CAMPBELL: The whole world is a circle. All of these circular images reflect the psyche, so there may be some relationship between these architectural designs and the actual structuring of our spiritual functions.
When a magician wants to work magic, he puts a circle around himself, and it is within this bounded circle, this hermetically sealed-off area, that powers can be brought into play that are lost outside the circle.
MOYERS: I remember reading about an Indian chief who said, “When we pitch camp, we pitch a camp in a circle. When the eagle builds a nest, the nest is in a circle. When we look at the horizon, the horizon is in a circle.” Circles were very important to some Indians, weren’t they?
CAMPBELL: Yes. But they’re also in much that we’ve inherited from Sumerian mythology. We’ve inherited the circle with the four cardinal points and three hundred and sixty degrees. The official Sumerian year was three hundred and sixty days with five holy days that don’t count, which are outside of time and in which they had ceremonies relating their society to the heavens. Now we’re losing this sense of the circle in relation to time, because we have digital time, where you just have time buzzing by. Out of the digital you get the sense of the flow of time. At Penn Station in New York, there’s a clock with the hours, the minutes, the seconds, the tenths of seconds, and the hundredths of seconds. When you see the hundredths of a second buzzing by, you realize how time is running through you.
The circle, on the other hand, represents totality. Everything within the circle is one thing, which is encircled, enframed. That would be the spatial aspect. But the temporal aspect of the circle is that you leave, go somewhere, and always come back. God is the alpha and the omega, the source and the end. The circle suggests immediately a completed totality, whether in time or in space.
MOYERS: No beginning, no end.
CAMPBELL: Round and round and round. Take the year, for example. When November rolls around, we have Thanksgiving again. Then December comes, and we have Christmas again. Not only does the month roll around again, but also the moon cycle, the day cycle. We’re reminded of this when we look at our watches and see the cycle of time. It’s the same hour, but another day.
MOYERS: China used to call itself the Kingdom of the Center, and the Aztecs had a similar saying about their own culture. I suppose every culture using the circle as the cosmological order puts itself at the center. Why do you suppose the circle became so universally symbolic?
CAMPBELL: Because it’s experienced all the time — in the day, in the year, in leaving home to go on your adventure — hunting or whatever it may be — and coming back home. Then there is a deeper experience, too, the mystery of the womb and the tomb. When people are buried, it’s for rebirth. That’s the origin of the burial idea. You put someone back into the womb of mother earth for rebirth. Very early images of the Goddess show her as a mother receiving the soul back again.
MOYERS: When I read your works — The Masks of God, or The Way of the Animal Powers, or The Mythic Image — I often come across images of the circle, whether it’s in magical designs or in architecture, both ancient and modern; whether it’s in the dome-shaped temples of India or the Paleolithic rock engravings of Rhodesia or the calendar stones of the Aztecs or the ancient Chinese bronze shields or the visions of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who talks about the wheel in the sky. I keep coming across this image. And this ring, my wedding ring, is a circle, too. What does that symbolize?
CAMPBELL: That depends on how you understand marriage. The word “sym-bol” itself means two things put together. One person has one half, the other the other half, and then they come together. Recognition comes from putting the ring together, the completed circle. This is my marriage, this is the merging of my individual life in a larger life that is of two, where the two are one. The ring indicates that we are in one circle together.
MOYERS: When a new pope is installed, he takes the fisherman’s ring — another circle.
CAMPBELL: That particular ring is symbolic of Jesus calling the apostles, who were fishermen. He said, “I will make you fishers of men.” This is an old motif that is earlier than Christianity. Orpheus is called “The Fisher,” who fishes men, who are living as fish in the water, out up into the light. It’s an old idea of the metamorphosis of the fish into man. The fish nature is the crudest animal nature of our character, and the religious line is intended to pull you up out of that.
MOYERS: A new king or new queen of England is given the coronation ring.
CAMPBELL: Yes, because there’s another aspect of the ring — it is a bondage. As king, you are bound to a principle. You are living not simply your own way. You have been marked. In initiation rites, when people are sacrified and tattooed, they are bonded to another and to the society.
MOYERS: Jung speaks of the circle as a mandala.
CAMPBELL: “Mandala” is the Sanskrit word for “circle,” but a circle that is coordinated or symbolically designed so that it has the meaning of a cosmic order. When composing mandalas, you are trying to coordinate your personal circle with the universal circle. In a very elaborate Buddhist mandala, for example, you have the deity in the center as the power source, the illumination source. The peripheral images would be manifestations or aspects of the deity’s radiance.
In working out a mandala for yourself, you draw a circle and then think of the different impulse systems and value systems in your life. Then you compose them and try to find out where your center is. Making a mandala is a discipline for pulling all those scattered aspects of your life together, for finding a center and ordering yourself to it. You try to coordinate your circle with the universal circle.
MOYERS: To be at the center?
CAMPBELL: At the center, yes. For instance, among the Navaho Indians, healing ceremonies are conducted through sand paintings, which are mostly mandalas on the ground. The person who is to be treated moves into the mandala as a way of moving into a mythological context that he will be identifying with — he identifies himself with the symbolized power. This idea of sand painting with mandalas, and their use for meditation purposes, appears also in Tibet. Tibetan monks practice sand painting, drawing cosmic images to represent the forces of the spiritual powers that operate in our lives.
MOYERS: There is some effort, apparently, to try to center one’s life with the center of the universe –
CAMPBELL: — by way of mythological imagery, yes. The image helps you to identify with the symbolized force. You can’t very well expect a person to identify with an undifferentiated something or other. But when you give it qualities that point toward certain realizations, the person can follow.
MOYERS: There is one theory that the Holy Grail represented the center of perfect harmony, the search for perfection, for totality and unity.
CAMPBELL: There are a number of sources for the Holy Grail. One is that there is a cauldron of plenty in the mansion of the god of the sea, down in the depths of the unconscious. It is out of the depths of the unconscious that the energies of life come to us. This cauldron is the inexhaustible source, the center, the bubbling spring from which all life proceeds.
MOYERS: Do you think that is the unconscious?
CAMPBELL: Not only the unconscious but also the vale of the world. Things are coming to life around you all the time. There is a life pouring into the world, and it pours from an inexhaustible source.
MOYERS: Now, what do you make of that — that in very different cultures, separated by time and space, the same imagery emerges?
CAMPBELL: This speaks for certain powers in the psyche that are common to all mankind. Otherwise you couldn’t have such detailed correspondences.
MOYERS: So if you find that many different cultures tell the story of creation, or the story of a virgin birth, or the story of a savior who comes and dies and is resurrected, they are saying something about what is inside us, and our need to understand.
CAMPBELL: That’s right. The images of myth are reflections of the spiritual potentialities of every one of us. Through contemplating these we evoke their powers in our own lives.
MOYERS: So when a scripture talks about man being made in God’s image, it’s talking about certain qualities that every human being possesses, no matter what that person’s religion or culture or geography or heritage?
CAMPBELL: God would be the ultimate elementary idea of man.
MOYERS: The primal need.
CAMPBELL: And we are all made in the image of God. That is the ultimate archetype of man.
MOYERS: Eliot speaks about the still point of the turning world, where motion and stasis are together, the hub where the movement of time and the stillness of eternity are together.
CAMPBELL: That’s the inexhaustible center that is represented by the Grail. When life comes into being, it is neither afraid nor desiring, it is just becoming. Then it gets into being, and it begins to be afraid and desiring. When you can get rid of fear and desire and just get back to where you’re becoming, you’ve hit the spot. Goethe says godhead is effective in the living and not in the dead, in the becoming and the changing, not in what has already become and set fast. So reason is concerned, he states, with striving toward the divine through the becoming and the changing, while intelligence makes use of the set fast, what is knowable, known, and so to be used for the shaping of a life.
But the goal of your quest for knowledge of yourself is to be found at that burning point in yourself, that becoming thing in yourself, which is innocent of the goods and evils of the world as already become, and therefore desireless and fearless. That is the condition of a warrior going into battle with perfect courage. That is life in movement. That is the essence of the mysticism of war as well as of a plant growing. I think of grass — you know, every two weeks a chap comes out with a lawnmower and cuts it down. Suppose the grass were to say, “Well, for Pete’s sake, what’s the use if you keep getting cut down this way?” Instead, it keeps on growing. That’s the sense of the energy of the center. That’s the meaning of the image of the Grail, of the inexhaustible fountain, of the source. The source doesn’t care what happens once it gives into being. It’s the giving and coming into being that counts, and that’s the becoming life point in you. That’s what all these myths are concerned to tell you.
In the study of comparative mythology, we compare the images in one system with the images in another, and both become illuminated because one will accent and give clear expression to one aspect of the meaning, and another to another. They clarify each other.
When I started teaching comparative mythology, I was afraid I might destroy my students’ religious beliefs, but what I found was just the opposite. Religious traditions, which didn’t mean very much to them, but which were the ones their parents had given them, suddenly became illuminated in a new way when we compared them with other traditions, where similar images had been given a more inward or spiritual interpretation.
I had Christian students, Jewish students, Buddhist students, a couple of Zoroastrian students — they all had this experience. There’s no danger in interpreting the symbols of a religious system and calling them metaphors instead of facts. What that does is to turn them into messages for your own inward experience and life. The system suddenly becomes a personal experience.
MOYERS: I feel stronger in my own faith knowing that others experienced the same yearnings and were seeking for similar images to try to express an experience beyond the costume of ordinary human language.
CAMPBELL: This is why clowns and clown religions are helpful. Germanic and Celtic myths are full of clown figures, really grotesque deities. This makes the point, I am not the ultimate image, I am transparent to something. Look through me, through my funny form.
MOYERS: There’s a wonderful story in some African tradition of the god who’s walking down the road wearing a hat that is colored red on one side and blue on the other side. When the farmers in the field go into the village in the evening, they say, “Did you see that god with the blue hat?” And the others say, “No, no, he had a red hat on.” And they get into a fight.
CAMPBELL: Yes, that’s the Nigerian trickster god, Eshu. He makes it even worse by first walking in one direction and then turning around and turning his hat around, too, so that again it will be red or blue. Then when these two chaps get into a fight and are brought before the king for judgment, this trickster god appears, and he says, “It’s my fault, I did it, and I meant to do it. Spreading strife is my greatest joy.”
MOYERS: There’s a truth in that.
CAMPBELL: There sure is. Heraclitus said strife is the creator of all great things. Something like that may be implicit in this symbolic trickster idea. In our tradition, the serpent in the Garden did the job. Just when everything was fixed and fine, he threw an apple into the picture.
No matter what the system of thought you may have, it can’t possibly include boundless life. When you think everything is just that way, the trickster arrives, and it all blows, and you get change and becoming again.
MOYERS: I notice when you tell these stories, Joe, you tell them with humor. You always seem to enjoy them, even when they’re about odd and cruel things.
CAMPBELL: A key difference between mythology and our Judeo-Christian religion is that the imagery of mythology is rendered with humor. You realize that the image is symbolic of something. You’re at a distance from it. But in our religion, everything is prosaic, and very, very serious. You can’t fool around with Yahweh.
MOYERS: How do you explain what the psychologist Maslow called “peak experiences” and what James Joyce called “epiphanies”?
CAMPBELL: Well, they are not quite the same. The peak experience refers to actual moments of your life when you experience your relationship to the harmony of being. My own peak experiences, the ones that I knew were peak experiences after I had them, all came in athletics.
MOYERS: Which was the Everest of your experience?
CAMPBELL: When I was running at Columbia, I ran a couple of races that were just beautiful. During the second race, I knew I was going to win even though there was no reason for me to know this, because I was touched off as anchor in the relay with the leading runner thirty yards ahead of me. But I just knew, and it was my peak experience. Nobody could beat me that day. That’s being in full form and really knowing it. I don’t think I have ever done anything in my life as competently as I ran those two races — it was the experience of really being at my full and doing a perfect job.
MOYERS: Not all peak experiences are physical.
CAMPBELL: No, there are other kinds of peak experiences. But those were the ones that come to my mind when I think about peak experiences.
MOYERS: What about James Joyce’s epiphanies?
CAMPBELL: Now, that’s something else. Joyce’s formula for the aesthetic experience is that it does not move you to want to possess the object. A work of art that moves you to possess the object depicted, he calls pornography. Nor does the aesthetic experience move you to criticize and reject the object — such art he calls didactic, or social criticism in art. The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object. Joyce says that you put a frame around it and see it first as one thing, and that, in seeing it as one thing, you then become aware of the relationship of part to part, each part to the whole, and the whole to each of its parts. This is the essential, aesthetic factor — rhythm, the harmonious rhythm of relationships. And when a fortunate rhythm has been struck by the artist, you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest. That is the epiphany. And that is what might in religious terms be thought of as the all-informing Christ principle coming through.
MOYERS: The face of the saint beholding God?
CAMPBELL: It doesn’t matter who it is. You could take someone whom you might think of as a monster. The aesthetic experience transcends ethics and didactics.
MOYERS: That’s where I would disagree with you. It seems to me that in order to experience the epiphany, the object you behold but do not want to possess must be beautiful in some way. And a moment ago, when you talked about your peak experience, running, you said it was beautiful. “Beautiful” is an aesthetic word. Beauty is the harmony.
MOYERS: And yet you said it’s also in Joyce’s epiphanies, and that concerns art and the aesthetic.
MOYERS: It seems to me they are the same if they’re both beautiful. How can you behold a monster and have an epiphany?