Aryan Right-Wing Mythology for the New Age: Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell


My three-year stint in the New Age

In 1984 at the age of 36, I decided to return to school with the intention of becoming an art therapist. I attended Antioch University in San Francisco for my undergraduate degree and then went to a New Age spirituality school the following year for my master’s degree (California Institute of Integral Studies). At the time, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell were treated as if they were gods. On the surface, it seemed like a good fit for me. After all, as an art therapist I could work with images, and Jungians were all about images. I was attracted to the prospect of making images not as art-for-art’s-sake, but in the service of spirituality or even pagan magic. Mircea Eliade was the guru of comparative religion. He wrote a 3 volume set on A History of Religious Ideas and like Jung, he thought modern life was a degeneration from ancient or even tribal times. Most likeable of all was Joseph Campbell. I mean, watching him on Bill Moyers, what’s not to like? I was thrilled by the sweep of his Hero with a Thousand Faces and I read his four-volume comparative mythology. I read all these books before I re-entered college, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. But there was a fly in the ointment. I was (and am) a materialist Marxist and had no intention of giving that up. Plus, I went to school in very conservative times, five years into Reagan’s two years of presidencies. It wasn’t until later that I realized how politically conservative Jung, Eliade and Campbell actually were. Further, thanks to Robert Ellwood’s book The Politics of Myth, I realized that they were all anti-Communist as well. This article is about Ellwood’s book. Besides Ellwood, other sources for this article are The Jung Cult and the Aryan Christ, both by Richard Noll.

Why was right-wing mythology attractive in post-World World II Yankeedom?

After World War II, there was an upsurge of interest in mythology in the United States. Why was this? Mythology is typically associated with time periods that are prior to the 19th century – the Greeks, the Romans, or the Renaissance. It seemed that the philosophy of the Enlightenment had buried mythology as another indicator that the days of conventional religion, magic and storytelling were over. But the industrialization process, along with two world wars and the rise of fascism seemed to put a damper on Enlightenment dreams for Europe. Not only this, but myth was used by European countries throughout the 19th centuries to build nationalist sentiments to fuel the war. Myth was an expression of the connection between collective humanity (not individuals) and an animated spiritualized nature (not inert). Myth is experienced through imagination, intuition, poetic stories, and rites.  There was an anti-Christian, anti-Jewish strain since both these mainstream religions were modernist and rejected myth for history. “Now we see where history has led us”, the mythologists might say.  If the modern world was fallen, the shortest road to paradise might lead backward to the Middle Ages, the ancient world or even to tribal societies.

It is completely understandable that Europeans might be drawn to myth because of the casualties, whether or not they won or lost the war.  After all, these mass murders were achieved with modern weapons.  But why would myth become popular in the United States that was on the winning side of the war and had suffered few causalities comparatively speaking? All three mythologists developed a following in the United States. In addition, the United States was anti-communist in the 1950s. Communism was associated with the “progress” orientation of the modern world. Why would the Yankee population reject both liberal modernity and communist modernity? The answer is that it was only the upper and upper-middle classes in Yankeedom that was enthralled with mythology. The middle and working classes were satisfied with their traditional religions.

Is myth inevitably associated with the right wing?

A second issue worth discussing is the politics of myth. All three mythologists we study – Jung, Eliade and Campbell – were associated with the extreme right. Why is this? Is there something about socialism that makes it less possible to use mythology? Some may say that the further to the left you go on the political spectrum the more skeptical people become about religion or mythology. But Jung, Eliade, and Campbell would argue that myth is not a stage of social evolution, nor does it occupy a particular place on the political spectrum. They would say myth is a set of rites and stories present in all societies. If we take this to be true, that will mean myth would be operative across the entire political spectrum.  In other words, it doesn’t explain why the left has not used myth more.

Commonalities Among Post-World War II Mythologists

Condemning the secular Enlightenment

All three mythologists had major problems with the beliefs and institutions of modernity. They each thought Enlightenment secularism, empiricism, and rationality was responsible for the sad shape the world was in during their time. Jung thought that without spiritual institutions, the darker side of humanity runs rampant. He believed that this is true because this dark side is not sublimated through spiritual practices such as ritual enactments and mythic storytelling. The two world wars were the result of the collective unconscious run amok. Were people in touch with their mythological roots, and brought them to life regularly, they would not act them out in wars.

Western science is guilty of hubris

All mythologists implicate science in the state of the world because science is guilty of hubris in thinking that humanity can chart its own course. Quantitative measurement, statistics, probability, rationality, and objectivity took the heart and soul out of life. Personal experience, storytelling, use of imagination, and appreciation of mystery were left high and dry in this type of world.

The Jewish nature of capitalism

Another modern institution these mythologists condemned was capitalism. Capitalism hollowed out and commercialized religious holidays. While none of these mythologists were pro capitalist, it is easy to imagine that Joseph Campbell might support the pre-corporate capitalism of small traders. What is more important is that all three tended to connect capitalism to the Jews. Instead of critically examining the economic system of capitalism, they blamed the Jews in subtle ways for the spiritual poverty of the West. It is almost as if they were implying that if it wasn’t for the Jews, capitalism would be fine.

Perennial esoteric spirituality

However, to these mythologists, not all spiritual institutions are equally valuable. All three mythologists were, in different ways, hostile to the Jewish and Christian religion. All believed they were complicit in creating modernist problems. These religions denied the importance of spiritual experience and were marred in thin superstitious rituals and material wealth. Their sacred presences that were simplistic dualities of good and evil and they failed to address complexities of modern life. Mythological stories are really complex stories and solutions to common human problems that have been lost, marginalized, and demonized by Western religion. All three mythologists were followers of a spiritual Gnostic tradition which claims there is a hidden spiritual knowledge that the ancients were aware of but which had been lost, thanks to modernity. This Gnostic tradition teaches that the material world is unreformable and it is better to withdraw from it in order to perfect itself. The Gnostics believed that exoteric religion was institutionalized religion for the masses and they thought the Enlightenment was right to criticize them. However, all religion has an esoteric hidden teaching that contains the best of all religion and was followed by the great prophets of all these religions.

Though Jungian spirituality is highly idiosyncratic, it is fair to say that Jung admired what he imagined to be pre-Christian German paganism. If James Hillman is any indicator, Jungian psychology is a modern version of the archetypal, polytheistic psychology of the Renaissance. The roots of Eliade’s religious beliefs are Hindu’s and Vedanta’s tradition of yoga. According to Robert Elwood, Campbell flirted with Hindu traditions but ultimately settled with the pagan traditions in the West, from Homer to the Holy Grail. He also loved Native American mythology.

Scholarship lacks time and space grounding

In terms of scholarship, all three mythologists were interested in literary mythology as opposed to folklore. Not surprisingly, they all were influenced by the German romantics – Herder, Schelling, and Wilhelm Wundt. As might be expected by their rejection of science, all three mythologists were criticized by anthropologists and history scientists for their universalizing religious symbols, myths, and rituals. None of them did fieldwork or research in philology, textural studies. More importantly, all three were notorious for decontextualizing mythology from the technological, economic, and political circumstances in which myths were formed. In other words, these mythologists abstracted and compared myths independently of the time and place in which they occurred. They were opposed to any notion of cultural evolution. They saw no pattern of myths as they evolved over time and space. Since myths are supposedly eternal the time and place they occurred in was irrelevant.

Political reactionaries

To be a reactionary means to want to return to an earlier time politically. This is a common theme of all romantics. Where do these mythologists want to go? Ellwood argued that Jung wants to return to a medieval time in which all the world was a sacred symbol, where people knew how to do rituals, and when storytelling was meaningful rather than hollow. Eliade yearns for the 19th century Romanian Renaissance of peasant culture. Campbell’s ideal time seems to be during the period of pioneers, cowboys, and native Americans before they all were overshadowed by cities, industry, and commerce.

In the world of practical politics, Jung was initially sympathetic to the Nazis in the early years, but soon regretted it. Likewise, Eliade had connections with the fascist Romanian Iron Guard in the 30s but withdrew from them around 1940. Ellwood says that Joseph Campbell was easily the most right-wing of the three. Even by 1940 he was slow in understanding the destructiveness of the Nazis. As a teacher at Sarah Lawrence, he also was not supportive of racial minorities and feminism in the 1960s and threatened to fail students if they went to protests. Ellwood characterizes Campbell as to the right of William Buckley. All three mythologists were anti-communists with Campbell being the most extreme. The influences on all three mythologists were either fascists or conservatives including Nietzsche, Sorel, Ortega y Gasset, Spengler, Heidegger Frobenius, and Thomas Mann.

Interestingly, the publisher of both Campbell’s and Jung’s work, Bollington, was owned by Paul Mellon, and related to Andrew Mellon. Given the conservative tendencies of Jung and Campbell, it is not surprising that they found so much money to “spread their word” at a time of rabid anti-communism in the fifties. Norbert Frye did much to make mythic analysis of Shakespeare and other literature an academic fashion.

All three lost credibility in the sixties as many people were breaking away from the individualism these mythologists supported. They were becoming more political and more critical of the capitalism Mellon lived and died by. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s when the country turned more conservative and the New Age grew during the counterculture that Jung, Eliade and Campbell regained popularity.

Carl Gustav Jung and Wotan’s Return

Collective unconscious

Despite his dabblings into anthropology, (Totem and Taboo and Moses and Monotheism) Freud was interested in the unconscious primarily as it related to the individual. But after Jung’s break with Freud in 1913, Jung underwent a spiritual crisis. He recovered, in part due to his experience of the unconscious that he perceived as collective. Whole nations and races had their own collective unconscious that could be tapped through their mythology and rites. Jung drew from a volkish German tradition that included sun worshiping movements as well as spiritualism and theosophy.

For Jung, the type of society had no independence from the psychological states of humanity. The type of human society was no more than a screen on which to project the storm and stresses of the soul of the group. This meant that the Germans had a collective unconscious as did the French, Italians, and the Spanish. Whether the society was tribal, feudal, or industrial capitalist was irrelevant. In the modern world the collective unconscious is repressed because religious rituals have lost their power and had been hollowed out by science, industrialization, and capitalism.

With the rise of cities and mass communication at the end of the 19th century, local communities were broken up. Masses of humanity became isolated, living next to each other without the community rituals that allowed them to maintain rhythm with the natural cycles of life. According to Ellwood, Jung agreed with Ortega y Gasset that there was a vast cloud of unreleased collective energy which accumulated with no rituals, symbols, or storytelling to ground the instincts and channel it into constructive outlets. The result is that when modern revolts, crazes, and fads emerge they combine the worst of tribal and modern life.

Political reactionary

As a conservative, Jung favored order, stability, and hierarchy. In his collective unconscious he had plenty of room for kings, queens, and warrior archetypes. Beyond his Swiss borders, he sometimes expressed admiration for Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy. Jung was very hostile to socialism and the prospect of levelling hierarchies. But the most controversial of all were Jung’s political attitude towards the Nazis. On the one hand, Ellwood tells us:

  • Most German protestant pastors (Jung’s ultimate roots) welcomed the accession of Hitler. They generally despised the Weimar regime for its cosmopolitan atheist or agnostic culture.
  • German volkish literature had broad distribution in Switzerland and its anti-Semitism was widespread.
  • Nazi groups and sympathizers within Germany were present in Swiss cities and towns.
  • Switzerland was bound economically to the Axis cause. Some 97% of Swiss exports went to Germany. Nazis had arrangements with Swiss banks.
  • Jung clearly had an anti-Jewish streak (as he did toward Christianity) and this was a foundation for his paganism. Jung talked about the rootlessness of Jewish intellectuals.

The Jew was domesticated to a higher degree than we are, but he is badly at a loss for that quality in man which roots him to the earth and draws new strength from below—a chthonic quality (57).

The Jews had a:

tendency of consciousness to autonomy with the risk of severing it almost entirely from its instinctual sources. (64)

The untimeliness of his writing about racial psychology at a time when millions of Jews were being slaughtered by Nazis says a great deal about Jung’s attitudes towards Jews. The weight of his authority and timing could only fan the flames of hatred of the Jews.

Qualifications about Jung’s anti-Jewish stance

To be fair to Jung, it is difficult for anyone to understand the full implications of a political movement when it is still in formation. Even people in the political center were sympathetic to the Nazis before they rose to power. The same is true for those who were initially supportive of the Soviet Union. Liberal intellectuals like John Dewey and Bertrand Russell were sympathetic to Russia. In the case of John Dewey, he maintained his sympathy as late as 1929 and well into the Stalinist era. Jung showed a very surprising lack of psychological depth in understanding the Nazi potential for mass violence. On the surface, the Nazis seemed to strive to undercut the alienation of mass society but instead returning to community roots. It is not so far-fetched to get behind this. By the beginning of World War II, Jung had recovered and was opposed to the Nazis.

The upsurge of the pagan god Wotan, like an extinct volcano roaring back to fiery life through National Socialism, could have given Jung a glimmer of hope since connections were culturally between the conscious and unconscious. This must have been a welcome relief to the thin modernistic anxiety of the Weimar republic.

We have to consider that Germany was home to some of the greatest scientists, philosophers, painters, and musicians for the last 300 years – Fichte, Kant, Hege and Leibniz. It was the home of the great science and industrial power that Germany became between 1850 and 1900. It is not far-fetched to think that whatever the Nazis were stirring up, it could be contained and integrated by the great traditions of Germany. Germany was a very civilized nation by European standards and by the end of the 19th century the envy of France and Britain.

If Jung were completely anti-Jewish, he wouldn’t have helped individual Jews such as Erich Neuman to escape.

No political scientist, natural scientist, philosopher, or artist can control what is done with their work. The Nazis made propagandic use of Jung, banning books and articles that were against them, and giving great attention to his writing that supported them. Whatever his upper-class public connections were, those connections were not strong enough to compete with the likes of the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

After World War II, Jung seemed to learn from his mistakes and there was no further mention in his work about earth-rootedness and lost communalism. Paradoxically, Jung became preoccupied with individuation, a very modernist conception he previously condemned.

Ellwood suggests that a truer picture of Jung’s political position was that of the conservative Edmund Burke. Like he, Burke of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Jung was a romantic rather than a classicist. Unlike a classicist who held that what is most beautiful and what is tame, clear, and self-evident, Jung believed that it was the sublime that mattered – what is striking, irregular and mysterious.

Mircea Eliade and Nostalgia for the Sacred

Eliade’s life

Mircea Eliade led a tempestuous life in Romania for the first 38 years of his life. According to Ellwood, among other things he was a prolific and provocative newspaper columnist; a novelist whose works were praised extravagantly and denounced as pornographic; a dynamic lecturer at the University of Bucharest who virtually established the history of religions and Indology as disciplines; a political activist who was accused of fascism and a political prisoner for four months for his loyalties under the royal dictatorship of King Carol II.

Ellwood claims Eliade was the best known and most controversial of the passionate young Romanian intellectuals of his generation. He fled Romania after it became a satellite of the Soviet Union in 1945. In 1945 he taught at the Sorbonne in Paris, and then from 1956 on at the University of Chicago. In these roles he become the preeminent historian of religion of his time.

Rejection of secularism

Of the three mythologists, Eliade was the most uncompromising in rejecting the secular world. He rejected the scientific study of religion and its history and did not work to join with other scholars in their efforts to make religious studies in any way empirical. He thought the entire secular world is a poor cousin to the most important aspirations of life which are religious. For Eliade, ordinary means of knowledge based on the five senses are not only flawed but really spread a veil of maya (or illusion) over our knowledge of reality. He saw himself as a caretaker of spirituality in a secular age.  In the spirit of Indian idealism he saw the sacred, timeless as rich in being and the secular world as historical and degenerate.

Sacred space and time

To the secular, Eliade contrasted another kind of time, sacred time which is myth, not history. Myth foretells for us the re-enactment of the eternal time of Origins. Sacred space is the location where these myths are enacted. Geographically they are in the silent core of the whirling arms of the galaxies of secular life. In ancient civilizations the founding of a city was where the four directions met. In other words, the “heart” of downtown. These are the sacred places where myths are created.  Mandalas, mazes, or labyrinths of medieval Christianity help us to experience these centers of the world. These are devices for grounding consciousness.

History as an exile from eternity

Eliade believed that to live in a historical time and place was to live under fallen conditions. Mystical experience was to live beyond history and place. It is tempting to think that premodern societies were more akin to Eliade’s vision. But Eliade tells us that even primitive societies did not live in mythic time. They too saw mythic time as located in the misty past and they were living in degenerate times. However, they were at least committed at the beginning of every year to performing a ritual which restored mythic time and place. Eliade thought that the historical religions lost a sense of how to do this:

What I am sure of is that any future forms of religious experience will be quite different from those we are familiar with in Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, all of which are fossilized, outmoded, and drained of all meaning (116)

Reasons for an anti-historical approach

As a result of World War I, Romania experienced a kind of national renaissance. They had regained a number of provinces which were historically Romanian and this greatly enlarged their territory and population. In 1932, there began a time of intense struggle in Romania and across Europe as the fascist right and communist left battled each other for control of the continent. Some wanted Romania to liberalize, become more cosmopolitan and follow the lead of the Enlightenment. Eliade and his friends wanted no part of this. For them, Western liberalism would hollow out the Romanian national spirit. The peasants would be left out along with Orthodox Romanians. Liberal nationalism would also hollow out the mythological and symbolic dimensions of nationalism. Lastly the corruption and incompetence of the shallow democratic monarchy that ruled Romania in those days helped to make Eliade skeptical of liberalism.

Eliade had thus experienced the terror of the failure of historical events to turn out as he and his generation had wished them. Strenski, in Thinking about Religion, suggests that Romania’s historical catastrophe might well have been influential in either reinforcing or initially shaping his later thought about religion because the history in Romania had been a disaster for Eliade. Speaking about World War Eliade wrote “Today the master of all of us is the war. It has confiscated the whole of contemporary history, the time in which we are fated to live. Even when we’re alone we think about the war all the time. That is, we’re slaves of history.”

Within history’s wreckage, it would not be far-fetched for someone like Eliade, who had internalized both yogic methods of attaining higher knowledge as well as Nae Ionescu’s irrational contempt for ordinary means of attaining knowledge, to feel that he could access higher and deeper ways of understanding religious data and escaping history.

Societies that deny myth have violent consequences

Like Jung, Eliade thought that myth is present in societies even when these societies deny its power. In fact, societies which ignore storytelling, rituals, and the acting out of instinctual drives are drenched with violence because the proper grounding in these processes are denied. He says that those on trial in the Soviet trials were like archetypal gods in archaic societies. Eliade challenges Marxism’s standing as a secular science and claims it an aggressively prophetic and polemical theology. Their hope for a communist Paradise in the future is really a projection of the wish for a politics of nostalgia for an egalitarian past.

Scholarship lack’s space and time constraints

Like Jung, Eliade’s claims for mythic experience rides roughshod over any kind of social evolution or cross-cultural differences. Eliade mushes together shamanism from all over the world and in different historical settings into a single religious experience. The shamanism of hunter-gatherers is the same as those of people in agricultural states to him. It doesn’t matter whether shamanism in practiced in Indonesia or Africa, it’s all the same experience. There is no sense that there is any evolution from shamanism to practicing yoga, or that the effects of social class may have anything to do with religious practice. Like Jung and Campbell, Eliade cherry-picks which will show commonalities while ignoring cross-cultural and historical variation.  He will treat all examples as uncritically equal from a range of sources and cultural contexts.  

Flirting with fascism?

The Legion of the Archangel Michael was a political and spiritual movement with fascist and anti-Jewish leanings powerful in Romania during the 1930s. The Legion came to be better known as the pro-Nazi Iron Guard, founded in 1927.  It was a movement dedicated to cultural and national renewal by an appeal to the spiritual roots of Romanian people. The Iron Guard’s spiritual, romantic, spiritual, and mythic propaganda was attractive to Eliade. Unlike comparable fascist type movements in Italy and Germany, the Legion was explicitly Christian, like Romania’s Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jews were not only hated as unpopular financiers and foreign intruders but also as godless Bolsheviks.

Yet although Eliade had always been a cultural nationalist who like to speak of Romanian messianism, these views usually were relatively non-political. He prided himself on his friendship with Jewish novelist, Mikhail Sebastian and took a relatively moderate public position on the Jewish question. However, he was friends with fascists who were very political. Ellwood points out:

No one was more influential for the young Eliade then the charismatic fascist leaning philosopher Nae Ionescu (1890-1940). He was friends with the Romanian fascist intellectual Emil Cioran (85) …Eliade seems to have been directly inspired by the death in battle of two Romanian legionnaires who volunteered to fight in the Spanish civil war on Franco’s anticommunist side (87). He found time to compose a book in praise of Portugal’s benevolent dictator Antonio Salazar (90).

In 1940, the Legion came to power in alliance with the king and a pro-Nazi military dictator, Ion Atones, to create a National Legionnaire State. Eliade was clearly shocked by a series of assassinations that went on in the process of the National Legionnaires’ rise to power:

Romanian anti-Semitic atrocities were exceeded only by the Nazis in numbers and brutality leaving scores of desecrated synagogues and thousands of mutilated corpses. (Yet) In his autobiographies both the mythology and atrocities of the Legion are passed over in silence (91-92)

Qualifications and rebuttals

As with Jung, it is probably unfair to expect Eliade to know the direction fascism was going to take before Hitler was elected. In addition, there is the window between 1933 and World War II. One author claims it is more reasonable to see Eliade more like the fellow-travelers of Soviet communism who gave up their association but never repudiated the ideology. Ellwood kindly suggests that his passion for Romania was really the searching of a wandering soul for solid ground, rather than a political commitment that it might have been for others. There is good reason to surmise that the terrible experience with the Legend solidified his commitment that history was terrifying and he was better off in the mythic world.

His later work is an attempt to universalize spiritual experience and is one hundred and eighty degrees on the opposite side of any kind of the ethnic/racial nationalism of The Guard. After 1945 Eliade showed no interest in the political world or its causes. With other Romanian exiles he formed a circle to sustain the culture of a free Romania and to publish Romanian texts that could not be published in Romania itself.

Yet unlike Jung, Eliade seemed much more committed to fascism by his silence over the atrocities against the Jews by Romanians and his support of Franco. Also, most writers do not write books about people, for example, Eliade’s book on Portugal’s dictator, Antonio Salazar, with whom they had no sympathies.

Joseph Campbell and the New Quest for the Holy Grail

Joseph Campbell was the best known of all interpreters of myth in late 20th century America due to his scholarly, but easy to read books, his legendary “performances” when lecturing at Sarah Lawrence College, and his discussions with Bill Moyers on PBS.

The life of Joseph Campbell

Campbell was born in 1904 to Irish American parents. Both his grandparents arrived in the United States as poor immigrants escaping the Irish potato famine. However, Joseph’s father became a successful salesman and Joseph was raised to upper-middle class status which allowed him to travel, attend private schools and be exposed to the art and culture of the world, including concerts, plays and museums. His parents were moderately committed to Catholicism. Like Eliade, Joseph was an avid Boy Scout.  After being taken by his father to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, he cultivated a strong interest in Native Americans. Ellwood says he imitated their practices on camping trips.

Campbell began college at Dartmouth and then transferred to Columbia. He took comparative literature and anthropology with the cultural relativist, Franz Boas. His dissertation was on the Holy Grail.  He listened to Krishnamurti lecture in Paris on rejecting all dependence of external authority and possibly because of this, Campbell stopped attending Catholic Mass. In 1932 he travelled on a ship with a biological expedition to Alaska where he had first-hand observation of Native American culture. In 1934 he became a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College. He loved German culture and read Spengler and Leo Frobenius. In fact, the first course he taught was on Spenglerian morphology. His direction in mythology was under the influence of Spengler’s cultural morphology. All the Germans he read were anti-modernists and against Weimer Republic’s liberalism.

Through Thomas Mann he met Indologist Heinrich Zimmer in 1941 and through Zimmer met Swami Nikhil Ananda of the Vedanta Society. When Zimmer died in 1943, Campbell inherited the responsibility for editing Zimmer’s manuscripts. The Zimmer connection enabled Campbell to become attached to the famous Eranos conferences which included Eliade; Gershom Scholem who had revived the study of Jewish Qabalah, Henri Corbin who was interested in Iranian mysticism, as well as Jung. Campbell became a major figure in the world of mythology with the publication in 1949 of his great book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell got to know Alan Watts but was never quite sure how much he liked the East. A trip to India left Campbell shaken with culture shock: heat, poverty, dirt, beggars, and the caste system. Also, at that time India was enamored with socialist visions and the prospect of friendship with the Soviet Union. By now, Campbell was on his way to being an anti-communist. Campbell turned Westward, towards the paganism from the Odyssey to the Holy Grail. Between 1959 to 1968, he wrote his great four-volume book on world mythology. For Campbell, the four functions of myth were:

  • Produce a mystical experience to awaken and maintain a sense of awe and gratitude
  • Create an image of the universe in accord with the scientific knowledge of the time
  • Implant a moral order
  • Give an account stage by stage through life

 Twentieth Century myths: individualism in space: Star Wars

In the application of myths to today, Campbell was no reactionary. He did not yearn for a yesterday in pristine animated nature where myths were enacted. He proposed the place for myths to play themselves out in the United States were in outer space. Outer space contains the location for enacting the heroes called to adventure comparable to the role of Arthurian fantasy or Wagner’s heroes in Germany. George Lucas had admired Campbell and so Campbell indirectly became associated with Star Wars. Six years later he became friends with Lucas and they were friends until Campbell died three years later.

Robert Ellwood makes a very interesting comparison between Star Trek and Star Wars as a way to demonstrate Campbell’s individualistic roots. Star Trek was about cooperation between the crew, not the individual. It isn’t even about the patriotism of, say, the United States. The crew members included people of many ethnicities. The series was about humanity in space. In these episodes, there was a direct struggle for power between humanity and extra-terrestrial civilizations. In the case of Star Wars, the theme was about the individual heroism of Luke Skywalker. He is a hero but doesn’t know it. The intelligent robots are a kind of companion animal like Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza.  In Star Wars, Arthurian Legend and Wagnerian cycles of myths all show the ultimate futility of grasping for political power. How convenient for the conservative ruling classes of the United States to encourage people to withdraw from political power engagements into the private world of individualistic mythological journeys.

What kind of society would a Campbell view of myth construct? A society of heroes like Luke Skywalker of Star Wars would follow their own myths. Ellwood says there would be a ground crew of non-heroes who sing the praise of heroes as they provide for the heroes’ material needs. In other words, social organization remains the same and is unimportant, unlike for the crew of Star Trek.


Campbell was not really a folklorist.  Folk tales were to him inferior, undeveloped, or degenerate in relation to the great mythologies of higher civilizations. He started his scholarly career in literature and cultural studies and approached myth though the eyes of a cultural critic. Let’s hear directly from Ellwood:

Though remarkably widely read in mythology, Campbell exhibited limited interest of the usual academic sort in his subject matter. He evinced little concern about mythic variants or philological issues. (130)

In his methods he used the traditional equipment of a literary critic – comparison and analogy.

Campbell was fundamentally literary. Most of Campbell’s work got a favorable hearing with literary and drama critics and the literate public than with professional folklorists or anthropologists. An American anthropologist said Campbell did not adequately distinguish between the Great and the Little traditions. Like Jung and Eliade, he picks and chooses mythological symbols from different times and places and universalizes them, leaving behind the political, economic, and technological conditions in which they are rooted.

Right-wing politics

As stated earlier, the German writers he read were anti-modernists and against the liberal Weimar Republic. Even by 1940-1941 he failed to grasp the threat posed by Hitler. By the early 1950s he saw liberty far more threatened by communism than by McCarthyism. Campbell was not supportive of the movements of the 1960s. He was reportedly anti-Jewish, but Larson’s biography states that Campbell was anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic. I doubt that Campbell had the political interest enough to understand the difference between the two. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, we might say that he disliked the Jewish religion because of its early history battling paganism and its hostility to mythology in favor of its championing of history.

In spite of this conservative orientation, he was extremely popular at ultra-liberal Esalen and on the Bill Moyers show. Why was this? Ellwood suggests it was because the audience thought he was liberal because they were liberal and they thought any intellectual writing about comparative mythology would also be liberal. To be fair to Campbell, he did change. Thanks to the feminist exploration of the existence of matriarchies, he became more sympathetic to the place of goddesses in myth. Campbell spoke of ancient Hebrew conquest of Canaan as an example of pastoral fighting and promoting war against feminist goddesses.

Conclusions: Similarities and Differences

Let’s begin with the similarities:

  • Attitudes to the modern world: anti-modern, anti-rationalism and anti-materialistic science, anti-liberal Enlightenment
  • Esoteric spirituality: Gnosticism seeking hidden wisdom in the remote past in order to save people from entrapment in the false hopes of worldly political fantasies
  • Interest in literary mythology over folklore: myth became a magic potion by which one could again drink of the rejuvenation power of humanity’s primal vision
  • Mythological influences: Herder, Schelling, and the folk psychology of Wilhelm Wundt, Georges Sorel, Ortega y Gasset, Spengler, Heidegger Frobenius and Thomas Mann
  • Attitude to communism: all three were anti-communist
  • Publisher and funding: Bollington, Paul Mellon
  • Fieldwork: Philological or textual work on myth? Bad science. Theories not falsifiable.
  • Decontextualized myth from local culture in time and place and eternalized mythic stories

Broadly speaking, those attracted to New Age ideas when they began in the late 1970s are either apolitical or overwhelmingly liberal. They are either FDR liberals, centrists, and even a few neo-liberals. Those who are apolitical are less likely to understand or care about the very conservative political views of Jung, Eliade and Campbell. Those who were liberal in the late 1970s were riding the wave of at least fifteen years when Yankeedom was liberal politically (1960-1975). They naively assumed that any therapists interested in cross-cultural psychology (Jung) would be liberal rather than conservative, and anyone interested in comparative religion (Eliade) or comparative mythology (Campbell) would also be liberal by default. The purpose of my article is to give background that provides proof they were dead wrong.

First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.