offering it back to the many students and friends who have found his life an inspiration. He makes it sound easy, but he once shared with a friend something of what it had asked of him. They were in front of some statue, and Campbell was bringing the mythic resonances of the image to life by comparing it with similar images in other cultures, and - to temper somewhat his friend’s appreciative enthusiasm - Campbell said: ‘Yes, but think of all the hundreds of hours spent reading, all the days, all the parties missed ...’

The image of courtly love also played through his relationship to his wife, Jean Erdman, the dancer and choreographer, to whom he was married for 49 years. Marriage, he said, was a sacrament in which you give up your personal simplicity to participate in a relationship, but you give not so much to the other person as to the relationship. In 1984, towards the end of his life, he was perhaps speaking of his own experience of Amor: ‘What a beautiful thing is a life together as growing personalities, each helping the other to flower, rather than just moving into the standard archetype.’

Jean Erdman writes of his work: ‘Throughout his long career, Joseph Campbell endeavoured to communicate his understanding of myth-his passion. And he tirelessly pursued the task he had set himself. Besides his books and lectures, there were workshops and interviews, which he eagerly welcomed because he believed scholarship should not mean isolation.’ (OL, Foreward)

Before The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published in 1949, which took four years to write, he had already edited the posthumous works of Heinrich Zimmer-Philosophies of India and The Art of Indian Asia-as well as six volumes of the papers from the Eranos conferences set up by Jung to explore the issues around analytical psychology, called the Eranos Notebooks. Next came The Flight of the Wild Gander (1951), which, as he wrote in his introduction, ‘occupied, or rather punctuated, a period of twenty-four years, during the whole of which I was circling, and from many quarters striving to interpret, the mystery of mythology.’ (FG, 3) There followed his unique discussion of the world’s archetypal images of divinity in their historical contexts, called The Masks of God, which was published over a period of 12 years as four separate but related books: Primitive Mythology; Oriental Mythology; Occidental Mythology; and Creative Mythology (1959-1968). He also wrote A Skeleton Key to Finnegan’s Wake, and edited The Portable Jung and The Portable Arabian Knights. Myths To Live By (1971) was a selection of talks on mythology delivered in New York City between 1958 and 1971. In 1975, The Mythic Image was published by Princeton University Press after 10 years in preparation, a book which, incidentally, sets a standard for the right relation of text to image that has never subsequently been met. In 1983, The Way of the Animal Powers was published as the first volume of the Historical Atlas of World Mythology, followed in 1988 by the second volume, The Way of the Seeded Earth. In 1986, a record of various lectures in San Francisco, given between 1981 and 1984, was published under the title of The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. Since then, in 1988, his conversations with Bill Moyers on TV (collected in The Power of Myth) and with Michael Toms on the ‘New Dimension’ tapes (compiled in An Open Life) have shown how profoundly he lived his own myth. His great gifts of storytelling and scholarship were offered to his students and readers that they also might engage in the call of the age:

The adventure of the Grail-the quest within for those creative values by which the Waste Land is redeemed-has become today for each the unavoidable task; for, as there is no more any fixed horizon, there is no more any fixed center, any Mecca, Rome, or Jerusalem. Our circle today is that announced, c. 1450, by Nicolas Cusanus (1401-64): whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere; the circle of infinite radius, which is also a straight line. (OC, 522)

The study of mythology was for Campbell a truly sacred task because it allowed a move out of the dogma of formal religion and into the spontaneous nature of one’s own inward drama and vitality of being. It is inevitable, then, that his life might seem to us to be the mythic image that he taught us how to understand, for mythology and the way of his life were one. If the Grail represents, as he said, ‘the fulfilment of the highest spiritual possibilities of the human consciousness’, (PM, 197) then his lifelong quest of the Holy Grail may indeed have been rewarded.


H - The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell.
FG - The Flight of the Wild Gander, Joseph Campbell.
OC - Occidental Mythology, Joseph Campbell.
CM - Creative Mythology, Joseph Campbell.
PM - The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell.
OL - An Open Life, Joseph Campbell.
P - Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach. trans. A.T. Hatto (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1980).


The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton Univ. Press, 1949).
The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimensions (Gateway Edition, 1951).
The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York: Viking Press, 1959).
The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology (New York: Viking Press, 1962).
The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York: Viking Press, 1964).
The Masks of God: Creative Mythology (New York: Viking Press, 1968).
Myths To Live By (London: Bantam, 1972).
The Mythic Image, Bollingen Series C (Princeton Univ. Press, 1974).
The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion (London: St James Press, 1986).
Historical Atlas of World Mythology:
Vol. 1, The Way of the Animal Powers (London: Times Books, 1984).
Vol. 2, The Way of the Seeded Earth (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, from transcripts of the TV series (New York: Doubleday, 1988).
An Open Life. In Conversation with Michael Toms. (Compilations of Interviews from 1975-85) (Larsons Publications, 1988).
The Grail Tapes of lecture given in 1982 (Living Dharma Tapes).
Completed and edited the papers of Heinrich Zimmer: Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, The King and the Corpse, Philosophies of India, and The Art of Indian Asia.
Translated and edited, with Swami Nikhilananda, The Upanishads and The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna.
Edited Papers from the Eranos Yearbooks (6 vols.), Myths, Dreams and Religion, The Portable Jung, and The Portable Arabian Nights. Co-authored, with Henry Morton Robinson, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake.