In this paper I will provide a critique of J.P. Holding’s article “Joseph Campbell: Outdated, Irrelevant” (also titled “Myth Meister”). I would ask that the reader first read Holding’s article before reading this critique, in order to have a cohesive understanding of his position and enable a fair analysis.

The books I will reference are Thou Art That, The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Mythic Image. The former is a posthumous edition compiled from lectures and unpublished material by Campbell. The latter two are two popular texts written by Campbell.

At the time my wife and I went to community college in our area, Joseph Campbell was all the rage among professors of the humanities. Campbell had a television series and supposedly ideologically influenced honchos of the Star Wars movies.


The implementation of the word “supposedly” is not supported here or anywhere else in the article, and thus appears to be an attempt to “poison the well.” Further, whether or not Campbell’s work truly influenced Star Wars is entirely irrelevant to the paper. This may be a minor point, but I find no ostensible need for such unfounded assertions in academic analyses.

Campbell's erudition is matters of history and pagan religions is not to be doubted. Works like his Mythic Image (which was a course textbook in my college days, and may still be) and Hero with a Thousand Faces (see more below) are chock full of data that the student of comparative religion will find useful. Not to say all of it. Campbell adhered still to the ideas of James Frazer (The Golden Bough), whose work has long been rejected (see comments by a classical scholar of our acquaintance here), and it is also clear by reading his texts that he tried very hard to force a mystical template on Judeo-Christian religious concepts, and did so by way of illicit generalizing.


Campbell made no attempt to hide his intentions, which were to locate and disclose parallels in meta-themes of various traditions. In doing so, a certain degree of generalizing is required. I see no proof that his parallels are “illicit.”

The following is a speciously sparse list of alleged errors. The reader will note the brevity of each item, which amounts to little more than hand-waving. It will be my goal here to flesh out these topics a bit.

Calling various figures "Saviors" with no attention paid to what they saved (from death? from a hard life? postage stamps?).


This one is difficult because Holding provides no citations or details as to which figures were considered “saviors.” Also, it is simply untrue to say that Campbell provided no explanation of what the saviors saved people from, which I will now explain.

Thou includes some discussion of a “hero-as-savior” motif, which may clear up some of Holding’s above questions. First, let’s find out what a Savior is. From page 62:

The biography of the Savior is therefore a way to find out what the teaching of the savior is. There is, however, a certain basic savior mythos that is in the atmosphere of human history making. This mythos is drawn on in all such cases. We can observe this story in the Buddha and Christ, the motifs of whose life stories are astonishingly close. Yet another tradition of saviors is found in India, the saviors of the Jains. There are twenty-four world savers, (Titankas) or passage makers (Tirthankaras) of the Yondershore. Their biographies also contain the elements of the savior mythos found in those of the Buddha and of Christ.

After this passage, Campbell elaborates on what exactly those motifs are and how they function. Because of the nature of a critique, I will not go into detail about what these motifs are (unless necessary later).

Let me now answer Holding’s charge that Campbell does not explain what the saviors are saving people from.
One of the hero-as-savior motifs is that of “The Messiah.” From page 70 of Thou:

The idea of the Messiah as the herald of the Apocalypse was adopted by the Hebrews from the Persians.

The claim that Hebrews adopted this idea may be arguable, but for the purpose of this critique, it is irrelevant. The important factor is that the parallels do exist. Campbell continues:

The Persian ideal was of a world well created that had fallen, and of the first man, Gyamat, whose disintegration was caused by the evil power; of a great teacher, Zarathustra or Zoraoster, who commenced the restoration of the world to goodness; and of a last war, Armageddon, which would come in the year of the end of the world; a Messiah would then eliminate the evil power altogether, and establish a new world.

Other examples of saviors exist, but this one will do. Campbell has explained the purpose of the savior Zoroaster, invalidating Holding’s assertion.

Quoting the poet William Blake on the book of Job [11], who interprets it in mystical terms (i.e., Satan as "The Great Selfhood") which would never be found from interpreters familiar with ANE literature.


Unless Holding meant “translators,” he errs. Campbell was indeed familiar with ANE literature, as exemplified by his vast knowledge of the myths therein. Thus Campbell is indeed an “interpreter familiar with ANE literature.” It is reasonable to suspect that there are others who interpret Job in mystical terms.
Rather than explain why Job should not be interpreted as such, Holding has opted for vague assertion.

(I will not expound on the mystical aspects of Job here, but would be happy to in another thread.)

Referring to any return to life from death in terms of a "resurrection" [29 -- done here with Osiris the Lego god!].


Here is the full quote from Mythic Image:

And it was this sacrificed left eye of Horus, when presented as an offering to the mummy of Osiris, that restored the deity to life–an eternal life, beyond the cycle of death and generation: so that now, enthroned in the Netherworld, he reigns there as lord and judge of the resurrected dead.

Campbell did not use the word “resurrection,” so the quotation marks were misplaced. However, the intended meaning is the same. Osiris was restored to life, and one can easily see the similarity between what happened after his resurrection and what happened after Jesus’ resurrection. Obviously, since these are two separate traditions, the precise meaning of the term may differ - but, again, Campbell’s purpose is to concentrate on the parallels, not the detailed differences.

Citing later Christian syncretism of pagan ideas and symbols without regard for whether such importation was in any sense alien to the first-century apostolic faith. (Though nowhere does Campbell lay out what he thinks is the significance of the parallels, practically speaking.)


This point is very vague. There’s no reference, so it could apply to just about any of Campbell’s works. Indeed, Campbell’s trademark was examining similarities between traditions, but to say that he did so without consideration of one group’s perspective is so false as to render it deceitful--this is what he spent his life doing.

The last claim in parentheses is also false. Campbell’s work is no dearth of explanation. A perusal of Hero or Thou would quickly reveal the significance of the parallels, which are too many to name in a single paper.

Again, what we have here is unfounded assertion.

Citing Christian baptism [239] as a parallel to such stories as an Indian Goddess of nature emerging from the primal waters [! -- a rather misconstrued idea of the point of baptism; see here].


Holding fails to acknowledge that different religions ascribe different meanings to their baptism rites. The point that Campbell makes is not that every culture defines baptism the same way, but that the archetype of a passage through water permeates various traditions. The reference here (page 239 of Mythic Image), is very short. It should be noted that Mythic Image is mostly mythological images (hence the title) with minimal textual explanation. The passage in question concerns a Buddhist image of a Goddess being reborn:

Just as in the Christian rite of baptism, Fig. 216, the “natural man” is “born again” from waters–heavenly blessed–in the virgin womb of the font, so in this Indian vision of the Goddess of Nature rising from the primal sea there is bestowed on her a second water-birth from the spiritual sphere above.

As noted, there is very little examination of why each religion does baptisms. Campbell merely suggests a common theme of spiritual rebirth accompanying a passage through water (which is found in many traditions).

From the article Holding linked above:

The correct interpretation of this verse [John 3:14] is found in light of the intimate connection of water, spirit, and cleansing in Judaism. As Beasley-Murray observes, "The conjunction of water and Spirit in eschatological hope is deeply rooted in the Jewish consciousness."


This fits in with the view offered by Campbell. Water is seen throughout many traditions as a cleansing element, something that must be passed through in order to achieve salvation.

Again, it is important to note that Campbell does not claim that each religion thinks of baptism in the same way, as Holding implies. He doesn't even claim that people are aware of the metathemes inherent in their traditions - in fact, most would probably deny it. He looks as an outsider, comparing different traditions.

In Hero, citing cases of women impregnated by gods as "virgin births" -- not one case being a matter of divine fiat creation.


Here, the “divine fiat” stipulation is added by Holding as a red herring. Campbell never mentions the term, so to say that he didn’t prove each case was a “divine fiat” says nothing. Of course there are numerous stories of virgin births, and each of them has its specific differences. The point is the similarity of theme, not the minute details of the story. From Thou page 63:

There is then a whole tradition of mythologies involving the spiritual begetter and the son who must go in quest of this father. This is not always a Virgin Birth in the physical sense. The birth of the Buddha is not exactly a Virgin Birth, although Queen Maya is often referred to as a virgin. The Buddha is born from his mother’s side so, again, it is not a physical birth but a spiritual birth that is represented.

There are no other myths that tell of a savior born from his mother’s side, as with the Buddha, but this says nothing of the story’s veracity. It’s a detail that is relevant to the religion, but irrelevant to Campbell's study.

In other places Campbell draws peculiar connections and leaves readers to reach an unspecified conclusion. A story of Qutezalcoatl being conceived [168] as an incarnation of the prayer-message of the Aztec Lady and Lord of heaven is said to remind us of Phil. 2:6-8, "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross." Campbell's personal level of concept-association seems to have been quite broad!


Again, these are meta-level themes that are being compared. Holding needs to demonstrate here exactly why Campbell was wrong, and in not doing so, has drawn a connection and left the reader to draw conclusion - the same thing he has lambasted Campbell for doing.

The conception of Wisdom that laid behind Phil. 2 is only remotely similar to what Campbell describes -- and by highlighting only commonalities, while ignoring vast differences (or in Campbell's case, he was perhaps unaware of them) does a grave disservice.


The linked article about Wisdom describes a personification of Wisdom (Sophia) as used in the Old Testament. This is a concept greatly expounded on in C.G. Jung’s Answer to Job, with which Campbell was no doubt familiar. Campbell references Jung often, and surely understood the concept of Wisdom as hypostasis (Jung calls her Sophia, Yahweh’s wife and consort). By ignoring this and focusing on the commonality, Campbell achieves his stated goal. It may be a disservice to a person looking to Campbell for in-depth study of specific Judeo-Christian or Aztec concepts, but that is not Campbell’s purpose.

The question to Holding is, are the allegedy ignored differences so great as to render the parallels nonexistant?

We also found it a little presumptive for Campbell to cite parallels between pieces of art removed from each other by chasms of time and space, such as a Buddhist carving of the first century BC to a German painting of the 16th century AD, or comparing 2nd and 7th century Indian and Chinese depictions of the Buddha being born from his mother's side with a fifteenth-century European work showing the crucifix, as a tree, growing from the body of a sleeping Mary!


Presumptive seems like a bad choice of words. Campbell had a breadth of knowledge about world mythologies, and was unlikely to make conclusions based on presumptions. Rather, he drew conclusions on decades of study and research. The parallels between the art pieces do exist - what Campbell attempted to do was explain why these exist.

Holding's problem above is that he implies that Campbell implies the works were somehow directly related or influential to each other. Let's look at it like this: if an apple exists in 2,000 B.C., and an apple exists in 2,000 A.D., are they not both apples?

Establishing a thematic connection surely requires more than mere assertion and a few sentences.


As does a debunking of a man’s pivotal life work. Holding dedicates a measly page and a half to this lofty goal, which may or may not explain why his article is so thoroughly unconvincing.

So how, you may ask, did Campbell think he could get away with such wild paralleling? The answer (explored in more detail in the links below) is that Campbell did not follow the usual "copycat" crowd in thinking that Christians went out and literarily borrowed ideas after reading The Book of the Dead.


Campbell did not follow any usual crowd. His work was somewhat original, which is partly why it’s so widely read and revered today.

For Campbell the similarities derived from Jungian archetypes -- if you will, mythical templates embedded in all human minds subconsciously. This is how it is that Campbell thinks 1st century BC and 16th century AD items can be regarded as parallels: It is not a matter of theft, but of common psychological source.


If Holding wishes to argue against Jung’s theory of archetypes, rather than briefly commenting and leaving his conclusion open to interpretation, now would be the time.

Campbell's dependence on Jung was a little more obvious in Hero with a Thousand Faces.


Yes, mostly because Campbell states this over and over again. He does not try to hide the fact that he uses Jung’s theories.

But it was clear in his Preface that he was sensitive to the charge that he was overemphasizing similarities and ignoring differences.


It should be noted here that the preface is two pages long, and only one small part of a paragraph addresses this issue. Here are all of the relevant sentences to which Holding refers:

Perhaps it will be objected that in bringing out the correspondences I have overlooked the differences between the various Oriental and Occidental, modern, ancient, and primitive traditions. The same objection might be brought, however, against any textbook or chart of anatomy, where the physiological variations of race are disregarded in the interest of a basic general understanding of the human physique. There are of course differences between the numerous mythologies and religions of mankind, but this is a book about the similarities; and once these are understood the differences will be found to be much less great than is popularly (and politically) supposed.

Below, Holding partially quotes it this brief passage.

To this charge he petulantly replied, "The same objection might be brought, however, against any textbook or chart of anatomy, where the physiological variations of race are disregarded in the interest of a basic general understanding of human physique."


This is hardly “petulant”! One wonders why Holding so callously applies such pejoratives throughout this article (lack of a good argument?). Taken in context, it can be seen as typical Campbell sincerity, with zero trace of hostility or bitterness (petulance).

Of course there are differences, he admits, but he was writing a book about the similarities, and hey, I'm doing this in the name of "unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding." [vii]


This is his stated goal.

That's designed to bring a tear to your eyes and a salute to the unity flag,


I fail to see how a statement of one’s thesis could be construed as intending to bring a tear to one’s eye (again with the pejoratives). In fact, the charge Holding has placed is designed to bring a giggle to one’s throat, in effect reversing the charge of appeal to emotion (slightly modified as appeal to ridicule) onto Holding.

but before we get too emotionally involved, keep in mind that Campbell's analogy is seriously presumptive.


Again, Campbell does not work on presumptions. His books are well cited and contain superfluous examples, ad nauseum really, to back up his claims (very much unlike Holding's article). If one disagrees with his conclusions, this does not make his work presumptuous.

The differences are on more of a scale of comparing human anatomy with insect anatomy, or with Vulcan anatomy.


Comparing extant or historical world religions and traditions is not the same thing as comparing a man to a bug. Or to a Vulcan, which isn’t even an extant or historical object. Again, Holding relies on appeal to ridicule to make a point.

The analogy begs the question of just how similar indeed the parallels are.


If one were to actually read (not selectively skim through) Hero and Mythic Image, one would not be bogged down by this question. Campbell provides plenty of backing to his claims--far too much to cite here.

Covering one's self by adding emotional components will not validate the practice of illicit generalization one bit.


The emotional element is an “illicit” exaggeration on the part of Holding. Here he has taken Campbell’s thesis out of context, twisted it to be an appeal to emotion, and brandished all of Campbell’s work as emotional. This is unsuitable and disrespectful.

It is by the same token that our classical scholar made Churchill one of Raglan's mythical heroes (see link above) and our mythical Phonias J. Futz rendered Lincoln mythical.


Yes, so at least someone understands Campbell. As Campbell repeats throughout all three books, the historicity of a mythical character is not the important factor. The message, what they stood for and taught, is what matters. In fact, here is a quote about the very same issue Holding’s classical scholar writes about (taken from Thou, page 62):

The biography of a mythological savior is itself an image statement of the sene of the doctrine. It becomes attached to all great figures. To take an example, consider Abraham Lincoln, who was known as a great joke teller. Within two or three decades after his death, anybody who had a good joke to tell attributed it to Abe Lincoln. So, too, the many anecdotes about George Washington’s honesty. They gathered, like iron filings to a magnet, to the lore of his integrity. They stand as a cloud of witnesses to the greatness of the man and their historical accuracy is unimportant.

The article Holding links above, rendering Lincoln as mythical, was both redundant (he could have pointed the reader to Campbell’s work to let him explain it) and a poor application of Campbell’s technique. The article uses the word “mythological” to mean “non-existent,” which is not at all the definition Campbell uses. The application of the Hero requirements uses information that is not extant, and was completely imagined by Holding, as opposed to Campbell who works from extant writings. In short - a sardonic satire, a sham. Rather than give Campbell a professional reaction that a serious scholar deserves, Holding imitates the work of the infamous Akarya S. by arguing from ignorance and ridicule.





Campbell's template of the "tyrant-monster" could just as well mythicize Hitler or Stalin, especially if we are allowed to explain vast differences as nevertheless variations on the same theme.


Indeed. The important thing to remember about Hitler is not when he was born or how old he was when he died, but what he did that made the world hate him. What lessons can we learn from Hitler? The historicity will be irrelevant two millennia from now - what will matter are the lessons people retain.

Furthermore, Holding implies that Campbell "mythicizes" historical figures, when this isn't at all what he's done. The myth already exists, and Campbell figures out the template. He does not render historical figures as fictional.

It apparently never occurred to Campbell that myths are alike not because of some Jungian mailbox in our heads, but because, as has been noted, there are really only about a dozen plotlines behind every sitcom or story ever written; because life itself is repetitive upon these very themes.


This is a non-sequitur. The conclusion reached – that there are only about a dozen plotlines to life – actually follows Jung’s archetype theory. So Holding has effectively supported Jung’s model here.

Everyone is a "tyrant-monster" now and then.


Which is why mythological themes are so important to our lives.

Everyone goes on journeys where they see unusual sights. Your next trip to Yellowstone is a psycho-workout of your Jungian template for fantasy quests, if you tell it properly.


Again, an unprofessional ridicule of Campbell’s work. This isn’t at all what he has implied. The Hero model does not indicate that every person takes the journey a hero--instead, it analyzes the existing stories of heroes in myths. This is either a gross misunderstanding of Campbell's work, or an intentional mischaracterization (straw man).

And it gets more vague. Even the story of Red Riding Hood, swallowed by a wolf, is open to view as a parallel to a story of an Eskimo hero who called for a whale to open its mouth, and then darted inside when it did so and had a look around; or of the Zulu story of a woman and children swallowed by an elephant who found a strange land inside.


Correct, although the mention of Red Ridinghood is merely one sentence.

Inquiry: How hard would it have been for there to have been no Jungian templates in our heads and for these people to come up with these stories completely independently?


Here Holding has posited a rhetorical question meant to imply that the Jungian archetypes do not exist. His purpose would be better suited if here were to debunk the archetype theory first, and then move on to Campbell. His inquiry can not be answered without first understanding exactly what the archetypes are.

Campbell's theories are essentially worthless, because they are practically unfalsifiable and do not accept vast differences as a disproof.


His work is not unfalsifiable. He claims that there are similarities - this can be falsified. Differences are not disproofs of similarities. That is a non-sequitur.

Campbell seldom exhibited any opinions and most often let descriptions "speak for themselves" even if they did not speak well. (I.e., both Buddha sitting under the tree and Christ crucified are expressions of the "World Tree" motif --


Holding seems to think that one can debunk a theory just by mentioning it. The comparisons of Buddha’s tree to Jesus’s cross are supple in both Hero and Thou, and more than I can explain here. If one is interested, some research would be due.

I suppose the Romans had that in mind when they crucified people? -- and Mount Calvary is an expression of the "World Navel" motif -- never mind that there is no proof anyone in the apostolic or later church ever thought of it that way.)


This is a straw man. Campbell never claims that the writers of stories were aware of the larger motifs. Motifs also appear in dreams, but this does not mean that the dreamer is aware of the motif when s/he is dreaming. Campbell looked on at history from an impartial stance, something that the actors in the myths could not do.

But at one point it came through that he was set upon the idea that Judeo-Christian (and perhaps Muslim) concepts were a corruption of purer ideals associated with mysticism. [356]


This concept does not come through at all. In the cited page(s), Campbell does not even mention Judaism or Christianity. He is referring to mystic elements, which exist in most religions.

Campbell outlines the concept of chakras, or centers of energy, noting that of the seven that are in mystical thought, three are "modes of man's living in his naive state, outward turned..."

Most people, he says, have functioned only on the level of these three chakras and hints that the monotheistic faiths (he does not name them, but the implication is clear from his description) are designed for those living only with charkas 1-3 and not developing the rest. " is obvious that a religion operating only on these levels, having little or nothing to do with fostering the inward, mystical realizations, would hardly merit the name of religion at all. It would be little more than an adjunct to police authority..."

Holding errs here by assuming that Campbell would consider Christianity to only operate on the first three chakras. To the contrary, the above quote applies rather to how an individual practices their religion, regardless of which religion.

Here are brief descriptions of the first three levels of chakra:
1. Operates in the material world of “hard facts.”
2. “The whole aim of life is in sex.”
3. “Here the energy turns to violence and its aim is to consume, to master, to turn the world into oneself and one’s own.” Sex becomes not an occasion but an achievement.

It is clear that Christianity is not made up of these chakras. This is something Holding inferred from the text, perhaps through loose reading – I daresay not from personal experience of Christianity.

If we wish to draw Campbell parallels, this sounds like Marx's "religion is the opiate of the people."


Yes, now that is a good example of a petulant, presumptuous parallel with no backing. Funny that Holding uses the same tactics he (falsely) accuses Campbell of using.

Marx abhorred religion, whereas Campbell was fascinated by it. Marx saw religion as a way to quell the proletariat, whereas Campbell saw myths as a way to explain life, morality, and meaning.

Campbell's ghost remains with us to this day, and it is well to recall that while his work was long on description and implication, it was very short on hard data and detailed analysis.


This palsy conclusion statement does a huge disservice to anyone interested in Campbell. His work is vastly extensive, citing hundreds of myths per book. His work is still taught by practically all college mythology courses today, and many people find it illuminating. To write it off as outdated and irrelevant shows a callous abrasion of the data, and implies a meandering glossing-over of Campbell’s work, rather than an in-depth study. In preparing for this critique I have read three Campbell books and one relevant work by C.G. Jung. I have found Holding to have missed the point entirely, which is evident in his scant quoting. In respect to this article about Campbell, one can only assume that Holding has the same modus operandi as he claims Campbell had: very short on hard data and detailed analysis.

Holding, in his lifelong pursuit to literalize Biblical metaphors, may indeed be unable to comprehend Campbell’s work. From Thou page 7

The problem, as we have noted many times, is that these metaphors, which concern that which cannot in any other way be told, are misread prosaically as referring to tangible facts and historical occurrences. The denotation–that is, the reference in time and space: a particular Virgin Birth, the End of the World–is taken as the message, and the connotation, the rich aura of the metaphor in which its spiritual significance may be deducted, is ignored altogether. The result is that we are left with the particular “ethnic” inflection of the metaphor, the historical vesture, rather than the living spiritual core.

Indeed, there are those who hyperliteralize a myth and cling to historicity, and those who endeavor to draw meaning from the myths and apply them to life. “Which group,” Campbell asks, “really gets the message?”

Holding has mentioned in this article that Campbell’s work is used as a basis for amateur “copycat” theories. This is irrelevant to Campbell’s work, as his goal was never to disprove or in any way invalidate Christianity. To the contrary, he has helped non-Christians find value in Christianity where they otherwise might find none (which is more than many apologists can say). The copycat crowds do a huge disservice to Campbell in that respect, as they distort his stated intentions, and Holding's faux pas is that he associates Campbell with this crowd.

In critiquing Holding's article, it became clear that he did not fully read any Campbell texts. Rather, he has perused them for buzzwords and snippets that he can take out of context, and then cited the snippets so vaguely as to make it near impossible to look them up. In other words, he started his research with a foregone conclusion that Campbell's work is inaccurate, then took what he needed to make his point. Good scholarship requires that one go into a study with perhaps a hypothesis, but definitely not with a preformed conclusion.

In sum, Holding's article is outmoded, irrelevant, unprofessional and deceitful.