Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was a world-renowned mythologist who helped modern society understand the true power that storytelling has in our culture and within our personal lives. He studied and identified the universal themes and archetypes that are present in mythical storytelling across history and across the world. His seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, outlined what Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, a motif of adventure and personal transformation that is used in nearly every culture’s mythical framework.
In the 20th century a number of thinkers studying comparative mythology and religion noticed something peculiar about the myths of different cultures throughout history. Many of them shared fundamental similarities in theme, structure, and symbolism. This led to the question as to how such similarities could arise in cultures separated by both space and time. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, two of the more prominent thinkers studying this problem, proposed that the reason for such similarities was due to the fact that many mythological themes and symbols emerge from an area of the mind called the collective unconscious.
In addition to the mind consisting of a personal unconscious, which is composed of elements drawn from an individual’s life experience, the collective unconscious contains elements or cognitive structures which evolved over human history, and are therefore common to all.
These evolved cognitive structures, which Jung called archetypes, cannot be observed directly, but manifest various images or symbolic patterns which form the basis of many myths – explaining how similar myths can arise in cultures separated by hundreds or thousands of years.
As Joseph Campbell, the 20th century’s foremost expert on world mythology, noted:
“The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell)
“These [mythological] symbols stem from the psyche; they speak from and to the spirit. And they are in fact the vehicles of communication between the deeper depths of our spiritual life and this relatively thin layer of consciousness by which we govern our daylight existences.” (Pathways to Bliss, Joseph Campbell)